Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Classic white bread

Baking bread is magical, mystical, there is something almost sacred about it and kneading the dough by hand is intrinsically part of it. That dream I had of kneading my own dough is what motivated me to start taking up bread baking a little more seriously. As I mentioned before flour and I have not been good friends in the past and only very recently have I started to apply myself in a consistent way to the art of baking. It is a beautiful journey I have to admit and as I discover how 4 basic ingredients mixed skillfully can yield world class bread, I am also inevitably faced with learning my basics in chemistry.

First and foremost I'm asking myself what may sound like a simplistic pointless question but in my view a quick reminder never hurt anyone or so I'll ask anyway. Why knead dough? Kneading the dough is crucial to achieve proper gluten development. Gluten is a protein found in wheat that is reponsible for both structure and flavor and starts activating with hydration and warmth (exactly like yeast).

That being said, there are 2 types of breads : lean and enriched. The lean breads are a combination of flour, salt, yeast and water. French baguette falls in this category. The taste of the final bread relies solely on fermentation to develop the complex flavors of the wheat. In order to activate the fermentation yeast is needed (commercial or wild also known as sourdough). Yeast needs moisture, warmth and feeds on sugar to expand. As it grows it produces carbon dioxide and alcohol (in this case ethanol which evaporates when baking). It is also good to know that a few things will also kill the yeast, among which heat and salt.

In the enriched bread category, such as brioche or as a matter of fact any dough enriched by eggs, milk and or butter, the flavor will also come from these additions thus relying less on fermentation to develop flavor. I find this category easier to start with and by no means less appetizing.

This classic white bread comes from a recipe from the Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. It was a perfect book for the challenged somewhat perplex baker I was. It falls in the enriched bread category but still remains a leaner bread requiring only 4tbs of butter, 1 egg, 1 1/2 cups of milk and 3 tbs of sugar on top of flour, yeast and salt to yield 2 1 pound loaves.

I combined all the a.m. ingredients* with a metal spoon and quickly transfered the dough to the counter kneading it only for 2 to 3 minutes and letting it rest for 20 minutes. It's a good baker's tip that the French bakers call autolyse which allows the gluten to start activating. After 20 minutes I knead it by hand until the gluten is fully developped and the dough passes the windowpane test (which is well illustrated here). The dough is lightly oiled to avoid cracking. It then has to ferment until doubled in volume which is inherently dependent on the ambient temperature : the warmer the faster. It is then degassed and divided into 2 balls and let to rest for 20 minutes. Then comes shaping. Each ball is shaped into a log, placed into a pan and again proofed until doubled in volume before going in a preheated 350 degree oven for 35 minutes.

Bread baking is indeed a world of its own and I'm happy I opened the door.

*Another good tip when baking bread is to measure your ingredients by weight instead of volume for more accuracy.

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