A tale of two loaves, white and crusty

There is a known psychological phenomenon where people who are rubbish at doing something, say singing, think they’re fantastic. This is because they lack the skill to recognise exactly how bad they are. Let’s face it, if you’re tone deaf, your singing is always going to sound like Pavarotti to yourself. I call it the X-Factor effect and it applies to baking as much as singing.

Lately I’ve been thinking that I’m quite good at baking bread, so I set myself a simple test. Do I think that my loaf is nearly as good as an artisan baker’s? Answer: I think I’m pretty close. Conclusion: The reality is that I’m not as close as I think.

The question then becomes, how can I improve? Going on a breadmaking course is a candidate, but that’ll take some research and planning and I want to do something NOW. Rising to the Berry has the answer, do a “bake-through”. You essentially take a book of recipes on your chosen subject, in this case Paul Hollywood’s 100 Great Breads, and basically bake every single recipe in the book.

Will there be drama, yes. Will there be disasters, undoubtedly. Will I learn anything? I hope so.

So, to begin my Great Breads Bake Through, I did the white loaf and the crusty loaf, page 20 of the aforementioned book, which I should add is not one for the rank beginner. Paul Hollywood is a master baker, and I think with that title comes a bit of “Kung Fu Master Syndrome”, in that he is so good at what he does that he probably finds it difficult to understand why people don’t get it. The book does assume a reasonable amount of pre-knowledge, like what dough is more or less supposed to look like and how yeast behaves. If you are a total beginner, you will have to do some additional research, looking up videos on how to knead for instance, and more information on how things go wrong. This is just me, but having some knowledge of when things are FUBAR is useful. If you go wrong early on it saves you hours of frustration.

Back to the loaves. Apologies for the rather grainy photo. Light wasn’t very good when I took the photo and it was still grainy despite the funky post-processing on my camera. The ingredient list is not all that different, and I remember thinking, “Surely it’ll all come out the same?” The recipes are all about 60% water, and 2% salt. The white loaf has, to 500g of flour, 270ml of water and 69 ml of olive oil. The crusty cob, 500g of flour to 300ml of water and 40g of butter. The devil is, however, always in the detail. There’s. Only 30ml difference in water between the two doughs, and the white loaf felt tighter, more springy and the crusty cob much wetter and sticky. The difference in the feel of the dough was not subtle. They were like chalk and cheese.

They rose differently too. The white loaf took longer to double in size, taking about two hours, and the softer, wetter crusty loaf ballooned in just over one, so I had to rise it again so both loaves would be ready at about the same time.

When it was time to prove them, I didn’t assume that they’d behave in any similar way at all. The white loaf would have to be speeded up, so I used the residual heat from Mrs Foodie’s potato cake bake to help it on its way. The crusty cob was merrily reinflating like a comedy balloon, so I left that one at room temperature.

Baking was when it all went a little wrong. The white loaf skidded off the peel easily, onto the baking stone, whereas the crusty cob’s wetter and stickier dough refused to budge despite a handful of flour and some aggressive persuasion. In the end I baked it on the improvised peel, an old metal baking sheet. Once in the oven, the white loaf rose quickly alarmingly so, to the point where I thought it was going to explode. The crusty cob puffed up a lot too but I speculate that was due to the wetter dough more than anything else. I wonder what it would have been like on the stone.

In the end I baked them a little too much. You can see that the white loaf on he left in the picture caught a little and the crusty cob, on the shelf below didn’t brown nearly as much. My mistake here was to assume they’d take more or less the same amount of time. I should have known better really, given the way the doughs behaved.

Once they’d cooled, I did a taste test. Yes you can taste the difference between the two. The white loaf is slightly denser, and tasted of the olive oil used to flavour it whilst the crusty cob was indeed crustier, and fluffier because the dough was wetter.

It was perhaps naive of me to expect them to be more similar than they were. After all, the quantities of ingredients weren’t that different, but the end products were two very different breads. I am both inspired and humbled because this really shows exactly how skilled master bakers are. They know how to manipulate the ingredients to achieve specific results, a subtlety that you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to learn if you were using a breadmaker.

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