Starting at the Very Beginning (Part 1 in a Series)

This is a paradigm shift.

I’ve mentioned recently that I got hired at a bakery here in Minneapolis that focuses on artisan bread and pastry. This is my first position in the food service industry in general and the baking sector specifically.

From what I can tell from various accounts of life in food, the atmosphere of a bakery is very much different than that of a restaurant kitchen. Nowhere to be found are the sordid affairs of nefarious line cooks. The people here are squeaky clean. I can’t even light up a cigarette in my own car for the trip back home without feeling dirty, like the lone guy in the porno section of the video store. Bakery people are happy people, enlightened people, seemingly above the fray of the alcohol and the partying that I’ve been drawn to. In other words, these people are the adults that I’m afraid of becoming, and I feel like they can smell it on me. I don’t smell of cigarette smoke to my coworkers, but instead of immaturity.

I spend my days slaving away at the mixer because my skills in shaping dough were abysmal going into this job, and, while I was given a chance on the bench, these skills did not improve fast enough to warrant any consideration. So I mix together very specific combinations of flour, water, salt and yeast to make the dough that eventually turns to bread at the hands of those with more finesse than possess. This is a very difficult job because the temperature and hydration of the dough must be kept within a very tight range in order to make bread with the best flavor and texture possible. Though I keep copious notes on each day’s different doughs that include the amount of water used, the room temperature, the water temperature and the final temperature of the dough, I still find that at times, my product leaves something to be desired. In these times, I get the pleasure of discussing my shortcomings with the rather gruff head baker. She is a stocky, shorts-wearing woman with a tight pony-tail and a low voice that conveys disappointment better than any other emotion. She rarely smiles–in fact, she rarely looks more than pissed off. All of that aside, she is incredibly good at what she does, and the bakery likely wouldn’t function without her. She has earned the right to act however she pleases.

I have read accounts of apprentice sushi chefs in Japan that spend years learning the nuances of cooking rice. Until they have mastered rice, they are not allowed to move on to anything else. In my present situation, I find myself feeling a sort of brotherhood with these apprentices. I am already sick, after only one month, of the monotony of simply mixing dough every day. I wonder how they get through the daily regimen of rice cookery. Is it the knowledge that these are the dues one must pay in order to move onto better things? Is it some sort of built-in, cultural patience–a Zen that comes from being raised in a society that praises hard work more than anything save family? Whatever it is, I want to find it, to tap into it and finally become satisfied in my work, satisfied to seek the subtle perfections and nuances of mixing until it is determined that I no longer need to pay these dues.


And we’re back…

So, if there’s anyone still out there reading this blog (hello? hello?), you may wonder where I’ve gone for so long. Well, let me tell you: I was going to do a Christmas post, but then I got sidetracked by the hustle and bustle of Christmas time. Then the new year came, and I was back in the jobhunting game, sending out application after application. I baked a few things, hell, I even photographed some of them, but I never got around to writing them up.

And yet, after much adieu, we’re back… and with good news. I have been hired on at a bakery here in the Twin Cities focusing on artisan bread and delicious pastries. I was lucky enough to find some amazing bakers that are willing to teach me the ways of production baking. I know that the learning curve may be steep, and the expectations will be high, but I have to say, I’m extremely excited to start work this coming week. I have finally accomplished exactly what my goal was at the beginning of this very blog–to learn enough about the science and technique of baking to have someone take a chance and hire me.

So, my mind is back on this beautiful art, and that means that you will be seeing more of me in the near future. Perhaps I will go more in the direction of pastry, an area where I am still extremely green. I hope you will bear will me, as this blog is my blank slate and my classroom. I will continue to post recipes and techniques, and so I hope that you will be able to learn and grow with me.

Let me give you a small taste of what I have planned for the future of this blog: My first plans are to create a comprehensive guide to all of the methods of kneading dough for the home baker. I have noticed that a good deal of you find you way here by typing some version of “how to knead dough” into a search engine, and I would like to have that information here for those that need it. I will also do some holiday posts, especially for Easter. I would like to incorporate some bakery reviews and anecdotes, focusing on artisan bakeshops in and around the Twin Cities.

I hope you check back in a few days for the dough kneading guide and more!



Experimenting with Double Flour Addition

I know one thing for certain: I am receiving a 5 quart KitchenAid mixer for Christmas. Now, normally, this would be a cause for excitement, as this is quite an extraordinary gift. And the truth is, I AM excited about the mixer; it will be the perfect tool for cakes and for pastries and other baking what-have-yous. But lately I haven’t been baking cakes or pastries–no, lately, I have been baking break, and my experiences with KitchenAid mixers + bread dough have been less than stellar. No, I have not burnt out the motor on a stand mixer (yet), but I have gotten quite a bit of underdeveloped, less than stellar dough from one.

Luckily, I found a new technique for those bakers that are attempting to knead dough in their KitchenAid mixers over at the fabulous blog Bread Cetera. It is called the “double flour addition method,” and it is used to better aerate bread dough when using the KitchenAid stand mixer. This is what Steve B from Bread Cetera had to say about the method:

With this as a backdrop, it became logical to infer that the more small bubbles there were to act as nucleation sites, the greater was the potential for the formation of the wide open crumb structure for which artisan bakers strive. Increasing the small bubble population was attempted using a two-step flour incorporation technique. Using this double flour addition technique, just enough flour is first added to a water and levain slurry to achieve a loose batter consistency. This batter is then mixed using a tabletop stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, until the mixture becomes aerated. Finally, the remainder of the flour is added and the dough is mixed with a regular dough hook (or spiral hook, if your mixer comes equipped with one), just until all the flour is incorporated. After a brief autolyse period, the mixing is completed as usual. This procedure resulted in a soft, smooth and silky dough with a wonderful elasticity/extensibility profile.

