So much to love about bread
My recent bread revelations
In keeping with my ‘one class a year’ motto (taking, not teaching), I spent a week at the Cordon Bleu in Ottawa baking bread. More affordable than a NYC French Culinary Institute class like I did last year (Hydrocolloids), I was just happy to get out of my kitchen and resource with some learning. And I love bread. I’ve dabbled in making it throughout my career, but never took the time to really connect with my inner baker. I figured this would be a good refresher if nothing else. Not to mention that François also promised to build me an old style stone wood oven if I were to turn out impressive bread on a regular basis. I won’t hold my breath for that, given his tendency towards dreaming and lofty, well intentioned, but unfinished projects.
No matter, my bread class proved to be more than just stimulating – I came home fired up. I’ve been making bread non-stop; cooking seems to be getting in the way these days. I need to veer back to cooking (my job!) as my priority, but it is obvious that this will be vastly more useful than last year’s high tech class. And François is only relieved to see I didn’t return with requests for expensive equipment like circulators and nitrogen canisters; all I need now is time and flour. We already have the best flour – organic, unbleached bread flour from Le Moulin Bleu next door. Great flour I must say, although it changes everything recipe-wise, needing more water for one - two essentials among the many variables in bread making. Which brings me to my bread revelations, or just a slice..
- First of all - as a chef, there is no good excuse to not bake your own bread.
I’ve made a certain amount of bread over the years catering and in restaurants for daily specials. When I was at L’Eau à la Bouche, we made our bread daily, which made me proud. I value good bread but figured it should for the large part be left to the professionals, especially in a scenario like mine. Given my little kitchen at Les Jardins Sauvages - no pastry chef, a bare bones brigade, one stove, a lack of space, an irregular service schedule, not enough hours in a day etc., I thought I had all the excuses for it not to be feasible. Wrong!
Like with everything, it’s about will power and organization. There are so many kinds of doughs, some you can work a day(s) in advance or not at all. There are as many ways to make bread as there are cooks and ovens. Bread is alive, and therefore finicky, but also very forgiving. It’s all about ‘getting it’, feeling it and thinking on your feet - planning, judging and adjusting.
Bread is the epitome of science meeting art, like all cooking (and wine making) is. One of my favourite quotes is thanks to a wine marketing tug: ‘Perfection is achieved when science and art come together, and mother nature agrees.’
Which is why I dig bread (wine too). The variables, the process, engaging all your faculties. Besides the fact that there is nothing as delicious and inviting as a loaf of freshly baked bread. The aroma! The pure sensuality of the physical process of mixing, kneading, and shaping, baking and smelling..
After bread boot camp, I came home covered in flour, with aching muscles (we made all by hand – crazy!), and almost wheat weary. My hotel room was a joke, with loaves covering every shelf and surface; the ‘do not disturb’ sign was in order or they might have thought I was running a catering operation out of my hotel room. I drove home with a car trunk full of bread (honestly). But no, like with duck, I don’t think I could actually get sick of bread. Although I might not feel like eating it for an hour or two at a time, I will certainly not tire of making it. However, after working so much bloody dough by hand, I am overjoyed to be reacquainted with my Hobart. I’m all into making bread by hand at home, but at the restaurant, forget about it – impossible!
Some key things I learnt:
- All my bread baking life, I have probably been adding too much flour. Some (many) doughs are supposed to be wet. Better to hold back and add more when shaping. Again, I am thankful for my Hobart for the kneading of wet doughs, because repeatedly slapping slippery, elastic batter on the counter as it flies out of control makes for quite an exhausting mess.
- All doughs are improved by a first step of hydrating a portion of the flour with the water in an autolyse and/or with the yeast in a yeast paste.
- Salt is crucial, not only for taste, but to control fermentation, and so needs to be considered carefully in the recipe ratios, and added later.
- To think ahead – Preferments, poolish or levains (even old dough) are key to a complex loaf. Like once you graduate from dep wine, it’s hard to go back. I need to be better at feeding my levain than at watering plants.
- Plan ahead again; low and slow fermentation is best. With fresh yeast, you can keep everything cold until proofing.
- Keep an eye on bakers ratios and hydration rates to know what to look for, but feel is what it comes down to. Forget about recipes.
- Shaping is ultra important. Density. Tight rolls, secure seams.
- There is a time to be gentle and a time to be rough, depending on the dough. Given my small stature, I thought I couldn’t be brutal enough with dough, which is why I knead with two hands, but apparently I can overdo it. Vigorous kneading is good with lean dough, but no ripping of the dough ever. I learnt some effective, gentle techniques that I could only show (slap, fold, roll), but I don’t do videos..
- Looks are deceptive, and tapping for that hollow sound isn’t enough. A thermometer at 184F is better. After that, it’s about color.
- Know your oven. You don’t need as hot an oven as I thought (410- 430F is all), and convection isn’t optimal (dries out the bread), but obviously, you need to be sure that you know the temperature of your oven to be in control.
- And there are many tricks to pump up the heat (stone, nuts and bolts, steam).
- Any added ingredients need to be cut into the dough at the last minute before shaping (after the first rise).
- Turkey is the country that per capita consumes the most bread.
And I will continue learning about bread as I undertake all my own bread making, certainly sharing breakthroughs (and hiccups) here from time to time. I am working on perfecting my own master recipes given our needs, my schedule, my oven space and equipment..
I might not carry on my four kinds of bread a day thing, but I will certainly be playing around, featuring different ones on the menu weekly, while focusing on a couple of tried and true varieties punched up with wild stuff as regular offerings. If I can keep up, we will even sell those at the market..
I have the wild herb fougasse down; I think I have my dough for the mushroom bread; I still need to work on my baguette. I have turned out the type of tasty structured dough I want, I just need to tailor it to a suitable schedule so I don’t have to get up at 5am, so I’m thinking I’ll slow down the fermentation, and/or add a flour/kneading step. I also made a cattail flour-curry soft bread that is a keeper to serve at La Table. The sweet dough we did in our class is the one barely modified recipe I brought home as a staple, to be used on occasion at the restaurant, for donuts or for the occasional cinnamon bun to make my man happy.
This budding bread savvy has given me one more tool in my kitchen arsenal, a supplementary source of inspiration, as well as one more way to a man’s heart! Yeehoo.