November 25, 2012

Vinschger Paarln

Vinschgauer or Vinschger Paarln are palm-sized, round flat breads that mostly come in pairs that can be torn apart. It's a specialty from South Tyrol, a bread mostly made with rye flour and spices, such as fennel seeds, caraway, and bird clover (birdsfoot fenugreek). I should add that bird clover is a bread spice typical of that region, and very hard to come by. If you can't get any, just leave it out; the fennel seeds and the fenugreek should add enough distinctive flavour to this bread.

Baking Vinschger Paarln was something I was planning for quite a while, since I really love their very particular taste. Finding a source for birdsfoot fenugreek was a little bit of a challenge, but in the end I was able to locate some in one of the many organic grocery shops, here in Wiesbaden, Germany. I am curious to see where I will find my source in Vancouver, once I'm back.

Anyway, today was the day, and I was eager to try out my adapted version from a formula I had found on the official info South Tyrolean website. Rather than using only commercial yeast, as the recipe suggested, I wanted to bake sourdough-based Vinschgauer. They turned out pretty nice, with a soft and moist crumb, lots of flavour, from all the spices, and due to the high amount of rye flour, they stayed fresh for a few days. That is also why the Vinschgerl are traditionally considered good companions on longer hikes. A perfect pairing for this kind of bread would be some aromatic mountain cheeses from the Alps, or plain butter.

For four pairs of Vinschgauer

200 gr ripe rye sourdough culture
250 gr rye flour
140 gr bread flour
450 gr water
10 gr yeast
10 gr salt
5 gr fennel seeds
3 gr caraway
2–3 gr bird clover/birdsfoot fenugreek

Grind the fennel seeds, caraway, and the birdsfoot fenugreek using a mortar and pestle, then mix all your ingredients, except for the salt, in a large mixing bowl. Let rest for about 30 minutes for the autolyse. Now add the salt and start kneading. You won't see much dough development, since there isn't a lot of gluten present in the rye flour. The dough will feel like a pasty mass. Let it rest for about 45 minutes at room temperature, then divide into eight equal pieces of dough (at about 130 grams each). Shape the pieces into rounds. Since the dough is super wet and sticky, flour your hands with plenty of rye flour and dust your work surface generously. Transfer the rounds as pairs on a baking tray with parchment paper, let them proof at room temperature for another 60 minutes or until you can see their floured skin showing a web of fine cracks. That is a sign that they are ready for baking. Bake them in a preheated oven at 450 Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes.

Submitted to Yeastspotting

November 16, 2012

Baking at the Emporium

After a little bit of a break over the summer, I held my first workshop of the (rainy) season a couple of weeks ago at the Homesteader's Emporium on East Hastings in Vancouver. I say "I held", because Lisa, who is my helper and my inspiration when it comes to our "academic" endeavours, is for the time being (and for a little while longer) still in Germany. Alas, such are the crosses we all have to bear!

Rick and I had been talking about a bread baking class at his place for quite a while, and on November 4, we finally were able to fit one in our oh-so-busy schedules. The workshop went extremely well, we all had some very good interactions, we learned a thing or two, and, above all, we had lots of fun. In fact, what struck me (and what I so easily tend to forget sometimes), is how much fun these workshops always are for us. If there is something I miss from my bakery days, it's the interactions I had with my customers: the chats, the discussions, and even the heated debates that would sometimes ensue. I (and we) get some of that back when we teach our workshops, and it is heartwarming to see how much people enjoy taking these classes, and afterwards sending us photos of their loaves, staying in touch, reading this blog, etc.

We are going to try to stay active on that front throughout this fall and winter, and hopefully into the late spring. In the next little while, we are looking forward to a series of four beginners workshops at UBC Farm (on November 21, December 13, January 23, and February 20), with three more to follow in the spring, when we plan to do at least one advanced workshop.

I would like to finish by thanking Shannon, Nicole, and Elton for sending me photos of their baked loaves (Can you believe those beauties?) and allowing me to share them with everyone. A special thank you also goes to Erin, who has had some very kind words about my workshop on her own blog (Erin at Large). I really like the part where she calls me "unfussy".

