Baking Focaccia at Home

There is a cooking school in the area that I’m interested in exploring. I know nothing about the school but it looks like a pretty good place, based on the reviews that I’ve read. I’m particularly interested in Pro Baking course, a 10-week class that meets for four hours, once a week (and very conveniently on Saturdays). The price is steep at $1,400 but it’s so much more affordable, compared to a full-blown culinary school, especially for someone like me who’s not necessary looking to enter a professional pastry career.

I was on the verge of signing up for the course one night … until I came up with an idea. I thought … why not try to bake everything in the course curriculum on my own first? I gave myself a permission to enroll in class if, after baking pies, tarts, soufflé, cakes, croissants, and artisan breads, I’m still interested in pursuing it.  (Check out this lovely blog, The Food Librarian, and read  Mary’s experience attending this course … it’s very yummy!)

One of the items on the curriculum was Focaccia, a beautiful Italian bread with olive oil and herbs, so I decided to test out the recipe from Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (I LOVE this book). This was perfect for my “Dine at Home / $100 food budget month” challenge because, while some good quality breads from places like La Brea Bakery and Il Fornaio are available at a very reasonable price now, they can certainly add up over time.

There are many wonderful picture tutorials for the Focaccia recipe, thanks to Pinch My Salt and the BBA Challengers.  I really recommend that you check out other blogs for more detailed information!  But for now, here a chronicle of my first Focaccia journey! 🙂

Day 1:

1. Stir together the bread flour, salt, and yeast and mix with the stand mixer (you can do this manually). Add oil and water and mix until the dough is smooth. Keep kneading the dough until the dough is smooth and sticky. At this point, the dough is still very soft.

2. Transfer the dough to a well-floured working surface. Relax the dough for about 5 minutes.

3. This is the fun part. With well-flour hands, stretch the dough on each end until it because twice the size. I made a mistake here and stretched it on all sides; thus the need for step 4-C to tuck top and bottom sides in.

4. Fold the dough, letter style. Imagine that the dough is folded in three sections. Bring the left section to the center (4-A). Repeat for the right side (A-B). Tuck the top and bottom (4-C), if necessary.

5. Mist the top of the dough with spray oil. I didn’t have a spray so I just brushed some olive oil on the dough.

6. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 30 minutes.

7. The dough will double in size. After 30 minutes, repeat steps 3, 4-A, 4-B, and 4-C, and let it rest about for another 30 minutes.

8. After folding the dough envelope style twice, move the dough on a 17 x 12-inch sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Drizzle olive oil and “use fingertips to dimple the dough and spread it to fill the pan.” Wrap the dough in plastic bag and refrigerate overnight or up to 3 days. I ended up letting it rest for 3 days.

Day 2:

Take the dough from the refrigerator.  Drizzle more olive oil on the dough and dimple the surface. Cover the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for 3 hours. I did this process early in the morning at around 5:00 a.m. and went back to sleep. I woke up three hours later and baked it so I had it ready for lunch this afternoon! Because I didn’t make an herb oil before, I sprinkled dried dill and sea salt on the dough for some flavor.

9. Preheat the oven to 500 degree F. Reduce the temperature to 450 degree F and bake for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, rotate the pan 180 degrees and bake for another 10 minutes.

10. When baked, take it out of the oven and move it to a cooking rack (I used a large cutting board). It is best that you remove the parchment paper immediately. I had trouble peeling off mine but I’m glad I did it immediately when the bread is still hot; otherwise, I think it would have just stuck on the bottom. Let it rest for about 20 minutes before cutting and serving.

The bread was delicious with pizza-like ends and fluffy interior. I personally like the crusty French banquette or sourdough boule much better, but this was pretty darn good. The flavor of olive oil really comes through on the recipe. I cut it into smaller pieces and pop them in the freezer to enjoy throughout the month. Now, I have to start thinking about what kind of sandwich I would like to try … perhaps some pesto, tomato, and mozzarella? I’m so excited!

