Monday, January 25, 2010


Yesterday I baked anadama bread.  I tried everything by the book, but the dough ended up really wet.  I'm not really sure why.  The flavor though, was amazing, so I can't complain too much.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


We're having friends over tonight, so I'm making Naan.  I'm using the Fresh Loaf recipe.  Because of some miscommunication about the yogurt in the house, it looks like I'm only going to have 60 minutes instead of 90 for the initial rise.  I tried activating my yeast early to prevent another failure to rise.  Hopefully the 60 minutes will be enough.

One big surprise: using my newly acquired kitchen scale, I discovered that a cup of bread flour weighs in a whopping 5.8 oz when I scoop it.  That may also explain the dryness of the dough when I tried making French bread in the first time.

After proofing for almost 90 minutes, I put the naan into a 425 degree oven.  Aryn was making our main course of Tandoori chicken so I couldn't do the full 475 degrees.  In the end, the bread was a bit denser than ideal for Naan, but still tasty.

Friday, January 22, 2010


I shaped the twice fermented dough into a bâtard.  One other modification I made is that instead of steaming the oven from the top, I steamed from underneath.  The bottom of the crust ended up perfect, the top was still a bit dry.

The best part is that the taste was excellent!  Almost as good as the "cheating" bread with beer and vinegar in the recipe from Cook's Illustrated.  On to the Anadama bread next!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

French Bread, take two

In an effort to improve the flavor of my french bread while fitting with my schedule, I took out the entire Pâte Fermentée and left it in a cooler with some ice last night. When I got up, it was still cold (about 50 degrees F). I started kneading, hoping to pass a windowpane test, but after about 30 minutes (dough temp at 67 degrees F), I gave up and just left it to sit and ferment at room temp all day. We'll see...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

BBA Challenge

It seems that I'm not the only one to have had the idea. Someone has started the BBA Challenge. I'm excited to see a whole community has been built around BBA.

Probably the most useful answer to why my bread came out lacking in flavor looking at the BBA challenge description of French bread is that I didn't knead it enough. It got tired before it was able to get to the point of passing the windowpane test. It seems like most people tire themselves out and get to the point of overheating their dough (up to like 90 degrees F) before it passes: I didn't make it nearly that far.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Baguettes, part trois

Ok, so I got home and the dough was HUGE, 3.5 times original size I'd guess. As soon as I touched it, it totally collapsed down. The good news is it looked very moist. So I shaped it into two demi baguettes, and left it to proof over the top of the preheating oven.

First snafu: I forgot to cover it, so it started to dry out on the outside.

After about 20-30 minutes it had risen slightly and so I put it on the pizza stone using the parchment to transfer it. I started going through the cycles of adding boiling water and spritzing the sides that TBBA recommends to get a moist oven.

Second snafu: midway through the spritzing business, I noticed I'd forgotten to slit the bread. Oops! I grabbed a knife and quickly tried with small success on one loaf and none on the other. Oh well, on we go.

Surprisingly, Aryn cheerfully accepted my restrictions on not breaking the bread until it had cooled for at least 10 minutes (one only has so much patience, 30 was out for me). Total time from when I got home to when the bread was cooled enough for me: about 90-100 minutes.

The crust was dry (perhaps it dried out during proofing or perhaps it never got moist enough in the oven). The crumb (inside) was also a bit dry, and not as light as I'd expected. Worst of all, the flavor was totally bland! No idea why. Something must've gone wrong with the fermentation. Perhaps I should've hydrated the yeast before making the Pâte Fermentée. Or perhaps all my compromises on fermentation time and temperature left too many crucial enzymatic steps incomplete. Still a lot of room to improve here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Baguettes, part deux

Day 1 (i.e. yesterday), I made a batch of Pâte Fermentée which is just normal french bread dough (65% water, plus some yeast and salt) that you let ferment overnight. The idea is that it ferments in the fridge which slows down the yeast more than it slows down the natural enzymes in the flour that lyse the starches: via some biochemical miracle this gives you better bread.

I mixed it up and left it on the counter "for 1 hour or until it reaches 1.5 times original size". 1 hour later, no change in size, 2.5 hours later, still no change. Meanwhile, I'm reading TBBA and I've reached the part where Reinhart talks about yeast. It turns out that instant yeast (what he uses) is the same species as active dry yeast (what I have), but it comes in smaller pieces that dissolve more quickly (who knew?). You need a bit more active dry yeast than instant (oops!) and you also need to moisten the active dry to activate it (double oops). That explains the not rising. Rather than start over (where's the fun?) I coat the Pâte Fermentée with oil and move it to the fridge (this being Sunday, that's about 2:30 pm). The plan is to leave it overnight and then somehow warm it in the morning to mix into the fresh dough.
At about 10:30 that night, inspiration strikes. What if I let the Pâte Fermentée slowly come to room temperature overnight so it's ready to go in the morning? I get out a small cooler and put in a few ice cubes. I then get the Pâte Fermentée out. I notice that even though it's been in the fridge, it's managed to rise quite nicely to about double the original size. I put it into the cooler and go to bed.

