Sunday, September 14, 2014

In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey

Sam Fromartz' new book, In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey is the story of a quest. Like all serious home bakers' (SHB) efforts to make good bread, the journey begins at home in his kitchen. Sam hasn't gone to culinary school, he hasn't spent years working in a bakery. He started baking his own bread for exactly the same reason I did: because there was no real bread to be had in the neighborhood he moved to. Like many beginning bakers (I plead guilty!), he first tried his hand at baguettes, which is "the equivalent of wanting to knock out a Beethoven sonata when you sit down at the piano for the first time." He failed, moved on to other breads which he learned to make well, but never forgot the unmet challenge.
So when opportunity knocked at his door several years later in the shape of a commissioned article for Afar Magazine, he jumped at the chance to go spend a week in Paris learning from Arnaud Delmontel, a baker who had won best baguette in Paris in 2007. From the long hours he put in at Delmontel's boulangerie, he learned a crucial lesson: bread baking isn't about the recipe, it is about the feel, the "visual, tactile, and auditory clues" that tell you what you should or should not do. The feel comes with time... Back at home in Washington, DC, Sam practiced, practiced, practiced and was rewarded a couple of months later when his baguettes won "best in DC" in a blind testing against professionals, a crowning achievement for a SHB!
With success came fame. Alice Waters (from Chez Panisse no less) called Sam to have him bake bread for a charity dinner she was planning to host in Washington (I remember being awed when I read about it back then.) Partly thanks to Waters, there were (and are) several great bakers in the Bay Area and over the following years, Sam visited many of them: Michel Suas, president of the San Francisco Baking Institute, Steve Sullivan, founder of The Acme Bread Company, Kathleen Weber, co-founder/owner of Della Fattoria, The Bejkr Mike Zakowski who won silver for the United States at the World Bread Cup in 2012, Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery, etc.
Sam being as talented a writer as he is a baker, the reader is pulled into each of the stories. We see bakers at work in a blur of motion or relaxing when the work is done, we touch flour, we observe dough, we feel the heat of the ovens, we hear the crackling of the burnished loaves as they cool on the racks, we breathe in the aromas and like the author, we are hooked. With him, we go bakery-hopping in Paris and meet other passionate bakers, including Frédéric Pichard for whom bread dough's two-step fermentation process is akin to champagne's and who cares so much for the taste of his bread that he has a farmer grow an ancient variety of wheat exclusively for him.
Although Sam takes us to Weichardt Brot in Berlin to learn all about rye and to the South of France to interview farmer/miller/baker Roland Feuillas, the book never turns into a guidebook to the best bakeries in the United States and Europe. The reader is actually invited to bake along: there is at least one recipe per chapter, and yes, there is one for Feuillas' bread which one of my French friends - herself an accomplished baker - once described to me as the best she ever had.
Sam describes how to build and keep a starter, opens his pantry to our inquisitive eyes, lists his sources for unusual or heirloom flours (in case you don't live in an area where local grain is available or you want to try and reproduce the flavor and structure of a particular loaf), and mostly he explains, again and again, that every flour is different, that reading the dough comes with practice and that we should not be afraid to experiment and learn from our failures. He retraces a brief history of wheat (to help us understand the various baking properties and flavors of today's grains), gives us a synopsis of what goes on behind the scenes during fermentation, explores the vagaries of hydration and encourages us on our own journey to our dream loaf.
I had the good fortune to attend a conversation between Fromartz and Tartine Bakery's Chad Robertson in San Francisco the other day in honor of the launching of the book. Both lovers of whole grains, they revealed that they were not necessarily fans of loaves containing 100% of one particular grain: Sam's favorite rye bread is made with 30% wheat and Chad prefers to add cooked grains to his breads than bake with 100% wholegrain flour.
Both bakers debunked the myth that sourdough reflects a particular region (Chad started sourdough cultures in Mexico, in France and in Denmark: they all behaved the same.) If bread is good in the San Francisco area, it is because the weather is pretty mild year-round. When the temperature dips as it occasionally does, the Tartine bakers know to put the starters on higher shelves and sometimes even cover them with blankets. The fluctuations keep everything interesting. Chad prefers shaping  before cold fermentation (to prevent aromas from dissipating when manipulating the dough) while Sam opts for bulk fermentation (a SHB would be hard put to fit several baskets in his or her home refrigerator).
Both like to keep their starters mild by feeding them often and using them young although Sam prefers his a tad firmer (70 to 75% hydration) to slow the pace of fermentation.
With wonder in his voice, Chad recounted that the loaf shown being made step by step in his book Tartine No 3 had actually been mixed and baked in a home baker's house in Berkeley. No staging had been involved in the photos. It was the first time he had had a chance to look at a bread out of a pot in a home situation and he had been "shocked" (his word): "The bread was like the best ever at the bakery. It was indeed the perfect loaf!"
So, readers, take heart. With practice and determination, you too can reach the Holy Grail and a book such as Sam's is a good companion to take on your journey: the author has been there, done that. You will benefit from his experience, learning over and over the most important lesson: don't overthink the dough, just observe it. (At the beginning you may need to touch it but after a while, looking should suffice. Chad confided that it drove him nuts when his bakers poked the dough and that he tried to teach them to rely on their eyes instead of their fingers.)
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that Sam sent me an advance copy of his book. When I received it, though, I had already pre-ordered the electronic version.  Once I started reading, the furthest thing from my mind was to cancel the Kindle version. In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey is a book I look forward to having at the tip of my fingers wherever and whenever I bake. But I am glad I have the print copy as well. After all, I couldn't very well ask Sam to write a dedication on my e-reader!

