Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Ghastly Menu:

Long before Martha Stewart ever decided to “own” October 31st, I was celebrating All Hallows Eve with a menu of autumnal foods that I’d dubbed “Halloween Tea” – tasty, creative, but just a little spooky.

This year’s selection of “tricks and treats” drew from the bewitchingly best ingredients of the season and included:

Toadstool Crostini
“Original Sin” Hard Cider
Butternut Squash-Apple Soup
“Croaked” Monsieur Grilled Sandwich
Pumpkin Brioche Pudding with Bourbon Caramel Sauce

The perfect holiday menu – a little bit of earthiness, a dash of temptation, a sandwiched grilled until dead on arrival, and a dastardly spiked squash dessert. It was all served up with a “heady” screening of Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow.”

Happy Halloween! As my brother said this morning, "May the Great Pumpkin shower you with treats, and may all your goblins be benign gourmands."

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Perfecting Pasta

I’d returned from Italy with grand ambitions. I had successfully created fresh pasta from scratch in Florence and now I’d make it at home. After four styles of pasta, I was now an experienced pasta chef. Immediately, I purchased a gleaming Atlas 150 pasta machine, manually operated with a shiny chrome crank. I insisted on a hand operated machine. All that physical energy would certainly assure a most authentic taste. Yet immediately, my pasta plans began to perforate. Adapting the recipe to the home kitchen and the quirks of U.S. ingredients proved challenging.

Perhaps initially I was too ambitious, too “faux Gourmet.” I decided I would start by making pumpkin flavored pasta, but the orange puree made the dough too wet to handle. I ended up with a sticky ball of dough floating in the water, more like a pumpkin dumpling than trim and tender egg tagliatelle.

Maybe it was the flour? At Apicius, The Culinary Institute of Florence, we’d used semolina flour, but I’d scoured my local stores and could find none. So I settled for unbleached all purpose flour and decided to start again by going back to basics.

I followed the formula to the letter – one egg for every one hundred grams of flour. No more, no less. I kneaded the dough and chilled it for thirty minutes. I even got the hang of the Atlas 150 after several failed attempts, and nearly breaking my toe when the crank fell to the floor. But when I’d finally cut those lovely tagliatelle noodles in the final pass through the machine, they clumped together like a bad hair day.

On paper, pasta is such a simple recipe. Why wasn’t it working? There had to be a solution. So I put on my Julia Child thinking cap and mulled things over. I remembered reading how Julia pursued culinary success by trial and error. She made batch after batch of rich French food and took copious notes on the successes and failures. Like Julia, I’d have to practice to perfect my pasta. First, I haunted the gourmet stores in New York City and finally found selmolina flour at Dean and Deluca. I mixed the two eggs carefully into the sandy grain and gently prodded the concoction into soft yellow, pliable dough. I passed the dough through the rollers of the machine until I had thin sheets. But, when I jumped to the final cutting, again the tagliatelle strands stuck together.

Surrounded by cookbooks with directions on fresh pasta, I tried to understand where I was stumbling. Then, a brief notation in “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” by Marcella Hazan jumped off the page. In my zeal and enthusiasm to get to the meal, I had missed an interim step. I’d neglected to let the long, wide sheets of pasta dry for 10 minutes or more before cutting them into noodles. What a difference 10 minutes makes! My pasta cut perfectly, without sticking, and each strand dried singularly straight and narrow!

From there, it was minutes to a steaming bowl of perfect tagliatelle with tomato basil sauce, shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano and a ruby glass of Chianti Classico.

The moral of the story? Don’t let hunger blind you to proper technique.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Friday, October 27, 2006

Night of the Turkey Club
The flights out of LaGuardia to Chicago have been backed up for hours, but I finally arrive in the Windy City at about 10 p.m. Central Time after leaving the New York office at 3:45 p.m. Do the math. That means for approximately five of my seven hours of travel, I was going absolutely nowhere.

When I finally stumble off the flight at O’Hare with my carry-on wheeler and my zip lock bag of toiletries, I am half starved. I’ve survived on Fritos, Rold Gold and Cranberry Juice Cocktail for what seems like forever.