It’s Not Complicated: Baking Baguette at Home: Part II

I live in a very small apartment complex where pets are not really allowed. Some days, I wished I had a fluffy dog to tickle and be lazy with. I guess small cats are okay but I’m a total dog person and don’t consider felines to be much of a companion (sorry to all cat lovers out there) so I guess I need to resort to living pet-less for now. When I’m baking with yeasts, however, I feel like I have millions of companions around me. Yeasts are microorganisms that are very much alive, and their lives and existence are obvious when you witness them grow into different shapes and sizes in front of my eyes! Once you get over the initial “yuck” feeling (yeasts are, afterall, bacteria), I’m sure you too will find the transformation very intriguing.

Welcome to Part II of my first baguette-making endeavor with the expert guidance of Peter Reinhart and his award-winning book, Bread Baker’s Apprentice. The pate fermantee that I let rest overnight came out of the refrigerator this morning nicely relaxed and rested, and it was time for me to chop them into small pieces to be added to the dough.

1. Small gas pockets were produced overnight in the pate fermantee. The dough at this point is very light and airy, and still very chilled.

2. Cut the dough in small pieces and let it rest at room temperature for about an hour. These pieces will later be added to the actual dough.  I started this process at 7:00 a.m. when I woke up so that I can enjoy the freshly-baked baguette in time for lunch! The entire process, from this step to the actual baking, will take about five hours, although the actual work time is less than one hour.

3. After you let it rest for an hour, you will notice the change in size. See, yeasts are alive!

4. Now it’s time to make the dough. The pate fermantee is something that will be added to the dough and is not a dough itself. Mix the precise amount of flours, salt, yeast, and water in the electric mixer with the paddle attachment and mix for about a minute.

5. Once a ball is formed, take it out of the mixer and knead for about 10 minutes.

6. After kneading, the dough should be “soft and pliable, tacky but not sticky.” I love this phrase. It sounds like a poetry to me (am I a dork?).

7. Put the dough in a lightly-oiled bowl, cover, and let it rest for about 2 hours. This is a good time to clean your workspace, read a book, do laundry, go back to work (if you work from home), or go save the world.

8. Look at this! The dough has swelled and is now about 1-1/2 times larger than the original size. At this point, you are ready to start making baguettes!

9. Put the dough on a lightly-floured work surface and divide into three equal sizes. It’s important not to push down on the dough as you want to keep as much of the gas / air in the dough.

10. The next step is pretty difficult to explain (since I’m still learning how to do it properly myself) so I’m going to attached the link to the video here that will show you how to properly roll the baguettes (thank you, Pinch My Salt, for leading me to this footage). Once you’re done, let the dough rest for final proof until it is again about 1-1/2 times the original size.

11. Here is where I made a silly rookie mistake. I was supposed to roll the dough over and score (slash with a sharp knife or a razor, as seen on pink lines above) the bread before popping them in the oven… and I didn’t to that! I was so busy prepping the oven and totally forgot to do this step.  So you will notice on my finished products that they are lacking those lovely lines across that make baguettes, well, baguettes! Nonetheless, it’s time to bake the bread.

There are several steps that you must take to properly prep the oven to bake these French breads. Pick up the book for more information. I never knew where were so much little details that go into baking wonderful baguettes but each step is important and is worth you taking the time! It will take about 30 minutes for each baguette to come out golden brown. Enjoy the wonderful aroma that fills the entire house! It’s absolutely, absolutely DIVINE!

Because of the slight hiccup at the end, I was not completely happy with the end result at first. I really wanted my baguettes to look like these and these, but after I tore off the piece and took a bite of the bread freshly out of the oven (quite literally) all my reservations went out the window. The crust of the bread was flaky and light yet still chewy, and the flavor was better than any of the banquette I’ve had recently. I will admit that I’ve had better baguettes in the past but the only ones that I can think of that would rival this homemade version are perhaps La Brea BakeryPorto’s, and a few upscale restaurants. These are definitely 1,000 times better than those sold at local supermarkets!

