Monday, February 14, 2011

Rustic Whole Wheat Boule – There’s an App for That

No sooner have I commenced my meditation on the spirituality of bread baking, when technology invades my reverie and my kitchen.

It starts one night when I’m traveling for business, stuck in a generic hotel and entertaining myself on the iPad. The options for amusement are limited when you travel for work. It’s usually the iPad, or several hours of MSNBC – unless 30 Rock is on. Browsing the App Store, I discover Michael Ruhlman’s new Bread Baking Basics App. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you probably know that Ruhlman is the “Ratio” prophet. He says that in order to be a good cook, you don’t need recipes if you understand fundamental ratios of ingredients and techniques.

I’m a little skeptical. Intuitively, Ruhlman’s “Ratio” concept makes sense, but I’ve heard him rail against “the recipe” at several conferences, and I’m usually left scratching my head. Whether it’s a formula or text, when you write it down it’s a recipe isn’t it? Also, I’ve already got a small library of books on bread. But, for a price of less than two bucks, the risk in purchasing the app seems small. Think of it this way – the cost of the app is cheaper than one commercially-produced loaf of bread. I touch the screen and I own the app.

Bread baking – because of its simplicity - is perhaps the best of the culinary arts to apply Ruhlman’s “Ratio” concept.

The app offers a set of menus for bread ingredients, measurements and baking options that can be customized, mixed and matched. It all seems a little too easy, a little too paint-by-numbers. I fully expect the recipe-ratio-formula to flop.
I select “whole wheat” and – seduced by a luscious photo – click on “boule" from the rotating columns of options. The ingredients are presented as ratios – 7 parts bread flour, 3 parts whole wheat flour, 6 parts water – but for the mathematically-challenged among us, the app also offers quantities in English units by weight. Desperately clinging to tradition, I select the “Knead By Hand” preference, which depicts a strong, capable hand caressing a globe of dough.
The mixture comes together beautifully and the rhythm of kneading takes its effect. Within minutes, the dough is shiny and elastic. The first rise goes off without a hitch, and for the second rise I place the dough in a banneton which I’ve had for several years but never used. Start to finish, it all adds up to exactly 5 ingredients and 15 very simple steps.

The app doesn’t have quite the romance of the Joy of Cooking, or the tactile experience of holding a book, even if you’ve got a touch screen at your fingertips. But, what Ruhlman has done is sifted out all the extraneous words, and boiled bread baking down to the ingredients and steps that matter most. By doing so he’s actually added clarity to the process.

As they say – the proof is in the pudding, or perhaps the legitimacy is in the finished loaf. By early afternoon, I’ve pulled from the oven a round, honey-colored, peasant loaf with a soft, tender crumb and a crackling-good crust. It’s probably the best bread I’ve made in recent months, including some far more complicated recipes found in cookbooks with serious pedigree.

A bread recipe (make that, ratio) – powered by the iPad – resulted in one of the most delicious, old-fashioned, rustic loaves I’ve managed to produce. Has the art of bread baking entered a post modern era that blends tradition with technology? Certainly, we’ve come to appreciate that there are better options than industrial-produced bread, but not even Apple has been able to conjure up the magic of a warm, crusty loaf. That still requires the skill, care and passion of the baker.

©2011 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


My Carolina Kitchen said...

That boule looks likes it came from the window of a French Boulangerie. In fact it's so beautiful I would have been afraid to cut my first slice.

I've read about Michael's ratio idea and it's a very interesting concept. I'm so glad you've tested his theory. Ruhlman is an fascinating guy and I've enjoyed reading his books. It would be fun to meet him sometime along of course with the bad boy Bourdain. Now they make a pair.

Hope you have a wonderful Valentine's day T.W.

Kalyn said...

Well wow, that is one beautiful loaf of bread!

Julia said...

I'm definitely a believer in the ratio concept, but it needs to offer a little wiggle room.

I love the shape the banneton gives it! It certainly looks like a tasty loaf!

tasteofbeirut said...

The ratio concept makes sense; I feel like so much of cooking can be intuitive.
Glad you went ahead and baked this; it is beautiful and that panneton gave it such a lovely crust.
Can't wait now for your next bread!!
I I just made some brioche, without a recipe)

A Feast for the Eyes said...

What a gorgeous result you achieved!
I'm so behind the 8-ball, that I just now got a hands of Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes A Day. I made my very first Artisan loaf, and it was so easy and delicious. I've been the kind of bowl that you used. You've helped to conquer my fear of diving in and trying it. As for the book you speak about, I've checked it out and found myself scratching my head. I need a recipe. I'm Old School-- but, good for you for trying it out!
PS: An iPad... I can only dream.

Mary said...

It is, indeed, a beautiful loaf of bread. I know ratios work for cakes and pastry, so there's no doubt in my mind that they'd work for a less refined bread. I do have one complaint. Slowly but surely the mystery is being stripped from the processes we use to prepare our food. I like a little mystery :-). Your bread looks perfectly prepared. It has crumb and crust and I would imagine the aroma as it bakes can drive men mad. Kudos, kiddo! Have a great evening. Blessings...Mary

lostpastremembered said...

I think whatever he's doing it works. I always put a white mix in my bread... though i also use rye with the whole wheat for flavor. You turned out a perfect loaf... how do you get it out of the banneton so beautifully.. the rings make it spectacular looking. You made me laugh about the way you found it... they're not kidding when they say, there's an app for that!

Barbara said...

Now that the kids are gone, I don't bake bread very often. But I certainly appreciate seeing what others turn out. Your loaf looks wonderful. I do love the design the banneton makes.

The ratio idea is all well and good and I use it in a few cases (always really old family recipes). But what difference does it make if it's 3 parts something or 3 cups something? All semantics, right?

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

That's a loaf I'd expect to find in an artisan bakery. Beautiful!

Velva said...

I admit that I shy away from bread baking-by providing me only a ratio concept, I would most likely enjoy your whole wheat boule, and not make one for myself.

Your boule looks stunning. There is something about bread baking that is soul satisfying. I know, I know, I need to get out my box.


P.S. I just got an iPad. I love it.

Fresh Local and Best said...

This is a beautiful rustic wheat bread. One of these days I'll run into the bread bowl that you have, I definitely need one of those.

One of these days I'll get an iPad, they look like they would be helpful if only to look up and follow recipes from the kitchen.

Lisa@ButteryBooks said...

I tried to make up my own bread recipes using his ratios, but it was a disaster..not sure what I did wrong. I am going to research his method more (the first time I just read a quick post about the ratios and went to work).

veron said...

I need to get that app...that is one lovely boule!

~~louise~~ said...

I confess, I must live in a cave:) Not only do I NOT own an iPad, I've never heard of "ratio" baking.

I can understand how the concept would work but I have way too many "normal" bread baking books that need my attention.

I must say though, your bread looks picture perfect. Now, if there were only an app for aromavision.

Thanks for sharing, T.W.

sophiesfoodiefiles said...

Waw!! That bread looks just STUNNINg!! It looks perfect?..;really!

It looks that it comes from a French Boulangerie!

You have done a brilliant job!!

Stevie said...

The boule is remarkable! I had no idea that there were specific bowls for dusting the flour in rings on the surface! Clearly I don't make bread that much. If only the iPad would bake the bread and pop the loaf out of the glass while you're traveling by plane--that would truly be the perfect app! And would beat anything that you can readily get on an airplane.