My Excellent Adventure at King Arthur Flour
In response to a prior post where I mentioned my recent experience at King Arthur Flour, David (dmsynder) kindly suggested a fuller account of the class, and was even kind enough (at my urging) to provide a list of topics I should include. I've attempted in what follows to touch on all of them, if in revised (and perhaps stream-of-consciousness) order.
From July 9th through July 11th I experienced a second childhood of sorts: I spent three days at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vermont working to master classic french breads with twelve other bread aficionados (about an even split between professional bakers and amateurs of varying skill levels) under the tutelage of the center's director and master baker, Jeffrey Hamelman, and James MacGuire, author and master baker.
The course was entitled "From Miche to Levain to Baguette: A Survey of Classic French Breads." The title succinctly captures the course content in terms of the breads we worked with.
For the miche, we did two separate bakes - both miche pointe-a-calliere recipes of James. Both utilized 20% pre-ferments and were built in three stages: refresher, levain and final dough. The one used high extraction flour, while the other was built from 67% whole wheat and 33% sir galahad flour from KAF.
(Below: miche pointe-a-calliere. All photos courtesy of Chris Henke)
We also did two bakes of batard-shaped pain au levain - one using 100% sir galahad flour, and the second with 15% whole wheat along with a pre-ferment of 12.2%.
(Hamelman removing pain au levain from KAF's production oven)
For the baguettes we did three bakes - a baguette de tradition with a hydration of 76%, one built from a poolish with 67% hydration, and the third an "intensive" french bread recipe. "Intensive" in this case refers to an intentional over mixing of ingredients to demonstrate how the resultant oxidation destroys the carotenoids which contribute so much to the flavor, color and nutritional value of bread. (It was, in short, an exercise in how not to bake bread.)
(Below, from l-r: intensive mix, poolish, de tradition, no-knead. Note the utter whiteness of the intensive mix. Its flavor was mainly from the salt (at 2.5%!)
Finally, James demonstrated an un-knead six-fold baguette with a hydration of 73%, that involved a bulk fermentation of three hours, with folding accomplished by 20 to 25 quick strokes of a scraper at 30 minute intervals.
(Both Hamelman and MacGuire are of the school of ‘less is more' with respect to mixing. Since all mixing causes oxidation, and oxidation degrades the flour, the ideal circumstance would involve combining all the ingredients without any mixing - something that very hydrated doughs utilizing autolyse come about as close to as humanly possible).
Ok, so that covers what we baked. But there was so much more to the course than simply these three classic french breads!
It seemed to me that inherent in everything Hamelman and MacGuire demonstrated, two themes were present: First, bread baking is about learning how to control various factors and processes that occur within certain timeframes, so that you, the baker, determine the schedule, rather than having it dictated by the bread.
For example, Jeffrey pointed out that in production baking of baguettes, those baguettes which are initially shaped are done loosely, because they will be going into the oven in the first bake(s). Ones which will be baked later in the day are pre-shaped more tightly, allowing for more expansion over time since they have a more lengthy rest period.
The second, and to my mind, overarching theme, however, was that in every aspect of the baking process - from initial mixing to proofing to determining whether a loaf is fully baked - the baker must learn to rely on his/her senses, all of them, to determine if the processes and end results are as they should be.
I discovered this unwritten theme the second day when we were getting ready to put our first loaves of pain au levain into KAF's production oven. I asked, innocently enough, "So, how long do they bake." Jeffrey stared at me, and with straight-face replied: "Until they are done." (I had provided him unwittingly with the proverbial slow pitch over the middle of the plate. He went on to explain how we learn when "done" is done).
Done, as it turns out, is only approximately determined by bake times. The real test involves handling the loaf - and with the batard-shaped levains and the baguettes - squeezing them to see if the crust gives way with a distinct snap, while looking at the ears to see if they were turned a golden-brown (fully baked) or were still whitish (under baked).
(Hamelman's one injunction when it came to determining doneness was that you never, ever stick a thermometer into a loaf!)
Jeffrey would constantly ask of us after a mix, "So, has the gluten developed sufficiently?" The answer, we learned, involves thrusting your hand down into the dough and giving it a good tug. If the gluten is insufficiently developed, it will be shaggy and tear. But if it is well developed it will be elastic and extensible with good strength. (We would do this after an autolyse, for example, as a way to determine whether the final mixing needed to go a full two minutes, or perhaps only a minute and a half.)
"Have the loaves proofed sufficiently, or are they under- or over-proofed?" he would ask. And again, the answer did not involve looking at the recommended proofing time, but actually pressing down on the dough.
His point is that ultimately the baker should be able to tell by touch and feel, taste, smell and sound, whether a loaf or a stage in baking is complete. (In one of our mixings, we accidentally over-hydrated the dough. The cure was the addition of more flour. But this then led to a question with respect to salt - more? How much more? Jeffrey's approach was direct: pinch off a bit of the dough and taste it. Salty enough? Not salty enough?
So the lesson I took away is this: good bakers are empiricists par excellence!
From James we learned much about the history of bread in France, especially during the twentieth-century. Those who haven't read his excellent essay, "The Baguette," written in 2006 for The Art of Eating can order it here. There was much discussion of how the culture of bread baking in France altered radically during the 1950s, leading to almost complete automation and inferior breads (this occurred while we were in the process of making the awful intensive mix pain). This in turn led to a discussion of how the art of bread-baking migrated to Japan, where many of the finest bakers in the world may now be found.
And he talked at some length about Raymond Calvel (who trained many of the Japanese bakers) and how he ‘rediscovered' autolyse in the 1970s. (The French had developed the technique just after WWII, when they had to rely on flour from the United States that had a higher protein content than their native flour, but then seemed to have forgotten about it).
The one very specific learning regarding autolyse we took away is that with rare exception, neither salt nor yeast should be added during the autolyse repos, since both will cause the dough to contract, whereas the goal of autolyse is to allow the dough to relax (hence repos).
As far as techniques we learned and practiced, in addition to the constant requirement to consult our senses, we focused on folding (both by emptying the dough onto a floured table, and, as James demonstrated, by leaving the dough in its container and reaching down to make the folds - a technique that works well with very hydrated doughs. We also practiced mixing, pre-shaping and final shaping involving boules, batards and baguettes, and scoring using lames.
(Below: James MacGuire demonstrates a fold within a container)
(Jeffrey Hamelman demonstrating a fold on table)
Finally, there were the two instructors: world class bakers who have been friends for many years and whose routines at times called to mind Penn and Teller (in equal parts humorous and magical in the effortless way they worked with dough). The class was fascinating not only for what we learned and practiced, but because the two were constantly entertaining, even when the instruction was serious. Each morning we would gather at 8:30, before class began, to eat freshly baked pastries from their production bakery, and each day around noon we would pause to have a communal lunch that involved wonderful local cheeses, the breads we baked, and at one lunch, magnificent pizzas created using baguette dough.
KAF offers a variety of classes on a regular basis. A link to their education center is located here.
I would do this again in a heartbeat! As I emailed Jeffrey and James afterwards, this was like summer camp for adults who love to play with dough.