days fifteen and sixteen - bread

Note: For six weeks, July 5 - August 11, I will be enrolled in the culinary arts cooking and pastry/baking certificate programs at Boston University. Cooking is Monday and Tuesday, baking is Wednesday and Thursday. We have to keep a daily journal of the experience, so I'll be blogging about the class every day.

Did you miss me? You missed me. I was competing in a pie competition. Saturday my sister and I were up until 2am making 300 tiny bourbon banana cream pies. Very normal. I'll tell you all about it later! Hold your breath! 

So, Wednesday and Thursday were bread! People are always afraid to make bread and rightfully so. It's hard! Just being honest. It's the best policy. For some reason there is this thing in food where people are always like, "Just try it! It's really easy!" Some things are not easy and if you only want easy things you should not try them. Also, a lot of those people are just telling you that it is really easy for them. (Although, no-knead bread is extraordinary and very easy).

Because, I've made a lot of bread, and that means I've made a lot of bad bread. There are so many things that can go wrong. It rises too much. It rises too little. The yeast is bad. The yeast is good. You kneaded it too much. You didn't knead it enough. You forgot to add flour. You baked it in the toaster. So many things! Bread is alive and you have to listen to it and hear what it is telling you and take care of it like a little bread baby. And if you don't know what you are listening for it's going to sound like a mute lump of bread sitting on your counter. "......" "WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME!" "......."

Anyways, all that being said, it's worth taking the time to learn how to make bread because fresh, homemade bread is the best thing in the universe. Think of the best thing in the universe. What did you think of? A baby's laugh? The concept of democracy? Q-tips? Bread is better. You know how people are always like, "I could make a meal of just the bread they give you before the meal?" People should stop saying that. Everyone says that. We know.

So, Alex Murray, who is the Assistant Director of Beverage Strategies at Legal Sea Foods and who trained in bread-baking under Charles van Over, author of "The Best Bread Ever," which espouses a food processor-mixed dough that is a precursor to the no-knead bread, was our guest chef for the two days of bread making. He started with a lecture on the history of bread and his five rules for making great bread:

  1. Always use the highest quality ingredients. That means fresh, unbleached, unbromated flour, non-iodized salt, non-chlorinated water and good-quality yeast.
  2. Limit the oxidation of the dough to increase flavor. That means avoid lengthy mixing or kneading times (more on this in a moment), avoiding machines that mix air into the dough and using a slow speed when machine-kneading.
  3. Use pre-ferments and long fermentations to increase flavor and texture. Yeasts, enzymes and acids affect flavor and slow gluten development and acids affect the texture. There are three types of pre-ferments - sponges (using a poolish or a biga) are made one day and used the next, sourdoughs (using a levain) which is a sourdough starter that has been kept alive or old dough, which uses the previous day's dough as that day's starter. (More information at The Fresh Loaf Glossary).
  4. Use temperature to control the pace and quality of the dough development. Pre-ferments control yeast and acid development, longer fermentation means more flavor and a second fermentation (or proof) is paced with the temperature for a predictable rise.
  5. Communicate with the dough. Smell it to make sure the flavor is coming along, feel it to make sure gluten is developing (flour + water + mechanical action = gluten), watch for the dough expanding and baking to the right color and, talk to it so it knows you still think about it, and finally, taste it!

So, we made dinner rolls, baguettes and pizza. On Wednesday we made all of the doughs, stretching and kneading and so on and so forth. This is where the autolyse thing comes in. So, wetter doughs that have a long time to rest are all the rage now because they make it possible to get that crusty, pocked bread you would normally get in a bakery in your own kitchen. So, for instance, the doughs we made were barely kneaded, but they had that additional autolyse rest and then they were rested in the refrigerator (to prevent over-rising) overnight for us to bake them the next day. Honestly, you just have to get a good book on bread to even begin to learn it all. So do that. 

I have to tell you, I was a bit skeptical of how the results were going to turn out. We seemed to be working the dough a lot, we weren't using a starter (we used instant yeast), it wasn't as wet as the no-knead bread yet we weren't really kneading it, etc. Well, I was wrong. The dinner rolls were outstanding. A nice, thin, pliable crust covering the moist, chewy interior. We all sat around eating pretty much all of them with a bit of butter and salt. I hate when people say "nom nom nom" because that's disgusting, but we did devour them in an unflattering way.

The baguettes were great as well. I've never made baguettes because it just seems like so much work to even begin to learn how to make anything close to what you will get at a good bakery, but maybe I shouldn't have been so scared. Although, maybe I can only say that now, after there was an expert there to say, "Nope, not like that. Yes, like that. It should look like this. Do this." We shaped the baguettes, put them on a couche (the dirtiest non-dirty word we've encountered in the kitchen yet, although the arancini rice balls we made last night resulted in a lot of ball-talk), let them rise, scored them lightly and put them on the thick, heavy stones with some water in the oven. When they came out, we couldn't help but tear into some of them, even though Charles van Over is such a fanatic about not tearing your baguettes he invented this knife to always have with you so you can always cut your baguette (although, you will only always have it with you if you don't mind carrying around a humongous, 5 1/2" pocketknife at all times). One thing - we cooked our baguettes too close together. The baguettes at the edge were much crustier. (Also, if you want the best bread, you need a nice thick stone, at least a 1/2-inch or 3/4-inch thick. Alex recommended FibraMent).

Finally, pizza. As they say (they are always saying something), even bad pizza is good pizza. Somebody says that probably. Anyway, this pizza was good, but it was very doughy. I think most of us preferred thinner, crispier crust. It was still delicious, but it's something I want to work on.

Next post: Italian food, with pasta, arancini, risotto and more!