New Beginnings + A Bread List

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You know that quote about how every end is a new beginning? Well, today more than any other day feels like an appropriate time to use it, for today is both the last day of my bread study AND my last day of high school!

It’s surreal to say the least. In my head I’m still making plans about breads to make and topics to blog about, all the while forgetting that my project and high school are officially over. As tends to happen when I delve into topics, I feel as though I’ve opened a Pandora’s box into the world of bread. One could spend years learning about each of the ingredients and processes that go into bread-making, experimenting with infinite combinations and proportions, or studying the centuries-long relationship between man and bread– and indeed, many do.

When I started this project back in December, I had a million different ideas about the direction I wanted to go and wrote an outline to keep myself on track. In the end, I put my outline aside and let the project unfold on its own. This was partly intentional but mostly done out of convenience, as I quickly realized how hard it can be to stick to a timetable given the demands of modern life.

Overall, I’m happy with the way my project turned out. I learned about French bread from the perspective of an artisanal baker, and read my way through numerous cookbooks, blogs and articles. I tasted exquisite loaves from the gastronomical center of the world, made bread using pure trial and error, and documented the entire thing in my first-ever blog. If I could do one thing differently, I would devote more time to making a sourdough starter and experimenting with wild yeast breads. Still, I’m glad I started with simpler, yeasted breads as the experience I gained will be useful when it comes to making more challenging loaves.

While my project is finished, my education is certainly not. Next fall I’ll be attending a liberal arts college in British Columbia, Canada (hence the photo with the mountains above), where I plan to pursue my love of learning, writing, cooking, baking, and many other things. I’ve also decided to continue my blog for the time being and see where it leads me. For all I know, it could shift from a blog about bread to a food blog to a blog about life in general! The possibilities are endless, and I look forward to seeing what becomes of it.

So there you go. It may sound rather final, but consider this more of an update than a goodbye. For my last piece of writing for this project, I figured I’d devote an entire post to recent breads I’ve made. Here is, in no particular order, a summary of the breads I’ve experimented with over the last month. Enjoy!

1. Ciabatta, Poolish Version

From The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart, pg. 135

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Ciabatta was definitely one of the more difficult loaves I’ve made. I had fun stretching and folding the layers, but didn’t have much luck achieving the large holes that ciabatta is known for. I also struggled getting the dough to rise in my cold kitchen. For anyone else with this problem, here’s a tip: put your dough in an unheated oven along with an open pot of boiled water. The steam will heat up the oven just enough for the bread to rise. If you’re worried about the dough rising too fast or the air becoming humid, put a thermometer inside the oven and take out the water when the desired temperature has been reached.

To find a similar (but more successful) version of the ciabatta I made, check out this woman’s blog.

2. Simple Yeasted Bread

I made this bread on a whim when the weather outside was drizzly and I felt like eating something warm and comforting. It’s a simple bread that uses rolled oats and tastes a bit like an English muffin. The best part is that it only takes a couple hours to make. The original recipe comes from Gran’s Kitchen by Natalie Oldfield and can be found here on the 101 Cookbooks blog.

3. Challah

From The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart, pg. 133 (you can find a thorough, step-by-step version of the recipe I used here)

Challah is probably my favorite bread of all time. My love for it is somewhat odd, as I am not Jewish nor have I ever taken part in Jewish traditions. Rather, I have fond memories of it from elementary school, when I used to trade Goldfish crackers for my friend’s challah during snack hour. For those who aren’t familiar with challah, it’s an enriched bread made with oil, eggs, and sugar. The bread traditionally has 12 braided strands, but 3 strands are enough to create a plump and impressive loaf.

4. Buckwheat Bread, Gluten-Free

From Wholehearted Eats blog (find the original recipe here)

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Over the last few months, I’ve been searching for gluten-free breads to accommodate my brother’s new diet. (My mom realized his skin problems were largely connected to gluten and, much to my brother’s chagrin, made him cut back on his bread/pasta intake.) I found this “unbelievable buckwheat bread” that uses buckwheat groats, psyllium husks, chia seeds, olive oil, baking soda, water, and salt. As you can see, I sprinkled some additional poppy, sunflower, pumpkin, and flaxseeds on the top. The loaf came out good but moist, so I would suggest toasting the slices before you eat them to make up for that missing crunch.

