Thursday, January 29, 2009

Poolish is as poolish does.

We’ve been parents for a little more than a month now, and mostly I’ve been loving every minute of it. Not so much the waking up in the middle of the night, not so much the diapers, not so much the extra hour it takes to the load up the car whenever we go somewhere, but the rest of it, sure.

Maybe the most significant downside has been that we don’t have a handle on getting meals ready yet. When I get home, I try to take the dogs for a walk while we still have some daylight, and then it’s off to pick up Zebb from day care. I get home about the same time M. does, right around six. Then we have some playing and reading and bonding time, followed by Z’s dinner, getting him bathed and ready for bed, and somewhere in there we have to make our own dinner and maybe feed the dogs, who never let us forget that they’re part of this team and have empty bellies.

Cooking for ourselves, then, is something we have to squeeze in, and the first month we ate a lot of fried egg sandwiches, which if fine for folks who consider Lipitor a condiment. But we really needed to get back into the swing of things and start eating real food again.

This week was a decent start. I found some borracho beans in the freezer, so there was one meal already 75% made. Then I made some chicken soup, which is always great this time of the year when everyone is sick and sniffly. It’s also a great reintroduction to the kitchen when you’ve been away for a while, because you can make it as easy or as hard as you want to make it. (At this point, it looks like I’m not making stock from scratch any time soon.) As a confidence builder, we made mango chutney chicken with rice and roasted tomatoes, which requires juggling a bunch of different pots and pans but has idiot-proof timing of the steps, so it’s nearly impossible to screw up.

But to really dust off the cobwebs, I had to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself. And for me, that meant putting down the pans, leaving the knives in the block, and getting out the flour and doing some baking. And not fake baking but the honest to goodness kind where you knead and rise and have to watch the clock, where you had to bring ingredients to room temperature and activate things and do everything at some optimal convergence of ambient room temperature, atmospheric pressure, relative humidity, and planetary alignment.

Which is not my strong suit, by any stretch of the imagination. Baking is too rigid for me, too much attention to detail and careful measuring and following the directions. So to get back on the horse that threw me, I needed to make some french bread.

I had never made a poolish before, and I’m not sure why the idea intimidated me. But that part of the equation was so easy and the results so impressive that I think a bubbling measuring cup of flour and yeast might now be a standard presence in our fridge. So step one took about three minutes, if you don’t count waiting for the yeast and water to get to room temperature. And I’m not sure I did it correctly, but it worked. I poured ¾ cup of water and let it sit on the counter for an hour. Next to it I measured ¼ teaspoon of dry active yeast, which also needed to come to room temperature. And then I measured 1 ¼ cup of flour. I activated the yeast with a tablespoon of the room temperature water, let it sit for 5-10 minutes, and then poured it into the flour. Mixed the flour / yeast combo and then poured in the rest of the water.

Then covered it and let it sit for 3 hours.

Done. My first poolish. Now I’m looking at some fresh french bread in only... 24 more hours!

So the poolish went into the fridge until the next day.

Then you kind of start all over. I took the same three ingredients (1½ cups flour, 1½ teaspoons salt, ½ teaspoon activated yeast, and ½ cup room temp water) and did the same thing. Mixed 1 ½ cups of flour with 1 ½ teaspoons of salt and ½ teaspoon activated yeast (activated with one tablespoon water from the half cup), only I poured the water into yesterday’s poolish (which needs, again, to come back to room temperature, which takes about an hour). The poolish becomes soupy when you add the extra water, which is what you want so you can pour it into today’s flour / yeast mix.

So now I had a bowl of flour that looked a bit too wet to me, but I’m trying to follow directions and not improvise, so I go with it. I poured the blob into the biggest cutting board we have, having first very lightly dusted it with flour and with a ½ cup flour on standby. The next step is to knead the bread, keeping my hands floured but not the work surface (not sure why — yet another step with no explanation, which is driving me nuts, but mine is not to reason why...)

Up to this point, I’m cool, but when it’s kneading time, I lose my self-confidence. Too much? Not enough? You’ll read not to overwork this batter, and to vigorously mix another, and I can’t tell which is which or why. These particular instructions say to keep kneading until you can create window panes when you pull at the dough. I’m kneading for the better part of a half hour, and still no window panes (thin, nearly translucent stretches of dough), so I eventually give up. If I wind up with a loaf of granite, we’ll know why.

And then things got a bit complicated. Simple, but lots of steps.

