Friday, September 5, 2008

The Learning Curve

As anybody who has read my musings on the art of baking bread knows, I'm kind of into dough right now. Especially the yeasted kind. Cracker dough, pita dough, sandwich-loaf dough, pizza dough...the list goes on and I love it all.

If you've never made bread simply because it's a scary endeavor (I'm not saying it isn't), I urge you to give it a shot. Trust me, I'm no master, but it's fun to play around with sticky dough and nothing beats the excitement of checking up on your ball of doughy deliciousness after a long rise or a proof. Knowing how to work with yeast opens up so many culinary doors, and besides, anything that is as mysterious and time-consuming as making bread must also build character.

But back to the whole "I'm really just a novice baker who just likes to get my countertop dirty" thing. I find that the more I read about making bread, the less I know. The world of baking bread - yeast, rises, proofs, starters, soakers, poolishes, etc., etc. - is just so vast that trying to absorb large chunks of it at a time can be a bit much. On top of the general difficulty of bread-baking, I like to focus on whole-grain loaves, which is really a different animal than normal white-flour baking.

Instead of trying to crack the bread code, though, I've started just experimenting with different techniques and recipes, in the hopes of building my knowledge and intuition about baking in general. The latest technique is one that I got from the Gourmet website, and it's for a "sweet" enriched dough. Don't be fooled, though; this dough is not actually that sweet, and is nowhere near as "enriched" as something like a buttery brioche. Although the recipe calls for regular white flour, I was bold and substituted with 100% whole wheat.

The fact that this dough is enriched really worked in my favor here, since whole wheat generally needs a little extra "oomph" when it comes to yeasted breads. What really intrigued me about the Gourmet recipe, though, wasn't so much the ingredient list as the kneading technique. The dough is very, very wet, and requires a kind of kneading that I had never tried before, but which seemed to work quite well.

This is the only 100% whole-wheat loaf that I've made that has a texture similar in density and crumb-openness to a store-bought loaf. Of course when you eat it fresh, it is infinitely better than anything that comes bagged and dated in the supermarket. Although I don't mind the dense breads that usually result from using whole grain flours, this light and airy little loaf (the mini-loaf pans are back in action!) was a nice change of pace, and a reassuring reminder that whole grains really are versatile and veritable substitutes for traditional refined flours.

As I mentioned before, I used this recipe mainly for its kneading technique (the Gourmet website also has an awesome video of this technique), and made a few substantial changes to it. The first of course, is the whole wheat substitution. Secondly, I let the dough rise overnight in the refrigerator, and then let it rise again in the refrigerator after punching it down once (although this takes a long time, it is pretty fool-proof). And finally, thinking I wanted a loaf with some serious character, I kneaded in some fennel and caraway seeds and some raisins before the final proof. Oh, and I also baked it in loaf pans instead of free-forming it, because my little pans are just too cute.

I loved the flavor combination of fennel, caraway, and raisins; it gave the bread a lovely balance between sweet and savory. The bread worked well on its own, and was delectable with the addition of a few sandwich ingredients. Since Jonathan is still in California, I went wild and bought some smoked salmon (he's allergic to salmon, so we never eat it otherwise), and then topped a few toasted mini-slices with salmon, cucumber slices, and fromage blanc. Classy, I know. But also really tasty, and really easy. In fact, I might just have a single-girl sandwich to go along with my single-girl salad.

I won't write out the recipe for the bread here, because it isn't really my recipe (except for the fennel and raisins, which I highly recommend), but do check out the original recipe and video for some serious bakerly inspiration. This dough is a blast to work with - it goes from wet and sloppy to smooth and supple as you knead it - and results in a wonderfully light-textured and versatile loaf. If I can do it, so can you!


breadchick said...

I must say your bread baking is getting fantastic! This loaf looks so wonderful, I'm adding it to the next round of weekly bread baking.

Well done.

Christina said...

Beautiful loaf of bread!

Kristin at The Kitchen Sink said...

Mia: Gorgeous! And fennel, caraway and raisin sounds like a delicious combination.

Hillary said...

Great idea for a bread, and even better idea for its toppings! I'm impressed, that looks delicious!