28 September 2010

Lessons in Levain

Today I'm making a small batch of dough in preparation for the raisin contest.  I had to mix my starters at home last night.  The poolish and levain are in clear plastic container which allow one to see the signs of fermentation.  I thought Josie might be interested so I called it to my two year old's attention.
Me: "Look at the little bubbles, Jos, that means it's growing."

Josie: "Little bubbles?  For me?"

Me: "It's for the bread.  Tomorrow morning we'll have big bubbles and then we know it's ready."

Josie: "Big bubbles!!!  And we mix it!"

Me: "Yeah, we mix it and it makes the bread grow"

Josie: "Yeah, bread for me.  Want to smell it, Mommy."

I opened the lid on the levain and Josie take a sniff.  She wrinkled her nose a little but then she cheered.

Josie: "Yummy, Mommy.  Want to mix the bread, too."

A girl after my own heart!!!

26 September 2010

America's Best Raisin Bread

The contest application was sitting on my desk for weeks.  As least once a day, I thumbed through it, read the rules, re-read the rules and searched for inspiration.  The sales team was requesting a "muesli" bread, whatever that is.  "If the Muesli Bread includes raisins, maybe it can crossover into a contest entry," they said.  It went beyond a daily glance of the contest entry form, it was listed on my priority list (which I do not create, therefor it must actually be a legitimate priority and not just something I would like to get to today...this week...this month....)

I used my ride home from work to think of the possibilities.  I knew I wanted lots of healthy bits and lots of texture using pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, oats, bran and a variety of flours.  I would add more flavor with a wheat/rye levain and a poolish starter.  Finally, the raisins would have to be big, juicy and rustic. 

The bread:
After brainstorming for a few days, I came up with a formula and put it to the test.  I shaped a few dozen loaves and I was left with a mass of dough that didn't weigh enough to put into the pocket divider.  I didn't want to throw it away so I dumped it onto the bench, covered it in oats and cut it into rough strips.  I twisted the strips which created a spiral of oats down the loaf. 

Once the samples were baked, I fell in love with the twists and so did everyone else.  The flavor and texture were exactly the eating experience I was hoping to create.  The twisted sticks had a unique character that I adored.  After determining that American's don't really know what muesli is (I don't know what muesli is), the bread was named "Granola Twist."

The contest:
After a little more testing, I filled out the entry form.  My friend Hana took beautiful photos of my loaves to enclose with the application.  I licked the stamp and crossed my fingers!!!

Last week, I got a call from the California Raisin Board telling me I made the finals.  I immediately started calling everyone who helped me get this bread from idea to product but it was Yom Kippur and none of my friends were answering.  I had to sit on the news all weekend before anyone could rejoice with me!!!

The Bake-Off:
On October 14th, I fly to Manhattan Kansas to bake off my bread alongside the other nine finalists.  Three of us will be selected and the winners get to spend a week in Napa Valley touring the California wine country.  My friends at The Patisserie in Milford, PA are donating bakery space to the cause by letting me run a test in their kitchen this week. 

Wish me luck!!!!

15 September 2010

I'll Bring the Bread

My friend Alex recently celebrated her marriage to Ciaran at her childhood home in Sumner, Maine.  Alex and Ciaran were wed in city hall some months ago but they wanted to have a party to share the even with their friends and families.  We gorged ourselves on everything from whole roasted pig to gourmet lobster spring rolls to lemon poppy seed cupcakes. The wedding guests spent the weekend in a tent community that would put the Boy Scouts of America to shame.

Kevin and I almost didn't make it to Maine.  If we didn't have a minivan full of bread and cupcakes we would have probably turned back.  It was to be our first night spent away from the kids. In the chaos of our toy infested home, we couldn't find the battery charger for our camera.  We stopped at the store on the way out of town to buy a cheap replacement camera only to find out our mortgage check  cleared from our bank account a couple days earlier than I anticipated...our debit card was declined and we had no back-up plan.  

Kevin's boss was supposed to pay him on the Thursday before our trip but he never showed with the check (typical in the construction business).  Even though I was certain he wouldn't answer his phone at 8am on Saturday morning, Kevin called to see if we could get his pay.  Good news - he answered and he had the check for us.  Bad news - we had to drive 2 hours in the wrong direction to get it.  

At least we found out about our fiscal irresponsibility before we emptied our gas tank.  We would have been stranded in New Hampshire, calling the bride before her big day with an SOS.

We made it to Maine a few, ten,  hours later with the bread and the cupcakes in tow.  It was a little wet, a little cold but a lot of fun.  

04 September 2010

Ultra? Maybe. Super? No Way!

Did you ever wonder how a box of Fruit Loops cereal can be slapped with a Whole Grain Council seal of approval?  Burger King's buns are WGC approved too.  Kellogs and Burger King are using "ultragrain flour" or "white wheat flour" in these products.  Ultragrain was first developed by ConAgra Mills (it has since been marketed as "white wheat flour" by other millers).  Here's what they have to say about the product:

"ConAgra Mills, the maker of Ultragrain, developed a patented technology that delivers whole grain flour with the same particle size as traditional refined white flour. The Ultragrain milling process retains the fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients concentrated within the bran and germ, while yielding whole grain wheat flour with a taste, ultrasmooth texture and appearance more similar to traditional refined white flour." 

I have a different take.  I try not to be too anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) because I would drive myself insane worrying about the repercussions of this process.  However, this is the best example of how a GMO directly affects me and my family.  Ultragrain flour comes from an entirely different plant than whole wheat flour...it's more than just the milling.

When this product was new to the market, I trained with the ConAgra technology rep on how to use Ultragrain flour to make bread.   The flour requires a significant autolyse time.  Autolyse is a time during which the flour and water are slightly mixed and allowed to rest.  The flour sucks up as much of the water as it can.  Because of this intense absorption, the final mix time is decreased and the dough is super hydrated yet still easy to work with.  Lots of water = open cell structure = big air holes = yum!  Without this autolyse, Ultragrain will start to break down the dough.  It's very finiky.  In addition to the autolyse, the flour behaves a little like a rye flour in the mixer.  If it is over-mixed it will turn gummy and good structure will never be achieved.

After doing signifigant market research, ConAgra determined that Ultragrain flour was undetectable by the average consumer up to 30% of the flour weight.  This means Kellogs can use 70% white flour and 30% ultragrain flour in their Fruit Loops and no one will be the wiser.   Funny, 30% is the minimum amount of whole grains needed in the dough to get the WGC seal of approval.  I'm no conspiracy theorist but I may be onto something here.

Ultragrain flour has a very distinct taste.  It's a little bitter and a little I-can't-put-my-finger-on-it.  I can sniff out ultragrain flour faster than a pig can find a truffle.  Maybe it's because I know it's there...it's everywhere.  Cereals, burger buns, Sara Lee pound cake, everyone is jumping on the whole grain band wagon.  These companies are trying to save Americans from themselves by sneaking good-for-yous into previously bad-for-you stuff, like Fruit Loops.  The Whole Grain Council doesn't care how much sugar you put on a product to mask the off-putting flavor of the ultragrain flour as long as each serving has 8 grams of whole grain.

That big grocery store chain I used to work for wants to do away with white bread all together.  A directive came down from the very top to make all breads using whole grains, even the baguettes.  The first bread they switched over was the basic Italian loaf, a huge seller.  They did not tell the customers they changed the bread they loved only that it now contains 1 serving of whole grains per slice.  A couple weeks ago, I was standing next to the bread counter and I overheard a woman asking for her Italian bread back "I used to buy 4 loaves a week."  So much for undetectible.

My baker friend, the mad scientist behind the whole grain switch, is trying to create a sweet potato brioche using the ultragrain flour.  I said yuck, he said if there's enough butter and sugar in the dough, it can't be bad.  Maybe he's on to something or maybe he could join forces with the fruit loop gang.  I tried his sweet potato bread and it was pretty tastey except for that noticably ultragrain aftertaste.

I know I'm not the typical American bread consumer but if I want wheat bread, I want wheat bread.  I want to see the flecks of bran and taste the nuttiness of the flour.  In the same thought, if I want white bread, I want white bread.  There is a time and a place for everything.  This whole scenario creates the same image for me as does the 300 pound woman ordering "diet" coke at the McDonald's drive thru.

03 September 2010

Butterless Brioche

I've been developing a brioche bun for one of our customers.  The first sample I sent was a formula based on the Challah formula which is currently in production.  I want to eliminate the frustrations for myself as well as the mixing team so I went with a concept they are already very familiar with.  I took the basic Challah dough and I added gobs of butter, 30% of the flour weight to be exact.  When the customer received the samples they requested the buns be richer, sweeter, and more yellow in color.  The customer also told advised, we are competing against La Brea Bakery's brioche buns.

I went back to my formula and made a few changes: more sugar, more eggs, little here, little there.   It's kinda like making a pot of soup only not at all.  While I'm busy working on the new formula, I was given a sample of the La Brea Brioche bun.  I was expecting to be blown away.  I was not expecting to play "Where's Waldo" with the ingredient label when trying to locate the butter.  Not only is butter missing from the list of ingredients but these buns are totally fat free.  No wonder the customer can get a cheaper version from a competitor, butter is expensive and no butter is absolutely free.  Aside from the lack of butter, the buns tasted like the $.99 special, grocery-store-branded buns I bought for our last picnic.  Sorry, I got a little carried away with myself.  I didn't actually buy the grocery store buns, I made them and even my butter-less buns had more flavor than the La Brea Brioche.

