The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Variation on a theme

proth5's picture

Variation on a theme

 This entry is dedicated to - well, you know who you are...

I have been thinking a great deal lately about the influences that Chinese and Japanese culture have had in my life.

My long time in cross cultural Penang, Malaysia has cemented certain Chinese rituals in my life and the approach of the Lunar New Year has brought my exposure to Chinese culture to the foreground.  My imminent return to the Ryukyu (Okinawa) and my daily Japanese language lessons (courtesy of Rosetta Stone) remind me of the influence that Japan has had on me throughout my entire life.

As one might guess from my user name, there is no genetic reason for this.  My heritage (complete with blonde hair and lactose tolerance) is purely Northern European. I joke about my "little Japanese grandmother" teaching me things at her knee, but my grandmother was Pennsylvania Dutch and although she would have been fascinated with some of the things that I have learned, they could not be farther from the world in which she lived.

I also joke about "becoming invisible" in Okinawa.  Yes, the big, pale woman with the blonde, curly hair can hardly be seen in a crowd. Nice fantasy.  In fact, although adults are much too polite, children stare at me like the out of place creature that I am.

But Japan has been part of my life since childhood.  The same strange winds that caused me to learn French as a small child sent me a good friend whose family was transferred to Japan.  On her return visits we explored Japanese traditional fashion, gardening, paper folding, and, of course, the elegant use of chopsticks with the intensity that only nerdy children can bring.  As a result, the koi that swim in my backyard pond are the realization of a childhood dream, my Christmas tree is decorated with origami, and my obsession with linen is only equaled by my obsession with Japanese indigo (neither one an inexpensive obsession- best to stick with baking.)

So what does any of this have to do with bread?  I have become convinced that it has a lot to do with my approach to bread baking.

In one of my alternate lives I collected the works of a Japanese printmaker - Shigeki Kuroda.  In Japanese fashion this artist has devoted himself to one subject area.  That subject is bicycles and umbrellas in the rain.  He has produced infinite variations on this very narrow theme in an attempt to explore every aspect of it.   Here I recognize my method of endless repetition of what seems to be identical formulas with tiny variations attempting to understand every aspect of a particular type of loaf

One of my luxuries while in Okinawa is breakfast at my hotel.  Every little dish is just as good as it can be - scrambled eggs are perfectly creamy - raw squid is perfectly fresh - the coffee is better than what I have had in Paris.  Why bread is without taste (although beautiful) is a mystery to me and I have come to the conclusion that it must be a cultural preference, not a flaw.

So immediately upon my arrival for a brief visit home (to do those things that are required to keep my life from shredding during my next absence) my instinct was to bake baguettes.  This break from baking represented the longest time in between bakes for me in a number of years. My levain had been cared for by the person who is caring for my pets and was in top shape. As I baked my standard formula yet again, in my never ending attempt to reach absolute perfection (didn't make it, yet) I was relieved to learn that I hadn't forgotten how to bake.

Then one day I mixed up a levain pate fermentée for another purpose and changed my mind.  I decided to make a pate fermentée based levain baguette.  After all, it was time to explore this different aspect of the same bread.

The formula is simplicity in itself.  It is lean dough using King Arthur All Purpose flour.  The pate fermentée was at 63% hydration with 2% salt.  The starter was 25% of the total weight of the pate fermentée.  15% of the flour was prefermented and the overall formula was at 65% hydration with 2% salt.   My total dough weight for two baguettes was 20.6 ounces.  Like the annoying authors of physics textbooks, I will leave the calculation of the exact formula weights as an exercise for the reader.

I used my standard method of mixing by "folding in the bowl."  I added the preferment in small blobs at the beginning of the mix (oh, the horror!) because I wanted to avoid any heavy duty effort in incorporating the preferment into some already partially developed dough.

The dough had a bulk ferment of 5.5 hours with a single stretch and fold at 2.5 hours.  I was frankly unhappy with the dough development after 5.5 hours and had resolved myself to concluding that "sometimes the bear gets you."  I really think that the bulk fermentation was affected by the salt in the preferment and if I were determined to use this method, I might want to increase the percentage of flour prefermented to compensate on the next try. But I was out of time and shaped the loaves in my usual fashion, proofed them for about an hour and slashed and baked as usual.

The results follow.  My sojourn in the Ryukyu, alas, has done nothing for my photography skills (I really don't know why these pictures come out so pale, the flash on my camera apparently can't be disabled...).

The loaves

The crumb

Not bad.  We could play "list the flaws" but the doctors at "the place" have told me that this is not healthy (and if all y'all can't find the major shaping flaw, then I'm not going to tell you.)  The taste was just a bit more sour than usual, but that is not very sour.  The crust was crispy after cooling.

Once again, I will point out that the open crumb did not depend upon having a high hydration (because 65% is hardly a high hydration) or my not deflating the dough (iron hand in velvet glove still applies - but I'm not afraid to smack down a fermentation bubble if it gets in my way) but from a proper fermentation.  This crumb was not as open as my typical crumb, but was far from unacceptable.

So as I prepare for my return to the Ryukyu and a longer break from baking than I can currently imagine (unless I can get a job at the local bakery) I'm content with this foray into an infinitesimally different style of baguette baking.  I look forward to sticky rice, pig ears, bitter melon, raw fish, and seaweed at breakfast and the next adventure.

Happy Baking!


LindyD's picture

A most fascinating and contemplative writing, Pat.  I appreciate the insight into your preciseness.

Thank you also for the reminder about fermentation.  I've been playing around with a (non-Hamelman) sourdough formula of late and have not been happy with the crumb.

After reading your baguette comments, I now think my discontent is related to timing and fermentation.

Will be in Chicago for a few days, so my next experiment will have to wait a week. 

I've little doubt you would moonlight at the local bakery, if you could.

proth5's picture

If only I spoke enough Japanese...


RobynNZ's picture

When I went to enrol at a cooking school in Kyoto in 1976, with the introduction of one of my friends who was a student at the school, the principal at first refused me entrance, she thought she didn't have the skill to teach a foreigner and to be fair at that stage my Japanese was pretty basic. Finally it was agreed I'd monitor (audit) the class for a month and we'd speak again. So I got to sit in on the classes but didn't participate, nor did I have to pay anything. After a month my persistence and my slew of questions won her over. Of course during that time I'd learned all sorts of relevant vocabulary by watching and listening. I took classes (both basic and advanced - the older women in this class were as much my teachers) for four years and loved it. The owner of the school lost her fear of foreigners and realised we were keen to learn; she ended out putting notices up on the Japanese language school notice board, advertising her school.

I realise that you will be there to work, but knowing your passion ('old women' post comes to mind!) I can't help but wonder if a bit of time spent in the company of bakers there might not be a good break from your work.


proth5's picture

for the good thoughts.  I will not be in Okinawa quite as long as you were in Kyotoand there is that troublesome matter of working for a living, but you show me that where there's a will...

Actually, the hotel where our team is staying at first did not want to have Western folks staying there as they were afraid that we would drive away business.  We have behaved well and won them over.

Thanks again!