You can't make everything from scratch

...but you can sure try!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On bread

I didn't update this past week, because I was off in New York City, enjoying an all-too-brief return to civilization, instead of sitting at home cooking. But I came across the following in Near A Thousand Tables by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, and thought it was sufficiently relevant to my last post to be worth excerpting here:

"[W]hat is so special about bread? In terms of nutrition, digestibility, durability, ease of transport or storage, versatility and appeal for texture or flavour, the balance of advantages and disadvantages, compared with other potentially equivalent foods, seems nicely poised. Yet the trouble, time and technical expertise which have to be invested in successful baking are enormous. Professional bakers seem to have emerged early in every bread-eating culture. The many hobbyists who make bread at home, in conditions resembling those of early agrarian society, without exact means of measuring quantities, temperatures and timings, know how easily the process can go wrong, and how exact the baker's judgment has to be" (p. 97).

Sunday, April 16, 2006

French bread, attempt No. 1

French Bread, attempt No. 1

When I decided on my theme for this blog, bread was one of the first things that came to mind. While bread is considered an essential part of life in the Western world, it seems to be relatively unusual for people to make it at home. Despite the fact that it is a staple food, we don't make it from scratch, but rely instead on specialized producers to make it for us.

Indeed, bread has a reputation for being difficult to make, and it's a reputation that is not entirely undeserved, in my opinion. The last time I tried to bake bread, I was working from a recipe that called for all the ingredients by weight. Unfortunately, I was also working with a scale that was not nearly sensitive enough to weigh the ingredients in question, and the end result was inedibly salty. This time, on the recommendation of The Foppish Baker, among others, I decided to invest in Peter Reinhart's Bread Baker's Apprentice to gain a real understanding of the processes at work in breadmaking.

The book itself is beautiful, detailed and compellingly written. There were a few gaps in it, to my mind, but given their nature, I'm beginning to think they're gaps that could only be filled by a hands-on baking class. For example, the description of how to knead dough by hand is very cursory, and the instructions frequently say that the dough should be "tacky but not sticky," without giving any frame of reference for where the line between them is. On the other hand, I was pleased to learn that you can easily ferment dough at room temperature, and that it is impossible to overknead it by hand.

I entered this project knowing that it will likely take many attempts before I arrive at a loaf that satisfies me, so I decided to pick a type of bread that won't quickly bore me. To that end, I chose basic French Bread.

For my very first attempt, I wanted to focus on the basics, which meant not trying to shape the loaves into full-on baguettes just yet. Instead, I used the preliminary shape that is later formed into a baguette, called a bâtard. Of this shape, Reinhart writes that it is "a viable and popular shape in its own right, delivering a nice balance of both crust and crumb." It's also short enough to fit on the pizza stone I would be using in lieu of a real baking deck.

The pâte fermentée went off without a hitch (it was rather like making my usual pizza crust) and went into the fridge to retard overnight. The next day, I mixed up the dough and kneaded for about ten minutes. When I tried the "windowpane test" by stretching out a small piece of dough, it ripped before becoming thin enough to see daylight through it, so I went back and kneaded a couple of minutes longer. This time, it seemed to work better, so I threw it in an oiled bowl, covered with plastic wrap, and left it for two hours.

Problem #1: How do you tell when dough has risen to twice its size? Well, I guessed. After 90 minutes, it looked like it was there, so I degassed it slightly and left it for anouther half hour. I probably should have used a straight-sided container marked with an elastic, like Alton Brown suggests, but I couldn't find one handy.

Problem #2: What happens if you haven't put a sufficient amount of oil into your bowl? Well, your dough sticks, and your attempts to unstick it will inevitably degas it pretty thoroughly.

At this stage, I was rather worried that I had degassed the dough too much for it to bake properly, but I pushed on nonetheless. I divided the dough (not too evenly, it turned out) shaped it, and put it in a makeshift couche made out of parchment. I'm still not convinced that I did this part correctly, and I may try using a cloth couche (read: tea towel) next time. I left it to proof until it was one-and-a-half times its size (there's that size thing again!), which I considered to have arrived by the 45-minute mark.

Problem #3: How the heck do you get dough off parchment and onto a peel without massively degassing it!? By the time I had transferred them, the beautifully shaped and risen loaves had become uneven and flat. At this point, I was doubly sure my first attempt was going to be a failure.

Problem #4: What happens if you don't put enough cornmeal on your makeshift aluminum peel? Well, you end up coaxing, cajoling and ultimately dropping your dough onto your too-samll pizza stone, thereby degassing it still further and causing the baker all sorts of worry about the end result.

