Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Lesson in Breadmaking

After a two week hiatus — snow and holiday weekends can really cramp my baking style — my Baking Basics class resumed Saturday with Bread 101 (at least that's what I'm calling it).

Compared to the last two classes, this one on bread has been my favorite. The fact that this week we took home a little bit of everyone's creation as opposed to just our own definitely contributed. I walked out of class with a huge tote bag stuffed with about 15 loaves of nine kinds of breads. The spoils ranged from foccaccia to sticky buns, and included four full loaves of Potato Challah that I made myself!

Now I've been a huge fan of Challah for my entire life and I've made it mostly from scratch on a couple of different occasions, but I've never before seen it or known it to be made with potatoes and potato water. At Cambridge Culinary School, where I've been taking this baking basics series of classes, Potato Challah was introduced as the norm, and I just had to test it out. Spoiler alert: It's delicious!

All nine types of bread started out with the same basic formula. Feed your yeast with sugar, add "baby bottle warm" water and set it aside to start to develop. This is stage one and can be stretched out over the course of many hours or even days if you have the time. The longer your yeast cultivates, the better.

We used dry yeast (not instant) and then our chef professor walked around and added a healthy handful of poolish/biga/starter... the name varies but this is just a concentrated mass of prepared yeast and flour that adds flavor and depth to bread. We then added flour and the remaining ingredients that differentiated our doughs (eggs, honey, salt, etc.) and set it to rise until doubled in size.

With this extra time, several students prepared the fillings that got added into their dough later in the process or watched our chef professor demonstrate different ways of shaping breads. My Challah baking buddy and I set to making quick breads — bread-like products in which a chemical levening agent such as baking powder or soda is used in place of yeast. We made a batch of scallion goat cheese biscuits and jalepeno corn bread to share with the class while our bread underwent the slow "hurry up and wait" process of rising and settling.

With kneading, I originally expected the process to be much like making pizza dough, in which you knead and knead and basically enjoy a nice arm workout or opportunity to beat out any pent up aggression getting the dough to stretch out into shape. I was surprised to find that even my sticky challah dough was surprisingly soft and easily malleable. It took plenty of time to knead (over 10 minutes by hand) but was more peaceful and methodical than I had anticipated. Only after the first rise did I get to really use force to punch the air bubbles out of the dough — and even here, it wasn't really necessary.

Because of the potato (if you add potato), Challah dough stays sticky and tacky even after adding copious amounts of flour to the batch. If you're making it at home, I recommend having a giant bowl full of flour next to you to add to your work station whenever needed.

I also highly recommend a pastry scraper. I don't have one of my own (yet), but when I used it in class, it served to help knead my bread (scrape and fold) as well as slice off segments to roll and braid. Added bonus: using a pastry scraper helps keep one of your hands mostly clean so that you can stop and take pictures whenever the mood strikes you!

I braided my Challah into not one, not two, but SEVEN different loaves! I brought home four and insisted that my classmates all grab one to take home. Between my seven and the other guy's seven, we had more than enough to go around. Once braided, we egg washed, sprinkled with poppy seeds or sesame seeds or neither and set aside to rise yet again before baking.

Biggest lesson learned about bread making: It takes some serious patience! With cupcakes, it can be hard to wait for the cake to cool before frosting, but that is nothing compared to this. There is waiting involved after every step. In fact, waiting even longer than deemed necessary is encouraged with breads.

It all comes back to the yeast. Yeast is a living organism that thrives in moist, warm environments and feeds on sugar. As it feeds and grows, it releases CO2 and alcohol, which help bread rise in the oven. As you knead in flour, the chemicals combine and react to form strands of gluten. The stronger the strands (or the more gluten developed), the more your final loaf of bread will hold its shape — something very important when creating the base to a sandwich or a sturdy agent with which to scoop up chili.

Cakes can collapse a bit after coming out of the oven and still look phenomenal once you top them with frosting. Flourless cakes collapse quite a bit as no gluten develops to keep the centers high. When making bread, collapsing centers isn't an option – the bread needs to be sturdy. Gluten development and yeast cultivating help make this happen (over the course of several hours if not days).

Since I've started looking up recipes for Challah that incorporate potato like the one I made in class, I've found a bunch of Sweet Potato Challah recipes... Might definitely have to try that out soon!

Til then, I'm having bread with every meal and snacking on my European favorite – fresh bread with cheese!

Happy (bread) baking!

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