My colleague Splint McCullough, whom I haven’t seen in more than eight weeks, steps out of the crowd in baggage claim and says, “This way, Mr. Bond.” This greeting is a relief. He usually impersonates Kato from the Inspector Clousseau movies. Splint has weathered similar atrocities during his trip in, including flight delays and lost luggage that was later discovered soaking wet on the wrong baggage carousel. But, he’s resolved his issues and is waiting with a white Ford Bronco rental to take us to our accommodations in Naperville.

I eye the vehicle skeptically. “Are you on the lam?” I ask. Fortunately, there are no law enforcement or media choppers on our tail, and we cruise out of the airport with little difficulty and ease onto the expressway.

“I can do this route in my sleep,” Splint promises, and promptly misses the exit to Naperville. I look at him askance. I haven’t seen Splint in more than eight weeks, and I haven’t missed an exit in that time either. But we seem to share a certain directionally challenged karma.

After a quick course correction, we are on our way to Naperville. “The bad news is that most of the restaurants closed at 10 p.m.,” says Splint. “But, the good news is, I saw bright lights near the highway. We’ll find you some food.” Splint, by the way, has already eaten.

Following a quick trip along Route 88, we pull into a well-lit parking area in Lisle, Illinois. There’s a distinct chill in the air. The red neon sign screams “Mullen’s Bar & Grill” and there are cars in the parking lot. “I think they’re open,” Splint declares optimistically as we enter the establishment, whose threshold is adorned with a selection of Halloween scarecrows.

Inside, the first patron we encounter is a man in full clown makeup and costume, who has bellied up to the bar and is watching the World Series.

“I hate clowns!” Splint says with passing glance and a shudder. He quickly accosts a waitress who informs us that the kitchen closed five minutes ago. “Is there a diner in the neighborhood?” he pleads as I am about to expire at his side. She volunteers to check and disappears into the kitchen. Moments later, the manager returns and graciously offers to retain the kitchen staff long enough to whip me up a turkey club with fries. He escorts us to a table, where Diet Pepsi and Sierra Mist are delivered and both he and the waiter settle in with us to chat about nothing in particularly. It seems that no matter where Splint goes, he attracts an entourage and it is clear that Mullen’s caters to weary travelers and thirsty circus performers.

My turkey club arrives and it is enormous, worthy of Dagwood Bumpstead. I can barely fit the tall stacks of turkey, crisp bacon and golden toast into my mouth, but I attack the food voraciously as the restaurant manager recounts his day in detail, which began by dropping his mother-in-law at the airport at the crack of dawn.

Within minutes, there is nothing but a few crumbs and an errant French fry on my plate, and I am grateful for Mullen’s hospitality and Splint’s incomparable instincts for locating fine cuisine. Frankly, I’m thinking of spending the weekend. Mullen’s is hosting a “Seven Deadly Sins Halloween Party” this Saturday night and I’d like to see if I can add a few more to my repertoire beyond my usual gluttony.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Kids in the Kitchen
Teach a young person to cook and they learn a bounty of life skills – resourcefulness, teamwork, organization, creativity and sensory skills. As a young chef I was reared on "The Betty Crocker Boys and Girls Cookbook," which featured recipes like “Mad Hatter Meatballs” and “Polka Dot Macaroni and Cheese.” Mom let us pick our favorites, which my brothers and I would each cook in rotation for the family dinner. Later on, I remember becoming quite enamored of the “Peanuts Cook Book” and making Linus’s “Security Cinnamon Toast” and “Red Baron Root Beer.” Both volumes are still on my cookbook shelf.

At a recent gathering of old friends, we were reminiscing about learning to cook as kids and realized that many of us were alumni of the “Betty Crocker Boy's and Girls Cookbook.” Some had even memorized certain recipes even though they no longer owned a copy of the cookbook. So it’s clear that experiences in the kitchen can be formative for kids.

Think about it. When did you first learn to cook? Was there a defining moment as a youngster, or a habit learned early on in life? How does that early experience impact your eating habits, your purchasing choices and your passion for food today?

