Practice Makes Better

Before I begin, I have something to confess. Since starting this project over a month ago, I haven’t baked a single loaf of bread.

“But what about the internship at Lou Cigalou?” you might ask. Okay, there’s that. But other than helping the baker shape a couple boules and slash a few baguettes, I didn’t really make a loaf of bread on my own from start to finish.

Don’t get me wrong- it’s not that I didn’t learn anything from my time there or that I haven’t been thinking about bread. It’s just that I’ve spent more time researching bread than baking bread. Over the past month I’ve immersed myself in Joe Ortiz’s The Village Baker and Peter Reinhart’s Crust and Crumbreading and rereading chapters until they make perfect sense; I’ve watched the Air episode of Michael Pollan’s Cooked series, taking detailed notes on what the world’s top bakers and food scientists have to say about bread; and I’ve looked up recipe after recipe, comparing ingredients and techniques to see which ones yield the best results.

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My bread book collection

Now researching is fine and dandy, but here’s the real problem: when it comes to doing or making something, I can’t do it unless I know it’ll turn out right. Simply put, I’m a perfectionist. I can’t settle for anything less than flawless. And when it comes to bread, I’m no different. I want to get it right. If starting something new means making mistakes and messing up to arrive at a less-than-acceptable result, then I’ll pass, thank you very much.

Of course, this is the wrong attitude to have when it comes to baking bread! To succeed at anything in life, you have to be willing to take risks, screw up, and even start from scratch if necessary. As Peter Reinhart writes, one must learn by trial-and-error if they are to develop any real intuition and understanding about bread:

Beyond any information I can impart about the bread-making process, there is one essential skill I cannot give you. It is “feel.” Since I will not be in your kitchen while you make your doughs, I have done everything possible to detail the processes for your success. However, many variables affect the final results, such as the brand and age of your flour, the temperature of your room and water, the intensity of your kneading, and the fermentation pace of your dough. The remedy for this is to develop a feel for the dough that comes only with practice and experience.

-Peter Reinhart, Crust and Crumb

And so, I finally decided to ditch the books, roll up my sleeves, and take a stab at making my own pain ordinaire.

Pain Ordinaire (Ordinary French Bread)

To make my breadI followed the recipe for yeasted French bread from The Village Baker (pg. 69). I also incorporated techniques and tips from Crust and Crumb. The following stages are adapted from Ortiz’s 9 Basic Steps and Reinhart’s 12 Stages For World-Class Bread.

Stage 1 – Mise en place

Like any good cook or baker, I began by gathering my ingredients and equipment. Most of them I already had in my kitchen, such as flour, water, salt, mixing bowls, measuring cups and spoons, a scale, dish towels, a thermometer, razor blades, a spray bottle, baking sheets, parchment paper, and an oven. The things I didn’t have- dry yeast, a dough cutter, a dough scraper- were easily purchased at the local supermarket.

Next, I measured out my ingredients. The recipe for one baguette and one loaf is as follows:

  • 1 package (1 scant tablespoon; ½ ounce) active dry yeast
  • 1 ¼ cups water
  • 3 cups organic unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ½ tablespoon salt

Stage 2 – Mixing and kneading

Mixing serves three purposes: it distributes the ingredients, starts the fermentation process by activating the yeast, and develops the gluten in the flour. Mixing can be accomplished by hand, in a bowl with a wooden spoon, in a mechanical mixer, or by a combination of these methods; I chose to mix my ingredients using the bowl method.

Before mixing, I proofed the yeast by stirring it into 1/2 cup of warm water. After several minutes, the mixture was creamy and pale. It gave off a smell that reminded me of wine and, strangely, cheese. I poured the yeast into a large mixing bowl along with 3/4 cup lukewarm water.

Next, I added the flour handful by handful. As I stirred, the mixture became noticeably thicker and stickier, and had a consistency like taffy. When all but a handful of the flour had been added, I turned the dough onto a worktable, sprinkled it with the salt, and kneaded in the remaining flour. At first, the dough was very sticky and hard to knead. As I continued to add flour, however, it became easier to work with.

Stage 3 – First proofing

The first proofing is when most of the bread’s flavour develops. As the yeast feeds on the natural sugars in the dough, it creates alcohol that flavours the dough and carbon dioxide that allows it to rise. After I kneaded the dough, I placed it in the mixing bowl and covered it with a moistened dish towel. When I checked on it about 2 hours later, the dough had nearly doubled in size and contained some bubbles.

Stage 4 – Punching down

“Punching down” or “knocking back” the dough is included in The Village Baker as an important step in the bread-making process. According to Ortiz, this step has been done by village bakers for centuries because it gives the dough a fresh, strong boost during the fermentation process. I simply punched the dough a few times with my fist until it had flattened, then folded the edges of the dough onto the center, turned it over, and let it rise for an additional 45 minutes.

Stages 5, 6 and 7- Scaling, Rounding and Benching

After the dough had risen, I divided it into two equal pieces. I rounded each of the pieces into balls and let them sit for another 15 minutes. Benching, as this short period of resting is known, allows the gluten to relax before the final shaping.

