For those who missed it when it came out in the premier issue of Afar, the magazine has now posted my article on baking baguettes with the winner of the Grand Prix de la Baguette de la Ville de Paris. (This then led to a baguette competition back home and my winning recipe -- which can be demanding). Here's how the article, Time to Rise, opens:
In Paris, the 9th arrondissement is popular, hip even, dotted with wine shops, boutiques, and boulangeries, but still has the close-knit feel of a residential neighborhood. The streets are lined with old apartment buildings that seem to lean onto the sidewalks. Inside intimate bistros on these quiet, narrow lanes, maître d’s chat with locals as they arrive. One Sunday afternoon last winter, when I visited, the streets were crowded with couples and families out for a leisurely stroll. By 3 a.m. the next day, however, Rue des Martyrs, a main artery in the district, was empty, the stores dark except for a slit of light coming out of the side entrance of the Boulangerie Arnaud Delmontel. Everyone was still asleep. Everyone, that is, except for the bakers—whose ranks I was about to join.
Over the centuries, how many bakers have walked Paris’s dark avenues at night, heading to the fournils—baking rooms—to provide the city’s daily bread? In the 18th and 19th centuries, les geindres (the groaners) began before midnight, each laboring over hundreds of pounds of dough that they kneaded by hand and baked in basement wood-fired ovens. The poorest slept by the hearth, inhaling flour and often suffering from tuberculosis. Yet many did their jobs superbly, faithful to the demanding task of coaxing bread out of levain, or sourdough—a process that took days. As I walked toward the bakery that morning, I felt as if I were following in the footsteps of ghosts.... (read the rest)
There were bags of whole oats, spelt, a red winter wheat and a beautiful white wheat, some heritage corn, toasted green spelt, known as frikeh, used in savory dishes from the Middle East (great post on it here by Anissa Helou), and then the ancient grain closely associated with the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, emmer wheat.
Now emmer is genetically distinct from bread wheat and was the ancient forerunner of durum, used to make pasta and semolina flour. It's more commonly called farro and makes a wonderful risotto, as do many whole grains.
The grains sat around in a big mason jar for awhile, a bit intimidating, since I had to grind it, but then I went to work with a stone mill I recently bought. I made a simple flat bread, using this recipe (I mean, it can hardly be called a recipe since it is simply flour, oil, water and salt) and then a method where you cook it on a cast iron griddle (about 30 seconds a side), then put it directly, and I mean directly, on the flame. Wheat may puff up into a ball when you do so, but emmer is weaker in terms of its gluten structure, so it only puffed up in places. Now charring here and there, because you keep turning and flipping it on the flame, I spread a bit of butter over it -- and that was lunch with somes beans and salad.
Then, inspired by the work of another baker over at the blog Stir the Pots, I tried making the bread. (His emmer came from Cayuga Pure Organics but is probably the same as mine). This was a difficult enterprise for the dough lacked what bakers call "tolerance," which is a very different concept from the even-handed and thoughtful qualities we associate with the word. For bakers, tolerance means the ability of the dough to rise and hold its shape, which in turn reflects the quality of gluten proteins in the flour. When gluten is weak, the acids in sourdough sometimes help the loaf to strengthen and hold its shape, but no such luck this time. The dough, which was also too moist (frankly, I was winging it), kept spreading out. Not wanting to make another flat bread, I instead loosely shaped the dough and plopped it in a loaf pan. The second piece of dough was even less amenable to shaping, so I simply mixed in an equal amount of white flour and water, so that I had a dough that was half emmer, half white. That worked out and resulted in the loaf pictured above.
Though the 100% emmer loaf (not pictured) was a bit tight in the crumb, it was also quite soft. Both loaves also had a remarkable taste, which as I thought about it, reminded me of smoldering oak bark, or roasting acorns, but without the bitter overtones you sometimes find in whole wheat. The flavor stuck on the tongue long after I had eaten the bread and was also much more pronounced than in the flat bread I made, which I'd attribute to the emmer sourdough leaven I used. The lactobacillus culture brought out the flavor of the grain, which was delicious. No wonder if was so popular 10,000 years ago.
I spent a wonderful couple of days last May with Mike Zakowski, a baker in Sonoma who graciously took me into his backyard bakery where he was making loaves. I was curious about him, because he worked entirely by hand and was also in training to compete in the world cup of baking. These seemed like polar opposite pursuits.
The world of baking seems to attract free spirits, but Mike Zakowski—who calls himself The Bejkr—stands out even among them. Few bakers, even the most committed artisans, mix their dough by hand, because of the demands of production. Nor do they work in a converted shipping container plopped in their backyard. Nor do they often bake with a wood fire, because the heat and oven can be as fickle to master as the bread itself. Zakowski does all of this. And then he drives to the farmers’ market in Sonoma, smoke billowing out of an oven hitched on the back of his vintage delivery truck with bright green hub caps.
If I left the image there—stellar artisan baker in California wine country, selling loaves that feature local ingredients, ancient grains, organic flours and hemp seeds—you would nod. You would get it. But it’s not the whole story, because Zakowski has been attempting another feat: representing the United States in Paris next week at the world cup of baking – the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie. In short, the Bejkr is also an Olympian.
Sourdough is basically fermented flour and water, fed with more flour and water on a regular schedule. I came cross this video which explains the process.
At this time of year, make sure your water is warm, around 80-85 F (26-29 C), and it will kickstart the process.
Another trick: rise the starter in a microwave oven or other enclosed space and place a cup of just-boiled water inside. Don't turn on the microwave: you just want to create a "proofing box" (enclosed space) that keeps the starter warm.