5. Pita Bread

From Crust & Crumb by Peter Reinhart, pg. 140 (a very similar recipe can be found here)

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I considered not posting these photos as my pita bread looks nowhere near as good as it tasted. (It’s the inside that counts anyway, right?) But, as my new saying goes, practice makes better. And perhaps with some practice, my pita bread will someday resemble the neat, round pockets one finds at Middle Eastern restaurants and grocery stores.

Wonky appearance aside, this bread was delicious and some of the easiest I’ve ever made! I used half all-purpose flour and half whole-wheat flour, but you can use whatever proportion you like. It goes great with hummus, tabbouleh, curries or anything, really.

6. Socca (Gluten-Free Chickpea Flatbread)

Socca isn’t exactly bread, but I still wanted to include it as it’s a great recipe for those who are gluten-free. Originally from Nice, France, socca is made by mixing 1 cup chickpea flour, 1 cup water, 1½ tablespoons olive oil, and ½ teaspoon salt. Leave it in the fridge for an hour, then cook it on the stovetop or in the oven, and voilà! Socca is comparable to a pancake, but it can also be used as a pizza crust, burrito, naan, pita bread, etc. It’s extremely versatile and very delicious! You can find an article and instructions on how to make socca here.

7. Rye Bread, Sponge Method

From The Village Baker by Joe Ortiz, pg. 114 (find the recipe here)

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Again, the aesthetics. I know they’re not great. But hear me out! This was my first rye loaf and I was pretty happy with how it turned out. To bring out the tangy flavour of the rye, I made a poolish (or pre-ferment) and let it sit for 3 hours before mixing in the remaining ingredients. The dough was super sticky when I kneaded it, so I would suggest adding more flour until the consistency is easier to work with. Next time, I’ll try proofing the dough in a banneton and see if it comes out more plump.

To Be or Not To Be… Gluten-Free?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, you’ve likely noticed the rising trend in gluten-free products. From cereal to bread and pasta, to chips and beer and dog-food, gluten-free alternatives have become popular among health enthusiasts, millennials, and those with self-diagnosed “gluten or wheat sensitivity.” Whereas few people paid attention to gluten in the early 2000s, gluten-free products have now become ubiquitous in American households, raking in billions of dollars in sales per year.

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If you’re like me, you may have noticed the gluten-free trend but not participated in it. For a long time, I didn’t even understand what gluten was. In any case, I figured it was a fad that, like all fads, would eventually pass and be succeeded by another.

It was only during my study of bread that I began to look more closely at gluten and the arguments against it. As anyone who’s made bread or studied it knows, gluten is fundamental to the fabrication of bread. Gluten is the protein that forms when dough is kneaded as the molecules glutenin and gliadin come together. It’s what gives dough its elasticity and volume during fermentation, and what makes bread airy and chewy. For thousands of years, gluten was consumed by humans in the form of cereal grains such as wheat, barley, and rye.

Recently, gluten has become a topic of controversy. It’s been held responsible for numerous health issues, including abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, migraines, fatigue, skin rashes, joint pain, autism, asthma, depression, and cancer. While those who suffer from celiac disease (1% of the population) can have life-threatening reactions to gluten, for many the decision to go gluten-free is as much a cultural statement as it is a dietary one.

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The gluten-free section at an organic shop in France

Whether the effects caused by gluten are real or imagined is not entirely clear; it’s probably a mixture of the two. Despite the claims put forth by those such as William Davis, a cardiologist and the best-selling author of “Wheat Belly”— not to mention the companies that are profiting from gluten-free products– there isn’t a whole lot of evidence to suggest that a gluten-free diet is healthier. In fact, avoiding gluten could even be harmful for one’s health as foods with gluten contain important vitamins and minerals.

Since when did gluten become so toxic to our bodies and, what’s more, feared by us as a society? There are several hypotheses. For one, we have a tendency to demonize individual nutrients, such as fat in the 1960s or carbohydrates nowadays. More likely than not, gluten will soon be shoved out of the limelight to make way for another victim. However, some think the rise in celiac disease and gluten sensitivity can be attributed to the modern wheat gene, which is perhaps different from the wheat grown in previous decades. Others blame industrialization and the highly refined methods and ingredients used to make bread. There is also research that points to FODMAP foods (onions, apples, dairy products, etc.), and not gluten, as being responsible for the distress people experience after eating foods with gluten. Nevertheless, gluten continues to get a bad rap, and about a third of Americans say they are trying to eliminate it from their diet altogether.

