Flour, corn meal, salt, and black pepper.
Today was my last day in training as an intern with the Bredi Masters over at Small World. A good day to make one final round of bread, to see what I’ve learned. Let’s make a loaf of sour dough.
“The starter will need to rise for about twelve hours,” says Rachel. “Overnight.”
Crap. So let’s make a loaf of… something else.
“I’ve been wanting to retest the recipe for our farmhouse maize,” says Nathan.
An excellent choice. A hearty bread made with cornmeal, black pepper and pickled garlic scapes. Let’s do it. But looking at the formula sheet, the farmhouse needs an overnight start too.
“It’s just yeast,” says Rachel. We can increase the quantity to do a same-day start. Drop in a little sugar, too, to feed the yeast and give it a boost. “I’d use maple syrup.”
The formula sheet only gives quantities for one loaf or dozens of loaves. We want just “a few”; there’s some number jiggering that needs to happen. And the real question is how much yeast to use.
“More,” says Rachel.
Yeah, I got that. What kind of more are we talking about?
There’s a thoughtful pause. Rachel is focused on the numbers. I’m thinking we should double the total amount but Rachel says, “5 grams instead of 4 grams.”
Done: yeast, water and maple syrup mixed and set aside while the rest of the ingredients are measured out. White flour, corn meal, salt and pepper in one bowl. Oil and water in another. The scapes sit in a little cup of their own.
“This seems like a really wet mixture,” says Rachel, looking at the formula sheet again. Specifically, looking at the percentage of water in comparison to the other ingredients. And again, a thoughtful pause. “Well, it’s easier to add flour than water. Put it all in and see what happens.”
Fifteen minutes later, the yeast mixture has risen into a bubbly dome.
“Oh yeah,” says Rachel when I show her. “That’s sponging up nice.”
All the ingredients go into the small mixer and the kneeding begins. Dry ingredients, the yeast, the liquids, the scapes.
And after a good mixing, it looks like bad, dry dirt. Chunky, dusty
“You should add more water,” says Rachel, passing by.
Yeah, I got that.
“This is why I wanted to test the recipe,” says Nathan.
“I told you our flour is really thirsty stuff,” says Rachel to both of us.
Adding more water means keeping track of exactly how much the more is. So I weigh out an additional bowl of water, keep adding a little until the dough turns to the right consistency. Then it’s a matter of backwards math by measuring the remaining water in the bowl.
Kneeding by hand goes well. The dough window-panes very nicely.
“You got a tear there,” says Rachel, pointing to spot on the ball of dough. The gluten strands are clearly stressed. “Let it sit and rest for half and hour.”
Which just means flipping the mixing bowl on top and walking away.
Thirty minutes later, the dough looks better; the tear has healed. I gently fold the dough on itself a few times. It goes back in the mixing bowl and is covered for the rise. Which takes two uneventful hours. Shaping the dough and proofing the loaves go smoothly as well. Even scoring goes quick and looks slick.
But then it’s time to put the loaves in the oven.
We use the smaller conventional oven when it’s only three trial loaves like this. And the regular baking trays don’t fit in. Which I discover as I’m ready to put the bread in. After quickly sizing up the different pans in our kitchen menagerie, the best solution is just to throw the sil-pads straight on the racks and bake.
325° F for thirty minutes, right?
Nathan stops working on his laptop, looks over the screen at me; he responds with calm patience and subtle guidance. “You know, if everything was right and good in the universe, people would start their bread at 400° F for the first ten minutes and then take it down to 300° F for the rest of the bake.”
Thank you, Master. This padawan appreciates the reminder.
Loaves, ready to go in.
In goes the bread, stepping through the temperatures and times as suggested. Less than half an hour later, the timer beeps as a reminder to take it back out. But the internal temperature of the bread itself will have final say on whether or not it’s done.
The thermometer has been stuck on Celsius for about a month. Our solution has been a little mental math and a lot of googling the conversion. But we should be able to get this cheap Chinese-made widget to do what we want it to. I mean, there’s only two buttons on the thing, and one’s for turning it on and off. How hard could it be?
Apparently hard enough keep us using math tricks and the interweb for a month. But the immediate pressure of my last loaves rapidly cooling on the counter are what gets us over the hump. I figure out the correct sequence of button pushing and stick the probe in a loaf.
195° F, on the low end of the ideal temperature range, but I’ll take it. The crust of the bread is looking perfectly golden. Not really feeling the need to push it to burn for the sake of five more degrees.
After cooling on the rack for a bit, the loaves are ready to test. To eat.
“Let’s do it.” Nathan jumps up from his computer, mid keystroke.
The farmhouse maize slices well. It’s hearty and thick. You can taste the cornmeal and pepper and scapes. Excellent.
“It’s got great consistency. It held together really well,” says Nathan. Which was the problem with previous runs of this bread: the dough just didn’t hold its shape when formed or baked. Nathan grabs a third slice and heads back to his computer.
As great as these loaves turned out, this bread shows the same odd feature that’s shown up in every loaf I’ve baked so far: when sliced, the texture and cells at the very bottom are flat. They’re not robust and fluffy like the rest of the rest of the loaf.
This padawan still has some work to do.
“So what have you learned about bread in your time here?” asks Rachel as we each clean up from our projects for the day.
Baking bread is never a mindless routine. And it never should be mindless, not if you want to get something more than just a Participation Award. As humans, we’re fans of certainty; we’ve evolved to minimize chaos through routine and formula. But bread is never certain: the flour, the water, the temperature, any number of a dozen factors can deflect the results from what you’re aiming for. Standardization makes things efficient but it can undermine effectiveness; it can be a crutch that weakens instead of making us stronger.
Bread – and food – should always be a thoughtful endeavor. No matter how much you think you’ve learned.
May the Loaf be with you.