Thursday, January 27, 2011

Biscuits & Muffins

Orange-cherry muffins

These things are difficult. They seem easy, but getting a muffin to burst with flavor and be really interesting and  worth eating is not as easy as it might seem.

My baking class starts with breads, then moves on to croissants, then puff pastry, then I forgot what but saves muffins for near the end of the half-semester. That doesn't stop me from playing with them, especially when my wife says she'd really like a muffin or two.

There's still more work to be done with these. Maybe some brown sugar mixed in, maybe pre-soak the dried cherries in Kirschwasser... Maybe cut back on the orange zest? Hopefully I'll have them figured out by the time I have to master them for class.

Monday, January 24, 2011


 braided loaf before egg wash & seeds

 braided loaf after baking

 olive bread, herbed focaccia, epi baguette (behind)

 potato bread with a subtle hint of rosemary

sourdough, with a few "accompagnements"

We now turn to transforming yeast, water, flour and salt into delicious bread. Unlike with people, the best bread is agitated bread. This develops the protein (gluten) that gives it structure. You don't have to stop at these three ingredients, of course. We made olive bread, herbed focaccia with olive oil, potato-rosemary bread and a seeded braided bread.

Braiding bread is interesting. You create four 12" tubes of dough, then start braiding at the middle, chanting the mantra, "Four over three! Two over three! One under two!". This corresponds to the order of the tubes facing you, and repeats until there's nothing left to braid. Then, you flip the loaf (which now looks like a deranged octopus) and finish with the other side.

We also made braided dinner rolls. Same kind of thing, starting with a tube of dough. It's formed into a shape like a "6". The top of the "6" then goes through the hole, the hole's loop gets twisted and the top of the "6" gets threaded back through the remaining hole. These would have been interesting to see, but somehow we forgot them in the refrigerator and never baked them. They're now frozen, awaiting some better use in the future.

Since my home oven is dead, I brought some sourdough that I'd been working on, proofed and baked it at school. Only three people asked for a taste, strangely enough.

That's it for bread in this class. Now we move on to laminated dough, used for making croissants and danishes when it's yeasted and puff pastry when it's not.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Amazon dot Com? NEVER AGAIN!

 Arrrr! Shiver me textbooks!

When the delivery man drove up today, I thought to myself, "Yay! The last of my textbooks has arrived, four days after I ordered it with two day priority shipping.".

I checked the envelope. Correct address, correct name, correct book title. I opened the package. Correct book title on the "In this shipment" form.
Then I looked at the book. Crocheting. Crocheting? My book is about food and wine pairings! Fashion classes are next door!

So, there must be a way to resolve this, since it probably happens from time to time. Amazon will do what's necessary to make everything good. They'll give me a return shipping label to return the wrong book and immediately ship the right book via two day shipping (or even overnight to prove they care). Right?

Wrong! Here's the deal:

1. They give a return number, and e-mail a bar coded document to print out for the return.

2. The book travels via regular (slow) UPS shipping.

3. The wrong book arrives in Kentucky.

4. It gets processed or something. Entries are made. Numbers travel through computers.

5. They find the right book. Or they find the wrong book again, and ship whatever it is via regular (slow) rate. Maybe I'll get something like U.S. Civil War Relic Counterfeiting for Europeans.

6. Four to six weeks later, if all goes well, I might possibly have the book that I ordered long ago with two day shipping. In other words, after I've flunked several tests because the book never arrived, I'll finally be able to study.

7. The supervisor confirmed that there is no way they would find the correct book and ship it with two day priority shipping so that their error would be corrected and I would have my book. The best they could do was a refund, which takes 36 hours to appear. Or ten days. Or whatever. Unless it doesn't.

Considering the futile nature of any resistance, I asked for a refund. Although billing instantly sucks money out of my account, refunds are different:
"Refunds typically complete within 10 business days and appear as a credit on your statement."
Pay special attention to the word, "typically". The book people order probably "typically" arrives as it should, too. But when it doesn't?

So, fellow students, unless you have seven weeks advance before your class and like dealing with companies who take no responsibility for their errors, I would council you to avoid like a salmonella, trichinosis and mold infested porkburger! If for some reason you find yourself in a similar situation, please don't come crying to me. And especially don't go crying to Amazon!

I think the Amazon in the picture is an accurate depiction of their current attitude towards fixing snafus. Do you think this person would help you? No? Me, neither!

Grease + Heat = dead oven

Grease. Heat. Electronics. Plastic. These are things that go together like beef liver, chocolate, anchovies and Vegemite. That doesn't stop people from using these things in ovens. So, it looks like every eight years or so, our oven will no longer accept input. The keypad is plastic, brilliantly located right above the oven's exhaust vent where it can enjoy maximum exposure to everything that will shorten its lifespan.

So, sometime next week, a repair person will arrive with a shiny new touch pad and hopefully all will be well again. At least for another eight years. Unless we don't use the oven. Ever. Not even for proofing bread. Maybe for storing dishes... no heat.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Your mission: become a baker

 Are you worthy?

Baking is scary. You don't use recipes; you have formulas. It's not "a dash of this..." it's 38 grams. There's no seat of the pants stuff in baking. This is science. Chemistry. Crystalline precision with no room for error.

There are things considered baking that I love: puff pastry, croissant dough, breads. Then there are the other things that I've never liked, even when I was a wee bairn. Cakes. Sugary things with no mouthfeel, no oomph, not enough chocolate or fruit or whatever. Cakes in the USA, or at least California, bore me because they seem to be not much more than sugar held in a flour matrix with more sugar on top. This is not the case in France, but the norm here seems to be a dessert desert comprised of drifting dunes of pure sugar. At least as far as most cakes I've tried here. Now, I'll be the creator. Making these things, responsible for their quality, interest and beauty. The question is, can I do better than the typical supermarket slab of sweetness and rise into the heights of wonderful European desserts?