How is it possible to sell butter-less brioche?  There are rules for labeling whole grain products and for labeling nutrient contents but I don't think there is any governing body watching out for the butter factor.  Where are the butter lobbiests?  Why aren't they up in arms about this?  I stopped breathing for a few seconds after I read the La Brea label.  Screw the whole grain servings, I want to know how many grams of butter I'm ingesting with each slice and it better be in the triple digits.

28 June 2010

A Serendipidous Reunion

I've always been an pen and paper kind of person.  Often, I hand write these posts before transferring them to the computer.  Math, as in excel spreadsheets, I always do with pencil and paper first.   My great Aunt Naomi, we called her Nelma, was an English teacher who had a thing for grammar, penmanship and the like.  I have horrible handwriting but maybe I picked up the rest from her.  I can't stand text messaging because the messages require using improper grammar.  I've always loved letter writing, even in the advent of email.  There's nothing better than getting a thoughtful note in the mail.

When I was in 5th grade (I think but it could have been 7th) I was given a pen pal from Stara Tura, Czechoslovakia (that's what it was then).  The circumstances surrounding the pen pal distribution are very foggy.  I can't remember if the whole class was given people to write to or if addresses were given to the students who wanted to write or maybe it was just me.  Anyway, my pen pal's name was Hana and we wrote all the way through middle school, high school and I think some college.  We lost touch as our addresses and lives changed and grew.  Once she wrote to say she was going to be in the states but I was away and I didn't get her letter in time.  I always wondered what happened to Hana and one day I typed her name into Facebook.  Low and behold, there she was!  I sent her a note and she replied.

Here's where the story gets really "made for Oprah" interesting.  She and her fiance live just south of us in Pennsylvania.  Hana is a photographer and a talented pastry artist.  Sunday afternoon, our little family met with her little family for a BBQ in her garden.  We had a fabulous time.  The kids were happy, the guys were happy (they got to talk and play 'real' football) and Hana and I caught up on our lost years.  I have to think Hana and I would have crossed paths if I didn't look her up.  Our lives, interests and locals are just too similar.

Here's to friendship, serendipity and the written word! (and boys and football!)

09 June 2010

Melka Melka

Before becoming a Mom, there were very few things I needed to make it through the day.  Sure, I needed to eat but there was always something in the cabinets even if it wasn't the most appetizing, ramen noodles would just have to do.  There was the inevitable time that I would need tampons but usually digging through a few old purses would do the trick until I could make a trip to the store. 

Mommy life is nothing but needs..need diapers, need wipes, need bananas.  This morning, I tiptoed out of the bedroom and down the hall at 5am.  On a typical day this would give me about an hour to get to the store and back before the kids and Kevin would start to rise.  Last night, Josie drank the last of the milk and if there is one thing we need beyond all else, it's milk or 'melka melka' in Josie-speak.  There was enough to get us through this morning but after her bedtime cup was filled, Josie grabbed the carton to take an extra swig and she dumped the last of the milk all over her jammies.  I could have gone out for more last night but I too was sporting my jammies and I was excited about getting a bit of soletude and a nice cup of coffee made by someone else this morning. 

Milk and I have a sorted past.  I've never been one to drink a glass of milk but I've always been a devoted fan of chocolate milk.  I love dairy products, ice cream, cheese, yogurt...  I used to keep soy milk on hand for cereal because milk would always sour before I could use the whole carton.  When I was pregnant with Josie, I started drinking milk by the gallon.  I couldn't get enough!  It had to be whole milk, nothing else would do.  Kevin is a huge milk drinker.  He only ever had whole milk in his house growing up.  I decided we would be the same.  Only the best, full fat, organic, hormone-free, grass-fed cow's milk available for my family unless it's 5am and the only store that sells what I want is an hour away and I would rather just go to the corner store to get the last carton they have on the shelf no matter what kind of white substance it is.  On the plus side, now that I'm raising a family of milk dependants, I never have to glance at the expiration date on the jug.  My gang goes through a gallon in 2 days and in a couple months when the baby switches from mom's milk to cow's milk, I will need at least a gallon a day to support these fiends!

Why whole milk?  Short answer: it tastes better.  I don't believe anyone ever got fat from drinking whole milk which contains 3% milkfat.  Sure I could shave off a percentage, a few pounds from my hips and go for the 1 or 2% varieties but why mess with nature?  I think the reason I didn't like milk when I was younger is because it didn't taste like milk.  It was just white-ish water.  I'll take the extra fat with added moderation and a dose of exercise, thanks.

Last year, I was out shopping with Josie and she wanted milk.  I stopped at a coffee shop and asked if I could have a glass of warm milk for my daughter.  The cashier told me they didn't have any 'normal' milk.  I had to process this information before asking her to clarify.  If they didn't have normal milk, what were they putting in the coffee?  She explained that they only had whole milk and skim milk.  Well, if whole milk isn't 'normal' milk then what is normal?  She said that 2% milk is normal milk and she was pretty peeved when I disagreed.  My thought is, any milk that needs a qualifier (2%, skim, etc) is not 'normal'.  I got her to fill Josie's cup with abnormal milk and we went on our way.

Now, an hour after I slipped my shoes on and tiptoed out the door, the fridge is stocked.  Josie is happily downing her melka melka which is the first thing she asks for each morning I get her out of her crib just after 'where's Daddy' and 'where's Keego'.  I'll just have to due, me and the melka melka that is.

10 April 2010

I Killed the Easter Bunny

Inevitably there will come a time when a huge mistake causes a production delay.  These mistakes are rarely made twice.  I remember the time I forgot the salt in the whole wheat dough or when I added the yeast for the double recipe in the single recipe.  New bakers tend to make more mistakes than us well seasoned life-ers (because we made them way back when).  When a member of my staff makes their first big blunder, this is the story I share to make them feel a little better….

My first week at Amy’s Bread was a whirl wind.  I spent three days helping the baguette team shape and bake baguettes.  The fourth day, I trained on the rack ovens.  At the time there was one convection oven which held 30 pans of product.  At the start of the shift, all the rolls and sweet breads had to be pulled from the walk-in cooler and left on the production floor to proof.  The spaces in the racks proofed at different times so you had to constantly rotate, turn and move trays.  In addition, different spaces in the oven baked faster than others so the same tango had to be danced during the bake.  Typically, a new hire trains for a week on this position before being cut loose on their own.  I had one night!

My second night, my first solo night, on the rack oven was the night before Easter.  There was a huge increase in breads to be baked in the rack oven due to the holiday.  I had to bake about 100 dozen hot cross buns as well as several dozen cardamom egg rings.  The eggs in the cardamom rings were dyed bright colors.  The colorful eggs sit at room temperature and are baked into the bread uncooked.  They finish as hard boiled eggs.  If they are cold when they go into the oven they will burst open, like a chilled glass run under hot water.  

Most of the special Easter products had already been sold.  They were for orders that were to be picked up later that day in one of the retail locations. I loaded the entirety of the rings onto the rack to go into the oven.  If I remember correctly, there were at least 120 rings baking at once.  The rack oven is programmed with the bake times, temperatures and amount of steam to be released for each product.  There are several categories of products that bake at similar settings.  During my night of training, Jose told me what to bake on which settings...the chocolate twists bake on the brioche roll setting, and so on.  I couldn't remember on what setting the cardamon rings baked.  I put them in as 'hot cross buns'.  I figured, Easter Bread as Easter Bread, check.  

I walked away from the oven to set up more racks of product and when I returned I was horrified.  All the color from the eggs disappeared.  Wait, no, it didn't disappear, it ran off into the bread itself.  They were ruined.  What happened?  Doh, hot cross buns get steamed and cardamon rings don't.  The steam washed away the dye from the eggs.  I just killed the Easter Bunny!

How did I fix it?  Well, I didn't.  It was one of those times that I had to send out less than perfect product because not sending it would be a worse tragedy.  It was too late to make more dough and at the time I had no idea how to make it.  The night was almost over and the orders would be picked up in a couple hours.  The only saving grace came much later when I retold the story of killing the Easter Bunny to a new baker who burnt an entire stone deck of rustic French rolls.  Everyone gets initiated.  I've been told, you're not a real baker until you have a bread massacre under your belt.

Over the Easter weekend, I taught a class at the Patisserie on this bread as well as Hot Cross Buns.  The cardamon rings were beautiful and I have pictures to show for it thanks to Barbara Fiore, one of my students who is also an excellent photographer.  Her art is visible on her blog  http://barbarafiore-lifewithpeter.blogspot.com

29 March 2010

Rye? Because.

Rye flour can be difficult to work with.  When flour is hydrated, gluten forms.  Scientifically speaking, gluten is made up of glutenin and gliadin.  Rye flour is grossly lacking in glutenin.  It also contains alpha and beta amylases which are also present in saliva.  Amylase breaks down starch into sugar.  What does this mean in practice?  It means that rye flour, on it's own, can not create a gluten structure that will trap steam.  If you've ever seen a traditional German, 100% rye loaf you'll understand.  These loaves are more like doorstops.  I love them but they are not exactly what you think of when you think of bread.  The Jewish ryes that you find in the grocery store are not 100% rye.  They all contain some percentage of white or wheat flour.

