Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Chad Robertson's Tartine Book № 3: a book event

Last Friday, Chad Robertson came to Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, ninety minutes or so north of Seattle, to talk about his latest book, Tartine Book No. 3. I had been eagerly looking forward to this talk by the owner of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, California, and maybe the most famous baker in America today. Yet, because Chad is a shining star in the home bakers' firmament (and home bakers formed a large part of the audience), I also vaguely expected to meet a celebrity bent on promoting both himself and his book. I couldn't have been more wrong. The evening turned out not to be about Chad or even his book. It was about grain, bakers, millers and farmers and all that goes into the making of a loaf of bread. Chad himself came across as endearingly unassuming. There is something meditative and quietly centered about him and I was reminded of "the solitary baking trance" he alluded to in the introduction to his first bread book when describing his quest for "a certain loaf with an old soul." The old soul is very possibly Chad's himself.
Chad hadn't come alone. He had brought with him Stephen Jones, Director of Western Washington State University Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center and Jonathan McDowell, resident baker at WSU's Bread Lab. The panel was moderated by film producer JD McLelland, whose documentary The Grain Divide is due for release this summer.

From left to right: Stephen Jones, Jonathan McDowell and Chad Robertson
Chad recalled that at the time he was learning his trade, most bakers focused exclusively on fermentation, not grain variety, to achieve flavor. However the master bakers he apprenticed with, both in the United States and in France, were already working with wholegrain flours and using a range of grains and seeds in their quest for taste. When he struck out on his own, his first goal was to achieve the bread he could see and savor in his mind: dark with a blistered crust and an open crumb. Thousands of loaves later, he had streamlined the technique into a single basic recipe relying mostly -but not only- on white flour to achieve the perfect balance of flavor and acidity. This recipe could be adjusted to produce a broad variety of breads. Tartine Bread, published in 2010, aimed to give home bakers the tools they needed to make such bread at home.
But whole grains had remained very much on Chad's mind and he was eager to see if, using as a springboard what he had learned over the years, he could now take his baking in another direction.  He traveled to Northern Europe where he was utterly surprised by the vitality of the food scene and by the close interaction between bakers and farmers. The farmers were bringing back heirloom varieties of wheat and rye, crossing them with new ones, selecting on flavor and baking properties. Invited to bake, he discovered that his techniques worked really well with these grains. He observed the same phenomenon in Germany and in other parts of Europe and came back home discouraged at the thought that the extraordinary variety of grains Danish bakers had at their disposal was unavailable in his own country. Little did he imagine when he decided to come up and visit the Bread Lab two months ago that he would find his Copenhagen in Mt Vernon, Washington.
Steve Jones pointed out that growing wheat in Washington was about both flavor and a sense of place. At the Bread Lab, there is no commodity wheat, no plastic-wrapped bread. The grain comes from local farmers. It has a face. In 2013, bread milled from grain grown north of Lynden, Washington, was served at two White House events. A sound grain economy is part of the process of making nutritious and flavorful bread available to a larger public: the farmer needs to make a living as do the miller and the baker. The role of the Extension Center is to help make this economy viable as well as to look at flavor. Chefs all care about nutrition but they care even more about taste.
JD McLelland remarked that when he set out to make his documentary two years ago, he intended to focus on the grain movement afoot in Arizona and to produce a thirty-minutes video. Then he started looking at what was happening in other states (the Carolinas, California, Vermont, Utah, Massachusetts, New York, Washington, etc.), traveled to the United Kingdom and Denmark, among other countries, and ended up with a much broader understanding of the current search for real and viable solutions to the "grain divide" (separating industrial and heirloom grains). Grain is a very important part of our economy as well as of our diet. The burgeoning grain movement seeks to promote education as a way of reducing the learning curve for farmers sowing the "new" varieties. It also aims to boost taste and nutrition. The people at the Bread Lab are pioneers. They are the only ones doing merging science and art by doing research on seeds and calling on bakers, millers and farmers to collaborate on solutions.
Chad plans to come back to the Bread Lab as often as he can, possibly every few weeks, not only to help facilitate research on texture and flavor but also because he finds the Bread Lab to be a huge source of inspiration in his own work: in the past few days, for instance, he saw Jonathan McDowell, the resident baker, sift some bran out of freshly milled whole wheat flour, soak it to soften it, then incorporate it in the dough during the mixing process. It worked beautifully: the resulting crumb was more open. In the same way, the Bread Lab has started applying beer-brewing techniques to bread-making, notably by malting the grain. Food for thought as Chad is working to take his baking to yet another level. Also the Bread Lab has access to eight different kinds of mills, which makes it easier to figure out how milling affects nutrition, baking properties, etc. In other words, Chad himself can only learn from being closely involved.
A period of questions and answers followed. Someone asked Chad what he meant by "high-hydration bread." He replied that any dough using 80 to 90 (or more) units of water for 100 units of flour (for instance, 800 to 900 grams of water for 1,000 g of flour) was considered high-hydration. A high hydration facilitates a more active fermentation and when baked, a more thorough gelatinization of the starches, which makes the bread more digestible (according to his mentor Richard Bourdon who liked to say you wouldn’t cook a cup of rice in half-a-cup of water). A wet dough is also easier to hand-mix.
Another home baker asked about the shelf-life of flour. Chad explained that freshly milled flour ferments faster. That’s what he uses at home. At the bakery, the flour is two- to three-week old. But he is hoping to start incorporating a small percentage of freshly milled flour into his breads. Someone like Dave Miller (whom Chad worked for a long time ago) mills and mixes immediately. Working with fresh flours is well worth it.
Jonathan McDowell chimed in that with whole wheat flour, you do have to watch out for rancidity (off-smell and loss of flavor). Bakers come to the Bread Lab from all over the country to do testing. King Arthur bakers had found that freshly milled flour had best flavor but second best performance. One-month old flour performs the best but with skilled hands, you can do better with fresh milled as well. One-to-two-week old flour does not yield satisfactory results. One thing to keep in mind is that the fresher the flour the more nutrients it contains. Refrigeration and freezing help prolong shelf-life (as long as the flour is in an airtight container). White flour is conditioned for a long shelf life.