Personally, I have had little trouble with gluten. I grew up on the typical American diet of bread, pasta, pizza, cereal, and crackers– in other words, a lot of gluten– but when I moved to France three years ago, I began eating less processed foods and more fruits, vegetables, and legumes. My overall health improved dramatically, and though I developed some eczema and minor gastrointestinal problems after moving, I’m certain it had to do as much with stress and puberty as it did with gluten.

A few months ago, I cut down on my gluten intake and noticed that my eczema and stomach problems improved. Was it the gluten that caused them in the first place? Who knows. Maybe. I figure it doesn’t hurt to cut back on bread and pasta every once in a while so long as they’re being replaced with wholesome foods. In any case, I get to try my hand at making some gluten-free loaves!

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A recent loaf I made using buckwheat groats, seeds and psyllium husks

So what’s the verdict? To be or not to be gluten-free?

I’m not normally one to preach, but I will say this: if you’re considering going on a gluten-free diet, do your research first. Listen to both sides of the argument. If you’ve been experiencing bloating or headaches or any of the other symptoms listed above, try eliminating gluten or FODMAPs for a few days and see if it makes a difference. But please, don’t follow the trends simply because! Remember that every body is different, and what makes one person sick might be keeping you healthy.

What is your experience with gluten? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Bonjour Paris!

It’s been a while since I last wrote, but I have a good excuse. Last week, I took my study of bread out of my little country town and into the magical city of Paris!

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It was a great trip. I spent a week seeing the sights, attending art exhibitions and book readings, wandering cobblestoned alleyways, getting around by metro and bike, catching up with old friends, and eating yummy food. Being the hopeless romantic that I am, it didn’t take me more than 20 minutes to fall head-over-heels in love with Paris. Every time I caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, or heard someone playing the accordion, or noticed a scene that seemed to come straight out of an old French film, I felt like throwing my arms up as Audrey Hepburn does in Funny Face and singing at the top of my lungs, “BONJOUR PARIS!”

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I could go on and on about my week in Paris, how much I adored it, and the countless fantasies I had of settling down there for the rest of my life. But seeing as my time (and yours) is limited, I’ll cut to the chase and get to the real reason I’m here: bread!

A major reason I went to Paris was to get a taste of the city life I’ve been missing while living in the Provençal countryside. However, another reason I went was for the bread. Bread is a big deal where I live in the south, but I’d argue that it’s an even bigger deal in Paris. Why? For one, several historical events took place in Paris that were connected to bread. It was in Paris that the French stormed the Bastille when the price of bread skyrocketed- an event which many believe triggered the French Revolution. For another, Paris prides itself on being home to some of the greatest bakers and bakeries. I wanted to see if this was true, if bread in Paris is truly better than bread in other parts of France.

And so, going about it as any amateur would, I did a Google search for the “best bakeries in Paris,” scrolled through the results, and jotted down a few bakeries to check out.

The first bakery I visited was the distinguished Poilâne bakery on Rue de Cherche-Midi of the Latin Quarter. Now, if you haven’t heard about Lionel Poilâne and his famous sourdough miches, don’t worry. Neither had I. It wasn’t until after I visited the bakery that I discovered just how renowned Poilâne is in the world of bread.

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Lionel Poilâne and his famous miche loaves

Perhaps “renowned” is too lacking a word to describe Lionel Poilâne’s reputation. To many, he was the quintessential Parisian baker, the king of sourdough in France. The original bakery at Cherche-Midi was opened in 1932 by Lionel’s father, Pierre Poilâne, where he made more traditional (if not as popular) sourdough loaves. Lionel began working at the bakery at the age of 14, and what began as a humble family business soon expanded into a global enterprise as Poilâne’s loaves gained recognition among restaurant owners, artists, and food critics. When Lionel and his wife were tragically killed in a helicopter crash in 2002, the business was taken over by their eldest daughter, Apollonia. In remembrance of her father and grandfather, Apollonia continues to make Poilâne bread using a combination of old and new techniques and the finest ingredients, including stone-ground flour, sea salt from Guérande, and wood-fired ovens.

