Wednesday, November 10, 2010
I taught myself how to make bread years ago because I wanted to be able to do one thing well. I started with books, as I do with most anything I want to learn to do. Julia Child's The Way to Cook was my bible. She uses lots of photos and step-by-step instructions for every master recipe; I still refer to it frequently for everything from carving meat to poaching fish.
For her basic French bread recipe, Child suggests using a food processor. Now, I don't know about you, but food processors drive me nuts. They're terribly useful, I know, but they're awkward as hell and a pain in the butt to clean. I have a tiny Sunbeam version that's excellent for guacamole, chopping onions, and making hummus. But I gave away the ancient, enormous food processor my mother-in-law handed down to me years ago because it was just taking up space. There have been a few times since that I've regretted it giving it away. I expect that someday I'll wander into a Bed, Bath & Beyond and come out with a contemporary model. But as far as making bread goes, there's much to love about my 350 watt Kitchen Aid mixer.
I was naively particular about my tools and ingredients in those early days: King Arthur gluten-rich bread flour, sea salt, Red Star yeast, a suitably rustic, hand-carved, wooden bowl for rising, a giant clay brick for our oven so the dough would crisp. Perfection was my goal. (I still won't use any flour but King Arthur.) I laid everything out, banished the family from the kitchen, and dove in.
I managed to proof the yeast in appropriately warm water. I measured out the flour and salt exactly, using the scoop and slide method. I dampened the linen towel that would rest over the rising dough. But I was desperately afraid of what I'd managed to glom together, following Child's very specific instructions. Those first few moments with the ingredients all assembled seemed so significant to me. I think I can easily compare it to writing a story: you have all the stuff there, but sometimes you're so focused on the end result that you can't quite see the immediate next steps.
Confession: I had never kneaded anything but Play Doh. Child is quite adamant that bread dough should not be overworked. The metal blade in a food processor and a dough hook on a mixer heat up as they spin, and heat breaks down the gluten. Overheated, prematurely-melted gluten means a loaf's crust will be tough, not crusty. No one wants chewy crust. Oh, the weight of so many details! It nearly killed me. And so I had mixed the flour, water, salt and proofed yeast together briefly--oh so briefly--in the mixer. Then I proceeded to the final kneading after letting the rough dough ball rest and cool down for an appropriate amount of time.
The final kneading wasn't supposed to take more than two minutes. "Fifty times." Now, for someone who doesn't know how to knead, the instruction to do so fifty times is a little vague. Was I supposed to fold it over and squish it together? Did that count as one time? What if I went over fifty times accidentally? The whole thing was paralyzing. I was petrified.
I hadn't machine-kneaded long enough. And I didn't make up for it with vigorous hand-kneading. After the dough's two risings, it was not terribly pliable and was difficult to shape. There was much ado in the recipe about splitting the dough in half for baguettes and punching them into squares which had to be folded in half and half again. There was the quashing of bubbles and the quest for the perfect baguette length. I just wanted it to be right. The back of my neck is all tense just recalling those fraught few minutes.
The loaves were pale, phallic and fleshy-looking. Not terribly attractive and definitely not springy, as Child declared they should be.
I sliced their tops diagonally with a plain, straight-razor blade. I'd drawn the line at paying several dollars for a...well, I can't think of the French name, but it's essentially a razor blade embedded at the end of a stick. The loaves need to be cut for the heat to escape. Oh, and I forgot to mention the huge wooden paddle I'd also bought to slide my finished loaves into the heated oven. (If it sounds like this was the most expensive batch of bread, ever, you're right. It was.) The paddle had to be sprinkled with corn meal--dough doesn't slide very easily on its own, as any long-time bread or pizza maker can attest.
Child always put a fireproof dish full of water on the bottom of her electric oven so it would get all steamy inside. (Steam makes a golden, glossy crust.) She said it was okay to open the oven door a few times in the first 3-5 minutes and mist the loaves. So I did that because our oven was gas.
I spent a fretful twenty-some minutes waiting for the loaves to bake. I even took their temperature to make sure they were precisely done. There's a wonderful cracking/popping sound that cooling loaves make when they first come out. It's vaguely similar to the popping noise that comes from a bowl of Rice Krispies just after you poor milk on it--but the bread smells way better.
Result? My husband was kind about the crusty but dense loaves. They were pretty. Of course, pretty doesn't necessarily make good eating. I had a lot of learning to do.
By Thanksgiving I was confident enough to take a double batch of French hard rolls to dinner at my in-laws' house. No one had mentioned that we probably didn't need rolls given all the cornbread dressing and potatoes on the table. I suspect I was being humored. But they were tasty and crusty enough. And my father-in-law made a fuss over them, which made me feel special.
Thanksgiving isn't far away. Perhaps that's why I'm feeling nostalgic about my bread-making days. There's also the cooler weather, which always makes me crave starch. I've gotten both more sophisticated and less uptight about bread making. One of my most fruitful discoveries was in the Il Fornaio Baking Book, which is Italian in its approach. It recommends making a biga, which is a starter that gives bread a more substantial interior feel than that of French bread. It also keeps the bread fresher longer. I've mastered the biga, but the biga acida, the sourdough starter, not so much.
I think it was two or three years ago in a NYC cafe that I had an amazing cranberry/walnut/rye bread that I desperately wanted to recreate. I gave it a shot, but the results were doughy and disappointing. It's probably time to try it again. It's fall. There are cranberries and lots of walnuts out there. Sounds like a challenge, and there are two whole weeks before Thanksgiving. Plus, I'm serving the dinner so I can make anything I please. Love that.