The 2nd practical problem with the rye stems from the amylase.  If the dough is over-mixed, it starts breaking down and becomes incredibly sticky.  This becomes even more so when caraway seeds are added.  The sharp, pointy seeds cut through the, already lacking, gluten structure.  This brings me to the 3rd, totally unscientifically related, problem with rye.  People tend to associate rye with caraway.  I hear people claim to not like rye bread all the time.  Dollars to doughnuts, it's the caraway they don't like.  When you take the seeds out, rye has a very mild, earthy flavor.  Rye also has a high ash content which, I think, gives it the earthiness.  Ash is a byproduct of the milling process and it is what makes rye flour ferment like crazy, problem #4.  If rye flour is present in a sour, it ferments more rapidly than any other flour.  Whole wheat has a higher ash content than white flour so it too ferments fast but not as quick as rye.

Enough with the science.  What does it all mean and why am I concerned?  Rye is one of the products I have been working to improve in the last couple weeks.  When I arrived at my current job, the rye loaves were flat (over fermented, over mixed, improper gluten structure...the science is unavoidable) and long.  Most often, customers buy bread for sandwiches.  They are looking for the most sandwichable slices possible.  This means the center of the loaf should be bulbous and the ends should be pudgy, not pointy.

First, we changed the flour from a light, fine rye to a medium, coarse rye.  If you've seen regular ground flour against stone ground flour, you'll know what I'm talking about.  Then, I paid careful attention to the mixing process and educated my team on the variables....don't over mix and incorporate the seeds gently and quickly.  Next we worked on shaping.  Instead of pre-shaping the dough into logs as one normally would for a final batard shape, we shaped them into rounds.  This, in an effort to get the nice bulbous center.  We focused on shaping short, fat loaves for at least a week before we got it right.  It's hard to make your hands change what they do automatically day in and day out.  We still weren't getting exactly what we wanted so we started looking at the bake.  Often rye breads are cut with several short lines going side to side across the loaf.  This helps loaves maintain their structures.  We decided to change the way our rye loaves were scored.  Several cuts call for more handling which is not really a good thing when there are thousands of loaves to be handled.  We moved to one cut, end to end for the non-seeded and two cuts for the seeded.  This change was like finding the Holy Grail.  Our rye went from grocery store blunder to artisan beauties over night.

21 March 2010

Wheels and Motors

Our new Joovy Caboose

In the last couple months, Kevin and I have purchased both a new car and a new stroller.  The later was the more difficult process and decision to make.  When Josie was in utero, I researched strollers for months before deciding to buy a Combi stroller and infant seat.  The package was less than $200.  The stroller was super light which was high on my priority list because I anticipated many subway trips.  Once Josie was born and I started using the stroller, I quickly changed my mind about my great new purchase.  The front wheels would lock sideways making it impossible to push and this would happen on city streets.  Forget about trying to push the thing on the unpaved Milford, PA roads.  One day Alex, Ciaran, Kevin and I were shopping in Brooklyn and Ciaran was having trouble pushing Josie in the stroller.  This was the day we decided to start looking for stroller #2.

At the time, Josie was big enough to move into the stroller without the infant seat so our options were increased.  We went to Babies R Us and test drove several models before deciding on a Maxi Cosi Foray for the bargin price of $350.  I am one of the first people to slander the owners of the $800 Bugaboos on the streets of NY but the high end Maxi Cosi was a blessing.  It has the big, off-roading, tripod wheels like a jogging stroller.  The seat can face forward or backward and it can go completely flat for sleeping babies.  It also has a space age rain cover that turns the stroller into a pod.  On the downside, it is large, cumbersome and heavy.  In over a year of use, I still have trouble collapsing the thing.

Shopping with the Maxi is near impossible because it never fits between the racks.  This is why we purchase stroller #3, the $20 umbrella stroller.  This stroller handles well enough for store use and it is small enough to keep in the car at all times.  It was the best $20 we ever spent.

When I found out I was pregnant a second time which would give us 2 babies under 2 years, I knew we would need another stroller upgrade.  I decided we could wait until spring to make the purchase.  Winters here are too cold to go outside let alone take a stroller ride.  Last winter we didn't use the stroller and this winter was the same.  Now that the weather is improving and Keegan is ready for fun on the run, it's time for stroller #4.  Of course, I read review after review and talked to moms on the streets but at the last minute I had a lapse in judgement and I ordered a Kolkraft double stroller for $200.  Kevin and I knew we didn't want a side by side stroller because we talked to a dad of twins one day in New Paltz, NY who was very unhappy with his.  He couldn't get through a single doorway and his kids were too young to get out and walk.

The Kolkraft arrived and it took Kevin over an hour to assemble.  It was pretty exciting.  It had two seats like the one the Maxi Cosi has.  The seats can face each other, go back to back, both face forward or both face backward.  There was a huge storage bin under the seats which we've never had the luxury of having.  We put the kids in the stroller and gave it a test drive through the living room.  After a week of having it in the house, we decided to return it.  It was just too big.  The trip to the store to return it sealed the deal.  It was too heavy for me to lift into the car and Kevin could barely get it to fit into the car once the kids were strapped inside.

I went back to the drawing board and purchased stroller #5, the Joovy Caboose sit and stand for $99.  There is an 'ultra-light' model for and extra $100 but I thought back to the bargin umbrella stroller and I decided whatever the difference, it couldn't be worth $100.  This is the one I originally wanted to try out before my judgement lapsed.  There's a front seat for the younger child which can even accomodate an infant carrier.  The back has a platform for the older child to stand on and a jump seat in case they get tired and want to sit.  It's easy on and off for the older kid which is great because at this age, Josie wants to walk on her own but sometimes she gets tired and wants to sit.  We took the stroller out on Saturday morning and it was magnificent.  Both kids seemed to love it and it prooved to be the easiest stroller to collapse that we've ever had.  Yes it is heavier than an umbrella stroller but I could still easily lift it in and out of the car on my own and it didn't take up any more space than 2 umbrella strollers would.

The car....

I've had a Subaru wagon for the last 6 years.  I love it for the rough weather but after renting a minivan for the weekend to accomidate us and our out of town guests we decided it was time to take the plunge into parenthood.  I looked to Parents Magazine for reviews of the best, safest, most affordable family cars and I fell in love with the Mazda 5.  It's like a mini, minivan.  It has three rows of seating but you'd never know it because the exterior isn't much larger than a Honda Fit.  Sure, the 3rd row isn't too comfy for adults but it doesn't have to be.  It's a good place to put the kids when we want to travel with another couple or more kids for that matter.  We went to the Mazda dealer, traded the Subaru and walked out with a 2010 Mazda 5 on the same day.

The end...

The whole car buying process was sooo much easier than buying a new stroller.  It's funny to think about the stroller purchases.  Three years ago I would have never imagined giving it this much thought but now I'm a certifiable stroller expert.  All the reviews, manuals and magazines can't begin to prepare you for the real thing.  In the end, it seems that different strollers are better for different applications and no matter what, you're bound to suffer from stroller envy when you see all the bugaboos strolling down the path in central park.  I know $300 wasn't a steal but who can afford an $800 stroller?!

15 March 2010

Hold Dough

Most, 95% say, of the Fairway bakery staff speaks Spanish.  Of those Spanish speakers, maybe 3 people (out of 70) speak enough English to have a conversation.  I don't speak Spanish.  I speak fluent French which comes in handy an over-estimated ten times annually.  The delivery drivers at Amy's Bread were African and they all spoke a French patois but they understood my French which made it easy to communicate with them as they spoke little English.  The screaming chef I worked under at the Ritz Carlton was from France.  I never let him know I could understand every word he dictated to his sous chef who was the only one he would give helpful hints on how to handle his antiquated formulas thus making it possible for me to figure them out when it came to my turn to make them.  One day he started screaming obscenities in French and I dropped the egg I was separating on the floor.  Busted!  That's when he asked if I spoke French, in French and I fessed up to my language skills.

If I played my cards better in college, I would have double majored in Spanish and French but alas I took classes like 'Floral Arranging' and 'Women, Work and Family' instead.  I was able to make my own floral arrangements for my wedding reception but otherwise my elective choices have proven to be pretty useless.

My day is spent playing a never ending game of charades in which I'm allowed to talk but no one understands me.  It is mentally exhausting!  When I lived in France, I became fluent pretty quickly only because I love to talk and I couldn't stand around mute.  I'm hoping this acquisition process works in a similar fashion at Fairway.  Fluent by next month!

After a long day at work, I come home and get to play the same game with my daughter who is little by little learning to talk.  She knows the basics and she is starting to put them together into sentences.  My husband has a thick Irish accent which most people can't understand.  Josie pulls words from his brogue and pairs them with mine to make her own language.  For instance, no one 'leaves' or 'is gone, they are 'away'.  Josie spends endless amounts of time saying 'Mommy away,' 'Daddy away,' 'milk away,' 'fuck (that's fork) away.'  Kevin is trying to teach her to say 'fork away off' but, thank God, it's not taking.  Yesterday she said 'Mommy away work push.'  Which translates to 'Mommy is away to work for push.'  'Push' is what Josie calls money.  She has a piggy bank that counts the change as you 'push' it through the slot.  When she began to understand, we would call her over to help us 'push' the coins into the bank.  Now she raids our pockets for push so she can fill her bank.  Good thing too, as that's the only way she's going to save for college!

