I spent my first weekend in France baking bread, which was fitting. I was surrounded by freshly harvested fields of wheat, as well endless vistas of fruit trees, corn, sunflowers and vegetable farms as far as the eye can see. It’s a stunning part of the country and it makes me want to bake. My friend Kate had scheduled a bread workshop for a few students with the esteemed Emmanuel Hadjiandreou, instructor at The School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire, England. Emmanuel (or Em, as we would call him), his young son Noah and a colleague, David showed a group of us the finer points of making, kneading and baking the staff of life. I was especially looking forward to working with levains or natural starters.
It was a fascinating weekend. Within moments of arriving, Em started 2 levains (sourdough starters), quickly mixing only flour and water in a bowl and leaving them out to collect the natural yeasts in the kitchen. He made one with wheat flour, another with rye and had them happily bubbling away when the workshop started a few days later. On the first day, we made three types of white bread but with a few twists. Each recipe contained the same ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast of some sort – but by simply varying the water quantities, we created three distinctly different breads.
Each recipe started with the exact same measurement of flour and salt but the water quantity varied, as did the form of yeast. For example:
For Bread #1/Ciabatta: 300g bread flour + 6g salt + 2g dried yeast (or 4g fresh cake yeast) + 300g water
For Bread #2/White Loaf: 300g bread flour + 6g salt + 2g dried yeast + 200g water
For Bread #3/Sourdough: 300g bread flour + 6g salt + 100g levain (sourdough starter) + 200g water
Looking at the ingredients, with the exception of the form of yeast, everything is the same: water, flour, salt, yeast. Nothing unusual, nothing exciting. Yet. But changing the dough’s hydration point vastly changes the dough’s texture. More water makes a wetter or slack dough which results in a flatter bread, with large holes and a chewy but pleasant texture.
Bring that water down by 1/3 and you have a pan loaf, delicious for your morning toast or a fantastic tomato sandwich. Use even less water and switch to a levain for your rising method and you have a dough that bakes up into a beautiful boule with a delightful tang, though this one takes the most patience. Your levain must be pretty vigorous and ready to go and the dough benefits from a long, slow, cool rise. This one relies most on baking experience – it helps to know how much water to add to make a sturdy dough that will hold its shape, understanding when the starter is ready and knowing when the rises are complete. It’s not difficult but it takes time.
It was fascinating to see how these slight changes yielded completely different results. And oh the results! I ate ridiculous quantities of freshly baked bread, all in the name of research: made into a remarkable tomato sandwich, mopping up the day-glo orange yolk of an egg gathered from the chickens only hours before and most frequently, slathered with amazing butter and homemade apricot confiture. It was a Hollywood starlets worst nightmare. I’ve never been so happy.
Later, after Em had left, I thumbed through his book, How to Make Bread. People, this is a fabulous book. You must get it, now. The photography is excellent and very clearly details, step by step, techniques that are sometimes difficult to comprehend like kneading and shaping loaves. There’s a clarity that comes through those pictures that type alone does not provide. He also has a rather unique kneading and shaping method, which is great if you know someone who’s elderly or suffers from arthritis – it’s very easy on the hands. As I paged through, I made at least 15 mental notes on recipes to try later. Em urged me to try the croissants, “They’re fool proof. It’s a great recipe.” So I’ll add that one to the list once the temperature falls below 100F. Maybe even figure out a way to work some duck fat into the lamination. We discussed this idea at length and were all quite taken with the thought.
If you’d like to come to Southwest France and take classes with Kate, please check out her site. She has all kinds of interesting things coming up, like Camp Cassoulet and Natural Light Photography, and will probably have Em back sometime next year.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: C’EST MAGNIFIQUE! Really now, is there anything more satisfying than baking bread? The satisfaction that comes when you’ve made something yourself is outstanding and the benefits are endless: the sheer stress release kneading dough provides; the heady aroma of a fresh baked loaf as it fills your kitchen; the sheer delight of a warm buttery slice. Bread baking is a project and a good one at that. So, get that book and get started.
On this blog three years ago: Chantrelles & Fresh Pasta, Chocolate Peanut Rice Krispie Treats, Herb Infused Simple Syrups, Corn Pudding, Fresh Tomato Pasta
On this blog two years ago: Peach Blackberry Cobbler, Peterson Garden Project – how goes it
On this blog one year ago: Life in Southwest France, Raspberry Crème Croustillant