More and more professionals have recognized the importance of kids and families cooking together, particularly as issues of diet and obesity among young people become a national concern. FamilyCook Productions (http://www.familycookproductions.com/) uses family time in the kitchen as an opportunity to learn, and develops curriculum for young people and their parents centered around meal time. The mission of FamilyCook Productions is to “bring families together around delicious fresh food while positively impacting their health and well being.”

And now, chef and award-winning cookbook author Rozanne Gold has published “Kids Cook 1-2-3: Recipes For Young Chefs Using Only 3 Ingredients.” Rozanne, former chef to New York Mayor Ed Koch, three-time James Beard Cookbook award winner and all around neat person, pioneered the idea of simple fresh ingredients and flavorful meals with her three-ingredient approach well before anyone was trying to knock out meals in 30 minutes. Her charming volume and its companion website http://www.kidscook123.com/ addresses kids in honest, enthusiastic language about the pleasures of cooking. There are whimsical recipes like “Bowties with Broccoli,” “Crazy Leg Drumsticks” and “Strawberries-in-Nightgowns” that are bound to capture the imagination of future gourmets everywhere. Not to mention a few grown-ups like me!

What was your childhood inspiration in the kitchen? I’d love to know.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 23, 2006

Cheese Whiz!

Just catching up on some new publications and got my hands on “The Murray’s Cheese Handbook” (© 2006 Broadway Books) by Rob Kaufelt, proprietor of Murray’s Cheese in Greenwich Village in New York City.

I became a fan of Murray’s when I worked near Grand Central Station and would stop by the Murray’s booth in the gourmet market. One visit with the well-informed cheese experts on staff and I was off and running with a regular Friday night cheese plate tradition for dinner to sooth the effects of a tough week at the office.

Now, Kaufelt has taken that knowledge so evident to shoppers and turned it into a portable handbook with profiles of more than 300 artisanal cheeses. Kaufelt explains cheese terminology and answers frequently asked questions in a lively, laid back style that makes it clear this guy is crazy about cheese. He also provides a bit of history about the establishment of Murray’s which is more than 65 years old, and the oldest cheese shop in New York City.

If you don’t live in New York, check out Murray’s online at http://www.murrayscheese.com/. They ship! I’ve got a serious addiction to Chimay, once made by monks in Belgium, and the powerfully pungent Cabrales blue cheese from Spain.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Bread Baking Resources and Tools
As my “hands on” time in the professional bread kitchen concluded last Friday, and now I must adapt the techniques to my home kitchen, I thought I’d offer up a couple of resources and tools I’ve encountered in the last four weeks for anyone attempting to try artisanal breads at home.

Try and get a copy of “Bread: The Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes” by Jeffery Hamelman. This seems to be the reference book of choice among professionals and, in fact, Hamelman, a Certified Master Baker, is the director of the Bakery and Baking Education Center for King Arthur Flour. Hamelman covers every type of loaf imaginable, from yeast breads to rye sourdough, and provides measurements in U.S. and metric, as well as specific formulations for home baking and larger batches. There are beautiful photos and detailed instructions for shaping each style of bread. “Bread” is available in hardcover and was published by John Wiley & Sons in 2004.

A digital thermometer is essential to take the temperature of the dough. Many recipes show a “desired dough temperature” based on the types of ingredients in the formulation. If the temperature of the dough is higher after mixing, that means the loaf is likely to ferment more quickly and you may need to shape and bake it sooner.

Until taking my recent class, I wondered how those interesting circular shapes and patterns were achieved on round rustic loaves. Check out retail stores like Sur La Table for a circular woven basket, sometimes called a “banneton,” where the bread is kept for its final proofing and gets that circular beehive pattern on top. A dusting of flour in the basket helps to define the circles.

Finally, for a little bit of historical context, it’s fun to read Julia Child’s narrative of how she investigated the correct procedure for making classic French bread in her memoir “My Life in France.” Julia’s reflections on bread begin on page 253, and you can read her humorous account of what she describes as “the Great French Bread Experiment” as she worked on the manuscript for “Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume II.”

