Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Modern Baking Magazine

For such a seemingly generic and institutional magazine, I've gotten more excellent ideas from this publication than any other. Just recently, in fact, when I was ready to give up on my baguettes after more than five years of struggle to perfect them, Modern Baking mentioned in passing baguettes with three pre-ferments. I tried it, and the battle was over.
Liquid levain, poolish, and pate fermente, along with an autolyze, proof on linen, and an overnight retard have my customers reminiscing about Paris!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Briotta. At least that's what I think I should call it. I've developed a new bread that is a cross between brioche and ciabatta.
My concept was to create a basic technique that allows me to turn many of the flavor profiles I used as a chef into breads. Foie gras and quince, for example, or grapes and shallots cooked au sec in white wine. The dough is very delicate and needs to proof in baskets, the crust different from any other bread I've ever experienced, it is so thin and pastry-like.
The process begins with a sour sponge, then a light dough is developed and finished with the flavoring ingredients and a form of fat: unsalted butter or olive oil, for example.
If only I knew how to popularize it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Calculating Dough Temperature

When I started out in the bakery business the doughs that took the longest to ferment got mixed first, and, counter intuitively, they were all ready for make up at the same time. I hate being disorganized. It means ruined bread and chaotic scurrying about trying to get the loaves retarded before the doughs get old.

So I sat me down and concentrated on the problem, figuring that mixing the doughs from the shortest to the longest fermentation times was the answer, except for the doughs that took extreme amounts of time, say, three or more hours to ferment. They needed to be mixed first. The system works very well for the most part, but I needed to be certain of my ferment times, and the only way to guarantee a ferment time is to guarantee the dough temperature, and that requires a little calculation.

Once the optimum dough temperature is determined, 73f for sourdough say, the formula is simple. The finished dough temp is an average of it's ingredients, the air temperature, and the added heat of friction from kneading. (On most mixers the friction heat is one degree per minute of kneading.)

OK. We take 73 (the desired final temp of my sourdough) and subtract the mixer friction (13 minutes= 13 degrees). The result is 60. So, all of the main ingredients plus the air temp must have a combined average of 60 degrees. It is now a matter of determining how many components we are averaging, and in the case of my sourdough there are four: air, flour, starter and water, each with an arbitrary value of 60 (the desired average temp). We multiply 4 ingredients by 60 degrees and the result is 240.

Obviously, the ingredients will not all be the same temperature. I refrigerate my sour starter before using it. If the flour was just pulled from the stockroom and dumped in the bin it will not have the same temp as the air. And really, there is only one ingredient that can have it's temperature changed at will: water. All of this comes down to very simple arithmetic:
-Air temp
-Flour temp
-Starter temp
=Water temp
That would be, realistically:
-72f (air temp)
-69f (flour temp)
-40f (starter temp)
=59f (water temp)
I then mix the water to the proper temperature as it comes from the spigot using an instant-read thermometer as a gauge. The ferment time is 3 hrs. 30 min.
The desired temperature of my Italian bread is 80f. It gets mixed 16 minutes. 80 minus 16 is 64. The three main temperature considerations are air, flour and water. 64 (the average desired temp) times 3 (the number of factors) is 192. A realistic calculation would be:
-70f (air temp)
-69f (flour temp)
= 53f (water temp)
The ferment time is 2 hrs.
This works every time. Just remember that we are averaging main components only; minority ingredients such as salt or yeast are not included. You will need to experiment to find the optimum temperatures of your doughs, but this system will allow you yo do it with ease.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sometimes a baguette

is just a baguette.
I enjoy baking. It's challenging and rewarding, but it isn't cooking. The palette available to me as a chef was well over a thousand ingredients, from the elegant and sublime to the pedestrian. I always prided myself in being able to make something extraordinary from ordinary fare; the price of an ingredient never had any bearing on whether or not I used it. So it didn't matter whether I used foie gras simply to thicken a sauce, or if I used fresh herbs from the garden in summer squash Provencal.
Baking, on the other hand, is essentially flour, water, yeast, and salt. Oh, sure, it might get dairy, or some produce, or require days of fermentation or very delicate manipulation, but it isn't tuna threaded with pickled ginger on a bed of leeks stir-fried in walnut oil with salt-cured lime, celeriac and butter emulsion and sauteed bitter greens.
Cutting up mirepoix and gathering herbs for a pot of stock is infinitely more rewarding to me than making a good croissant.
Oh, well, I guess it's too late to do anything about it now.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Rocky Road

New Year's Day was bright and blue, the air clear and unseasonably warm. We had decided to open at 10 a.m. on that holiday so our regular customers could get some bread and dessert and a New York Times to go with them. Breezes moved softly in the daylight as I pulled open the screen door, key poised to turn in the lock.

My eye suddenly lit upon the shattered pane of glass smashed into the building. The first thing I checked was the cash box. Hell, we only leave a few coins in it... nothing disturbed, nothing missing, not even a brownie.

The steamer was up to pressure and I was docking a full bench of boules when the police arrived. I was starting the day's bake, by God, and a forced entry wasn't going to change the slightest thing in my schedule. I felt remarkably sanguine about the matter, but, then, dark specters began bubbling up from my subconscious, flitting out of view from the corner of my eye in a singularly sinister, disconcerting experience.

The cop found bloody fingerprints on pieces of glass, and blood inside the building, which meant the guy had punched his way in with a bare fist. Now let me tell you something: if ever there was a readily available implement in rural Pennsylvania, it is a stone. As a matter of fact, there is an old farm nearby with a professionally painted sign out front that reads:



But this guy used his bare hand, which told me that he was high, or desperate, or livid, or some volatile cocktail of the three.

After the photo shoot and evidence bagging the detective asked, "How much was the damage, a hundred and fifty?"

"No" I said, "Two fifty."

He seemed incredulous.

"Two hundred and fifty dollars?" he asked.

"No, no. Two dollars and fifty cents," I explained. "I'll fix the thing myself. It won't take an hour."

It took two hours. I broke the first piece of replacement glass.

The cop came back a week later to inform me of the perfect fingerprint he'd found on one of the glass shards. It would take about six weeks to process the bloody thing at a lab.

I went to speak with Chris, a shopkeeper in my neighborhood who'd had an attempted break-in. We quickly decided kids were responsible for this, and just as quickly decided which kids. I remembered them, two squirts from around the corner on Oak Lane who had come into my shop late one afternoon, when no one else was around, trying to strong-arm me for cookies. I thought they were fooling and gave them each a chocolate chip, joking with them, whereupon the older one began to mock me.

"You're an asshole" I announced, "get out."

Falling silent, I stared into their eyes until they became extremely uncomfortable and left.
I had a sense that there would be more trouble with those two pitheads.
On another day, I was talking with the maintenance guy from a local resort about the situation, and he informed me that the two boys in question, at the tender ages of eleven and thirteen, were under investigation by our regional police force for housebreaking. I informed the local constabulary of this.
A few weeks passed before the next report. I was at my bench doing the makeup on a batch of batards when the policeman in charge of the investigation came in with Polaroids of the delinquents. I recognized the older one, but wasn't too sure about the younger kid in the picture. I just wasn't. In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king; I passed the pictures to the cop and got back to the dough at hand before it started getting old.
Business is brisk on Sunday mornings, and customers seem anxious if they wait more than a few minutes before being served. After packing the day's special orders in the back, I go out front to front to help expedite service.
I was shoveling sticky buns into a box when Ryan ( by this time the investigating officer and I were on a first name basis )walked in. After ringing up the sale at hand, I went over to the coffee pot and we started talking in hushed, cryptic language. Our conversation revealed that the fingerprint on the glass was not of the quality originally believed, and was in fact unusable for evidence. He promised to interview the two as soon as they were done testifying in another criminal case.
It didn't turn out like that. It was snowing the day of the Vernal Equinox when Ryan came in the front door, stamping his shoes and shaking snow from his jacketless back. The police were ham-strung by the boys and their parents refusal to respond to a request for an interview. That was it. Case closed. I squelched whatever emotions were rising inside of me... those people were within their rights.
Investigations don't use clocks or watches, they use calendars; those kids grew a foot each by the next time I saw them. They came into the shop again, obviously enjoying their pubescent growth spurts with the gun-moll-in-training that accompanied them, and asking for some ridiculous thing or other. They cleared the sample tray like hurdlers. Close behind their eyes they were laughing at me, and what was I going to do about it anyway. I consoled myself with visions of lengthy prison stays looming in their collective futures.
A few days later, I was chatting with Chris in front of his shop about the whole thing. Well, we agreed, no real harm done, and after all they didn't make off with anything.
Just then, a limousine pulled up, the window rolled down, and the driver stuck his head out. "Hey, which way is Oak Lane from here?"
I looked at Chris. "I guess dey made out bettah 'n we thought!" he boomed.
We just threw our heads back and laughed, and laughed.