Sunday, March 22, 2015

Aroma and Flavor Notes for Bread by Michael Kalanty

Image courtesy Michael Kalanty

I have always had my doubts about the word "delicious," finding it both enticing and frustrating. Enticing because it conjures up an array of pleasant olfactory and gustatory sensations and frustrating because these sensations remain wholly undefined, cloaked in a veil of vagueness: hearing or reading that an heirloom variety apple is "delicious" doesn't tell me anything about the taste of the apple, does it? It only tells me that the speaker or writer enjoyed eating it. Good for that person to know, for sure, but no help to me at all if I am trying to decide whether or not I might like it as well.
Having been aware of the emptiness of the d... word for a while, I have made a conscious effort to avoid using it on this blog when describing bread. But of course that meant I needed other words and to my dismay the ones that came to me were not necessarily more descriptive.
Now the task has become easier thanks to Aroma and Flavor Notes for Bread, a tool developed by Michael Kalanty, baker, chef, teacher, sensory scientist (more on that in a later post) and, last but not least, author of How to Bake Bread: The Five Families of Bread. What Mike set out to do, based on his experience working with chefs and bakers all over the world, is to give bakers the words they need to convey the actual aroma and flavor of bread, much as winemakers describe the aroma of wine or coffee roasters that of coffee.
As explained in the accompanying article, the method is pretty straightforward, you start with the crumb and you chew (preferably with your mouth open to better aerate the flavor, so don't try it on a date!).
First you identify the sourness (or lack of) of the crumb, then the character of that sourness. Smooth and dairy-like or sharp like citrus? As it happened we had been to San Francisco a few days earlier and we had brought back from Tartine Bakery a Rye Porridge loaf. I had cut it in half and put it in the freezer reserving it for a special occasion. This test definitely qualified.
I took one half out, waited for it to thaw, "resurrected" it in the oven at 350°F for about ten minutes, then let it cool down. The kitchen filled in with luscious bread baking aromas. Notice I didn't say "delicious," but is "luscious" better? I don't think so,  it conveys judgment, not information. I needed to let go of that mindset and put myself in a evaluation mode.
When the bread was cool, I separated the crumb from the crust and started chewing.
I could taste sourness but what kind? I looked at the orange and yellow infographic : the choices were green apple, grapefruit, lemon or vinegar. Vinegar and grapefruit could be eliminated right away: the one was too tangy, the other too bitter. I briefly thought of lemon but it was too acidic for what I was smelling and tasting. I settled for "green apple."
On to dairy sweetness: did I perceive an aroma of milk or butter? Not really. The closest approximation to a dairy product I could think of was a young raw milk cheese. I wrote that down. Already I was off the chart and liking it: it felt like poetry with training wheels.
As I continued chewing and aerating my palate, I also clearly identified the flavor of cooked grain. Since I have never had rye porridge, I can't say that I tasted it but I did taste boiled grain. And it didn't bring to mind rye as I know it. In fact that bread couldn't be more different from any other rye bread I have ever had. Interesting...
Moving on to the crumb, the first note I perceived was malt. I clearly discerned "roasted" as well but try as I might I couldn't identify either chocolate or balsamic. As I chewed I became keenly aware of the fact that I was very much an apprentice in the art of analyzing aromas and flavors. I was tasting things I had no words for because I had never stopped long enough to establish a correlation between language and what I was experiencing. There is definitely a learning curve to the process. In the end it boils down to educating one's palate. If I try the bread again in a few months after some practice, I will probably be more specific.
I looked at the infograph again. The crust definitely reminded me of a French dark beer, a Pelforth to be precise, which I haven't had in decades. Funny how the tastebuds remember. I assume American dark beers are not that different. But I understand that, to be really useful, the reference would need to be checked.
At the end here are the words I jotted down to describe Tartine's Porridge Rye bread. Probably not enough but hey, it was my first time.
  • Crumb: malty, mildly acidic (like a green apple), reminiscent of oatmeal and a very young raw milk cheese
  • Crust: again malty,  roasted, slightly bitter crust reminding me of a French dark beer.
Now doesn't that tell you much more than if I had just said "delicious?"
Which of course it also was. As well as luscious. Good words for sure as long as they are not the only ones we use.  To conclude I would like to thank Michael for generously sharing this tool with us. Seeing how it immediately filled a gap for me, I am convinced it will come in handy for many other bakers, professional or home-based as a way to facilitate dialogue. Thanks to bakers' math, we already have a good idea of what a bread will be like just from looking at its formula. If the baker adds aroma and flavor notes, we will also know how it will taste. I have a feeling many bakers, especially in the younger generation, will be keenly interested.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sometimes the signs...