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Stages 8 and 9 – Shaping and Final Proofing

Before shaping the loaves, I flattened both balls of dough with my palms to remove any air pockets. I shaped the first piece into a rectangle, then folded over the top part of the dough to make a log. I pinched the seams closed before placing the baguette onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. For the round loaf, I folded the outer edges of the dough into the center, turned it over, and rounded it into a tight ball. I placed the round loaf onto another baking sheet and let both loaves rise under a moistened dish towel for 45 minutes. This final period of proofing allows the dough to produce more carbonic gas that will help it develop as it bakes.

Stage 10 – Slashing the loaves

Slashing, scoring, cutting, and docking are all terms that refer to the cuts made in a loaf before it is baked. Slashing helps to release the gases in the dough as well as to improve the appearance of the loaf. The cuts create what is known in French as la grigne, or a network of bread fibers. Using a razor blade, I made 4 diagonal cuts in the baguette and a tic-tac-toe pattern in the round loaf.

Stage 11 – Baking

Up to this point, I had mostly been following directions from The Village Baker to mix, proof, and shape my bread. During the baking stage, I turned to Crust and Crumb for more details on oven technique. Reinhart includes many tips on how to replicate the steam from a commercial bread oven in one’s own oven. Among other things, he suggests placing an empty pan on the bottom of the oven as it is preheating and filling it with a cup of water after the bread goes in. He also suggests spraying the oven walls and the loaves with a spray bottle to produce a nice, crackly crust.

I did as Reinhart suggested, placing the loaves in the oven with a pan of water and frantically spraying the walls before too much heat escaped. I repeated the sprays two more times before lowering the temperature to 450°F. Every ten minutes, I rotated the loafs so that they cooked evenly. The baguette took 20 minutes to bake while the round loaf took 30 to 35 minutes until it turned golden.

Results and Observations

And voilà! My very own French bread!

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In the end, I was satisfied- but not overjoyed- with how my bread turned out. The crust was surprisingly crisp, thanks to all the steam created by the water spritzing, while the crumb was more like that of a pretzel (chewy and doughy) due to me not adding enough salt. I noticed that the holes in the loaf were quite small and regular in size- a sign that the dough may have been handled too roughly. And because I used commercial yeast instead of a starter, the flavour was not nearly as interesting as it could’ve been.

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But… it was also my first time making bread! While it wasn’t the most delicious or flavourful French bread I’ve ever had, it wasn’t half bad. With practice, I think I could make some pretty good (or at least better) pain ordinaire.

For the moment, though, I think I’ll leave the baguettes to the professionals and experiment with making other types of breads. The next time I come back to this recipe, here are some things I’ll do differently:

  1. Add the correct amount of salt. One of my biggest fears when it comes to cooking or baking is that I’ll oversalt, which means that I tend to undersalt. Instead of putting 1/2 tablespoon of salt as the recipe called for, I put less.
  2. Use a pre-ferment. Breads made with pre-ferments such as poolish (sponge) or pâte fermentée (old dough) yield more interesting flavours than breads made with commercial yeast. For now I’m sticking to yeast, but as I become more adept at bread baking I hope to graduate to pre-ferments and wild yeast starters such as sourdough.
  3. Knead the dough more and do the windowpane test. The windowpane test involves stretching a small piece of the kneaded dough to see if it has been mixed enough. If the gluten strands have properly developed, the dough should resemble a thin, translucent membrane. I forgot to do the test and as a result probably didn’t knead the dough as much as I should have.
  4. Handle the dough gently. As mentioned, I may have handled the dough too roughly during the shaping stage, leading its hole structure to be too uniform. I also flattened the dough too much in stage 8.
  5. Proof the dough in a warmer setting and adjust rising times as necessary. As a new baker, I feel more comfortable relying on specific times rather than my senses to judge when the dough is ready. Looking back at pictures, the dough didn’t ferment as long as it could have. This was probably due to the fact that it is winter and a cool room temperature makes for slow fermentation.
  6. Use a banneton. banneton is a wicker basket lined with a linen canvas. It’s used to raise loaves and helps one to gauge how much a dough has risen. It also gives the dough a distinctive shape and prevents it from spreading out while proofing.
  7. Use a sharper razor blade or lame (curved razor blade). The cuts I made in the loaves were not as neat as I hoped because the razor blade was not sharp enough.
  8. Cook one loaf at a time. Things in Europe tend to be small as compared to things in the U.S. This includes ovens! My oven has only one rack and enough room for one loaf of bread. I tried baking my second loaf on a cooling rack at the bottom of the oven and rotated the loaves’ positions halfway through the baking time. However, the loaf on the bottom did not cook well, while the one on top was quick to burn.
  9. Cool the bread for a full hour before eating it. This step, while difficult to follow, is necessary because it allows the bread to develop its structure after baking. A few minutes after the baguette came out of the oven, I couldn’t resist and tore off the heel of the loaf to try it!

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Have you ever baked pain ordinaire? Do you have any tips or suggestions? Let me know in the comments below!

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