Getting back into cooking since 2009.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Public holiday cooking #1

I love a well-written book about food. It turns out that some of them even come from America, despite my initial misgivings ("They use different measurements! They have different names for things! Americans don't know anything about food!"). I now have a whole continent full of cookbook authors to feed my habit, and I'm not holding back.

One of my favourite food authors (American or otherwise) is Michael Ruhlman. His new book Ratio is great, a sort of 'anti-recipe' book that tries to teach you the underlying relationships between ingredients that make up particular foods, and then builds on those relationships with all sorts of variations, modifications and improvements. It's kind of like those old CWA-style cookbooks that tell you how to cook an omelette in very terse terms, and then suggest variations on the omelette (omelette with onions! omelette with kidneys! etc).

It appeals to me, as I feel like I want to get some kind of grounding in basic kitchen techniques rather than just going through a rote process of emulating various cookbook authors’ recipes.

Anyway this is all a pre-amble to my real topic, the food I cooked on my day off. I love minor public holidays; they're days with none of the family obligations or pre-ordained activities of the big days off (Christmas, Easter, to a lesser extent Australia Day) and without the guilt, solemnity and cringe-inducing AFL 'tribute round' of Anzac Day. The minor days (Queen's Birthday, Foundation Day, etc) are unencumbered days off to spend however you likel. For me, that means cooking.

Faced with a free day, I knew I wanted to give bread another try. I'm very happy with my pizza dough and (to a lesser extent) my focaccias (
focacce?), but I've never been completely satisfied with any of the proper loaves I've attempted in the past.

I'm not sure if the problem is our shitty old oven (it only goes to 220c), the yeast (I've tried sachet and instant dried yeast), the flour (I've tried Tipo 00, All Purpose, Brown and Bread flours), the temperature, the proving time, the kneading time...

There are so many variables involved in baking bread that it gets a bit overwhelming. People devote their lives to cultivating the best sourdough starters and developing their techniques, but I just want a passable loaf.

I find Ruhlman's approach in
Ratio comforting. He takes things back to basics. A simple bread is just 500 grams flour, 300 mL water, ~5 grams yeast and a pinch of salt. Any variations beyond that (oil, nuts, herbs, sugar/honey, etc) are just modifications of the basic recipe, and even the basic recipe can be altered a little (as he says, any amount of yeast will leaven any amount of flour, it will just take a different amount of time). I already knew this ratio, but I think I'd scared myself by reading too many divergent bread recipes, all with their own modifications and deviations.

I tried the basic loaf with his sage and browned butter modification, in which you omit some of the water and replace it with a bit of butter and chopped sage, browned then cooled. The dough is proved as usual, and then baked in an enamelled cast iron pot. This apparently helps the dough retain some moisture as it cooks, making a reasonable replacement for the steam vents in a commercial bakery oven.

The result was definitely the best loaf I've made. The photo on the left is a bit terrible, which is why it's small (I don't know how to take a good food photo).

The crust was firm and distinct, helped along by the cast iron pot. However, the texture of the bread itself was still a bit 'cakey' for my liking, too dense and crumbly, not airy enough. I think this is either the result of not enough proving time, or insufficient kneading. I'll try it again, knead the absolute hell out of it and leave it overnight in the fridge.

Anyway, with the help of a basic ratio, I've already improved my bread baking skills.

Next stop: rhubarb jam and a sweet tart.


  1. i took that photo of the bread you son of a bitch!
    meanwhile it is tasty as HECK.

  2. Oh yeah, you did!
    Yeah I dunno if it's a bit dark in the kitchen or what. Maybe I'm just used to reading food blogs with fancypants SLR photos or something.

    Man this entry is really long!? Sorry about that.

  3. well, i read to the end. i enjoyed this! and good on you for doing something constructive with your day off.

  4. Its the flour Matt - good bread is all about gluten.