bread


Remember how I was singing the praises of flour not that long ago? Well, flour must also be on other people’s minds because I opened up one of my favorite blogs the other day and there was this gorgeous picture of flour in action.

It seems Michael Ruhlman was also reading the same issue of Saveur I was but instead of chicken paprikash, the recipe that caught his eye was one for buttermilk dinner rolls baked in a cluster in a springform pan. He adapted the original recipe, which itself was an adaptation of one found on The Fresh Loaf. Funnily enough, in following Ruhlman’s recipe, I ended up having to make some adaptations of my own, including sticking the dough in the fridge when I had to leave for a Super Bowl party. When I got home and was assembling the cluster, I took a little extra time to rewarm each of the dough balls by working the dough with my hands before rolling them into little tight boules.

Lately, I’ve been working from home every so often when I don’t have to go into lab for meetings. I love that not only do I actually get more work done from home, I can also multitask and make bread during the day. It takes all of 15 minutes to mix up some dough in the morning and then while I’m being the good little worker bee all day, the yeast is also working hard in the kitchen. By the time the sun is setting, you’re ready to stick the dough in the oven and look forward to freshly baked bread for dinner. I predict this recipe will come in handy during one of these future work-from-home days.

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On this sunny Sunday, Nathan and I joined some friends (as well as the entire city of San Francisco, it seemed) in Golden Gate Park for some free live music, courtesy of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Really, how can we turn down a line-up of Bonnie Prince Billy, Iron & Wine, and Gogol Bordello? And of course, you must know by now that I would never even think of setting out for a day in the park without packing some rations. Due to lack of time, though, we decided to just walk through the Sunset and buy some Vietnamese sandwiches to snack on. Which then reminded me that I have delayed blogging about Banh Mi for far too long.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t discover the glories of Banh Mi until I started living on a grad student budget. Until I tasted my first Banh Mi, I would never have believed that a hearty, delicious lunch can be had for $3-$3.50 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now that my eyes have been opened, I’m totally obsessed and can seriously eat one of these every day and be happy as a kitty.

You might wonder with Banh Mi already so cheap, why would you even want to make your own? Well, because this cruel, cruel world has decided not to put Vietnamese sandwich shops anywhere near my school! So until the school’s cafe wises up, I either have to trek downtown every afternoon or to take more drastic measures and make Banh Mi at home.

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Sourdough Loaves

Finally I’m going to tell you about how I used the Sourdough Starter I started over a month ago!

First off, I have to be honest that I didn’t really think the whole thing would work because it just seemed to me that so many things can go wrong: didn’t use the right amount of flour or water, temperature not optimal, contamination by other yucky organisms, etc etc. I literally thought of every possible thing that could have gone wrong, just to prepare myself to not get disappointed when it failed. But the sourdough gods must have been smiling on me because not only did I manage to get a decent starter going, but the bread that I eventually made with the starter turned out quite good!

Bread-making is obviously not for people who are impatient, as it requires long stretches of waiting. At the same time, it is also one of the least labor-intensive type of cooking one can do, especially if one owns a stand mixer. You literally mix up the dough, knead it for a while, leave it alone while you go do something else, quickly shape the loaves, leave it alone again, and bake.

Prepping Sourdough Loaves

This time around, I tried out a schedule that ended up working quite well. I mixed the dough on a late Saturday afternoon and then left it to rise overnight in my cool kitchen. By the time I woke up on Sunday morning (left panel), it had risen about 2 to 3 times its initial volume (marked by the pink tape) and was ready to be shaped into loaves. It took all of 15 minutes to shape the dough into two batards (middle panel), after which I went out and ran some errands for a few hours. By the time I came back, the loaves had puffed (right panel) and were ready to be baked.

The final result had plenty of big holes – my simplistic metric for “good” bread – and a pretty authentic, tangy flavor. Nathan devoured half a loaf within the span of 30 minutes, so I’d venture to say the bread was a success! ;)

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apparently, this is called a round ‘boule’

After a few years of claiming I’m ‘learning breadmaking’ by reading books and websites, then several more months of telling myself I’ll start after I find the ‘right recipe’ from this book, I finally got off my lazy butt and attempted one of the easier starting recipes. The one I chose was a Tuscan peasant bread, which simply called for a mix of all-purpose flour and whole-wheat flour as well as some yeast and water. Reason #2 I picked this was because it did not require a starter, which is a lesson I’m reserving for another day. Reason #3? I have yet to buy bread flour.

Since it was my first loaf of ‘real’ bread, every little thing that went according to the instructions was a mini-triumph.

Dough actually pulling away from the sides of the mixer?! –> Whoa!
Kneaded dough actually feels springy?! –> No way!
Dough actually rising double its volume?! –> *cue “Chariots of Fire”*