November 21, 2012

First decent French Bread

Some years ago, I wanted to start baking bread. So I got myself a copy of Bread Baker's Apprentice, by Peter Reinhardt, and began trying to bake some french bread. I did not meet with great success.

Having baked quite a bit of bread and having more skill and experience now, I thought I would give it another try. Two weeks ago I did so, and the bread was great!

Far from perfect, and in particular the crumb was not as open as fanatical internet hobby bakers would like, but the taste was amazing. The crumb was creamy yellow and positively bursting with complex flavor after a long, slow, sponge ferment followed by an overnight retarding in the fridge. Slathered with cultured butter, the aroma produced by a still warm piece of this bread approaching my mouth was almost disorienting in its powerful effect.

I've been baking exclusively whole grain bread for near on two years now, but since Becky has scorned the fruits of the wheat plant and I usually just bake for myself and the kids, I figured why not again explore what white flour has to offer?

Remembering my difficulties in the past, I consulted the internet for tips. One great resource for home bakers is The Fresh Loaf, and it is there that I found an instructive set of tips for baking better french bread. I also took a look at this baguette recipe from King Arthur Flour, another helpful source of tips and recipes for bread makers.

I settled on trying a batch of bread with 500g flour, so I wouldn't have to choke down too much poor bread if it didn't work out. Plus this lean dough is not great for storage or eating later, so I didn't want to make more than we could eat in a day. Heeding the tips on TFL, I went for 75% total hydration, and took a pointer for the salt and yeast amounts from the KAF recipe. In retrospect it could have used a little more salt. The flour used was unbleached all-purpose white flour from King Arthur.

On friday night, I intended to make a poolish with 100g flour and 100g water. I ended up dumping almost 200g of water in by accident, so I just added another 100g flour to make them even, plus a healthy pinch of instant yeast. This sat out on the countertop under plastic wrap until mid-morning on saturday.

I tried to autolyse the remaining 300g flour and 175g water, but the resulting dough was very stiff and I didn't get the sense there was enough water to effect much of the chemical changes autolyse is supposed to bring.

After an hour, I added another 1/2tsp instant yeast, 2 tsp salt, and the poolish, and let the kitchen aid knead it with the bread hook for probably 10 minutes. The stiff autolyse dough stubbornly resisted the machine's efforts to mix it with the watery poolish, so it took a while. The small size of this batch also made it difficult for the hook to successfully pull everything off the bottom of the bowl. Anyway, after 10 minutes or so it looked nicely kneaded and very stretchy. Wet of course, but that is to be expected with 75% hydration.

It took a couple hours to get to nearly double in size, at which point I dumped it on the counter and did some stretching and folding, then put it back in the rising bin. I tend to let it bulk rise in the kitchenaid bowl, since then there is one less dirty dish. Stetch and fold was again done about 90 minutes after that. This was taking longer than I had expected and we had to go to a brithday party on Saturday evening, so I just put the dough in the fridge overnight.

On Sunday morning, it had expanded to over double size while in the fridge, so after warming up on the counter for about an hour, I divided it into three pieces, did some folding, and shaped into three batard type shapes.

These proofed for maybe an hour on parchment in a baguette pan, got a poorly done slashing, then went into the oven.

I preheated the oven with my stone to 288C (550F), its max setting, for about 30 minutes prior to baking. The baguette pan went on to the stone, and I poured a cup of boiling water into a cake pan sitting on the bottom of the oven.

They looked quite dark after about 20 minutes, so I took them out and let them cool for about 15 minutes, which is all the family could be persuaded to wait. I think we ate the whole three loaves, mostly slathered with cultured butter, in an hour or so. Violet and I ate some mini-sandwiches with a few pieces of leftover bacon from breakfast, plus avocado and butter. These were heavenly. I polished off the last of a wheel of brie on a few pieces. I just couldn't get over how astounding the flavor was!

In fact I couldn't get that flavor and smell out of my mind. So that very day I mixed up another 400g sponge. On monday morning, I used the previously described procedure to mix up a new batch of dough, but upping the yeast added to 1 tsp to make it rise faster. This went into a tupperware and made the 17km bike trip with me to work. There, at two points in the morning I did a stretch and fold on it. By lunch it was ready to bake.

 I proofed the 3 loaves, then baked them at 232C (450F), which was all the mini tabletop oven at work could manage (it is really just a super size toaster oven). Steam was not accomplished with much success, but on the other hand the volume of the oven was very small so I think the RH in there was likely raised significantly by the bread itself. Baking took about 35 minutes, with the "convection" feature activated on the toaster oven.

