Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Ryes Have It

Working with rye breads is a little like a composer learning to write in the minor mode. It's the same only different, if you get my meaning.
I never bothered with a separate rye starter, I simply used "old" white starter that had become very sour. After reading the book "Bread Alone", I decided to give all rye a chance. The formula and directions for rye starter in "Breads from LaBrea Bakery" were a good starting point, but I changed a few things, most notably the addition of a little whole rye flour (pumpernickel) to each feeding.
The breads were a revelation. They tasted the way rye bread should taste, not like an imitation loaded up with caraway seed in an effort to give it some kind of flavor.
Caraway, as listed in "On Food and Cooking", is a member of the carrot family, as are parsley and anise. So that got me thinking, thinking about carrots, then root vegetables in general. Rye bread may pair well with roasted root vegetables. I'll have to try it and see.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Many of our customers travel a great deal, so, when I hear them say that our croissants are equal to the best that Paris has to offer, I can only infer that the croissants in Paris suck. Or, at least, that used to be my reaction.
I have spent at least three years of my life on a Quixotic quest with a more and more elusive goal, one that appeared to be unattainable: that is, to produce a perfect croissant that was both light and flaky with a firm bite. I was able to create a reliably flaky crust, but that firm crumb was a stickler; mine was always gummy and heavy.
At one point, I even went online to some chat group in that snakepit Yahoo, where a bunch of bread nerds told me to bake them longer and at a lower temperature.
Guess what happened! Flaky became cast-like enough to set broken limbs. The inside was gummy.
My vexation grew. For years I'd been using a formula from the Culinary Institute of America, applying my knowledge of baking to correct it's flaws, but every correction created a new and unexpected problem.
And then an odd series of events occurred. For one thing, I chucked that stupid recipe in favor of one from the Bread Bakers Guild of America. At first try it showed tremendous promise, but was only an approximation of what I had in mind. Then a friend of mine, DeliRay, called and said he had some flour he wanted to give me. I wasn't familiar with "patent" flour, but I dumped it in my bread flour bin and used it as such. It is here that my continuing saga enters the realm of the surreal.
While kneading croissant dough for the first time using this new flour, it was obvious in a few minutes that it was much too dry. I shut off the mixer, got more water and added it to the dough. Another couple of minutes of mixing and the necessity for more water was again evident. I stopped the mixer, added water, and turned the mixer back on. I kept track of the total amount of water added, but not the rest times in between each addition.
When the croissants came out of the oven and cooled, I had by that time given way to a life of silent desperation concerning the goddamned things, I bit into one for my customary "test". I cannot suitably convey to you here what I felt, but I can certainly describe the pastry. Light for it's size, it had a crispy-flaky crust redolent of butter and cream. The internal structure was firm to the bite but airy with the slightest bit of stretch. It tasted of fine butter.
I turned to my wife, "I can't believe it! Oh my God I just can't believe it! This is it, it's the croissant I've been trying to make for all these years!". Or something like that.
One of the tenets of scientific research is reproducible results. When I made the next batch of croissants I simply increased the water to the previous batch's total amount. The result was, well, just OK. Now what the hell, I wondered. I thought back over what I did for the perfect batch, and the only differences I came up with were the stopping, adding water, and starting the mixer again, and the assumption that the patent and bread flours had mixed in the bin. After several tries I determined the ratio of flours, but the croissants still weren't spot on. The only other thing left was the method in which the water was added to the best batch. It seemed preposterous to me, but if all other variables were ruled out, it was the only thing available to explain the difference.
As skeptical as I was, I tried it, and the result was unmistakable. They were perfect, at least according to my opinion of things, and our globe-trotting customers seem to concur.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Starting a Powerful Levain