Sam Fromartz with Chad Robertson
Just in case you are curious, here is a picture of the crumb on Chad's country bread...
Chad hadn't thought to bring a bread knife but the audience wouldn't let him leave without having a taste. So he kindly let us tear into it, which makes for a terrific memory! (And believe me, the bread was good!).

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Grain Gathering 2014: (Mostly) Baking With Naomi Duguid and Dawn Woodward

Naomi Duguid, author (most recently) of Burma: Rivers of Flavor and Dawn Woodward, owner of Evelyn's Crackers in Toronto, Canada, make an excellent teaching team (and pair of friends, I suspect.) Both world travelers, both lovers of whole grains and both down-to-earth in their approach to baking and cooking, they held three workshops during the Gathering: Waste Not!Toast: Whole Grain Pan Loaves; and Multi-Grain Baking: Cookies, Scones & Pie.
Naomi also delivered the first keynote address of the Gathering. Her talk was short on words and rich in images. Saying that she liked to think she traveled to cultures rather than countries, she proceeded to open our eyes to a wider world of grain beyond artisan bread as we know it in the West. She typically travels with her camera and a few lenses, most often with no interpreter or guide and relies on infra-verbal communication to connect with the people she meets. She takes almost no written notes, using her camera to record the ingredients and steps required for whatever dish or bread is being made in front of her.  As she writes in her blog, "Food is a thread that we can use to help understand others, in fact to help visualise ourselves in their place. Even as there are rocket launchers attacking, in Gaza or Syria, there are home cooks figuring out how to feed their families, and bakers heating their ovens to get the day’s bread baked. And that visualising of the daily food preparation, and family meals of others, in turn helps us remember that we are all on this planet together. It helps us have respect for the people we share the planet with, just as, when we were in primary school, we were all in the classroom together, with our differences and our difficulties, embarked on trying to understand what was going on and to learn." As each slide appeared on the large screen, Naomi commented on the person, the grain, the recipe, the location. She seemed to have total recall of each encounter and I marveled at the richness and diversity of the world she carries inside her head. I asked her for a few slides to share with you and she kindly sent the four I am posting below. Thank you, Naomi!

A woman making sushi in the village of Miyama, Japan...

A baker baking lavash in Masouleh, Iran...

Bakers baking sangak in Isfahan, Iran

Women crushing, grinding and winnowing barley to make a coarse bread which they will ferment to make thalla, a local beer, in Lalibela, Ethiopia

Dawn Woodward, aka Dawn-the-Baker, has impressive credentials as a baker (she was once head baker for Dan Leader at Bread Alone Bakery.) Watching her and Naomi at work, I was struck by their complementarity: for instance, Naomi is charmingly fuzzy about quantities (after all, most of the cooks and bakers she meets in her travels use neither scales nor cups or tablespoons) whereas Dawn weighs everything. But then Naomi is a writer and Dawn runs a cracker business. Naomi embraces variance, Dawn aims for consistency. No wonder they make a great pair of instructors.
Their first workshop was entitled Waste Not!. Being a firm believer in (and unconditional lover of) leftovers, I was looking forward to discovering new creative ways to use old bread. I don't know that I actually learned a lot (I am already using bread crumbs and croutons) but I had fun hearing what fellow leftover fans think up around the world.