Chad Robertson's cracked barley porridge bread
Samples were past around of Chad's barley porridge bread (baking with porridge makes it possible to use grains that have little or no gluten and still make bread) and of wholegrain breads made with wheat (Renan and Edison varieties) grown in Washington. All were extraordinarily tasty. The barley bread was almost moist.
Chad said he and his team were already at work on their next book. Book-writing has become an essential creative tool. It motivates bakers and chefs to find new ways to do things and to seek new flavors. The bakery and Bar Tartine, the restaurant, play off each other. The restaurant has its own small bread oven where the chefs have a totally different inspiration from the bakers at the bakery. The synergy and the writing hugely propel creativity. Tartine Book No 3 was two-and-a-half years in the making: it was meant as a continuation of Tartine Breads. The next book will pick up where the last one let off. Good bakeries in the San Francisco area produce ten thousand loaves a day. Tartine Bakery makes two hundred and fifty. Chad's interest doesn't lie in volume: it lies in finding other ways to make tasty and nutritious bread available to more people, even if they have to bake it themselves. Judging by the long line of book owners queueing up for his signature, the message is coming across...

Monday, March 10, 2014

Whole Wheat Chocolate Levain Cake

There is cake and there is cake. Of the really good ones, some are dazzling, others unassuming. This one is of the second variety. A simple dessert relying in a large part on a century-old leavener for lightness. When birthdays are involved, I usually glaze it (with dark chocolate melted together with a bit of butter and a hint of powdered sugar) but most of the time, I leave it bare or just sprinkle it with confectioners' sugar. Either way, it is always a hit (it was a favorite of Noah's) and I love it that it makes use of surplus starter I might otherwise have to throw out.