The book "Breads From LaBrea Bakery" is where I learned how to make starter, with one small change.
My background is in cooking, not baking. French cuisine, actually. My larder always included seven or eight different vinegars, one of which was an unfiltered, unpasteurized cider vinegar. It had a creepy looking slime growing in it, which I surmised was the mother. So, I filtered it through a jelly bag and scraped the captured bacterial culture into my baby starter.
That was six years ago, and man, does our levain have some wang to it! A single tablespoon of that seething mush added to a paste of rye flour and water turned into a ripe rye sour in just one day.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. After I made the starter, I put it in the refrigerator until we opened our bake shop, about a four month period. Now, I greatly respect Jeffrey Hammelman and Professor Calvel, but I must disagree with their assertion that refrigerating sour starter will kill the wild yeast. Boys, the yeast is wild. It lives outside all winter. Ten below and all that, yet still it liveth. How can refrigerating yeast at 40f kill it if it is native to a place with a cold winter climate? To wit, when I fed my hibernating levain it sprang back to life instantly.
My poor starter had been sorely abused by ignorance when I first began using it to make bread. Working twenty hours a day at the shop, I only fed it once daily. It became offensively sour, and weak as far as leavening was concerned; at one point it actually began to liquefy. So I made a habit of feeding it three times a day, which vastly improved the yeast content but diminished it's tang to the level of insipid. I discovered that a bit of whole wheat flour restored it's acidity.
Now the starter sits in the fridge over the weekend and gets fed for a full day before being used in bread. My sourdough is better than the stuff they sell in San Francisco. At least that's what they tell me. (See "Croissants".)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Wake Up and Smell the Fermentation