The language acqusition at the bakery works much the same as Josie's.  Our health inspection was last week and every food item had to be accurately labeled and dated.  While checking the cooler to make sure this was taken care of, I noticed a bin of 'hold dough' from March 9th.  I was trying to figure out what we were holding the dough for when it dawned on me.  It should have read 'old dough,' as in 'pate fermente,' as in the starter dough for one of the formulas.  It made me chuckle at the same time as it warmed my heart to know they were trying so hard to please.  It took me back to the time I found a tub of 'robster bisque' at the Ritz Carlton.  The Asian intern had labeled the lobster soup he made earlier that day.  I also thought back to the time I informed my French host family that my friend was off fucking their daughter.  I meant to say he was kissing her and I meant it as a joke but my mispronunciation changed 'bisou' to 'baiser' and everyone gasped.  As least I can sympathize with my new Mexican friends.

02 March 2010

Vegan Cowboys?

In college, I always took reading material to the big lecture hall classes.  I graduated from the University of Florida where it was nothing to have 300 people in class with you.  This was only the case for the general education classes.  There were only four students in one of my senior level French classes and those were the classes that mattered.  On one particular day, in this particular psychology class, I had a copy of the now defunct Gourmet magazine.  In the 'readers write' section, there was a recipe for 'Colorado Cowboy Cookies' as made by a small bakery in Manhattan.  The recipe made me drool on my syllabus.  The cookies had oatmeal, chocolate chips and walnuts...no raisins!  I love oatmeal cookies but I can't stand the texture of chewy, gummy raisins.  As soon as class was over, I went to the store and gathered the ingredients to make Cowboy Cookies.

At the time, I was living with my boyfriend Geoff and our friend Cristina.  As many college kids do, we have tons of guests in and out of our house throughout the day.  I wasn't baking for money.  I was working at an Asian place called 'Maui Teriyaki,' home of the chicken bowl.  I had to stand over a hot grill, flipping marinated chicken or stand at a cutting board hacking the chicken to bits with a cleaver.  I still prefer a heavy knife as opposed to the super light models on the shelves now.

The first batch of cookies didn't last long.  I followed the recipe exactly.  The dough was measured in 1/4 cups which made for Texas sized cookies.  I liked them the way they were but I decided to start using pecans because they were plentiful in Florida and I felt they had more flavor than walnuts.  In both cases, I ground the nuts to a flour before folding them into the dough because I don't like large nut chunks in my cookies.

These cookies were the turing point in my life as a baker.  My friends insisted I try to vend them to local cafes and maybe on the street for football game days.  Gainesville, and my social group, is very vegan.  I wanted all my friends to try my handy work so I made a few changes and ended up with vegan Cowboy Cookies.  That's when I hit the pavement.  My first stop was one of my favorite dives, 'Steamers'.  Art, the owner and also the founder of Flying Dog Brewing Company in Colorado, made loose meat sandwiches and yummy, spicy  stir fried veggie versions of the same.  It was cheap, good food.  This is also where I met Kevin and James.  Kevin was the original drummer for the band Against Me!, back when all they could afford were buckets.  James is still the bassist for the band.  The first time I saw them play, it was at an acoustic show in a laundry room.

Art agreed to buy my cookies so long as they weren't vegan.  I sold them to him for $1/cookie and I think he charged $2.  I delivered once a week.  When I arrived there were always people waiting inside just to get some of my cookies which Art lovingly called 'Rachel's Treats.'  I found out that Art was telling everyone they were vegan even though I was baking the original recipe for him.  The next week, I switched it up and sent him the vegan version but I didn't clue him in.  He reported that they were the best batch yet, amazing!

After I graduated, I was living in my hometown, Chestertown, Maryland.  I was teaching history classes at the county high school.  In the mornings before school and on the weekends, I was helping my friend Diane get her bakery business going.  I loved working with Diane.  She used to be an accountant and she just walked out one day to live her dream of baking.  She made lots of classy cakes and upscale brownies.  I just baked what she told me to.  She gave me a recipe for cookies that came from the back of the Ghirardelli    chocolates package.  The recipe was very similar to my cowboys but it included some spices like cinnamon and cloves.  I liked the combo and the next time I baked a batch of my cookies, I added the spices.  It was the enhancement they needed to put them on a higher tier.  

Soon after that school year was finished, I started culinary school instead of getting my master's degree to continue teaching.  During my second year of school, I had a class in nutritional baking.  Our final project was one in which we took a familiar recipe and made a vegan version, a low-fat version and a sugar-free version.  It was very involved and it included a power point presentation of the findings.  I chose to make the cowboy cookies.  It was intense and exciting.  I enjoyed the experimentation and I enjoyed the butter.  I decided to stop toying with the vegan recipe and stick with the full fat, animal content of the originals.  I did, however, start putting golden raisins in the cookies to up the nutritional content.  Cowboy cookies are the original Powerbar.  History states, cowboys used to make them for riding the trails.  They were a quick, easy way to get a lot of nutrients and they kept well for travel.

A few months after I started baking for The Patisserie, I pulled out the Cowboy card.  I felt the showcase needed a non-chocolate alternative to the super chocolate chunk cookies.  After baking the first batch, I thought they needed something more to compete with the chocolate cookies.  It had to be something that added a textural component and also provided more nutrients (just because I like the idea of a healthy cookie).  I went with pumpkin seeds.  The current cowboy cookie is not vegan (though I could whip up a batch if I needed to).  It is comprised of oats, pecans, golden raisins, dark chocolate chunks, pumpkin seeds, cinnamon, cloves and the usual cookie components.  They are still big beautiful cookies though I do make mini's for snacking at home.  As a matter of fact, I just baked a batch last night so I can ship some to my mother-in-law in Ireland.

That's it.  The history of my Cowboy Cookie with all its trials and tribulations.

24 February 2010


Graduates of culinary schools are not chefs, they just have the capacity to become chefs.  I will never be a chef because I am a baker and bakers aren't chefs.  My mom always struggled with this titling thing.  She doesn't understand how I can be the head baker but I am not the chef.  Chef's make meals; I bake bread.  I like being a baker.  It's like being a chef without the ego. I have several friends who like to be called Chef on a regular, personal level.  I think it's a little odd.  I like to leave my work at work so to speak.

My step-father has a PhD in psychology.  He insists on being called Dr. Tubman.  He goes so far as to insist that I (his step-daughter since I was 10) call him Dr. Tubman.  My other option was 'Dad' and I only have one of those!  He says he earned his degree so it is only right that I call him Dr. as a sign of respect.  Funny, the people who truly deserve the distinction don't seem to care so much.  My grandfather had his PhD, too.  I first discovered this when I was addressing graduation announcements in college.  None other than my mother told me the fancy letters had to come before his name.  He would never have gone so far as to introduce himself as Doctor like 'Bill', that's Dr.Tubman, does.  Bill introduced himself as Dr. Tubman to my friend, Jai's dad, a bio-chemist, who asked Bill what kind of medicine he practiced.  Bill had to admit he didn't practice medicine and I was mortified after the whole chain of events.  Jai's dad has a PhD as well but I only know him as Babaji, Hindi for father.

This past Christmas, I was addressing cards when I got to my mother's, of course, I addressed it to: Bill & Anna Ruth Tubman.  If he weren't my step-father of nearly twenty years, I would have respectfully included the D and the R.  By the way, his close friends call him Bill but for some reason his step-daughter can't.  20 years later, he must still be upset about the 'Dad' thing.

I was chatting with my grandmother while printing the addresses on my cards.  I got to her brothers' cards and she informed me that they too earned the  'Dr.' in front of their names.  Obviously, I've known my uncles since my conception but I never knew they were doctors.  I wonder how many other relatives I've been offending all these years.

Wow! This post seems a little bitter.  It is not my intention; I only wanted to share a piece of humanity that seems to comes to light often in my day to day!

16 February 2010

The Man

I recently watched a great documentary on the struggle of microbreweries, called 'Beer Wars.'  The microbreweries are going up against the giant beer companies and, for the first time in history, making a place for themselves.  The plight of the microbrewer followed the same line as the artisan bread movement.  The issues are all the same.  Small beer companies, like small bakeries, can't sell their products for the pennies that large corporations can.  Consumers are driven by price more often than quality.  For instance, I have a customer who wants five dozen brioche buns a week.  It's a big enough order but it won't pay the rent, so to speak.  Brioche is by far the most expensive bread I bake.  The dough is nothing but butter and eggs...the flour is simply there to hold it all together.  This customer doesn't think I should be charging $2 for a 3 oz organic brioche bun.  The price haggling has been going on all week and I think the bun is down to $1.25 which remains much higher than Sysco* charges for the same product.  I'm certain the Sysco product is not anything near the quality of my buns but price wins out.  Sysco is getting buns from bakeries who are making such a high volume that they can charge far less than I can.  In fact, if I were making 10 dozen buns a week, I could charge less than I could for 5 dozen.  The more volume I order of things like butter and eggs, the cheaper it becomes for me and I can pass the discount along.  Also, I can bake 10 dozen buns in the same time it takes me to bake 5 dozen thus the labor cost of making the bread comes down.  The customers don't understand this and they don't have to.  They just need to know that I'm not trying to rip them off; I'm only trying to cover my costs and provide them with the same stellar products I always do.

