Friday, August 26, 2011

Meeting the Family's Bread Needs - Part 2

Welcome back to my interview with Kevin, a friend who has quickly become a skilled bread baker providing for his family. He happens to be a librarian and, like anyone who makes his living by Having the Answers, he went to the internet to find out how to learn about this new project.


GFF: What do your baking practices look like now?

K: I try to bake a loaf every day I have a day off from work. I have some recipes that can be done up in an evening as well. Sometimes after coming home from work, baking up a loaf provides a much needed distraction. It honestly doesn't take a lot of work to wait for dough to rise, but it gives me something to focus on or fret about instead of letting the day replay in my head. But my big time, fill-the-freezer baking days are the weekend. I'll usually get 4 loaves of 2 different recipes made on Saturday and another 2 loaves on Sunday. Most go in the freezer and some is given away.

GFF: I think it's interesting that you are making such a variety. When I bake bread, I make the same white loaf over and over. Maybe throw in some whole wheat, if I'm feeling particularly righteous. How many types of bread do you suppose you've made?

K: I think I've made, including pizza dough, about a dozen different recipes. But as far as different types, I've made white, whole wheat, French, pretzel, rye, beer bread and peanut butter. Each recipe includes some different ingredient or technique and that, more than settling on one or two, is what keeps me trying more. When I get my teeth into something, I really want to learn a little of everything and not a lot of one thing. So I'll be drawn to a recipe that calls for peanut butter simply because I'm interested in how that will bake up. Or a white bread that uses scalded milk, just to see how it's done. Or a whole wheat that uses a sponge starter. Along the way I believe I'll settle on some tried and true recipes. But right now I'm learning too much.

GFF: Have you made mistakes along the way? Maybe a better way to say it is - what have you learned along the way?

K: Mistakes. Hmmmmmmm. I'm sure I have. While I didn't have a history of baking bread, I was lucky to have a history of baking and cooking. Mom taught me how to bake when I was a boy and I've been able to keep those lessons close to heart. So mistakes have been few.

I've read recipes incorrectly and added way more flour or water than what was called for. I've converted from volume measurements to weight measurements incorrectly (partly because of bad conversion tables online). Thus far I've been able to avoid omitting an ingredient, but nearly have. Especially salt. Why is it so hard to remember the salt? And I have had wrong temperatures set for the oven more times than I care to admit, but nothing that has been disastrous.

Mostly I think not of mistakes but see lack of practice. It has taken several loaves to learn how to form doughs in a tight packages or slashing the dough in both decorative and functional ways. I still have a problem with forming rolls and buns. Learning how to knead has been an ongoing lesson. Learning when dough has "doubled" in size or when the final rise after shaping the dough is done and ready for baking continues to elude me.

I've also learned of the several techniques unique to breadmaking--particularly starters. My favorite is the sponge. The baker mixes up all the wet ingredients with up to half the flour and yeast. That concoction is set aside to develop for a period between one and four hours (or up to 24 in the fridge). The resulting flavors are more striking than if the baker mixes and kneads the dough all at once.

The biggest lesson has been learning how forgiving bread baking can be. I've yet to have a loaf that is inedible. I've let dough rise too much. I've baked it after not letting it rise enough. I've had loaves that looked like grotesque sculptures. But it's all been fit enough to eat. Bread, especially yeast breads, are not nearly as magical and temperamental as I thought.

[This interview took place over several days and with several installments. When Kevin answered the above question, he was remembering all of his breads to have been satisfactory. When he later expresed the following paragraph, a bread or two came to mind that were highly disappointing.]

I was going to say I haven't come across any recipes I feel no need to make again, (but) I found (my beer bread) inedible, My daughters liked it. I'm told it toasted nicely but I found it too bitter. The recipe called for all-purpose flour and I used bread flour. I also didn't know if the author used the scoop and scrape method or spooning the flour into the cup, but I guessed the scoop and scrape based on some other things she's described in her blog. I'm sure I added too much flour. And the baking powder might not have been fresh enough. It was yuck.

GFF: Your measuring methods are causing me to notice a difference in our bread-baking experiences. I think it might be due to your finding recipes on modern blogs. Most of my recipes have come from old Mennonite/Amish cookbooks. Many of them are little more than ingredient lists with no baking or preparation methods mentioned. I know the reason for that is that it was written by women who figure "everyone knows how to do this." There's no temperature for the oven. No baking time. Just, you know, "bake 'til done." It took me awhile to figure out what done looked like and how much wiggle room you could have. As for scalded milk and the like, I see it in recipes and have tried it sometimes, but without really knowing what the process of scalding milk should be. I suppose I could google it, but I'm too much of a corner cutter and I always just wing it. I've never had inedible bread. But your growing knowledge and confidence looks different than mine.

K: Scalding milk is raising the temperature to 180 then cooling back down to room temperature (or whatever the recipe calls for). It turns off an enzyme that would otherwise interfere with the yeast. The jury is out on whether or not modern milk, being pasteurized, needs to be scalded. But I do it any way cause I want to learn how to do it.

And it's funny you mention that most (bread) recipes you have are little more than an ingredient list. When I copy a recipe off a blog, I write down the ingredients and measurements, the temp and time to bake, but the instructions will be like "direct method" or "sponge starter" or "ferment twice, form loaf and proof in pan". What I've learned is that an instant read thermometer is my friend. Most breads are done between 200 and 205 degrees. At this point the crumb is still moist but the baking is complete.

That said, I do approach new recipes as a true librarian would. Do it by the book. I wouldn't use any book with such general instructions. Not, at least, until I have enough experience.


Next, we'll get some of Kevin's family's favorite bread recipes. I DID clean up my kitchen and try out his recipe for pretzel rolls. Such an interesting bread. But mine didn't turn out quite as well as the samples he had his girls bring to their piano lessons. It seems the man behind the reference desk was holding out some tried and true tips on me.


  1. I'm eager to see some recipes!

    DB, can you email me? I did not save your email address (duh) and I have a piano lesson question for you.

  2. Inspiring! Kevin, have you ever read "Beard on Bread" by James Beard? It's one of my absolute favorite bread books. I used to check it out of the library all the time. I recently found a copy online for fairly cheap.

    I've read that the enzyme you're neutralizing by scalding in only present in raw milk. When I make bread calling for scalded milk I just warm the milk to good-for-yeast temperature. Or, as my great-grandmother elegantly said, "pee temperature".

  3. I've heard of the book, Rebecca, but I don't believe I've read it. I'll check out the library's holdings before I leave work (shhh don't tell the boss I'm checking blogs). And I think you're right about the raw milk enzyme. That's what most of the writers and internet people have said. But, I thought it worth trying out the few times I had a recipe that calls for it.

    And it sounds like your g-grandmother was wise indeed! :^)

    One non-cookbook book I've read about is 52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust by William Alexander. A bit of a memoir, the author writes about his baking a loaf every week in search of replicating a particular loaf he had in France. He gets in to the history and mechanics of bread baking. I found it quite interesting, though his pacing and humor may not be for everyone.


I write my posts imagining that I am already in the middle of a conversation with you. I hope you will comment and be a part of the conversation.