It isn't so much the fact that our breads are mixed on low speed, or hand cut and hand shaped, or that they are put on wooden peels and baked in stone-lined ovens that makes them so good, it is the fermentation that they are allowed. An experienced baker can tell just how far along the fermentation of a batch of dough has gone simply by smelling it; the phases are unmistakable.
God knows, I have to endure lectures from people who've never tried my breads telling me about some big bakery in some mid-sized town, and how superior their bread is to anything I can produce. Fact is, the leftovers languishing in my freezer, if popped in the oven for ten minutes, far excel just about anything belched from the machines of most large bakeries. And here's why: those huge shops have to move the product out FAST, so, instead of allowing their doughs to ferment naturally, they shovel chemicals into it ("Dough Conditioner" on the label), let it rest 30 minutes, put it in the divider, shape it, proof it and bake it. All in a couple of hours.
Not so in our shop. The craft of the baker is based largely upon his ability to control and manipulate fermentation in order to achieve specific results. I'm going to make a list of some of my breads and the ferments involved, editing them as I discover something new. And, since nobody other than blood relatives and people trying to sell me shit ever read this blog, I have no fear of anyone stealing my "secrets". (Not that anything to follow is original, mind you, it's mostly a concentrate of research from many different places. I may have observed something in my work, but no doubt it has been observed and noted before.)
Flour, water, yeast, sea salt, malt syrup.
A straight dough, it will smell grassy as it first begins to ferment, then develop a fruity aroma. Both of these stages are too young to render an excellent bread. The dough will take on the smell of beer after that, which will grow stronger over the course of about an hour. This is the time to do the make-up and, if not, the dough will get old, it's aroma taking on the sting of alcohol, the reek of beer overpowering.
After making up the loaves and rolls, they are retarded overnight with their final proof occurring in the refrigerator. This slow ferment changes everything about the final bread: the crust, the flavor, the oven spring. The loaves are peeled into the oven directly from the retarder, and an hour later as I shovel the bread onto cooling racks, the smell of fermentation is still readily discernible.
Preferment: Soft flour, water, a trace of yeast.
As the name suggests, part of the batch is fermented first. The ingredients are mixed into a batter and, in my shop, allowed to ferment overnight at an elevated temperature, around 90f. The next day, a wallop of alcohol will come from it as the lid is lifted; if not, it is allowed more time until the sting of alcohol does develop.
Dough: Preferment, strong flour, yeast, sea salt, whole wheat flour.
Mixed into dough, with an autolyze before the yeast and salt are added, and given one turn halfway through the bulk ferment. The dough is gassy and delicate.
The loaves are given a quick mise en tourne as they are cut, then full shaping, and long bench rests as they are gradually elongated into baguettes. They are retarded overnight on linen couches, given a final proof with plenty of humidity, and baked in a very hot oven with steam. The aroma of fermentation permeates the finished loaves, and they are remarkably crusty.
Sour starter, flour, water, whole wheat flour, sea salt.
Starter requires about as much care as a puppy. It needs to be fed three times a day, hydrated with filtered water, and stirred frequently to give it plenty of oxygen. The balance of white and wheat flours must be exact in order to give it the proper balance of sweet, complex tang, and beer flavors. It will be kept at room temperature, or in a warm spot, or refrigerated, depending on it's mood. Moodiness is more like it. But oh, what breads you can coax from it!
Once the water temperature is determined for a batch of sourdough, it is mixed, with an autolyze ( 20 minute rest ) before adding the salt. Bulk fermenting to thrice it's original volume, this dough usually requires between three and four hours to ripen. It is scaled up, given a mise en tourne, rested, then given it's final boule shape. The loaves are proofed to half the desired size in an hour or two at about 80f with moderate humidity, then retarded overnight. Next, they are given a final proof in the same conditions as the first proof, then baked in a moderately hot oven with steam. The crust smells of citrus, caramel, and toasted pecan; the crumb has a subtle, earthy tang to it.
Starved Sour Starter, Yeast, Bread Flour, Water, Molasses, Dark Rye Flour.
Everything but the Rye Flour is mixed and left to ferment at room temperature for 12 hours. The Rye is then added and refrigerated overnight. The dough goes slack at worst and forms an ugly loaf at best when the rye flour is over fermented, and the dough lacks flavor when the preferment doesn't work long enough. The solution is to add the rye after the sour has had a chance to develop, then retard it.
Above Sour, Bread Flour, Dark Rye Flour, Bitter Cocoa, Caraway, Salt, Wheat Gluten.
I'm sure purists will give me a hard time about some of the ingredients in this bread, but I'm not making my breads for them; I'm making bread for my customers, and I can either make things the way they are supposed to be made, or I can make them as delicious and beautiful as possible.
The dough is mixed, given a 30 minute rest, made up and put on the peels as it is shaped. The loaves are given 3/4 proof, sprayed with water and sprinkled with rye flakes, docked, and baked with steam. It's good and crusty with a nice tangy flavor.
Bread Flour, Water, Yeast. Think pasta dough. With a little yeast. The next day it will be light and give off a zap of alcohol when the lid is lifted.
Semolina Flour, Water. Semolina is granular and needs a bit of a soaking (an hour or so) before it can be mixed.
The Above Mixes, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Honey, Yeast, Salt, Whole Wheat Flour.
The dough is fermented to double it's original size after mixing, and has an alcohol smell. Scaled, given 3/4 proof, and baked with steam, it has muscular oven spring and a shattering crust. Breads with this deliberate level of fermentation, that is, with the smell of alcohol, are not ready to be eaten until they are completely cooled.
Three Raisin Vanilla Bean Cardamom
All of the Liquid, Half of the Flour, all of the Yeast. This is called a flying sponge; it's an American style preferment. It works for two hours, then all of the other ingredients are added:
Flour, Butter, Vanilla Syrup, Vanilla Sugar, Egg Yolks, Yellow Raisins, Dark Raisins, Currants, Salt, Cardamom. (The extra sugar requires extra yeast.) These loaves are baked in old, lidded Pullman pans that keep in the fragrance of the ingredients. These ingredients mask the smell of fermentation pretty completely.
European Style Whole Wheat

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Wet Blanket

I don't get it. More than once, I've read questions in magazines and on line from people asking advice on how to make seeds stick to breads and rolls. And again, more than once, I've seen this answer: moisten the loaves with a damp towel. A damp towel. On proofed bread. What a stupid thing to say. Why not fill up the bathtub and float the dough around for a while? If the columnists are truly bakers, what, then, do they use to make their seeds stick to hundreds of loaves, soggy down comforters?
Apparently, the spray bottle is an unheard-of device to these people.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Wee Yeasties