The recipe is an adaptation of one I found on the King Arthur's website (which I halved in this particular instance to tailor it to my shallow flower-shaped French mold). When I make the whole recipe instead of halving it (and I usually do), I use a nine-inch springform pan and I bake the cake a while longer.


For those of you who are using BreadStorm (including the free version), please click on this link to import the formula.  For more on BreadStorm, you may want to read this post.

* This time, I used Sonora whole wheat pastry flour that I bought from Nan Kohler in Los Angeles a couple of months ago but in the past, I have made this cake with unbleached all-purpose flour or with regular white whole wheat flour. They both work perfectly but you may find, as I did, that using a locally grown and milled soft wheat brings it an intriguing flavor and a lovely texture. I am not sure how the recipe would turn out with regular whole wheat flour though. It might be too heavy and the taste of the grain might be overwhelming.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the more interesting the flavor of your starter, the tastier your cake will be. In other words, this is a good recipe to make on bread-baking day: you will probably have taken your starter out of the fridge a couple of days before, kept it at room temperature and fed it regularly. It will be bubbly and happy and at its peak in every way. That's the way you want it, both for bread and for cake.

  1. Combine mature starter, milk and flour in large bowl. Cover and let rest at warmish room temperature for 2 to 3 hours or until somewhat expanded
  2. Preheat oven to 350°F/177°C and lightly oil a cake pan
  3. In another bowl, beat together sugar, oil, vanilla, salt, baking soda and cocoa
  4. Incorporate the egg
  5. Gently combine chocolate mixture with the levain-flour-milk mixture, stirring till smooth 
  6. Pour batter into prepared pan
  7. Bake the cake for 30 to 40 minutes until it springs back when lightly pressed in the center and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean 
  8. Remove from oven and cool on a rack
  9. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Nonnettes de Dijon

I grew up with nonnettes although I don't recall that we ever had the "real" thing: my mom had four kids to feed and every single one of us loved nonnettes, so she bought the less expensive oblong ones that came in brightly colored cardboard boxes (to this day, I remember the glistening marmalade heart of the half-eaten one pictured on the lid). But even those were more money that our usual after-school snack of bread and chocolate (I know, we French kids had it rough!), so they were a rare treat.
As it happens, I forgot all about them for decades but last year, while in France, we stopped at an organic grocery store to buy some bread and as I was browsing the aisles leading to the bakery, I saw on a shelf a package of handcrafted-looking nonnettes that looked particularly appealing. I bought it and, believe me when I say this - as a person who famously doesn't really like sweets - I had a moment that was better than Proustian.
While Proust's Narrator recognizes the exact taste of the tea-dunked madeleine he knew in his childhood and embarks on a quest for Time lost, these nonnettes were so much more than the ones I knew growing up that I felt no longing for an elusive past, just a fierce determination not to part with the treat again. Since I couldn't very well go back to Biocoop and buy a truckload to ship home, I resolved to do the next best thing, which is find a recipe and make them myself.
But first I should probably explain that nonnettes (literally "little nuns") are small gingerbread cakes that nuns used to make in the Middle Ages. Although the better-known ones come from Dijon in Burgundy (the nonnettes have nothing to do with mustard, by the way), I believe they are to be found in other regions of France as well. The oblong ones I knew were domed and lightly glazed and the best part of eating them was sinking your teeth into the glaze and feeling the dome collapse over the marmalade heart. I am telling you, there is no way Proust topped that with his (most likely soggy) madeleine.
If you google "nonnettes de Dijon images," you'll see several different variations. The little cakes are indeed often glazed and some are domed. The ones I bought last year were thick, round, flat and unglazed. I personally like the domed ones although I can do flat too and I prefer unglazed. They keep better.
Apparently I can also do hollow, albeit certainly not on purpose!
I asked baker and pastry chef Leslie Mackie, owner of Macrina Bakery in Seattle, why I was getting collapsed centers. She thought it had to do with the leavening and suggested I try using half baking powder half baking soda instead of all baking soda. She also recommended enclosing the marmalade inside the batter instead of putting it on top. So that's what I did and it worked! Thank you, Leslie!
But before I even attempted to bake nonnettes, I browsed through the many recipes online. My favorite one is this one, by blogger Edda Onorato. Edda's blog, Un déjeuner de soleil, is a feast for the eyes and I have known it to do a number on my tastebuds too. So I tend to trust her and I wasn't disappointed. Her recipe is solid.
I did adapt it a bit:
  • By changing the leavening (as explained above). Edda says that in the very old days, nonnettes were made with levain (which might have been the only leavening agent readily available to the nuns). The little cakes must have had a very different texture then and a different bite. I am not sure I would like them that way but I might give it a shot one day out of curiosity because after all, these nuns knew a thing or two
  • By using all whole-grain flours. I don't know much about the history of the nonnettes but, if I were the gambling kind, I'd be willing to bet that, in the Middle Ages, the nuns didn't go for white flour. Taste and texture are spot on with the whole-grain and then there is the satisfaction of knowing that the cakes are more nutritious. I have only used white whole wheat so far but next time I'll use some of the Sonora wheat I bought from Nan Kohler in Los Angeles. That flour is so aromatic that it will probably bring a whole new dimension to the cake
  • By lowering the amount of sugar a bit.
Edda recommends using a blend of cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, anise and ginger. I use Penzey's Baking Spice (Ceylon cinnamon, Spanish anise, Grenadian mace and Guatemalan cardamom) which I like a lot,  probably because it is easy on the cinnamon. I could try with just anise, the only spice I ever use in pain d'épices or go for a touch of cardamom and pair it with some of that caramelized pear jam I made last year or try pairing nutmeg and blackberry jelly or... The possibilities are endless. Which goes to show that, for me, nonnettes are really not about nostalgia. Move over, madeleines, and make way. The future has arrived!