My boyfriend and I ate a sandwich with butter and prosciutto that night, inspired by a book, Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich Book. It was a simple supper, with an even more simple salad of iceberg lettuce on the side, but it was everything I wanted in dinner.

I look forward to recreating more wonderful breads at home.  Please stay tuned!  Thanks for coming along on my first baguette-baking journey!  🙂

The Tourist Bait: Boudin, San Francisco

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I spent most of this week in San Francisco for business and had a marvelous time learning new things, meeting wonderful people, and absorbing the vibrant energy this city radiates. This was already my second trip to the city this year but I just can’t seem to get enough of its rich history, unparalleled beauty and an impressive culinary variety. This city is definitely one of my favorite places in the world.

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This frequent travel has helped me become a better traveler but I still can’t seem to shake off my bad habit when it comes to figuring out my dining options.

While I usually stay away from dining at touristy, overpriced restaurants back home in Los Angeles, I shamelessly become a camera-hauling, fanny pack-wearing Japanese tourist when visiting a new city, willingly allowing those touristy restaurants to take total advantage of me. It must be my inner “ambulance chaser” that makes me gravitate toward things that people are buzzing around, just so that I can say I’ve been there too. I once stood in line for an hour at a hole-in-a-wall bakery in San Francisco Chinatown only because there was a long line, and I didn’t even know why I was in line for! Curiosity .. it’s a bitch.

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Boulin located in Fisherman’s Wharf (perhaps the LA equivalent of Venice boardwalk … they even smell alike) is definitely the bait, hooking tourists and their wallets with its hyped reputation, robust history and stylish décor.

I ordered the famous Clam Chowder in a sourdough bread bowl at Boulin and although the bread was pretty amazing, the chowder was mediocre. I had to add salt and pepper (which I usually don’t do) because the soup was flavorless and bland, and I could barely find any clams in the small bowl.

But I suppose I should judge this place on the quality of the sourdough bread that it is famous for, and in that case, this place is pretty impressive. It was so good that I even hauled a couple sourdough baguettes back home as souvenirs!

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The cutest bread boules ever 🙂

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They are too cute to eat!

Bland soup aside, Boudin is a place everyone should try at least once when in Fisherman’s Wharf. Sitting at the outdoor dining area overlooking the water is definitely one of the treats of visiting San Francisco.

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Boudin
At Fisherman’s Wharf
Sourdough bread: ★★★★☆

Breaking the (fear of) Bread: White Sandwich Loaf

white-bread-0021Although my last attempt ended in utter failure, I decided to put aside my fear and give bread baking another chance. I also wanted to take my newly acquired KitchenAid Stand Mixer in Komen pink for a little spin, and I thought making bread would be a perfect way to welcome the arrival of the newest member of the kitchen family (I think she and the lime green Le Cruset pot will get along well).

I used a recipe I found on the Food Network site to make a white bread loaf. (click here for the recipe).  I decided to go with this recipe instead of using the baking books I have because of the success rate I’ve had with recipes that came from Food Network Kitchens. All their recipes are very simple to follow and I’ve been quite satisfied with the outcome.  Let’s just hope that this will provide a similar result.  (Oh, and please note that this post is not an instruction on baking bread … it’s merely a documentation of my first attempt of a potentially-disasterous bread baking endeavor.)

Yeasts scared me a bit at first. First off, they stunk like a mo-fo, and second, they were … alive (ewwww)! I knew all these but watching them grow and get foamy in front of my eyes was … well … interesting, at best, and yes, pretty unappetizing, at worst. But I quickly developed a special attachment to these hard-working cooties, and I found myself talking to them during the course of the proofing process (“come on, guys, get frothy and make me proud”).  What you see here is a mixture of warm milk, melted butter and sugar, with a packet of yeast sprinkled on the surface of the liquid.  This was added to the flour and salt, and got massaged in the mixer for few minutes.

