Monday, July 28, 2014

Give us this day our daily (delicious) bread

I go through phases of bread-making. There's something satisfying about making your own, and in the last place we lived in I did quite a bit of it.

However, like most hobbies I tend to try and take things further. You know what it's like. You buy a cheap guitar or bicycle and decide it's rubbish and start to upgrade after a few months when you've got the hang of it.

So it is with my bread making, which I am just getting back into again.

I was quite happy messing around with a mix of spelt and white flour, wholemeal and white flour, but then I bought the baker's Bible. A fantastic book on bread baking, Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman. I considered carefully before I bought it; reviews were mixed as some of the methods are quite complicated and aimed at professional bakers. The initial blurb said that recipes were cut down for home bakers, which made me press the Buy button. They are… but you have to convert from American imperial to metric. Oy vey!

I haven't made many of Hamelman's breads yet simply because more than half are sourdough (I didn't realise that when I bought it!) and I don't have a sourdough starter. The starter would be easy enough to obtain or make, but with only two of us in the house we don't go through enough bread to make keeping a starter alive (as the fifth pet in the household) a logical option.

With all the faffing around I've done with various flours over the last few years, trying my hand at ciabatta bread, olive bread, baguettes, I've come to the conclusion that the right flour is key. You can't make a really good, authentic-tasting and -looking baguette with the 'strong flour' you buy at the supermarket. Same goes for ciabatta and any sort of rustic loaf. You don't get the crunchy crust or the beautiful open crumb.

So I did more research on bread baking forums and went in search of T65 French Flour, and found it online in Brisbane. Yes, my flour has air miles. It is genuinely from France and performs quite differently to flours I've tried locally. I have almost 5 kilos of it in my cupboard. I did have 5 kilos but I've been baking.

After a week in Paris with sublime baguettes, what passes for those delectable long loaves here doesn't cut the mustard unless you hunt out a French bakery which also imports T65. And that means your baguettes will be expensive; it's cheaper to buy the flour and make them, even allowing for the postage from Brisbane (which costs more than the flour!).

Last week, I made my first baguettes with my T65. The recipe I used was one I'd downloaded a few years ago and is a 7 hour process. You use very little yeast and so it rises slowly. The slow rise is the key to getting bread with a luscious open crumb. Also being gentle with it after it's risen keeps the crumb in good shape.

I had bought some baker's linen a few years back and the baguettes, on the second rise, took their shape in the canvas.

I then put a pizza stone in the oven, whacked the heat up, and steamed the oven the instant before the baguettes went in on a baking tray on top of the pizza stone. I spritzed the inside of the oven with water too at that point. This is the key thing to that fab crunchy crust. After ten minutes enough crust had formed so I could slide the little lovelies directly onto the pizza stone for another 20 minutes' cooking.

They were superb. The flavour and texture could have been from a baguette made in Paris. G and I wolfed down one for dinner with cheese and pate and wine, and the other for breakfast the next day. Baguettes only have a 24 hour life span before they go stale - it's no hardship to gobble them up!

Inspired by the baguette success, I then made a Country Loaf out of Hamelman's book. This time the process was a little different. I made half the dough the day before and let it prove overnight - up to 17 hours, Hamelman says, and I was a bit worried as the room temperature was a little lower than recommended. That poor bloody pre-ferment dough with a tiny bit of yeast had its work cut out for it. After 18 hours (!) I added it to the rest of the mix and it had to rise for another 2 1/2 hours, with me folding it gently twice during that time. The dough was a bastard - very sticky. I had my real doubts about this one. Anyway, it was finally time for the last rise in the baker's linen again, and the dough looked a bit better.

Once again I steamed the oven before I put the loaves on their tray on top of the pizza stone, and then again once I'd put them in, following Hamelman's directions. Hamelman didn't say to take them off the tray after ten minutes, but I did, figuring they would do better straight on the pizza stone.

I was overjoyed with the results. Two lovely brown-crusted loaves with a perfect open crumb, lots of holes for butter to drip through. The texture was a little like a ciabatta when we started eating it, and I suspect the initial room temperature had something to do with that.

But I am hooked on bread baking again. Hamelman has a baguette recipe which takes 24 hours from go to whoa, with a pre-ferment dough, and I'm trying that next.

Bugger the carbs!

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