A friend gave me a copy of "The Paul Richards Pastry Book", dated 1907. It has over one thousand recipes between the covers, one of the best of which, for mincemeat, calls for finished mince to be aged in an oaken barrel for at least month. A cooperage in Arkansas custom made a sturdy oak wine cask for me, which I use to mellow that ambrosial mix every October in readiness for Thanksgiving.
A recipe with the name "floradora buns" caught my eye. Essentially small oval buns made of sweet dough, coconut, vanilla, and candied orange and lemon peels, baked with almonds sprinkled over their tops, then washed with vanilla glaze directly from the oven. The aroma is a delight, as must have been the namesake of these little beauties for Mr. Richards. The "Floradora Girls" were a dancing troupe of English women who came to the States at the turn of the twentieth century. One can only guess at the effect they had on old Paul, but recipes for floradora pie, floradora pudding, floradora cake and the like, give one an idea. Him too, no doubt.
Another interesting formula was this one:
Take a two handfuls of hops and boil in two quarts of water for half an hour; strain off the hops and put the liquor in a strong bottle with a two handfuls of malt and a little sugar; cork up and tie securely with wire, and let it stand in a warm place for forty-eight hours. Then it will be ready to start stock with.
Take five ounces of hops, two pounds of malt, three and one-half pounds of flour, five gallons of water, two quarts of stock yeast [ above ]. Boil the hops and water for one hour; Strain and scald the flour with part of the water into a smooth paste. Cool the hop water to 165 deg. fahr.; add the malt and let mash and cool down to 85 degrees, about blood warm. Strain and wash off the malt; add the flour paste and stock yeast. Put away in a warm place, well covered, until ready. When the yeast is ready, fermentation ceases, and the liquid gets clear; two ounces of salt may be added, and the stock be put in a cold place to keep.
I began realizing what an awful lot of work this would be to produce, but, if it needed to be made only once and perpetuated through regular feedings, the bother might be worth it. Then I read this:
It is best to make fresh stock twice a week.

Monday, May 28, 2007

How I Got My Antique Mixer

A roomy old inn it was, built in the 1840's; the kitchen was built in the 1930's, and had some excellent features, including reach-in doors built into the side of the walk-in cooler and a bakeshop with giant flour bins built right into the counters. The original tools were still there from the Depression, including a wonderful old baker's scale. There were deck ovens and what had to be the goofiest Hobart mixer I'd ever seen. The mixer was unused for years, but a search of the basement turned up all of the missing bowls, attachments and accessories. The year was 1981. We had a new President, a new Pope, and a royal wedding; things were looking up. 
Now, I don't know about you, but I bond with my tools; we almost become friends over the years, and that old mixer was my workhorse. The exquisitely inefficient dough hook looked like something to catch whales with, but it made loaves and loaves of bread, miles of pasta dough, pastries, biscuits...
I stayed at that place five years, then moved on. The road after that, well. I actually did go back to work at the inn for a short time, as a business partner no less. I noticed that the old dough hook for the mixer was missing and had been replaced with a modern one. I tracked down the original and brought it back, no easy task. I just couldn't stay there, though. There were too many ghosts, and my business partner and his wife were avaricious creeps.
It was more than ten years from that point until we opened the bake shop. The next owners of the inn, truly wonderful people, were buying breads for their dining room from us. One morning at 4:30 or so, one of them came to the shop and canceled their order for that day. She then tearfully explained that the inn was on fire.
The blaze was subdued, but a lot of damage was done. Even so, the insurance company removed all of the surviving contents of the building in order to clean and restore them. In the interim, vandals broke into the inn and set another fire that laid the place down. The insurance company soon held an auction of the contents, and I couldn't refrain from attending the sale.
At auction the old tools were laid out, to paraphrase Eliot, like patients etherized upon the table. Waiting for the bidding to begin I milled about with the other buyers, chatting. Now and then I'd see a forgotten  tool: an ancient balloon whisk, a giant ladle with rivets in the handle; picking them up and fondling them my reaction was visceral. And there, standing on a dolly in the middle of the room was my mixer. A quick survey showed a couple of pieces missing, but the dough hook, pastry blade and original paddle all piled themselves inside one of the bowls.
I showed no particular interest in it, or so I thought, until an old man sidled up to me and said,"You know you can't get parts for those any more."
I was shocked.
Moments later the cashier was handing me a numbered card.
The bidding started loud, fast and was a little confusing to me. It took a great effort of will not to bid on the small wares. I started and stopped myself several times from chasing the woman who'd purchased the lot containing that big old riveted ladle, wondering to this day if she'd have sold it to me. But I just couldn't have the clutter in my life, could not stand to have all those memories underfoot.
I did not need another mixer at the shop, in fact. There was no room for a 20 quart floor model mixer anywhere. I didn't bid against the two guys battling it out over the old Hobart.
When the fray settled down at five hundred dollars and the auctioneer was saying "...once, going twice..." I remembered retrieving the dough hook from almost certain oblivion.
I slowly raised my number. The auctioneers head was down, though, and he didn't see me. His assistant glanced up caught sight of my card, shoving her elbow into the auctioneers ribs.
With a blinking stare he said "Five twenty five", and looking over at the fellow who'd had the highest bid  he said,"five-fifty fifty fifty fifty fifty. Would five thirty five make it easier for you?"
It was obvious at that moment they knew one another. The bidder shook his head no. At the sound of the gavel the losing bidder shot me a furious look; it was then I noticed the older fellow who'd given me sage advice on spare parts standing beside him, frowning.
So there that mixer stood on the back porch of our shop for about a year, smiling at me every day as I arrived for work.  When we expanded our work area, a spot opened up for the mixer and guess what. That old dough hook makes excellent croissants and baguettes!
The Hobart company ran a contest to find out who had the oldest running Hobart mixer in America, and she won an honorable mention. Manufactured in 1927, as it turned out, it would have been a vintage antique were it an automobile. And if I ever need spare parts for that mixer, I know exactly where to go. Always have. But that's a whole 'nother story.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