And finally, a very special tip of the hat to Rick Havlak the owner of the Homesteader's Emporium. I met Rick last year, when he was still in the process of opening his shop. He was on a quest to take as many homesteading workshops as he could in as short a time as humanly possible. At least that was my impression of him. In the meantime, he has opened his place at 649 East Hastings Street, and he's become an expert in many of the activities that he is selling supplies and materials for. He has also become a magnet for the community he lives in, and people sometimes drive across town to buy his wares. Give his place a try, if you live in Vancouver, for anything from baking tools, to cheese-making supplies, to advice and know-how on bee- and chicken-keeping.

November 3, 2012

Soak It To Me

There's a new technique sweeping the nation, and I'm surprised that it took us this long to talk about it on our blog. And no, I'm not talking about No-Knead Bread.

The technique I'm referring to involves the use of "soakers" (and their cousins the "mashes") as part of bread doughs, to dramatically improve flavour. We have used soakers in some of the formulas on this blog, but we never really explained what they are. Very simply put, the method consists in soaking part of a formula's flour in water "over-night" (or more generally put, for 12 to 24 hours) before mixing the dough. The percentage of flour to be soaked can vary quite significantly, but for reasons of maintaining some dough strength, I personally never soak more than 30% of my flour.

When we mix our dough, and all "components" come together and all the dry ingredients get hydrated, there are a few processes that start taking place concurrently. The two most important of these are:
  1. The yeast organisms are awakened and start looking for food. Their food of choice are simple sugars (or monosacharrides), mainly fructose and glucose. Initially, the amount of simple sugars in the developing dough are quite small (assuming sugar is not one of the ingredients).
  2. The enzymes present (mostly) in the flour, start working their magic on the carbohydrates (mostly starches) that make up the largest part of the flour. These carbohydrates are very large molecules of complex sugars, and through their action, the enzymes start to break them down into much simpler molecules (or simple sugars). The resulting simple sugars will end up serving as food for the yeast; will contribute to flavour; and will help give the crust it's characteristic golden-brown colour (through caramelization that occurs during baking).
By pre-soaking some of the flour, we give the enzymes a head start, allowing them to initiate the production of simple sugars well in advance of the actual dough preparation. This ensures that there will be plenty of simple sugars to go around as food for the yeast, as flavour producers, and for caramelization.

Similarly, by using boiling water to scold grains or whole grain flours, one ends up with "mashes" that have very high enzyme activity, and thus contribute a lot of natural sweetness to the dough. The process, of course, is a little more elaborate than that, and I'm not going to go into all the details, but it is covered and very well explained in a book by Peter Reinhart called Whole Grain Breads.

There is a little experiment that we would encourage everyone to do. Next time you will bake your favourite/staple/classic loaf, try soaking some of your flour beforehand and observe how that changes the results. Not only should it improve the flavour, but you might also notice differences in the way the dough handles, in the volume of your loaf, in the colour of your crust, etc.

But let us change gears here for a moment and get into how it all came about.

If this seems like an overly long and rambling post: You ain't seen nothing yet. But bear with us, the story is going to get better.

The credit for bringing the soaking method into the mainstream of artisan baking goes to Peter Reinhart, who has encountered the use of a similar technique in France, and then spent a couple of years trying to understand and to explain (in a very well written book) the science involved in this process.

The story of how he ran into this technique (as told by Reinhart in his ground-braking The Bread Baker's Apprentice) is quite interesting. Reinhart had won the James Beard National Bread Competition in 1995, and the first prize was supposed to consist in a five-day stage with the Parisian baker of his choice. In 1996 when he went to France to collect on his prize, he decided instead to try to spend a day each with five different bakers; clearly a much better proposition. Luckily, it all worked out. And that is how he got to meet Philippe Gosselin (among other titans) and learned how to make pain à l'ancienne. According to Reinhart, learning that technique (in fact, a delayed-fermentation method) was the single most important bread thing that happened to him on that trip.

