Cooler evenings, lengthening shadows and the slightest hint of crimson on the maple trees can mean only one thing… autumn in New England is rapidly approaching! While some here may view the onset of autumn with trepidation, being the harbinger of the New England winter which can oftentimes be quite brutal, to me autumn is a season of anticipation. The cooler weather now makes it an ideal time to delve into one of my favorite types of baked goods… Viennoiserie. Viennoiserie is that class of leavened baked goods that is sweetened with sugar and enriched by butter and eggs. Included in this category are croissants, danish and brioche.
Learning or creating new bread shapes has always been great fun for me. Yes, my goal is to always bake bread with a seductive aroma, flavor and texture, but as someone obsessed with trying to bake the best possible bread that I can at home, visual appeal is also a big part of the story.
I’ve always been intrigued by the shape known as a couronne, or crown. To produce this shape classically requires a specialized proofing basket , which can be fairly expensive to acquire. I decided to see if I could come up with a way of producing something similar to a couronne without the expensive hardware. What evolved were two methods of producing a smaller version of the couronne. But what to name this new shape? After a brief consultation with Janedo, our resident French bread connoisseur over at …Au Levain!, we came up with diadème, or tiara. Yes, a modern-day tiara is typically semi-circular but the early tiaras coming out of ancient Mesopotamia and Persia were full circle (how’s that for a stretch?).
Here in the U.S., ciabatta has become the quintessential Italian bread. Characterized by a crisp, flour-dusted crust, a holey interior and a rustic, “slipper-like” shape, ciabatta is ideal for dipping into any one of a number of wonderfully aromatic, herb-infused olive oils. When sliced horizontally, it also makes great sandwiches, the holey crumb providing deep pockets to hold a favorite condiment or dressing.
There’s something about focaccia that I can’t quite put my finger on. People who would normally just pass around the breadbasket at the dinner table without partaking, lunge hungrily at pieces of focaccia when included as part of the breadbasket fare. Perhaps it’s the delicious unctuousness of the surface craters filled with fragrant rosemary oil. Or maybe it’s the light, airy crumb perfectly suited to sopping up the last bit of sauce or juice at the end of a perfect meal. Either way, focaccia has become a flatbread favorite here in the U.S., perhaps second only to pizza.
When properly performed, the techniques of scoring and steaming both serve to improve the quality and esthetics of the finished bread. Scoring provides a place for the controlled expansion of the loaf during the oven spring phase of baking, thus contributing to the lightness of crumb and visual attractiveness of the loaf. Steaming during the first few minutes of baking serves a dual purpose; it delays the setting of the crust so that maximum oven spring can be achieved and it helps gelatinize the starch at the surface, giving the loaf a beautiful, shiny crust.
As a young boy growing up in Brooklyn, NY, it was always a rare treat to enjoy a meal at one of the many area restaurants. I remember particularly looking forward to eating at the local pizzeria (hence my attempt at recreating New York-style pizza), the not-so-local Chinese restaurant (my foray into Chinese cuisine can be the topic of a whole separate blog!) and the kosher delicatessen. As far as deli was concerned, for me, sandwiches of corned beef or beef tongue piled high on Jewish rye bread with mustard and a kosher dill pickle on the side just couldn’t be beat.
With an oval form whose length can be anywhere between that of a baguette (60-70 cm) and a boulot (20-25 cm) [ref: The Taste of Bread, p 74], the batard along with the boule are perhaps the two most commonly used shapes for free-form breads. The batard gets its oval form through a classically two stage shaping process; first the upper half of a flattened round of dough is folded inward towards the horizontal center line using two or more folds, then the dough is rotated 180° and the identical action is performed on the other half of the flattened dough round. This serves to build up dough bulk at the center of the loaf, and thus produce an attractive expansion of the dough during the oven spring stage of baking.
When it comes to pain au levain, I have to admit that I am a bit of a snob. Why else would I call it pain au levain rather than sourdough bread, as most people do? I’ve never much cared for the name “sourdough”. Once something carries that moniker, all sorts of lip-puckering, eye-watering attributes are expected. Instead, I believe that a good pain au levain should have a complex, subtley sweet and nutty flavor. Yes, there are acidic notes present but, in my opinion, they should only serve in background to help enhance the natural flavor of the grain.
Whether it be the crisp, light crust of an authentic Neapolitan, the thick, focaccia-like crust of a Sicilian or the crunchy, chewy crust of a New York-style, pizza is one of the few foods that is almost universally loved. As a “breadie”, I judge the quality of a pizza by its crust; the texture of the crust should be appropriate to the style of pizza being made and the flavor of the crust should be able to stand on its own, even without the, dare I say, “distractions” of the toppings. If the remnants of a pizza repast are littered with uneaten crust, then great pizza was not served.
While bread leavened with baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is an integral part of any baker’s repertoire, that repertoire would be incomplete without the complex flavors that can only come from naturally leavened bread. Known as sourdough bread here in the U.S., this type of bread relies on the wild yeast and bacteria naturally present on the grain to provide both leavening and a unique, mildly acidic flavor profile. However, before they can be used in the production of bread, these wild yeast and bacteria first need to be activated and cultured. This is the process of creating a sourdough starter.