After this summer’s stint of sweets (a.k.a. my Summer Sweet Stint, or “S’Sw’Stint” in casual conversation) I decided to get back to my bread book (The Bread Baker’s Apprentice) and work through some more of the recipes therein.

Originally, I was intending to try my hand at another batch of bagels. But on the day I decided to make the dough, I realized I didn’t have enough high-gluten flour! I suppose I could have used regular bread flour, like a CHUMP. But I AM NO CHUMP. I am a CHAMP. (There is only a slight vowel difference between the words, so I can see why you might be confused.)

So I put the bagels on hold and decided to make what my book calls “Vienna bread”. I chose this recipe mainly because I happened to have the ingredients on hand for it. (I have a bunch of diastatic malt powder on hand from back when I made bagels earlier this year. Surprisingly, not very many recipes call for diastatic malt powder. WHAT A SURPRISE!)

Making pâte fermentée

Step one for this recipe was to make a pâte fermentée.

Making the pâte fermentée was a mess this time around: I went too wild with the water. PRO TIP: you need less water than you think when you are hydrating flour! It goes from being bone-dry to sloppy-wet EXTREMELY QUICKLY. (btw, “Sloppy Wet” is the name of my new mathcore band)

Unhydrated flour isn’t very fun to handle, but it is better than a sticky mess of over-hydrated dough. I should focus on improving my technique in this domain. Getting sticky bits of dough all over my hands makes it a PitA to handle anything else in the kitchen.

My primary measure of competence in the kitchen is how many cupboard and drawer handles are encrusted with bits of dry dough after I’ve finished a bake. A smaller number means I appropriately prepared for various inevitabilities and contingencies BEFORE getting my hands all mucked up. I have gotten this number down from an average of four to something closer to one.

The other problem with doughy hands is that when I wash them off, all these bits of dough get stuck in the gunk-catcher in the kitchen sink drain. We have a garbage disposal in our sink, but our builder manager told us not to use it. Which is well enough, because I would not be surprised if the dough gunked up a garbage disposal.

Action items:

  • Add water BIT BY BIT, to avoid hydrating the dough more than necessary

  • Prep materials so that I don’t need to handle stuff around the kitchen with doughy hands. (E.g., pour some flour into a nearby bowl for easy access for dusting surfaces, etc.)

Oh, also, I accidentally proofed the pâte for a few hours longer than suggested before putting it in the fridge to chill overnight. I’m not sure how this affected the final bread, but I suspect it was not a big problem. If anything, the additional fermentation may have improved the final flavor!

Mixing the dough

The next day I made the main dough, mixing the pâte fermentée into the remaining ingredients. Things went a bit better this time: I had learned a lesson and was careful about adding the wet ingredients v e r y   s l o  w   l    y.

This bread is interesting because it is slightly enriched: it’s got a single egg and the aforementioned diastatic malt powder. The quantity of enrichments seems pretty minimal given the amount of dough the recipe makes, but I do think it is noticeable in the final product if you compare it to a leaner bread like ciabatta or french bread.

I hand-kneaded the dough for a little more than the recommended 10 minutes, maybe 13 or 14. Despite my caution in adding the wet ingredients, I actually think the dough was still a little on the wet side, because I ultimately needed to dust it with lots of flour to get the proper consistency. But it was far less of a mess than the previous day’s pâte.

Fun fact: I enjoy kneading dough! It’s the best! Get some music playing, Vulfpeck or Poppy or Nana Grizol or whatever, and just start kneading in time with the rhythm – it’s so good! To the people who are using machines to mix their dough: WHAT ARE YOU EVEN DOING, THE MACHINES ARE TAKING OVER, WE HAVE TO HOLD OUT AS LONG AS POSSIBLE

I tend to err on the side of kneading longer than indicated, because my baking book says that it’s really difficult to over-knead dough by hand. Even so, I’m always a little uncertain when to stop. I try doing the “windowpane test”, but it always seems like my dough could be maybe a little more windowpane-y.

Proofing and punching

My book is always like “wait for the dough to proof until it has doubled in size”, but WHAT DOES THIS MEAN. Does size equal volume? Or diameter? OR SOMETHING ELSE

Turns out I am not the only person who has wondered this!!! I really really really appreciate any baking blog that talks about π and not just pie.

In any either case, my visual memory is not good enough for me to confidently say when doubling has occurred, be it diametric OR volumetric.

  • ACTION ITEM: Start taking some dang PHOTOS of my in-progress dough. This will make size comparisons much easier. Also it will be nice to see pretty pictures of all my hard work.

  • OTHER ACTION ITEM: Remember to try poking the dough to check when fermentation is complete. This is probably a better test than using size, anyway.

One fun part of proofing is punching down the dough. POW! BAM! PFF! But I need to read up on this step more, because one of my bread loafs had a random huge tunnel in the crumb, and I’m curious if it had something to do with when and how I punched down the dough.

  • ACTION ITEM: Bake two identical loafs of bread, but punch them down differently to see how it affects the end product.

