Baking with the CIA: Day 5

Ending with a bang, a whimper, a near-scorching, and a cornucopia of bread.

Our final day of class began like a world tour, or at least like viewing pictures from somebody else's world tour. Somebody with a serious obsession for flatbreads, that is. Naan coming out of a tandoori, tortillas coming off a stove, and even a North African flatbread that's traditionally cooked by dropping it straight on top of hot coals. I wound up trying this direct approach myself, as it turns out, but more on that later.

The flatbreads we made today sampled some of the world's oldest recipes. From India we made naan and paratha, lavash from the Middle East, pita from the Mediterranean coastal areas, and foccacia from Italy.

We also continued yesterday's breads, not only baking the sourdoughs but also beginning recipes for dinner rolls and pretzels. With the class ending, we of course needed to make sure we finished anything we started today.

It all looked doable on paper. As it happened, there was too much to juggle at one time, and today we didn't get the chance to follow the other teams as much as we would have liked. The recipes were simple enough, as flatbreads tend to be, but there just wasn't enough time to really learn the techniques.

For one example, I had hoped to work on my dough-rolling skills. When I roll out dough I usually get something that might be construed as a geometric shape, if you stood ten feet away and squinted your eyes. Oh, and if you lived in a non-Euclidean universe. In a professional bakeshop like that, though, most serious dough-flattening was done with a machine designed for the purpose, and that was what we used today.

Still, the basic principles were easy enough to grasp. Lavash is simply a yeast-risen mixed-grain bread that's rolled very, very flat, sweetened a little with honey, coated with seeds, and baked to a near-crisp. In ye olden days of the Middle East you could take months-old lavash, drizzle water on it, leave it in a towel for a bit, and produce a tasty staple. However, I don't have a saddlebag to pack lavash in (or a camel to hang the saddlebag on) so I'll have to take their word on it. Fresh from the oven our recipe came out crispy and marvelous.

Paratha represents the most simple variety of flatbread: whole wheat flour, salt, water, and ghee, baked to a soft flat disk. Naan uses white flour and is often leavened with yeast, though some versions use only baking soda and yogurt. Tiff & I were handling the naan, and wound up letting it rest while we worked on the bagels we formed yesterday.

we cooked the bagels in classic fashion, boiling them for about a minute before dipping them in toppings and baking them. We had fun devising topping mixtures, including a sunflower seed / black sesame seed / salt / red pepper flake mixture that we really should have named on the spot, because it rocked. However, it's imperative to get the bagels in the oven immediately at this step, rather than waiting until the whole batch gets dipped. We failed to do this, and the bagels came out a little flat and tough.

Meanwhile, another team made pretzels, which start as a bagel-like dough but are dipped in lye prior to baking. The lye not only gives the pretzels their dark brown color, but also adds extra salty flavor. I knew of this step in the back of my mind, but there's nothing like the sight of someone in gloves and goggles dipping the raw pretzels into a caustic chemical to really drive the point home. I still find the two images (soft and innocuous pretzels vs. skin-dissolving sodium hydroxide) incongruous, but I can at least appreciate the necessity of it.

Tiff & I then completed some dinner rolls flavored with chopped rosemary. At this point Chef Robert showed us a genuinely useful technique for rolling dough into balls. You cup your hands and roll the dough in a downward-cupped hand, pinching some of the dough between your outside fingers and the table. For the first time I felt like I'd actually learned something about manually shaping dough. I don't think Chef had many more tricks to show, though ... the dough he handled seemed to willingly and happily take whatever shape he desired. He could lightly press dough with the heel of his hand, and any seams would simply vanish, like Dr. Crusher could always do with skin cuts on Star Trek. Perhaps his skill comes mostly from his subconcious. Perhaps he has some kind of psychic dough-bond. Perhaps he's from the future and is hiding a Star Trek gizmo in his palm. Perhaps he's just that good.

With everything coming to a head, it was time to try and bake the naan. The school actually had a tandoori, of the top-loading style. It was shaped like a bell, with a hole at the top for loading food. To cook the naan, you reach through the top opening and slap it on the upper inside surface, retrieving it with a hook. You must keep the sides very hot to allow the naan to stick, though, and rain earlier in the week meant that the tandoori took its time to warm up. We gave it a shot anyway.

Whether or not the sides were hot enough, the air coming out of the top hole certainly was. Slapping in that naan was probably the toughest thing I've had to do all week. My first piece of flat, garlic-encrusted naan stuck properly, but in my haste I managed to slap it with the topping side against the clay. My second piece dropped right off into the fire, North-African style. By this time, though, Chef decided that the tandoori just wasn't hot enough, so we completed the rest in the oven. By that time the naan had just been resting too long, and the texture came out less than ideal.

So, sadly, I didn't learn to make a really great piece of naan as I had wished to. But then, I'm not ready to build a tandoori in the backyard, so perhaps this was inevitable.

With a flurry of activity, everything came out of the oven all at once. pretzels came out pleasantly pretzel-like, the bagels came out a bit flat (as I mentioned earlier), and the dinner rolls came out very nicely indeed.

we also finally got to try the different sourdoughs. As I said yesterday, we prepared both traditional sourdough (flour, water, salt, and starter) and a contemporary sourdough that added some whole wheat flour and wheat germ, plus some malt to aid fermentation. The traditional sourdough had a nice and simple characteristic flavor, but the contemporary version mellowed out the sour bite with a smooth tang of lactic acid. The difference wasn't so stark that I could identify one or the other in a blind taste test, but side-by-side the difference was apparent.

The final day was the busiest by far, and it took some time to recuperate, but the experiences of the whole week are starting to sort themselves out in my head. I'll post a wrap-up of the week soon, and then I'll post some of the key recipes we worked with.


Posted by patrick on January 19, 2003 | TrackBack
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