Sunday, December 6, 2015

Secrets of Fire Island Foccacia and Soudough -- a Baking Class

Carlyle Watt, chief baker at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, with a batch of sourdough ready to make into loaves.

Fire Island classes serve three purposes -- students learn the secrets of baking delicious things; they go home with plenty of loaves or cookies to demonstrate that they have actually acquired the skill, and they appreciate much more the fact that Fire Island will do all of that baking for them. Along with seven other engaged students, I took Carlyle's class on sourdough and foccacia on December 3. For three hours we mixed, folded, and baked loaves of sourdough bread, and cut up toppings for the trays of foccacia. We left with loaves of fresh bread, slices of foccacia, and our own sourdough starters for many generations of home-made breads.

Shaping and baking sourdough loaves, using dough that's ready for the final stage

Weighing the dough cut from the big chunk above to make individual loaves.

Here's where it starts -- with the scales. Bread-making may be an art, but like other arts, its roots are deeply twined in the sciences. Physics, biology, chemistry, and math are all critical to creating bread that's edible and beautiful. Sciences are precise -- so bread-making starts with weighing everything. Carlyle cut pieces from the mass of dough that he started with, and showed us how to shape them into rounds.

Hands are perpendicular to the table, cup the loaf, and turn it lightly, shaping it into a round. The small pile of flour in the middle of the table is for flouring hands to make the process smoother. The huge bag of organic unbleached white flour that is used in all of Fire Island's  creations is from Central Milling Company in Utah (available at Natural Pantry in Anchorage in more manageable quantities).

Once shaped, the loaves are set in place for their final rise. Carlyle is gently placing a round of dough into a proofing bowl that will give the loaf a classic "boule" (French for "ball") shape with the rings of the bowl imprinted on the final loaf.  Before putting the dough in, he dusted the inside of the bowl with flour so that dough wouldn't stick to it. We also learned how to fold a couche, a heavy piece of cloth so that it would support the rising loaves.

A stack of proofing bowls.

Boules on their final rising.

We baked the boules either in a cast iron Dutch oven, or on a pizza stone in the oven. Here's a close to perfect boule in the Dutch oven where it was baked. The loaves baked on the pizza stone turned out a little flatter than those in the Dutch oven, but just as light and tasty.

Carlyle shows us what it looks like on the bottom when done: well-browned, crusty. When tapped lightly with fingertips, it sounds and feels hollow.

The texture of the sliced bread is open with lots of good-sized holes that have thin membranes. It smells delicious and tastes better. In theory, you would let it cool a bit before slicing, but the class had eight hungry people, eager to taste the fruits of their work.

Mixing and shaping, and raising our own dough.

Measuring water using the scales.

For the next major part of the lesson, we mixed our own dough to take home and bake later, carefully measuring the water first, then the white and whole wheat flours and the leaven (starter), and mixing thoroughly. The dough needed to sit for half an hour so that the flour could absorb water (the technical term is "autolyse"). Next we added the salt and a bit more water, and mixed again.

Mixing the dough -- it's wet and sticky.

Carlyle showed us how to make a sourdough country loaf using Chad Robertson's method of starting with a wet dough, and then folding and resting it several times over three hours. There are many other methods of allowing gluten strands to develop and shape the bread, and the yeasts to work their magic. The yeasts need time to eat the flour and convert its sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. The proteins that make stretchy gluten hold the carbon dioxide bubbles into place, giving the bread its texture; the alcohol burns off.

Pulling up the dough to fold it over itself eight to a dozen times substitutes for the more traditional kneading to develop the dough.

The folding is gentler, and allows the larger holes and more open texture of the sourdough loaf. If the same dough was going to be kneaded, it would start as a drier dough. After the kneading, the final loaf would have a finer, more even texture.

Making foccacia

Finally, foccacia -- my main reason for taking the class was to discover the secret of this flatbread.

Carlyle made the foccacia dough in an automatic mixer. The ingredients differ in a couple of ways from the the sourdough loaf - the foccacia dough has some olive oil, a very small amount of commercial yeast to keep it more consistent in flavor and texture, and a higher percentage of whole wheat flour to white flour.

After "developing" the gluten in the dough by continuing to mix it in the machine at a higher speed for several minutes, we set it aside to rise. How to know if it's ready? Carlyle is demonstrating the "window-pane" test -- stretching a little piece of dough gently to see if it can be pulled so thin that you can see through it. When it's reached this stage, it's ready to rest and rise  for about an hour.

After rising, foccacia dough is spread in the baking pan, with a thin layer of olive oil beneath.

The top is dimpled from the pressure of finger tips pushing it to the edges -- the idea is to work gently so that the trapped gasses don't get pushed out.

