Saturday, January 10, 2009

Resolution #1: become a bread master, with a little help from Martha and my sister

I love making resolutions. Every January I have such a craving to be productive after the laziness of the holidays, and it's great to feel like my motivation and willpower are endless for once. And so, I've told myself I will learn how to bake bread.

I've made bread before of course – baguettes, French bread, herb bread, even bagels. Some of these have been delicious, but overall, I just don't feel very capable at this kind of thing. My bread never rises as much as I'd like, and it often doesn't come out with quite the right texture. It's no surprise that I'm not a natural at this, as I don't really like to be careful and precise in the kitchen. But, I want to make perfect delicious bread! And I want to develop that kind of bread intuition I see others with that I imagine will make it feel natural and easy.

My sister Tessa seems to always know just what to do when it comes to bread. Every Christmas morning she makes a heavenly panettone that I'm still dreaming about here on January 10. And whenever I call to ask her questions in my moments of bread panic, she makes it all sound so easy and common sense. So, she's my bread model. Over the holidays, I meant to make bread with her, to absorb some of her genius by watching, but we never got around to it. While I was despairing about this missed opportunity on our last day together, she disappeared and came back offering a large orange book. "You can borrow this to get started while we're apart" she said. The book is Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook, and it boasts many of Tessa's favourite bread recipes.

I started with the one she gushed the most about: Olive-Oil Bread. And I leaned a few things:

  1. Use fresh yeast. You know how I said my bread never rises as much as it should? Well, I checked the expiry date on the traditional dry yeast I had in the fridge – it expired in 2007. Ack! I'd been using that all year... Tessa said to always try proofing a little yeast before you start making the bread, just to make sure your yeast is still active. I'm going to make this a habit now. I bought new yeast, and this bread rose like crazy. I kept calling Darryl over to marvel at how huge it was.
  2. Be sure about the temperature of your oven. My oven sucks. I know this, and yet I haven't really made much effort to overcome its problems. For starters, it's tiny and has only one rack, but I guess I can't do much about that. Worse, it always burns everything. This bread was supposed to bake for 35 minutes. After about 15 or 20 minutes, the faint smell of burning became real enough that I had to leap up off the couch and pull it out of the oven prematurely. The outside was beautiful and browned, as you can see in the photo at the top, but the inside was still doughy in places. So, even though it was really delicious, it definitely wasn't perfect. Martha mentioned something in the intro to the book about using an oven thermometer to make sure that it has reached the right temperature before you put anything in. And that's what I'm going to do – first chance I get I'm going to buy an oven thermometer and find out how much my oven has been lying to me. 'Cause I have a feeling it's hot hot hot.
  3. If it's burning too much, cover it in foil. Of course I called Tessa and related my successes (it rose so awesomely!) and failures (it's part doughy, part burnt), and she provided this last lesson. Apparently if you find yourself with a loaf that's starting to burn when you're quite sure it's not cooked through, you can just wrap it in foil and put it back in the oven. She also said that bread likes descending temperatures, so another thing you can do is turn the oven off and leave the bread in to finish cooking as the oven cools off. See, I just need to learn what bread likes, and then I'll be good.
I'm sure these three lessons are the first of many, which I'll continue to relate here as I make progress on my resolution. Thanks Martha and Tessa! Next I'm going to try ciabatta, probably tomorrow as I think I'm going to make Sunday bread-making day, along with be-productive-on-all-my-art-projects day – see, all the resolutions fit together into one beautiful whole. Rise, draw, rise, draw, bake.

If I can pull it all off, I'll be this happy every day:


moyrad said...

Oh, can i be your apprentice? i want to make delicous bread too. I love to eat fresh bread - italian, french whatever. If i could I would always make my own.

Did you make your bread with black or green olives or both? Any other flavours or herbs included?

Great resolution!

Anonymous said...

Tessa definitely has "bread making genes". I was never successful in my many attempts except for the easy stuff like foccacia made in the food processor. If it is bread that needs kneading there really is a "knowing instinctively" knack to it. Good you will test oven temp first. It's probably out of whack. And congrats on your energy and enthusiasm for tackling this. If you conquer it I can put that cookbook on your Xmas list for 2009??

Meg said...

Of course you can be my apprentice Michelle! Although it might be a bit of the blind leading the blind... But you can make your own all the time. It's not really that hard to do, just hard to do well I'm finding. It's a lot of trial and error for me, so I wish I did have an expert by my side at all times. I never quite get the results I want...

There weren't any olives in this one, just lots of olive oil. I do want to make olive bread soon though, so maybe we can attempt that together.

Granny - yeah, you're right that the food processor method works well. That's when I've had the most luck, but like you said, you don't get a feel for it then. A bread book on next year's xmas list sounds like a good incentive! I'll try to activate those bread genes somehow...

claire said...

Meg, I really laud your efforts! I too recently resolved to teach myself bread making. I've struggled with all the same problems you listed. I don't think I've overcome them really, but I did gain a little confidence by taking a one-day bread making seminar at the Cookshop. You might want to check it out!