The microbrewers, like DogFish Head (who was highlighted in the documentary) are competing against Budweiser and Coors for market space.  The large companies have so much money to throw around, they are trying to buy up the competition to squelch it before it becomes an issue.  Budweiser owns over 80 different brewing companies like Stella Artois, Kirin, and Rolling Rock.  They are even making their own microbrew-esque beers mimicing the products the little guys are brewing.  They made a pumpkin ale that was priced at $3/6 pack to compete with DogFish Head's Punkin ale at $8/6 pack.  They even created a fake brewing company to label the bottle with so the consumers would think they are getting an craft product.  I have seen this approach a lot lately.  Last week, while food shopping, I noticed a package of ground beef from 'Natural Valley Farms' or something like that.  I thought it was grass fed beef at first but upon further inspection, it was nothing but a clever label to sell the grocery store meat.  Then I noticed similar labeling tactics all around the meat department.  If you're trying to stick to your convictions, be careful when you're food shopping.  It's getting down and dirty out there!

Bakers and brewers have always been close.  I went to a bread convention a couple years ago and I spent three days debating which came first: beer or bread?  In a sense, you need beer to make bread and you need bread to make beer.  There are stories about bakers and brewers trading byproducts to get their batches going.  Wort, a stinky yeast liquid, rises to the top of sour starter.  Brewers use wort in the beer making process but bakers don't really need it.  Barm is an equally stinky, yeast substance created during the brewing process.  Barm is what bakers used, before commercial yeast came about, to  leaven their bread.  There are recipes in vintage cookbooks calling for barm but they don't list a quantity because the barm wasn't consistent in terms of sourcing.  The home baker had to use a trial and error method to determine how much barm to use.  Commercial yeast wasn't readily available until after World War II which is the exact same time Wonder Bread came into the homes of America.  I'm sure you can make the connection.

Beer or bread?  I don't know.  Ancient Egyptians (is there anything that these guys didn't invent?) were the first documented culture to make both beer and bread.  Apparently, they mixed flour and water to make a flat bread.  At some point, the baker accidentally left the mixture out in the sun for a couple days and it fermented.  He still baked his flat bread but it was much lighter and more flavorful.  Then it became the norm to leave the mix out and use a bit of the old mix in the new mix, voila - sourdough!  The same basic thing happened when the Egyptians left their grape juice out too long.  They ended up with wine.  Either the Egyptians were brilliant or they were total lazy morons but either way, I'm glad they figured out these principals or I would be out of a job.

Bottom line, sometimes it pays to spend more. You will get a better product and you can feel good knowing that you're supporting someone like me who is just trying to carve out a little space for a little bit of bread.

*Sysco is a major distributor in the food world.  They are known for selling cheap food.  If you've ever been to a pub and ordered jalapeno poppers or chicken wings after midnight, you've surely eaten a Sysco product.  Often, Sysco is the only game in town, especially small towns like ours.

15 February 2010

Amy's Bread...The Book

Last Monday night, Kevin and I packed up the kids and headed into the city for Amy’s book release event.  She and co-author Toy Dupree were set up in Chelsea Market, signing the re-release of their book, Amy’s Bread.  It was a wonderful evening.  I got to catch up with my former colleagues and friends.  Amy had a huge spread of bread and sweets, representing the recipes in her books.  (She released ‘The Sweeter Side of Amy’s Bread last year)  I was very happy to partake in the coconut dream bars.  I missed them so.
Everything in the bakery had pretty much remained the same.  I was surprised to see the same retail staff as was there three years ago.  It is unheard of to have such low turnover in bakery retail staff.  It speaks volumes for Amy’s culture.  The retail manager, Luke, recently married and bought a corner store on Lake Placid.  He’s moving in six weeks.  I guess I’m not the only one who decided to change things up in a big way. 
Kendall and Ann were busy getting the Thanksgiving lug plan started; just kidding…they were great and I loved seeing them.  I call Kendall whenever I need a pick-me-up or whenever I have a question about weights and pricing.  She’s full of spunk and she’s always laughing.  She and Josie hit it off right away.  Josie, of course, went Mommy hopping through the bakery.  This kid loves Mommies and if there’s another Mommy in the room, she wants nothing to do with Kevin and I.  She hugged and cuddled with Ann and Jessica, the operations manager at the bakery, too.
I spent a while catching up with David, formerly my daytime counterpart.  He’s known as the ‘peacekeeper’ in the bakery.  He was my ‘go to’ guy whenever I had staffing woes.  I have a very big decision to make, which I will write about once it is made; David gave me great advice as he always did.  He’s been at Amy’s for 10ish years now, which means he has seen it all and he knows how to handle just about anything that comes his way.

The Book…
Truth be told, I never read the 1st edition of Amy’s Bread.  It was out of print when I was considering a job at Amy’s and though it was on her bookshelf in the office, I never sat down to read through it.  When I got home from the signing, I cracked open my new book.  I was anxious to read what Amy and Toy wrote and I was eager to see how everything turned out.  I was working at Amy’s during the recipe testing and the re-write process.  This book isn’t just new packaging, Amy and Toy retested and updated all the recipes and much of the text has been completely revised. 
Writers have a voice and every writer’s voice is different.  My style of story telling is totally different than say, Frank McCourt (and hopefully more uplifting).  Amy and I have a very similar voice.  In fact, if I were to write a book about bread, this would be it.  Her way of explaining the bread baking process is unlike any other I’ve read.  It is very down to earth and simplified though it maintains its scientific integrity.  When preparing to write this, I was thinking about what makes us different.  Why can Amy and I explain this process in a way that’s easy to understand and attainable for a non-professional baker?  What sets us apart from Jeffery Hammelman, Joe Ortiz, Ciril Hitz and Michael Suas?  It took a while for me to see the obvious.  We’re moms!  Amy is doing what moms do best…making something complicated, easy to understand.  I remember getting an email from her about a product being ‘yucky,’ and thinking, this is what I love about Amy.  She isn’t afraid to shy away from the technical jargon and put things on a real level.  I’m sure the hardcore, old school men in the business wouldn’t appreciate ‘yucky’ in the same way I do but I truly value her candor.  I didn’t realize how rare these qualities were until I left Amy’s and spent time at other bakeries…she is one of a kind.
Bottom line, if you enjoy reading my blog, buy this book!   It includes my absolute favorite bread from Amy’s, pumpkin pecan.  I think it is my favorite because it was only made in November and I looked forward to it all year.  I actually froze several loaves to eat them throughout the rest of the year.    It also has a recipe for whole-wheat challah which I helped test during the research process.  I’ve been writing this post while watching the snowfall outside and waiting for my mini-batch of whole-wheat challah to rise.  It just came out of the oven and I broke the cardinal rule of baking…I cut it open and at a hot slice.  Hot bread is never bad and this one is no exception.  It transported me right back to Chelsea Market.   I know I’m being a little sappy but I got teary eyed.  I miss the frenzy, the smells, the bakery team, the city life.  Maybe there’s still time…..

10 February 2010

Dexter's Laboratory

When Mark and I were in the early planning stages of The Patisserie, we knew the menu was going to be local.  He is very strong in his convictions about organic, local products.  I wanted my piece of the menu to incorporate as many Pennsylvania traditions as I could.  I found out the Milford, 'Mill' ford, once milled buckwheat flour.  I use a buckwheat flour blend in my seeded wheat bread.  I make an apple bread because we are just a few miles from Warwick, NY, apple capitol, USA.  I use onions and potatoes from Pine Island, NY (check your bag of onions, I bet they were harvested in Pine Island!) in a beer bread which also incorporates, Yeunling, our Nation's oldest brewed beer, from Pottsville, PA.  When we first opened I made pretzels a la the Pennsylvania Dutch.  Of all my attempts at creating local, story based products, these were the least successful.  I thought they were beauties but the soft, salty twists just didn't sell.  I made pretzel kaiser rolls for Mark to use in a roast beef and blue cheese sandwich but he didn't sell enough of them to make it worth the daily pretzel process.

Pretzels are not as easy as you may think.  Mixing the dough is pretty simple.  It is a straight dough, meaning there are no starters, nothing to do the day before.  Everything is dumped into the bowl and it gets the hell beat out of it.  Most of my doughs are gently mixed but this one is mixed hard and strong.  Pretzels are supposed to be chewy and dense, not light and airy like a far less mixed ciabatta would be.  Typically, high gluten flour is used which is the same one would use when making bagels.  I use regular bread flour because I want my pretzels to be a little softer than the norm.  Once the dough is mixed, I divide it into 3 ounce portions and shape it into little logs.  These logs rest for a while before I roll the dough out into long snakey strands and twist them into the pretzel shape.  The resting step is super important in pretzel production because of the intense mixing.  The gluten strands are forming such a tight network, they need to relax before you can roll them into the long strands.  If they aren't given the proper time to relax, they will A. spring back into short strands and/or B. rip and tear.  The pretzel twisting isn't too difficult once you get the hang of it.  They kinda twist themselves if you get the right wiggle going.