Somebody told me, the Nuns or one of my Mother's nutty friends, or somebody told me, that Phonics was named after the Phoenecians because they were such good spellers. SPELLers!? What the hell were they spelling, Roman numerals?
My son Philip, age 8, wants to work at the shop in the worst way. The other day he had half of the flour bins pulled out and was sweeping behind them.
"How much money do you think I've made so far?" he asked.

After that job he made a new card for the cream puffs, his favorite. It read:
Not one customer noticed.

Mr. Manhattan

There is an older gentleman who frequents our shop daily; a perfect gentleman, piercingly intelligent, and friendly. The other day, as he came through the door, I placed his newspaper on the counter.
"I have my teeth in today" he announced, "I'd like to have one of your rolls, please."

Monday, May 21, 2007

Taking Up the Slack

The first dough to go down was the sour rye. In a moment it became a stringy, runny mass and had to be discarded; "slack" is what the bakers of a generation ago called this phenomenon. Most modern bakers refer to any dough with high hydration, ciabatta for example, as being slack, but that was not the case with that batch of rye.

With nothing to go on, I called another baker for enlightenment and yes, I'd fermented it overnight at room temperature as per the instructions. She had no idea why it was acting so strangely then and quickly got off the phone.Working twenty hours a day seven days a week at the shop gave me little time to ponder the situation, and I simply began the next job on my list.

When I was a kid, my mom sometimes made "cheese delights". A piece of bread, a slab of cheese, a sliced tomato, all broiled to screeching perfection. The tomato became so hot it seared the roof of your mouth, and the flavors of the tomato juices and hot cheddar melded together memorably, especially with her homemade bread. Anyway, I was after that taste with the next disaster, a sun-dried tomato and cheddar sourdough. This one started going south the instant the tomatoes got into the mix. Feverishly shoveling gluten into the bowl in an effort to stave off catastrophe, the problem worsened; I baked the sloppy mess just to see what would happen. It smelled like deliciously toasted cheese and tomato but had the bite of an engine mount.

This experience held an important clue, though. Flour is essentially two things: protein in the form of gluten, and starch. While the protein remained sound, something was breaking down the starch phase, wasn't it? I tried the bread again, tossing the tomatoes in starch-rich cake flour first, and the result was my original, cheesy goal.

Malt is an ingredient, malting a process. And this became a key to understanding why the doughs slackened. "Malt", the ingredient, is made from malted barley. It comes in two forms: flour and syrup, and syrup is available as two basic types, diastatic and non-diastatic. Malt syrup is made non-diastatic through heat treating.

