Showing posts with label bread. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bread. Show all posts

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Over the last few months, my son François Skyvington has been examining the question of high-quality hamburgers (as opposed to the dull stuff sold in fast-food outlets), with a view to creating a roadside restaurant in this field. He tells me that one of the basic challenges consists of being able to create your hamburgers using the very best bread buns that can be imagined. You might say that the bun is the foundation upon which the hamburger is to be built. And, if you start with a low-quality factory-made bun, the hamburger cannot possibly be top-class.

A few days ago, at the local supermarket, I came upon a beautifully-produced recipe book on the theme of high-quality hamburgers.

Not surprisingly, the opening pages dealt with the question of how to bake perfect buns. So, I decided to give it a try. I should explain that I’ve been baking loaves of wholemeal bread for ages, first in an old-fashioned manual manner, and later by means of a bread machine (as I’ve mentioned often in this blog). But the lightweight white buns used in hamburgers are a rather different affair, and I had no experience whatsoever in this domain.

The opening line of the recipe, for 10 to 12 buns, indicated 600 g of flour, but didn’t say which variety. I decided to use plain type-45 wheat flour of the kind used by pastry-cooks. Then the recipe called for 25 g of fresh yeast. I took this to mean about two-thirds of a block of compressed yeast of the following kind:

Now, that particular amount of yeast, 25 g, was the first of a series of minor elements that made me feel that there was something slightly contrived (but not necessarily erroneous) about this recipe. Everybody knows that these familiar blocks of yeast weigh 42 g, and it would have been more natural if the recipe had been composed of measurements based upon a kilogram of flour and a cube of yeast, giving rise to a dozen-and-a-half buns.

The recipe then indicated the following list of 6 ingredients:

a teaspoon of salt
a dessertspoon of sugar
180 g of skimmed milk
150 g of water
1 egg
30 g of butter

The idea of expressing liquid quantities in grammes, rather than volumetrically (in centilitres, for example), intrigued me. But what astonished me most of all was the explicit suggestion that all these ingredients should be simply “mixed together”. Can you imagine a naive cook trying to mix into the wet flour an egg, butter and fragments of yeast? The recipe had obviously jumped over certain important details… so I decided to use my common sense and modest cooking experience.

First, I made sure that the salt and sugar were interspersed throughout the flour. Then I took my familiar blender (used for pastry) and made sure that the butter was totally integrated into the flour.

Then I scrambled the egg into the milk and water, and did my best to “dissolve” the fresh yeast in this liquid. Only then did I pour everything into the flour and start to mix it all together. In fact, the measurements were ideal, in that the resulting mass of dough could be kneaded comfortably (and thoroughly) on a floured table. The recipe then told me to leave the dough in an oiled salad bowl, covered with a wet cloth, for an hour and a half. By the end of that period, the dough had risen nicely, but not excessively.

Since the dough was quite elastic, it was not a simple task to cut it up into regular-shaped buns, but I did my best. (I’ll need to invent some kind of a trick solution at this level.) The recipe suggested a funny method for covering the top of each future bun with sesame seeds. I was advised to wet a few paper towel sheets and roll them into a ball. Then I used this damp ball to moisten the upper surface of each bun before pressing it into a saucer of sesame seeds. Finally, the buns were baked at 200° (in an oven housing a cup of water, to moisten the atmosphere) for 20 minutes. And the outcome of my first attempt at bun-baking was most promising.

Esthetically, they are not as regularly round as orthodox buns. I didn’t realize that, once the dough has risen and then been cut into bun-sized fragments, the elasticity of each fragment of dough defies all attempts at reshaping the bun. (Here again, there’s obviously some kind of a secret technique that I haven’t yet grasped.) Viewed individually, each bun was—if I can say so with modesty—a tiny masterpiece.

The interior was light and airy, yet firm: a little like English scones.

After a few minutes under a grill, the interior surfaces were toasted perfectly.

I decided to add some ham, cheese and olives for a tasty toasted lunch.