You can also use whole wheat flour in place of the rye, or all rye or all whole wheat, or spike the starter with a tablespoon of honey. I've tried any number of methods. But whole grain flours tend to be much more active (which is why they're used), so keep an eye on the stuff every 12 hours or so. Another general rule: the warmer it is, the faster it ferments, unless it's so hot that the natural yeast and bacteria are killed. If the water feels warm to the touch, it should be fine.
To bread I do not ask to teach me but only not to lack during every day of life. I don’t know anything about light, from where it comes nor where it goes, I only want the light to light up, I do not ask to the night explanations, I wait for it and it envelops me, And so you, bread and light And shadow are.
I've been reading a lot of bread books lately -- a lot -- and each year brings more. What follows is a brief list of books that would help any aspiring baker as well as a couple of other cookbooks that have caught my eye.
Inside the Jewish Bakery, Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg
For anyone interested in classic Jewish American baking, this book shouldn't be missed. It has all the recipes you'd want, but what makes the book stand out are the essays about Jewish baking. Who knew, for instance, that marble rye may have evolved out of an Eastern European practice of adding light rye flour to dark loaves in an attempt to make them look less impoverished? Plus, everyone has a challah recipe, but this book has a whole chapter of them -- and nearly 15 pages of pictures on braiding, including the "eight-dollar challah" (a five-strand braid topped by a four-strand topped by a three-strand). Now that's a challah!
The Italian Baker Revisted, by Carol Field
When this book first appeared in 1985, it caused quite a stir. In fact, many professional bakers refer to it as inspiration, including Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery and Kathleen Webber of Della Fattoria. This revised edition is still chock-full of recipes, including standards such as ciabatta, but she also has unusual ones such as segale con pancetta (rye with pancetta) or pane di altamura, a famous bread from the south made with durum flour. Enriched doughs such as colomba pasquale, a panettone type bread for Easter studded with almonds and candied orange peel, are intriguing. More advanced bakers might be frustrated that Field hasn't included a true biga naturale (sourdough), instead relying on one kick-started with yeast. But in recipes that call for it, you can easily substitute your own natural leaven.
The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Bread Baking, the French Culinary Institute
This is kind of baking 101 in a well-designed, gorgeously photograhed volume. It reads a bit like a textbook, but that's okay, because you'll find the classic preparations of classic breads. As a bonus, it includes a number of recipes from Didier Rosada, the unsung force behind a lot of artisan bread baking in this country. On my list to try, his buckwheat apple walnut bread.
Ruhlman's Twenty, By Michael Ruhlman
OK, you've got a dog-eared copy of Bittman's How to Cook Everything, just like me -- now it's time to graduate. Michael Ruhlman has done a lot to make culinary school techniques accessible to the home cook and he does so again in this clever volume focused on 20 key techniques. Some of them are less obvious (with chapters including "Think" or "Salt" or "Water") but he elaborates on his point in the recipes. Many are the culinary standards that might have faded, such as "simple butter sauce," but then there are standbys that every omnivore needs, such as "perfect roast chicken." His argument here -- truss the bird to prevent hot air from drying out the breast meat. Point taken.
All About Roasting, by Molly Stevens
Do we need a book about roasting, especially when Ruhlman has given you the perfect chicken? I was skeptical until I started reading this book, admitting and accepting that I've overcooked or flubbed one too many roasts. Now the reason for this is that I hardy every roast, because it's the sort of thing you do a couple of times a year, usually around the holidays. In this book, Stevens dissects the technique and offers up recipes for all cuts of meat cooked at various temperatures. For the ambitious, I recommend the oven-roasted porchetta, made with a rolled pork loin and pork belly. Needless to say, this book will be put to use this holiday season.
Maybe you've got that favorite artisan bread loaf you're making for Thanksgiving but are a bit concerned about what it will look like. You've shaped bread before but it hasn't turned out quite right. And this is Thanksgiving. You want it to look good.
So what to do? This is a difficult problem, because shaping is one of the most demanding skills of a baker. It takes a lot of reptition to get it right. You have to learn the feel of the dough, how to stretch the outside skin of the loaf taught, without compressing the interior and destroying the bubbles inside. You also need to tighten the skin without ripping it, which will disfigure the crust.
Every bread book seems to have a slightly different method, which is not surprising. Every baker I've worked with has shaped loaves somewhat differently. There is no universal technique. Many work well.
So give it a shot. While I strongly advise against making baguettes for the first time for your Thanksgiving dinner, a simple sourdough boule would be a good goal. Mix the dough Wednesday evening, and let it rise a bit before putting it in the refrigerator overnight. I would then shape the dough around 7 in the morning and bake the loaf around 9. It will be done in 45 minutes or so, depending on the size of the loaf -- ample time for your turkey to get in the oven. (Another way to go is to use the no-knead recipe, but that dough is generally too slack for the shaping methods shown in this video). You can also find a lot of recipes that home bakers have tried at The Fresh Loaf.
As for me, I'm making several breads for Thanksgiving: a rye loaf, a wheat/rye bread and the Norwich sourdough I've linked to above (a fantastic loaf if you've got sourdough starter on hand).
At times, graphs can tell a story better than words, so here's a visual story of our changing agricultural landscape. Corn and soybeans are largely fed to animals, though the crops are also processed into sweeteners, oils, ethanol, even ink. Wheat goes directly to human food, except for the healthy stuff like bran which is sifted off and fed to animals.