Using this method as a backdrop, I decided to whip up a batch of baguettes for tomorrow. Currently, they are rising on the counter, ready to be shaped and cold retarded over night. I’ll have pictures and analyses of the technique up tomorrow, hopefully, but I can’t promise anything. I’ll just say they’ll be up soon.

Recipe under the cut!


Dinner Party!

So, I’ve finally unveiled my bread baking aspirations to people other than those I consider family. This last Tuesday, we hosted a small block party here for the neighbors as a sort of “meet-and-greet,” “let’s not be strangers” sort of get together. In addition to a whole spread of food supplied by us and the neighbors, including a wonderful turtle cake supplied by Kristin, I added 4 kinds of bread to the spread. Unfortunately, things were so hectic getting prepared for the party that I only have one picture of all four loaves!

I brought to the table two loaves that I’m very familiar with and comfortable baking (and the two you’ve seen here), the Pugliese and the panmarino. However, beyond those, I strayed outside of my comfort zone a bit and dipped into my brand new sourdough starter, creating two fabulous breads: A walnut and blue cheese sourdough, and a potato, cheddar and chive torpedo spiked with commercial yeast from Peter Reinhart’s Bread Baker’s Apprentice. If I seem to turn to that book a lot, it’s because I do. It’s my favorite baking book that I own, and I find that the recipes within always tend to turn out great.

The party was a great success, complete with wine and merriment for all. And I’ve left the best part for last: I got a commission from one of the neighbors to cater bread for an office party that is being hosted at her house! This will be the first time I have ever baked bread for anything more than a personal capacity. I’m really excited to branch out and dip my toes into the business side of this venture.

I’ll have a new recipe up for you tomorrow, but until then, here’s a photo of me kneading my first loaf of sourdough bread:


Whole Wheat Pugliese

I forgot about the biga! I was all set to make rye bread, I had dragged out the rye flour and molasses when Kristin said to me, “What about the dough in the fridge?” The dough in the fridge? What dough in the fridge? I went to check, and, lo and behold, there sat the biga in its little bowl, covered and waiting. Was it too late? I thought back to when I had made it– exactly three days ago! It was still good! So I weighed it, and then I flipped through some of my books to see what I could make with it.

The recipe that stuck out to me was Peter Reinhart’s Pugliese from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. I had exactly the right amount of biga remaining to use in this recipe. Plus, I’d been wanting to try working with some wetter dough, just to get my hands dirty. So, Pugliese it was.

A Pugliese bread is typically made with some part durum flour, but since neither I nor the local market had any of it, I decided I would experiment. In my cupboard sat some whole wheat flour that was going to go bad soon (you shouldn’t keep whole wheat flour around for much longer than a few months, or else it will start to acquire a bitter taste), so I figured, “What’s the harm? I’ll throw some of this in instead.”

What I’ve created, I’m sure, is not a traditional pugliese by any means. In fact, I almost don’t want to call it pugliese, but I’m not sure what else I’d call it– I suppose it’s just a whole wheat rustic loaf– but for the sake of simplicity and because the original recipe was for pugliese, I figured I’d just use that name. It doesn’t have a lot of meaning here in America anyways, as it seems that any rustic Italian bread can be dubbed pugliese.

Anyways, nomenclature aside, the bread that came out of my oven tastes delicious! It has a wonderfully light texture, and it is wonderful to eat with just butter or a slice of cheese on top. This would make a great table bread for a fancy Italian dinner, or, heck, just for spaghetti night. And the whole wheat flour gives it an added nutritional value that is always a plus.

Here’s the recipe.


Happy Halloween!

Well, it’s Halloween, and while I do not have any fresh-made baked goods for you (though I do have an experimental whole-wheat pugliese resting on the counter right now. It’ll probably be up tomorrow or Monday.), I thought I’d post the chickpea ragout recipe that I mentioned in the last post. The dish has always been a hit for me; I even think I managed to dupe my girlfriend into a second date with it. It’s very simple, and it begs for individual experimentation, so have fun with it. Add meat, spices or vegetables to taste!

I do not have any pictures of the ragout, unfortunately, as it always gets eaten too fast to get any shots off. You’ll just have to use your imagination until you make it yourself.

Recipe under the cut!


Potato Rosemary Boule (Panmarino)

Today’s entry and recipe are brought to you by: Leftover mashed potatoes.  No, I am not kidding.  The reason that I decided to bake this recipe is because we had some leftover potatoes sitting in the fridge from last night’s dinner party (the same dinner party where we did end up serving the ghostly baguettes), and mashed potatoes are an integral part of this bread.  So, along with a ragout made from leftover chicken and porkchops, today we have practically managed to clean out the fridge of old food.

Now, about the bread.  This is a great loaf to make for a side for soups or stews (or ragouts), or heck, for munching alone.  It is bursting with the flavor of the rosemary, and the crumb, softened by the potatoes, is perfect for dipping.  The attractive orange crust makes the bread a great addition to any plate.

Click for recipe!