Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bread: From Alchemy To Science

I want to abruptly shift gears today, and write about bread. What? I can almost feel the bounce rate on this site increasing, because this post isn't about games or random thoughts that a man with too much time and a fully (well, half) stocked bar is prone to sharing.

I've been able to conquer any recipe or cooking concept that inspires me with the "let's try this, it'll be fun!" feeling that leads to every appliance and utensil being used in the kitchen and producing something that (more times than not) is edible. Sometimes those creations even slightly resemble food that one might enjoy.

The one thing that has managed to elude me is baking - and not the kind where you dump a mix into a bowl or stir together flour and eggs. Cakes, zucchini bread, cheesecakes, and the like - these are all in my monkey-sphere, and can be created at the drop of a hat, when I am so moved. What I'm talking about is baking that involves yeast, precise  measurements, and methods that require patience and a decent amount of labor.
This cheesecake contains almost a full liter of chocolate-espresso liqueur. I made an entire store staff tipsy.

When I was young and learning things in restaurants, the one commonality I picked up from professional chefs is that very few of them enjoyed baking, or would even acquiesce to doing so. Baking for the masses wasn't beneath them, per se, but (as I believe the charter of the Cordon Bleu puts it) a huge pain in the ass.

Every time I've attempted to make a thing that involved yeast (other than beer or soda - I managed to conquer those on the second or third try), it either never rose, partially rose, or ended up in the garbage shortly after things were mixed.

In December, my brother sent me a book, The Kitchen As Laboratory, which (apart from giving insight into molecular cuisine - which is the next fun project on my list) tells the reader exactly why ingredients work the way they do. How exactly does sugar work? How do you make a perfect grilled cheese and what makes it better than any bachelor food you've ever had?  What is the science of bacon?

Over the centuries, our species has stumbled upon some amazing scientific processes, and turned them into rituals, because the end results were great tasting, and sometimes intoxicating. Did we understand the chemical reactions the first time we, as a species, made wine? Probably not. Bread? Odds are against it, but we knew how to combine things ad what motions to make in order for these mysteries to reveal themselves.

Let's call it culinary alchemy.

Back to baking - it's a very precise science. Given my many previous attempts at bread, if this had been an earlier era, my colony of settlers or nomads would have died may times over. That, or I'd learn to "invent" flatbread at spear point.

Luckily, I do not live in such a time, and to help with my adventures in chemistry, I acquired a bread machine (it was also a gift). Cheating? Not in the least. I think of it as a lab station unto itself, in which the compounds are unaffected by outside influences such as ambient temperature, air pressure, experimental noise blasting from my computer, or even the occasional feline house guest. The bread machine I use can create anything up to a 2-pound loaf of bread. I do not know what this means, exactly, I just know that volume-wise (perhaps a more accurate measurement) the results can equal almost two loaves of bread that you'd normally find in the bakery section of your grocery store.

The first thing I learned about using a bread machine, was that while it is a fantastic piece of technology, there are times when one should not follow instructions. The recipes that came with the contraption do, in fact, make a dough - but depending on which recipe is followed to the letter, the results are either crumbly or soupy, neither of which make for bread, but it was almost comforting in a Stockholm sort of way to see that I couldn't make bread even by following the experts' directions.

Where does one turn when the correct information isn't staring you in the face? The Internet! It's full of (mis)information, and if you know how to not deviate form your goal, you can sometimes turn up useful nuggets of knowledge.

After skimming various sites pertaining to bread machines, I found some guidelines and ingredient proportions that actually seemed reasonable. In fact, there is a basic recipe for any bread machine that will allow you to be adventurous:

1.5 Cups of water
3.5 Cups of flour
1 Teaspoon of salt
0.25 Cups oil
3 Tablespoons of sugar
2 Teaspoons of active dry yeast

Note: Many bread recipes will require dry milk, but this is totally a lie.

In the bread machine, add your wet ingredients and salt. On top of that, add your flour, and mace a small indentation where your sugar and yeast will rest (and add them, of course). Close the lid on the machine, and let the magic happen.

The device will pre-heat and mix the ingredients, at which time you should peek in to see if the dough needs more flour or water, depending on its consistency (it should be elastic and pulling away from the edges of the baking pan). Now let it go through the rising, kneading, rising kneading, and (eventually) baking stages.

In about 3-4 hours from when you started this whole process, you should have a warm loaf of fresh bread.

The science!

It really isn't much more impressive than a basic organic chemistry class. When warm water and sugar meet yeast, a party starts. The yeast ferments the sugar and gas is released. If that reaction is happening in flour, the dough created from the entire combination rises. It's an S&M party, with very little of the psychology that's typically involved. The dough rises, gets beaten down, and enjoys it so much that it rises a few more times. Apply heat, let the final product set for a few minutes, slice, ad enjoy!

Now that you have bread, and a new feather in your cap, you might sit down and think to yourself, "Well, I know how to make a boring loaf of bread. What else can I do?"

Sun-dried tomatoes and garlic bread

ANYTHING! (within reason)

The neat thing about that bread recipe is that you can add just about anything, and and up with something that will impress. Just make sure they go in with the wet ingredients before you add the flour, sugar, and yeast. Sun dried tomatoes? Add as many as you'd like! Fresh rosemary or basil? Yes, but those are very strong herbs, so use them in moderation. Minced garlic? Oddly enough, whatever you think is enough garlic triple the amount. (I'm not saying this because of my lifelong love affair with garlic, but because the flavor mellows as it cooks, so it's easy to "lose" a flavor by not adding enough of it.) You can even create a culture so you have your own sourdough starter (another project I hope to accomplish in the near future).

A few words about cheese

It is perfectly fine to add cheeses to your bread mixture, but don't let them outsmart you. The average store-bought cheddar contains a lot of oil, which will result in a soupy dough. This can result in large air bubbles when the yeast starts to rise.

Hard cheeses, such as Parmesan, Romano, or any thoroughly aged cheese will add a lot of flavor, while also not making the dough too oily - you just have to add quit a bit of it for the flavor to permeate the entire loaf.

Rosemary and Asiago 

Ingredients to avoid

While a basic dough recipe is a blank canvas, there are certain things that will just kill the yeast when mixed. Anything that's highly acidic and without much sugar content will leave you with a veritable yeast burial ground. Vinegar, low-sugar citrus fruits, and things of that nature would fall into this category. You should also avoid adding meat or things which have too much sugar (some juices, for example), which will just burn on the heating element of the machine.

You just put up a sign that says "Don't walk on the grass." I want to walk on the grass!

Fine. Then let me guide you in your petulance. After the dough it thoroughly mixed and kneaded, but just before the bread machine starts baking the concoction, remove the mixture. Now you have a bit more freedom. Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees. Now you can roll out the dough and turn it into a pizza. Sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on the dough, roll it back up, and cut it into small pastries. Use it as a crust on a pot pie. Whatever strikes your fancy! Ball up the dough. Braid it and make an herbed glaze to blush on it as it bakes. Try your hand as becoming the world culinary version of the Plaster Casters. There's a whole world of baking open to you, and limited by only your imagination and science!

When not playing games, writing or reading books, Jonathan can be found in the kitchen - wearing goggles, a lab coat, and laughing maniacally at his creations (and sighing in relief when things don't blow up).

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