This morning it was about the same size but at room temperature, so far so good. I mix up more flour, salt, and yeast. I add a bit extra yeast to compensate for the use of active dry, but I don't pre-activate it because I'm leaving it to do the second ferment for 10 hours instead of 2, so I figure not activating will buy me time. The final recipe makes enough total dough for 3 loaves: way more than even we can eat in a day. A new flash of inspiration: what if I just leave half the dough at room temp and put the other half in the fridge again? I'll have basically a fresh Pâte Fermentée going and I only end up with enough for 1.5 loaves instead of 3!

It only took about 30 minutes this morning to mix up the dough and get everything ready. One snafu was that the Pâte Fermentée used 3/4 cup water to 2.25 cups flour and claims that that's 65%, but the dough recipe uses 3/4 cup water to 2.5 cups flour and claims that to be 65%. I actually end up using closer to a cup of water to get a decent-seeming dough because I didn't read ahead. I'll have to do the calculation later (or better yet, get a kitchen scale), but I suspect this is a typo and it meant for you to use 2.25 cups of flour. C'est la vie.

I'm looking forward to tonight when I get to try to bake the bread.

Baguettes, part un

I sat down all day yesterday and read The Bread Baker's Apprentice (TBBA) from the start up until the recipes (which don't start until about the middle of the book). Reinhart shares a few stories about how he got started and his first trip to study in Paris where he got to spend a day with each of five artisans who each have their own way of making bread. He then goes into a very satisfying amount of detail about the science of bread, the different types of flour, and an explanation (written for a lay audience) of chemical processes involved in fermentation. I should've guessed that bacterial fermentation as well as yeast fermentation contributes to the flavors of bread, but who would've guessed that gluten isn't a natural protein structure in flour, but one that forms from the dimerization of two proteins in the endosperm? One other nice thing is the Reinhart uses commercial yeast for all of his recipes and let's time create the complex fermentation processes. Ok, so I bought some bread flour (high pre-pro-gluten content) and I'm ready to go.

One strange convention in baking is that percentages in a recipe are not really percentages, but given as a ratio to the amount of flour. So a recipe with 1 kg of flour and 500 g of water is said to be 50% water, when we all can see that it's really 33% water by weight. I'll use this convention, even if it grates on the spirit.

The recipes are laid out in alphabetical order, which is how I'll try to make them. The advantage is it's essential random, giving me experience with different techniques as I go. But, I'm going to start out with an exception. In order to prove the value of this book to Aryn, I'm going to start with a baguette.

The basic timeline the book has for making french bread is:

Evening of day 1: mix up dough, let rise for one hour and then move to fridge overnight to ferment.

Day 2:
- Take dough out of fridge, cut into 2 cm cubes and let come to room temp (1 hour)
- Put dough cubes into fresh flour, yeast, salt mixture. Add water, make into big batch of dough and knead (10 minutes)
- Leave for second ferment (2 hours, RT)
- Shape into baguette, leave to rise (~ 1 hr)
- Slit, bake (30 minutes)
- Cool (30 minutes)

Ok, first problem is that Aryn is never going to let it cool for 30 minutes, no matter how much I protest that it's still baking and forming a matrix and breaking it open now will let all the moisture out. We'll see how long I can push her on that.

The real problem is day 2. The bit about the night before is fine, but the rest of it takes 5 hours on the day of baking, not really an option when I work all day. This is going to require compromises. I can do the second ferment all day (is 10 hours really that different from 2 hours?), but there's still 1 hour in the morning and 2 hours to bake it when I get home. Nothing much to do about that, we'll give it a try anyway.

Meanwhile, it seems that someone else got the same book I did. Norma posted some beautiful pictures of homemade bread to facebook, and the layout and design look very similar to the layouts in TBBA. I'm glad to see I'm not alone in my quest to make my own breads.

Getting started

A couple months ago, I found an old set of archived video podcasts that Cooks Illustrated put out a few years ago. They have a bread recipe that is a variant on Mark Bittman's recipe for no knead bread published a few years ago in the New York Times. The recipe has worked out great for me when I stick to it, but my attempts to modify it (either by making a baguette or a whole wheat round loaf) haven't been very good. The recipe also uses a few cheats to get results that approximate "artisan" bread: it has you add beer and vinegar to add in the flavors that would normally come from natural fermentation processes that are difficult to replicate.

In looking at the Fresh Loaf, they recommend Peter Reinhart's book, the Bread Baker's Apprentice as the first book for aspiring artisanal bakers. I got the book and starting reading it.

I expected either enthusiasm or gentle mocking from Aryn when I started. She spent a year in Paris before we met, and still waxes poetic about the bread available at every corner bakery there. Since we've moved to San Francisco, she's been tolerant of my ever-deepening plunge into hippy-dom. We both love the farmer's markets & weekly vegetable deliveries. She complains, but puts up with my insistence on grass-fed meat (which means we eat meat less often), and has even started using my homemade chicken stock and cleaning supplies.

So I was surprised when she looked on my new baking book with skepticism. Maybe it was because I'd just gotten 4 new cookbooks for Christmas (thanks everyone, it really is a great gift to get me!). I promised to prove her wrong. To help me keep my resolve to master the recipes in the book (and perhaps because I just watched Julie & Julia), I'm going to write about my attempts.