Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Tale of Two Italian Breads

I love the Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge. I really do. It has introduced me to so many new breads. But as a newbie baker, I think I'm missing out a little bit by jumping around so much -- from cinnamon rolls to bagels to corn bread. I wonder if I should stick with a few breads for a while and try to improve on my results.

I most love artisan-style breads like the baguettes I baked at the San Francisco Baking Institute, and I would like to recreate the magic of those lovely breads consistently. But here in my own kitchen, without the carefully orchestrated instructions of my teacher, things are, shall we say, hit and miss.

Exhibits A and B: Two Italian breads, baked two weeks apart.

Bread A Bread B

Bread A has such a lovely, wide open crumb. But Bread B has teeny tiny holes, like a sandwich loaf. Since this blog is (sadly) not equipped with Taste-O-Vision, you can not tell that Bread A also tasted much better.

I was actually surprised that Bread A turned out so well. I dubbed it my Delicious Disaster.

When I began Italian Bread A, I was inspired by Ying, an early finisher of the BBA challenge, who I met during my course at SFBI. She uses very wet doughs, and makes some beautiful breads with lots of large, lovely holes. (If you read Chinese, check out her personal blog. If English is your thing, you can find her on The Fresh Loaf.)

I usually keep my water to a minimum, but I wanted to see whether I could handle a wetter dough. The dough was soft and pliable, and really fun to knead. And I didn't knead it too long before it passed the windowpane test. Instead of the BBA recommended temp of 77-81 degrees, I went with my SFBI instructor's rec of 73-76 degrees.

From there, things became ... uncertain. The rise wasn't too impressive, and I feared I had a tired batch of yeast on my hands. Next, shaping this wet dough was a disaster, thanks to a major miscalculation. I split the dough into two pieces and shaped them into batards. For proofing, I placed one batard on a parchment lined pan. But the other one I foolishly placed on an unlined peel. When the time came to load it into the oven, the dough made it quite clear that it wasn't going anywhere. It just stretched and stretched to comical proportions, and it ended up looking like a dog's leg. So I just sliced it rather violently down the middle with my pastry scraper. Finally, into the oven they went.

Surprisingly, these two mini loaves turned out really well, in spite of all that handling and outright abuse. Their crusts were well browned but not too crisp, and they had a lovely, large crumb.

And the flavor was pretty spectacular too, which I imagine came from the prefermented Biga. It had a light sweetness, which played perfectly well with a large slice of ripe yellow tomato, a drizzle of olive oil, and a shower of salt and pepper.

Prefermented Biga

When I was ready to bake again a few weeks later, I returned to the Italian bread, because I wanted to see if I could recreate the flavor of Bread A, without all the drama.

This time there was less drama, but I was less satisfied with the results. As displayed in the picture, Bread B was neither spectacular in crumb nor sweet in flavor. I am trying to figure out where exactly it all went wrong. I altered so many variables, that it's hard to tell just which was the culprit. Here's a brief rundown of the different approaches I took:

Bread A

Flour: King Arthur All Purpose Flour
Temp: 75
Hydration: Imprecise, but I used all the water that was called for.
Fermentation Time: 2 hours, perhaps slightly less
Proofing Time: 1 1/2 hours
Baking Vessel: Back of a sheet pan lined with parchment

Bread B

Flour: Giusto's All Purpose Flour
Temp: 78
Hydration: I used all the water that was called for, but then added a significant amount of flour to deal with stickiness. I noticed that the dough was much drier than with Bread A.
Fermentation Time: 2 1/2hours. During that time, the dough seemed to triple in size.
Proofing Time: 1 hour
Baking Vessel: Metal french bread pan lined with parchment

My first suspicion is the hydration level. The dough seemed much drier this time around, and I suspect that led to a tighter crumb. Next, I let it ferment for almost 2 1/2 hours. During this time, the dough expanded to at least three times its original size. When I went to shape the dough into batards, it was so overblown that it lost much of its air.

This is what you get when you go out to the farmer's market while your dough is fermenting.

Finally, I wonder what effect the french bread pans had on the whole affair. They made everything so easy because the loaves proofed and baked in the same vessel. And the loaves rose nice and high and baked up very round and pretty. But I wonder if that also led to a tighter crumb.

