Thursday, March 31, 2011

Confessions of a Snob: Two Book Reviews

I recently acquired two bread books: Tartine Bread (from which I have attempted one partially-successful bread) and The Bread Baker's Apprentice. I am going to review both of the books and include a few comments about the value of the books and what I have learned from each of them.
Tartine Bread
Tartine Bread is fantastic. I recommend it most highly as an exceptional bread book. Unlike the science background present in Peter Reinhart's books (especially Whole Grain Breads-- which is great), Chad Robertson introduces bread as more of a narrative. While Reinhart bombards his reader with science, while claiming to want to form a "spirit-of-the-law baker" (Reinhart BBA), Robertson uses pictures, notes about texture, and anecdotes to push his reader toward a more intuitive grasp of bread baking. I do love the baking science, but Tartine Bread manages to do something different that is also fabulous. The writing is engaging and the pictures are beautiful. Sadly, just over half of the book is bread recipes (although the recipes which he does include seem well worth it) and the rest of the book is taken up with recipes for day-old bread, many of which are not to my liking. I would have gladly given up some of the recipes for more variations on formulae or more of Robertson's commentary, but at least the french onion soup recipe looks fantastic (minus the duck fat).

I also learned three vital lessons from Tartine Bread. I am sure that there will be more lessons as I continue to practice this bread, but these are the first three.
For fermentation: bread can rise in a warm, moist environment if you put it in a closed space (like an oven) with a pot of boiling water and this will safely decrease the time it takes for the bread to rise (as I mentioned previously).
For fermentation: There are negative consequences to letting bread rise for too long. According the commentary section, "if you let bulk fermentation go too long, the final rise will be sluggish as the food that fuels the fermentation has been exausted. The glutensin the dough also begin defrading after a certain point due to increasing acidity, which results in a tighter, more uniform crumb"  (Italics are mine. Robertson 75). Although he is speaking about wild yeast, I am almost positive this was part of the problem with my attempt at a 70% White Whole Wheat Pain de Campagne.
For baking: Home ovens, even with methods like Reinhart's Double Steaming method (Reinhart 92-93). This is the reason that I have had so much trouble with inconsistent oven spring, especially since I started using the convection setting on my oven. Modern home ovens are designed to vent steam and the remaining moisture is not sufficient for the necessary oven spring (Robertson 79). I think this was why my artisan loaves had better crumb at my alma mater: our ovens were terrible, so they did not vent steam adequately. This was great for bread baking. My results here have been significantly compromised by this fact (with the notable exception of two loaves of ciabatta that had wonderful oven spring (but even they sprang very unevenly, yeilding strangely asymmetrical loaves). I will at some point acquire a combo cooker, but for now I will use my oven stone and my overturned broth pot in order to provide and enclosed environment for the number of minutes under steam.

