Thursday, January 13, 2011

Basic White

Found in the chapter Basic Yeast Bread and Other White Flour Breads is found the very first recipe of James Beard's Beard on Bread. And as the beginning is the appropriate place to start any adventure, that is where I have started mine. The Basic White.

Having grown up in the home of a baker I had the privilege to learn much about cooking, baking, canning, pastries, etc., straight from my Mom and therefore was resistant to the idea of starting with the very, very, beginning. Basic White? Seriously? I think I'm ready for Advanced White.

But, I knew deep down that my hubris would be undoing and that if I really wanted to learn the ropes from James Beard I needed to buckle down and just bake whatever he told me to bake. But don't worry, I still brought the heat.

Basic White turns out to be just that - basic. Granted, there really isn't a whole lot that goes into a simple bread. A little flour, a little water, a little yeast, a little salt, and maybe some sugar if you want. Other than that all that's necessary is some butter to grease the pans. But as simple as that description just was, I quickly realized I was dealing with a baker writing to an audience from 1973!

Apparently, back in the days of yore, good flour products were hard to come by and so Mr. Beard wrote this recipe for those who couldn't get a hold of bread flour, whole wheat flour, rye flour, etc., etc. The Basic White of James Beard calls for All-Purpose! Is this blasphemy?!?

Nevertheless, I followed his instructions. As he says, "I have chosen it as my first recipe here because I think it will provide any beginner with the basic techniques of breadmaking." Again, I cringed a little. I am not a beginner.

Then again, maybe the constant mantra of "I'm always a learner" in essence expresses that I'm always a beginner.

So we began.

By far my favorite aspect of his writing is the degree of detail he puts into describing the process. It doesn't feel dumbed down at all. Rather, it feels like he's just in the kitchen explaining what's going on as it happens, explaining what should happen next, what texture the bread should have, and what consistency you're looking for.

First thing I liked about Beard: he proof's his yeast with sugar. This is something I remember my mom teaching me but was decried by The Joy of Cooking. I never understood why Joy would spread such heresy, so Beard's praxis was a comfort indeed. Chemically speaking, yeast, the leavening agent, is a bacteria. And bacteria feeds on sugar. Therefore, if you want to know if your yeast is still active (i.e. able to make the bread rise) you put it in a bowl with some warm water and a little sugar to see if it will react. If it does, you're golden and ready to add it to your flour.

Second thing I like about Beard on Bread is the diagrams. Even though I have a good deal of experience, it's still nice to see a picture from time to time of what it should look like.

Now, I do feel a little guilty about this, but I made the bread last Saturday, so all of this is going off of my memory of the bread. But this is what I remember.

A) I had to use a little more water that the recipe called for. Not a big deal. A number of factors could have caused this to be the case. Humidity, quality of the flour, etc. But I did find that at the ratios given in the recipe the dough was tough and difficult to fully combine without more water. In hindsight, I could've probably used even a little more water, but it turned out fine.

B) The dough did not rise as much or as fast as expected. This could also be attributed to the temperature of the room, the rising environment, etc., but it wasn't a major concern. Also, I got lazy with my loaf. This is not to blame James Beard or the recipe, I just got lazy when it came time to form it. Oh well. So it wasn't even. Whatever. It still tasted awesome :)

C) The loaf did not brown as I expected and so was difficult to judge by sight for doneness. I followed the recipe in every way and gave the loaf only a cold water brushing rather than an egg yolk wash or milk wash. As a result I turned out a very light colored, dense loaf that had a firm crust. It was perfect with soft butter and turned out very well.

Just as he said, it was easy, simple, and a good starter bread. Additionally, he gave several examples of kneading technique. I read them, but prefer the method that I've formed over the years.

All in all, Basic White was a great bread. I expected that it would be a nice beginner's loaf but nothing I'd ever want to make again, but I actually liked it enough that I would definitely make it, and enjoy it, again.

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