I conclude that the principles of bun-making outlined in the above-mentioned book are correct and workable in a domestic kitchen, even though they would appear to be derived from an industrial process about which I know nothing. I now intend to pursue my research towards the ultimate home-made hamburger… including French fries made with a fabulous French-made minimum-oil device—the SEB Actifry—that I shall be receiving tomorrow. Unfortunately, I’m not at all sure that my investigations might help my son, because there is a huge gap between all the interesting cooking experiments that can be carried out at home and the cost-effective solutions that are required in a commercial restaurant environment.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Our daily bread

A month ago, well after 10 o'clock in the evening on the state-owned TV channel that specializes in documentaries (France 5), a program about bread utterly enthralled me. I was dismayed that such a fascinating and fundamental subject should be dealt with, late in the evening, on a relatively secondary media platform. A few days later, however, I learned that I had been far from alone in watching this wonderful celebration of our daily bread. Over three-quarters of a million viewers had been intrigued and subjugated, like me, by this subject.

Funnily enough, one of the stars of the show was a French-speaking US academic who explained that he had been searching doggedly for a concrete theme enabling him to tackle a vast research subject: the marvelous specificity of French culture. Then suddenly, the ideal subject hit him in the face, as it were: French bread! In fact, the bread theme hit him simultaneously in the nose, the eyes and even the ears… prior to the mouth. (When freshly-baked baguettes are taken out of the oven, the cooling crust makes a gentle crackling sound for a few minutes. Bakers say that their bread is "singing".) A correctly-prepared and perfectly-baked French baguette is indeed an exotic masterpiece of everyday gastronomy that deserves admiration and universal respect.

A few days after watching this TV program, I dropped in at a ceramics store on the outskirts of Valence to make inquiries about their wood-burning stone bread ovens. I said jokingly to the lady who was giving me documentation: "Can you guess what made me think about the idea of installing a bread oven?" She answered immediately: "I suppose you watched the marvelous TV program on bread, a few nights ago." I had the impression that I had been drawn into some kind of bread fraternity.

Meanwhile, on the other side of what they refer to as the English Channel (which the French call la Manche), look at this ugly tasteless stuff—devoid of structure and texture—that they refer to as "bread":

Apparently the Brits invented this kind of foodstuff about half-a-century ago (which is really weird, when you think about it, since they're located just across the water from France), and they're as proud as hell, today, to be able to claim that they've exported the recipe to faraway places such as Australia, South Africa and South America.

I've just been reading an article in the UK press which reveals that the invention of this stuff was the work of "research bakers at Chorleywood". I have the impression that many British folk who've grown accustomed to this product would be most upset if they heard me saying that I find this "bread" utterly insipid. Maybe there are British bread-eaters who would be nauseated and physically ill if they were forced to sit down at an outdoor café table and eat a crisp fragment of a freshly-baked baguette with a chunk of Camembert cheese. Besides, I can already hear the whine of members of the Aussie community telling me that there's no better stuff on the planet than white cotton-wool factory-made sliced bread from Sydney smeared with yucky Vegemite. Thankfully, I don't need to get involved in discussions on questions of that kind. I have the good fortune of living in France.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Ideal bread recipe

People who make their own bread at home often find that it's not easy to create a standard product, whose quality never varies. Some people find that the inevitable variations from one session to another are actually part of the fun, and they deliberately experiment all the time. As far as my personal activities in this domain are concerned, after screwing up completely a recent bread-baking session [display], I have the impression that yesterday's trial session has enabled me finally to hit upon an ideal recipe. And, exceptionally, it doesn't even include my usual walnuts… which is a sin of omission, here at Gamone, that might be considered a bread-making equivalent of blasphemy. Here's what my ideal loaf looks like (after having been tasted abundantly by me, Sophia and Fitzroy):

I'm noting down the recipe here so that I'll be able to come back to it, if need be.

— Pour a third of a liter of cold water into the bowl of the bread machine.

— Add a teaspoon of salt.

— Add a tablespoon of olive oil.

— Add a tablespoon of poppy seeds.

— Add 450 g of white flour.

— Add 300 g of whole-wheat flour.

— Add a packet of yeast.

Select the program for whole-wheat bread, which takes about 4 hours (starting with a warm-up period of half-an-hour).

For the moment, the upper crust of the baked loaf tends to be lumpy, and the lumps often become detached when the loaf is sliced. Maybe there's a way of getting this surface to be more regular.