Lately, I have been going nuts about making bread which means I have to write about it. I first thought it is a completely different subject from anything I have been writing about on this blog, a subject that might deserve a blog on its own. I am afraid, however, there is no way I can have two blogs because I often struggle with focus. I am known for cruelly eliminating a whole bunch of things from my life at once just so that I don’t have to choose one. I can have 36 open tabs in my browser for a week but then shut them down one fine day without looking back. I was spared a failed exercise in blogging megalomania by this simple analysis and you, my dear readers.
Last week I posted on facebook a photo of me in the middle of baking. Your reaction that followed brought me back to my childhood: I was singing a song on the stage cheered by the 7 grown-ups who in one way or another surrounded me while was I was growing up. That time and now I had all the support I needed. I felt inspired by your response and realized that despite my baking chaos and funny hair bun you, in fact, may be rather excited to hear about my baking exercises. And so I am going to write about them on this very blog. Which means you will hear from me more frequently, and it is a great reason to sign up for the blog updates if you have not done it yet.
Bread making has universal appeal: the very word smells home, safety and care; many of us wish we could make our own bread. Yet there is more to bread making for me right now. I must admit it is boring to be an expect all the time and to have answers to all those questions I am asked about Istanbul, its food and Turkish cuisine in general. While I continue my learning and experiments in that area I am a kind of person who needs constant stimulation: among friends I am known for mastering a certain domain only to move to another in a while. I am not moving anywhere from my beloved Turkish food but extending my interest to the bread making that has a lot to do with Turkish cooking but also goes much further.
Sure, I have baked before with rather satisfying outcomes, but I want to move beyond intuitive baking and grasp the science of it. My “guerrilla” approach to learning has proved effective to overcome the fear and just start cooking but to become really good you need to understand general principles. So that you are critical and hence more creative: then instead of following a recipe you can cook by ear (or nose, or hands). That’s why I piled up the books on making bread I have been collecting for a while and started reading. My first one was “Bread” by Jeffrey Hamelman.
It’s a beautifully written and illustrated handbook on bread making that requires your 100% engagement: you need to take notes, set the book aside often to let some concepts “proof” in your head before you can continue reading further, at times look up things online to brush up your physics/chemistry and then make some bread. I am a very impatient learner that’s why after the initial chapters on the process of break making I picked a recipe (pain rustique, French loaf) to apply the principles I have read about.
Pain rustique is a fairly simple bread made in two stages: first, 12-16 hours in advance you prepare a preferment (poolish) when you combine half of the required flour, same weight of water and less than half of the required yeast and let it sit at about 20C. During the second stage, you combine the preferment with the remaining flour, water, yeast and salt. Why bother with preferment? To get much more flavorful bread and decrease proofing times for your dough so you can turn your bread around quicker.
Making my first loaf of pain rustique felt like my first day on the horseback: I could barely hold my excitement, my whole mind was in that ball of dough, I felt brave but still not trusting myself as I was trying to take control of my unruly dough. I was thrilled to be back on the fast-learning track. And here are my first – very briefly fermented thoughts – to any aspiring home bread maker.
Decide on the kind of bread to make: I want to learn to make bread so that I can eat good bread as there are less and less good loaves out there. Besides some profound examples of sourdough and a couple of good traditional bakeries that operate their stone ovens 24×7 there is not much to be proud of in the country where bread has been a backbone of the diet. For instance, daily bread made of bleached-to-death flour goes stale by afternoon and needs to be toasted to refresh it. I want to make something better and remind people around me of the great breads made with chickpea starter, village sourdoughs and other breads enjoyed by their forefathers. That is why I am not starting with the new mantra of bread baking – no-knead bread: I want to get to know different aspects and ways in bread making and then choose my preferred method. That’s why I am going to get my hands pretty dirty with the pre-fermented breads such as pain rustique.
Find the teacher you are going to trust: There are many books, courses and tutorials out there. I have gone with the Jeffrey Hamelman’s book because it has appeared most fundamental of many available – Hamelman is a devoted baker with tremendous experience: he sets the bar really high for you and you stay stimulated. So I decided to trust him. My horse-riding coach used to say that what really sets an amateur and professional rider apart is their attitude to the coach’s feedback: while amateurs have a tendency to debate it professional riders immediately act on it. I see how it is also true for baking. My regular approach was to start making bread with liquid and then add as much flour as needed to bind that liquid into a firm elastic dough that does not stick to your hand. When I saw the loose pile that formed in front of me after I combined my pain rustique preferment and the rest of the ingredients I started getting nervous: it was the stickiest dough I have ever worked. Did I make a mistake and add too much water? With a big difficulty I dragged the dough to the scales – 2 kg, that’s right – that’s exactly the output I should have had. So I dusted the counter and my hands with flour (I used about 1/2 cup flour on top of the recipe for the dusting throughout the whole process of making 4 loaves) and got on to kneading. However unruly at first the dough indicated first signs of cooperation in a couple of minutes: it started forming into a ball that I could partially take off the counter. As I continued dusting my hands in 5-7 minutes, I had a way more manageable ball of dough that formed up well. Good I trusted the recipe and its author.
Be serious in your planning: We are always recommended reading a recipe until the end before cooking, but we rarely bother. You cannot afford not to bother in the bread making. I know the pain rustique’s recipe by heart by now. I read it a dozen times, wrote down the schedule of the whole process and then planned my evening around it: combine the ferment with the rest of the ingredients, let them be (autolyze), knead, proof once (midway stretch the dough and fold it into an envelope to decompress and let the air out – repeat later), shape, proof again, score (with a razor to guide expansion of the dough), steam the oven, open the oven half way to dry it and check on the bread as it gets baked. Another part of planning is math especially if any conversion or halving/doubling recipes is involved. Hamelman gives metric recipe for the industrial size batch (33 loaves) and US measures for a home baker. So I had to do all the conversions and then divisions to get my metric home baker recipe. First time I made a mistake in dividing the recipe between the preferment and the rest of the dough and I ended up with the preferment that big enough for 4 instead of 2 loaves (fortunately, bread is easy to give away). Finally, you may want to plan ahead with getting a few baking gadgets. First time I had just bare minimum. For instance, I baked my loaves on a baking tray, and the bottoms and especially the sides did not bake so well (shiny tray reflects heat away from the sides + I overcrowded the tray by placing 3 loaves too close to eat other). I find it useful to start with the bare minimum and then gradually build your baking pantry to appreciate the purpose of each gadget. Next time I placed one loaf on a pre-hear cast-iron pan and I got a much more evenly baked loaf.
I think it is too early to share the pain rustique recipe: yes, I have baked it twice with very decent outcomes but it’s too little to call the recipe my own and share it here with “Adapted from”. We, food bloggers, are often guilty of that. It takes a lot of time and many attempts to develop a recipe from a scratch, and it is understandable that many recipes are adaptions of others – some more loose and some really close to the source. But even “adapted from” obliges: for instance, you need to make a substitution of an ingredient that acts differently and causes a change in method or proportions. That’s why you need to bear with me for a bit because I continue making bread to have something to share with you eventually – a few good loaves, a few good recipes.