Tag Archives: sourdough

Bakers, get equipped!

Like any profession, bakers rely on good tools to get the job done right.

Oven: Choose electric over gas for reliable heat with less temperature fluctuation.

56002807935__20AF0A01-FB77-4879-BA5B-3C96AC0E91F6Dutch ovens or Lodge Pan combo cookers: When Jim Lahey of Sullivan St Bakery published his no knead bread recipe it was a revelation to the baking world. What, you don’t need to knead? But what you do need is the right pot for artisanal dough: one that is small enough to create its own steam at the beginning of the bake and is heavy-duty enough to retain really high heat. I love my Lodge combo cookers. You can’t beat the crust, crumb and lift of a loaf baked in a combo cooker. Put it in the oven, preheat to 500F and wait about 30 minutes before loading the dough into these cast iron cookers. They will be VERY hot and extra caution is needed when working with these pots. Most ovens can fit two combo cookers on a single rack at the bottom of the stove.  What makes a combo cooker perfect for baking bread is its shallow bottom and tall lid, making it easy to slide delicate risen dough on to its surface and a lid large enough to allow a full rise. My only complaint is that is does not accommodate large oval loaves.

Parchment paper: I started my bread career with pizza dough. Every cookbook and instructor called for cornmeal.  “Dust your bread paddle with ample cornmeal and that sticky dough will quickly slide off and into a hot oven” was the refrain. But it didn’t exactly slide and too often the cornmeal burnt in the oven and ruined the aroma and underside of the crust.

Enter parchment paper also called “bakers’ paper”.  Things don’t stick to it. I use a small amount to line a paddle or baking sheet and never experience the horror of dough not moving in one whole, shaped piece into the oven. I leave my loaves on parchment for the entire bake and it does not harm or affect the crust negatively.

img_6314.jpgBannetons and baker’s linen: Artisanal bread dough is risen in baskets to preserve the shape and to create a pretty swirling flour pattern on the finished crust. You plunk the shaped loaf in bottom-side-up, let it rise, then place a parchment-paper-lined paddle or rimless baking sheet over it and flip the loaf back over, right side up. I dust my bannetons liberally with rice flour which prevents sticking and also creates nice, white contrasting lines on the finished crust. I never wash my bannetons, because moisture encourages mildew. I use a natural bristle brush to clean the bannetons and store them in a dry, airy cupboard. Round bannetons should be no wider than eight to nine inches in diameter or your loaf will be too big for the combo cooker. Another option is baker’s linen liners that can be fit over medium sized bowls.

Shower caps: I used to put my rising banneton dough in closed plastic bags to prevent the dough from drying out until my friend Dushka suggested hotel shower caps. They fit snugly over the top of a banneton or linen-lined bowl and you can look inside to gauge the progress of your rise without having to take the shower cap off.  Brilliant! Never leave a hotel without taking one home.

IMG_6437Razor blades and lamés: Just before your risen dough goes into the oven, it is time to score. A score allows hot air to emit during the bake without tearing open the crust. Bakers traditionally scored loaves in distinct patterns but nowadays it has become an art. The angle and depth of a score will affect the final shape of the loaf. I like to hold a slightly curved sharp blade between my thumb and index finger but others like to use a handle for the razor called a lamé. A sharp, serrated knife can do the trick, too.

Oven gloves: While the underside of my arms are littered with burn scars, I actually use and highly recommend oven gloves.  Heavy duty, extra-long gloves are the best protectors but hard to find.

56071585550__DC3B82DE-6B7F-4052-B2F4-EF322A7717ECDigital scale: I cannot bake without a scale, I am so used to weighing versus measuring flour, starter and water.  You need a scale that can “tare” back to zero so that you can put an empty bowl on the scale, tare to zero, add a pound of flour and tare back to zero, add 8 ounces of water and tare back to zero and so on. Zyliss makes a light, flat scale about the size of an Ipad.

IMG_0312Just three ingredients: Flour, water and salt: Organic flour makes a big difference.  I buy unbleached organic hard white flour by the 10 kg bag and am happiest when it is locally milled and has a date stamp to guarantee freshness. Locally grown, freshly milled whole rye, kamut, spelt and red fife all make incredible sourdough bread.

IMG_6472Salt.  Avoid iodized salt and choose sea salt. I like the big bags of coarse grey French salt from Ile de Noirmoutier that I found at Thrifty’s.

