2010-03-14: Breaking Bread
In which I attempt to overcome my mental hurdle with making my own bread.
Muffins, I can do. Scones, (American) biscuits, sure. The odd banana bread loaf, no problem. But one of my favourite things is a really nice, dense, crusty yeast bread, and this I have never even come close to mastering.
A while ago I got a bread machine through an employee incentive program at work (how often does employee of the month get you a bread machine?). At that point I thought, here we go: foolproof bread. I just put the ingredients in the machine and it does all the hard work! No longer would I have to peek into a towel covered bowl in the warmest place I could find in the kitchen and try and guess if my dough really had doubled in size. Is 1.5 times close enough, or does it really have to be doubled? And if I accidentally kinda cook the dough in the oven because there was no warm spot in the kitchen and I made the oven too hot, is there any way to salvage it? All these questions would now become obsolete with my new high-tech, shiny, dough-kneading, perfect temperature bread machine.
Except you still have to get the measurements right, and if the dough is too wet or too dry you still get BREAD FAIL.
I did make some OK loaves of bread in the machine, some I even enjoyed pretty well. But none of them were quite as nice tasting or as pretty to look at as a beatifully shaped sourdough loaf from the bakery.
So I was Googling around for random stuff as I am wont to do at work when I am waiting for some progress bar to go from 99% to 100% (always the longest period of time in any progress bar), and I found something that I hoped would help me crack the bread code.
I've had Brasserie Bread loaves before; I'm always on the lookout to try breads that don't have preservatives and other random useless ingredients in them. I didn't know much about the bakery itself, though, or realise that the offered a very popular Artisan Baking course. I had to book myself in waaay in advance, but I figure that was a pretty good recommendation, and in the end it was definitely worth the cost and effort.
Even though I had worked out which bus to take from work and tried to plan out my trip ahead of time, I ended up taking a taxi to Banksmeadow. The location doesn't really recommend itself if you don't have a car at your disposal. I got there early, though, and promptly locked the keys in the bathroom when I changed out of my work clothes (way to go, AJ, awesome first impression you made on the instructor).
Pretty soon the other 9 participants in the class arrived and we got down to the business of learning about sourdough starter cultures, dough shaping, and other cool hands-on stuff that nobody had ever really walked me through before. A lot of the theory was stuff I already understood, but when it came down to actually executing those steps, it was good to have someone watch you & let you know if you were doing it wrong and how to correct it.
There were also a couple of nice bonuses: a tour of the bakery and its operations, and a taste test of a bunch of different breads the bakery makes with wine & cheese.
We started off with some basic ingredients for our own sourdough bread: starter, flour, malt, water, and salt (the simpler the ingredients, the better the bread IMHO). After mixing and some kneading techniques, we were given some pre-made dough to practice shaping the bread into traditional loaves: batards, boules (dinner roll sized), braids, and baguettes. While we let our loaves rest before baking, we had a wander around the bakery (people still hard at work packaging up bread for the morning deliveries and finishing off pastries... drool...). After everything went into the ovens, we had the taste test (I did not eat dinner, I just had bread and goats cheese which were so filling and tasty I was fully satisfied).
Then we had the moment of truth— seeing all of our shaped loaves come out of the oven and look like "real" bread! I think most people in the class were pretty impressed with the results, even though we had pre-mixed dough and industrial ovens helping insure the perfection of our bread. The sourdough we made from scratch came home with us to ferment overnight and be baked at home, a combined final exam and homework.
I had so much bread, I took one loaf and some small rolls into work, which were promtply devoured. And my final exam results? I'd say I got a solid C+.
My homework loaf was not pretty, and it didn't form a proper crust. I blame this on insufficient oven temperature. I probably didn't pre-heat the oven for long enough, and the thermostat on my ancient gas oven is definitively broken, and I have never bothered to work out what temperature the oven actually gets to.
But it passed, most importantly, because despite the crust and the blobby shape, it tasted exactly right. It was some of the nicest tasting sourdough I've ever eaten, and it's already gone.
I have definite plans to further investigate making my own starter.