Thursday, March 4, 2010

So you think you can bake?

Why yes, I kind of do think that I can bake. I'm no Nick Malgieri or Dorie Greenspan. (Know them? You should. I love them.) But I can and do put together desserts and baked goods that while they are not about to rival the pastries at The Chocolate Mill in Glens Falls or Mrs. London's in Saratoga they certainly surpass those on offer in the supermarket bakery departments in my local Price Chopper and Hannaford.

But for the longest time while I confidently made all manner of pies, cakes, cookies, scones and biscuits I had a fear. Of yeast. Bread just seemed like something other people made. Grandmothers with wisdom and experience, hands strong and rough from years of shaping their daily bread. There seemed too much mystery in the alchemy of flour, yeast, salt and water. And then I read an article in the NY Times that...well, I want to say changed my life but that sounds a little dramatic, no? I read an article that opened my eyes to how easy bread making could be. Jim Laheys' No-Knead Bread. You must be familiar with it? I think everyone is by this time.

It's three ingredients, flour, yeast and salt that when combined with what almost seems like too much water form a very slack dough that's not kneaded but left to rise unattended at room temperature for at least twelve hours, but preferably eighteen. The dough is then quickly shaped and left to rise again for two more hours. It's baked in a very hot oven in a heavy, covered dish. Le Creuset or something similar works well for the baking. When the bread is done baking you are left with a crisp loaf with an airy interior full of holes. It's very much like the pricey artisan breads you see in better bakeries for too much money.

Then for Christmas I was given a copy of the book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. The premise of this bread recipe is similar to the No-Knead bread but differs in that you mix a large batch of dough, again not kneading it, let it rise at room temperature until it doubles and then begins to fall and then you refrigerate the dough until you're ready to use it. When you're ready to use it you pull off a hunk of dough, flour and shape it and let it rise at room temperature for an hour or so. You bake the loaf on a baking stone without a cover, with a pan in the oven that you throw a cup of water into to create steam which helps the bread rise quickly. In the end you have a quite yummy loaf of crusty bread which my family loves.

Now that I have mastered both bread baking techniques (and moved on to cinnamon buns- yum!) I'm not sure which one I prefer. The Jim Lahey loaf seemed to have a thinner, more crackly crust than the Artisan in Five loaf. They both have great interiors but the Jim Lahey seemed to have a lighter crumb, which I enjoyed just a little bit more. I'm thinking I may need to do some comparison baking. Strictly measured ingredients, side by side taste testing. For now I will continue to enjoy my Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day loaves because the dough is already in the fridge but I think I see a bake off in my future. Do you bake bread?


  1. I've got the same thoughts on both - they're both great breads, and each has its +/- aspects.

    For the Artesian bread, it's quick and far better than anything else for that time investment, and you can just leave it in the fridge for a week to age and pull out when you want bread.

    On the other hand, the NK loaf is so different from anything else - crackly crust, moist and open crumb interior - it's crazy good, but the down side is all of the planning required to go into it.

  2. You know... if you need an unbiased opinion to help you decide on which bread is best in a head-to-head tasting, I humbly offer my services.

    I could even pick up Albany Jane and Albany John on my way out to your, um, bakery.

    Me, I don't bake. Always have wanted to. But I don't really like handling flower. It's a long story that involves a small bit of my OCD-like tendencies.

  3. I never considered myself much of a baker, much less a bread baker, until NK changed my world. Although it does require some forethought, I find it to be very forgiving in terms of the measurement of the ingredients.
    @Daniel B - I must say, I'm a bit surprised about your aversion to flowers. I always imagined you to be red roses sort of guy...

  4. @Albany Jane what I want to know is why are they so different? They're pretty similar recipes but with such different results. I need Alton Brown to investigate this. :)

    @Daniel B. That might be fun, a bread tasting panel in the woods.

    @DelSo it is very forgiving, I had to play around with the level of water because when I moved on to this little hill (I say it's a small mountain but my partner disagrees) my bread would not rise. I made the dough way wetter and voila! Risen bread.

  5. i'm proud to say that i haven't bought a loaf of bread for over two years. i've learned a variety of bread-making techniques, including these two (i prefer the artisan bread batch). now, more importantly, on to the cinnamon rolls! i'm conducting some experiments with these little pieces of heaven myself and i can't wait to see how you come out!

  6. @grace I actually did make cinnamon rolls but I didn't bother to photograph the process. I've made them twice now so pat on the back for me. One more kitchen fear conquered!

    Now I may have to on to sandwich bread. I still buy that (3 loaves a week- eek!) and I'd like to learn to make one that slices well and keeps well.