...are sad. There is a beach a few miles from where we live and we often take our little dog running on it. Most of the time the sand is bare: no weeds, very little detritus, only crabs, broken seashells and the occasional driftwood. Today the tide had brought in more stuff than usual: shiny pieces of redwood, polished rocks, large empty shells. I spied an unbroken sand dollar and an iridescent blue shell shaped like a tiny comma.
I continued walking, keeping my eyes on the ground. I couldn't shake the feeling that a sign from Noah was imminent and that it would materialize if only I paid close attention. I didn't have long to wait. Here it was at the edge of the surf: a lone kid shoe, full of water and sand, of a style and size that looked just right for a six-year old boy.
I stared. I could feel my heart racing and my throat constricting. But the dog was running ahead, chasing seagulls. I snapped a picture and reluctantly followed.
On the way back, the shoe was gone. As if it had never existed...

Saturday, February 21, 2015


Signs are everywhere. Only we don't always see them. For three nights in a row last month, the shortest of five ivory flameless candles lined up on our kitchen counter lit up all by itself and I thought nothing of it. On the fourth night, it occurred to me it could be a sign. From Noah. The day after, it lit up during the day, then the battery died. I put in a new one but the candle didn't turn itself on again that night or any other night since.
Two weeks later, it was the turn of a red candle, the middle one of a set of three. This time I took a picture before turning it off. It didn't light up by itself again.
Now, unbeknownst to me, family members had consulted a psychic the week before Christmas. From what I heard later, it had been a poignant experience because so much of what that person said or hinted at about our family was eerily specific and accurate when there was no way she could have had access to that information through "regular" channels (even if she had had a chance to google the various branches of the family tree, including the distantly related and international ones, and she hadn't).
I must say I was flabbergasted when I heard the details. I have never been to a psychic and it has never even occurred to me to go see one. It would be fair to say that I am more of a skeptic than a believer. Yet I am convinced that there is much we do not know or comprehend about the world and that the essential may well be "invisible to the eyes" in the words of French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. One of the things the psychic said was that Noah was trying to communicate with his family through "something related to feathers" and/or through electrical interferences.
I hadn't been told yet on Christmas Eve when I spotted the yellow bird on one of the bushes lining our driveway. I hadn't been told but from the joy and peace that suddenly came over me, I "knew" it was a sign from Noah. The bird's feathers looked extraordinarily soft and fluffy and its eyes were bright. It let me approach as I took out my phone and started snapping pictures. It only flew off when I came too close for comfort and even then it still lingered in full sight a few minutes longer, eyeing me from its perch on a limb. I had never seen it before and never saw it since.
My daughter sent me these two pictures she took last week at the graffiti park in the college town where her oldest child goes to school. The Spanish words means "the lost son." The graffiti were next to each other. The thought of this juxtaposition sends chills down my spine. What are the odds that this might be unrelated to the loss of Noah? From what my daughter learned the graffiti are regularly painted over with fresh ones. What are the odds that these two should be up there for a broken-hearted mother to see on her visit?
Just as when we went back home in the month following the murder and the first three letters of the confirmation code on our flight itinerary was NOA... What are the odds of this having been a coincidence?
Yet we can never know, can we? The candles may have been malfunctioning, the bird a migratory visitor on its way to warmer climes, the graffiti totally unrelated to the tragedy that befell our family, the airline code the result of sheer randomness.  We may be looking for meaning where there is none.
And believe me, even though hearing from Noah is our dearest wish, it is also immensely sad it should be through such paltry and evanescent means. Only yesterday I was playing TimeLine and SmartyPants with my eight-year old California grandson (he was born six weeks after Noah and his twin sister) and we were having a great time trying to answer quizzes, solve puzzles and put scientific discoveries in chronological order. We went grocery-shopping and I made him lunch and it was just plain ordinary life and it threw into stark relief how pathetic it is that such trivial things as the sight of a bold bird or a rogue candle should bring happiness and peace.
And yet...
And yet it is better than nothing. The "signs" hint at the possibility that Noah is still out there and still close to us.
If they signify nothing else, they mean our love for him is very much alive. They mean he is missed every minute of every day. They mean we believe his spirit hasn't died. And if that isn't a reason to feel happy and at peace despite our sorrow, I wonder what is.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Buckwheat Love

