I have a confession to make. I don’t really know how to bake. To be accurate, I can make a wonderful batch of cookies, I’m pretty good with a pie crust and I’ve managed to learn my way around muffins and biscuits, but when it comes to complicated baking, I don’t know what I’m doing. My cakes and cupcakes are more frequently made from mixes than from scratch. And I’ve never made bread without a bread machine. This is something that has bothered me for a very long time and I’ve been muttering to friends and family about it for years. My father started baking after he retired and he got very good at it. He makes fabulous rye bread and delicious sticky buns and his challah is sublime. He keeps telling me how easy it is. Well, I’m finally fed up with my own ineptitude and excuses. If Dad can do it, so can I. This year, I’ve set a goal for myself to learn, REALLY learn, how to bake.
One of the best things about this goal is that there are so darn many resources out there for a beginner like me. Just looking through my own cookbooks, I found four books dedicated specifically to baking that I’ve barely cracked open since I got them. Julia Child’s television companion book “Baking with Julia” contains a treasure trove of useful information. And when we closed on our house a few years ago, our wonderful realtor Joan gave me a book by Martha Day that contains 400 step-by-step recipes for all kinds of baked goods. King Arthur Flour is only an hour away in Norwich, Vermont and they have classes year-round designed for every skill level. I should have no trouble finding the resources I need.
For my birthday, my husband bought me a Kitchen Aid stand mixer and a dough scraper and my brother sent me some french bread loaf pans and a plastic bin made for rising dough. Based on Julia’s suggested list of equipment, I’ve also purchased several different shapes and sizes of baking pans and I even bought a tart shell. I also picked up a couple of square pizza stones for my oven to help recreate that brick oven effect on my finished product. After years of making excuses, I’m ready to get started.
For my first baking project, I decided to pick something easy and bake a focaccio. From all that I’d read, it’s not a terribly difficult or labor intensive recipe and it only requires a single long rise and super short second rise. It affords a novice like me the opportunity to add some interesting flavors, like lemon zest, sea salt, garlic and herbs, to the top before baking. And done properly, it has a wonderful crusty texture on the outside and a chewy crumb on the inside. I also have some very good olive oil, which is perfect for bread dipping. As I researched different recipes, I felt relatively confident that I could get it right. So I got to work.
Most bread recipes begin with either a starter or the proofing of the yeast. Julia has very detailed instructions in her book for creating a starter, but it takes a couple of days to get a starter going. I haven’t gotten that far yet and this was precicely why I chose a focaccio, because it starts with the proofing of yeast instead of a bread starter. I also learned that there are several different kinds of yeast to choose from. Based on a recipe I found from Tyler Florence, I opted for rapid rise active dry yeast and followed his instructions for making this bread. I proofed it with warm water and sugar until it bubbled slightly before adding all the dry ingredients and starting the mixer.
Honestly, I don’t know people made bread before the invention of the stand mixer. My mixer worked for 10 minutes on this dough and had I attempted the process by hand, my arms would probably have fallen off. Having never made bread dough before, I was kind of groping on the dark, unsure of how long to let the mixer go, what the right consistency is and when to know that it’s ready to rise. Ultimately, I just guessed. I took the dough out, balled it up nicely and placed it in an oiled bowl covered with plastic wrap. I set it on my stovetop close to where the oven vent is so it had a nice, warm place for the yeast to do it’s thing.
The recipe called for a 45 minute rise, but I gave it an hour. Lo and behold, it doubled in size! The result helped boost my confidence. I took the dough out of the bowl, patted it out to a wide oval shape and put it on a pan for a short second rise, only 15 minutes. When I came back, it had only puffed up slightly. Was that enough? Was it ready to bake? I had no idea. But I’d gone too far to turn back, this dough was headed for the oven no matter what. I dimpled it according to the recipe, brushed the whole thing with olive oil, placed garlic slivers in the dimples and sprinked the whole thing with excellent quality salt and lemon zest. Then I put my very first loaf of bread in the oven.
Thirty minutes later, it was brown and beautiful and I took it out to cool. Boy was I shocked and surprised when I cut into that focaccio. The crust was barely a crust at all, it was thin and soft. There was no glorious symphony of crackle when I gently squeezed it. The crumb had the texture of a loaf of plain white bread. There was no elasticity, no chewiness. It tasted good, but it was certainly not what I’d expected. I started retracing my steps. Maybe the rapid rise yeast wasn’t the right choice, maybe it didn’t proof long enough, maybe I didn’t knead it enough, maybe it needed more time to rise. There are so many variables in baking that it could have been any combination of the above that caused my less than stellar results. The upshot of this first experiment for me is that I really don’t know enough about baking yet to know what went wrong. That is both daunting and exiciting….I have a LOT to learn about baking bread!