75% whole wheat boule with Camembert.

75% whole wheat boule with Camembert.

Few things make me happier than being covered in flour, hand mixing dough. Sometimes it’s for pasta or dumplings or pizza, but lately  my head and heart have been devoted to making bread. So it’s decided. I’m going to be an artisan baker. Someday I may even make it official.

The web has no shortage of talented artisan-bread bloggers and fermentation nerds. And I’m a relative newbie, so I hesitate to go into details for fear of exposing myself as a fraud. But since the beginning of the year I’ve been baking once a week, sometimes twice, and I am gaining confidence. I’ll even go out a on a limb and say that I’m honing some bakerly instincts when it comes to timing and temperature, feel and smell. My wild-yeast starter is healthy and strong. She’s named Shirley.

I’m especially lucky to have willing guinea pigs in my bread experiment so Jeff and I can share the products of my practice. Neighbors take loaves off my hands and give me kind and encouraging feedback. My favorite so far was a note from the niece of my next-door neighbor. She tried my bread at her aunt’s house — a basic loaf of pain de campagne —  and wrote me a note saying how much she enjoyed it. She even detailed why: the dark, hard crust, the beautiful open crumb. (I’m paraphrasing.) The note lives above my desk, a bit of encouragement while I tap away at my day job.

There’s still so much to learn and improve on. My baguettes are misshapen and my scoring technique needs work. But I am determined to be a fermentation nerd myself, and can’t wait for my next bake.

The nicest bit of encouragement.

The nicest bit of encouragement.

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Raviolo

Mushroom and cheese raviolo.

A beautiful Saturday in every way: sunny, unseasonably dry, and at the end, a truffle dinner.

Hosted at Tabor Bread on Hawthorne and presented by Chef Kathryn LaSusa Yeomans in conjunction with Roger Konka of Springwater Farm, the Farmer’s Feast was a seven-course meal featuring locally foraged wild truffles  — white and black — and other seasonal ingredients prepared and presented simply and beautifully.

We four — Zandra, James, J and I — are very fortunate to have participated in some unforgettable truffle dinners. Even so, our little section of one of three long communal tables spanning the bakery’s dining room was wowed by the big flavors that Chef Yeomans shared with us. Among them, a marble-sized white truffle warmed in parchment with an addictively delicious jus and served with a toasted piece of Tabor Bread brioche; silky, sweet Tamworth heritage pig liver mousse topped with slivered black truffle alongside a ramekin of maitake mushroom and leek custard and shaved white truffle; a triangle-shaped raviolo filled with creamy cheese and topped with wild mushrooms in an earthy broth; pork saltimbocca and luscious truffled celery root puree. At the end, a pear granita and warm almond cookies.

A beautiful Saturday, and a beautiful meal. Life does not get much better.

bread

A perfect boule.

One of the most-used gifts we received this year was a birthday present from James and Zandra to J back in June: a copy of Ken Forkish’s Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast. I never thought I’d stray from the ridiculously easy Sullivan Street Bakery No-Knead Bread recipe or Mark Bittman’s basic pizza dough, but once I started experimenting with Forkish’s methods, I became a devoted follower. And, indeed, Forkish is a masterful teacher, explaining the whys and hows of his bread-making methods in clear, descriptive language. The opening chapters of the book tell the story about quitting his corporate job to follow a dream of becoming a bread maker, followed by a chapter on the important details for delicious bread and an outline of the equipment he recommends. Chapter 4 is an overview of the basic bread method with step-by-step photos. Contrary to many other cookbooks, the first several chapters, save for perhaps Forkish’s interesting back story, are required reading before diving into the recipes. Every recipe I’ve made has required referencing Chapter 4; though now that I’m more familiar with the terms and techniques, flipping back and forth is becoming less frequent.

Requiring only four basic ingredients in varied proportions, the recipes’ other essential elements are patience and especially timing. The recipes are not difficult to execute once you have the basic method down, and the result is  heavenly. Puffy bubbles that emerge during the rise transform into gorgeous air pockets in the finished loaf, and the flavor lent by fermentation and baking to a dark brown is unparalleled in supermarket loaves.

We spent the summer and fall, and indeed last night, up to our elbows in flour, surrounded by bulging masses of fermenting dough. And we went through at least three bags of flour this past summer making pizza dough, focaccia and beautiful artisan boules. It has the potential to become an addiction, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Pan, Pan, PAN!

April 25, 2011

Simple, delicious.

In the weeks before our holiday, J and I largely avoided bread, pasta and other simple carbohydrates. Now, anyone who knows me is aware I have a weakness for noodles, making this current diet a hardship (and making me cranky) at times, but I stuck with it nonetheless. And, except for the travel day which presented bland in-flight versions of the starchiest kind — chicken and white rice for dinner, egg on an English muffin for breakfast and a dry ham and cheese sandwich for lunch — we have, for the most part, been able to avoid overloading on carbs. That is, until yesterday when I may have met my match: the warm-out-of-the-oven, crusty exterior/pillowy-soft interior baguettes served in some restaurants and cafes.

Our first encounter with these treats was at Hontanares. While we consumed none at the time, the bocadillo (sandwich) action behind the counter caught my eye: a woman toasting fresh baguettes on the grill, then assembling the most simple, but delicious-looking, subs with jamón, queso, sausages or vegetables.

My friend agrees: No pasta, no happy.

An hour or so later, during our meal at La Finca de Susana, the waitress came by with smaller, pointier versions of the baguettes. Without ceremony, she placed them next to our plates. To break into one is something for the senses: The crust is crisp, but not too much so; the interior is soft and steaming, and neither the word chewy nor spongy fully describes the consistency, though those qualities exist. It’s soft, light and dense all at once. No homemade bread has ever matched this.

Today, after several hours touring the Reina Sofia and haunted by the assemblage of the sandwiches, we headed back to Hontenares. I ordered a Baguette Alemán — a toasted baguette topped with nothing more than halved sausages (frankfurters, really) and melted cheese. It was a good 12 inches long, and I halved it so J could try. (I gave him an inch and he took four or five!) Moments later, like a wisp of silk scarf disappearing around a corner, it was gone. Panicked, I contemplated ordering another, but I came to my senses. There is always mañana.