All baking experiments will be scrutinized in minute detail, subject to professional review. Making things I may not even enjoy eating, sugary, puffy concoctions that are usually just a substrate for some ceremonial decoration. Things that often have more chemicals than your local refinery, glowing with all the colors of an unnatural rainbow. So, from sustainable cooking and wholesome, natural ingredients I pass to the dark side of numbered food coloring agents, massive amounts of sugar, and about the same nutritional content as your favorite free newspaper.

Hopefully, when I emerge in March at the other end of the tunnel, I will know how to make really wonderful bread that puts the stuff in the markets to shame. Big ears, wonderful crumb, light, crackling crust, subtle and complex flavor. But will I have managed to create a cake that I really enjoy eating?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mouthfeel. Mouth feel. Mouthfeel?

yes, mouths have feelings

Mouthfeel is definitely a chef word. It's not something you hear often, say at a fine dining establishment. "Oh, cheeerie! The mouthfeel is simply exquisite!"... "Ah, I love Chef Raymond. He has the best sense of mouthfeel in town. Never misses a note."

It's almost pornographic in the image in conjures, but this is a family rated blog so we won't go there. I leave it to you to close your eyes and imagine the possibilities. Just don't do it at work.

Yet, some foods are almost exclusively mouthfeel. Crunchy things. Slimy things. If a cracker doesn't crunch, it's not much of a cracker, is it? Then again, if your mashed potatoes are crunchy that's not good, either.

Strangely enough, it doesn't seem to have a corresponding translation into French. They missed out on umami, and mouthfeel too? No, ceci n'est pas possible! They must have some equivalent like sensation buccale ou mise en bouche or sensation gustatoire... but I couldn't find it. There is no way that a True and Perfect Master like Auguste Escoffier could have overlooked this aspect of the culinary arts.

So, now that you've read this, you probably have The Curse. Now you will think about mouthfeel, and while doing so will certainly be unable to think about what your tongue is doing, what it feels, which direction it's pointed... Worry not, it will go away. Until you eat something crunchy or slimy.

Croissant dough: Bread meets pâte feuillétée

I imagine someone in France 160 years ago or so looking at puff pastry (butter, salt, flour) and bread dough (flour, yeast, water, salt) and saying, "what if...". Croissant dough also has milk and a bit of sugar, but the idea is to use the folding and layering technique from puff pastry with yeasted dough.

So, theoretically you get a double rising action plus wonderful layers of savory stuff. Water in the bread turns to steam in the oven, and the gases created by the yeast also expand for a mega-puffing action. The dough is also moister than puff pastry, so the mouth feel is different.

Since it's kind of an involved process to make - the yeast slows the whole process down - I made quite a bit of the stuff. Then shaped it into pains au chocolate (French for chocolate croissants), croissants, potato/herb croissants, breakfast mini croissants (with a bit of omelette between a sliced-open roll.

Today was the last day of the dough. It's really a treat when you can keep the dough in the refrigerator and just roll it out, proof it and bake it for out of the oven goodies that are lighter and fluffier than anything I've had in a bakery.

So, looks like I'll be spending more time in the kitchen producing croissant dough. But maybe not quite yet - that's a lot of butter to eat every day, tasty though it may be.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


up, up and...

Never, ever take pizza for granted. You thought it was simple? Some flour, yeast, salt, olive oil for the crust. Some tomato sauce or whatever over that, then whatever you want.

Easy? Yeah? Hey, Pal. Tell ya what. Try makin' one some time and tell me all abouddit.

First, the dough. A perfect harmony of springiness and elasticity, capable of being stretched, thrown in the air and shaped to the perfect thin crust shape. Not enough stretchiness and it tears, leaving sauce-leaking holes. Too much elasticity and it shrinks back as soon as you shape it. Worse, it has to taste good, too.

The crust needs to taste wheaty, toasty, crunchy and chewy all at once. It should not taste yeasty. It has to be cooked all the way through, no raw doughy line - despite the detail where it can go from wafer thin Neapolitan to thick and bready, or anything in between.

Shaping it can be easy or... whoops! A pizza can be completely hand shaped. Tossing is optional. But what fun is a pizza that you can't toss? Of course, it works much better as a pizza than a hat. Place the partially shaped dough on your knuckles, the fingers of both hands curled down. With a deft crossing/twisting movement, the dough is propelled skyward, perfectly vertically, spinning rapidly and widening. If any unwanted vectors emerge, the dough veers perilously off course where it must be intercepted before it hits a solid object or, worse, the floor. The catch must be correct, too. A bad catch leads to folded over dough and more work.

The sauce is relatively simple. Just the right stock base, tomatoes, herbs, etc. in the right proportion. Or pesto, cream or oil based. Well, not simple exactly but at least something I'm familiar with.

If all this is good, the thing still has to be baked. If you have a 650° F stone lined pizza oven, this will probably not be a problem. If you have a wood-burning oven, even better. If you're at home, you'll probably be OK if you get your pizza stone hot enough.

So, my first attempt to make my own pizza from scratch basically rose to the level of your average supermarket frozen pizza. The sauce was better. The toppings were about the same. The crust, however, just didn't make me want to sing like Caruso. It was too dry, too crunchy. Not that wonderful mix of bubbly, chewy and crispy that I was looking for. Back to formula.

The next time I go to a great pizza place, I'll certainly be much more appreciative!