Monday, July 6, 2020

Adventures in Baking

I’ve always had a fondness for baking bread. It was a nice winter pastime, something to do on a snowy afternoon when I had no place to go and nothing else to do. I hadn’t done it in a few years, mostly because I’ve been too busy. But then came a lot of free time, and my thoughts turned to baking—along with about 47 million other people’s. (I’d say 60 million but I assume some people must not be baking, though I have no proof of that.)

Consequently,… but you already know this; there was no flour to be had. Anywhere.

Remember the Great Flour Shortage? It came right after The Great Toilet Paper drought.

The odd thing was, despite the empty shelves, there was not a flour shortage, there was simply a shortage of flour in 1.5 kg bags. So, I went on-line and ordered a 16 kg bag. Problem solved.

Yes, 37 pounds of flour, delivered by Amazon.

Sort of. But after we found a place to store it, things went a little easier.

And so, for the past two months, we have not bought any bread. I am making two loaves and a dozen rolls every week. With mixed results. Thing is, I’m a numbers guy; I believe in formulas and precision, and the notion that, if you follow the instructions and do it the same way every time, you will get the same results, sort of like those chemistry experiments we did in high school.

Turns out, baking isn’t science as much as it is art—and a dark art, at that.

Not sure what caused this...

The variables are too numerous to track and on-line advice needs to be treated like anything else you read on-line: with suspicion.

For example: prior to buying 37 pounds of plain, white flour, I did my research to make sure I could use it for bread making. The alternative was to have one 37-lb bag of bread flour for me and another 37-lb bag of plain flour for my wife (she manages the cakes and scones baking division). That wasn’t really an option, but I was assured—on several bread-baking websites—that you could make bread with plain flour. Bread flour, they told me, was optional. And it was—the same way that wearing underpants with your new blue jeans is optional: you don’t need to, but you may experience unanticipated outcomes if you don’t.

This resulted in several disappointing weeks of attempting to make sandwiches between slices of bread with the consistency of battenberg cake. (This, however, was an improvement on the loaves I baked that had the consistency of a breeze block.)

Fortunately, I discovered that you can make plain flour into bread flour with just a bit of wheat gluten. The downside was I could only buy it in 1 kilo bags, so I now have enough wheat gluten to make 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of bread flour.

Unfortunately, this did not solve all of my loaf-consistency issues. Too much flour, too much kneading, too much moisture in your oven—all of these things (and many more) contribute to the stability of your loaf (no, that is not a euphemism).

And then, stable or not, crumbly or not, cake-like or not, you have to cut it. Whoever said, “the best thing since sliced bread,” knew what they were talking about, and being a generation or two away from the era where a bread-knife was in daily use, trying to obtain an actual, store-bought-loaf-sized slice of bread is something of a challenge, especially with those aforementioned stability issues.

Seeing as how we are committed to eat whatever results from my weekly bread-making fiestas, lunchtimes might have become a gruelling exercise, had it not been for the buns. Oddly, happenstancially, and thankfully, I make really good bread rolls. And I don’t mean in comparison to the disappointing loaves, I mean I’d rather have the ones I bake than the ones we used to buy in the store. They are that good.

Given that, if my experiments with loaves don’t yield better results after another few weeks, I at least have the option of switching exclusively to rolls.

They’re easier to cut.

Dodgy loaves; nice buns!