Novice breadmaker rises to the occasion

Convectional Wisdom

PLENTY OF DOUGH—Two 900-gram loaves of basic sourdough bread, made with a tinge of whole wheat. DARLEEN PRINCIPE/Special to The Acorn

PLENTY OF DOUGH—Two 900-gram loaves of basic sourdough bread, made with a tinge of whole wheat. DARLEEN PRINCIPE/Special to The Acorn

The first time I tried to make a loaf of bread from scratch, it was not pretty.

It was during the 10th week of a 20-week semiprofessional baking course I took for fun in the fall of 2015. We were baking rustic country loaves with dry yeast, and even though I had followed the recipe to the letter (or so I thought), my dough was just not coming together correctly.

One of the perks of going to baking school is learning alongside others while getting to watch demonstrations by a professional chef. But in that scenario, you can’t help but compare your work to everyone else’s. And when your dough is a lot looser than your teacher’s and classmates’ (even though it’s been in the stand mixer for the same amount of time at the same setting), you begin to panic a little. Or at least that’s what I did.

 

 

But then again, I tend to get a bit neurotic whenever things don’t go according to plan.

Up until that point, I’d been doing relatively well in the class. I had conquered the basics of tarts and custards, even cream puffs and eclairs.

But for some reason, when the time came to make a simple loaf of rustic white bread—just yeast, water, flour, salt and a couple tablespoons of honey—I just couldn’t get it to work. My dough was way too sticky and it refused to hold its shape, even after I added more flour like my teacher had suggested.

I had no idea why it was being so stubborn or why mine was so different from everyone else’s. It was infuriating.

Impossible to knead by hand, the dough went into the oven as a wet, misshapen blob on the pan. Although it was edible, that loaf was not my finest work. In fact, the whole experience was so frustrating, I decided to swear off baking bread altogether.

“Bread’s just not my thing,” I thought. “No big deal. I’ll just stick to cookies and pie.”

For months, I didn’t even consider making bread again, until one day, for some inexplicable reason, I was compelled to seek redemption.

At home, equipped with my own KitchenAid and my own oven, I decided I was going to show that rustic country loaf who was boss.

Confident this time, I worked that recipe with a matter-of-fact attitude, and what do you know— it worked! The loaf turned out perfectly, and that night, my family and I tore it apart and ate it for dinner with some gorgeous beef and barley soup.

Finally tasting victory, I welcomed bread back into my good graces. What came next were a few decent loaves of brioche and pumpernickel rye, as well as several more rustic loaves.

Then, this past summer, I decided to attempt what many bakers consider to be the “holy grail” of breads: sourdough.

Basic sourdough bread is made with just three ingredients: flour, water and salt. But if you want that bread to rise and adopt that mild, distinctive tang, you’ll first need to cultivate a sourdough starter, a living culture made of equal parts water and flour (by weight) where wild yeast and lactobacilli (a good bacteria that produces lactic acid) like to live.

I’ll explain how to make a sourdough starter from scratch in a future column, but for now, just trust me when I say it’s a delicate process that requires some commitment and patience.

In any case, now that I’ve got a viable, healthy starter, I’ve been baking sourdough bread every other weekend for about two months, and I’m addicted. I’ve learned to appreciate the temperamental nature of yeast and flour and how to improvise when things get wacky.

I think I now love making bread as much as I love eating it. And to think I almost gave it up!

The moral of the story is, don’t ever let a troublemaker recipe get the best of you. When it comes to baking (and lots of other skills), sometimes all it takes is a dose of confidence and another try.

Principe is a home baker, freelance journalist and former Acorn editor who lives in Simi Valley. Reach her at dar.principe@gmail.com.

IN A NUTSHELL

If you’ve never made bread before, try starting with a simple dry-yeast recipe. But if you’re a little more experienced and interested in trying sourdough, there are plenty of great blogs— Maurizio Leo’s at the website www.theperfectloaf.com is my favorite—that describe the process incredibly well, along with lots of tutorial videos on YouTube.