I love these pans. But do they love my bread?

Finally, I'm not sure why the flavor fell flat on Bread B. Perhaps I prefer King Arthur over Giusto's, but I'm not entirely prepared to pledge allegiance to a single flour just yet.

As I contemplate the fate of Bread B, I'm unsure whether the culprit is one, some or all of the above. In the end, all of the suspects may be guilty, like that Agatha Christie novel (spoiler alert!) where each character had a hand in murdering the victim.

If you have a clue, dear reader, I beg you to share it with me.

Bread B wasn't so bad. Elmo really enjoyed it. And he has very high standards.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Flatbread Over The Fire

I hear the east coast has been sweltering this summer. I feel for you, I really do. When New Yorkers start going naked, there is good reason to fear for your lives. Here in San Francisco we have been living inside of our own horror movie. It's called The Fog. It has the city in its grip, and it won't let go.

To save ourselves, and our sanity, we run from The Fog every chance we get. Our most recent escape took us to Napa, where we spent the weekend with friends. As we made our getaway over the Golden Gate Bridge, the blue sky emerged miraculously from behind the gray. We marked our travels by miles and by degrees. While the odometer ticked upwards, so did the dashboard thermostat. By the time we reached St. Helena, the afternoon was 40 degrees warmer than the morning we had left behind.

The problem with our frequent escapes is that I have been reluctant to take my bread baking on the road. I fear failure once I leave my own little kitchen microclimate behind. But this time, I decided to give it a try, as we were lucky enough to share the weekend with friends who like to eat as much as we do.

I planned to make flatbread, based on the Lavash Crackers recipe from the Bread Bakers Apprentice. According to M. Reinhart's instructions, you can go from mixing to eating in about three hours, which I figured would leave me some time to lounge in the pool. So I loaded up my flour, my honey, my yeast, my scale, my rolling pin, and my bench scraper into a canvas bag that ultimately weighed about as much as my two year old. Indeed, I was not packing lightly.

Once we arrived in Napa, we drank in the sun like refugees from the fog. After a swim and a cocktail, I settled into the kitchen to mix and knead the dough. Once the dough came together into a tight little ball, one friend observed, "Is that it?" It was on the small side, and truth be told, I feared I would end up with a single pita pocket for my efforts. But I returned to the pool and left the dough to rise in the air conditioned kitchen. This was a mistake. Remember what I said about the hazards of baking outside my own microclimate? Apparently, air conditioning can retard dough just as effectively as the fridge. So I moved the dough to a poolside lounge chair, and the yeast came alive in the sweltering summer heat.

Instead of returning to the cold kitchen, we planned to bake the bread over an open fire in the backyard. I have never done anything like it, but our friend Moti learned at camp while growing up in Israel, so I stood back while he stoked the fire.

We rolled out the dough and topped it with olive oil, garlic, salt and za'atar, an aromatic herb blend which Moti's mom brings over from Israel. If you don't have family willing to smuggle some za'atar in their suitcase, I highly recommend a visit to The Spice House, either in Chicago or on the web. Their za'atar is a combination of sumac, sesame seeds, thyme, oregano and hyssop. I had never heard of hyssop, but according to my wise friend Wikipedia, it has a storied past that is both pious and hedonistic. It appears in the bible on several occasions, and is one of the herbs that gives absinthe its dreamy green color.

Open, untamed fire is not my preferred element. I like the predictability that comes with that big, stainless steel box in my kitchen. There is no thermostat on an open flame. So, I wondered, how exactly do you know how hot it is? How do you know how long to cook the bread? It turns out, you do things the old fashioned way. You watch, you feel and you taste.

We slid the flattened dough onto a metal grate balanced above the fire, and watched while it slowly browned. As it cooked I tore off tiny pieces to taste, trying not to burn my fingers too badly.

The flatbread was like no bread I have ever tasted. The herbal bite of the za'atar mingled with the smokiness from the fire and the richness of the garlic to create deep layers of flavor. And the olive oil lent it a little sizzle and some crunch. Paired perfectly with a glass of red wine, native drink of the Napa Valley.

Sure, it burned in some spots. But so what? That's what you get when you play with fire. And I'll take the heat over the fog any day.