So the other day, I bought a small bag of Bob's Red Mill organic cracked buckwheat (marketed as "creamy buckwheat") thinking I would make porridge for breakfast and use the rest in a rustic bread. Maybe because I grew up eating buckwheat crêpes regularlyI have a huge fondness for blé noir (literally black wheat) as my grandmother used to call it (the other name being sarrasin) and as it is still called in half of Brittany and I was looking forward to a new buckwheat experience.
Well, I was disappointed: not only did the cracked buckwheat boil into a solid clump but it had no taste at all. To the point that it ended up in our little dog's food bowl (she didn't seem to mind, maybe because I added a non-inconsiderable amount of shredded chicken and sweet potatoes). In any events it had a very positive effect on her innards which had been rather scrambled because of her unbridled passion for sand crabs (we walk her on the beach most days and she treats it not only as her personal race track -which is good- but also as an all-you-can-eat sushi bar -which is less beneficial to her health).
Anyway I had buckwheat on my mind in a generally dispirited sort of way when French chef and pastry chef Philippe Conticini was invited on On va dégusterone of my favorite French weekly food radio shows, and I heard him describe, among other things, a topping he makes with buckwheat and hazelnut meal. Unlike the other recipes the chef shared on that day, this one was pretty simple and I jotted down the reference, thinking it could come in handy.
A few days later I got an interesting oat chocolate crumble recipe in my mailbox from Smitten Kitchen, a blog I love not only for its food but for also the verve, energy, humor and otherwise sheer New-Yorkishness of its author, Deb Perelman.
The recipe called for pears. That caught my attention. A dozen big organic pears had been ripening on the counter for the better part of two weeks and I knew they were about ready to eat. I was idly trying to remember if we had any oat flakes left over from the last time I made granola when the Conticini buckweat topping popped into my mind. Bingo!
Next thing I knew, I was caramelizing pears and grinding cracked buckwheat into flour. When all the ingredients were ready, I put the caramelized pears in an oven dish, covered them with a layer of unsweetened frozen raspberries, added dark chocolate chips and a generous sprinkling of buckwheat topping, and into the oven it went for about thirty minutes. I won't lie by saying it came out gorgeous. In my experience, melted chocolate always looks iffy under a toasted surface but it smelled divine and tasted even better, especially with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream.

For 5 or 6 people


For the fruit base
  • 4 ripe pears, peeled, cored and diced
  • 60 g sugar
  • 60 butter 
  • 200 g frozen raspberries
  • 1 teaspoon of corn starch
For the topping
(makes way more than you need for this recipe but can be refrigerated and used on other desserts or even on oatmeal or yogurt)
  • 100 g buckwheat flour
  •  50 g salted butter
  • 50 g brown sugar
  • 65 g hazelnut meal
  • 2 generous pinches of fleur de sel (or regular coarse sea sal
Since Deb explains in details how to make the fruit base and the process is pretty straightforward, I won't go over it again. As suggested, I added a teaspoon of cornstarch to the caramelized pears to thicken up the juices a bit. If you do that, remember to mix the cornstarch with some cold liquid first. (I took two tablespoons of pear juice out of the pan, added an ice cube until cool, removed the ice cube, mixed in the starch and put the whole thing back in with the pears.)
The recipe for the buckwheat topping being given in French, I'll run it by you in English: basically all you have to do is mix the buckwheat flour, butter, salt and hazelnut meal in the food processor until you get a finely granulated powder, toast it for a few minutes in a frying pan until satisfyingly blonde and fragrant. Et voilà, you have a dessert that's both reasonably healthful and decidedly decadent. Enjoy!

Monday, February 9, 2015

About love

Love is when an eight-year old French girl decides to make a Pithiviers (an almond cake) for her family. She has baked Pithiviers before and is confident it will come out well. So confident that she forgets to use flour. Butter goes in and ground almonds and sugar and who can remember what else but what comes out of the oven is a flat disk. At the end of dinner that night, the so-called Pithiviers is solemnly brought out and sliced. But the smell and taste are off-putting (mushroomy in fact, probably because of the baking powder) and nobody is actually able to eat more than one bite of his or her share except the little girl's dad who pronounces the sorry cake the best flourless Pithiviers he has ever had.
Love is when you bake a brioche for your Valentine and you make it a hundred percent whole wheat to compensate for all the butter you used that he shouldn't be eating and you bungle the shaping because really you never learned how to make a brioche à tête like the ones you see all over Paris and because of the poor shaping, it doesn't rise as well as it should but you bake it anyway and when you slice it open to reveal a somewhat under-baked center, your Valentine says there is nothing wrong with your brioche that a little browning in the toaster won't fix.
Love is a lot like gluten in bread dough: it binds us together, yet leaves enough breathing space around each of us that we can grow and change and still be part of a whole. In the face of the relentless waves of violence, ugliness, intolerance, and plain old stupidity that are threatening to sweep us under, the humble metaphor is reason enough to keep on baking.
Happy Valentine's Day everyone!


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