I mean, seriously! I baked bread! It's been so freaking long since the last time I baked bread that I really thought my days of absolutely needing such specialty items as a dough whisk and a couche in my kitchen were over. There wasn't even any good reason for my hiatus. I can't blame lack of time: making homemade bread requires very little active time -- just lots of rising time. I can't blame lack of supplies: my pantry is full of flours, from cake all the way up to high-gluten. I can't blame anything, really, except my sorry-ass self. I forgot how easy -- and how tremendously rewarding -- it is to bake your own bread.
So, back I go to The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge. I swear I am going to finish this thing, I swear. You see, I attended* a three-night cooking class with Peter Reinhart himself at the Western Reserve School of Cooking in June and was inspired anew to immerse myself in all things yeast. Unfortunately, I was way way pregnant and that inspiration was sapped rather quickly by my need to watch old episodes of "Saved By the Bell" in bed. What can I say.
Peter was awesome, though, and very supportive of The Bread Baker's Apprentice challengers (one of my fellow bakers -- Phyl of Of Cabbages and King Cakes, who very long ago rather impressively completed the challenge -- was also in attendance). I learned a lot during those three nights, but my favorite lesson was the realization that I can totally make these breads just as well as Peter can. The delicious samples he shared with the class were amazing, but not much different than the finished breads that come out of my kitchen. Which is not to say that I am so awesome, but rather to say that Peter is a fabulous teacher whether in person or via the pages of a book. It is also to say: bread-making, while seemingly difficult and often perceived as beyond the scope of everyday home cooking, is completely accessible and easily accomplished with just a small investment of time and patience.
Peter was focused almost solely on his Artisan Breads Every Day book, which emphasizes the no-knead method. Not having any experience with no-knead breads, I was fascinated to see just how much gluten can be developed just with a little time and zero effort. Light bulb! The first night was dedicated to multi-purpose lean dough, challah and sweet dough for cinnamon and sticky buns. The star of night number two was focaccia. And on the last night Reinhart gave us pizza dough. So much pizza dough, topped with everything from caramelized onion marmalade to pesto to fresh Roma tomatoes and bright parsley.
Having already completed part of The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge prior to the classes, there was a lot in the Peter Reinhart canon that I already knew. But that certainly didn't mean there wasn't a lot to learn. For example:
- Use parchment on your peel. I have yet to master the smooth use of the pizza peel; I dust my peel liberally with corn meal or semolina before placing the pizza dough on it, but I can never get the dough to slide effortlessly onto the pizza stone without making a giant mess. Peter's solution: place parchment on the peel, then add the dough, then slide the whole thing off the peel onto the stone. Well, duh. Why didn't I think of that? Brilliant.
- Contrast is a powerful culinary principle. I knew there was a reason I liked salty with my sweet, and crispy-crunchy with my soft and tender. It is the reason why I work to create a thick, chewy crust on a loaf of hole-y ciabatta.
- Whole wheat flour absorbs more water than white flour, so to convert a white flour recipe to whole wheat you'll have to add an extra 8-10% hydration to the mix. Very good to know.
- The baker's job is to evoke the full potential of flavor that's trapped inside the grain.
- Peter's definition of baking, oft repeated during the course of the three nights is as follows: "Baking is the application of heat in an enclosed environment for the purpose of driving off moisture."
And you know what? Bread is transformational, as much as it is elemental to human existence, nourishment and joy. The very best thing I learned those nights is a practical message that any novice bread baker can appreciate: even if your bread fails, people will still love it because it's homemade. "It is always a hit no matter how it comes out."
*Please note: Dad bought the classes for me for Christmas last year. Let it not be said that I failed to acknowledge him publicly for this awesome, most perfect gift. And not only is he generous, but he's handsome, too!
So it seems I've used the occasion of the next challenge recipe -- light wheat bread -- to pontificate about Peter in person. Alliteration aside, let me tell you a little about this bread. It's the only loaf I had made prior to starting The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge, as it's the only recipe in the book that doesn't require more than one day of fermentation. The dough produces a lovely golden sandwich loaf, flecked with whole wheat and ever so slightly sweetened with a touch of honey. The crust is crunchy and firm and the crumb is soft and pocked with small, pleasing holes (see above regarding the importance of contrast).
This is the bread I made when I vowed, oh so long ago, that I would bake all my own bread. I even kept up with it for about a month, churning out a loaf every few days. I need to pick up that habit once again, for light wheat bread is delicious, and satisfying, and easy, and what the hell. Stop reading this and go and bake some.
The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge asks that we do not share the recipes for the challenge loaves. However, I have it on good authority that you can find the recipe for Reinhart's light wheat bread on the excellent and lovely Smitten Kitchen blog. I'm just sayin'. However, if you're feeling that now is the time to buy Reinhart's book -- hello, finally here's a bread that can be baked in just one day! -- head on over to Amazon and pick up a copy. The recipe starts on page 181.
Finally, in honor of my triumphant return to bread-baking, I have submitted this here light wheat bread to Yeastspotting.
Previously, on A Stove With A House Around It:
One year ago: sesame butter cups
Two years ago: pizza Margherita and pizza with sage-walnut pesto and gorgonzola