Saturday, June 11, 2011

In Pursuit of the Perfect Bread

I love to bake!
I always liked to bake my own bread, first occasionally, lately more often. Pursuing my quest for better food, I had read the mile long ingredient list on a regular toast packing and decided: No more of this for us.
After practicing a while, I think I got it down pretty good, at least my family would eat it without complaining, which means a lot...;-)

Now ready to up it to the next step, I wanted to bake in a wood fired oven. Asking around, people would give me different advice, reading books was helpful, but only so far and I was not quite ready to make the investment without better knowledge of what I was about to undertake.

Visiting a friend in Oregon, I stumbled about a small ad in a Hobby Farm magazine, originating from the San Francisco Baking Institute, offering a weekend class in the art of wood fire oven baking. That was just the right thing for me and I tried to apply, but unfortunately the course was already booked out. So the waiting list it was. To my utter delight a few weeks later I got an email from the SFBI telling me that a spot was available. My hopes came true, I would be able to attend the workshop!

Last weekend, now, was THE weekend. While driving in pouring rain to South San Francisco, I was wondering, if the class wouldn't be over my head, if everybody else was already an experienced or even professional baker and so forth.
But the moment I opened the door and was greeted not only by a friendly receptionist but also with a delicious waft of freshly baked goods, I did not really care anymore. Just following the mouth watering aroma, I knew I was at the right spot.

I was led to a big table adjacent to a beautiful huge wood fire oven

out of which to my great surprise, a baker, which later turned out to be one of our instructors, just pulled a sheet full of croissants. Croissants in a wood fired oven, and they are not burned, but perfectly baked, how was that possible??? And it became even better, these croissants were to be our breakfast! Although I already had breakfast at home, stupid me, I could not resist and devoured one of these delicious croissants.

Baking in a wood fired oven requires quite a bit of planning and so, to accommodate all our needs during the day, we started right away with how to fire the oven.

Here one of our very knowledgeable instructors, Michael Faircloth, explaining the important points of proper firing:

resulting in a perfectly burning fire!

After this first excitement we went into the classroom for a more formal introduction, and to my relief, I found out that I was not the only "home baker". After learning about the history and the different types of wood fire ovens we were ushered to the "lab", the actual bakery. This well planned mix between theoretical and practical instruction would continue throughout the weekend and was perfect: Just before one was about to loose attention in the classroom, the practical part would start, and after standing and processing for a while in the lab, everybody was thankful to be able to sit down again.

In the lab now, we were taught by Frank Sally, an exceptionally good teacher and accomplished baker, how to prepare, handle and shape different doughs that we later would bake in the wood fire oven. Due to the limited space, even in this huge wood fire oven, we chose the samples to be baked in it, whereas the rest was baked in the bakery's deck ovens.

Since loading the breads is quite a time sensitive and hot undertaking, Frank would demonstrate the "how to" on the first day:

Aren't they beautiful, our perfectly shaped first sour dough breads???? Baking happily away.

A pity, that the image can't convey the heat and smell......

As I came home that evening with my "harvest", proud as can be,

my family at first did not believe that I baked these wonderful breads, well, I had a little help....And guess what was for dinner? Yep, bread and cheese, lots of it!

The next morning, this time I was smarter and did not have breakfast at home, we were greeted with the most delicious sticky buns I ever ate, in addition to scones and muffins, all baked in the retained heat from yesterdays firing.
Yesterday we had prepared pie dough, which we now finished to galettes to be baked also in the retained heat of the oven before it would be fired again.


and after

Then we mixed and later formed dough for the pizzas, which were to be our lunch, and

for ciabattas...

...and pita bread, which popped up like balloons in the oven:

As the pita bread came fresh out of the oven we were presented with yummy hummus and baba ganoush, a tasty eggplant dip. I had planned not to eat anything in order to enjoy the pizza, but the smell and taste was just too good to be ignored!

We already had practiced with the more forgiving pita bread to load and unload the wood oven but now with the more delicate pizza the hour of truth had arrived.

Before we could load the pizza, Mike had to bring up the heat in the oven again and explained to us how the flames basically have to lick the side and ceiling of the oven in order to provide enough heat for the pizza:

In goes the pizza with the help of a wooden peel, then it has to be turned continuously with a "palino" and after not even 2 minutes it's ready!

Here is comes:

Not that I was hungry in any way, but I didn't leave a was that good. Full to the brim it was back to the classroom, where Frank gave us an eye-opening (at least for me) introduction into the more scientific approach of baking with yeast and sourdough. I always was so proud of my self made sourdough starter, but here I learned that I almost starved that poor thing to death.

Baking in a wood fire oven, as I learned, is all about the right amount of heat, retaining the heat and the right timing in baking different items. First comes the right fire and lots of patience to maintain it. Then one can bake pizza with flames licking the oven walls as seen above. After then removing the heat source, the oven is ready for bread, after cooling down even more it is ready for baking pastries. Remember the croissants from the first morning, these were baked basically on the remaining heat from the baking the day before!
Sounds easy, but I certainly gained a lot of respect for wood fire oven bakers. The question is now, will I be able accomplish all that?
Yes, I will. It won't be easy but well worth it.

I came to learn about wood fire ovens and I did learn more than I thought possible. That I also got a lot of inspiration and information for my home baking was the icing on the cake!

Thank you Frank and Michael, and all the staff that worked in the background, it was a great experience and I will be back, promise!

To learn more about the courses and workshops offered by the SFBI, please click here:
San Francisco Baking Institute course calendar

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