Things I learned in KAF baking school, Part Two

Side-by-side taste testing is a gift.

On the last day, we taste a flight of varietals: five whole wheat baguettes, side-by-side. Our “control” baguette contains King Arthur White Whole Wheat flour and the others contain Salish Blue (a perennial wheat in development at the Bread Lab), Sprouted Skagit 1109, Cairn Spring Espresso T-185 and Cairn Spring Edison Unsifted. 

Newbie bakers rarely know the difference between all purpose and bread flour, let alone this wide range of locally-grown wheat varietals with alluring names.  We taste them straight-up without butter, observing crumb, inhaling aroma, analyzing crust and interior, making mindful, slow chews, ruminating on each variety. We dub this our “munch and think” session. One is Mr. Moist, the other Crispy Crust, another so very sweet. None of these baguettes has the loft and rise produced by 100% white bread flour, but all five excel in delivering a unique, wheaty flavour.  

Oh, The Baguette. This long, phallic, day-only-fresh loaf is the epitome of French bread baking and never ceases to send me into performance panic. Despite suffering years of bakers’ baguette trauma (BBT), I’m actually able to follow our instructor Jen’s shaping instruction. She demos once, twice, then for the final demo, she asks us to call out command steps for her to follow: “Place the dough good side down. Deflate. Letter fold, folding top then bottom. Observe the dough lip and seam. Use left hand to turn dough from the top of the lip over your thumb and tap closed with right palm. Repeat turn, twist and tap across the length of the dough. Turn the dough 180 degrees and pull the top side of dough to the table, pulling it over your left, lightly floured thumb and close with right palm tap. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Time to roll. Spread your floured fingers out wide and roll from the middle to the tips of your baguette. ”

Big breath. I return to my bench and practice. Four times. 

Two out of four ain’t bad, right? I’m hesitant to attach my initialized label to the underside of these horrendous duds. 

“There is no bread shame,” Jen assures, after a thoughtful examination of the first 20 baguettes that roll out of the oven. She is about to launch into a frank discussion of the flaws and achievements before her promising not to reveal anyone’s label.  

A tiny, terrified “Eeaak” issues forth,  en masse.

“This snake swallowed a mouse,” she says pointing to my first try. “And this one, well…” She says something way less hurtful than my first baguette mentor did years ago when I was apprenticing at a downtown Toronto bakery.  

“Just stop, Madeleine,” he called out to me shaping at the bench, pointing to my disastrous results.“I can’t sell any of those!”  

Croissants are not easy.

In fact, I’d label them advanced with a capital A.

A truly delicious, flaky croissant requires three consecutive days of attention. It wants butter that contains even more fat than normal, demands lots of finicky measurements, and exponential folding. The goal is flaky, honeycomb layers totalling 54 –  if you get it right.   

I’m thrilled to find “Sprouted Wheat Croissants” in my red KAF folderbecause I came to this course hoping for whole grain solutions to old school deliciousness. To make eight of these crispy morsels, we use 130 gm of sprouted wheat flour and 130 gm of all-purpose (King Arthur’s, of course). 

Croissant Day One, we make a simple yeasted, enriched dough and whack a 100 gram piece of unsalted, 85% fat European-style butter with a rolling pin into a thin, very pummeled five-and-a-half-inch square.  Day Two, we “lock in” our little square of chilled butter, sweetly swaddling it in the dough we made the day before. Then we get violent, methodically whacking, pounding and rolling our dough-butter combo into submission. We chill it, then whack and roll again several times. On Day Three, we roll out our sixth edition of an eight-by-16-inch rectangle, slice it into four equal parts, cutting each in half on the diagonal. Who says bread isn’t a science?

Like kids cut loose in a candy store, we adult learners happily fashion four crescent shapes and four pains au chocolat.  We each sign our name in black Sharpie pen on the parchment paper that holds our creations.  I swell with pride as I watch my croissant offspring enter KAF’s industrial convection oven, so big it can accommodate a six-foot-tall rack on wheels.  Butter aroma engulfs the room and the flaking begins. 