I stopped by Poilâne on a Thursday morning on my way to the Saint-Germain district. Upon entering the bakery, I was surprised at how quiet it was. Contrary to my expectations, there were no lines or crazed tourists with cameras. Instead I was met by a couple of employees in white coats and row after row of rectangular loaves, pastries, cookies, tarts, fruit preserves, and, of course, the legendary Poilâne miches. A woman approached me to take my order, but I stuck around for a few minutes to check out their products and snap a few photos.

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In the end I ended up buying a couple of their “mini breads”- a whole wheat loaf and a rye/raisin loaf. I later regretted not buying a miche (or even one of their apple tarts, which are said to be extraordinary) when I had the chance, but looking back I think I felt overwhelmed by the multitude of options and, frankly, by the size of the miches themselves. Nevertheless, the bread I did buy was some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted. Chewy, light in texture, and yet wholly substantial and satisfying, I immediately understood why Poilâne bread has the reputation it does.

In addition to Poilâne, I also visited Du Pain et des Idées, an old-school bakery in the 10th arrondissement; Maison Kayser, an artisanal bakery with multiple locations in Paris and around the world; Stohrer, the oldest pâtisserie in Paris, opened in 1730 by Louis XV’s pastry chef; and Chambelland, a gluten-free bakery in the hip 11th arrondissement. Each place had its own delights and specialties– chocolate-pistachio croissants at Du Pain, sans gluten poppy and sunflower seed cookies at Chambelland– that made my mouth water, my heart melt, and my pants a tad tighter. After visiting each bakery, I thought to myself, “This is the best bread I’ve tasted in Paris!” But to tell you the truth, they were all good.

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Du Pain et des Idées
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Pastries at Du Pain et des Idées
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Pâtisserie Stohrer
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Brioche à tête at Stohrer
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Maison Kayser
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Gluten-free seed bread from Chambelland

And so, to answer my original question: Is bread in Paris better than bread in other parts of France?

*drumroll*

Yes. And no.

As far as I could tell, the bread in Paris wasn’t too different from the bread in other parts of France. Sure, the quality of the ingredients is probably higher and the baking methods more refined; however, they don’t vary too drastically from the ingredients and methods used by village bakers in the countryside. While there was a greater variety of bread and bakeries, the baguettes were no more golden, aromatic, or chewy than other baguettes I’ve had, nor were the croissants more luxurious, flaky, buttery, raisin-filled, or chocolatey than those found at my local bakery.

But, for some reason, the bread and pastries in Paris were better. Or, at least, they were more enjoyable to indulge in. I’ve thought a lot about why this is so, and the only sensible conclusion I’ve come to is that it is the charm of being in Paris, rather than the bread itself, that makes Parisian bread taste better.

You see, there’s something both romantic and powerful about eating a baguette in La Ville Lumière. It’s a city that housed royalty, oversaw a bloody revolution, inspired artists and intellectuals, and is the center of gastronomy as we know it. As I ate my Poilâne bread on a bridge overlooking the Seine, I felt chic, optimistic, nostalgic, and content all at once. It was a strange mix of feelings that I seldom feel, and that I doubt could be replicated anywhere else in the world but in Paris.

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For further information on the bakeries I visited:

Poilâne Official Website

“Bread Winner” (New Yorker article about Poilâne as run by Lionel’s daughter, Apollonia)

Du Pain et des Idées Official Website

Maison Kayser Official Website

Pâtissier Stohrer Official Website

Chambelland Official Website

“In Paris Bakeries, Liberté From Gluten” (New York Times article about gluten-free bakeries in Paris)

What is Bread? A Brief History of the World’s Oldest Staple

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Since making my first French loaves, I’ve been on something of a baking whirlwind. I made sourdough loaves using a starter from a friend; a delicious multigrain bread from a recipe by the baker Sarabeth Levine; a gluten-free loaf composed of oats, nuts, and seeds; the famous “no-knead bread” as developed by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery; and an oat soda bread from one of my favorite blogs.