I am making my second loaf of Tartine's Basic Country Bread this weekend (the essential recipe can be found here). Wish me luck!
The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread
I have been wanting to own or even see a copy of Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice since about one week into my first attempts to make bread. This book has more hype than any other book I know of in bread-baking circles. I have a confession to make: I don't think it's that great. I like Reinhart's work--I love the two Reinhart books I recieved as gifts: Artisan Breads Every Day from which comes my fantastic pizza recipe and Whole Grain Breads which was my first real introduction to bread science. I am just not a fan and I think it's partially because I am becoming a snob. Here are my following objections:
  1. The introduction (Reinhart 1-25) is really self-aggrandizing and annoying. I like bakers talking about their backgrounds (for example, the Introduction to Tartine Bread pages 8-32), but Reinhart just sounds so arrogant.
  2. Out of the 40+ recipes, less than 30% are lean doughs (i.e. doughs without sugars or fats added) and only three are with wild yeast. To me, the most impressive thing about bread is the flavor that can be pulled from the simple ingredients of flour, water, and salt without having to add a whole bunch of "rich" ingredients to enhance the flavor. I primarily make enriched breads/rich breads for holidays and I would not want them lying around on a regular basis.
  3. Reinhart focuses primarily on machine mixing, unlike in his other two works I mentioned above where he seems to give hand and machine mixing more equal weight. Standing mixers are expensive and sometimes ineffective and they take away the kneading of bread which (I feel) is essential to making bread baking a relaxing and interactive process. Not to be cliche, but I feel like I taste my own labor in a wonderful loaf of bread I kneaded myself, which is why I made the bread instead of buying it. I know some doughs, usually high-gluten doughs, require a machine for adequate mixing, bu many if not most of these doughs can be made just as well by hand.
  4. The baking instructions are in ounces. Yes, I know, ounces are a common form of weight measurement. However, grams are much smaller than ounces and weighing by grams on my digital scale is probably more accurate than if I were to weigh the same ingredients in ounces (also, I like using the round numbers rather than e.g. 0.11oz). In Reinhart's later books, he uses volume measures, ounces, and grams which seems like the perfect compromise to me.
  5. There is a lot of focus on shaping. I know aesthetics are important, but I would rather have more instruction on how to make the bread taste wonderful than how to shape it into three different variations on a braided loaf. I want my breads to have wonderful flavor hidden in rustic crunch crusts and which reveal a beautiful open crumb-- it doesn't matter to me whether that bread is in a fancy couronne or a simple boule. Furthermore (and probably more importantly) a lot of the shaping instructions are incoherent, either because there are not enough pictures or because they seem to leave out important steps.
  6. Finally, if one eats with one's eyes before one's tongue (Reinhart says something along these lines), I cannot imagine why there are not only so few pictures of the crumb of the different breads but so few pictures of the final products. many of these formulae have no pictures at all, which is a little worrying.
Despite my objections, I have found some useful advice in The Bread Baker's Apprentice. For example, I assumed that wonderful open crumb could be achieved in any bread if the baker was skilled enough. Apparently (although I cannot find the page number right now), hydration percentage determines the crumb structure and only higher hydration doughs (60-85%) can produce the irregular large holes that I covet. Furthermore, I now know one of the reasons I sometimes end up with very strange looking (almost marbleized) crust, like on the More Sour Sourdough I made this week. Reinhart explains that one should mist the sides of the oven with water, rather than "wet the dough, which causes splotches" (Reinhart 93). I realized that in my attempt to generate steam, I was misting the dough as well as the oven. Much of the baking science was also helpful: the more I keep the chemical processes in mind, the better my bread can be. I can use this science to help trouble-shoot my bread mistakes. Overall, unless you are a king or queen of enriched doughs or are desperate to try shaping your bread in many different ways, Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day is a better book because it includes the famous Pain a l'ancienne recipe as well as the amazing sourdough pizza recipe, uses grams/ounces/volume, has a great section on slow, cold, fermentation, and provides a useful index of baker's percentages.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More on the Exciting World of Opencoursware

So I am going to make a detour from my recent bread craze and talk about education (again), although I did make some more lovely pizza last night. A friend who was staying with us (and for whom I made the pizza) reminded me about the a lot of the opencourseware I was using before I started doing so much breadmaking, teaching, tutoring, and various lessons over skype. My recent discovery was iTunes U. The new version of iTunes apparently has a whole host of opencourseware from universities and groups all over the world from MIT to Oxford to UC Berkeley and beyond. Very cool.

I wonder if anyone has made an opencourseware bread class...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Three Breads in Three Days

Tartine Bread
Over the past three days I made three different types of bread. Each bread had its own failures and successes. None of them were perfect, but none of them were bad either. They all need work and I learned a lot. Luckily, we had a friend from out of town to help us taste all of the breads.

The first bread to be ready to eat was the More Sour Sourdough from Wild Yeast. As the temperature in my house is not ideal (even though the bread was rising in the oven with a pot of boiling water), I increased each of the rising times by about 1/3 and I chose the refrigerator option for the bread. I made one big mistake that came close to ruining the loaf. I used the "poke test" to try to determine if the bread had risen enough when it came out of the refrigerator. The poke test involves poking a small indentation into the bread with a finger; if the bread rises back up, it's not proofed enough. If it remained indented, it needs to proof longer. Anyway, the bread seemingly failed the poke test so I let it sit out for a few hours. The dough became softer as it warmed to room temperature and it ended up sticking to the banneton in such a way that I had to reshape the dough and let it proof again for a few hours. I think that if I had taken it out of the oven for about 20-30 min and then baked it, the bread would have come out a bit better. As it was, it was a bit dense but pretty nice, especially with brie while warm or toasted with brie in the morning.
The crumb is still obviously far too dense, probably from the reshaping with not enough re-rising and not enough steam at the initial part of the bake. I will get it right one of these days. The crust is problematic. Although it is nice and crunchy, it has that serious dappled/multi-colored look too it which indicates that something went wrong. Probably because the dough re-rose. I think this might be the change in temperature from rising in the refrigerator (post being shaped) and then rising again at a warm room temperature.