Dedas Kharcho
Not all the recipes came out as expected. The one I was most interested in, Dedas Kharcho (old bread frittata) turned out a bit wet and (to me) rather unappealing looking even though the taste was mostly all right. Such are the hazards of cooking in the open with unfamiliar local ingredients in front of a crowd. In the write-up for the recipe, Naomi says: "This traditional recipe from Georgia transforms old bread into succulent eating. Quantities are casual. Cubes of dried bread are tossed in hot oil with onions, then simmered in added water. Once they are tender, whisked egg is stirred in, to make a kind of frittata. The recipe was given to me by Dali, a woman of eighty-five ... who had worked for years as a chemist in the Soviet era then found herself out of work with no pension after the breakup of the USSR. Her garden is a marvel, and so is her pantry, filled with shelves of gleaming preserves." That tidbit of information awoke a cherished memory: my first husband's Danish grandmother used to make a tasty omelet with whipped eggs to which she added a spoonful or two of flour and lots of chives (aeggekage). Inspired by this beloved staple of family vacations in Denmark, I sometimes add a spoonful or two of surplus starter to my own frittatas (as well as anything leftover veggies I have on hand). Although I love having a use for my starter, next time I will try old bread. In a spirit of kinship with Dali,  I'll make croutons and see how the frittata turns out (I may toast the croutons a while longer and hold back on the water a bit). Having had a wonderful old Georgian friend in my young adulthood (he had escaped from Tiflis by boat in a cage - sadly I no longer remember the details -  when the Soviets invaded Georgia after the Revolution and made it to Paris via Istanbul), I love the idea of adding a Georgian recipe to my repertoire.

Austrian Knudel (soup dumplings)
Check out the Waste Not! booklet for more recipes and flavors: I particularly like Dawn's m'hammara and fruit bars as well as the gazpacho, panzanella and garbure suggestions.

I almost forgot to mention that Naomi and Dawn brought to class some kvass they had made with leftover rye bread from the Bread Lab and that it was excellent. Judging from some of the faces in the audience when the jar made the rounds (for sniffing purposes), not everybody agreed with my assessment. Naomi explained that she and Dawn had put chunks of rye bread in a bowl, poured boiling water over it and let it soak overnight. Then they had drained it through a sleeve, tossed the rye and poured the liquid (which by then had a gorgeous smell) into a glass jar, added a little starter (yeast and a bit of lemon juice would do too), honey, a few raisins and some blueberries (because some happened to be available). They had let the mixture sit, loosely covered with cheesecloth in a warm place for about three days.  After draining it into a jug, they passed tiny goblets around. The fragrance was divine (I could definitely get high on it) and the taste remarkable but rather fierce. Definitely not for the faint of heart. Although I will try my hand at it one of these days, I'll most likely be the only one in my household to partake of it. Where tastebuds are concerned, the Man is courageux mais pas téméraire as we say in French (courageous but not foolhardy).

The next workshop, Toast: Whole Grain Pan Loaves, was mostly Dawn's baby.
She had spent a week at the Bread Lab over the winter working with Jonathan Bethony (the baker in residence) "to create whole grain pan loaves that would be ideal for toast."
She had baked a batch of three different breads prior the workshop, was proofing another to bake in the wood-fired oven while she demoed the hand-mixing of yet another one, which explains why the photos show doughs and loaves at various stages in the process.
Since she targets the farmers markets with her whole-grain toasts, she has come up with a bunch of tasty toppings which can be varied ad infinitum, depending on what's in season and on hand.
I strongly recommend checking out the Toast: Whole Grain Pan Loaves booklet where you'll find the recipes for all the loaves as well as ideas for more toppings.

Dawn and Naomi taught their last workshop Multi-Grain Baking: Cookies, Scones & Pie under a tent near the process lab in front of another, smaller, wood-fired oven, the main one having been commandeered by the pretzel workshop (which attracted a big crowd).
Of the three workshops, it was probably the most fun because of the instant gratification factor: Dawn and Naomi made a huge variety of goodies and baked them on the spot, which means we went from naked ingredients to happy tastebuds in the course of ninety minutes. My favorite was maybe the rye savory galette.
It was actually so popular that I barely reached the table in time to take a picture (and snatch a small piece) before it literally vanished in front of my eyes. The filling was hard-boiled eggs, sautéed green onions and a large amount of cooked tarragon and spinach.

Using a sweet version of the same dough, Dawn made a gorgeous and flavorful apple pie.

Dawn and Naomi next mixed and baked Ancient Durum (Kamut) Ginger Cookies...

...Barley Scones with Coffee & Molasses...

...Red Fife Tart with Pinenut-Cardamom Filling...

...and, last but not least, Buckwheat Cream Scones...
The scones were very tender. I wish I had been hungry enough by the time they came out of the oven to eat more than a large crumb. They looked tantalizing spread with butter!
As a possible variation, Dawn and Naomi suggested using a combination of cornmeal, rye and Red Fife, which they described as stunning. The basic idea is to give a free rein to your imagination, using grain as a flavor. Thumbs up to that suggestion!
I will post the link to the Multi-Grain Baking recipe booklet as soon as I get it. Meanwhile enjoy the pics! And thank you, thank you, thank you, Dawn and Naomi! The workshops must have been a lot of work but they surely reached their goal and broadened our horizons.

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