The sourdough loaves unfortunately came out like bricks. My friend had warned me that the dough would be very wet, but I was thoroughly unprepared for just how difficult it would be to mix and proof. I spent ages kneading the dough by hand, and instead of retaining a round shape during the final proofing, the loaves sort of oozed into puddles. They didn’t taste bad- in fact, the flavour was complex and slightly tangy from the starter- but the texture was much too dense and chewy.

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The next bread I made, a yeasted multigrain loaf from the cookbook Sarabeth’s Bakery, came out lovely. It was easy and relatively quick to make (“relatively quick” being 6 hours). I simply combined the ingredients in my Kitchen Aid mixer, kneaded the dough by hand for a few minutes, let it rise twice, and baked it for 40 minutes in a tin pan. The result was a glossy loaf that tasted sweet and nutty.

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The third bread I made was from a food blog I like called My New Roots. The blogger, Sarah Britton, has a couple of bread recipes, one of which is called “The Life-Changing Loaf of Bread.” The title alone was so intriguing that I had to try it! As a gluten-free and vegan loaf, it contained no flour or dairy products but instead sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, oats, flaxseeds, coconut oil, maple syrup, psyllium husks, and more. In the end, my brother and I joked that it looked more like an enormous granola bar than a loaf of bread. I can’t say whether it changed my life, but it was pretty darn good.

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And then, the no-knead bread. I was skeptical of this one. Was it really possible to dump flour, water, yeast, and salt in a Dutch oven and arrive at a scrumptious bread just like that? To add to my skepticism, the dough was more liquid than solid after its initial rising (see first picture below). When I put it in the oven it looked like a gloopy mess, but 45 minutes later I opened the lid to reveal a beautiful loaf. The webbing was irregular and satiny, and the crust golden and crisp. In fact, it turned out so good that I seriously considered ditching all the other breads on my list and spending the remainder of my project making variations of the no-knead bread!

Finally, I made an oat soda bread from another blog I like called 101 Cookbooks. As its name suggests, soda bread uses baking soda instead of yeast as a leavening agent. It originates from Ireland and is a popular alternative to yeasted and sourdough breads. The soda bread I made used oat flour (which I made by putting oats in a food processor), all-purpose flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. I also sprinkled some seeds and brushed buttermilk on the top for a dramatic effect. The loaf came out nice and buttery, with a tight crumb and chewy crust.

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As I made these breads- one of which contained psyllium in place of flour, two of which weren’t kneaded, and another of which used baking soda to rise- I found myself pondering a very essential question: What is bread? If it’s gluten-free, doesn’t contain yeast, or isn’t kneaded, is it still bread? What about quick breads, which resemble more cakes than bread, or packaged bread, with its plethora of preservatives? In other words, would our ancestors have recognized what we today call bread?

To answer these questions, perhaps it’s worth examining the origin and evolution of bread over the last few millennia.

Bread, along with rice and maize, is one of the oldest staples in the world. The earliest breads were flatbreads, or breads made without leavening. In places in which cassava, barley, corn, and oats were the main crops, flatbreads like chapatis, tortillas, pita, and naan emerged.* Flatbreads continue to be the staple food for many cultures in the Middle East, Central America, and India. Indeed, during a school trip I took to northern India a few years ago, every meal we ate was centered around the chapati.

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A woman making chapatis in Rajasthan

While flatbreads kept humans alive for generations, it was the invention of leavened bread that allowed us to advance from a hunter-gatherer society to the sophisticated civilizations we live in today. The Egyptians are credited with discovering the original sourdough culture some 5,000 years ago. It’s believed that a bowl of grains and water was accidentally left to sit out for a few days, and when yeast from the air caused the porridge to ferment and bubble, someone got the idea to bake it over a fire. The result was a lighter and tastier food that could last for several days.

Leavened breads soon spread from the Middle East to Greece, where many varieties of wheat and barley breads were made. It was also in Greece that the prototype for the modern bread oven was conceived. During the Roman Empire, the Romans took bread baking to another level by establishing prestigious baking guilds, applying the Gaulish method of skimmed beer foam to make lighter breads, harnessing water to mill grains into flour, straining out the bran and germ to make white flour, and using horse-powered mixers to knead dough. Village bakeries began popping up in the big cities, with around 300 bakeries in Rome during the time of Christ, and bread became a major symbol in both Judaism and Christianity.

