Welcome to my kitchen

A while ago, I realized I was serious enough about bread baking to stop diddling around with the 3-packs of yeast from the grocery store, or even the small jars for a small fortune. So I pulled up my big girl pants, and ordered "A Pound Of Yeast". It's in my freezer, and I use it regularly, and I guess that makes me "A Baker". Even though I always said "I can't bake". So, join me on my journey, and let's see what that pound of yeast makes, and where we go next....

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Continuing Evolution of The "Baker"

As I think I’ve mentioned before, this whole journey towards becoming “a baker” is a relatively new chapter of my life.  I’ve been cooking for a long time.  A LONG time.  A very LONG time.  Since dirt was young, if you want to know the truth.  But it wasn’t really until about 4 or 5 years ago that I seriously decided to teach myself to bake.  I’d tried before.  When I was young and snot-nosed and cocky.  And I’d failed pretty spectacularly.  Baking wasn’t something I learned at Granny’s (or Mom’s knee).  Granny, unfortunately, had passed by the time I was 6 months old (otherwise, I’m sure I’d have learned how to make paczki….a long, sorry story perhaps I’ll share one day).  Mom was a great cook, but no baker she.  Cakes were from a box, pies from the freezer.  Bread from the MegaMarts or, back in the day, a real, live, Mom&Pop bakery (pause for a small *sniffff* for corner bakeries, of which there are NONE in my ‘hood).  She did bake a mean cookie, but everything else involving flour, ehhhh, not so much.

And so I thought it was hereditary.  My failure to bake, that is.  At some point, though, I dug in my heels (stubborn, moi??? Why ever would you think so???) and said, possibly channeling Scahhhlettt, “as God is my witness, I *WILL* learn to bake”!!

Or something like that.

In the short amount of time I’ve been serious about “baking”, especially yeasted doughs, I am continually amazed by how much BETTER I’ve gotten at the process.  Not that I’m a superstar yet, far from it.  The folks at Poilane (note that there should be one of those cutesy little "^"s above the "a" in Poilane, but it wouldn't take in inserting the link...) in Paris got nothing to worry about from me.  But I have gotten noticeably, appreciably better.  And I have fewer problems handling “difficult” doughs.  Doughs which, 4 or 5 years ago, consistently ate my lunch and caused me to tear out my hair, rend my clothes and cry bitter tears of frustration.

Doughs much like this one.

I can confidently say I’ve got shaping a round boule down pat.  I don’t even really have to think twice about manipulating just about any type dough, even high hydration ones, into that nice, sort of squashed-down round shape.    They rise nicely and hold their shape, the crust is nice and crackly, and I can even slash them fairly attractively.  (Slashing…that remains the gigantor thorn in my side, as you’ll see…)  Batards are close.  Sometimes the ends taper a bit too much, but they’re close.  Small dinner rolls, whether with a crispy crust or a softer one, those are so similar to boules that they’re a breeze too.  Pizza crusts?  Not a problem-o.

Baguettes on the other hand, give me much grief.  MUCH grief.  Especially when the dough is very highly hydrated (a high ratio of water to flour) and therefore very loose and slack.  Which all good baguette dough is.  That’s what gives you the characteristic airy, lacy holes in the crumb that signify a good, artisan baguette.

I’m not even going to try to explain the concept of “baker’s ratios” to you, because I couldn’t.  I barely understand it, because math has never been a strength of mine.  I ended up majoring in communications mainly because I couldn’t do the math to pass the chemistry class I needed for pre-med!  Seriously.  But do a Google search on “baker’s ratio” and you’ll find a bazillion hits that will explain it to you.  It is a pretty essential concept you need to be at least passingly familiar with, if for no other reason than to understand how the ratio of flour to water impacts your finished dough.  For this discussion, coming from me, the math dweeb, suffice it to say that the more water you have in relation to your flour, the “wetter”, more hydrated and “slacker” your dough will be.  And it will be commensurately harder to work with.  A stiff dough handles like a dream.  A wet one, yeah, it can be an ooooze monster.  But again, the wetter the dough, the more open and airy the crumb will be.  Think of baguettes, ciabattas, country loaves, all those lovely, lacy rustic breads.  They’re all made with wet doughs.  Sooner or later, you need to conquer the wet dough.

I first tried this baguette recipe about 3 years ago.  I was still a stone-green novice at bread baking---I probably had 3 or 4 very basic loaves under my belt.  I was still just happy as a clam when my bread rose.  And this is a very wet dough.  Let’s just say, the results were less than stellar.  I think, just for the sake of making my exercise in frustration somewhat worthwhile, I ate one loaf.  The other two I baked, I ditched a couple of days later.  They weren’t even worthy of saving in the freezer for bread crumbs.  The three I par-baked, I moved around in the freezer for about 6 months before I finally got tired of handling them and looking at them, and finally pitched them too.  They weren’t good.  They weren’t even adequate.