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Friday, October 20, 2006

Bye Bye Baguettes
Our final day of Classic European Breads is both tasty and whimsical. We mix a batch of Swedish Limpa bread, a sourdough rye with molasses, fennel, coriander and orange zest. The rye and citrus is intoxicating as it bakes, and the resulting rich brown loaf smells sweet and spicy.

On Thursday, we did the prep work for authentic German salt pretzels or “Laugenbrezel.” Chef K gives us a brief history of the knotted delicacy. The pretzel icon hangs from many bakeries in Germany and has religious connotations. The traditional three holes are said to represent the Holy Trinity, and some say the knot resembles a person praying. The pretzel was invented somewhere between the 5th and 7th century by monks, ever the ingenious clerics. Children in Germany will tie a pretzel around their neck on a string on New Years as wish for prosperity. Some pretzels are first boiled in lye before baking to establish a crisp brown crust, but we use boiling water and baking soda. The auburn crust is crisp and the inside moist and chewy and we even stuff some with a grating of gruyere cheese, which is downright yummy.

We concoct Ciabatta, a pale, Italian “wet dough” that is called the “Lady Slipper” because of the lacy design effect achieved by rolling the cut dough in flour and turning it flour-side-up in the oven.

For lunch, we make pizza dough and create individual pizzas with cracker crisp crusts, topped with homemade tomato sauce, roasted garlic, caramelized onions and cheese. We all agree it is the best lunch we’ve had in a month.

We conclude four weeks of intensive labor right where we started, shaping and loading the baguettes for the evening dinner service at L’Ecole. For a moment, I stare at the not-yet-baked baguette in my hands on the bench in front of me. It actually looks like it was shaped correctly by someone who knows what he’s doing.

Chef K presents our course completion certificates, we toast each other with champagne, and she gives us a lovely “go forth and bake bread” blessing. She mentions that we Three Bread Musketeers have done the work of twelve students during this class. Our aching muscles confirm that, but our bread baskets are indeed overflowing.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, October 19, 2006

As Classic European Breads draws to a close, we are dropping in on diverse cultures and cuisines. This morning we make a brief stop in Great Britain and dip our bakers’ hands into the preparation of scones. The recipe is remarkably easy. A little baking powder, flour, butter, milk and egg mixed by hand, and you’re on your way to a proper afternoon tea. I sprinkle my mixture that resembles pie dough with cranberries and nutmeg in honor of the cool autumn days. My teammates are showing bursts of creativity, mixing in lemon zest, ginger and candied citron.

Chef K gives us a nifty tip – once you’ve pulled the shaggy dough together, shape it into a long, rectangular log. Then, you can cut neat triangular wedges from the log, or even freeze the log for several days and just pull it from the fridge and slice and bake to serve hot scones to guests. The key is you must serve them hot, as scones can quickly become stale.

We pull them from the oven just before lunch. My lofty, buttery scones are warm and crumbly and dotted with bright crimson, tart-tasting sweet cranberries.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Croutons from the Bread Kitchen
Today seemed like a series of odd episodes. There’s a certain drama that exists in any workplace and a bakery is no different. Things go wrong, chefs complain, people screw up and sometimes voices are raised. But you still have to produce bread. The production schedule supersedes any drama and you must deliver bread.

We delivered two varieties. Broa is a long rectangular loaf of cornbread that hails from the northern part of Portugal. The dough was sunny gold and almost fluffy, yet the finished product is hearty enough to stand up to a Portuguese soup made with cabbage and chorizo.

Krauterquarkbrot has perhaps the longest name of any bread, and while it does contain the dreaded rye sour, it is also nicely flavored with fromage blanc and fresh herbs. In fact, the translation of the German name means “herb bread made with quark cheese.”

Later in the afternoon the pace quieted down a bit. The Maitre Boulanger is preparing for a competition and his mind appears to be on the event. Chef K will be back for our final two classes. News of her return pleased us.

