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!  🙂

It’s Not Complicated: Baking Baquette at Home, Part I

Inspirations are all around us, if you take a second to stop and smell the flower. I get many of my culinary inspiration from wonderful movies. Who didn’t feel inspired to recreate wonderful French cuisine after watching Ratatouille, or cooked up Beef Bourguignon and started your own blog after watching Julie and Julia, or craved White Castle after watching Harold and Kumar?

My recent inspiration came from the movie, It’s Complicated, where Meryl Streep’s character, Jane, is a bakery owner. As soon as I saw Jane’s Barefoot Contessa-esque bakery, I told myself that I must apply to a pastry school immediately and learn how to bake like Jane! I absolutely loved the scene where Jane and Steve Martin’s character Adam (a total sweetheart) sneak in the bakery late at night and make chocolate croissants from scratch together. And the scene where they are enjoying homemade Croque Monsieur on Jane’s kitchen counter.  Aah, they were just so delicious, so romantic, and simply breathtaking (this is now one of my favorite movies of all time).

Well, the reality is that I don’t want to spend the time and money that will cost me to enroll in a pastry school to learn how to make pastries. I think beautifully plated desserts are a work of art but I’m more interested in learning how to bake yeast breads like French baguettes and sourdoughs and not soufflé or things that are too fancy and delicate. Besides, my goal is not to make a career in the food industry (although the idea of starting a weekend catering business sounds fantastic) so the pastry school idea is out – for now, at least.

But I still had the itch to bake something so I dusted off Peter Reinhart’s bread-baking book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, that’s been sitting in my bookshelf for several years and decided to bake French bread, also known as baguette, on my own. Reinhart’s description and instruction on the overall bread-baking process is incredibly detailed and meticulously explained that even a novice baker like myself can understand every step that in involved in baking a bread. This is perhaps the best cookbook / baking book (or any textbook) I’ve ever read.

Meanwhile, I found a wonderful group called The BBA Challenge on the web, created by Nicole from Pinch My Salt, where she gathered other inspired home bakers to bake through everything from Reinhart’s award-winning book. I was determined to join the group (I even became a fan of the group on Facebook!) but the rule states that participants need to bake every single recipe in the book in the order they appear in the book. Although I love bread and I can eat it every day, I really didn’t know what I would do with 24 bagels I make from one recipe … and I wasn’t too interested in baking things like Panettone … and if my personal trainer sister finds out that I had eaten the entire Sticky Buns by myself (which I would and could), she will make me run 20 miles, plus stairs, plus ad works! So I decided to defer joining the group for now, and decided to watch from afar, and use the site and other followers’ blogs as instruction and inspiration.

The wonderful thing about Reinhart’s recipes, or formula as he calls them, is that they usually take about two days to make a bread. Those who crave instant gratification might cringe at the idea of spreading the already-tedious process into multiple days but I actually like taking time to create something. I don’t have much patience for things in life but when it comes to cooking and crafts (like knitting), I equate quality and meaningfulness with time spent (that’s why  love giving and receiving handmade things).

For this baguette formula, I spent about an hour the night before to prepare something called Pate Fermentee that requires an overnight rest in a refrigerator. This flour, yeast, salt, and water mixture will be mixed into the dough the next day. Reinhart explains that this delay in fermentation produces the best results in bread with richer flavor and amazing texture. It’s something about the sugar. And as we all know, sugar is good.

Here is how I made the Pate Fermantee. It’s very easy and as Reinhart passionately wrote on the book, it really does make a difference.  (Note:  The photos below may not show you how to do certain steps, such as how to knead the dough.  Please use them as reference points when you’re trying to figure out what the dough should look like at each stage.)

1. Measure all purpose and bread flours, salt, and yeast using a scale. Accuracy is important in bread baking as the whole process is very science-based.

2. Mix the dry ingredients and water in a electric mixer with the paddle attachment and mix for about a minute. You can do this by hand also.

3. Once the mixture forms a ball, take it out of the mixture and you’re ready to knead the dough.

4. Knead the dough on a lightly-floured surface for about six minutes. Since I don’t have marble counter or a spacious working space, I used my trusty Silpad I picked up from Sur La Table and used it as my working space. You can do this in an electric  mixer but I did with hands because kneading is such a stress reliever! When you’re done, the dough will be “soft and pliable, tacky and not sticky.”

5. Put the dough in a lightly-oiled bowl (I used olive oil), cover, and leave it for about an hour, or until it enlarges to 1-1/2 of the original size.

6. Once the dough enlarges, take it out of the bowl and knead some more (to degas).

7. Put the inflated dough back in the bowl, cover, and put it in the fridge overnight.

Stay tuned for Part II, where I will document the actual baking process!  🙂