Baking at King Arthur Flour, Part 1: The things I learned in baking school

A scraper is your best friend, especially if you have two

First, we bakers need a white, plastic scraper with King Arthur Flour’s logo embossed on the surface. It’s light and flexible, a strong yet perfectly calibrated plastic that bends in the grip while its curved edge scrapes clean each bowl of messy dough we mix. We find it tucked inside our red recipe folders, compliments of KAF. My bench partner leans over and whispers, “Complimentary now, huh? I think I stole one before. Can’t bake without it.”

Instructor Geoffrey intones, “Dough is always sticky” and demos a clean scrape, lifting a mass of Multigrain with Biga dough in big chunks to the bench (a.k.a. our working surface). Once this dough hits the wooden bench it does exactly as expected. It sticks.

Enter scraper number two. It’s a big piece of stainless steel with a wooden handle and a straight, six-inch edge, sharp and strong enough to cut bulk mounds of dough in clean strokes or measure rolled-out rectangles of dough to the required specs. Better still, it cleans off that ever-present mixture of flour and water that accumulates on our wooden benches incessantly.  Wet dough leaves scat. We bakers obsessively scrape it away (following the wood’s grain if your bench partner suggests). If time permits, we use it to scrape clean our white plastic scraper, too.

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A docker has nothing to do with boats
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A mysterious tool is on display at the front of the classroom. We are watching Geoffrey demonstrate “Caraway Rye Crisps”. It’s our first baking venture on Day One of the KAF course and Geoffrey doesn’t touch the docker, leaving me curious. I drag this massive white roller flecked with nails across a sheet of freshly rolled-out cracker dough. Instantly, this torture device tears my carefully rolled out dough into shreds.  I opt to make lavash and use a fork to finish the work

Dough has muscle.

According to Jen, our Day Four instructor, dough muscle can vary in strength from loosey-goosey to weightlifter tight.  Day Four happened to be Halloween and Jen is dramatically dressed as a pre-Industrial baker in a floor length dress and apron, her long hair wrapped beneath a layered scarf. Jen points to her clenched fist and dabs the pad below her thumb.

“That’s firm,” she says authoritatively.

“But this,” she says pointing to her flabby underarm muscle that’s impossible to see under the billowing waves of her costume’s fabric, “is absolutely not!”

Geoffrey’s approach to dough muscle did not include his or anybody else’s body parts.

Pushing a bowl full of dough towards us, he says “touch it, feel it.”  After another mix, he beckons again “touch it, feel it.” He chants these four words like a mantra all through the course.

“Touch it, feel it,” after a proof. “Touch it, feel it,” after a pre-shape.  We dip thumbs and forefingers into every mass of gunky dough he offers, pulling messy strands, pinching and prodding, disgusted by the gummy residue that clings like glue to our nails and knuckles.

“Dry, never water-wash your gooey hands,” instructs Geoffrey as he dunks his fingers into a nearby bin of flour, a cloud of flour lifting up. He pulls them out slowly, and methodically rubs off all the gnarly bits into a waste-bin below. He waves his dry, but still visibly floury and crusty hands in our direction and chuckles.

“That’s a bakers’ patina.”

Baker's Patina

Dough texture – and dough muscle – changes all baking day long.  Once fermented or proofed, we poke it again to test strength. Geoffrey calls this “the doorbell ring.” Depending on the bread type, we see that poke spring right back up, leave a deep indent, or something in between.

A baker’s touch is as vital as a tasting spoon, worth every sticky, messy, floury imprint it makes on our minds.

Scale it and tare it.

Baking relies on precision. Flour measured by volume (with measuring spoons or cups) is not recommended. Our individual baking stations are each supplied with a big black scale. Geoffrey says he prefers metric since “the math is easier and grams are more precise.” Bakers are constantly making computations, whether it is tripling a recipe or cutting an industrial mix into one-fortieth of its original size. Those 16 Imperial ounces in a pound just add confusion to the tally.

We start every recipe by measuring out all our ingredients on the scale.KAF Day Four

“The tare button is our best friend,” instructs Geoffrey. “Or it can be the opposite.” As soon as we put an empty mixing bowl on the scale, we tare and the screen returns to zero. We spoon in all-purpose flour and tare. We add rye and tare. We rely on the tare button to refresh the screen and weigh each ingredient separately, but if you inadvertently tare mid-stream, or worse still, your scale times out and goes blank, you can find yourself looking at a huge bowlful of  ingredients containing, God forbid, an unmeasured ingredient that can ruin the whole lot.

Scaling liquids is also tricky. The numbers on a scale just can’t keep up with a fast pour. Better to measure liquids separately and slowly. Scaling gooey blobs of honey or molasses is terminally slow and messy. Handy trick? Use an oiled spoon and honey or molasses slides off effortlessly. Worse still, tiny morsels of instant yeast (living time bombs, in the world of leavening) are so light and airy our scales can’t discern their 1 gram increments. As a result, we bakers sometimes have to ditch science and use our senses instead. It’s that combination of these two forces – one scientific and the other learned by the senses—that creates the mighty and delicious alchemy of baking.

