It has been a long time since I have posted anything on The Fresh Loaf. Having become more deeply entrenched as a professional baker has left me less time to bake at leisure. And having helped to launch a new restaurant in Washington, DC has entailed too many days of continuous work to allow the time to bake for myself and share the joys and tribulations on this forum.
But after a couple months since our opening I found myself one early morning placing wheat-rye sourdough boules onto the loader and shaking my head at how pathetic they looked after nearly a day in refrigeration, yet confident that they would not disappoint.
So as I journeyman baker I share these thoughts:
Bread is magical, but also a form of magic. Like Penn & Teller, but instead of applauding you get to eat the magic.
The photo above is a good demonstration of the magic of bread. While I'm a professional baker and help perform the magic each day - Teller to the dough's Penn - I never cease to be amazed at the magic which bakers call "oven spring." It is a phenomenon which occurs within the first 15 minutes of a loaf's bake, and when successful, it beats sawing a pretty lady in a box in half hands down.
If you look at the piece of dough on the right, you cannot help but be struck at how much it resembles nothing so much as a frisbee. And yet, if the baker and the dough have worked their magic well, in 45 minutes the flatish frisbee has sprung up to become the beautiful round loaf (called a boule) you see on the left.
Not only is this magic, it is a performance conducted daily without a net: By which I mean, if for some reason the baker and the dough have not worked together well, the result is not a beautiful tall boule but a barely risen loaf. And because of that, every day when I load dough into our oven, I tremble looking at how flat and deflated my boules look, and hope that the result will be magical and not a disappointment.
Ok, the hope is actually an expectation. But I am working with a living organism. This is a relationship. Miscommunication can occur. You and the dough may not be on the same page for any number of reasons. And so, you never have certainty that the resulting bake will meet or exceed your expectations. "Hope" is a good way of putting the feeling I experience when I load these loaves each day.
There are, of course, technical, scientific explanations for oven spring and how it is that a seemingly defeated, deflated round of dough can and will rise into a mountain of a loaf. But they are not nearly as wonderous as witnessing the event first hand. And in the end, they take none of the wonder away from this truly magical event.
Some other pictures of this and other loaves as they transformed themselves into beautiful wheat-rye sourdough boules over a long bake in a deck oven.
For starters, freshly formed boules placed on a floured board before being retarded:
Loaves being baked and cooling on racks after baking:
We call this a "bold" bake, and the sweetness of the bread's crumb contrasts nicely with the slight char on the surface of the boule's crust.
And finally, the interior crumb that magic and a successful bake produced:
This is what gets me out of bed in the wee hours of the morning.
And protects me against the cynicism which can easily come with age.
Because as long as I can bake bread, I'll believe in magic.
Best regards to all,