For a brief moment, Chef Jacques Pepin breezed through the kitchen, and I was reminded of all those aspects of food – the history, the legacy, and the time-honored techniques – that keep me in the game.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

More Rye from the House of Pain: It is week four – the final week – of Classic European Breads at the French Culinary Institute and once again we are struggling with the German unit and rye sour starters. I want to know if there are any other countries in Europe that make bread, and how come our tour hasn’t visited there yet???

My fingernails are caked with grayish residue as I plunge my hands into yet another bin of cold, slick rye sour starter. The stuff bonds to surfaces so well that it could fill the cracks in my kitchen ceiling. I’ve washed my hands dozens of times, but it has given me a second skin. Whereas there is indeed a touch of romance in mixing and shaping a baguette, there is nothing remotely alluring about the preparation of rye bread. Think heavy duty home improvement project, and you’ll get the picture. Bottom line, it’s messy.

The Maitre Boulanger informs us that we are preparing “Vinchgauer,” a flatbread that is 70 percent rye and 30 percent wheat flour. And it only has an ingredient list that is about a mile long. My teammate, “A” is awfully perky today, and seems to be enjoying playing in the starter and inhaling fermented rye fumes. Its annoying and I’m somewhat less optimistic about our prospects.

I’ll admit the history on Vinchgauer is intriguing. The bread originated in Austria and contains several spices – coriander, fennel, and caraway. What were all those spices doing in Austria, you ask? The Maitre Boulanger tells us that Austria sat smack in the middle of the spice route from Asia and as merchants traveled through, they left samples behind.

After mixing, we scoop the mortar-like dough onto the bench and let it rest. It doesn’t seem to have much life in it, but there is some evidence of activity. We attempt to roll the sticky dough into balls, but end up scraping a lot of it off our palms and the bench. Then, the Maitre Boulanger shows us how to sprinkle the rounds with course rye flour and press them flat on a bagel board. The little pancakes look kind of gray and listless. Any remaining optimism has faded and I am convinced we are on our way to another kitchen disaster. (I haven’t shared our pumpernickel nightmare – it was just too painful.)

We slide the disks into the oven, and try and occupy ourselves with other tasks. Twenty minutes later, though, a bit of a culinary miracle has occurred in the oven. Our Vinchgaur is now deep reddish gold, puffed up like pita bread, and a heady aroma of spices is wafting from the oven. The Maitre Boulanger inspects the product and says “Hey, these look good.” I suspect he was skeptical too…

We cut into a loaf. It has a lovely cross pattern that has blossomed on top naturally and is about an inch-and-a-half tall at the center. The blend of rye and spices gives the Vinchgauer a deep rich flavor, with an essence licorice.

Maybe it was worth the effort.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Secrets of Challah

Who doesn’t dream of being able to create a shiny bronze loaf of braided Challah bread? I’ve had Challah envy just walking down the bread aisle of even the most rudimentary grocery store. There were always all sorts of questions. What is the origin of this exquisite bread? How do you achieve the braided effect? How do you create that glossy, golden sheen?

On Friday in Classic European Breads, we became privy to the secrets of Challah. Originating in Europe, the shimmering yellow dough is enriched with oil, sugar and honey. The slightly-sticky dough forms nicely into balls, which are then rolled into ropes.

There are many braiding techniques, but we focused on braiding three and four ropes of dough at a time. The “three” technique is just like braiding hair and uses three strands of dough lined side-by-side on the work bench. The “four” technique creates a thicker chain link effect. Four strands of dough are positioned on the bench at 90 degree angles and then alternately folded over each other until they bulge into a braid. Once shaped, the loaves are brushed with egg wash to achieve that burnished gold look during baking.

The “bumps” of the braid are meant to represent the 12 tribes of Israel (assuming you braid it properly and get twelve bumps!) Challah is traditionally served on a white towel that symbolizes the manna from heaven, and rather than slicing, guests pluck a bump from the loaf with their hands.

Rich, fresh and downy soft, the end result was a blessing of theological scope!