(To be continued, next week)

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Rye Lavash with Maldon Salt, Chili Flakes and Rosemary

Adapted from “Caraway Rye Crisps” this recipe highlights rye’s awesome flavour and is a no-brainer, requiring next to no kneading nor any yeast.  Go ahead and cut these into fussy rectangles for traditional crackers but I prefer baking this out in two large sheets and dubbing it lavash.  Once cooled,  break into long, random sticks and serve alongside dips, paté or cheese.

114g unbleached, all-purpose flour

114g  whole rye flour (we used KAF Pumpernickel)

1 tsp baking powder

¾ tsp salt

25g diced, cold unsalted butter

118g water

20g dark molasses

Maldon salt

Chili Flakes

Dried Rosemary

Preheat oven to 400 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine all purpose, rye, baking powder and salt. Using a pastry blender, cut in butter until it resembles coarse meal. Scale water in a bowl, tare, and scale in molasses by drizzling from an oiled spoon.  Add liquids to dry and combine with a curved edge plastic scraper kneading into a rough dough. Wrap in plastic, flatten into a disc and refrigerate for at least 15 min.

Place the disc on a lightly floured surface, cut in half and roll out each to 1/16thinch thickness.

Transfer to parchment lined baking sheets. Sprinkle with salt, chili flakes and rosemary and use the rolling pin to press in gently.

Bake 9-12 min or until golden brown.  Transfer to a rack to cool.  Break into pieces, if desired.

KAF Day One

Cardamom Biscotti

Sometimes it just has to go cardamom in my kitchen.  I start dreaming about flavour swaps and find my hands magically clutching a baggie of army-green pods from that crazy mishmash called my spice drawer. I hold the bag and … sigh.

No, I start cussing, wondering aloud if I have the cooking mojo in me to ferret out their cache.  Will my cold, stiff fingers find the fortitude to single out each and every one of these tiny seeds that bear an uncanny resemblance to mouse turds?

Cardamom pods aren’t like those happy, smiling pistachio nuts, each cracked and cooperative. These babies are sealed shut like an exotic, perfumed temptress.

Thus, they bring out the pounder in me.

I’ve tried crushing them under my chef’s knife like garlic cloves –  but lo, they slide and slither.  I’ve grabbed a sheet of wax paper and hammered a rolling pin over them a few times, to absolutely no avail, except for a heap of shredded wax paper.

Luckily, an adorable silver mortar and pestle comes to my rescue.

I throw a handful of pods in the bowl and happily clunk the silver pestle down until I hear crunch after satisfying crunch, splitting and cracking, dispersing their wealth.

The very first pod reaps a clump of tar-black seeds.  I can hear my East Indian cooking teacher intoning “Only the black ones are good” as I crack open pod after pod that she’d obviously throw out.  A sliver fuzzy membrane is scattered among my largely brown, verging on beige collection. I drop it all into my spice grinder and grimace, again, because fifteen minutes of finicky fine motor work hasn’t even covered my spice grinder’s blade!

Despite this ominous beginning, the seeds whirl into a satisfying silvery and soft powder that trails up into my waiting nostrils with an explosion of menthol and sweet, peppery perfume that is unmistakably cardamom.

Why don’t I just throw up a white flag and buy it ground?

Because I want flavour. Whole spices that are crushed or ground right before use, release essential oils full of oomph.  And oomph is what I have planned for this special little biscotti  packed with toasted almonds and pumpkin seeds, filled with organic flours, eggs, sugar and vanilla then made perfect thanks to cardamom in the batter. I finish each and every log of biscotti dough with a sparkle of cardamom sugar.

Just a pinch will do it.

 

Cardamom Biscotti

I really can’t live in a house without biscotti. They are my go-to cookie and a welcome gift to friends and family . Thanks to the double bake, they store for weeks, even months in a closed glass container and travel well on airplanes and road trips.

Biscotti Batter:

1 cup whole, raw almonds

½ cup pumpkin seeds

1 ¼ cup organic all purpose flour

1 ¼ cup organic soft whole wheat flour

1 1/4 cups organic granulated sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp ground cardamom

1/2 tsp salt

4 large eggs

3 tsp vanilla

The Finishing Touches:

1-3 tbsp flour (for rolling out logs)

½ tsp ground cardamom

1 tbsp organic granulated

Preheat oven to 350 ° F.

To toast almonds, arrange on a baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes. Add pumpkin seeds to the sheet and bake another 5 minutes. Allow nuts and seeds to cool completely.

In a large bowl, combine flours, sugar, baking powder, cardamom and salt. Use a whisk to mix thoroughly.

Whisk eggs and vanilla in bowl of an electric mixer until frothy. Use the paddle attachment to mix in flour and sugar mixture.  As soon as the dough clumps around the paddle, add toasted almonds and pumpkin seeds and mix until just combined.

Dust countertop with flour. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Spoon out one quarter of the sticky dough, dust lightly with flour and working quickly, roll into a 8-10 inch log. Transfer log to baking sheet. Repeat 3 times.

In a small bowl, mix sugar and cardamom.  Sprinkle over logs with pinched fingers.

Bake for 30 minutes or until biscotti logs are golden and firm. Completely cool logs on a rack for at least 30 min.  Using a serrated knife, cut crosswise into 3/4 inch wide slices.  Arrange cut side down on baking sheets and return to 350 oven for 10-15 minutes or until golden-brown and crisp.