For toppings we used caramelized onions,

sliced mushrooms, and diced sweet potatoes. Then the dough needed to rise for another half hour before baking.

The mushroom foccacia baked for about 25 minutes in a 400 degree oven. We pulled it out, spread on the caramelized onions, and added some chunks of cheese; then baked it again for about five minutes until the cheese melted.

This is the finished sweet potato foccacia, garnished with arugula leaves, already a quarter gone just a few minutes after it came out of the oven..

Students savoring the foccacia.

My home-baked loaf -- not the perfect shape, but its crumb is very good, and it tastes just like Carlyle's.

For more information about Fire Island classes, click here.   

Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop has three locations now: the original shop at 1343 G Street (the entrance to the shop is around the corner on 14th Avenue), and 2530 East 16th Avenue, just south of DeBarr and east of Lake Otis. The newest Fire Island shares the parking lot, a beer, and much else with Anchorage Brewing. It's at 160 West 91st Street (off King Street).

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

It's a Wonder Bread Life . . .

     We never ate Wonder Bread when we were kids in the 1950s, only the knock-off look-a-likes that came in bigger loaves and lower prices. They were our staple; hardly a day went by for all of the years of childhood that didn't feature a couple of slices of soft white bread. We ate it as toast or sandwiches, for breakfast and lunch. Dinner was always a good Irish-English meat, potatoes, boiled vegetable, and a dessert, but bread ruled during the rest of the day.

    These days, Wonder Bread gets a bad rap. I wrote about some of the cultural aspects of Wonder Bread in 2011, and recently decided to re-visit those fine white slices. There is still a gulf between those who eat and enjoy Wonder Bread and its kin, and those who eat only artisan breads, from their own oven or someone else's. I feel that someone has to stick up for the people who eat Wonder Bread, whether because that's all that they can afford, or  because they enjoy it.

      People have railed against soft white, sliced and packaged bread, practically since Wonder Bread introduced the first commercially available packaged sliced bread in the 1930s. In her essay "How to Rise up Like New Bread," (from How to Cook a Wolf) MFK Fisher characterizes sliced white bread as "stupid," and "tasteless [and] almost worthless nutritionally,"  . .  .  "emasculated pale stuff sold by every self-respecting bakery." She says that "class snobbism has conquered once more over good sense, for no matter what proof the Ministry gives that white bread will cause bad teeth, poor eyes, weak back, fatigue, the Britishers gone on eating what has for decades meant refinement and 'good taste.'" [Although there was evidence that removing the bran and germ from wheat during the milling process caused diseases, it was also a matter of fact that Dublin children developed anemia and rickets during World War II from eating 100% whole-wheat bread because high levels of phytic acid in the whole grain prevented the absorption of crucial nutrients].

     In the 1950s small-town Midwest, we ate sliced, packaged white bread, and found it good. Our mother who spent her early years, from 1914 to about 1928 on corn farms and in small towns in central Illinois probably ate home-baked bread, but I never saw her bake anything made with yeast. She made delicious pies, cakes, biscuits, quick breads and shortcakes, but never yeast bread. Her mother and two sisters, all excellent bakers, did make Parker House rolls but that was as close to yeast as any of the family got.

     They (but not us) ate Pepperidge Farm bread regularly, the epitome of desirable bread. It was white, sliced thin, a bit firmer than regular cheap white bread, and elegantly square, smaller than a regular slice. One could not do better than to be served a slice of Pepperidge Farm bread, perhaps spread with real butter, not margarine.

    That was the dream. The usual reality, and we were fine with it, was something equivalent to Wonder Bread, with a soft brown crust (belying the the name, "crust"). For breakfast, we toasted it and lathered on the margarine and jam. In high school, I added peanut butter to the breakfast toast, and it kept me from starvation until lunch. Lunch was often bread with peanut butter and jam, although by high school I experimented with everything available -- radishes, celery, raisins, as well as the old classics of sliced bananas, and honey. Tomatoes, delicious as they were on buttered toast, didn't work well with peanut butter.

     A memorable peanut butter sandwich day from about fifth grade was the one when we came home from school at lunch time and found my father Al in the kitchen. My mother was in the bedroom -- with the doctor, Al said, having a baby. We didn't ask more because in our childhood, we didn't ask. Al gave me the job of making the peanut butter sandwiches for lunch for all of us, and sat at the kitchen table watching and instructing. I had no idea that he could "cook" anything, but knew that following instructions carefully was the only option. "No, no, spread the peanut butter all of the way to the edges of the bread." "Don't put so much jam on. "Now spread the jam out evenly." And so forth. It was an odd thing to be in that hushed house, but everyone had to eat lunch and go back to school. When we got home later in the day, Al just said that the baby named Marie had died, and that Mother would be resting; he would take care of her. And that was that. We probably said a brief prayer for Marie and Mother when we said the usual rosary kneeling on the hardwood floor in the darkened dining room before bedtime. Marie was buried in the cemetery by my father's mother in the family plot, but we never visited her grave until after we were grown.