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Friday, October 13, 2006

Creative Uses for Bread: I’m three weeks into an intensive bread baking course and “my bread basket runneth over.” I’ve got bread in the freezer with barely enough room for ice cubes, bread on the counter and bread in the den. I’ve given bread to relatives, friends and colleagues, and there’s still a surplus. One friend in Canada suggested establishing a roadside bread stand, similar to the lemonade stand of bygone childhood days. Not a bad way to earn some extra cash. As the weather is getting cooler, maybe I can convince the heating oil company to take bread as payment instead of cash.

There have been some practical and delicious solutions. I’ve made Panzanella, the traditional Tuscan bread salad, and tonight I had some laughs with my friends Mary and John over Dutch Gouda and Beer Fondue which went beautifully with cubes of German rye bread. Next weekend the high school crowd arrives for their 30th reunion celebration, and you can bet they’ll get French toast or Strata for brunch.

I’m thinking about bread pudding and bread stuffing, since Thanksgiving is just around the corner, but that’s still not going to get me to the back of a very packed freezer. Who would have thought that rolling in dough could be such an issue? If you’ve got any interesting ideas for creative ways to use bread, I’m open to any and all suggestions!

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Problem with Rye Bread: This little loaf represents more than 24 hours of labor. I really didn’t have a concept of how rye bread evolved until yesterday’s “Rye Enlightenment.” The foundation of a dense, chewy, sour rye bread is a “levain” which is basically a thick paste of wheat flour, rye flour and water that ferments overnight, developing quite an odor. We started our levain at about 2:00 p.m. on Monday and this little loaf popped out of the oven at about 2:45 p.m. on Tuesday.

Does the phrase “time management” come to mind?”

During that period, the levain was reduced by a small amount and then fed at several intervals with additional flour and water to increase activity of the fermentation. There are all sorts of analogies to yogurt cultures and various types of bacteria. In fact, very little yeast is used in the final product, with the levain generating most of the leavening.

It’s an incredibly time intensive process and not for the faint of heart. You have to, not just like, but love the aroma of rye, and you have to remember to feed the beast with additional water and flour throughout the day. When you finally mix the levain with the other ingredients, the dough is the strange consistency of modeling clay. You’ve really got to worship rye bread to go through all this effort. With all the time issues we face, one has to wonder if the artisan approach to rye bread can survive.

Right now, I am trying to decide the fate of this loaf of rye. Something of this caliber deserves a top-of-the line corned beef with a little sauerkraut and a great microbrew on the side.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 09, 2006

Breads Hearty and Wry: Our European bread odyssey at the French Culinary Institute moves into week three and we arrive in the land of the Rhine River for a taste of the breads of Germany. This is the Maitre Boulanger's forte, as he is a native of the country, and he gives us a quick briefing on the impervious nature of the tough rye seed, which must be soaked longer than other grains for proper fermentation.

We begin with the venerable Kaiser roll, and learn how to quickly mix the simple, serviceable dough, shape it into rounds and stamp it with a tool that gives it that distinctive pinwheel pattern. Some of our rolls proof too long, and don't expand like they should in the oven, but the slightly tart, nutty taste and golden crust is distinctly genuine.

My teammate "A" is working like a dynamo today. She is anticipating what the chef will need, and sprinting ahead in terms of scaling out the remaining recipes. Eventually, I start to catch up to her, after a serious case of the Monday blahs, and we begin to work as a pretty efficient team, quickly moving through one job after another.

Later, we get to work on a multigrain rye bread that is packed with toasted grains -- sesame seed, flax seed, sunflower seeds and rolled oats. I am salivating as I sniff the aroma of grains toasting in the oven.

All this is the prelude to some serious wrestling with rye. The Maitre Boulanger pulls out a large round tub of "rye saur" starter and informs us that this formula was first mixed 100 years ago in Germany. "Treat it with care," he advises. The starter is a stiff and grainy caramel-colored mixture that looks pretty healthy given its century-old status. There is a wonderful strong smell of rye that is reminiscent of a brewery. The Maitre Boulanger invites us to taste the starter, and I savor the powerful flavor of intense, sour rye on my tongue. We take a scoop of the starter, add wheat flour, rye flour and water, and tomorrow we shall see what develops.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Field of Croissant Dreams: As week two of Classic European Breads concludes, we are on to the stuff of the romantic French “petite dejeuner” – Croissants, Pain au Chocolat and Brioche.