Yields 24 mini-muffin-sized and 16 regular-muffin-sized nonnettes (baked in mini-brioches paper molds)*

For those of you who are using BreadStorm (including the free version), please click on this link to import the formula.  For more on BreadStorm, you may want to read this post.

  1. Turn on the oven to 320°F/160°C
  2. Scale flours, baking soda, baking powder and spices in a large bowl. Whisk until thoroughly blended
  3. Scale honey, sugar, butter and water in a small saucepan, bring to a simmer while stirring with a wooden spoon and turn off the heat
  4. Let the wet mixture cool for a few minutes while you grease (lightly) the mini-muffin pan and prepare 16 muffin-sized paper molds*
  5. Stir wet mixture into dry ingredients until blended (do not over mix)
  6. Pour a dollop of batter in each muffin hole (it shouldn't be more than one third full), place a small spoonful of orange marmalade on top and top with the rest of the batter (the muffin hole shouldn't be more than half full when you are done)
  7. Bake for 15 minutes
  8. Let cool on a rack for a few minutes, then unmold
  9. Enjoy!
Nonnettes keep extremely well in an airtight container. We took two dozens on a very long car trip this winter and the ones that remained were just as fresh and tasty when we arrived at destination as they were when we left. 

* After several batches, we decided that mini-muffin size is really best: perfect for a snack and easy to pack. I am buying another pan. The recipe should then yield 48 nonnettes.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ancient Grain Ciabatta

Related posts:
All About Ciabatta: notes from a class
Chocolate Ciabatta with Dried Cherries and Roasted Hazelnuts
Of Bread and Bridges: a baking weekend in San Antonio