The word Diastatic emblazoned on the bucket of malt syrup made me so curious I had to look it up in the unabridged dictionary. It means to turn starch into diastase, or grape sugar. I began researching how this occurred. E-mailing the malt manufacturer, their lab got right back to me and explained that diastatic malt has enzymes that break starch down into simpler sugars. Further investigation into scientific books and baking websites pieced together the explanation to my problem.

Barley is a seed. A grass seed. As it sprouts, or malts, enzymes break it's inherent starch molecules into shorter sugar chains, releasing nutrition for use by the embryonic plant until the establishment of a root system. The enzymes in malted barley break down the starch in wheat flour, essentially ground up grass seed, as well. Wheat flour has enzymes of it's own that do the same thing, but the addition of malt hastens the process of sugar development tremendously. And why bother? Because yeast metabolizes only one very specific type of sugar during fermentation, and the smaller the sugars it has to work with initially the faster and better it will ferment a dough.

Not surprisingly, a batch of Italian dough went slack when I accidentally put too much malt syrup in it. But what of the other breads? There was no malt added to them, but they still fell apart.

There are many formulas for Normandy apple bread, and the best one called for half cider and half water. Well forget that, I thought, it's all cider or nothing.
Apparently cider has a lot of enzymes, and by now, dear reader, you know what that meant.
Thinking back, I saw my son Kevin as a little squirt standing on top of his great gran daddy's cider mill, throwing all the apples he could into the hopper. Whole apples. Whole apples with seeds. Seeds with...
Reasoning that if enzymes in malt syrup are denatured by heat, the enzymes in apple cider should be as well. The cider was boiled, reduced in half, actually, in order to concentrate the flavor, and a crumb of yeast added to ferment it for several days. The bread was superb.

Oh, yes, one other thing. Except for the Italian, the common thread in all of the above breads was a sour starter of wild yeasts and acid-producing cultures. A regular little enzyme factory, as it turns out. Starter too ripe made some doughs slack and some loaves, sourdough for one, flay open during proof. A couple of things control enzyme activity. Salt slows down the canalization of starches, but it kills yeast cells as well, making it unsuitable for the job. Enzymes, as do many things in nature, react to time and temperature. Beside the aforementioned denaturing by heat, lower temperatures slow the action of enzymes. Controlling dough temperature through standard calculations became common procedure at the shop; refrigerating the rye sponge overnight cured it's problems.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Across the Divide

Located in a small Pennsylvania village, our bakery is situated in an old, quaint building reminiscent of a Bavarian pastry shop. We know our patrons by name and whether or not they get a New York Times with their Sunday order. And we're friendly. Even on the most trying of days we make an honest effort to be, at the very least, cordial to even the most demanding customers.
We are situated across the street from a busy tourist-oriented concern, the owners of which are truly the nicest people, always willing to lend a hand.

Their customers are another story. Braving the two-lane highway traffic to come over to our shop and gawk, it's as though they all attended the same training seminar on how not to buy something. There is the verbal sale: oh you have the nicest shop I want one of everything it smells so good in here. The scrutiny no sale: look at every item on display, then ask for something not seen and highly unlikely to be available, say, some ghastly Pennsylvania Dutch specialty or other, then smile and say something about next time. Then there is the body language group. They refuse to acknowledge your greeting, studiously avoid eye contact, and generally hunch their shoulders in a defensive posture. We are sanguine about all this, although at times we'd like to dig a trench and fill it with burning oil in order to keep them on the other side of the street.

One afternoon a couple came in from Over There, avoided eye contact, ignored my greeting. As they were facing the door to go, I thanked them for stopping in. The woman turned and actually snarled at me. An angry, resentful, toothy grunt.

From somewhere deep within the recesses of my soul came the words, "Get the @#!% outta my shop!"

No sooner was the "!" out of my mouth than panic struck. Not due to the fact that feelings may have been bruised or that I had committed some unforgivable business faux pas, but that this guy was going to come behind the counter and punch me in the head.

They scuttled out the door.