A leavening experience

Revisiting bread-making after nearly a yearlong hiatus from it has been a treat. I like making bread. There’s something about it that’s so… ancient, ritualistic, satisfying. And I never grow tired of marvelling at the magic of yeast-raised dough. (Why, it’s almost as magical as mayonnaise.)

It’s remarkable to think of dough as being alive, but it’s just that: a living thing, growing right there on the countertop as those little yeast cells grow and multiply.

I’m partial to those breads with a particularly yeasty flavour and significant chew, which is why I so very much enjoyed tackling many of this week’s recipes.

  • Country Sourdough
  • Pita
  • Bialys
  • Ciabatta
  • Roasted Tomato Bread
  • Challah
  • Lavash
  • Gibassier
  • Butter Wheat Crunch
  • Fruited Bath Buns
  • Roti
  • Bara

The country sourdough was a particular treat, even if it employed a non-traditional starter (with beer!). Gazing upon my baked boule, dusted with rye flour and slashed in the traditional fashion, with the knowledge it took three days to take this recipe from start to finish, I have a new appreciation for those traditional sourdoughs that use a natural starter cultivated from wild yeast (a weeks-long process, at the best of times). While I cannot say for certain, I suspect the adage, “good things come to he who waits,” was first spoken by a baker.

In truth, I was a less enamoured with the pita, in large part because I don’t particularly care for pita bread. I will say, however, it was exciting to see these circular discs of dough puff into hollow balls once set on the baking stones.

Bialys, the Polish, hole-less bagel, were a revelation. To think you could coax such a marvellous chew out of dough without boiling it (as is done with bagels) was quite something. The re-purposing of the center of the bialys — which, unlike their bagel brethren, aren’t pierced but merely stretched thinner to create a concave depression — as a repository for sautéed bacon and onions was brilliant.

However, I think I was most excited for the ciabatta demonstration. I love ciabatta. It might be my favourite bread. Its chewy crust coupled with its moist, airy interior nears perfection in my estimation. I had long wondered how this seemingly impossible combination came to be. That it is made using something closer to a batter than a dough — literally poured onto a sheet pan — made a lot of sense, and, unsurprisingly, produced the anticipated result.

Making challah was a lot of fun, especially when it came time to braid the dough. I don’t think I’d ever braided anything before — and had never thought I would learn to do so in such a way. (Wonders abound.) Aside from the fact I was utterly tickled with both the look and taste of my baked loaves, I like the fact the challah dough is so… versatile; a perfect springboard from which to experiment, add, tweak, play. (It’s like the enriched version of basic white bread.) I’d be interested in exploring ways of taking challah in directions both savoury (i.e., incorporating bacon, cheese, or herbs) and sweet (i.e., adding dried fruits, sweetened glazes, chocolate).

Speaking of sweet, it hath a new name: Gibassier. Trust the French to find a way to use up old puff or danish pastry scraps by simply kneading them into some added flour, water, eggs, and yeast, then adding candied orange peel, orange blossom water and anise seeds and, once baked, basting them with melted butter and rolling them in sugar. Encroyable!

Nearly as incredible: fruited Bath buns. Dense, rich, sweet, dangerous. Similar in taste and texture to the hot cross bun, I imagine the Bath bun dough could, like the challah, be used a base from which to fold in any manner of ingredients, be they sweet or savoury. (while not the same, I know, I could see similarities to those delicious little Chinese pork buns available at dim sum restaurants.)

Friday’s Trinidadian-inspired dinner prepared by our chef-instructor, for which we prepared roti and doubles (bara), was a really nice way to end what was, in all, a very enjoyable first week back at school.

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