Modernist Bread - gorgeous books, but some curious flaws
When I first learned of genius entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold's endeavor to create THE Ultimate Work on Bread Baking, pouring thousands of dollars in his state-of-the-art scientific laboratory plus baking station, I was rather skeptical. After Modernist Cuisine now molecular baking?
But a presentation last summer at the Kneading Conference in Skowhegan/ME, with stunning photos of the process, was so convincing that I overcame my doubts (and qualms about spending so much money), and ordered my copy at Amazon.
The massive metal box set (History and Fundamentals, Ingredients, Techniques and Equipment, Recipes I and II, and a spiral bound kitchen manual with formulas) arrived in November, too heavy for one person to carry. Totally awed by those gorgeous, atlas-sized tomes, I asked myself the obvious question:
"Am I good enough for this Rolls Royce of baking books?"
Being the anal Virgo, instead of undisciplined rushing at the recipes, I started reading the first volume, History and Fundamentals. Though I'm generally not a great fan of non-fiction, remembering with a shudder the all-night-cramming before my final medical exams, I found the book a very pleasant read, interesting, full of fascinating facts, and beautifully illustrated.
My husband, a Vietnam veteran, travels to Asia every year, Singapore, Cambodia, and, always, Vietnam. Whether in Saigon or Danang, his favorite food are Banh Mi sandwiches, and he misses them here in Maine.
The toppings, meat, pickles, cucumbers, chili and cilantro, are not hard to come by, but the Banh Mi breads are a totally different matter. Though French baguettes are their ancestors, Banh Mi rolls are different, with a thinner crust and softer, fluffier crumb.
With Richard just back from Saigon, I decided on Banh Mi rolls, my first loaves to bake from Modernist Bread.
I had tried to make them before, using the only recipe (from Andrea Nguyen) that appears to be circulating in the internet. It wasn't bad, but, according to my husband (and my own memory from my trip to Vietnam years ago), it wasn't right, either, no crackly crust, and too chewy.
For many of Myhrvold's breads you can choose between two or (even three) different formulas, a classic version, a "best" version, and a "modernist" approach (with unusual enhancements, like gelatin).
But for Banh Mi, there is only one recipe.
Though I often tweak formulas according to my own preferences, this time I didn't not stray from the Modernist's path, awed by the expertise of the authors. I wondered a bit about the shortening (or lard) in the bread - no fat in French baguettes, and why would bakers in a poor Asian country add a costly enrichment to their dough?
Instead repeating the mixing procedures and different steps for shaping, and proofing in every formula, Modernist Bread refers to detailed instructions in volume 3 (Techniques and Equipment). Fine.
But would it have killed them (or taken up too much space) to put oven temperatures and baking times into the recipes? You had to look under "filone entry in French Lean Bread Baking Times and Temperatures", several pages back, to find them - or not, since there was no filone in the list!
And why is cold bulk fermentation only very briefly and cursorily mentioned as an option? Instead, the Techniques section offered retardation of the shaped breads, along with fermentation at different room temperatures. Great, if you bake only one loaf - or have a walk-in refrigerator!
I started my mixing process, following the Modernist Bread's instructions - and was confronted with my first question: "add salt and mix on medium-low speed to low gluten development; add melted shortening or lard, and mix on medium speed to full gluten development."
How do I gauge low gluten development? I added the shortening after I mixed in the salt, drizzling it slowly into the mixer bowl. But, alas, my gluten development was faster, my dough did not welcome the greasy addition, resisting its incorporation, and, instead, swishing the liquid fat all around in the bowl.
It took a long time of mixing, until the dough looked somewhat homogeneous - but it was still coated in grease!
No help for that, I had to trust in the mitigating effect of long fermentation (I did the cold bulk), especially since my 7-qt Kitchen Aid, deciding, "enough is enough", switched itself off to avoid overheating.
Everything else, shaping and proofing, went according to plan, until it was time to bake.
Modernist Bread pooh-poohs every steaming measure we poor hobby bakers are able to employ, except for using a Dutch oven or a covered baker. Tough luck for home-based micro-bakeries like mine that need to process more than one loaf at a time!
I guess I have to live with my guilt of using my modest, pebble filled steam pan.
In the "French Lean Bread Baking Temperatures and Times" table I found only temperature for baking (470ºF/245ºC), not for preheating the oven. I remembered having come across it somewhere in the Technique volume, but couldn't find that paragraph again.
Assuming 500ºF would be okay, I preheated my oven (which keeps the correct temperature), with baking stone and steaming device in place. According to the time table, the small baguettes should be baked for 15 minutes with steam, and 10 minutes without, at 470ºF.
But when I checked after 15 minutes, to remove the steam pan, they were already fully baked, with an interior temperature of 211ºF.
The baguettes looked okay from the outside, though the crust was not crackly. But when we cut the baguettes in halves to make sandwiches, we were in for a big disappointment. Instead of airy and fluffy, the crumb was dense and chewy.
And worse - they didn't taste like Banh Mi at all, more like brioche (made with shortening instead of butter). We ate our sandwiches, grumbling, and I was sorely tempted to throw the remaining two loaves in the trash - something I hardly ever do with my bread, even if it's burnt, or otherwise malfatti.
In the end the frugal housewife prevailed - I cut off the bread crusts and ground them into crumbs. And worked the loaves into a really nice bread pudding!
Successfully recycled - Leek Bread Pudding, made of Banh Mi rolls.