So.  I was determined to try these suckers again, and to get it right.  Or at least, better than the first time.  Shall we see what transpired?  Note, as always, when I made the recipe, I cut it in half, so the amounts, volumes, number of loaves shown are less than the full recipe.
Here’s the essential ingredients:

Bread flour, yeast and salt.  You’ll also need water, of course.

Mix 1 pound (3&1/3 cups) bread flour, 2&1/2 teaspoons yeast and 1&1/2 teaspoons salt together in the bowl of your KitchenAid or other, heavy-duty stand mixer, and attach the dough hook.  Weigh out 12 ounces (1&1/2 cups) of lukewarm water (shout-out to our kitchen scales!) and add it to the flour mixture in the bowl.  Mix on medium-low speed for about 1 minute.  Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, and the dough hook if needed.  The dough at this point will be very sticky.  Knead on medium speed, scraping down the bowl and hook as needed, until the dough looks smooth and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  We all know what this looks like now, so no pics.  That should take about 6 to 8 minutes.

Remove the dough from the bowl, using your trusty bowl scraper, to a lightly floured board.  Lightly flour your fingers and the surface of the dough.  Working around the edges of the dough, fold the edges into the middle in about 6-8 folds, pressing the edge you’ve just brought into the center firmly down with your finger tips after each fold.

No, I didn't just dip my hand in boiling water prior to this shot to achieve that lover-ly hot pink hue.  But thanks fer askin' !

You should end up with something that looks like this:

Try to use as little flour as you can, although this dough, because of the high hydration, is a sticky sucker.  Your bench knife will be a life-saver here.

I was absolutely amazed at the transformation that took place in the dough just with the folding.  You’re not really kneading at this point.  Just folding and tucking and pressing the edges in with a tiny bit of rotating the dough mass.  It happened very quickly, and was very dramatic.  It went from being an absolute B*tch to handle to being sort of easy to work with.  Blew my mind.  I don’t think I’d noticed that the first time I made these.  I guess that’s part of the evolution, huh?

Plop the dough into your doubler or a medium bowl.  This one doesn’t get greased.  I might change that the next time I make these….

Cover only with a flat-weave (linen or cotton, NOT terry cloth, don’t ask me how I know, let's just say it's no fun pulling terry cloth fuzzies out of the surface of your bread dough....) towel (no plastic wrap), and set aside in a draft-free spot to roughly double, about 1-2 hours.

Yep, that’s doubled.

While the dough is rising, line a baking sheet with another flat-weave, clean towel (NO terry cloth, trust me).  And look, the baking sheet’s not too skanky this time out.  Seeeee….I *do* have some decent equipment !

Sprinkle the surface of the towel HEAVILY with flour.  And I mean heavily.

Another member of our Indispensable Tools list is a flour shaker like this.  I keep it filled in my fridge at all times.  Good for flouring the board when you’re baking, or also for lightly flouring meat or fish or poultry for a quick sauté.  You can find one at any cookware store, they usually have, as this one does, a plastic cap to cover up the holes.

Lightly flour the board again, and scrape the doubled dough out of the doubler, smooth (top) side down.  Fold one side of the dough into the center and then press down firmly along the seam.

That’s before really sealing the seam.  Then you’re going to fold the opposite side up and seal again.  You want a rough rectangle.

Turn the dough over so the smooth side is up.  Take your trusty bench knife and cut the dough into 6 (or in my case, 3) equal pieces.  They should weigh about 4&3/4 ounces each.

Yes, I did weigh them.  Yes, I did adjust the bulk of each one.

Off to one edge of the board, lay down a fairly heavy “line” of flour that you’ll dredge the baguettes in as you shape them.  Take each lump of dough, and turn it smooth side down, working with one at a time.  Keep the others under a towel.  On a lightly floured part of the board, gently press the dough lump into a rectangle about 1/3-inch thick.  You want to be gentle, so you don’t deflate all those lovely bubbles in the dough.

Fold one of the long edges into the center of the dough rectangle, pressing firmly with your fingertips to seal the seam.  Work from one short edge to the other, folding with one hand and pressing with other, and don’t be afraid to press all the way down to the work surface.  That helps to create tension on the crust.

Then do the same on the other long edge.  Continue to press and fold, alternating sides, until the loaf is about 11 or 12 inches long.  That should take you 5 or 6 sets of folds.  Use your bench knife as needed to free the dough from the work surface, and add flour as needed, but use as little as you can get away with.

When you’ve got one baguette shaped, dredge the top (smooth) side in the “bed” of flour, and place it seam side down (floured side up) on the floured towel.  Make a little fold in the towel to separate it from its relative coming along shortly.

Here’s all three of the ones I made, nicely shaped and ready to rise again.

By the way, for those keeping score, the term for that arrangement of baguettes (or other small, long loaves) on a floured fabric is “couche” or “baker’s couche”.

Cover the baguettes and the couche with yet another flat-weave, clean towel and let sit until again roughly doubled, about 1&1/2 to 2 hours.

As always, if at any point in the folding, pressing and shaping, the dough starts to fight you, walk away from the gluten.  Cover it, give it a time out (I had to, for about 10 minutes, even though I was working alternately on my loaves) and let it relax.  Trust me, you’ll also relax at this point, and be able to cope better with the semi-futzy shaping needed.

