Saturday, February 27, 2010

The small pleasures of bread baking

Most Saturday mornings, I make a loaf of bread for weekend snacks. The recipe varies, as does the shape, but my loaves usually have a neat series of straight parallel lines or a large criss-cross slashed into the top. A few quick runs with a razor blade just prior to baking yields a nice finished pattern that I always admire. This morning, I turned the dough into a blazing hot cast-iron dutch oven, and forgot my usual ritual of slashing. The happy surprise was a gorgeously cracked crust. It reminds me of a watershed map, a giant river branching into ever smaller streams and brooks.

Ah, the small pleasures of bread baking. A loaf like this gives me the same grateful feeling as finding a new flower or pulling the first radish of the season.

I also made this bread look quite "artisanal" with a technique I learned from Jim Lahey, via Mark Bittman: flouring a cotton dishtowel and using it to wrap the dough during the second rise. The flour thus clings beautifully to the surface of the finished loaf, in a way that I have never been able to achieve by just sprinkling flour on the dough prior to baking.

The New York Times recently published a great bread making article by my favorite kitchen scientist and food nerd, Harold McGee. He examines the benefits and downfalls of the new-fangled wet doughs and no-knead techniques being promoted by folks like the aforementioned Lahey. McGee hits on some critical issues in bread making and they are sadly ones that I have only learned from hard experience and disappointing loaves. First, when it comes to flavor, salt matters - a lot. Romanticize the salt-free Tuscan loaf all you want, it just doesn't taste good unless it is dipped in a heavily flavored sauce or smothered in garlic and tomatoes. Second, wet doughs can lead to gummy loaves. More importantly on the topic of dough is his advice on shape: for the best loaves, stick with baguette style or small rolls. A good boule or round loaf is very hard to achieve in the home oven: the heat, moisture and air circulation just can't get close enough to the conditions of professional bakeries. The cast-iron dutch oven method that Lahey developed is the only way I have ever made round loaves that don't come out like a dense foccaccia.

Oh, to have a bread oven! I wish I had the space and zoning permits to build an outdoor adobe oven for bread and pizza. Maybe one day I can find a house that has a built-in bread oven: check out the kitchen in this New Hampshire home recently posted for sale in the Times. For a 1790's hearth like that, I would be willing to sacrifice bedrooms, bathrooms, and location. I could live anywhere! Well, as long as it had space for a garden. A garden and a hearth....what more could a girl want?

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