As mentioned in All About Ciabatta, we made several different ciabattas during the class last May. The formulas have all been posted on the Bread Bakers' Guild of America's website but they are only available to BBGA members. We are authorized to post the ones we make at home provided we also post the following note (and I quote): "The mission of The Bread Bakers Guild of America is to shape the knowledge and skills of the artisan baking community through education.  Guild members have access to many other innovative professional formulas, both online and in the Guild’s magazine, Bread Lines. For more information about membership, please visit www.bbga.org."
I have been a Guild member for over five years now and, between you and me, I never regretted joining. Not only do I look forward to getting the magazine every quarter but I enjoy having access to the archives, to a zillion tested formulas, to the lively online forum, to the classes taught by the Guild, etc. BBGA describes itself on its website as "an independent and creative group of professional bakers, farmers, millers, suppliers, educators, students, home bakers, technical experts, and bakery owners and managers." But to me, it is a big family centered around the craft of making bread and I really like it. And just so that you know, nobody is twisting my arm or promising me a free membership!
That being said, eighty-five dollars a year - for an individual - isn't exactly peanuts and while BBGA isn't in the money-making business (it is an educational non-profit and mostly run by volunteers), only you can say if joining it is worth your while...
Now on to ciabatta. Why make this particular one? Well, we both happen to love teff (and to have some in the pantry) and while I am not a huge fan of amaranth, I have some on hand which is desperately calling for attention. Besides, we saw amaranth plants at the Botanical Garden in Montreal a few years back and I can't resist the idea of baking some of these colors into our diet (never mind the fact that, when all is said and done, amaranth flour is made from the seed, not the flower and it is, well, flour-colored)...


For those of you who are using BreadStorm (including the free version), please click on this link to import the formula.  For more on BreadStorm, you may want to read this post.

A bit of care needs to be taken with this ciabatta because the protein in ancient flours is soluble in water and has no gluten, which means in practical terms:
  • A shorter mixing time
  • A very low fermentation tolerance: if the oven isn't ready when the dough is, put it in the fridge for 20 to 30 minutes
  • Variable water absorption: you may need to add water until you get the right consistency.
  • A possible fold: if you find that the dough is very extensible and has no elasticity, then you will need to do one fold

Ancient grain ciabatta dough as it came out of the mixer during class

The night before the bake
  1. Mix the amaranth poolish, cover it loosely and let it ferment overnight (12 hours) at 73°F/23°C
  2. Mix the teff sponge, cover it loosely and let it ferment overnight (12 hours) at 73°F/23°C
On baking day
Desired dough temperature (DDT): 73°F/23°C to 76°FF/24°C
(Depending on the room and the flour temperatures, you will need to use cooler or warmer water in the final dough to obtain the DDT at the end of the mixing process)
  1. Scale the flour, yeast and salt. Whisk yeast and salt into the flour and reserve
  2. Place the poolish, the sponge, the dry mix (flour + yeast + salt) and water 1 in the bowl of the mixer
  3. Mix on first speed (on a spiral mixer) or speed 4 (on a Kitchen Aid) for 4 or 5 minutes
  4. Mix on second speed (on a spiral mixer) or speed 8 (on a Kitchen Aid) for 2-3 minutes
  5. Check gluten development. When gluten is 80% developed, add water 2 by increments on first speed (4 on Kitchen Aid) and mix for about 3 minutes
  6. Transfer to oiled dough tub, cover and let ferment at 73°F/23°C - 76°FF/24°C for 2 hours and 30 minutes
  7. Transfer the dough to a generously floured surface (see relevant video in All About Ciabatta: Notes from a Class), taking care not to let it fold over itself and going easy with the stretching as the dough will be fragile
  8. Divide and scale at 500 g (you should have four ciabattas)
  9. Proof on floured linen, top down, for one hour (or 30 to 40 minutes if room temperature is warm)
  10. Dust with a mixture of teff, amaranth and white flours
  11. Bake with steam on a baking stone in a 420°F - 216°C oven for 30 minutes (turning oven down to 400°F-204°C after 10 minutes, tenting with foil if over browning after 20 minutes and propping the oven door open (with a wooden spoon) for the last five minutes
  12. Cool on a rack
  13. Enjoy!
During the class, someone asked Didier about changing the percentage of ancient grain in the formula and here is what he said in response: "Twenty to twenty-five percent total ancient grain compared to total flour is optimal for flavor, structure and volume."