The second bread that I made was a 70% finely-ground white whole wheat modified from Bread Cetera's Pain de Campagne. I changed the rising times, increased the hydration slightly (to compensate for the whole wheat) and replaced 70% of the flour with white-whole wheat. I thought this would make a whole wheat version of the exceptional bread i baked all through my senior year at my alma mater. Something did not quite work. The bread was reasonably light, but not as flavorful as I had hoped and it also had the small even air-bubbles of the my version of Peter Reinhart's Whole Wheat Hearth Bread instead of the large irregular holes of my original attempts at Pain de Campagne. I am not sure if this is because it was a 70% whole wheat bread or whether I did something else incorrectly in the process. I may try again with a 50% whole wheat or similar at some point.
 The crust was nice, but the crumb was just...wrong. I am not sure. I think I might need to add more water and try a different shaping technique. Thoughts will be forthcoming.

The final bread was the crown of the bunch, although not a polished gem by any stretch of the imagination. This was the Country Loaf from Tartine Bread. Once again, this book is absolutely incredible. I finished reading it this weekend in between doing other things and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Anyway, the bread had a few problems in the process of making it, including (I think) adding too much levain, having to leave it longer than intended and changing the temperature during the initial bulk fermentation, and extreme trouble during the shaping process. Worst, I don't have a combo cooker, so I improvised with my stone and an upside-down angel cake pan. The angel cake pan was not nearly large enough, as it turns out, for the way the dough wanted to oven spring, and obviously hampered the oven spring. On the other hand, the dough was moist and flavorful and the crust was wonderful and crunchy.
The crumb has lovely irregular holes, but obviously the bread did not have enough oven spring (because of my faux-pas with the cake-pan), but I can see the potential for this bread. I am very excited. I think this bread is going to be my new wonderful go-to artisan loaf. I found that I have a large broth pot that can be overturned and put in the oven which should allow for enough room for the bread to expand while I look for a good and cheap combo cooker.

In the process of making this bread, I realized that part of the reason that my breads have such uneven oven spring is that they really are not getting enough steam. The home oven is meant to vent steam and it's good at it. My oven at my alma mater was designed to vent steam, but it was really awful at it, which meant that the bread could be steamed much better in that oven than my home oven (hence some of the problem with early loaves). So, except for baguettes and pizza, I will now try the upside-down broth-pot method over my stone to see if I can accomplish better steaming. Results forthcoming.

One other thing I realized making this bread is that my approach to bread baking is not very systematic. At school, things worked about 80% of the time by either fluke or beginner's luck and so I just kept trying new things. When I was having trouble shaping the Tartine Country Bread, I complained that I needed a baker to hang around in our kitchen for the day and help troubleshoot, or at least someone who made successful bread. My mom mentioned that a number of her friends could make one great loaf, but that's all they did. She reminded me that most people perfect a loaf and stick with it. I have never done this. So, my new approach will be to perfect one loaf at a time, starting with the Tartine Loaf (while making the amazingly successful pizza dough in between). When I have perfected the loaf, I will move on. Wish me luck!

Monday, March 28, 2011

So I Am a Little Behind...

A great friend came to stay for a few days and I have made three loaves of bread and done a whole bunch of other things. Unfortunately, I now have 125 lines of Medea for the next two days that I have put off reading. So, for now, enjoy this XKCD comic about e-readers that I found in an article about e-readers and tablets on Kindle World Blog.
From here on XKCD.
More on Tartine Bread and bread soon!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

White Whole Wheat

I have never used white whole wheat or even seen the flour in a store. I used to think it was a combination of whole wheat and white flour. This is not true. Rather, there are two types of wheat: red wheat and white wheat. Apparently, the whole wheat I usually get is red whole wheat (good to know) because this whitewhole wheat is a much lighter color. This particular white whole wheat ground incredibly fine so it feels like white flour but it's actually whole wheat. Anyway, I decided now that I have it that I should experiment with the flour and see how it works. I am making three loaves of bread over these three days, so we will see how it goes.
Pate Fermente
I decided to make a 70% White Whole Wheat version of my favorite bread I have ever made: Bread Cetera's Pain de Campagne. I will write up my version of the recipe and post it. I also have found some amazing new tips in Tartine Bread, which I read about half of and highly recommend it.
Tartine Bread
My thing that I learned from Tartine Bread is a way to speed up the rising process without having to turn on my oven (which really screwed-up one of my last loaves of bread). I put the bowl with the rising dough, covered with plastic wrap, in the oven and place a pot of boiling water in the oven next to it. This kept my rising bread warm so it actually rose at a reasonable pace instead of taking forever. I will be using this as a technique and will begin to modify my rising times accordingly. More information and recipes coming soon!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Surprise: Tartine Bread

I first heard about Tartine Bread when it popped up on my Amazon recommendations because I had been looking at bread books. As it turns out, Servia also found the book seperately. I didn't think much of it until she sent me this video which was a fabulous advertisement for the book.

