You can't make everything from scratch

...but you can sure try!

Friday, May 12, 2006

French bread, attempt No. 2. Now with a thermometer!

My second try in my ongoing quest to make good French bread took place last Sunday. This time, I changed a few things around. The first was the shape: because of what I wanted to use this bread for (more on that later), I went with a basic boule shape. The second, and arguably more important, change was my use of an instant-read thermometer.

The recipes in The Bread Baker's Apprentice all make copious references to specific temperatures: the water, the dough, and the final loaf are all given specific ranges they should be in. Last time I made bread, I just went by feel, because I didn't yet own an instant-read thermometer. Now I do.

How much difference did the thermometer really make? Honestly, I don't think it was that significant. I could sit here and rattle off all the temperatures indicated during the process (the water was bang-on 98 degrees, the pâte fermentée and dough both registered slightly warmer than the book recommends, around 88, and the baked bread came out warmer as well, around 214). But does that really tell you anything? The proof of the baking is in the eating, says I. In this case, the final product was much like my first try: it seemed a little too moist, a little too heavy. The holes in the crumb were generally pretty small, with a couple of exceptions. The taste was still very good, but I haven't quite arrived with the texture yet. My husband preferred the first batch, and attributed that to the shape.

On the whole, the process went much more smoothly this time. I wasn't as worried about degassing the dough, because the results last time were sufficiently encouraging. I remembered to oil the bowl well, to prevent the dough from sticking, and continued to guess when it had reached twice its original size. I very generously dusted my makeshift peel with cornmeal in order for things to slide off it nicely; I've been practicing with pizza, which I make about once a week, and have more or less determined how much I need. The boule shape is also rather more forgiving than my bâtards: I managed to transfer them from parchment to peel with a minimum of deformation. On the other hand, they ended up kind of flat, and I haven't quite figured out why. Surface tension? Overproofing? Underproofing?

The only real mistake I made, as far as I can tell, was forgetting to slash the first boule before I put it on the baking stone. But I did a couple of quick slashes on it as soon as I realized, and it seemed to turn out OK.

As for the reason underlying the choice of shape, I had decided to slice it thinly, toast it, and serve it with the smoked mackerel rillettes I last Saturday, using the recipe in Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's Charcuterie. I finally caved and bought this book, but negotiations are still ongoing with my husband over the acquisition of a meat grinder to get into the serious sausage making. In the meantime, smoked fish rillettes seemed like a good thing to make, since smoked mackerel is so easy to come by out here, and so tasty!

It's funny how I think nothing of making smoked mackerel rillettes, but get a real sense of pride out of spreading them on my own freshly baked bread. It made it feel like a real from-scratch kind of snack! And it was exceptionally delicious, to boot.

Oh, and no picture this time. The batteries for my digital camera died on me when I went to take a picture, and the bread and rillettes were both too good for me to wait for the batteries to recharge.


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