Monday, May 3, 2010

Eating Your Mistakes

I made my first baguettes with a starter yesterday... trying to utilize the lessons of my French Bread class... but everything did not go entirely smoothly. The good news is that homemade bread, even in "mistake" form, is pretty damn good.

Saturday I "refreshed" my starter... adding four ounces of flour and four ounces of water to 8 ounces of starter... then left it a sealed four quart container at room temperature (probably 75-80 in our non air conditioned space) for about four hours, by which time it was nice and bubbly. Following my instructor Edgar's recipe, I prepared the dough for it's first ferment... but since my kitchen is so warm, I put the dough in the refrigerator overnight and brought it out to warm up in the morning instead of leaving it out the entire time.

The problems started when I prepared to shape. First, the dough was just too sticky for me to handle... and the handling of wet dough is actually something I thought I was pretty good at... so I needed to flour my workspace (specifically something we were told to try and avoid) to keep the dough from sticking. Was the dough wetter because of how much starter I used, or because I used it when it was particularly ripe? Hard for me to say, but it seems likely to be something I'll learn to control better with trial and error (at least I hope so). However, even once I got the dough formed into baguettes, my problems weren't over. I don't own a couche and had completely forgotten that we were out of parchment paper... so I didn't really have a good place to proof the baguettes. I left them on the floured counter, but of course, that didn't work since the dough just absorbed the flour on the counter as it proofed and started sticking again. I suppose I could have oiled some plastic wrap... but I was completely at a loss until I mentioned my dilemma to Anna, and she pointed out that we have a silpat... uh, whoops? Well that totally worked, but I was already an hour into my proofing at that point and had totally handled my baguettes too much... degassing them a fair bit as I fussed with them. But as soon as I backed off and stopped messing with them I realized I had made my baguettes too long for our peel (that I now hate)... meaning I had to fold in the ends and reshape a bit... so even more degassing. At that point I should have probably just left them alone for an hour and a half, but I had already been waiting more than an hour and was impatient... so they really hadn't fully proofed by the time I started baking them, and thus didn't get as open a crumb as they might have, if I had just let "time do it's work" as Edgar says.

Another problem I encountered was that I didn't initially use an egg wash... contra the recipe... because I know it creeps my girlfriend, the former Vegan, out a bit. It turned out to be fairly critical however... the baguettes without the wash just didn't brown at all, nor did the sesame seeds really stick very well. I'm not entirely sure why I've not needed egg washes in the past to get good browning... hotter oven perhaps? Reinhart's technique of keeping a pan of water in the oven for more constant steaming? But certainly using this methodology, the difference was stark as far as coloration goes.

On the plus side: the bread tasted great, and my slashing was pretty boss. It also, I suppose, highlights the need to just get in the kitchen and screw things up a few times as you get a handle on the process. No class can prepare you for all the things that can go wrong... just get in there and don't be afraid to make mistakes!

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