I post my baked beauties on Instagram and a follower asks, “Are these really yours?”

Even flour temperature matters.

“When a recipe says a pinch of yeast, what’s that mean?” instructor Geoffrey asks the class on Day One eliciting a dazed response.  

“I mean, do you want to use two fingers or threeto pinch with?” 

We respond with silence.  Just moments earlier our hallowed baking leader was talking about grams and the scientific accuracy of it all. Now we are pinching, for God’s sake. 

“If your kitchen is hot and humid, you will two finger pinch. But if the room temperature is moderate, go for three. Who can tell me why?” he asks.

One of the brighter lights among us chirps out, “The hotter the room, the faster the ferment.”

“Exactly,” says Geoffrey, “Temperature and time are two big tools for fermentation. Madeleine, I’ve put a thermometer on your bench and would like you to tell me our flour and pre-ferment temperatures.” 

Hands trembling, I insert the probe into the fluffy flour bin then into a silver bowl full of bubbling biga, calling out “66 and 66.5 F” to Geoffrey, who scribbles them on the whiteboard before us.  

At this juncture, my brain fizzles right out. Overloaded with data, my memory stick cannot download another formula or fraction. My screen goes blank during the full 10 minutes we devote to final dough temperature (78F is optimum) and how it can be controlled through a 1,000 – step equation to determine the temperature of water we use to make the initial dough.

Luckily, after days of deliberation, I get it. If we bakers can understand and compute all the variables: temperature, time, flour attributes, leavening strength and the list goes on… we can bake on a timetable producing consistent quality. As a home baker, albeit a serious one, the science of bread can only bolster the magic of my art. 

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KAF Spelt with Honey

Here’s an easy yeasted bread perfect for beginners. This dough is more forgiving if you are just learning to shape a boule or batard. Plus, spelt is an ancient grain with a nice, sweet nuttiness.  

600 g whole spelt flour

200 g unbleached bread flour

580 g water

2 g instant yeast

16 g salt

28 g honey

Scale flours, water and yeast in a mixing bowl, mix until just combined and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to rest at room temperature for about 20 min.

Add honey and salt and mix 1-2 min or until the dough begins to develop strength. Cover and ferment for 2 hours, folding every 30 minutes.

On a lightly floured surface, shape into boules or batards an place in floured bannetons. Cover with shower caps and retard in the refrigerator overnight.

Preheat Lodgepan combo cookers in oven at 500 F for 30 min.

Flip each loaf onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet and score.

VERY carefully remove heated combo-cooker from oven, slide loaf on parchment paper into pan, close with lid and return to oven for 20 min. Reduce heat to 460 F, remove lids and bake until golden brown and crusty, 15-20 min.

 

 

Becoming a San Francisco Baker, Part 2

By day two of Artisan Bread Baking Level III, I had a hunch: The cards just weren’t stacked in my team’s favour. Sure, we looked the part.Team 3 wore white chef’s coats buttoned to the collar with crisp, starched aprons secured at the waist. We clutched the same roll of formula-printouts in our hands as we entered the production facility. Just as the others, we plopped down our pens, smartphones and water bottles on our workbench and had access to the same high tech mixers and ovens. But there was no doubt about it: Team 3 lacked a certain, shall I say, je ne sais quoi.

Me and my mixer.
Me and my mixer.

Didier tried to be diplomatic but I know he knew what I knew, even before I knew it.

It was called experience.

The pros in our class knew exactly how to operate the second they stepped into the spotless bakery. But for us rookies, it was our first swing up at the bat in the big leagues.