During the Middle Ages, round loaves and “trencher bread” (thick slices of bread used as plates) were a staple part of the medieval diet. While the upper classes enjoyed breads made of white flour, the poorer classes often ate coarser, whole wheat breads. Communal ovens arose during this time, allowing families to shape their dough and bring it to the town’s designated baker to be baked. Bread became a form of currency and credit, and as communal ovens eventually evolved into commercial bakeries, the role of the baker became increasingly important and respectable.

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A medieval baker with his apprentice (Source: Wikipedia)

The Industrial Revolution took bread baking to yet another level as inventions such as the roller mill and commercial yeast allowed bread to be produced on a large scale. Because bread could be made more cheaply and efficiently, the same white bread that was once reserved for the upper classes could now be eaten by all. During the 20th century, chemical additives like emulsifiers and hydrogenated oils were introduced to breads to make them softer and increase their shelf life. Flour was also bleached and fortified with vitamins and minerals that altered both the taste and appearance of bread. Paired with the invention of the bread slicer, bleached flour quickly became the basis for brands such as Sara Lee, Wonder Bread, and Pepperidge Farm. While sliced bread is now a staple food in households all over the world, artisanal bread has also made a comeback in the last few decades among those who wish to eat more wholesome breads using the traditional methods of baking.

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Bread aisle at a grocery store (Source: Mike Mozart, Flickr)

That’s a simplified version of what happened, but I mention it to give you an idea of bread’s roots. To understand what bread is, I think it’s essential to know what bread once was. And as demonstrated throughout history, bread has never been just one thing. Different breads have come and gone thanks to new technologies and resources, and even today bread can mean many things to people of varying ages, backgrounds, and social statuses. Even if modern bread doesn’t resemble the bread our ancestors ate, that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s based off of the original recipe of flour, water, yeast, and salt.

So to conclude, I don’t believe there is a straightforward answer to my question of “what is bread?” Rather, I think the definition of bread will continue to evolve and expand as humanity does. After all, we are the ones who invented it.

*Though pita and naan are technically leavened, they are considered flatbreads because they are baked in flat shapes.

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!

Lou Cigalou Internship: Part Two

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On Monday and Wednesday of last week, I finished my internship at Lou Cigalou Boulangerie. As on the first day, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to watch the baker, Nicolas, bake the day’s bread and prepare the following day’s dough. Although I occasionally stepped in to lend a hand, I found that it wasn’t so easy to jump in to his established rhythm. So I mostly took notes, snapped photographs, and chatted with Nicolas about life as a baker.

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Making la fougasse

We got to talking about Nicolas’ beginnings, and I learned that he decided to become a baker while helping his mother make cakes at home. He began training at a bakery around age 16, and by the end of high school had spent more hours there than at school. After passing his exams, Nicolas traveled to Florida and Guadeloupe for several months before settling down in the French Alps. When he met his wife, Céline, on a train through the Côte d’Azur, they moved to Bédoin to open Lou Cigalou and start a family.

Though Nicolas realized his dream of becoming a baker, it didn’t come without a price. The last fifteen years have been taxing on his family life. Nicolas and Céline work long hours throughout the year to earn a modest living, with Nicolas baking bread during the night and Céline running the bakery and waitressing tables during the day (Lou Cigalou is also a cafe). A large percentage of their earnings goes towards taxes, and they can only afford to hire a helper a couple hours per day. Since their income is based entirely on the amount of work they put in, they work six days out of the week and during holidays. Nicolas told me that he takes one week of vacation for every six years he works.

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Céline preparing the day’s pastries

According to Nicolas, la fabrication du pain artisanal (artisanal bread-making) is a dying art in France. More people are buying their bread from supermarkets and franchises, where baguettes can cost as low as 45 cents. Thirty years ago, one could make a good living as a baker, Nicolas told me. But today- between the long hours, scant income, and competition from large corporations- a handful of boulangeries go out of business per week. The salary one makes as a baker barely compensates for the money, time, and energy it takes to make bread and run a bakery. Nicolas said that one of the bakeries in our town will be closing in September, and he himself plans to sell Lou Cigalou in a few years to work as a store clerk. When I asked if either of his children were interested in baking or if they might pick up the business, he shook his head and said gravely, “Je l’interdis.” “I forbid it.”