There is something miraculous about making croissant dough by hand. The butter and dough is “laminated” together, one fold after another, until you achieve a dough with many layers of butter and pastry that puff in the oven. There are precise measurements for each triangle, and a traditional method for rolling the croissant into the spiral shape. It is a time-intensive labor of love, and you get a kind of spiritual lift as you sniff the aroma of warm yeast and butter surrounding you and watch the golden crescents swell in the oven.

While technically simpler to shape, the flavor of pain au chocolat with its subtle mélange of butter and rich chocolate is sublime. The twigs of chocolate are specially-made with a higher melting point to assure a substantial mouthful of chocolate in the final product.

Brioche loaves are enriched with eggs and butter. The dough is slippery and elastic and fun to shape. We make large and small ball-shaped loaves and create that distinctive “tete” that resembles the cap of a clergyman. Some of our tetes topple a bit in the oven, but the downy golden dough is deliciously soft and sweet and smells like a French country morning.

Just to keep us on top of our game, Chef has us prepare a batch of Pain de Mais, a hearty yellow bread of corn meal and olive oil. Chef isn’t sure exactly how this variety emerged, since corn is not a typical ingredient throughout France, but the crunchy loaves have a sweet and spicy flavor and we shape some into beautiful sunflowers that remind me of the radiant fields glimpsed from the bus during my recent travels through Burgundy.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Man Does Not Live By Bread Alone: We near the half-way point in our bread baking immersion with certain daily rituals and do’s and don’t becoming clear.

Shortly after 8 a.m. each morning, a number of the chef instructors at the school gather in our kitchen for bread and coffee. They toast dense, dark, square German bread the color of molasses over the burners of the gas stove and gossip about school issues, often in French so we students can’t understand what they are saying. By 8:26 they are off to their various classrooms.

I’m becoming more comfortable with the Maitre Boulanger, and it’s evident he has a distinctive culinary ethos, not to mention a sense of humor that is perhaps as dry as day-old bread crumbs. Today, he suggested that we place a sign on the door to the bread kitchen that reads “House of Pain,” which is pretty funny if you speak French or if you’ve rolled a thousand baguettes over the last two weeks. The other day, he worked quietly in one corner all day building a three-foot tall clock tower out of bread dough – my first encounter with bread sculpture. I was terrified I would sneeze and knock the whole thing over.

I love the insight into regional country breads in France, many made with ingredients that are indigenous to the region. Pain Normand, uses cider and the apples that are prolific in Normandy. Pan Citron is bread infused with abundant lemon zest, and Pain de Provence is packed with olives and a mix of Herbes de Provence which includes lavender. Brioche is one of the oldest breads of France, and the large amounts of egg and butter in the silky dough make it a joy to work with.

Each morning I silently recite my “Dos and Don’ts” of Bread Baking:

  • DO remember to hit the steam button on the oven or the baguettes will look like shriveled old hot dogs.
  • DO roll back the canvas on the loading tray each time you remove it from the oven. If you don’t it’s very hard to rearrange the baguettes again after you’ve already laid them on a reversed loader.
  • DO slash deeply when you score the baguette – it feels like a criminal act, but scoring is essential to allow the baguette to expand in the oven and develop that lovely braided pattern on top.
  • DON’T measure twice the amount of flour for a recipe. It can really screw up the consistency of the dough.
  • DON’T over-handle or fuss over the dough. Each time you touch it, you suck a little bit of life out of it. In other words, keep your big klutzy hands to yourself, and practice economy of movement.

Right now, we’ve got croissant dough resting in the refrigerator which we will shape on Friday. Saturday breakfast is going to be outstanding!

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 02, 2006

Sweet and Savory Breads: As week two of Classic European Breads opens at the French Culinary Institute we are coping with some of the typical New York obstacles – there’s a film crew tying up pedestrian traffic on Crosby Street and construction in the building forces us to enter for the week through a service entrance around the corner, and carry our lunch through a small obstacle course before we are able to eat.

