Sunday, January 18, 2009

Artisan Bread Baking

For my birthday, my mother-in-law gave me some cash, which I quickly disposed of by signing up for two artisan bread baking classes offered through our Rural Heritage museum. Our instructor, Bill Theriault, a historian and founder of the Peter Burr Living History Farm, has been baking artisan bread for many years. That's my friend Joan standing next to him in the photo to the left.

The first class I took was a beginners class that covered the basics of sourdough starters, kneading, shaping, proofing, and baking. By the end of that class, we'd all baked at least one loaf of bread and tasted all the others, and had some to take home to our families in addition to our very own bag of established starter.

For the past month, I've been diligently practicing my basic artisan bread skills at home, trying to figure out how to integrate them into my world. Baking artisan bread is about a 24 hour process from start to finish, and while it's not all that labor intensive, it can be tricky to remember to do all the steps at the right time and to figure out how to fit it into one's already-busy day.

The process begins with pulling the starter out of the fridge the morning before baking and feeding it, though I'm baking often enough that I'm just leaving my starter on the counter. First, discard any "hooch" (the alcohol waste-product from yeast feeding) on top and the very top layer, which probably has some dead yeasties. Then feed it with about a pound of flour and a pound of water. About 12 hours later, or before you go to bed, reserve half the starter to store in the fridge, and feed the remaining starter enough flour/ water mixture for the recipes you'll be using the next day.

Kneading takes about 20 minutes, the 1st rise with a natural leaven will take approximately 3 hours at temps between 70-85°, and the "proofing," or second rise will take approximately another 3 hours. The bread itself bakes for around 45 minutes, and then it will need to cool an hour before cutting. Quite drawn-out a process, eh?

For Christmas, I got these gorgeous willow proofing baskets along with a stoneware cloche in each shape—a boule and a batard. The cloche is absolutely essential for reproducing at home the thick, chewy crust that defines artisan bread... short of putting in your own masonry oven, which of course I'd love to do, but doubt that's happening any time soon. The floured proofing baskets are what create the beautiful pattern on the bread, along with the slashing, which can take any shape the artisan baker chooses. Some folks have made their own cloches by using terra cotta planters, a great, low-cost solution, but at such high heats, I was concerned about any lead or additives that might be in these off-the-shelf buys and decided to invest in good, food-grade stoneware. Breadtopia is a great source for both materials and tutorials—loads of information there.

I just took the advanced class this Saturday, and it was wonderful. We made several flavored loaves as well as several different kinds of recipes, including bread pudding, savory french toast, stuffed dinner and dessert rolls, and English muffins. We experimented with many toppings and fillings and ingredients, creating lots of variations on a theme to expand upon at home.

Knowing my family's likes and dislikes, I left the chocolate breads to others and jumped all over the savory breads and English muffins. I made a delicious savory French toast from a 3 pepper bread, as well as a raisin spice artisan loaf, and raisin spice English muffins. I made a double batch of raisin spice dough, enough for a 2 lb. loaf and at least 8 muffins. Here I am rolling out the mini-boules to create the muffins after the first rise; the bread boule is already resting after its first shaping. By the time I was done the muffins, the bread loaf was ready for its second shaping before placing in the proofing basket.

Here I am taking my finished loaf out of the oven. The raisin spice recipe was amazing, though I'll be adding walnuts to mine because we love nuts. Jim was wild about the 3 pepper dinner rolls stuffed with roasted peppers, which I knew he would be. For any chocolate lovers out there, we had one loaf made with ghirardelli cocoa substituted for 1/3 of the flour in the recipe, making for a stunningly black loaf of bread with an intense chocolate flavor reminiscent of a black forest cake when topped with cherry preserves and a dash of powdered sugar. We also made cranberry chocolate dessert rolls; a pecan, cinnamon, carrot bread; 3 pepper bread; and a 3 pepper bread pudding stuffed with sausage and caramelized onions.

The class was invaluable because we talked about when to add different ingredients, which ingredients are yeast-inhibitors and how to deal with those, how to troubleshoot different problems, etc. The English muffins were amazingly easy to make, as was really just about everything else, but just having the chance to play around with all the recipes with an experienced someone along for the ride was really helpful. Bill's a terrific mentor, and the best part about all this is that come Spring, we'll hopefully have community baking days in the new brick oven he's helped build at the museum! Because I've been a part of the classes, I'll have dibs on baking my dough when it's fired. I'm very excited!


Christy said...

What a great series of classes! I want to learn to make english muffins but haven't gotten around to it yet. I also want to try bagels again as my first try wasn't that good. We're making your pizza dough tonight.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog via Chile Chews and loved your bread baking post. Beautiful loaves by the way and I am sure they were delicious. I am a bread lover and a novice bread baker. I look forward to reading more.

Country Girl said...

What a great oppurtunity you had taking that class. Sounds like quite an experience. Glad to hear that english muffins are easy to make because the price of them seems to keep getting higher...maybe I'll look out a recipe and see what I come up with. Great post, thanks for sharing your experience!

mommymommyland said...

Wow! How fun! I bet your family is going to love all the new goodies you can make them!

Alex Polikowsky said...

Wow! I have been talking about making bread for the last month. I should go look for any classes arounf my area.
Thanks for sharing!!!!!!!I love freshly baked bread.

Madeline said...

Wow! Access to a communal brick oven! That is so exciting. I made a sourdough bread (when I was more industrious) and the recipe is a Belgian one that talks a lot about how much better it would all be cooked in brick. You are making me think about baking bread again...

Marjon said...

Hi Danielle,

Thanks for this great post - very inspiring! I'm a longtime lurker and fan, and am grateful you are writing regularly again. I was getting withdrawal symptoms during your hiatus :o) (no pressure! ;o) We're unschoolers living in New Zealand on 6 acres, trying for similar goals to you and your family. If I may be so bold to put in a request: I would love to know what ideas/strategies you came up with on how to integrate the farm chores (including the bread baking) into your daily life, and how you blend living sustainably with unschooling in particular. I find it quite a juggling act at times, but then again, life's probably like that anyways, no matter how you live :o)

Thank you for your blog, it's a wonderful resource!

Kia ora,

Anonymous said...

I happened upon your blog a couple of weeks ago and have been reading ever since. I went to the site where you took your bread class and found that you are apparently not far from us. Can you tell me if there are any more classes being offered at the farm you took the bread class?
Lisa Leisher

~Crystal~ said...

One of my winter goals was to learn how to bake. I'm originally a Los Angeles city gal who lived in the concrete jungle growing up. My mom NEVER baked anything.

Two weeks ago, I hosted a tour to a new bakery in town and then I signed up for one of their baking basics classes. Soooo, I'm on my way and one goal down! Whoohooo.

Hey, any suggestions for a grain grinder?

Nancy said...

have you heard about artisan bread in 5 minutes a day? the book was featured in mother earth news and I got it for xmas. Its really great, very easy, no kneading, no hard work at all. and the bread turns out great! there is a website too...