Reinhart was fascinated by this method and by the superior flavour it produced when applied to any formula, but in particular to whole grain breads. He dedicated a lot of time and effort to studying it, and decided to write a new book to popularize both whole grain based baking and the new techniques he was so fascinated with. By the late summer of 2005 he had a manuscript that was pretty much ready to be sent to the publishers.

And here is where I entered the stage ...

Yes, that's true: Here is where I entered the stage. But, alas, I was not a protagonist in this story, only a mere observer. But what a show it was!

In early September of 2005 the first Camp Bread took place in San Francisco, at the headquarters of the San Francisco Baking Institute (or SFBI, as we, the people in the know, like to call it). It was an event the likes of which we hadn't seen before. It was organized by the Bread Bakers Guild of America (BBGA), it took a tremendous effort to piece together, but it was spectacular in every respect and ran smoother than everybody could have imagined. Camp Bread had been envisioned as a three-day event where artisan bakers from all over America would gather to meet, commune, party, and learn from each other.

We all descended on San Francisco on September 10. All two hundred and sixteen of us. I was one of only six Canadians present at this event. The first evening we assembled at Boudin's Bakery Museum for a grand tour, drinks, food, and a good time. The atmosphere was electric: we got to meet old friends, new people, and got a glimpse of some of the legendary figures we knew only from photographs and videos, or who's books adorn every serious baker's shelves. As for myself, I got to have a little chat with Peter Reinhart on the subject of Orthodox Christianity! After the party, we all went to our sleeping quarters, eager for an early morning start to what was already shaping up to be an unforgettable event.

There were a tremendous number of classes and workshops for everybody; so many in fact, that they were overlapping, and people had a hard time choosing which ones to take.Would you take Didier Rosada's Techniques in Sourdough Production or Jeffrey Hamelman's Techniques in Rye and German Bread Production? And if you were going for Rosada, you were sure to also miss out on Peter Reinhart's Cold Fermentation class. We are talking tough choices here. I opted for the power duo: Hamelman (with Jory Downer as a TA!) and Reinhart.

So, to get back to our original story, here we were, a bunch of wide-eyed kids listening to the master's every word. Reinhart was explaining the technique of cold fermentation and how the dough is mixed the night before using very cold water (ice water really) and then right away refrigerated, to ensure enzyme activity, on one hand, but no yeast activity, on the other. Then, the next morning, the dough comes out of the cooler and, when it reaches room temperature, the yeast comes back to life and the whole baking process is set in motion.

At that point, one of the attendees, one Allen Cohn, who I later came to appreciate as an extremely knowledgeable and passionate home baker, and a very active guild member, put up his hand to ask the question that would change baking forever. He was wondering, why we needed to add the yeast, if we were only looking for enzyme activity, but not leavening. Why not just add the yeast to the dough the next morning, remix, and continue from there. In fact, he added, why even bother with refrigeration; does refrigeration benefit enzyme activity in any way? Other than Peter Reinhart himself, I don't think anyone in the room realized the enormous impact these questions would have on Reinhart's understanding of the method and on bread baking in general. He ended up having to revise and, in effect, to rewrite the entire manuscript upon his return from Camp Bread, a process that pushed back the publishing of his book by almost two years.

As for me, I had tons of fun in San Francisco: I took some pretty awesome classes and workshops, I made some new friends, and even got to know a little bit of San Francisco, a city that is one of my favourites. Camp Bread came and went; we all had a blast and we took home some good stories, new knowledge (to be tested in our bakeries ASAP), and fond memories. There were some very inspiring moments (Jeffrey Hamelman's "We are lucky to be bakers" speech as he accepted the 2005 Golden Baguette Award comes to mind) and some sad ones as well (as when we all took a moment to remember Professor Raymond Calvel, who had just passed away a couple of days before in Paris). In the end, the one thing that will always stay with me after all this is: "Boy, are we lucky to be bakers."