In fact, the end result was surprisingly good, which I understand seems to mean that I got great "oven spring." One of the loaves was slightly overhanging the stone, which was on the lowest rack in my oven, and so it burnt slightly. Because I could smell it, but didn't realize what was going on, I ended up taking all three out before they were quite done, worried that the bottoms would burn to a crisp if left longer. So the crust was maybe a little lighter and softer than I would have wanted, and the crumb was just a shade too moist. The holes were a little small too, though I got a few nice big ones. Next time, I think I'll raise the oven rack one notch and leave the bread in a little longer.

And what was the fate of my first-ever loaf of French Bread? My husband and I adorned it with some great applewood-smoked cheddar cheese we picked up on our last run into Halifax.

The real victory of this attempt, though, was proving to myself that I can indeed make bread from scratch.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Kitchen library (located right next to Kitchen Stadium?)

Less than a month into blogging, and I've already been tagged for a meme! Specifically, the Foppish Baker tagged me for a cookbook meme. And a good thing, too, as it's been a very busy week (and weekend) for me, with lots of translation contracts to work on, so I haven't had a lot of time to come up with anything else to blog about. The upside is that this means I can afford to buy more cookbooks and the kitchen gadgets that go along with them.

The picture above shows our cookbook shelf. (As a bonus, you can see the front row of my single-malt scotch collection; the more expensive stuff sits at the back, so that it doesn't accidentally get knocked off.)

How many cookbooks do you own?
Books are like candy to me. Except for cookbooks: they're more like crack cocaine. A quick count of our cookbook shelf shows that we have about 42 cookbooks. Of course, that doesn't count cookbooks that may be strewn around the house, our healthy supply of back issues of Bon Appétit, Gourmet or Food & Drink (shown at the very top of the picture), or other books that happen to have recipes in them, such as Untangling my Chopsticks by Victoria Abbott Riccardi or The Collected Traveller: Morocco by Barrie Kerper.

Which cookbook did you buy most recently?
The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart, in an attempt to improve my bread baking skills and on the recommendation of the Foppish Baker, among others. If I had waited another week before posting this, the answer would most likely have been Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, since that's almost definitely the next cookbook I'm going to buy. Why? See this eGullet thread and maybe you'll understand.

Which is the cookbook that you read most recently?
Depending on what is meant by "read" here, I'll say The Bread Baker's Apprentice again. I may have briefly consulted one of my Japanese cookbooks for advice on the soba I made the other day for lunch and The Silver Spoon to confirm something about fresh pasta, but The Bread Baker's Apprentice is the last cookbook I sat down with and read like a novel.

Name 5 cookbooks that mean a lot to you.
1. Simply Thai Cooking by Wandee Young and Byron Ayanoglu
This one is simply indispensable in our house. Whenever we don't feel like cooking, my husband will reach for this book, because it's so easy, as long as you have a few Thai staples around. Unfortunately, one of those staples is basil, so it has begun to play a decreasing role in our lives since we moved to New Brunswick, where fresh basil is in very short supply.

2. The family cookbook
This was put together by my sister-in-law as a Christmas gift to us a couple of years ago. It's great, because it puts a number of our most-used recipes together in one place, and it contains a lot of my husband's family history, mostly in the form of recipes he hated as a kid and continues to hate today (Rob Roy cookies come to mind). I only wish I could get a copy or two for my own siblings...

3. Joy of Cooking
This is generally my go-to cookbook whenever I want to confirm the basics, such as roasting times and temperatures for turkey or how to store mussels in the fridge. (For what it's worth, apparently you don't need to store them on ice, but you do need to let them breathe.)

4. Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook
Yeah, I'm a Bourdain groupie. What can I say? I think he has one of the most compelling voices in English-language food writing today, and it is used to great effect in this book. The recipes themselves aren't great - I wouldn't recommend them for beginners, although they tend to be OK if you already know how to cook - but the writing is just so engaging that it really doesn't matter.

5. The Big Book of Breakfast, by Maryana Vollstedt
This one has everything you've ever wanted to know about omelettes, frittatas, stratas, waffles, pancakes, bacon, scrambles, hashes, french toast... On a long weekend, when I'm looking for something more than my usual toast and coffee, this is where I turn.

I know I'm now supposed to tag someone else to keep the meme going, but I don't think there's anyone out there who reads my blog and keeps a food blog of their own. If I'm wrong, leave a comment, and I'll be happy to tag you!