Tuesday, February 26, 2008

1st Daring Bakers Challenge: Baking (and kneading, waiting, deflating, shaping, proofing, and slashing) with Julia

The moment you have all been waiting for: Red Ramekin's first foray into the exciting and borderline cultish world of the Daring Bakers. "The Daring Bakers?" you ask. "Wow, you must know basically nothing about the culino-blogosphere," I chortle, possessed and covered in flour. It's OK, though, I'll explain anyway. The Daring Bakers is a baking group composed of lots and lots of food bloggers from all over the world. Each month, an illustrious blogger or two "hosts" the event, which means that they pick a challenging baking recipe, disseminate it to the eager and less-illustrious members of the group, and then try and moderate the endless discussions that go on throughout the month surrounding the specifics of the recipe. This often includes topics such as the percentage of gluten in bread flour, the appropriate proofing time for bakers living in Malaysian huts with no air-conditioning, and whether it is acceptable to use a linen towel for covering your dough, even though the recipe explicitly says canvas. It's awesome. No, seriously, the Daring Bakers, and the Daring Bakers blog, are really awesome.

The recipe is released to the group members on the 1st of each month, and must be kept a secret until the last day of the month, when all of the bloggers get to post about their successes and/or failures in making the chosen recipe. The event is not a competition, but rather a way for the blog-obsessed to branch out and try recipes that they might not choose to try otherwise. There's more information, and a complete list of members, at the Daring Bakers blogroll.

So, this month's challenge was.....Julia Child's French Bread. Compared to some of the previous challenges (strawberry mirror cake, lemon meringue pic, sticky buns, buche de noel) this one seemed a bit ordinary. However, most ordinary recipes don't require 12 hours to complete. Ordinary recipes don't require that you set your resting dough on a heating pad to achieve the desired rising temperature. Ordinary recipes aren't 8 pages long. You get the idea. It may be bread, but let's face it: bread-baking is anything but easy. Besides, it's a Julia Child recipe, which makes it extra-special. I (like everyone else who has ever cooked) grew up on Julia Child. OK, I'm exaggerating a bit, but Baking with Julia, on PBS's How-To Saturdays, was the best show. Ever. At that age (maybe 12 or so) when watching TV for an entire Saturday was still a reasonable undertaking, I watched Julia religiously.

I have been pretty busy with work this month, but I didn't want to delay membership in the Daring Bakers another month. So, last Sunday was dedicated to Julia's French bread. We prayed for success on the first try, because there probably wasn't going to be a second try. And nobody likes blogging about failed French bread. Luckily, all went according to plan. We ended up with 3 lovely, uber-French batards with golden, crispy crusts and feather-light interiors.

I will spare you the entire recipe, because it is basically the longest recipe I've ever read and I don't even want to think about typing it up. If you are curious, though, check it out here. I'll lay out the basics, though.

First was the mixing, and then the kneading. Lots of kneading:

Then the dough rose until tripled in size, at which point we deflated the dough and set it to rise again. After the second rise came the shaping:

And then another rise:

And then the baking, which involved, among other things, a silicone pastry brush, two baking sheets, a pizza peel, a baking stone, a cast-iron skillet, lots of floury towels, and 10 ice cubes. Look!

Since this was a rather momentous event in my life as a food blogger, I have taken some time to seriously (and not so seriously) reflect on the whole experience.

Overall, it was wonderful. I've been really into bread-baking lately, and this was a kind of baking that I haven't done so much of. It's a totally classic recipe, and it's one of the staples of any decent baker's bread repertoire. I am pretty obsessed with creating my own recipes and using lots of whole grains and alternative ingredients, but it was fun to have an excuse to go completely balls-to-the-wall refined flour for a change.

We have also been doing a lot of that new-fangled no-knead stuff lately. I must admit that I love the no-knead method. It takes literally 5 minutes to mix the dough, and then you just let it hang out for a while in your fridge until you get your lazy ass around to baking it. That's what I'm talking about.

Still, though, there is something about doing bread the real way - I'm talking about kneading now - that is utterly satisfying. This dough was so great to work with, and it was very nice to actually make a successful kneaded loaf. I've tried doing kneaded loaves in the past - just a few times - and have never really been successful. I discovered that it's because I never really knew how to actually knead dough. This recipe explained it very thoroughly. Turns out when a recipe says "10 minutes" it actually, literally means 10 minutes. My arms were tired. When I was kneading the French bread dough, I could see and feel the dough transform from a mish-mash of gluten and liquid into a smooth, soft, cohesive bread-to-be.

The dough was also amazing in the strictly tactile sense. I'd really been missing out by not kneading dough. After a few minutes, this lovely, white, little lump was so soft and smooth that it almost melted (not really, but it felt like that) into my hands. It wasn't sticky, but just barely tacky; it cleared the surface and became delightfully springy and elastic. By the time I was done pounding that sucker, it was like a refined little bubble of yeasty velvet. If my fingers could talk, they would have said something like: "aaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhoooooooooeeeeeeahhhhhooohh." Oh yeah, it was that good.

The evidence for that was in the rising: our precocious little dough-ball puffed up to triple its volume in less than 2 hours. You don't see that with whole-wheat dough. Trust me. The risings went smoothly, so that was good, if not overly exciting. I went to yoga class during the second rise, though, which was a little bit exciting.