Here’s the doubled loaves.

While they're bubbling along and doubling, preheat your oven to 500°.  If you’re making all six loaves (a full recipe) put a rack in the top and bottom thirds of the oven.  If you’re only going to make three, and therefore using only one sheet pan, put a rack on the bottom for a water pan, and one in the center for the bread.  Either on the floor of the oven, or on the bottom rack, put an empty “sacrificial” roasting pan.  Also put a kettle of water on to boil.

Generously sprinkle one (for three loaves) or two (for six) heavy-duty rimmed baking sheets with cornmeal or semolina.

Ewwwwwwwwwww……..ahhhhhhhh, another non-skanky sheet pan.  I was going for broke that day, wasn’t I???

When the baguettes have doubled, carefully (and I mean carefully, and gently) slide your hands under each loaf and transfer them to the baking sheet(s), three per sheet.  Try not to stretch them too much.

I was also completely astounded by how much more smoothly the shaping went this time.  And how much less flour I used.  And how much more easily I was able to move the dough to the corn-mealed baking sheet.  Again, I guess that experience I’ve gained sorta makes a difference.  Who’da thunk?

Now came the only really dicey part I hit.  Slashing the loaves.  I still really, really suck at slashing, and it’s SO important, because that allows the oven spring to do its thing properly.  Not only does it give nice, pretty, photogenic loaves, but it helps with even cooking as well.  Admittedly, my slashing on this batch sucked.  The big moose.

Sucked so badly that I didn’t take a picture of the slashed, unbaked loaves, because I was far, far too embarrassed.  I actually thought that the loaves wouldn’t turn out at all, and this post would never happen….

At any rate, you want to make 4 or 5 slashes on a sharp diagonal, about 1/8 to 1/4-inch deep on the top of each loaf, using whatever you’re preferred “slasher” is (see below).  After they’ve been slashed (or mangled in my case), open the oven quickly and put the sheet pan(s) with the bread onto the racks.  You can either spritz some water onto the sides and bottom of the oven (DON’T splash it on the glass in the oven door….), or what I prefer, take that boiling water and pour it into that hot, sacrificial roasting pan.  Quickly close the door to trap the steam.  Reduce the oven temperature to 475°, and bake for 6 minutes, then quickly turn them over on the pans, and swap the baking sheets position in the oven, if you have two pans of bread.  Bake for another 5 minutes.

Remove the pans from the oven, take the baguettes off, and place directly, scored side up, on the oven racks.  (If you want to par-bake some or all of the loaves, don’t return them to the oven.  Let them cool, wrap securely and freeze for up to one month.  When you’re ready to eat them, put them into a preheated 450° oven for about 10 minutes, or until dark golden brown.  No need to thaw.)  For immediate serving, bake the bread until dark golden brown, about another 5 minutes.  Transfer to a rack to cool.

Regarding the slashing issue, I’ve tried slashing with every sharp object I can lay my hands on.  I’ve tried a bread knife (actually that probably gives me the best success).  I’ve tried a thin, extremely sharp knife (one that caused me six stitches in my left thumb, so I *know* it’s sharp….).  It may cut my flesh, but it don’t cut bread dough so well.  I’ve tried a single-edge razor blade, and end up tearing the dough with the corner.  I’ve tried an Exacto knife (same problem as the razor).  I’ve tried scissors.  They were a total fail.  I even bought one of these guys…

That’s called a lame.  I got it from King Arthur Flour.  There’s a video on their site showing one of their baker’s using it.  HE does great.  Me…I’m lame (I slay me…).  I think I just need more practice, like everything else involved with baking.

That said, the loaves DID come out pretty well, the top two having much "sexier" slashes than that poor bottom one....

And I was certainly happy with the crumb.  And a plus for sure about the recipe is you can make good, tasty bread in about 6 hours!  And most of that time is just the yeast doing its thing, so YOU’RE not needing to do anything to it.

This was a much, much more successful outing than the first time I tried these.  Next time though, I’d make 2 larger loaves instead of the 3 smaller ones.  And I’d let them bake a skosh longer…they were a bit pale for my taste.

All in all, though, I’m pretty damn proud of myself.  They actually sort of even *looked* like baguettes !

Here’s the proportions of the ingredients again (for six, 10-12 inch baguettes):

1 pound (3&1/3 cups) bread flour, plus more for dusting and shaping
2&1/2 teaspoons active dry (or instant) yeast
1&1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt (or table salt)
12 ounces (1&1/2 cups) lukewarm water
Semolina or cornmeal for the baking sheets

If it's bread (or made with yeast), the cool place to be is Yeastspotting !


  1. We are having a Baguette Challenge in July, I invite you to post this entry there. You will find it at the Sourdough Forum: http://www.teresal.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=general

    You already have a jumpstart on the rest of us!

  2. Teresa, I absolutely will, thanks for the invitation ! Your site looks great, I need to spend some time there thoroughly checking it out. Lots of good information there, I think.

    Thanks for stopping by !