Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A New Plan

Guys. I’ve been a bit … absent lately. For lack of a better explanation – post-college life is tough. And when I’m struggling, it shows up in my food and my writing. I’ve been avoiding it. But I don’t want this blog to turn into a whiny pity-party rant site, I’ll leave it at that.

Well, that and the promise of a new plan. Cooking and writing and creating and writing some more is good for me, and so I’ve decided to pledge to you, wide-open blog-o-sphere to begin posting consistently. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I will put something up. No matter what.

All of this said, I have been doing plenty of cooking and eating in the past couple weeks. A girl’s got to eat, especially when feeling glum. And there’s little better than bread baking to feed my hunger for challenge, change, experimentation (except maybe croissants, but I still have some in the freezer). I recently bought a Peter Reinhart book – Crust and Crumb, not The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (the availability of a paperback copy is extremely persuasive to my new budget-minded self) – and have been doing a lot of scheming about fermented, multi-stage bread.

I’ve done a bit of bread baking in the past, but never anything as involved as his recipes. I’ve made plenty of quick breads and pizza dough, a couple loaves of sandwich bread and one deliciously crackly boule. But that’s about it. Now that I have so much time on my hands, I plan to start working my way through his recipes, starting, as soon as I get back into my real kitchen next week, with French bread.

Before I get there, though, I’ll leave you with the slightly simpler como I made last week. It uses a Poolish starter – a wet, gurgling bowl of yeast, flour and water left to ferment overnight – and a high ratio of water to flour, which yields a sticky dough. I didn’t have any trouble folding the dough in its prescribed patterns, but I think that I used too much flour. I would also recommend a longer final proof on the dough, as well as a note to made sure that all of the seams on the loafs are sealed and on the bottom. A couple of my loaves cracked open in the oven, which diminished the final texture.

Como Bread
(from Apple Pie, Patis, and Pate)

For percentages and proportions by weight, see the link above. I have a digital scale waiting for me back at my real house, and will get to use it soon, but for these loaves, I used volume measurements.

First, make the Poolish:
Combine ¾ cup bread flour, ¾ cup room temperature water, and 1/8 teaspoon yeast until well mixed. Let the mixture stand at room temperature for 12 to 16 (I let it go the full 16) hours before making the final dough.

The next day, combine all of the Poolish, 2 2/3 cup bread flour, ½ cup whole wheat flour, 1 ¼ cup water, ¼ teaspoon yeast, and 2 teaspoons kosher salt until well combined. Knead the dough on a floured counter for about 6 to 8 minutes or until it becomes a more cohesive ball of slightly springy dough. It will still be sticky.

Let the dough sit in a lightly floured bowl for one hour at room temperature. After the hour, stretch the dough into a rectangle, about 10x12 inches. With the long side facing you, fold in thirds, as you would a letter. Fold the dough a second time, in the same way, with the short sides going towards the center, so you end up with a sort-of square ball. (If this is confusing, there are great pictures on the link, so check those out). Let the dough sit for another hour, repeat folding, and let sit for one last hour. Divide the dough into three pieces (or however many loaves you want) and let rest for about 15 minutes. Stretch each piece into a strip, about 16 inches long, and seal the seams. (I made two baguette-like loaves, and one small boule, because I only had a couple of small pans. They all cooked in about the same time, so I don’t think that it matters too much which shape you choose). Let the shaped loaves proof on parchment-lined baking sheets for at least 30 minutes (or maybe an hour?) before cooking.

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees (make sure that it gets this hot!). Boil one cup-ish of water and pour into a heavy pan (a cast iron skillet works well) and stick this under the rack on which you will cook the bread (the boiling water will create steam in the oven, which is crucial to the creation of a crispy crust on your bread). Immediately stick the bread in the oven. The loaves should cook in about 20 minutes. I rotated the pans around after about 10 minutes, but make sure that you wait at least that long so you don’t mess up the initial oven rise. The finished bread will be golden brown and will sound hollow when tapped.

Let cool as long as you can stand it, and serve with various accoutrements, such as cheese, prosciutto, and summer tomatoes.

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