Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Today I have a perfect brie

Sometimes things just fall out right. Not very often, it has to be admitted, but just once in a while you get that feeling that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. This week at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread making group, was not one of those occasions. There was no shortage of energy or enthusiasm, but somehow we all seemed to be struggling to get the result we were aiming at. So what was going on?

Where do I begin to tell the story of how great a loaf can be?

We were making a rye and raisin loaf from James Morton's book "Brilliant Bread". On the face of it there wasn't an awful lot that could go wrong. But appearances can be deceptive.

Apparently simple instructions can turn out to be surprisingly vague when you try to pin them down. Take this item in the ingredients list for instance -

"150 g of raisins, preferably soaked overnight in coffee or water."

That seems straightforward enough, you'd think. But it's actually giving you the option of not soaking the raisins if you prefer, or if you don't have time. 150 g of raisins soaked overnight and then drained weighs 250 g. I know, because I checked. And that means that there is a difference of 100 g of liquid between the two options - "150 g of raisins soaked overnight" and "150 g of raisins not soaked overnight". That is a big difference, but the recipe did not say anything else had to change depending on which option you chose.

Bakers use the ratio between the weight of wet and dry ingredients as an indicator of how wet their dough is. This ratio is called the "hydration rate" and is expressed as a percentage. Our recipe called for 375 g of water with 500 g of flour, which means a hydration rate of 75% (375/500). That's a pretty wet dough. With a load of wet raisins as well, the hydration rate is pushing 80%, which takes this loaf into focaccia territory. Focaccia dough looks like this -

We discussed the question of how wet this dough was likely to be before we started, and fortunately decided we had better hold back some of the water in case it turned out to be too wet. Even so, we still ran into trouble at kneading time. The recipe says the raisins should be added before kneading. This makes the dough a lot harder to work with, as the raisins keep falling out onto the table, and generally getting in the way. What is much worse, kneading the soaked raisins makes them split, and their juicy insides ooze into the dough. So even if you started with a reasonably dry dough, once you start kneading, you quickly find you are working with a very wet and sticky dough indeed. A recipe for disaster, in fact. This was my dough, which I was very glad to stop trying to knead after the prescribed 10 minutes -

The next thing that caught us out was this seemingly innocent instruction in the recipe -

"Shape into any shape you like! I like a batard for this bread."

Well, for one thing, the dough was so sticky, I doubt anybody could have shaped their dough into one of these batard shapes -

You can watch the classic folding method of shaping a bâtard here. It's not as pointy as the ones above, which have been "rolled off" with the side of the hand to create the point.

But just saying "shape into any shape you like" leaves so much unsaid. What does "shaping" mean? Given that this recipe called for two rises, and shaping happens after the dough has risen in the bowl, and before it rises in the basket, shaping is the step in between the rises, which is is called different things depending on what your main priority is at this stage. It's variously called knocking back, stretching, working, folding or just shaping.

I think he's really saying "do whatever you think is appropriate to get your bread into shape for proving".But we had had so much trouble kneading the dough in the first place that it really wasn't well enough developed to allow us to just give it a light working, and shape it into any shape we liked.

At this point I was seeing trouble ahead -

and I said with as much conviction as I could that I didn't think it was a good idea to go for a banneton, as it was such sticky dough that it was bound to stick to the banneton. I told everyone that I was going going to play safe and opt for a bread tin, but most people decided to risk it for a biscuit and try the bannetons out. I tried to limit the risk by encouraging people to be very generous with the flour when dusting the bannetons, and to choose rye flour, which I have found at home is the best for insulating the bread from the basket.

Even getting sticky ill-behaved dough out of the bowl was a challenge. People just did the best they could, which generally amounted to turning it out of the bowl, scraping the bowl out, and pushing the dough around a bit before scraping it up and depositing it in the basket. I did pretty much the same getting mine into the tin. We were all in it together, and frankly we were in it up to our necks.

After that, I just held my breath and hoped for the best.


 Banneton maintenance

The best advice for care of your bannetons seems to be keep them dry to avoid mould build up between uses; brush off all but the lightest coating of dry flour after use; and be generous with flour every time you use them, especially when they are still young. I have occasionally found creepy crawlies in the drawer where I keep mine, so I now always toast them after use, by putting them in the grill section when the bread is in the oven. I also find that brushing them out carefully with a medium sized decorator's paint brush works well. And if there has been any dough sticking to the baskets, I am quite careful to remove it as best I can, using the same technique as for removing blutac from bedroom walls.

The alternative approach, which may help reduce the risk of dough sticking, is to use a cloth lining. These can be bought separate from the baskets, and are commonly sold with wicker baskets. This does mean you don't get the characteristic lines round the side of the loaf from direct contact with the wood of the basket, so it rather depends what effect you prefer.

I have a friend who simply rises bread in the folds of a cloth inside a flat dish shaped bread bowl. How rustic is that?