Worse still, the real bakers knew that time was of the essence. They circled around the large room and took a mental log of where all the important stuff lived, like tubs and cylinders used to scale ingredients or hold fermenting dough. They instantly sourced out the Essential Four (flour, water, yeast and salt) and understood that all the water had to be cycled through a digital cooler then laboriously calibrated with a probe thermometer.IMG_2828_EDIT From the corner of my eye, I saw a flurry of activity, bakers racing by our workbench wielding tall, plastic stacks of containers, pulling bins-on-wheels full of flour and figuring out which scales worked and which didn’t.

But my team was just too busy standing still, staring at each other’s nametags and politely pointing at the pile of formulas and wondering which of us would lead our naïve flock.

It was Chef Jesus, of course.

But how would I possibly address this tall, broad-shouldered teammate who stood by my side, yet towered above me? Should I pronounce the name embroidered on his chef’s coat like Sunday school or offer up a Spanishy “Hey Seuss? When I mangled out the latter, a cringe swept over the Texan’s mug then Jesus Lugo calmly inhaled, looked me straight in the eye and said dead-pan, “That’s right, Madeleine.”

From then on, I knew our team had an inkling of a chance. Not only was Chef Jesus Lugo experienced, but an extremely patient man who just happened to be built like a Mack truck. A community college instructor from El Paso, Texas, Jesus took the bull by the horns and picked up (no, levitated) a 20-kilo pail full of poolish and deftly poured it into the VMI Phebus mixer near our workbench.

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L to R: Teammates Claudia Rezende and Gabrielle Thomas

Meanwhile, Claudia Rezende from Sao Paolo was scaling flour, reading glasses perched halfway down her nose, bouncing kid-like on her tiptoes in order to see the digital numbers flashing in front to her. She was giddy with joy to be standing in this facility in South San Francisco. Like I, she’d booked a room at a nearby airport motel and was titillated to be honing professional skills. But after less than a minute at the scale, Claudia stamped her foot angrily and swore something completely unsterile in Portuguese. One huge scoop of flour had just tipped the scale and the digital readout had gone blank.

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Scaled yeast in a container on top of scaled flour.

Bread is baked by weight not volume and bakers follow formulas, not recipes. On day two of the course, we would bake four different breads: semolina durIMG_3270_EDITum crowns, rustic filone, spelt bread and 100 % whole grain bread. Every bread formula was designed to produce 25-40 kilos of dough (enough to cover the surface of a bath tub like a big, fluffy pillow) and would bake off into 50-75 loaves.

Everything was weighed.

On average, every one of Didier’s formulas was based on 10 kilos of flour. I’ve watched Toronto bakers slash open humungous 10-kilo-bags of flour mix, dump the entire contents into a mammoth mixer, pour in litres of water by the pitcher-full then turn on the mixers’ timer and walk away.

Not us. At SFBI we were “in production” in a refined, complex, scientific and artisanal way. Thus, the semolina durum crowns we mixed up on Day Two required 10 kilos of hard, white bread flour but our job was to meticulously scale (baker-speak for weigh out) this flour into a large, plastic rectangular bin, haul and dump it into a mixing bowl the size of a jumbo exercise ball, then add two (not one!) pre-ferments: a whole wheat durum sponge and a durum semolina poolish that had been prepared the day before and left to ferment from sundown to sunrise.IMG_3035_EDIT

“The pre-ferment!” shouted out Didier in the classroom the day before, his pitch just shrill enough to wake anyone snoozing in the back. “This is our secret tool. We can add something, something so fantastic to the final dough with a pre-ferment. What do you think that is?” he asked, his tone rising on the last syllable and left hanging in the air. He stared at us expectantly for a long while until he couldn’t stand it anymore and teased up the air above us, pointing and waving his magic marker frantically.

“Uh, uh, more fermentation?” suggested someone as if risen out of a coma.

“Yes, so….?” he prodded and waited, the room growing loud with silence until he sang out “Flavor my friends, flaaaaaavorrrr!!!” he droned with religious fervor.

But of course.