We are introduced to the Maitre Boulanger for the first time, a solemn German gentleman who began baking as an apprentice in his teens. Even though we have a week of experience under our belt, the pressure of a new instructor has an effect on us. “A” can’t remember the technique for shaping loaves, and “E” and I must deal with several casualties. A number of baguettes are sent to that great bread basket in the sky as we repeatedly botch the necessary steps for precisely loading the loaves into the oven. I take on the job of removing the finished baguettes from the oven, but some are under baked. The Maitre Boulanger is patient, but I suspect his tolerance for our incompetence will not last for long.

Despite the baking mishaps, I am struck by the enormous versatility of bread. On Friday, we baked “Kugelhopf” from the Alsace region of France, a tall feathery yeast cake, laced with butter and rum-soaked cherries, which is crowned with a beautiful ring of almonds and baked in a bell shaped tube pan. It makes a fine dessert or a decadent breakfast. Today, we mastered “Fougasse” a dense bread of white and rye flour filled with briny black olives and succulent fresh thyme. We cut hash marks in the loaf with a sharp wheel cutter and spread the wet dough like a butterfly before putting it in the oven. The result is a rustic open leaf pattern with a crispy crust and savory bread that is almost like a pretzel in consistency. It’s good with a strong cheese and a smooth glass of red wine, particularly as I decompress after another day in the orifice of the bread oven.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Diary of A Mad Bread Baker – Week One: To say we are busting our buns would be an understatement.

I’d had this vision of lovingly hand-kneading my own personal loaf of artisan bread each day, watching it rise in the oven, caressing the crisp golden crust and transporting home my labor of love to eat and share with friends.

The reality is this. We’re in bread boot camp. We’re a baguette assembly line. In a mere five days, we’ve shaped, rolled scored and baked hundreds of loaves, and there are still 15 class sessions to go. We have a morning lecture, and then we dive into a mixing and pre-shaping endurance marathon. The afternoon is spent lining up raw loaves on loaders, scoring them so they don't explode and lifting and sliding them into the dark, cavernous ovens which I’ve fondly knick-named “Jaws.” It is incredibly physically and mentally demanding. Lose your concentration and the ingredients are off, the dough is brutalized or you burn a patch of skin or throw out your back.

But, despite the intensity and the overwhelmingly addictive aroma of yeast, certain things are becoming clear through the haze of King Arthur flour dust:

  • If cooking is about technique and innovation, and pastry is about science and creativity, bread baking is certainly the most sensual of the culinary arts.
  • Bread baking requires all the senses – sight, smell, touch, hearing and even taste. Sight and touch are critical. I am fascinated by Chef’s ability to know that a blob of dough is ready just by sizing it up and giving it a poke.
  • At the risk of sounding so “Sideways,” bread is a living thing. It grows, it expands, it moves! You have to treat it with great care. Handling a piece of dough feels just like carrying a newborn infant.
  • Bread is deeply intertwined with human sustenance and history. Chef tells us that the French Revolution was actually fought over the peasants’ right to eat white bread. And, all this time, I thought cake was the issue.

As for my two fellow “Bread Musketeers?” "A" is like a sponge, no pun intended. She takes copious notes and asks really smart questions. She has an admirably adroit technique with the dough, and never seems to lose her focus or her optimism. "E" is still mangling the dough. He has yet to develop that light touch and gets involved in too many distracting side conversations. Some of his pre-shapes have looked like deflated beach balls, but then he will have a brilliant insight about a mathematical formula or measurement. On Friday, he caught me in the nick of time before I began to weigh out three times the amount of flour needed for a large batch, since I chronically confuse grams and kilograms. Clearly his core strengths lie on the numbers side of baking (and mine don’t). But he’s a sweet, considerate guy and a team player.

I am in awe of Chef. She serves up science, technique and philosophy in equal doses and observes our actions like a hawk, gently advising and correcting each misstep.

On Monday, we meet the “Maitre Boulanger” of the Institute for the first time.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved