Saturday, January 30, 2010

Steam: Part II

Within 30 minutes of posting Steam: Part I, it was pointed out to me by a distant relative (my son, but he lives 3,000 miles away) that I have a social responsibility to mention that in my zeal to create steam in my own kitchen, I had destroyed not one but two ovens (three, if you count that I destroyed the second oven twice).

550 degree steam and electronic controls don't mix. I totally fried the electronics panel of oven #1 and was forced to move to oven #2 where I managed to produce a small explosion.*

BTW, it's my opinion that the main reason for electronics in ovens is to guarantee built-in obsolescence. My mom has an oven built in the 1950s that's still going strong. A bi-metal strip for a thermostat, heater coils, that's all you need, but if manufacturers still built ovens like that, they'd never sell any new ones.

*From the shameless promotion department...if you want to hear the full story of my exploding ovens, my argument with the appliance repair man, and what not to tell your spouse when you bake...the full story is revealed in excruciating detail in 52 Loaves: One Man's Determined Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust

Friday, January 29, 2010

Steam: Part I

Much has been written about home bakers' favorite ways to generate steam, which is essential to good bread making. Here are some methods that some well-known bakers have used:

Julia Child tried for a while dropping a hot metal ax head into a pan of cold water. (You can just picture Julia, wearing a welder’s helmet and asbestos gloves, holding a pair of tongs with a red-hot, glowing ax-head at the other end.)

Mark Bittman reports "filling a pot with stones and preheating it, then pouring boiling water over the stones to create a wet sauna (quite effective but dangerous).”

You have a more dangerous (or interesting) method? I'd like to hear about it, but you'll have to go to some lengths to top a red hot ax head. Me, I'm pouring about a cup of water in to a cast iron skillet I just leave in the oven all the time. Works great, but forget about ever using it for omelets again.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Perfect Baguettes at Home

Dan Leader suggests in his latest book that the secret to one of the most celebrated baguettes in Paris might be a touch of corn flour. This week I substituted 40 grams* of corn flour (note: corn flour, not corn meal) for all-purpose flour in my Baguettes à l'Anciennce, and I like the results. The dough felt gritty as I started kneading, but the corn flour did eventually blend in, and seemed to provide a creamier interior.

My recipe uses a starter, or levain, You can easily make your own levain by following the instructions here, but if you absolutely insist on using a straight dough, simply increase the flour and water by 125 grams each, increase the yeast to a teaspoon, and knead for a few minutes longer. The texture won't be quite as airy, and the taste not as rich, but it's far still better than anything you're likely to buy. A recipe (which assumes you have some experience with baking) follows, but if you don't, not to worry: Detailed instructions and photos are included in the full recipe on my website.

*Yes, that says "grams." You'll need a scale (see my previous post) and will need to think like (gasp) a European. Or Asian. Or Samoan Islander. Or a resident of just about any other place on the planet that long ago converted to the easy-to-use metric system while we still struggle with ounces and pounds. But don't get me started...Here's the recipe.

335 g all-purpose flour
40 g corn flour
250 g levain (fed 2 hrs or the night before)
220 g water
¼ teas. instant yeast
10 g salt 

  1. Mix all ingredients and allow dough to rest for 25 min.
  2. Knead by hand on unfloured countertop for about 7 minutes, till dough feels silky and elastic.
  3. Return to bowl, cover with oil-misted plastic wrap, and ferment 4-5 hours
  4. Preheat baking stone in oven to 525 degrees F.
  5. On floured countertop, divide into 4 small balls, then fold and roll each into a baguette
  6. Proof between folds of linen couche or parchment paper for 1 hr
  7. Transfer to a peel or the back of a cookie sheet. Score each loaf with a razor
  8. Slide into oven, add steam by your favorite method, and reduce oven temperature to 475.
  9. Bake for about 25 minutes (start watching at 20) until dark brown, and interior is 205-210 deg.
  10. Cool on rack at least 1 hr before serving.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

52 More Loaves (Lesson 1: Bakers Weigh Everything - even the firewood)

I love bread -- by which I mean real, hearty, peasant bread with a crispy but chewy crust and an airy, aromatic "crumb" (the word used to describes the interior of the loaf, not the stuff you brush off the bedsheets when you're done eating).  Yet such loaves are as rare in my neighborhood as flamingos, so the only way to enjoy great peasant bread was to bake it myself. I've described my year of learning to bake (and learning quite a few other things as well) in the forthcoming book 52 Loaves: One Man's Determined Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust.

With the book completed, am I done baking? Hardly. I'm back for Act II, which might be titled, "52 More Loaves: Baking Everything Else in the World." For after a year of baking peasant bread and only peasant bread, I've moved on, because of a surprising secret I learned along the way: With a minimum of effort and experience, you can bake far better bread, rolls, pizza, and even pastry than you can buy anywhere. For real. So these days I'm baking anything that breathes anaerobically (that is, is leavened with yeast) and sharing experiences and recipes here.

Something else I learned: Bakers weigh everything. In grams. It's the only way to get consistent and accurate results. I visited a wood-fired-bakery in New Jersey whose baker even weighed the firewood! So if you'd like to try some of the recipes I'll be publishing in the coming weeks and months, pick up an inexpensive digital kitchen scale. They range widely in price (the high-end ones add useless features such as calorie estimates), but if you need some guidance, the very reliable (and cheap) one that I use is the Escali. Not only is it under $25, but it holds its reading when you remove the weight from it (instead of going back to zero), a real convenient feature. It's hard to explain, but you'll see it when you use it.



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