This week, at least two of the breads on Yeast Spotting were from Tartine Bread, so I mentioned to Servia the amazing reviews. She left my room and returned with a copy of the book. Apparently, while I was up at my Alma Mater she bought the book and had planned to bake a loaf to show men when I got home, but had so much trouble with her knee that she ended up spending her time reading the book at the doctor's office instead of baking bread.
Anyway, we now have a copy of the book and I plan to bake a loaf from it. I will report.

For now, there were three loaves that encouraged me (all from the book): the traditional country bread, one with spelt flour, and one with full pictures.

Friday, March 25, 2011

New Toys: Technology of the Future

My biggest focus in cutting-edge technology recently has been the possibility of color e-ink. In China and Japan, there are already color prototypes for color e-ink readers [1]. I had not been even considering what would replace the dvd player, but my father just brought a new device home that he found on a one-day sale. What he bought is a Smyth-sized [2] piece of equipment that has three USB ports, a wireless antenna, and a built-in 1 terrabyte harddrive and plays most of the file formats with which I have had contact. It is called the ScreenPlay DX and is made by iomega.
Iomega 35039 1 TB ScreenPlay DX HD Media Player
The purpose of the device is to play downloaded movies and even to stream movies off of the internet. It's pretty cool. I am loading up the 1TB harddrive with some things to watch and will review it tomorrow.

Update: The machine is pretty cool overall. I have two problems with it. First, although it is supposed to automatically load up access to the harddrive, on neither of the computers could access the media library properly, although I could load movies onto it. The other problem that I have with it is that the remote is a little bit hard to use.

  1. Two color e-ink articled to check out are one from Kindle World Blog and one is on PC Mag.
  2. When I say Smyth-sized I mean that it's about the same size as one of the most important texts on my bookshelf, Hebert Weir Smyth's Greek Grammar.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


When I was in sixth grade, we had to do a report on Dragons. We were studying Medieval times and I think that the idea was to teach us as students about the mythology of the time and to help remove caricatured perceptions of medieval times.

I picked up two books; one was some kind of a high school-level(ish) text on the development of dragon mythology, which I did not understand. The other book that I found was a pseudo-zoological study called
Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History. The book goes through a possible evolution of each of the animals and different subspecies. It's quite a fascinating portrait.
Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History
I remembered this because of the piece I posted about yesterday on unicorns. I thought, overall, that the panel was pretty fascinating. I was especially amused by the use of narwhal horn being sold as unicorn horn. Melvyn Bragg, once again [1], got into a minor conflict with one of the established scholars he brought on to talk because he was less interested in the importance of the mythology than the "real world" correlation between myth and unicorns.

As someone who enjoys Herodotus, I found the discussion of the historians who retold alleged sightings of unicorns and the fact that unicorns were not just a powerful symbol but something in which people truly believed. This reminded me of things such as dog-sized gold-digging ants in Herodotus.

  1. Melvyn Bragg got into a slightly more stroppy with a scholar during the poetics.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Return

I have returned from my Alma Mater (a few days ago). I now have a math test I need to crash study for. I will be on hiatus until Friday night. In the meantime, there is a great "In Our Time" piece on Unicorns that I listened to while I was visiting Cerinthus. I highly recommend it and will discuss in in greater detail when I get back.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Wine Snob: Oregon Pinot Noir

I have always heard that Oregon produces some great Pinot Noirs and have found this to be the case in my own experience. The Stoller 2007 from Oregon's Dundee Hills that I had last night was no exception. However, this Pinot Noir was unusual (at least compared with the small assortment of other Pinots I have tried.

This wine had the odd appearance (although it might have just been our glasses) of looking lighter on the bottom and getting darker toward the top. It was a ruby colored wine. It was a smooth and refreshing wine. Light and refreshing, the wine had notes of fruit, perhaps cherries, and a slight taste of pepper on the finish after it had decanted for about 2 hours. The wine was summery-- something to sip on a summer's day with a nice crusty wheat batard or boule and some cheese.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Wine Snob: My First Chianti