Water.  If your local tap water tastes great, use it.  In Toronto I bake all my bread with spring water.

Creating steam: Professional bread ovens have built-in steam injection. Bakers want steam during the first 10 minutes of baking for good crust development. If your oven does not supply steam, you can supply it yourself with a spray bottle or ice cubes. Sprayed water may crack oven tiles or pizza stones. Ice cubes won’t.  Heat a small aluminum baking pan in the bottom of the stove and toss in two or three cubes after you load the dough into the oven.

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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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Breaking bread

True confessions: I’m a little wired up about bread baking.  I do it weekly.  Sometimes daily.  The process never ceases to fascinate me. The day I stop being thrilled about a loaf of bread – before, during and after its creation – is a day not worth living for.

Once a new, gorgeous loaf is out of the oven and cool enough to touch, I have to photograph it.  I’ve been sharing much of this on Instagram and now it’s time to showcase some of my bread progeny here.

Green and black olives with thyme

Green and black olives with thyme

This is one of the first artisanal varieties I attempted back in the 90s when I baked just about every recipe in Amy’s Breads by Amy Scherber and Toy Kim Dupree. Amy owns a bakery in NYC and has come up with a brilliant sponge starter that offers an apt stepping stone to the next level up: the sourdough starter.

Olive bread is always a big hit, especially with my friend Danny who used to come to high school with olive sandwiches painstakingly created by her adoring mother who sliced olives off the pit and wedged them between two slices of buttered bread.  We thought Danny’s sandwiches were pretty weird back then. Little did we know she was a gourmet trendsetter.

Semolina and sesame loaves perched on bannetons

Semolina and sesame loaves perched on bannetons

I wanted to rise my loaves in bannetons like the French master bakers do, but I was too cheap to buy them.  Unavailable for purchase in Toronto, I found my first ones online at King Arthur Flour. All my American cookbooks had King Arthur Flour in their “Where to Shop” section but I choked when I saw the price: US$35 for a single basket! Fortunately, my mother was willing to fork over the big bucks when she found them on my birthday wish list.  I have treasured these light, airy baskets ever since.

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Here is a semolina sesame loaf that has spent the night in the refrigerator tucked inside a banneton, sealed within a large plastic bag. I dust (no, shower)  the banneton with rice flour before I turn a shaped loaf upside down and into it for the long, final rise.  The ridges of the reed basket form the circular pattern on top of the loaf which I flip on to a bread paddle lined with parchment. I simply cannot bake free form loaves without parchment paper. It works like a charm.

Roasted potato levain.

Roasted potato levain.

Photographing loaf after loaf can get a little monotonous.  I found a new backdrop with my living room couch! Ikea never looked so good.

My bread club has been doing communal bakes from the bible: Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman. The first time I made the recipe (pictured below) I used a preferment with a pinch of instant yeast (as the recipe instructs) but a fellow baker suggested I forget the yeast and use a starter instead.  I’ve been toying with roasted Yukon gold potatoes, sage and even spelt in several adaptations for a couple of weeks.

As my sister once observed, “You just can’t leave well enough alone, can you?”

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Roasted potato bread, page 117, Bread by Hamelman.

It’s true, I can’t. This photo above is my first attempt at Roasted Potato Bread  and it looked and tasted amazing. The crust was a deep amber, the residual rice flour from the banneton added artistic flare and flecks of Yukon gold potatoes and sage peaked through the crumb. But I had to mess with it, because my inner bread critic thought that crumb was too tight.

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Mado’s roasted potato levain.

Here above is the glorious result of my second try when I broke from the recipe and used a tablespoon of my trusty starter to make the preferment into a levain. Getting too technical? None of this really matters unless you are a bread nerd. And my friends are willing to listen to me talk bread as long as they get some bread.

Like my friend Randy.

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Cinnamon raisin levain.

He will nod and listen and say, “Uh huh, uh huh,” for hours of a monotonous Mado monologue on bread. He hardly says a word until the end, when he slips in, “Have you ever thought of cinnamon raisin?”

Many loaves go in his direction.  And when there is a dry spell, he’ll text me to say hello, finishing off with, “Some say white bread gets a bad rap…” That’s Randy-speak for “I want.”

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Vermont sourdough (mostly white with a tad of rye).

And in this case, he got.