Old ways and new ways

Bread-baking season started again in October, when it finally got cool enough to have the oven on (although it remains, in mid-November, unseasonably mild). I made a satisfactory couple of loaves following Mark Bittman’s easy (food processor-kneaded) sandwich loaf process. I varied the flours, sweetener, liquid, and fat each time, and made no detailed notes, but I am getting a better feel for the texture of dough at each stage and for the shaping of loaves.  I get nice flavor and a pretty good, well-knitted texture in a bread that can last me a week of skinny slices. It turns out that watching the rise timings helps. With those two successes behind me, I attempted a much more complex recipe for French loaves found in BAKING WITH JULIA, edited by Dorie Greenspan. I started with old dough, saved from the previous week’s baking, waking it up with a little water the night before. This went into a first starter, which then made a second starter, which then went through two long rises before shaping and final rise.  The dough looked great, stretchy with big and small holes, through the second starter and even the first rise, but the second rise almost didn’t. The dough had become almost inert, seemingly.  I shaped two small baguettes, following the instructions rather impatiently — it was now eight o’clock on the second day, or twenty-four hours into the process. Maybe they should have rested longer than an hour, but I was out of time.  So into the oven they went. And there was enough oven spring to make the two sad, poorly formed logs burst and bulge out in various directions, but not enough to make the texture less than leaden. Well, whipped lead. Still edible, but dense and somewhat gummy. Rather than developing a crisp brown crust, they had the mottled look of a redheaded glassblower.

So that was enough of artisanistry for the time being. I went back to the Bittman method and this week’s loaf, made with one part each semolina flour, bread flour, and all-purpose flour, brown sugar for sweetener, almond milk mixed with yogurt for liquid, and olive oil as the fat, a three hour first rise and one hour shaped rise, came out the best and handsomest so far. I brushed the top with water a couple of times, and I think that helped brown it a bit, but I’m unsatisfied with the crusts generally.  Bittman calls for 350º ; I’m going to try a higher heat, at least to start with. And I saved some dough, so I can try another old-dough batch one of these days.

There’s so much advice and so many systems and analyses for and about bread-baking, it becomes confusing and I still don’t really understand what’s happening. I mean, I understand that long slow fermentation lets flavor-making lactic acid bacteria develop, but how is the old-dough bread I made supposed to get through all those rises and still have energy left? I’m reading IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT LOAF by Samuel Fromartz and will try to absorb principles I can believe in and rely on.

For Deborah’s baby shower, I made mini-cupcakes with simple buttercream, coconut-flavored, colored lavender and my first-ever cooked buttercream (boiling sugar syrup and egg yolks and all) with Triple Sec, colored salmon-pink. Delicious and no one came down with salmonella. Some of them held a surprise, a little squirt of cherry jam hidden inside. I am a lousy froster, but they became decorative after Carole sprinkled them with coconut flakes or sprinkles, depending.  After reviewing dozens, probably, of cupcake recipes, I ended up relying on a basic cake recipe from James Beard (a falling-apart paperback) and Paula Peck’s classic buttercream from The Art of Fine Baking, in my collection since c. 1971. Sometimes old ways are the best ways, plus sprinkles make everything better. Pictures were taken, but none has yet been sent to me, and now that the baby is here all previous photos will fall into the well of forgetfulness, to be replaced by adorable infant pics.

I also made nut crisps, macaroons essentially, that spread disastrously until I added more almonds and some flour. (Fortunately, I tested by baking just a few.) The recipe, from the American Academy in Rome’s BISCOTTI book (a gift from Ina), called for one and a half egg whites and either nine ounces or some number of grams of nuts. Yes, I’ve been through this before. Well, I wasn’t going to crack an egg and a half and I measure in cups, so you can anticipate trouble from the get-go.  I think this book needed better editing. One of the recipes has the cutline YIELD TEXT HERE.  With that semi-failure and the wooden baguettes on the same day, I admit I worried a bit about the cupcakes. At least I had sense enough to give up on the petit fours with poured fondant that I briefly considered.

It hasn’t all been fluff and frosting. I made soup with white beans and kale, based on a recipe from Heidi Swanson at 101 Cookbooks. It came out well, even without celery, so I have made two quarts more for Mark and Deborah — I offered to bring them food once the baby comes.  And she’s here now!  And in another sign that I have too much time on my hands, I made zaatar pita chips (basic whole wheat pita from Sahadi’s tossed in olive oil with zaatar, sumac, thyme, salt, and a few sesame seeds, toasted in a hot oven for about five minutes). They are really good, even addictive, to be honest.  I might make them for the social after the Lehigh Valley singing in a couple of weeks.  They’d make nice croutons for the soup, too.

Next: Thanksgiving with Zach and all the vegetables.


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