When the dough came out of the mixer, it was bouncy and sticky, but after kneading for about 10 minutes, it firmed up and becomes tough. This was strange for me because cakes and cookies discourage you from mixing too much but I guess it’s encouraged to knead continuously for breads. (Even though I was slightly sore afterward, I really enjoyed the kneading process. Seriously, who needs to go to a gym when you can work on your upper body like this?)

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When I finished kneading, I put the dough in an oiled bowl and let it multiply in size (it took me 1-1/2 hours). I used extra virgin olive oil to grease the bowl. Some recipes discourage the use of olive oil because the flavor is strong, but I did it anyway.

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Well, the next step got me confused. The recipe didn’t call for more kneading at this stage but every other white bread recipe did. So I decided to go with my gut feeling and kneaded some more.

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I placed the dough in a baking pan, and let it sit again until it enlarged in size. This took about 1-1/2 hours. I took the dough out, kneaded a bit more, and put it back in the pan for baking.

Drum rolls, please!  Ta daaaa … here’s my baby fresh out of the oven.

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Okay, okay, please don’t laugh. I realize that the dough turned out a little funky in shape and it pretty much exploded on top, but I was happy with how my baby turned out.  As for the flavor … well, let’s just say that it was exactly what I had expected for my first attempt — not better, not worse.  I certainly would not call it the best bread I’ve ever tasted but it was still edible.  It’s actually quite tasty when toasted with a little drizzle of honey!

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I was most impressed with the way the crust caramelized perfectly at the bottom. Although very subtle, I can taste the sweetness of the butter, milk and sugar in the backdrop.  The crusty sound it made when slicing the loaf was a real music to my ears.  And don’t get me started on the heavenly aroma that filled the entire house!

The main concern I had was that the inside turned out a bit too dense.  It was lacking that certain lovely airy-ness that comes from a perfectly baked loaf.  I need to figure out if this was a kneading issue (do I need to do more or less?) or a fermentation of yeasts.  Boy, bread making is an endless process, isnt’ it?

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This was my first attempt but I know that I’ll be back for more. And I’m really excited to explore the world of bread baking!

In Your Dreams: Jin Patisserie

a-jin-teamIf I met a kid who says his dream is to be a professional hockey player but does not even know how to skate, I will probably die laughing. Kids can dream, sure I’m all for that, but there’s something definitely wrong if that kid is 30-something.

Well, I’m THE kid, and my dream is to one day open my own boulangerie (those of you who are culinary challenged, it’s a bakery). My fascination with bread began in 2004 when I strolled into a baking contest while walking in the streets of Paris. It was a complete coincident that I walked in to witness the professional bakers in action. It must have been the heavenly aroma of freshly baked bread that lead me there and I’ve been in love with bread-making ever since.
But the problem (just a minor one) is that I can’t bake bread. My only two attempts ended in utter failure and yeasts, well, they scare me. So yes, I’m the kid with no magic skates but that doesn’t mean that I can’t submerge in my imagination, just for fun.

Jin Patisserie in Venice is the place that allows me to imagine what my shop would be like. Although it’s a patisserie and not really a boulangerie, it’s close enough. The place is a part botanical garden, part someone’s backyard, and part irresistible pastry shop. The little waterfall in the middle of the garden provides a very zen-like atmosphere, allowing patrons to bathe in the nature’s beauty. Despite the trendy location, this place is so unpretentious that you can often find celebrity owner/chef Kristy Choo doubling as a server between magazine interviews. Make sure to enjoy the selection of lovely tea from Le Palais Des Thes with your sweets or savory, or both.

Once you experience the wonder of Jin Patisserie, you may dream about opening your shop too.

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High Tea with fiinger sandwiches, savories, homemade scones, pound cake, praline and Chef’s selection of mini sweet pastries

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Smoked Salmon Salad (this lovely place offers much more than just sweets)

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Jin Patisserie: 1202 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, CA 90291
★★★★★