That took me by surprise. I knew being a baker was difficult, but I didn’t realize it was so demanding as to stop a baker from teaching his children to bake. I figured that since French bread is so good, it must be a booming industry. Maybe for boulangeries in the big cities that can sell bread for double the price, said Nicholas, but not for one in a small town in the countryside.

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Cleaning the oven

It made me sad to hear Nicolas sound so defeated and matter-of-fact about the direction his life’s work is going. As someone who has recently taken up bread baking as a hobby, the possibilities feel new and exciting. I see it as a creative outlet in which one can experiment and err and invent to arrive at breads that are uniquely one’s own. But for someone like Nicolas, who earns his living by baking breads that satisfy his customers’ tastes, it must be an exhausting and monotonous task.

We didn’t spend the entire morning dwelling on Nicolas’ gloomy future, however. At some point the conversation turned, inevitably, to the difference between America and France- or more specifically, the difference between American and French bread. Nicolas was curious to learn about bread from the perspective of an American- What does American bread taste like? Do I prefer French bread over American bread?

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Le viennois (Viennese bread)

When I assured him that French bread is much tastier than American bread- which, save for bread made by artisanal bakeries, is packaged and bland- it seemed to cheer him up. Even if the art of artisanal bread baking is dying in France, there’s no doubt that the French are extremely proud of their bread (as well as their wine, cheese, language, traditions, etc.). They take pride in the fact that their bread is made of natural ingredients and not spoiled by sweeteners, preservatives, or GMOs. And why shouldn’t they be? They’ve worked hard to preserve the traditional methods of bread baking, and their bread is some of the best in the world, after all.

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On the last day of my internship, I rose extra early to watch Nicolas bake his pastries. When I arrived at the bakery a little after 3 a.m., Nicolas had already shaped the pain aux raisins (raisin bread), brioche, chaussons aux pommes (apple turnovers), and pain aux amandes (almond croissants). The dough for the croissants and pain au chocolat (chocolate bread), he confessed, had been purchased beforehand from another bakery. Nicolas stores the dough in the freezer and bakes it fresh each morning because he can’t afford the time or help to make fresh croissants. But everything else- the baguettes, boules, cakes, brioches, tarts, pizzas, flatbreads, and more- are made by Nicolas at Lou Cigalou.

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Plain and chocolate brioches, fresh out of the oven

As Nicolas prepared the pastries, I took copious notes about rising times, the temperature of the oven, proportions of various ingredients, and more. Later, Nicolas was kind enough to lend me his baking book, complete with the basics of baking, chemical reactions, and his master recipes. I soon came to realize that, like his breadmany of Nicolas’ pastries are variations on the same theme. His brioche, pain aux raisins, and couronne des rois (king’s cake), for example, are all made using brioche dough. Brioche itself comes in many forms- plain, with sugar, or with sugar and chocolate. Leftover croissants are sliced in half, filled with an almond pasteand topped with sliced almonds to make a variation of the almond croissant.

I stayed at the bakery until Nicolas finished baking his pastries. As with his bread, I noticed that he used his senses and experience to judge when the pastries were done. With the emergence of each pastry from the oven came the heavenly and mouth-watering scent of sugar and butter. I wondered if being a baker for a living was really that bad if it entailed smelling freshly baked goods every morning. “It’s the best part of the job,” Nicolas told me with a grin, as if guessing my thoughts.

Before leaving the bakery, I thanked Nicolas for his time and generosity. He smiled and wished me luck on my way out, but not before handing me a bag of freshly baked croissants.

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Lou Cigalou Internship: Part One

On a blustery Tuesday last week, I awoke at 4:30 a.m. to start my first internship at Lou Cigalou Boulangerie in Bédoin.

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When I arrived in town, the streets were dark and deserted. The bakery provided one of the only lights, and the first thing I noticed upon stepping inside was the aroma of freshly baked bread.