     A Sunday breakfast treat was eggs and fried Spam. My father, Al, liked Spam, and it was inexpensive, one of the fundamental criteria for food in a household of two adults and seven growing children. My mother fried the Spam in the big frying pan (not a skillet) first, then set it aside while cooking the eggs. The pieces of Spam were folded into a sliced of buttered (i.e., margarined) toast and eaten as a sandwich.

      As soon as the first real snow fell, Al sprayed water over large parts of our backyard, and made an ice rink that extended from the back porch out past the standalone garage, and well into the back lot. We helped shovel and clean the ice each night after we were done skating, and kids from all around town came over to skate. On Sunday mornings in the winter, my mother would bring the electric frying pan out to the back porch and cook the Spam on the spot for sandwiches. Washed down with hot chocolate by the gallon concocted of powdered milk and  Nestle's Quik, those winter sandwiches made the meal that every one of us remembers as one of the best things in our childhood.

     In my memories, picnics were just as good as the Spam sandwiches on skating days. On every summer day when the weather was good, we ate lunch out of doors, spreading one of the old "picnic blankets" -- something too worn to put on a bed, under the maple tree in the backyard near the house. We made the sandwiches in the kitchen and carried them out, along with sliced raw veggies or hard-boiled eggs, maybe with raisins for dessert. The ants got a few crumbs that 'accidentally" fell off the bread, and we watched them drag the bits of bread off to their sandy hills.

      On the best days, we packed sandwiches made with white bread into tote bags, along with celery and carrot sticks, and walked three blocks south down the hill to where our street ended at the bridge over McCoy's Creek. I hated the bridge -- two logs with planks nailed across and always with planks missing. I feared it, and cried, but crossed it, pushed along by my siblings' annoyance and pulled by the anticipated delights of dragonflies and tadpoles at the Frog Pond a little ways up the hill by the railroad tracks. My mother carried a jug of red KoolAid and cups, one of us carried the blanket, and we set up lunch under a big oak tree near the pond. We sat down, said the standard Catholic grace that preceded every meal, made the sign of the cross, and settled into the sandwiches hoping that a train would go by so that we could wave at the engineer.

      Sometimes we did have sandwiches with other fillings -- tuna salad, egg salad, slices of Velveeta cheese (or the bargain equivalent). Lunch meats were rare -- they were too expensive. We had hamburgers and hot dogs, of course, and they were usually encased in the same white bread that made up our daily quota. On special occasions -- if company came, which was rare -- we splurged on hot dog or hamburger buns.

     Bread showed up as a special treat in other forms. Sometimes on Sundays we had French toast instead of eggs, with fried Spam. At Thanksgiving, bread cubes showed up as stuffing inside the turkey. Bread crumbs might be sprinkled on top of a Friday night tuna fish casserole (with canned peas, macaroni, and something to bind it -- not Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup). At my mother's parents' house in Kalamazoo where we ate once a month, bread crumbs appeared on top of corn casserole, but no matter how much I loved the crumb topping, it couldn't make up for corn and red pepper filling underneath.

     Our first encounter with yeast was not bread but Chef Boy-Ar-Dee packaged pizza, which arrived in Buchanan years and years before any actual pizza parlor. It might have been as early as the late 1950s, or 1960 that it showed up in the local grocery stores (I can't find an exact date). I was fascinated by mixing up the yeast and the warm water, watching it bubble and smell, waiting for the dough to rise, and then eating this wholly foreign food -- not a potato or bit of tough chuck roast in sight. It was still years before I got around to baking bread, but pizza became a staple.

    White bread -- stuff to butter, to drench with honey until it stiffened, to mound with butter and payers of white sugar, to toast and drown in butter with sugar and cinnamon piled on to the thickness of the bread, to eat plain if necessary -- white bread filled my stomach and nourished my soul with its dailiness, its willingness to collaborate with so many other foods, its availability when the next-to-last dollar had to stretch two more days, the kids were sick, or the twelve-hour working day was the reality.

     All of this is to say that white bread --  plastic-wrapped, dirt cheap, nutritious mostly because of the vitamins and minerals added back into it -- has its place. I haven't eaten it often in recent years but it sustained me, day in and day out through much of my life. Artisan bread has its place too, but should never forget that its white bread working-class sibling feeds much more of the world today than can ever afford that crusty baguette or the flour-dusted ciabatta loaf. Even white bread is the staff of life for many, and deserves its own measure of respect and appreciation.