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Chesnut Bread with Cocoa Nibs

I know I already posted this bread but it was ages ago and this version is a bit different: I used regular pâte fermentée (yeasted old dough) instead of dough fermented with levain and I added cocoa nibs for the crunch. It worked well: the bread carries the inimitable taste and sweetness of chestnuts and the hint of chocolate makes it appealingly festive. How I wish good chestnut flour was more readily available in this country... The only time I tried and bought some (from Whole Foods no less), it had been smoked (or the chestnuts had been smoked before they were dried and milled) and the resulting bread tasted just like I imagine soap might. This time I used organic chestnut flour a friend sent me from France as a Christmas present (merci, toi!) and it was simply perfect. If Whole Foods ever wanted to find a good source for chestnut flour, maybe it could check out this one.
Of course it'd probably be horridly expensive (not that the soapy one was cheap, mind  you!). So the next question is why don't we produce and eat chestnuts in this country? I looked it up on Wikipedia and it is a sad story: our chestnut trees (we had over three billions of them) were wiped out by a blight: the pathogen remains alive and well on other trees which it treats as hosts and doesn't harm, waiting to jump back on chestnut trees if someone is brave enough to plant new ones. I guess I may not see American chestnut flour in my lifetime but who knows? Climate change might help eliminate the fungus. Of course, it might also bring about the complete extinction of the tree on this continent...
I debated the usefulness of posting the formula since good chestnut flour is so hard to find here but then, what the heck, some of you may live in France or travel to France or have family and friends going there who might be willing to bring some back. By the way you don't have to make bread with it: I bet the flour does wonders in crêpes too!
The vacuum-packed chestnuts themselves were easier to find: I got them at Trader Joe's in December. Unopened, they keep a very long time in the refrigerator and you know what? They come from France as well!

Finally I want to say I mightn't have thought of making this bread right now if we hadn't gone for lunch last week to Sitka and Spruce, a little place in Seattle where they have a tiny menu and small plates but where the flavor combinations never disappoint. I had a bowl of chestnut soup with fermented cranberries and home-cured pancetta. It was so enticing I had to take a picture (something I almost never do in a restaurant because it rarely turns out okay) and it tasted so good it made me want to go home and bake bread. Which I did. I replaced the pancetta with cocoa nibs (thank you, my Seattle friend -you know who you are!- for kindly giving me your stash when you remodeled your kitchen). I drew the line at cranberries for fear they might overpower the delicate taste of the chestnuts but I might try and add in dried ones next time, just for the color!

For those of you who are using BreadStorm (including the free version), please click on this link to import the formula.  For more on BreadStorm, you may want to read this post.

Adapted from Crust by Richard Bertinet, p. 102
Makes four small loaves

Pâte fermentée
  1. Mix flour, yeast and salt
  2. Add water and mix until incorporated
  3. Mix until smooth
  4. Let rise, covered, at room temp for 6 hours or in the fridge overnight (for up to 48 hours)
Final dough
  1. Combine flours
  2. Add water
  3. Mix well and autolyse for 30 minutes
  4. Add fermented dough and yeast and mix until smooth
  5. Add salt and mix again. Dough should no longer be sticky
  6. Place dough on bench and flatten it with fingers
  7. Spread chestnut pieces over the top and press them down well into the dough
  8. Fold a few times until well incorporated
  9. Form dough in a ball, cover and let rest for 40 min
  10. Give it a fold
  11. Let rest another 20 min
  12. Divide @ 630 g and shape into elongated or round shapes
  13. Let rise for 1 hour and 30 min
  14. Snip tops with scissors or score with knife
  15. Bake in 500°F/250°C oven with steam
  16. After 5 min turn temperature down to 440°F/220°C and bake for another 20 minutes
  17. Cool on rack
  18. Enjoy!
I found the chestnut leaf stencil on this website and the Man was good enough to cut it out for me. In exchange, he got to try and eat his weight in chestnut bread.

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