Another one in my series of "firsts" of various types of wines (see my review of my first Zinfandel). I am trying to expand my palate so that I have a better understanding of wine. Cerinthus and I had our three year anniversary recently so when I went up to see him we had a series of anniversary dinners. One of the nights, Ponticus picked out an Italian Chianti for me. It wa  "Il Tarocco" 2008, a chianti classico from a vineyard a little ways south of Florence in "Greve in Chianti". It was made from 90% Sangiovese grapes and 10% Canaiolo Nero grapes. Ponticus told me that real Italian Chiantis (I am not entirely sure how these differ from "fakes") have a seal around the top that says "Chianti Classico" and a picture of a rooster. I decided to trust his judgment and I was not disappointed. The wine, a fairly cheap vintage, was a dark red with a slight purple tinge and ruby accents in the light. It was just shy of a medium body and filled one's mouth with a pleasing warmth. The warmth was accented with a hint of cloves and nutmeg and had a peppery finish with a slight tannic undertone. The flavor came out more strongly as the wine breathed and seemed to solidify it's flavor after about an hour (I think). Cerinthus remarked that this was a wine he could actually drink rather than just sipping along with food. I also quite enjoyed the wine and would recommend it alongside light Italian food such as a chicken picatta. Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of the wine.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Recipe Page Debut

During the few days before I left to visit Cerinthus and my Alma Mater, I created a new recipes page that should be easier to use, access and print. It is still very much a work in progress, but it is a start and I will continue to update and expand the database. Check out Sulpicia's Recipes.

Monday, March 14, 2011

My First From-Scratch Pie Crust

My Apple Pie!
Last night, after making a meal for Cerinthus that unfortunately looked a lot better than it tasted, I decided to comfort myself by making an apple pie-- completely from scratch. A few nights ago we went to the nearest local/organic food store--  a little establishment famed for it's over 700 spices-- and bought some apples and a little bit of salt (Cerinthus had the rest of the ingredients).

I wanted to make an all-butter recipe for pie crust because I do not like the idea of lard and I hear that crisco has very little flavor. Although crisco makes the crust very flaky, it also makes it bland. I took this recipe from All Recipes, doubled it, and added a tablespoon of vodka in instead of some of the water. It made approximately three full pie crusts, so I made a pie and an apple crisp. According to Cerinthus' mother, substituting vodka for about half of the allows for increases flakiness of the dough because the vodka evaporates faster than the water and allows the crust to dry and flake more effectively. I also read somewhere that not entirely combining the butter, but allowing patches of butter allows it to liquidate and expand and creates flakiness. I guess I will find out.

As I mentioned in my "Simple Family Recipe for Apple Pie," I do not actually like pie. I will have to wait for Cerinthus to try some at lunch to find out.
The Apple Crisp
Update 03/15/11: The pie crust was a success! It was lovely, flavorful, and flaky. However, it needed more salt. When I arrived, Cerinthus did not have any salt (can you believe that?) and he did not want to buy a gigantic container he would rarely use, so I bought a little $0.75 baggy of Sel Gris (gray sea salt) at the local organic food mart (that has a rack of 700 spices you can purchase by weight instead of in jars). The Sel Gris is a courser grain, and I did not compensate for this by increasing the volume of the salt in the crust. Oh well. Anyway, Cerinthus claims the pie is a 9 out of 10, so I am pretty happy.

Update 03/18/11: The pie (crust et al) got rave reviews from other quarters. Ponticus even said didn't need more salt. Anyway, I am very glad it was such a success but have no idea how I can replicate it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Book Review: The Family

On the journey up to my Alma Mater, I (finally) finished readying The Family, Jeff Sharlet's investigative piece into a secretive, elite Christian organization that operates in Washington and all over the world.

Sharlet's writing style has a very personal quality-- almost as though you are sitting in his living room while he recounts the story to you himself. It is easy to believe that he would have gotten some of the access he did because he has a manner of self-presentation that makes the listener believe he is an open book, even though that probably is not the whole story. I think the one flaw of the book may be the long sections on the history of the family and different important members.

It is clear that Sharlet did his research-- down to the personal appearance of each one of the historical figures he describes-- but there is a little less of Sharlet's voice in these sections and they end up dragging more than the text from the present day. However, he did make some fascinating connections. My personal favorite was that the Charles Colson of the Watergate scandal (which I researched so extensively in eighth grade American history) is the same Charles Colson who is now a part of the Family and a leader in the Evangelical Christian movement. I was shocked.

I highly recommend the book. It provides an interesting and unusual insight into the American Evangelical movement and it's history. Were one to read it in more concentrated chunks than I did, it would be a quick read.
The Family
He recently followed this with a book called C Street, which is the name of the house run by the Family where many congressmen live while they are in Washington. I have put it on my list of things to read.