Grading weeks are always busy. This week my students turned in a paper examining local Farmers’ Markets, questioning this business model’s relationship to sustainability, and assessing whether, in practice, it seems to meet its own perceived goals. They talked to vendors, they talked to shoppers, they peered at and smelled and tasted local fruit, and they shared their experiences during class. And now I have to grade their work. It seemed like a good idea, as I contemplated sitting down with a pen in hand and my editor glasses on, to have the smell of fresh bread in the background.
Bread is, if you’ll excuse my torturing a metaphor for a moment here, a bit like how writing a paper should be. You poke around a bit at your idea to see if it is viable – this is the yeast proofing stage. You mix together your ingredients: idea, observations, quotes and facts from outside sources, and then you work and work and work your thoughts. You knead them together until they are smooth but still elastic: one of the great and the frustrating things about writing is that you’ve got to be willing to see room for change in your product, always. Your ideas need to stretch and flex as you read and understand more, or your work will never be as deep or sophisticated as you want it to.
And then, like dough, you have to let it rest. You have to be patient, and plan ahead enough that your little work in progress has time to sit and develop. When you return to it, hours or days later, if you’re lucky your perception of it will have shifted. This gives you fresh perspective and lets you see what new avenues could be pursued, or what new angles need examining. And so you work with it again, reshaping and adjusting, pulling and folding. And then you let it rest again.
When it’s finally ready to submit, kneaded, shaped, risen, baked, you’ve spent time on this project. It is yours. Your voice rings out, your thoughts are fully developed, and the flavor is something original and pure.
Things don’t always happen that way, especially in college. There’s not enough time or the ideas don’t flow or the method isn’t perfect. But they don’t always happen for bread either. You have to have patience and time, and you have to know how to work with your materials.
I wanted to a go-to recipe – a standard to work with. I can play with additions and flavors and quantities all I want, but to become a good bread baker I think I need to solidify my technique. So I’m auditioning basic recipes. This week I decided to go with Ruhlman’s ratio for a boule, one of the most basic-sounding in his book. But because I can’t leave well enough alone, I added some honey for the yeast to gobble, and some crushed dried rosemary for a little wake-up in flavor. I also, at his suggestion, baked my loaf in a dutch oven (well, my non-stick 5 qt. version of a dutch oven – I suspect the original or enameled cast iron incarnation would be far superior), which made good sense. It’s exactly the right shape, and having walls to hold in the diameter probably makes the resulting loaf climb a little higher.
But somewhere in the mix things went awry. My loaf, though it was beautifully golden and crusty on top, got a little dark on the bottom. I suspect the non-stick cookware along with the layer of olive oil I doused on anyway had something to do with this.
Once the unfortunate burnished bottom was removed, this loaf was delicious. It was crusty and chewy, though a little bit dense, and a very welcome accompaniment to pasta. It sops up alfredo sauce like a champ. It also worked well as leftovers, toasting up beautifully and offering no resistance to my demands that it be slathered in butter, drizzled with honey and then sprinkled with lemon zest.
It wasn’t perfect, but if I can figure out the singed bottom problem, this loaf would certainly be in the running for a go-to dough recipe.
Basic Boule, adapted slightly from Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio
12 oz. warm water
1 tsp active dry yeast
2 tsp honey
(I might add a few tablespoons of olive oil for additional flavor and fat, but I haven’t tried this yet)
4 cups flour (or 20 oz., if you’re doing this properly)
2 tsp salt
2 tsp dried crushed rosemary
Combine the water, yeast, and honey in a small bowl or measuring cup and set aside for 5 minutes or so. This is the proofing stage. The yeast comes out of hibernation and starts to foam and smell beer-y. Supposedly it likes the extra hit of sugar to chomp on, and I thought the honey might be a welcome background flavor. It’s not necessary, but it’s nice.
While the yeast is waking up, combine the flour, salt, and rosemary in a medium bowl. I used my stand mixer with the paddle attachment.
With the paddle attachment still in place, pour in your yeasted water mixture and run the mixer on low speed just until things start to come together.
Replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook and let the mixer do its thing for 10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth, elastic, and passes the windowpane test. I kept mine on a medium-low speed, because my dough kept poking up above the edge of the bowl, and I was afraid of it escaping and rampaging the counter, blob-style, if I increased the speed. If you are kneading by hand, this will take at least 10 minutes.
Once the dough has undergone this change in character, becoming a smooth ball with the barest remnant of stickiness, move it to a lightly oiled bowl and stow it in a warm, draft-free place for an hour. I like to set my oven at 200F for five minutes, then turn it off and wait five minutes before putting the dough inside with a clean kitchen towel draped over the bowl.
After an hour, check the dough – it should have doubled or be close to doubling in size. When it has doubled, remove it from its bowl and punch it down gently on a floured board. I’m coming to realize that “punching down” is more like “softly press your fist into the dough, which will deflate like a feather pillow as the gas releases from inside it.” It’s like the punch you give a friend you’re pretending to pummel, where the action begins quickly but ends with a relaxed push against his shoulder.
Let the dough rest for a few minutes, as if to get its strength back.
Shape the dough into a round. Ruhlman explains this procedure as “pushing the dough back and forth on the counter in a circular motion until you have a round, smooth ball” (10). I tried this, unsure of exactly what I was doing, but really my dough was in almost the right shape already so I decided to leave well enough alone.
Oil the bottom of a dutch oven and pop the ball of dough inside. Cover it with a towel and let it rise for another hour. Depending on the size of your dutch oven (mine is a 5 qt.), your dough will expand to cover the bottom of the pot and maybe even begin to push its way up the sides.
When it has risen again, carefully score the domed top of the bread with a very sharp knife, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse or flaky salt. I used Maldon.
Place in a preheated 450F oven with the lid on for 30 minutes. This holds in some water vapor and creates a crisper crust. Remove the lid and continue baking for about 20 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 200F. The loaf will slip easily out of the pot and the bottom will sound hollow when you tap an inquisitive knuckle against it.
Let cool at least until it is comfortable to handle, then slice and serve as desired.
This is best on the day it is made, but it makes very good toast a day or two later.