Moments later, I was greeted by the baker himself, Monsieur Nicolas Versino. Short, stout, and with a smile that makes one feel immediately at ease, Nicolas is your typical French village baker. He and his wife, Celine, have been running Lou Cigalou for over a decade, and before that Nicolas was the head pastry chef at a bakery in the Alpine town of Chamonix.

After grabbing my notebook, camera, and an apron, I followed the scent of baking bread to a room in the back where Nicolas was prepping the day’s pain ordinaire, or ordinary French bread. The room, which was toasty and warm, featured a commercial oven, walk-in refrigerators, a dough mixer, scales, a loaf shaper, linen cloths, bags of flour, plastic bins, sifters, and many other pieces of equipment.

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I watched as Nicolas cleaned the oven using a long wooden broom and removed a cartload of leavened baguettes from the refrigerator. As he placed each loaf onto a baking sheet, Nicolas explained that the term pain ordinaire includes a wide range of French breads composed of the same basic ingredients: flour, water, yeast, salt, and natural improvers such as rye flour or ascorbic acid. From there, variations in dough consistency, shape, size, rising techniques, and baking time yield nuances in flavour, appearance, and texture. As an example, Nicolas pointed out that a baguette is distinguished by its rounded edges, crisp crust, and light crumb. A ficelle is a skinnier and longer version of a baguette, while a boule is a round loaf that stays fresh longer and is marked by two crossed slashes.

After lining each baking sheet with thirty or more loaves, Nicolas proceeded to inject steam from the oven onto the loaves. Doing so gives the bread its golden crust and helps it to rise in the oven, he told me. As each batch of bread baked, for roughly twenty minutes, Nicolas began preparation on the next batch. He moved with the quick speed and steady precision of a professional, relying not on a timer but rather on years of experience and his senses– sight, smell, and touch– to judge when the bread was ready.

A few times during his routine, Nicolas stepped back to let me try my hand at bread-making. He showed me how to place the loaves onto the baking sheet using a wooden board, to make slanted cuts in the loaves with a razor blade, and to pick up freshly baked loaves by the palms of my hands. I was surprised how difficult it was to do what Nicolas made appear like the simplest of tasks. I struggled to hold the razor blade at the correct angle, burned my fingers numerous times, and moved at a tortoise-like pace. Nicolas was sympathetic, but explained that a baker must always move rapidly to avoid burning his bread.

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Rolling baguettes onto a wooden board
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Learning to slash the dough

Like most village bakers, Nicolas makes his dough one day in advance so that it has time to leaven. For the last two hours of my internship, I mostly observed as Nicolas and his assistant, Jean-Christophe, prepared the following day’s bread. I watched as they mixed a 50 kilo batch of whole-wheat dough in a commercial mixing machine, cut it into uniform pâtons or pieces of dough, and shaped it into loaves to be used the following day. Jean-Christophe showed me how to make a boule by folding the edges of the dough into the center, flipping it over, and rounding it on the table in a circular motion. As before, I had to work much more slowly and deliberately to produce a boule as neat as the baker’s. Finally, I helped to place the shaped loaves onto linen cloths by separating each loaf by a loop of cloth.

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Shaping la pâte (the dough)
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Loaves on a linen cloth

By the end of the morning, my hands, apron, and shoes were dusted with flour. My head was spinning from all the new information, and I found myself yawning more than once. I wondered how someone could do this kind of work day after day and stay sane.

For Nicolas, though, the winter months are the easiest. They’re what he calls, “a moment of calm.” During the winter, the day’s batch is limited to modest quantities of baguettes, country-style bread, whole wheat bread, crown loaves, enriched breads such as brioche, and more. Nicolas begins working at 2 a.m. to make croissants, brioches, pain aux raisins, pain au chocolat, and other pastries. He bakes the previous day’s bread dough around 5 a.m, prepares the dough for the following day, and is more or less finished by sunrise.

Things start to pick up around April with the Easter holidays, and by summer the bakery produces hundreds of loaves of more than 25 varieties to accommodate the tourists that arrive. At the height of the season, Nicolas can work up to 70 hours per week in temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

Needless to say, being a baker is no easy task. Even with use of the commercial mixers, loaf shapers, and other modern equipment, it’s a job that requires a great deal of physical labor, skill, and patience. Not to mention, a passion for doing the same thing over and over again.

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