Sunday, May 23, 2010

Slice of Heaven

I think, therefore I am, according to Descartes.  I think it's more fundamental than that: I eat, therefore I am.  It doesn't sound as academic, but it's easier to appreciate.  What follows is therefore not about assessment or the future of higher education or some obscure math thing, but how to make and eat bread.  This is my purely idiosyncratic view of it--I didn't consult the Baker's Union or anything.

Start with some stuff that's likely to lead to bread.  Life on Earth didn't just spring out of nothing, after all: there were comets delivering water, heat from the sun, etc.  So if you start in a completely sterile environment, bread is unlikely to happen too.  I suggest something like the "warm little pond" pictured below:
You may have to tilt your monitor to make sense of it, but it contains a plastic tub of King Arthur wheat flour with a scoop inside, some sea salt, olive oil, a measuring cup, bread machine yeast, a mixing bowl, and a mixer with bread hooks attached.  Never mind the oranges and flowers--those are not essential. 

I've found that it speeds things along if you intervene and mix some of these things together.  The amount of bread you get is proportional to the amount of water that starts it, so I put one cup of water in the mixing bowl.   When nothing happened after a while, I added a couple scoops of flour, a little yeast and salt. It's in this way that I found these ingredients to be all essential to good bread.  All very scientific.

The mixer had a natural affinity to the experimental goo, and I found it whirling about making a mess.  So I helped it along, battering the batter into dough with the hooks.

Here's where different species of bread diverge.  I was hoping for long skinny loaves, and for that we need a pretty firm dough.  Not a sticky gooey mess when you touch it.  When in doubt of this, add a little more flour--the dough will simply refuse to accept it if you add too much.  It's easier to get the dough too wet, which will cause problems with its development later.  I was lucky in this instance, and my two generous scoops were exactly enough.  So out it comes, evolving into a land critter.  It's pale and amorphous like any creature that's not fully developed.

Homely as it is, this is the time to name it.  This requires some imagination because there isn't much character to it yet.  That will change, but for now you have to be creative about it.  I called it Panis epsilonis after my daughter Epislon, who at a birthday sleepover and not around to witness this miracle of emergence.  She likes to pinch off pieces, put them on a cookie sheet, and cover them with sugar and cinnamon. 

Clearly, the nascent creature needed to mature, so I gave it a light coat of olive oil to keep it from drying out, and put it in a larger bowl (to give it plenty of room), and covered it with a plate.  It was early evening by then, so I let it rise for a couple of hours, and then put it in the refrigerator overnight.  In the morning I could see it had progressed in its development.
It's hard to tell from the photo, but the texture was now smooth, a luxury to handle.  The dough resists only if you mishandle it to the point of tearing.  Otherwise it's very well-mannered, if not quite domesticated.  It's fun at this point to develop it further by flattening and folding repeatedly:

After it seemed satisfactorily springy and awake, I began to shape my will upon the face of the dough.  Some conservative cooks claim that such human interference in the natural evolution of a bread will lead to abominations.  In truth, I have witnessed such things, when an experiment goes badly wrong.  Charred, malformed breads are the result, and all one can do is put them out of their pain and, depending on one's beliefs, call an exorcist.  But without experimentation, we would all still be living on a savanna somewhere picking fleas off of each other.  So I placed my faith in the hands of fate and inductive reasoning and began to slice.
The first cut with the bench knife carved off a piece so small it seemed insignificant.  The rest I divided equally, and then shaped these pieces while lightning crashed outside and Igor went in search of egg whites.  I fashioned two synthetic new species out of these: two we will call Panis longis and one called Panis roundis.  This was done by rolling and squeezing the pieces into shape.  I found that the coolness of the dough made this easier. When I was finished, I found the husks of previous maturation shells, and employed them as pictured below:

The round dish will be covered in the oven, allowing steam to envelop the crust as it bakes.  The bottom of the dish is buttered and sprinkled with cornmeal so that it won't stick. 

When Igor returned with the egg whites I instructed him to whip them into a frenzy and then add rosemary and basil from the garden, and a little olive oil, salt, and water.  This we basted the doughs with, and then let them rise for about three hours.  The long loaves we slashed three times each to let them expand gracefully.

The Panis longis looked beautiful.  The round loaf was almost touching the edges of its confinement.  It was time for the oven.  The long loaves went in first, into a cold oven set to 350*F.  I set it the timer for 35 minutes.  It took about 15 minutes longer than that, which I checked by fussing over the crust, tapping it, lifting it to see the bottom, and generally being neurotic about it.

