I’m the kind of girl who obsesses over bike tires and circuit diagrams — who revels in building something up from a complicated pile of misplaced parts. Broken nails? They’re pretty much a fact of life — evidence that these hands actually do something more than walk over a keyboard. My favorite part of every experiment is perhaps the most frustrating bit, where my fingers become contortionists, pulling wires from the tiniest places in order to make sure everything is just so. And I hate playing to helpless woman, which is why I decided to learn to fix my car, my bike, everything on wheels, myself.
I guess I like the visual and tactile feedback, which is how I learn. If I can’t draw a picture, or trace each step visually in my head, I don’t understand. Perhaps that’s why baking is so appealing to me. It’s funny — I shied away from it at first, preferring to relegate myself to cooking creative nothings because, really, I do enough precision work at my job. But I didn’t know what I was missing until I baked my first successful loaf, took it proudly from the oven, and felt how each step should feel, how each stage should look and smell.
These days, I find myself spending more and more time with dough on my hands, kneading away the troubles of deciding what exactly to do with my life after graduation next spring. Maybe we’ll go for the pipe dream, start that bakery in Australia, and forget about all those problem sets without regret. Or maybe not — who knows. As long as I get to work with my hands.
This recipe is our weekly staple. It’s simple, and far more impressive than one would think from the straightforward recipe. And it’s the only bread I’ve made time and time again, because cutting into a homely-looking mini-baguette just after it’s finished cooling and spreading a bit of homemade butter across it’s creamy white crumb brings back every delicious loaf I had in Paris. No coincidence, really — Peter Reinhart developed this based on a Parisian baker’s recipe, which happened to win best baguette of the year not so long ago. If there’s any bread recipe I recommend for the home baker, it’s this one. So what, exactly, are you waiting for?
If I were to tell you this recipe defies all reasonable expectations of proper baking technique, would you believe me? And would you still want to eat it, even with the reassurance that this is the best damn (funny-looking) focaccia I think I’ve ever had? Well, it IS the best damn focaccia I’ve had, despite the bubbles. It captures the best part of rosemary, encapsulates it in a light, chewy, pizza-like crust, and turns the humble sandwich into a fragrant, unearthly experience.
The secret? Oh, well I couldn’t possibly tell you, could I? I warned you it would ruin your appetite, if you’re the unadventurous sort. If you like sourdough, though, this recipe’s really not so frightening. And if you think about it, the technique (brought about by laziness and a fast-approaching committee presentation) makes perfect sense
I should know better by now. Really, I should. Bread cannot be rushed, no matter how many projects you have going on, or how many people you’re having over that evening. Usually, the more impatient you are, the slower the rise happens to be. This is when you should throw the dough in the fridge and give up for the night. But me? I’m impatient — I think I’ve revealed this particular character flaw before — and here’s the evidence of what exactly this little quirk gets me (aside from burnt grilled cheese, which is another story).
Not that this is a complete disaster. The bread tastes good, I can assure you of that much. But I know I could do better. The last batch? It was like our oven’s golden child. It was perfect, fluffy, gorgeous, tasty bread, which did exactly as it was told. This one’s a bit depressed, I’m afraid, and it’s all my fault.
But I think you can learn from my mistakes. Don’t make bread unless you have time for it. If the loaves haven’t finished their second rise, they’re not going to recover in the oven. Not really, anyway. And slash the loaves, for goodness sake! Then you won’t end up with craters the size of the Grand Canyon on the underside of your bread, as pictured above. Nor will you inhibit their rise in the oven. Yeah, that’s right — I was working against myself from multiple angles this week.
But my mistakes are mine alone — I really should have known better. The recipe itself is golden. It shows off semolina’s true potential, I think, and is relatively easy if your house is warm enough (or if, of course, you have a bit more patience than I). And strangely enough, throwing a few cubes of this stuff in soup makes some of the most delicious dumplings I’ve had in a while. So if I were you? I’d go find some semolina flour and start mixing.
Flour, water, yeast, and salt. At first glance, bread doesn’t have much going for it. Four little ingredients, two of which are at best temperamental, and at worst, capable of rendering breakfast as tasteless as a brick-shaped cardboard cutout. But oh, if you learn how to coax the best out of this little quartet, you may find that nothing else is quite as satisfying as a freshly-baked loaf of bread…
Of course, the learning process isn’t exactly instantaneous. Nor is it easy to describe once making your favorite loaf becomes routine, as I recently realized when a friend asked me what all these steps were for. What’s the point of throwing around terms like soaker, biga, and all the rest, without even bothering to explain what they are exactly, and why anyone should bother with them in the first place?
And so, this is the first of several posts that will be aimed at trying to answer those very questions. For the first post, I’m going to start with a struan formula from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads book, with gives me a perfect opportunity to discuss soakers, starters, and the inherent challenges involved in baking with whole grains. It’s a hearty, wholesome, and fairly simple recipe, and I think it’s a pretty good place to start if you’re just starting to play with whole grains. Continue reading