To be continued

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Becoming a San Francisco Baker, Part 1

I am a happy baker but a very reluctant scientist. Certain that I could pump up one of my greatest passions with some technical muscle, I recently enrolled in the five-day Artisan III Advanced Bread course offered at the San Francisco Baking Institute.

I chose the course somewhat illogically. I wanted a challenge and knew that most of the scientific baking terms outlined in day one of the curriculum were an utter mystery to my blonde brain: IMG_2815_editwhether it was interpretative flour terminology like ash content or falling number or fermenting fundamentals like knowing your acetic acid from your lactic, the truth was it would all come in handy if I ever wanted to get totally serious about bread and open a bakery – which I don’t.

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Didier Rosada

But I like to dream that I might… and even our instructor, certified Master Baker Didier Rosada was prone to talking at length about romance and passion as any fine, French born and trained professional might when lapsing into a reverie about all things gastronomique.

Bread, despite its lowly origins and simple ingredients, had captivated 18 adult students enough to willingly sit behind cramped little desks in a fluorescent-lit-classroom for six long hours on that first day before we even came within a nose of inhaling the toasty, rich aromas of blistery crusts baking in the eight-deck, 200-loaf- capacity behemoth oven downstairs.

IMG_3246_editWe came from all corners of the world, we students of flour, water, yeast and salt, with a dozen different accents among us. Every so often, the instructor would speak of “yeast going dormant” or “dough conditioners” and questions in all different accents would pop up like mushrooms making for a broken telephone of misunderstanding interpreted in South African, New Zealand, Italian, Japanese or Brazilan-accented English.

Two bakery owners came from the far reaches of Johannesburg and Auckland to assess the week’s training, considering whether it was worth the expense to ship their staff to San Francisco for a week or two of bread school. Another two students, both recent San Francisco city college baking program grads, came for post-grad detailing while I belonged to the ‘serious home bakers’ faction which included a mother of teens from Sao Paolo, Brazil and a French history professor from Oklahoma. An exclusive Utah grocery chain sent two employees to finesse their ciabatta and baguette skills while Urth Caffé of Los Angeles dispatched two of their executive chefs.IMG_2954_edit

Big dollars were riding on many of the bread brains in the room and our leader, Didier often rolled his eyes upward in obeisance to the food gods as he rolled his r’s dramatically and proclaimed in his thick, French accent the defining hallmark of the course, “Production!” which is industry-speak for — well, baking.

Enter the contradiction. We were enrolled to learn artisanal techniques in an industrial, high tech environment. The institute is situated under the same roof as TMB Baking, a distributor of baking equipment from around the globe. Imagine an airport hangar divided into three separate bakeries (two used as bakery/classrooms, the other a commercial off-site bakery for SFBI’s two,

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downtown retail stores) beside an equally vast area housing bakery equipment stock. I liked to linger outside our second floor classroom, perch on the balcony and take in an eagle eyes’ view of the high-energy production facilities below.

“Only 20 % of baking in the USA is artisanal, “declared Didier on our first day, explaining that the remaining 80 percent is of the more commercial variety, namely pan loaves and bun production. Think baguette versus Wonderbread, ciabatta versus Kaiser rolls. IMG_3184_editArtisanal is based on traditional, Old World techniques compared to high quantity, fast and industrial modern bread baking. Yet, enter the word “production” and we are talking about large-scale baking of old school recipes.

After five hours of classroom science on the first day of the program, I was chomping at the bit to get my artisanal hands into flour and start production.   Didier pointed at me and four other students in the same row of desks and declared with his usual flourish: “You five are team Number 3!”

He then scribbled a haze of weights, team numbers and formulas on the white board and suddenly it was time to get out from under our school desks and into the production lab . I detected a certain hop and vigor in everyone’s descent down the stairs. In the next hour, we would prepare vats of rye and spelt polish, durum sponge and whole wheat levain that would ferment and bubble all night long until our return for Day Two.

To be continuedIMG_3042_edit