And then there was the shaping. This part scared me the most, since I've never had to shape my free-form loaves into "batards" before. The directions were thorough, although not altogether clear; it was hard to visualize them without actually having the dough in front of me. When the time came, though, the directions pulled through. I won't claim that the loaves were perfectly shaped, but they were at worst a rough approximation of a traditional French bread shape. Long, thin, and not horribly disfigured.

Baking was also a breeze, although it required brushing the loaves with water every 3 minutes for the first 9 or so minutes of baking. Hey, I told you this wasn't easy. Miraculously, though, everything seemed to work more or less as written. After letting the loaves cool for a ridiculously long time, we sliced into one and were pleased with both taste and texture. The crust was crispy with a slight chew, and the crumb was close and fine but light as a feather and subtly yeasty.

So, the real test: is it something I'd make again? Well, to be honest, probably not. For one, this loaf requires 100% white flour. Substituting whole grains here would not be pretty. Nor would it be tasty. While I make some exceptions to my whole-grain regime, when I bake for myself I try to stay away from white flour.

And then, of course, there is the time commitment issue. I do like making bread, and I'm excited to try some more kneaded loaves, but this recipe is a bit over-the-top, time-wise. Three rises, really attentive baking, fairly involved shaping....it all adds up to an entire day dedicated to bread. Not that I don't like the occasional day-dedicated-to-bread. But still. This recipe isn't messing around.

The final kicker? Yeah, our French bread was good. But it wasn't any better than a loaf you could get in any bakery or (gasp!) supermarket. Yep, I said it. Store-bought loaves won't make your kitchen smell wonderful, but seriously, they will save you 11 hours of your precious time. Even if your time isn't that precious, that's still a freaking lot of time. I refuse to use this argument when talking about a) breads that don't take huge amounts of time or b) breads that are in some way unique and can't be replaced with store-bought loaves (there are many). But French bread? It's pretty much everywhere, and baking it is definitely not my comparative advantage (just ask Jonathan, the resident economist, what that means). Oh, I almost forgot: sourdough is better than French bread. If I try to do a traditional white loaf again, you can bet that some serious sourdough starter will be involved. Snap.

So, that's the wrap-up of my first-ever Daring Bakers challenge. Totally worth it, totally enjoyable, and totally educational. I can't wait for the next one (I find out tomorrow, but you have to wait until the end of the month!).

Also, if you actually read this entire post, you can officially consider yourself a food blog geek. You're basically a step away from joining the Daring Bakers yourself. But look at what lies ahead:


Emma said...

Guess I'm a food blog geek. And I'm guessing it took you almost as long to write that post as to bake the bread. Good work, sister...I miss the era of Saturdays with Julia.

sketchy said...

I'm a Daring Baker, and a food blog geek :D

If you retard the second rise in the fridge overnight, this recipe is a lot easier to make (time wise).
But I do agree with the whole sentiment - is it better or cheaper then what is at the bakery.

I'm also in the sourdough ballpark with you, I bet that would taste good. I think my post should be up tonight.

L Vanel said...

Your loaves are gorgeous and I love the progression of your photos. Thanks! Very nice.

Tracy said...

The Daring Bakers are kind of cultish, aren't we? Great job on your bread, and a very well written post.

Gretchen Noelle said...

Great bread loaves - I love the golden color. Wonderful way to start off your adventure with the daring bakers! Welcome!

mimsy said...

The post was delicious and the bread looks delightful!

i shot the chef said...

Great first challenge! Your bread turned out beautifully!

Big Boys Oven said...

You did so well on your challenge! give yourself a toast for such beautiful bread! well done!

Carrie said...

Cultish... goood point. ;-)
Congrats on your first challenge!

Mia said...

Thanks to all for the words of welcome/congratulations/encouragement!

I meant cultish in a good way, of course...

Big Boys Oven - a "toast" - ha! Well, the bread is all gone now, so I'll have to think of an alternative kind of toast...

Jenny said...

Welcome to the Daring Bakers! If we're borderline cultish, I feel we should at least have matching outfits or something.

I really loved popping the gas bubbles too. You don't get THAT from a store-bought loaf.

Giacomo said...

Unthinkable as it is that it should fall upon an Italian to defend French cooking, my unbounded pedantry compels me to point out that sourdough may be better than "French bread", but not than French bread.

In fact, in the words of the Oxford Companion to Food: "Although some cultures, notably those that speak English, have embraced baker's or brewer's yeast as the principal raising agent since the early modern period, even now the bakers of France ... work largely with natural leavens."

Given your remarkable success, and your commitment to time-consuming techniques, next time you should try pain au levain---and invite me when it's done!

Lunch Buckets said...

Great job! It's cracking me up how many of us have those kitchen towels though :)

breadchick said...

Welcome to Daring Bakers! So glad you fell in love with kneading, very soothing to the soul it is.

Your loaves look lovely.

thanks for baking with Sara and I

Marcel said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog, Mia!

That bread looks amazing, and I love that you paired it with Bonne Maman raspberry preserves. I got hooked on the stuff in Paris, and now I couldn't get by without it. :)

SteveB said...

Count me in as a food blog geek as well!
Great post but I have a different take on home-made French bread... it is definitely worth the time because it can be so much better than store-bought:
Baguettes with Poolish
And I feel that there is a place for both baker's yeast risen and sourdough breads. Each brings a unique flavor profile to the table.