Learning and adjusting
For those who are keeping score, I moved from the USA to South Africa in late October to work on a project being managed by my employer. After spending a week in a hotel and a month in a temporary apartment, my wife and I moved into a leased house on December 1. We're feeling fairly settled now and can find our way to several different supermarkets, gas stations, restaurants and the like. It's a different landscape, and I'm not just talking topography. Still, we're learning to navigate our way around without creating unnecessary hazard to ourselves or others.
Part of the learning process involves getting acquainted with new players in familiar roles. In the case of bread, this includes different flours, a new starter, a different oven, and a different elevation (approximately 4200 feet above sea level, give or take a kopje). None of these are especially difficult to cope with, but the collective effect has me slightly off kilter.
Prior to this weekend, I had baked bread three times, with results ranging from dismal to passable.
This weekend saw some improvement, with plenty of room for additional improvement. I baked a pain de campagne from Clayton's Complete Book of Breads, a honey oat sandwich loaf and scones from KAF's Whole Grain Baking book, and Mark Sinclair's version of Portugese Sweet Bread (in hamburger bun form).
The pain de campagne calls for a yeasted "starter"; I used my own sourdough starter to build the levain. I'm beginning to wonder if there is something about the whole wheat flour that I'm using (Snowflake brand Brown Bread Flour at 12.5% protein, if memory serves). My impression is that it tends to absorb less water than other whole wheat flours that I have used, which produces a stickier dough. By sticky, I mean almost rye-like stickiness. The grind is a bit coarser than I have seen in other flours, so it may be that I need to go with extended autolysis to give it enough time to absorb moisture. And I may need to dial back on water content, too. The closest thing to AP flour that I've located so far is something labeled cake flour, at 10% protein content. The initial dough was quite sticky after mixing (did I mention stickiness earlier?), so I gave it a series of stretch and folds during the bulk ferment that lasted about 5 hours. Temperatures in the house ranged from the low 70'sF in the morning up to about 80F yesterday afternoon. I shaped the dough into two batards, achieving a good gluten cloak, and set them to rise in a parchment "couche". When they had expanded about 60-70% in size, I preheated the oven and baking stone, along with the steam pan, then poured in about a cup of boiling water. I slashed each loaf and jockeyed it as gently as possible onto the stone, using a baking sheet for a peel. Oven spring was modest, with the slashes opening partially. The loaves colored up nicely, indicating that the yeast hadn't run through all available food. I haven't cut into either loaf yet to know how the crumb turned out.
Things went quite well with the honey oat sandwich loaves, but for two glitches. One was that I had intended to make each with a cinnamon swirl but failed to remember that until I was pulling them out of the oven. The other is that both loaves were over proofed and partially collapsed during baking, even though they did not come close to reaching the volume ("one and a half inches above the pan rim") recommended in the directions. Eish! At least they taste good.
This morning's scones also tasted wonderful, but failed to rise as much as they should have. Maybe the oven runs a bit cooler than the controls would suggest. Then again, its geared for Celsius and I'm not. I think I'll pick up an oven thermometer or two while we are back in the States over the holidays. Then we can find out if it is a calibration issue, or operator error.
The Portugese Sweet Bread was everything that I wanted it to be, though. Texture, color, flavor, rise, everything worked just right. If only I could figure out why! My track record so far would suggest that it is more of a fluke than an exercise in skill. Right now, I'm just happy to have had a bake go the way I wanted.
The experimenting and learning will continue. I will keep trying various flours and methods until I get to where I can produce consistently good results.
Oh, and if anyone can tell me where to look for rye flour, I'll be grateful.