They came out looking nice.  After I set them on the counter, I slid in the covered dish with the round loaf inside.

Eating bread. I assume everyone thinks they know how to eat bread, but I think most people are wrong about that.  For some reason, it's accepted practice to let the bread cool before eating.  Some books on baking will extol the wonderful sound of the crust crackling as it cools.  This is nuts.

You wouldn't grill a steak or fish fillet and then let it sit for half an hour before eating it, would you?  Or make a big pot of spaghetti and wait for it to get cold before serving.  Or let your ice cream melt.  It's the same thing with bread--it will never be as good as it is coming right out of the oven.  If the crust is perfect coming out, it will become soggy from the steam within a few minutes.  If you bake it so long that the crust stays hard despite this, it will be a thick tough crust.

The exception to this may be the German Brötchen, which maintains a perfect crust for hours somehow.  I don't know how they do it.  I asked some German bakers in Charleston one time, but they said it was impossible to make here in the South because of the humidity.  I'm not sure I buy that answer.  I think it's a deep dark secret.

So anyway, the conversation around the bread shouldn't be "could you pass me a slice of bread, please?" in order to get a cold limp slab that you try to revive with butter.  It should be more like:
Mom! I asked first!
I get the end piece--you got it last time!
Is there another loaf still in the oven?
Careful! It's right out of the oven.
Ow! Where are the mitts?
Hurry up!
In this case, I tore off a chunk as soon as I could handle it, drizzled it with olive oil, put a slice of fresh mozzarella and a basil leaf:

The subtle crunch of a just-right Panis longis crust is a singular pleasure.  It's not like a potato chip or cracker.  It's multi-dimensional, crunching through layers of crust, the crumb of the bread adding complexity to the top.  It doesn't always work that way.  Too much water in the dough and the inside will be a shaggy mess while the crust becomes too thick.  Or if you over-bake, the crust becomes rigid and hard.  This time I got it exactly right.  It was without exaggeration the best Panis longis I've ever eaten. 

Normally, the Panis roundis steals the show.  Because it's baked in a container, the steam works the crust differently, and if you get it just right, you have a eggshell crust, hard and crispy, but very, very thin.  It will barely support the bread it contains.  I usually make it as a treat for a meal, and the timing is tricky.  But when it comes out of the oven everything else stops and we eat the the bread.  It absolutely has to be eaten right out of the oven.  It took about 40 minutes this time, and I had no trouble getting it out of the dish.

I can't say the basil made any difference, and it looks kind of strange.  The egg white makes it brown faster, so it's easy to overestimate how done it is.  Be sure and tap on the bottom.  It should be hard too.  I like to take it out of the dish and give it a few minutes on the rack bare to harden the bottom crust a bit. 

This loaf you have to slice very carefully with an oven mitt to protect your hand.  It's fragile, and will collapse easily.  But if the crust is right, you can easily saw off the very end of it, which is the best part, maybe the best bread anyone has ever eaten in the history of the world.  It should have a hard delicate crust, not as many layers as the Panis longis, but crispy with a wispy crumb that is mostly air.  After cutting off the end, I usually cut triangular pieces rather than trying to cut all the way across and risk mangling it. 

After it cools a few minutes it wilts.   Trying to slice it then gives you something like this:
It was as good as expected.  If I could make the Panis longis every time like I did this attempt, however, I wouldn't bother with the the Panis roundis and its fussiness.  It was that good. 

Here's a happier picture to finish with.


  1. Anonymous2:59 PM

    Dave, a marvelous & witty display of cooking style. Having eaten some of your pizza in Mt. Vernon makes me believe the bread was superb.

  2. Anonymous8:03 PM

    I barely got a piece of the Pizza in Mt. Vernon but heard how good it was. Really impressed with your display of bread. yummmm I can almost taste it.

  3. Anonymous11:13 PM

    I am quite impressed with your intellectual ..... cooking skills and understanding. Baking is a science and following a recipe calls for mathematical precision. This is my first reading or responding to a blog. Kinda like on a radio show where they ask you to identify when you are a first time caller long time listener. I see a have some reading to catch up on with all those posts on the left hand side. I suggest using eggs and not just whites and might just send you a lathe for scoring.
    The Inferno

  4. I get the end piece!

  5. Anonymous8:28 AM

    I'm not picky. I will take the middle piece!

  6. Robert L. Fuller10:56 AM

    Does your bread evolve?