Monday, February 23, 2009

the hunchbread of notre dame

Several of my friends have been on this homemade bread making kick for a couple weeks, in response to this book, which makes it seem very easy.

Apparently it's very easy for everyone but me. My friends keep producing show quality bread loaves. They're posting pictures of loaves that look like the fake ones food stylists use in photo pictorals of pastoral, rustic meals in the villas of Tuscany. When I page through the Dean and Deluca catalog and see sixty dollar "Toast and Jam" gift baskets that come with a loaf of bread, a jar of jelly, and require next day shipping, it might as well be my friends' bread in the baskets.

I, on the other hand, managed to produce a loaf that looks like it stabs other bread loaves on subway platforms, just to watch them die.

Let's figure out exactly how this happened.

First I got the book. Then I got the flour, salt, and yeast. All that was left was to get a six quart container that could be lidded but not airtight, for keeping bread dough. Sara said she got hers at "Bed, Bath, and Beyond" and posted a picture, so I went to the same store to get one of my own. Unfortunately the containers were not measured in quarts, but instead in cups. I know there are four quarts in a gallon, and I know that there are two cups in a pint, but the number of pints in a quart (which would give me the number of cups in a quart) was kind of hazy. Could be two. Could be four. Given the apparently arbitrary nature of the American system of weights and measures, it could be six or eight or ten, and of course none of the staff at the store could help me.

This is how I ended up with a 44 cup container when I needed a 24 cup container. The size of the container had no real affect on the freakish loaf that I produced, but the part where I can't mentally convert measurements will be important later.

Anyway, I measured out the flour:

measuring the flour

Since you have to dump it all in at once, I figured I should measure it in advance. Even though I was carefully scooping and knife-leveling the top of my cup, somehow flour still ended up everywhere. I have no explanation for this other than demon magics, and feel that we should burn Goody Bird-feeding-neighbor-upstairs-who-keeps-throwing-bread-down-onto-my-porch-from-her-balcony at the stake at once for bedevilment of my flour cannister. My certainty in this has absolutely nothing to do with my continuous irritation toward her.

My friend Huge suggested sifting the salt in with the flour, and this seemed like a wise plan. The only problem was that the recipe requires one and a half tablespoons of kosher salt, and my measuring spoons only come in table, tea, half tea, and quarter tea. There is no half tablespoon in my set. Remembering the measuring disaster from the container shopping, I consulted the table of measurements in the back of my 1949 Better Homes and Gardens cookbook:


There are three teaspoons in a tablespoon. My inner monologue exploded.

"Three? THREE? How the hell does that make sense? Everything else works in a multiple of two. Two cups in a pint, two pints in a quart, four quarts in a gallon, but all of a sudden we get down to teaspoon level and it's THREE? Who the hell thought up this stupid system of measuring? How am I supposed to figure out how many teaspoons are in a half tablespoon? What is that? A sixth? Two thirds? I DON'T HAVE A SPOON FOR THAT."

I decided that the wisest course would be to just eyeball when the tablespoon looked half full, and measured out the salt. Pioneer women made bread with just a pinch and a gut feeling, right? I have a gut. I have feelings. This would be fine.

I mixed the yeast into the hot water:

yeast water

I mixed the flour and salt into the yeast water:


I covered, but did not seal, my dough and let it rise until it doubled:


Everything seemed to be going fine, and I was ready to tear off a piece and shape my loaf. I looked at the book, I watched the youtube video, and I was certain I could handle this. I laid out my parchment paper, lightly floured the top of the dough, and reached in.

Bread dough is sticky like you would not believe. My solution was to flour my hands, too, so that it would stop sticking to them, with predictable results:


Flour everywhere. It was like the flour factory exploded on my counters, but I finally got the loaf shaped. After preheating the oven, I attempted to slash it for baking, but somehow did not use enough flour. Hard to believe, I know, but the knife stuck to the bread and my slashes were sloppy and imprecise. This means, of course, that my bread did not turn out very pretty:

not good

My bread is a failure. It's ugly and malformed. It should be hidden away somewhere, so that other bread won't have nightmares. Even worse, it's dense, not light and airy:


Guess why?

Too much salt.

Stupid tablespoons.


Strong Cookie said...

oh Joel. my stomach hurts from laughing so hard. this entry was amazing.

"demon magics"!!!!!

JMBower said...

I've never been more convinced that you need your own cooking show.

golfwidow said...

Repeat after me. Pah. Nehr. Uh.

Although you seem to be on the right track. Now you know what to do for next time.