I let the dough rise for an hour in a lightly oiled bowl, covered with plastic wrap. Then I degassed it by folding it over itself three or four times. Back in the bowl it went, and another hour of rise time. The second time it has risen even more than the first, but it quickly deflates when I roll it out of the bowl onto the cutting board for shaping. I’m not sure if I was supposed to do that more gently, so if the bread’s a flop, there’s Reason #2.

With a bench knife I cut the dough into two halves, and each half is going to get shaped, then rested, then shaped, then rested, then allowed to rise yet again, and then baked. That makes five separate rise times, if you count the two rest stages. Five times? Really? That right there is what burns me about baking. If I have the stove too hot, I expect to see something burn immediately: cause and effect. If I add too much liquid, I want to see things get mushy. I want to see the effect of my actions, so I can process the information and do it better the next time. But I have trouble handling a bunch of steps that seem unnecessary, only to be told that if I skip one, it will ruin everything.

But why am I making a couple of loafs of french bread in the first place, when I can buy them from King Sooper for a buck and a half apiece? To install some self-discipline and force myself back into the routine of cooking again, so follow the instructions I do. I cut the dough in half with the bench knife, and then fold into two five-by-eight rectangles. I folded the back third over, then the front third up and over, rolled it over, and let it rest for fifteen minutes, covered with plastic wrap. Then did the same thing one more time: fold, roll, and rest. Then a third time: fold and roll into a 12-14 inch baguette. This is supposed to create a seal from the fold to the body of the loaf, so that it doesn’t deform during the final rise and baking. Again, not so sure I did it correctly, because after you make a seal, then you use a serrated bread knife to cut diagonal slices in the top of the loaf. So you sealed it... and then broke the seal by slicing it? Whatever... just following directions, not trying to reason this out. So there’s Reason #3 if it doesn’t turn out. Either it wasn’t sealed, or my scores were too deep, or not deep enough, or all of the above.

After folding and rolling the third time, it had to rest for thirty minutes, covered with plastic wrap, on parchment paper, on an inverted baking sheet. (That’s so you can slide the paper from the room temp baking sheet on to a pre-heated one, which we’ll get to in a second.) So that makes rise, rise, rest, rest, and now rise: five separate waiting periods, not including the overnight resting of the poolish. Geez, if this doesn’t teach me patience, nothing will, eh?

Preheated the oven to 475º, and placed the baking sheet in the oven to preheat... and then thirty minutes later, it’s almost ready for the oven. Almost. Because there’s one last step. Right as I was about to pop the loaves into the oven, I had to spritz water onto the tops of the bread and then mist down the sides of the oven (being very careful not to hit the oven light). This is supposed to slow down the formation of the crust, and I’m skeptical as to whether it’s necessary, but I’m following directions today, so I do as I’m told. So, I slid the parchment off the inverted sheet onto the preheated sheet, sprayed down the bread, quickly sprayed the sides of the oven, shoved the baking sheet into the oven... and we’re still not done!

After putting the sheet into the oven, I turned down the temp to 450º and set the timer for thirty minutes. Removed the bread after thirty minutes, transfered it to a cooling rack, and set the timer again for another thirty. Because the bread will continue to bake out of the oven, and you want the remaining moisture to evaporate through the crust and not through the cuts in the bread.

And we’re finally done. And the big question was: was it worth it?

Well, in terms of the quality of the bread, yes indeed. The bread had a halfway sourdough tangy kick to it, which I’m guessing if from using the poolish, which may be a lazy baker’s sourdough starter. I’ll need to research that a bit (during my free time...). So, yes, it was a darn good loaf of bread. Was it a lot of work? I dunnoh, depends... There really wasn’t that much hands-on time, but there sure was a lot of waiting. The poolish takes about three minutes of hands-on, followed by three hours of waiting. Then half a second of hands-on (moving the container from the counter to the fridge) followed by an overnight of waiting. Then you mix the dough, which is about thirty minutes (mix, knead, clean-up) followed by an hour of waiting. Five seconds of hands-on (degassing by folding over) followed by another hour of waiting. The shaping the loaves: a minute of hands-on, fifteen minutes of waiting, times three. So all in all, it’s a bunch of very simple steps... interjected with lots of waiting. Which is cool... sort of what I needed to get my head back in the game, to show myself I can learn a new trick and that even with the new demands on my time that there’s no excuse for not making something interesting for dinner.

And the bottom line answer to the question of whether it was worth it: Zebb absolutely loved the little slices I cut for him, so there you have it. One happy customer = one happy baker.


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