Shaping

Because I was making loaves, the recipe had me shape the dough into boules first, then batards. The book I use pays a lot of care to letting the dough rest between the times you handle it – it asked me to let the dough rest for around 20 minutes between forming the boule and the batards. This seems a little like overkill but WHATEVER

To form the batards, I followed the instructions from this nice lady:

Her directions generally seemed to work, but I have a few notes for my future self:

  • Don’t overflour the work surface! When trying to stretch out the “ears” of the dough like she does in that video, my dough just lifted off the countertop and didn’t really stretch out as much as I would have liked. This may also be a product of my dough being too “tight”; maybe I need to work out the gluten more before I proof?

  • My dough didn’t seem to stick to itself as well as hers did, especially when I was trying to seam it closed. This may be a product of my dough being a little too dry? I also may just need to be a little more forceful in my manipulations.

  • I totally didn’t put it seam-side-up when I placed the dough on the baking surface. Oops!

Also, I just checked back at my bread-making book and it has several pages of info re: shaping and resting the bread between first and second fermentation. I read all of this before, but I hadn’t actually baked any bread at that time; now that I have a little hands-on experience, I need to reread this stuff and probably do some ancillary research online.

Second proofing

I proofed the shaped loaves on the sheet pan I eventually baked the bread on. A couple of notes:

  • I probably overdid dusting the pan with cornmeal. The final bread turned out to be quite soft, and the hard gritty bits of cornmeal can make for an unpleasant surprise on the tooth when eating.

  • Two of these loaves seemed a bit big for a half-sheet pan. Full sheets are unwieldy, but it might be worth trying one next time around, just to give the loaves a little more room to spread out.

  • Up until now all the bread I’ve baked (including this recipe) has been in big loaves. It may be worth experimenting with smaller loaves or rolls soon. Especially for a bread like this one, which would be great for, say, a sub sandwich.

I decided not to score the bread this time, mainly because I don’t have a proper bread lame. I’ve used a pair of scissors in the past, but it didn’t work all that well, which is why I am keen to get a proper tool for the job.

Baking

My bread book told me to prepare the oven for “hearth baking”, which mainly means putting a steam pan on the lower oven rack and getting a spray bottle full of water ready.

I am also thinking about getting a baking stone. So far, I have been doing the final proof directly on a baking sheet that I eventually put into the oven. This means that I don’t have to worry about transferring the bread into the oven, a delicate process that strikes me as a recipe for disaster. Still, it’s probably something worth researching further, if I want to be a TRUE PRO

Anyway, here’s the process I tend to use for hearth baking, as per my baking book:

  1. Pre-heat the oven to around 50ºF higher than what the bread should ultimately bake at. (In this case, I set it to 450ºF.)

  2. Put the bread in the oven, pour a cup of water into the steam pan, and close the oven door.

  3. After 30 seconds, quickly open the door and spray the walls of the oven with water.

  4. Do the “wait 30 seconds and spray” thing two more times.

  5. Set the oven to the final baking temperature. (I.e., 400ºF in this case.)

  6. Wait.

The book makes it clear that you want the water to steam as quickly as possible, and so suggests that you use simmering water for the purpose. I took this to heart and used properly boiling water for the steam pan. I also used hot water for the spray bottle, although I cooled it down a bit before use because I was worried about melting the plastic components of the bottle.

I’ve used the steam technique every time my book as suggested it, and I am guessing it has worked to some degree? But I’m also not sure, because my breads generally haven’t come out as beautifully crusty as I would like. One of these days, I should really do a proper test where I bake one loaf with the steam technique and another without it. This would be easy enough to accomplish, given that all these bread recipes I use seem to product two loaves’ worth of dough.

The result

At first I was a little disappointed, because it looked like a pretty generic sandwich roll of the sort you might get at a supermarket. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting; I guess I was hoping for something that looked a little more like the beautiful loaf pictured in my baking book, which in retrospect was a stupid thing to hope for, because all photographs are lies and photographs in cookbooks doubly so.

The proof is in the proverbial pudding, however: and when I actually tasted the bread, it was very nice! I mean, it wasn’t, like, GROUNDBREAKING – it tasted very much what you would expect a loaf of white bread to taste like – but it had all the advantages of being fresh out of the oven: still warm, and quite soft and fluffy.

My verdict: this is an excellent bread for sandwiches and dinner rolls. It’s a modestly enriched bread, which I think makes it less finicky in the oven than something like ciabatta or French bread. But it’s a little more complex than, say, a challah or brioche, and this complexity makes it feel more like I’m doing REAL BAKING (which I recognize is, like, a weird macho value-judgment that is not simply baloney but probably PROBLEMATIC BALONEY). (Incidentally, “Probably Problematic Baloney” is the name of Sloppy Wet’s first album.)

My bread book also suggests using a Dutch Crunch topping on this particular style of bread, which I think would be AMAZING and I am rather disappointed that I didn’t try it out on this bake.

Two torpedo-shaped loaves of white bread, dusted with flour.