In this picture you can see the cloth has been dusted with flour to stop the baguettes sticking. Cloth has a nice textured surface, so you stand a reasonable chance of some sticking when you throw some flour in its general direction. You can get a similar effect for baguettes with a piece of corrugated iron -

Getting flour to stick on a banneton is a bit of a black art. When you first try it, you will find that most of the flour falls straight off, and you finish up with a pile in the bottom, and nothing up the sides. I find the following method works best. First, put the banneton down on the worktop, where you can get at it from three sides, and don't be tempted to move it. Then scoop up some flour with your open hand, aiming to get flour piled on your fingers. Then flick the flour along one side of the banneton, horizontally, aiming for the cracks between the wooden hoops of the basket. Imagine you are trying to make a flat stone skim on the water at the seaside. Then don't turn the basket round, but turn yourself round 90 degrees and throw some more flour at a different side of the basket. Repeat for all four sides of the basket. The bottom of the basket will probably have taken care of itself by now, but add a bit of flour at the bottom too if you think it needs it.

Alternative approach: put some flour in a sieve and shake it over the banneton!

If you need to move the bannetons to make room for shaping the dough, just be really gentle with them.

When you put the shaped dough into the basket, it should go in with the "seam" at the top, because that will mean the seam is at the bottom when the bread is turned out. Try to lower the dough into the basket without banging the basket at all, and as gently as possible. Then cover with a cloth. If you are worried about it sticking, you can lightly dust the loaf in the basket before covering, but generally speaking a cloth seems to be a lot less prone to sticking to the dough than a plastic bag.

Once the dough has proved in the basket, the trickiest manoeuvre of the lot is to tip it out onto a peel or shovel of some sort and then propel it into the oven. That is what the whole procedure is trying to achieve: direct contact between the dough and the hot stone. A neat trick to make this step easier is to turn the dough out onto greaseproof paper, and slide the whole lot into the oven, paper and all.

Only Nell managed to actually get onto a stone. Everyone else's dough was so sticky that getting it out of the basket at all was the number one priority, and everyone settled for getting the bread out onto a tray.

This rather defeated the object of using the baskets, but in the circumstances it was probably a sensible compromise. Even then, there were problems ahead, as the trays mostly had high sides, and the allegedly non-stick surfaces turned out to be anything but when it came to getting the bread out at the end of the cooking time.

Lessons learned the hard way

This was the first recipe we have tackled that calls for a second rise. There is nothing particularly unusual in bread wanting two rises, but it really does have an impact on your timing. Whereas a single rise loaf can be prepared in a quarter of an hour and ready to go in the over in an hour and a quarter, you are looking at two and a half hours clear easy for a two rise loaf.

Most loaves fall into the two rise category, and when you are baking at home it can usually be worked into the morning routine one way or another. Dough is fairly accommodating when you need it to be.

When you are baking away from home, there is no hiding the fact that the dough needs its time, and you need to work around it, not the other way round. Putting this into the context of a bread-making morning, what this really means is that you should plan to have your lunch at the mill. There are inevitably going to be a couple of hours when the main thing to be done is to wait.

It makes sense to prepare something else during the waiting periods, and preferably something very straight forward. We did some pitta breads, with varying degrees of success, it has to be said. My pittas looked more like Christmas stockings, and completely declined to puff up so there was nowhere to put any fillings! In fact my pittas were almost as much of a disaster as my scones last time, but at least they provided some light entertainment. It's all right - my shoulders are as broad as my pittas were long.

If I hadn't been aiming at pitta breads, I would have been quite happy with what I produced, as it tasted quite nice, somewhere between a biscuit for cheese and a slice of pastry. They did finish up in a bowl of soup, however!

These were much more like it - they had even puffed up to allow for fillings in the middle!

And moving swiftly on from pittas, this is what my rye and raisin loaf looked like, bearing in mind I did mine in a tin.

When things go right

I used to go to this pub in Manchester once in a while, because of its legendary ploughman's lunches.

One time the proud landlord had a sign over the bar proclaiming -

"Today I have a perfect brie"

My heart warmed to him, and I immediately ordered the brie for lunch. Such was the generous scale of the portions that the normal thing was to choose two cheeses, or a cheese and a pate. You would then receive two massive hunks of cheese and a teetering pile of bread that was quite a challenge to carry back from the bar to the table. I once recklessly chose camembert with no second choice cheese, and received a whole camembert for my pains. It was a pretty good one too. But to return to the perfect brie...

When a thing is right, it is just right. You know it is right, and it sometimes feels as if it knows it is right. That's how the brie was - quietly, confidently, perfect. I knew it, the landlord knew it, and really, what more can you ask of a piece of cheese, than that you are still thinking of it with fondness twenty or thirty years later?

How do you get a cheese-loving bear to come out of his cave?

Stand outside and call - "CAMEMBERT".

Cheese also broke in on the revels of Mr Jorrocks the fox hunting grocer one evening, when he was drinking with James Pigg his huntsman and discussing the prospects for the next day's hunt (Handley Cross Ch 57).

To DIY or not to DIY?

When things don't go too well, it's tempting to get the professionals in. 

One such is Lionel Poilâne. His family has shops in Paris and London where they sell wood fired sourdough and tempt you with a bowl of "punitions" - biscuits for the customers - on the counter.

The bread is substantial and strong tasting. Quite something for the dentally challenged, but definitely an experience.

If you can't make it to the shop, they will post it to you. A batch of 5 loaves each weighing 1.9 kg is a snip at 45 euros 50 cents, plus postage.

Shall we save ourselves the trouble next week, and just get some sent from London?