The hard part of pretzel production is the dipping.  Pretzels have to be dipped in a lye solution in order to get that nice dark, crisp, salty crust.  Some home recipes say baking soda can be used to achieve this.  It can't, I tried.  I hate working with the lye because it is a hazardous chemical, sodium hydroxide.  Did you ever see the scene in fight club when Brad Pitt sprinkles lye on Ed Norton's hand and it burns a hole in it?  That's what I dip the pretzels in.  The solution is one ounce of lye with one quart of water.  I have seen bare handed bakers dip pretzels in this mix.  Not me!  I wear heavy rubber work gloves that come up to my elbows and I make sure I'm wearing my glasses to protect my eyes.  Carolyn, my dip assistant extraordinaire, says I look like Dexter from Dexter's laboratory when I'm in the process.  Once the pretzels are dipped, Carolyn sprinkles salt on top and they are baked until dark, golden brown.  Yum!

The hotel next door is interested in ordering pretzel kaisers so this week pretzels returned to our menu selection.  They are selling like hot cakes.  Finally, enough sales to make the pretzel production worth while.  I'm sure the Super Bowl helped out with the sales.  Pretzels and football seem to be well paired.  Carolyn and I also played around with filled pretzels and we came up with a yummy, 4 cheese jalapeno concoction.  Double Yum!

09 February 2010

500 Pound Baker

As a baker, the comments I hear most from my admirers are 'I can't believe you don't weigh 500 pounds,' or 'how do you stay so thin,' or 'if I worked here I would gain so much'.  Really, if I had a dollar for every time I heard a variation of this, I'd be rolling in the dough.  The truth is, after I had my babies, I couldn't wait to get back to work so I could shed some pounds.

Baking isn't an easy job.  Working in any capacity in a kitchen, isn't an easy job.  For starters, I bake all the bread at 500 degrees.  The oven is the center of the bakery and I am loading bread in and out all day.  I don't care how cold it gets outside, 500 degrees makes you sweat.  They don't make air conditioners with enough capacity to efficiently cool a space using bread ovens...500 degree ovens + 95 degree weather = more sweat.  I remember one day at Amy's Bread, the ambient temperature rose above 110 degrees.

Aside from the ovens, there's the dough.  My dough tubs are about 20 pounds a piece and I have about 10 of them a day.  This is a very small quantity compared to many bakeries.  I move my 10 tubs around the room several times.  During the winter, I'm moving them from hot spot to hot spot and rotating them to make sure they are evenly heated.  I have to fold all the dough at least once during it's rise.  I stack, unstack, re-stack...lots of lifting and bending.  Each time I need a 50 pound bag of flour, which is about twice a day, I have to run down two flights of stairs and carry it back up to the kitchen.  The flour sacks are just the start of this two flight trip.  I have to go down to storage for all the dry goods...nuts, dried fruits, seeds, salt, yeast....

Energy exertion aside, being surrounded by baked goods day in and day out, doesn't mean they are beckoning.  Yes, I eat a lot of bread but probably no more than average.  The bread I eat is probably a little on the healthier side of average as well.  I don't eat a lot of sweets on the days I am working.  Mark and I were just conversing about this natural diet plan.  On the days I'm working, I am surrounded by sweetness and all I really want is a bacon, egg and cheese.  On the two days I am off, I crave the sweet stuff but the last thing I want to do is make it myself and I'm not going to get crappy store brand sweetness when there's better out there...just two days away.  Sometimes I remember to grab a couple cookies for the road on Sunday before our weekend begins.  Sometimes, I venture into another bakery to get something sweet.  Rarely, I bake a pan of brownies at home.  Mostly, I wait until Wednesday when I can have anything I want and I don't really want it anymore.

That's my story...why I don't weigh 500 pounds.  If you happen to see a 500 pound baker, it must be the boss and he/she can't possibly be doing much of the baking anymore.  

08 February 2010

Confessions of a Desperate Mom

I am a great pregnant woman.  Aside from eating too many sweets, I follow the doctor's advice exactly.  I go so far as to adhere to the maybe's as well as the facts.  If tuna is questionable, no problem, I can give up anything for nine months.  The day I found out I was pregnant with Josie, I gave up my pack a day smoking habit, my gallon a day coffee habit and my pint (or five) a day Guiness habit.  My thought was that it's only nine months, why take a chance on anything that could harm the baby.  I kept up with a lot of mom sites where people write in about their woes and other moms support them.  I never understood the 'I made it down to 5 cigarettes a day' moms and the moms who supported them.  There were also lots of 'I just can't give up my coffee...it gives me a headache' moms.  You think your head hurts now, what's it going to feel like when that baby is born early, underweight and with ADD?  This is the first of many times to come where baby comes first!  It's ONLY 9 months!!!

When I carried Keegan, I was a little more relaxed.  I drank one cup of green tea a day.  Technically, the FDA recommendation is 150mg of caffeine a day which amounts to one cup of coffee.  Tea has about 50mg of caffeine and green tea has even less.  I have to admit, one of the reasons I cut out caffeinated beverages was to keep my conscience clean when I consumed mass amounts of chocolate which also contains caffeine, about 30mg for a 2 ounce dark chocolate bar.

With both babies, I was very strict about the fish thing.  I know there are certain allowable fish but I could never keep them straight.  I cut out fish entirely for both pregnancies.  However, with both children I did have a one time only serious crab feast.  I grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, how could I deny myself?  I called my midwife from the crab house and asked if it was okay.  She started flipping through books to find blue crabs on her list.  They were safe! Yes!!!  I probably would have indulged anyway.  I also pigged out on clams.  During Keegan's pregnancy, I bought a bunch of clams to cook on the grill, knowing that Kevin didn't like them.  I had to eat them all myself because we didn't want them to go to waste.  With both kids, I craved tuna melts and I knew I couldn't give in.  This was the first meal I ate after giving birth, both times.  Kevin and I actually packed a cooler to take to the hospital with all the components for after the birth.  With Keegan, it was by chance but much appreciated.

I have to say, the hardest thing of all was giving up coffee.  I really enjoy the first cup of the day.  Being a baker and working crazy hours, I feel I need it to survive.  With Josie, I was scared to drink coffee because I thought it would be harder to stay nicotine clean.  Coffee and cigarettes just go together.  After she was born, I allowed myself one cup of good strong coffee early in the morning.  I was nursing and caffeine still passes through to the baby.  Now that Keegan's on board, I have a few cups of coffee a day.  He's a pretty good sleeper and he's much more calm than Josie ever was so I don't feel it does him any harm.  Leafy greens, however, make both of my kids puke buckets if I eat them and it passes through the breast milk.  I haven't enjoyed a salad in two years.

Back to the coffee...I take my coffee with milk, cold milk.  I hate getting a cup of coffee that is too hot to drink immediately.  Cold milk seems to solve the problem.  Having a toddler in the house means that we go through more milk than I ever could have imagined.  Kevin takes it in his coffee too and he drinks about 25 cups a day.  I would say we use about a gallon of milk a day or at least close to it.  We live 25 minutes from the closest grocery store so we have to be careful to have 'milka milka' for Josie's bedtime bottle and her wake up bottle on hand.  There are times we don't feel like driving into town in the evening so we make sure there is enough for Josie and we plan on taking the trip first thing in the morning.  This means I don't get milk in my coffee and Kevin doesn't get milk in his.  For him, this means that he won't drink the coffee and he will be a total grump until he satisfies his need.  For me, I get creative.  This morning, I stirred whipped cream into my cup.  It's the Cabot kind that is actual cream and not who-knows-what chemical concoction.  I used the last of the bottle and my coffee wasn't quite light enough.  There's peppermint ice cream in the freezer...that may be yummy.  Here's the big confession, there's gallons of breast milk in the freezer, why not?  I haven't tried it yet but I am seriously considering it for cup  #2.  If it weren't my breast milk, it would be in my coffee right now but there's something weird about drinking my own milk, maybe it's just me.   I can't be the only mom, right?  There's got to be a few out there who have already resorted to this.  Let me know if it's you and I'll keep you posted on my desperation level.

02 February 2010

Doubled in Size

ciabatta dough on the rise

That's what she said...he, he, he.  Clearly, my new found love for 'The Office' has gotten the best of me. 

Almost every bread recipe you find will tell you to let the bread rise until it has doubled in size.  I let bread rise every day and this still baffles me.  How are you supposed to remember the original size in order to know if it has doubled?  If you're anything like me, ie impatient, you check the dough every five minutes to see if it is ready to go into the oven.  Okay, maybe I don't check it every five minutes when I'm making a couple hundred pounds of dough but if I'm just making a small batch...I check it every five minutes.  I actually tell my students to find something else to do for a couple hours when they are baking at home.  Forgetting about the dough is the best option, sometimes.