They actually turned out nicely! I flipped the tray around partway through baking since it was clearly hotter in the back of the oven. I used some old parchment I had in the back of the drawer at home, and the bottom of the loaves stuck to it like mad. Sadly, I had to cut the whole bottom crust off all the loaves, which was a real shame. The flavor was good, but not quite as mind blowing as Sunday's bread; maybe the overnight retarding took the Sunday dough over the top? Still, we had no other bread left at work besides some stale pitas, and little other food. So these loaves were devoured in maybe 15 minutes. Of course with no other food competition, and the inherent goodness of fresh bread, the bar was not terribly high.

Still, I think they turned out well. The crust turned out harder and crunchier, where as Sunday's bread was more crackly and chewy. Another bread mystery. I'll probably bake bread again at work.

Update - 11/20/2012
Last weekend I made this bread again, but tripled the recipe. I used some generic flour Becky bought me, since the store was out of King Arthur, which was suspiciously chalky and white. I made cinnamon rolls on Friday night, which we baked and ate for breakfast on Saturday.

They were ok, not great. The recipe was from Bread Baker's Apprentice, and I would have preferred a richer dough with much more butter either in the bread or in the filling. I think some of the blandness was down to the flour, and this made me worried about the french bread in the works with the same flour.

I mixed up a starter with 600g flour/600g water, plus 3/8 tsp instant yeast on friday night. This is what it looked like on Saturday mid-day.

This time for the full recipe I went up to 2% salt, which turned out to be a good level for my taste. I also used 3% whole grain rye in the flout mix, in an attempt to improve flavor given the suspect white flour.

On saturday, I just dumped the remaining ingredients onto the poolish and mixed them up a bit with the Kitchen Aid, then let them sit for an hour, attempting to get some of the benefits of autolyse.

 After an hour, I kneaded the mixture up for about 10 minutes with the dough hook in the KA. It seemed less soupy than last time, so I added another ~50g of water. This took hydration into the upper 70s range, and caused me some problems with overly soupy dough later.

I let it rise on the counter in the bowl for about 90 minutes, did a stretch and fold, then a couple cycles of stretch and fold alternating with 30 minutes of rising. On the first stretch and fold I had a bit of an issue with the "dough" when I dumped it out of the bowl; it ran down around the cutting board, onto the counter, and some even over the edge!

Next, the whole thing went in the fridge until Sunday, and we turned our attention to making a batch of rice krispy treats. Millie and Violet helped out.

On Sunday, I took about half the dough out of the fridge and let it warm up on the counter for about an hour, then did a stretch and fold. I cut a few chunks off and floured them heavily for the kids to do bread shapes. Here is Millie enjoying her plate of baked shapes she made for lunch. In these cases, dipping in olive oil is more convenient than trying to butter each little piece.

I formed up the remaining dough into two baguette shapes and let them proof for about an hour on parchment in the baguette pan.

I preheated the oven with my baking stone to 287C (550F) for about 30 minutes prior to baking. I floured and slashed the tops of the loaves, then put them in the oven along with a cup of boiling water dumped into a cake pan on the bottom of the oven to provide some steam action. I turned the temp down to 260C (500F) and baked for a little over 20 minutes, then let them cool for about 30 minutes.

They turned out nicely; crust was more crusty but less chewy than last time. Oven spring was more pronounced. The flavor was pretty good, but nothing like the mind blowing flavor achieved the first time I baked this bread, which I'm currently ascribing to the suspicious generic flour used for this batch. The crumb was a little denser, probably my clumsy technique in stretch & fold is accountable for this. Still, we gobbled up one loaf for lunch along with some pumpkin and cauliflower soup Becky had made in the morning.

I also baked the usual two big whole grain sandwich loaves to replenish my supply in the freezer, again going for the 20% sprouted einkorn recipe reported on here. During this process, the attachment port for my Kitchen Aid broke while I was grinding the sprouted wheat in the food grinder attachment. I took it apart and found a sealed die cast gearbox to couple the motor shaft to the accessory drive, which was acting very like it had broken off a tooth or two. I'm hoping the gears in there are not die cast, but in any case this is the second Kitchen Aid that has broken on me in the last few years, which is very disappointing since they are not cheap and by rights ought to last a long time. Its not like I'm using these things all that frequently or asking them to perform strenuous service. The KA still works as a mixer, so I'll use it for that until it breaks, then maybe try out a Hobart instead. For food grinding, I've bought an antique Enterprise #5 hand cranked meat grinder off ebay for $20; I'm sure I'll post on that later.

In any case, the KA grinder was able to make it through my liter of sprouted grain, though it was extremely unhappy about it.

That left me with half the batch of french bread dough in the fridge to enjoy during the week. On Monday  I had bread fatigue, so left the dough to rest in the cold. Tuesday I brought the dough with me to work and baked it in the super-size toaster oven as before. It turned out pretty well and was appreciated by my office mates. The extra days in the fridge imbued it with a hint of sourdough like flavor, and made it more chewy, which were welcome changes.

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