Monday, September 20, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Focaccia and Pizza

Introductory baking class, week four. The topic this week is yeast breads. Because they can have lengthy rising times and the class is only(!) five hours long, Chef Dennis has opted for the class to make two “quick” yeast breads: focaccia, an Italian flatbread, and pizza dough. The recipes and techniques for the two breads are very similar, so it’s like making the same recipe twice, which is good practice.

I have made both focaccia and pizza dough many times at home with varying success. To my family even a mediocre from-scratch focaccia is pretty good eating, but of course the bar is raised when serving food in a professional setting. I’m really interested in yeast breads and hope to pick up some tips to make my efforts better.

We break into groups of two students who will collaborate on the recipes. My partner is a quiet guy named Thomas to whom I haven’t talked before. He’s pretty on-the-ball in terms of cooking and we work well together preparing the focaccia dough. The ingredients are few: flour, water, yeast, salt and olive oil. Our dough is mixed first, so Chef Dennis uses it to demonstrate his kneading technique to the class.

I thought I knew how to knead bread dough, but it turns out that I didn’t. The chef’s technique is to fold the flattened ball of dough onto itself with the right hand, then push it away slightly with the heel of the left hand. The right hand then rotates and lifts the dough slightly while folding before the next left-hand push. Ideally this should be quick right-left-right-left action.

The dough is sticky and, if left without moving for even a second or two, seriously adheres to the hands and table and has to be scraped off with a dough scraper. The best thing is to keep it moving, but that’s easier said than done. At home I would add more flour to make the dough easier to handle, but the chef advises against this as more flour will diminish the rise and final texture. It needs to be wet and sticky.

Thomas gets into the groove pretty quickly, but I’m less coordinated and can’t seem to get my hands to work together, resulting in major sticking. I’m determined to improve, and after about ten minutes the first faint glimmers of a decent kneading technique break through. By the end I’ve got my rhythm going and mostly manage to keep the dough moving, though more practice is definitely called for.

The kneading is vigorous work and goes on much longer than I had imagined. Thomas and I get tired and have to trade off several times before the dough reaches the smooth, elastic consistency the chef is looking for. I realize that in my home efforts not only was I kneading improperly but I was not kneading long enough. Good to know.

With the chef’s blessing, the focaccia dough is put away to rise for a couple of hours and we begin the pizza dough. The recipe is similar to focaccia but the dough is drier and easier to handle, and the whole process goes much faster.

For the focaccia Thomas and I opt for a classic topping: olive oil, dried rosemary and kosher salt. For some reason I’ve got in my head that the topping should be simple. Other teams get more ambitious with their toppings (different dried herbs, red pepper flakes, sliced onions, garlic), and I have to admit there are some very colorful focaccias coming out of the oven.

Ours turns out OK but not great. A lot of the dried rosemary falls off the left side, leaving it unadorned and plain looking. I should have pressed the salt and rosemary into the dough more forcefully before baking. The bread also rises unevenly so isn’t flat across the entire surface.

Despite the apparent deficiencies, our focaccia tastes good. The additional salt and rosemary would have added flavor, but the bread itself is tender and has good texture. Over the next two days at home, it’s very satisfying dipped in olive oil and salt.

We have our choice of several pizza toppings, and some students are really loading up their pizzas. Thomas and I again opt for simplicity: tomato sauce, Italian sausage, sliced onions and mozzarella. I’m feeling tired from the kneading and not inclined to do a lot of prep, but also just like the simple approach vs. over the top. Fewer toppings gives the bread more prominence in the overall taste.

While tasting our pizza, I chat with one student whose pizza was over-baked (wasn’t her fault; the chef was handling all the baking and left it in too long). She looks slightly disappointed about the dark brown pie sitting in front of her, and, chewing on a piece of crust, comments that the dough recipe is OK but not great. I concur and mention that there are many things out of our control in the class: the recipe, the ingredients, the baking (oven doors opening and closing), the equipment, and not knowing the kitchen.

In general the recipes in class have been very basic and a bit bland, and the breads we’ve made are definitely not my best efforts as a baker. However I am picking up tips and techniques that make the class interesting and worthwhile.

Take home: one half focaccia, one-quarter sausage and onion pizza.

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