I find the best way to know if the bread is ready to bake is the finger poke test.  This is so easy and it works every time.  Simply poke a fingertip into the dough and watch it spring back.  If the dough immediately springs back and holds its original shape, it's not ready, not even close to ready.  If the dough deflates when you touch it, you have over-proofed dough that will not rise again.  If the finger dimple springs back slowly and still leaves a slight impression in the dough, it's perfect.  You can bake away.  This works every time with every kind of dough.  There you have it, doubled in size - demystified.

Don't worry if you don't get it right.  I still jump the gun.  As a matter of fact, just last week I grossly under proofed a batch of brioche buns.  The hotel next to the bakery wants brioche buns to use for their burgers.  They want them ASAP.  They have, after all, been waiting for a month for the bakery staff to return from winter break.  There was not much wiggle room for product development, just get the buns to the tables.

Last week I had sick babies and my husband's truck is in the shop.  I had to bake extra early in the AM so I could be home in time to get him off to work.  I was pressed for time.  Friday morning, I mixed a batch of brioche for the big bun test.  After 5 hours of poking and waiting, the buns still didn't seem proofed enough.  I should always trust myself but in this case I didn't.  I thought, gee these things have been in the warm, steamy, proof box for 5 hours, they've got to be ready, right?  Nope, they sucked!    I baked them off thinking, well, I don't know what I was thinking but they weren't light and fluffy.  They were dense and they split open because they were, drum roll, under proofed! Don't worry, they didn't go to waste but they weren't ideal either.  Apparently, someone from the hotel wanted to come talk to me about what brioche is supposed to be like.  I am so glad he didn't and I bet he is too.  I will be the first person to notice and the first person to admit when one of my breads doesn't turn out the way it should.  I will also be the first person to correct the problem and send out a stellar product the second time around.

Sunday morning, I mixed another batch of brioche.  I tweaked the formula a little so the dough would be slightly more forgiving than the very delicate brioche I normally mix.  I shaped the buns and let them do their thing.  Five hours later, my baking was done but the rolls weren't ready (yes, I used the finger poke test).  I tagged out and tagged Mark in.  Mark had, after all, proofed and baked thousands of rolls very similar to the two dozen I made, when he was responsible for the 2, 30 pan convection ovens at Amy's Bread.  I left a big sign on Mark's work station so he wouldn't forget the little guys.  Later in the day I got a text message saying that the buns were beauties!  Mission accomplished.

01 February 2010


Just as there is a special place in my heart for brioche, there also lies one for a perfect baguette.  What makes a baguette perfect?  Well, the industry places certain standards on the baguette.  It must weigh 350g, 14 oz pre-baked.  It must be 22 inches long and it can only be scored or cut 5 or 7 times.  Easy, right?  Not on your life!

There are so many opportunities to screw up the baguette along the way.  I'm amazed and excited when mine turn out the way I hope.  It starts with a dough.  As I've mentioned before, I use poolish in my French dough.  The poolish is 50% water and 50% flour with a pinch of yeast (technically 1% of the flour weight).  This mixture sits for 18 hours before it is mature enough to use in the dough.  I know it is mature when I see big bubbles beneath the surface and there isn't too much resistance in the gluten network.  Each morning, the first thing I do is to dump my poolish tub (a rubber maid trash can) into the cold steel mixing bowl.  Then I add the appropriate amount of water and flour for the batch size I'm mixing.  These days my batches are about 60 pounds.  I mix these three ingredients at a very slow speed just until there are no big flour lumps.  I stop the mix, cover the bowl with a garbage bag and wait for at least 20 minutes.

Waiting....this is called autolyse.  Autolyse is a method developed by the grandfather of bread, Raymond Calvel.  He is a Frenchman who wrote 'Le Gout du Pain.'  'The taste of bread,' is a scientific approach to baking and one of my all time favorite books.  At any rate, during autolyse the protein in the flour starts to digest itself lending to a more extensible gluten network.  Extensiblity is important when you're striving for 22 inches! During the baking world cup, Team USA, autolysed their dough overnight.  I have to admit, I didn't think that autolyse was a needed step until I started using it.  My dough is much happier now that I take the proper time to let it do it's thing.

After the 20 minutes are up, I add the salt and the yeast to the dough and continue to mix on a slow speed.  My dough is only mixed on high speed for a minute or two.  I don't want to fully develop the gluten in the dough because I want to leave that up to time.  This method of slow fermentation will help to bring out the flavor and the texture of the bread.  Think- ciabatta versus bagels.  I then cut the dough out of the mixer with a sharp knife, into oiled tubs (again, gotta love rubbermaid).  If I were to pull off pieces of dough rather than cut it, I would be damaging the gluten network.  The dough sits in the tubs for about an hour before I fold it, punch it down, turn it...whatever the lingo, I'm simply stretching out the dough and folding it over itself.  This process evens out the temperature of the dough and gives the yeast a brand new source of food.  It is also a gentle way of developing the gluten a little more.

After another hour passes, I start to divide the dough into it's final portions.  Again, I cut off pieces with a sharp bench knife and weigh them out on a balance scale.  These pieces are then shaped into little logs that rest for 15 minutes or so before I start rolling them out into baguettes.  The baguette shaping is in line for the most difficult part of the process.  If I hadn't spent night after night, shaping thousands of baguettes at Amy's Bread, I would still be an awful baguette shaper.  The shape has to be a perfect line but the propensity to end up with a dog bone where there is less dough in the center, is very high.  Once I shape my perfect baguettes, I line them up on a wooden board, snuggled in a couche , or linen, to rest and rise.  'Coucher' means 'to sleep' in French.  This is where they stay until they've properly risen.

When they are ready to bake, I flip them onto my oven loader with a 'planchette.'  This board is a gentle way of moving the baguettes to a new surface.  I then score them, the other most difficult part of the process.  These five lines are cuts made with a straight razor called a 'lame' (pronounced like the beginning of 'llama' not like the word for 'uncool').  The cuts have to be a an exact 45 degree angle.  They overlap slightly and they run down the exact center of the baguette.  If I get this right, the baguettes 'ears' will open up, yielding a beautiful final product. 

I leave the soldiers in the oven until they are a a little darker than golden brown.  I'd say it's more of a mahogany.  The dark color is the 'Maillard Reaction' which is kind of like carmelization.  If the baguettes are light in color they will have much less flavor.  Think in terms of sugar...plain, white, uncooked sugar tastes sweet but once it is cooked, the resulting caramel is teaming with flavor.

That's it.  A day in the life of a baguette.  I have to mention, my son Keegan was exactly 22 inches long the day he was born.  Is this nature's way of telling me I chose the right profession?

21 January 2010

Thumbs Up

I had the good fortune of visiting Sullivan Street Bakery yesterday.  Jim Lahey, of no-knead fame, is the owner of Sullivan Street.  He invited me to stay and watch how his operation works.  Of course I couldn't just stand by and watch so I jumped in and helped mix, divide and shape his bread.  The bakery is different from anywhere I've baked before yet still remains very much the same.  My afternoon started with Antonio, the mixer.  As far as I could tell, he is the longest running baker there.  After twelve years, he can do it all.  Every bakery has an anchor.  The anchor tends to be the person who mixes the dough.  The mixer has to be trusted above all others.  Yesterday, Antonio was mixing 200 kilo batches of dough...that's about 500 pounds.  Imagine if he forgot the salt or worse yet, added too much salt and he ruined 500 pounds of inventory in one swoop.  If the dough is properly mixed, it easily lends itself to shaping and it will have the flavor and structure that Jim, in this case, is striving for.  I tend to get a little bored with mixing (unless it's mixing brioche), shaping is more my game.  I don't know how these anchors can do what they do, day in and day out.

At Bread Alone, Alex was the mixer.  He came in at 5am every day and mixed away.  That was his only responsibility but he knew it well.  He knew when to add ice to the water and how much to add.  He knew when the flour was a little young and what to do to improve the dough.    Amy's Bread has several mixers.  There is actually a mixing team.  Amy mixes more varieties of dough than Sullivan Street or Bread Alone.  The mixing team is very strong and they too have an anchor.  Orlando has been at Amy's Bread for at least 10 years though I can't remember exactly.  He is the head mixer.   He mixes 6, sometimes 7, days a week as the mixers often do.  The mixing team works in the early morning.  Orlando was always the 'go to' guy if I had any problems over night.  Brioche didn't rise properly, challah was too cold, potato over-proofed....no problem, Orlando would fix it!

After I got to know Antonio, the first shift of bakers arrived to start shaping and dividing the dough.  A couple days ago, Jim had a contest to see if anyone on his team could divide dough faster and with more accuracy than he could.  The prize was $100 to match and $200 to beat.  Antonio's brother, Oscar became a very rich baker that day and Jim seemed pretty bummed that he let his speed slip.  Jim's method of dividing was totally different from mine and it difficult for me to get the hang of.  Oscar divides in much the same way in which I was taught.  Who knew there were so many different ways to achieve the same results?  When dividing the dough by hand, a balance scale is used to make sure all the pieces are the same weight.  It is important to try to get the proper weight on the first cut because it is easier to shape a whole, rectangular lump of dough than to try and shape lots of small bits that occur when the piece is too heavy or too light.  Jim told me the bits signify doubt.  If you doubt your ability to feel the correct weight of the dough, you end up with bits.

