Friday, December 05, 2008

From Cooking to Baking

I view cooking as a process that provides delight both gustatory and creative while additionally nurturing and sustaining my self and my family. In very little time, I can whip up a meal borrowing Italian, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Californian elements. I don't even have to pre-plan much; I just keep a running list of what staples I need at each of my favorite food stores and stock up when the baby allows me to go there. Then, I just create at whim. However, this week I've embarked upon a journey into that unknown and reportedly fussy land called baking, where doing things ad hoc can result in disaster.

As a chemistry major, I was one of those people who knew what to meticulously measure and what I could just slop into the reagent and save some time. While the journey to the end product was fascinating, I didn't worry too much about getting every detail perfect. As you can imagine, I considered myself a "qualitative" person as opposed to a "quantitative" person. I did really terribly in analytical chemistry, the flavor of chemistry where one tries to perfectly measure things.

Now that I'm trying to teach myself how to bake, I find myself reaching back for some of those quantitative lab skills. I haven't yet broken out a lab notebook to diagram out a bread-making experiment, but I'm tempted to, given that I've forgotten about steps that take an hour or more, delaying dinner (pizza) by an unacceptable amount of time. It's a strange mental shift away from my slap-dash cooking, but it's refresh ing. I'm buying a scale and a thermometer, and with increased accuracy of measurement and execution, I'll be able to make breads that are consistent; once that is achieved, I can then move on to refining the bread to suit my personal taste and circumstances.

Yesterday, I tried to replicate the amazing muffins at The Standard Diner, actually a swank joint here in Albuquerque. Now, I despise blueberry muffins for their heavy texture and cake-mix taste with sour berry remnants. These were amazing and converted me with their small size, actual muffin texture with holes larger than a cake's, a crunchy and sweet top, and fresh blueberry taste. I used the recipe from The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum, which took about twenty minutes to assemble.

This week I learned why the "room temperature butter" is supposed to be at room temperature: if you pull it out of the fridge, it's too hard and resists the incorporation of other elements. Elementary? Yes, but I had to experience it before I could believe it could resist the wiles of a stand mixer. Yesterday, I pondered the instruction "fold". Why not just mix? So I did. The muffins were yummy, but they rose oddly, and the texture was uneven. Alton Brow's baking book suggests that an uneven crumb is due to overmixing causing more gluten formation, making the walls of the air pockets too strong. But why are the air pockets uneven? I'll have to try the muffins again, and I'll fold this time.

Today I started a pizza dough and a baguette dough. For more flavor and longer shelf life, I'll let them rise overnight. Both are further recipes from The Bread Bible. Pictures of rising dough to come!

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