Once the pieces were divided, Jim showed me his shaping technique.  Again, this was new to me.  It's been a long time since someone showed me something new in terms of the baking process.  It was total brain candy!  I fumbled with Jim's method of shaping.  Normally, I loosely shape the interior of the loaf and tightly seal the outside.  Jim shapes the exact opposite way.  I use the outside edge of my hands, the lines created by my pinky fingers to my palms, to fold the dough over.  Jim uses the line created by his thumbs.  That being said, I was all thumbs and not in a good way, when I tried to shape like Jim.  It took a lot of effort and I loved it.  My hands had to think for the first time in years.  I didn't get to stay long enough to master the new-to-me technique but I did get to hang around and talk theory with Jim Lahey.  I dorked out with one of the biggest baking geeks in the business!  What a great day.

20 January 2010


'What Artisan Bread Means to Me' by Rachel Renee Wyman....

Just kidding.  When conceptualizing this piece it just seemed to have that elementary feel to it.  I imagined myself back in middle school being instructed to write about manatees or democracy.  The difference now is that this word truly means something to me and I feel it is being misused left and right.  I started thinking about this essay a couple years ago when a Wendy's commercial touted the use of artisan bread for their new sandwich.  I must have let out an audible gasp the first time I saw the ad.  There is no way Wendy's is employing bakers to hand shape each roll before it is sent out to their franchises.  It is equally unlikely that each store has a craft bakery in the back, behind the microwaves and deep fryers, baking off crusty bread.  Wendy's ad was the first I noticed.  There were several to follow and they continually pop up here and there.  Subway uses artisan sub rolls, Panera sells artisan bread, Dunkin' Dounuts makes artisan flat breads....it's everywhere.

In France there are laws that determine how certain food products can be marketed.  If any part of the bread making process is automated, save the mixing, the store that sells the finished product can not be called a "patisserie" or bakery.  Sure people can call it that but the law states that the sign on the store front can not contain the word patisserie.  The same laws denote the weight, shape, length and scoring of a baguette.  The Food and Drug Administration issues laws about packaging and ingredients but in a different way.  Did you know that it is illegal to package a product as "whole" wheat unless it is 100% whole wheat?  Sellers get around this by using terms like 'honey wheat' and 'soft wheat.'  Maybe they'll move on to 'wheat-like' in the coming years.  The FDA also regulates the terms 'good source of', low fat, fat free and light.

The bread baking community is split on what can be called artisan bread.  Technically, artisan refers to the crafter not the craft itself.  I am an artisan baker who bakes artisanal bread, to use the proper grammar/semantics.  What makes an artisan baker?  If an industrial mixer is used and the rest of the process is done by hand, is the bread an artisan product?  What if the dough is divided by machine, then shaped by hand?  What about using a mechanized roller to shape the loaves but individually, hand loading the bread into the oven?  What if the dough is loaded into the oven on a conveyor belt but a baker scores each loaf before it bakes?  There are several lines that can be drawn and there really isn't any end all be all to categorize artisanal bread. 

Wikipedia feels artisan bread is defined by the water content in the dough, 60-75%.  This seems odd but somewhat understandable.  High water content makes for a more fragile dough that is much harder to work with.  This hydration level would make for a more open, airy inside or crumb and it could make for more fermentation which makes for more flavor.  It would be interesting to know how wikipedia came up with this standard.

My line is drawn after the dough is divided.  I don't think using a mechanized divider as opposed to hand weighing on a balance scale, takes away from the quality or outcome of the bread.  Mechanized dividers come in several forms.   I've used a 20-pocket hydrolic divider that gentley presses and cuts large masses of dough into 20 equal portions.  This one is best used for baguettes and loaves.   I've also used a 36 peice divider/rounder that cuts smaller lumps of dough into 36 equal portions and it can round them into rolls.  Both of these machines are quite common in the industry and from my experience, they both like to break down a lot making for very trying production.  I feel shaping the dough by hand is essential in the artisan process.  It is a difficult skill to master which makes it a defining part of the baking process.  If the dough is improperly shaped it will tell on the baker who shaped it.  Have you ever cut into a loaf of bread and found a hole running down the center of the whole loaf?  This is called a 'baker's grave;'  it happens when too much flour is used when shaping and the dough can't surge to itself.  If the loaf isn't shaped tight enough, it will loose its shape before going into the oven or if it is shaped too tight, the dough may start to pull apart and break open.  There are different ways to shape dough to yield different outcomes in the finished product.  It takes an artisan baker to know these rules and to consistently create beautiful bread.  Shaping bread by machine takes the soul out of the process.  For me, shaping loaf after loaf, baguette after baguette, is very cathartic.  Even though it seems monotonous at times, there's a whole lotta love going into each loaf I shape which puts my name, my mark on the bread I sell.

There is definitely an increased awareness of bread in America in much the way there is an increased awareness of organic, natural products.  As educated consumers, we have to be cautious about which products to believe in.  Is it labeled as artisan or organic or both to sell a product or is it labeled that way because it truly is organic artisan bread?

18 January 2010

Josie's Bread

The night before Josie was born

When I was pregnant with Josie, I switched from an OB to a midwife with only three months to go.  My husband and I saw the documentary "The Business of Being Born," and it made me change my mind about everything I thought I wanted as far as the birthing process was concerned.  My family is very traditional in terms of doctors and medicine.  I didn't know that there were so many options available for having babies until my lamaze instructor clued me in.  (On a side note, I have remained very close with said lamaze instructor and because of my experience, Lamaze International has asked me to be a spokes person for them.  I have to do a video bit and tell my story...how cool!)

It took me a week of constant calls to find a midwife who would take me on at six months pregnant.  Finally I found Barbara Charles in Long Island.  She delivers babies in a birthing center operated out of a hospital.  It was exactly what I wanted.  Barbara is a little wacko in a good way.  If there was a Saturday Night Live sketch or a sitcom portraying a midwife, she would be the one for the job.  She's a little hippie, a little granny and a lot of love.

When Barbara told me I had to drastically change my diet because I had gained too much weight, I was sad.  When she told me I couldn't eat any more bread, I was devistated.  I'm a baker; how can I give up bread?  Not even whole wheat or multi-grain, I asked.  She said she'd allow one slice of toast a week.  Yikes!  What was on my plate?  Mostly veggies, no fruit (too sugary), some meats were included on the list.  It was impossible.  There were some things she mentioned that sparked my interest.  Nettle is good for milk production and quinoa supposedly helps fortify the breast milk.  Hemp seeds are high in omegas (brain power) and flax seeds contain B-vitamins.

I decided to create an homage to Barbara and to the my unborn baby in the form of a loaf.  I would create a bread I could eat.  Grains, in general, are hard for your body to process.  They have to be denatured in order to be processed at all.  Denaturing can be accomplished by soaking, cooking, grinding, etc.  A lot of times this is done without being realized.  Think about preparing rice or baking with whole wheat flour.  I decided to sprout the grains for the bread.  Sprouting is just what it sounds like.  I give the grains just enough water for them to sprout.  It's like starting a garden.   By sprouting the grains before grinding them into a paste, enzymes are released and the grains are sort of predigested and changed from carbohydrate to protein.  All this means is the body can easily absorb ALL the vitamins and minerals contained in the grain and the calorie and carb content is drastically decreased.  This is the basic idea behind the raw food diet craze.

I played with a lot of different techniques in terms of sprouting and baking.  For instance, when flax seeds are hydrated, they release a gooey substance, in much the same way okra does when it's cooked.  This stuff prevents the other grains from sprouting if they are all sprouted together.  In the end, it took almost a year to come up with an optimal product.  Obviously, Josie was part of the family and Keegan was on his way but without Josie, this bread wouldn't be.

The Final Product

Josie's bread is made from sprouted wheat berries and quinoa.  Wheat berries are the grain that is ground to make wheat and white flour.  Using the whole berry instead of just the milled portion is packing in the nutrients.  Quinoa is a 'super food'.  It is the only grain to form a complete protein by itself.  Normally, grains have to be combined with legumes to form a protein, beans and ricefor example.  Three days prior to baking, I start sprouting the grains.  Once they all have shoots coming from them, I grind them into a paste.  On the day of the bake, I mix the paste with rye flour, spelt flour, whole wheat flour, local honey (which helps ward off allergies to local pollen), dried nettle leaf, whole flax seeds, hulled hemp seeds, oats, water, yeast and salt.  This unconventional dough is shaped into loaves and allowed to rise.  It is then baked yeilding a dense product akin to a german black rye.  The flavors are very earthy.  It smells almost like a fresh cut lawn and tastes of the complex blend of seeds and grains.

The benefits of this bread stretch beyond pregnancy.  Diabetics have found it has a low glycemic index on account of the reduced carbs.  Customers with a gluten intolerance have been able to partake in a loaf because rye and spelt flour contain little to no gluten.  The bread is also fiber rich thus stimulating digestion.  I'm trying not to say 'it keeps you regular' but it keeps you regular.  It stores remarkably well both at room temperature and frozen.  Also, it is yummy... the best byproduct of all!

Send me an email, crampsey@gmail.com,  if you're interested in ordering a loaf of Josie's Bread.  Due to it's natural ability to last a long time, it ships well too.  That being said, I bet it won't last a long time once you try a slice!