Friday, February 29, 2008

Daring Bakers - French bread

I love making bread. Although it requires an investment of time and planning on the cook's behalf, it's surprisingly easy to make. I love the simple chemistry of bread; that you can combine flour, water and yeast - ingredients that are quite unappetising on their own - with some good kneading and time for proving and come up with a wonderful, crusty loaf of bread. A lot of people are put off by yeast and it can be temperamental and formidable at first. But the more you use it, the friendlier yeast becomes as you get to know its quirks and foibles and how bread should look and act in each stage.

So I was extremely pleased that this month's Daring Baker hosts, Breadchick Mary and Sara, selected Julia Child's classic French bread as this month's challenge. I've heard of Julia Child's name in relation to cookery writing but nothing else and I've never read any of her work (my inspiration has come from Australian and English cookery writers). Some quick research established that Julia was an American cookery writer who died in 2004. She spent many years in Paris and her cookbooks and TV shows influenced a generation of American cooks, particularly in relation to French cookery.

In their introduction to this month's challenge, Breadchick Mary and Sara said they both fell in love with the idea of cooking by watching Julia on TV. The classic French bread recipe, an "eighteen-page love poem to French bread", came from volume 2 of Julia's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1970. Breadchick Mary and Sara chose to include all of Julia's useful instructions, as well as the recipe.

It was a delight to be introduced to Julia's cooking but I did find the lengthy recipe and notes overwhelming at first. I had to read the recipe four or five times to get the gist of it and even then I kept it close by for quick reference as I made the bread.

The ingredients for French bread are simple: yeast, flour, salt and tepid water. But the investment of time is enormous, far more than I've ever devoted to bread-making before. It took me an entire day to make (although I didn't need to be hovering around the kitchen for the entire time, as most of it involved leaving the bread alone to prove). But the end result was definitely worth the time and effort.

A basic summary of the recipe is that the yeast (I used dried) is activated in tepid water and then stirred into flour and salt with some more tepid water. I've discovered a new brand of specialised flours (cake, bread, pizza etc) at the supermarket and am finding them excellent. This dough is a little softer and stickier than other bread doughs I've made. It's kneaded for 5-10 minutes, then set aside to prove for 3-5 hours, or until tripled in volume. We're having an unseasonally cool end to summer and I found this part took the full five hours. The bread is then kneaded again once more, quickly to release the gas bubbles and set aside to prove again for up to one-and-a-half hours. Then the bread is cut and shaped (eg into baguettes, batards, rolls etc - I chose to make a large round loaf called pain de boules), set aside to prove (again for up to one-and-a-half hours), then baked in a hot oven for up to 25 minutes. French bread is not baked in a pan, so it is vital that it is shaped in such a way that it will hold its shape when baked. After baking, an important step is to let the loaf cool for up to three hours to allow the crumb to compose itself. According to Julia, if you cut the loaf too quickly, it will be doughy and the crust soft.

The full recipe contained a lot of instructions and useful explanations about what was happening to the bread as it proved. It also was extremely specific in terms of equipment used (eg yeast had to be dissolved in tepid water in a glass measure and equipment requirements included canvas sheets for the pastry to rise on and a stiff piece of plywood to unmould the bread). Although this was interesting, on reflection I found the recipe too detailed for me. The reason I felt the need to keep referring to it was because of the detailed instructions; I wanted to ensure that I was getting it right. I now realise that these instructions are so detailed because they are for people who've never made bread before - quite rightly so, as you need these details if it's the first time you're making bread. But for someone who has kneaded bread many times before, reading the kneading instructions made me feel as if it was a new technique. However, this is just a small quibble, and I will be far less reliant on the recipe next time I make this bread.

I also admit that I didn't use a canvas sheet for the rising (I just rubbed flour into a cotton teatowel), I didn't use plywood to unmould the bread (I flipped it gently from the teatowel into my baking tray) and I didn't read the specification for using the glass measure until after I'd poured my yeast into tepid water in a plastic bowl. However, none of these slight deviations seemed to harm or make a difference to the final result.

This loaf of bread was the best bread I've ever made - indeed, I'm immodest enough to say that it is one of the best breads I've ever eaten. It had a soft but chewy texture, similar to sourdough, and was quite addictive. Even though we were ready to go to bed by the time the bread had cooled, we couldn't resist cutting some to try and we ended up demolishing half the loaf! As pointed out in the recipe notes, French bread doesn't contain any preservatives and is best eaten on the day it's made. I had a few slices left over by the next night and they had gone rock hard, so I blitzed them in the food processor and they made a great crumb crust for fresh fish.

Thank you to Breadchick Mary and Sara for choosing such an excellent recipe. I will definitely be making this again and I think it will become one of my favourite bread recipes. I also enjoyed the opportunity to learn about Julia Child and intend to do some more exploring of her cooking in the future.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Rosy red rhubarb

I think of rhubarb as a grown-up treat. Although mum grew rhubarb at home, I never really enjoyed it as child. I found the tart taste too sharp for my palate and was frightened by the knowledge that the leaves were poisonous (although we never ate the leaves, it was one of those pieces of information that tends to lodge in a child's mind).

Now, however, I adore rhubarb and cannot resist buying a bunch when I see it for sale at a market (provided that it's in season and looks healthy). My palate now enjoys the sharp-edged sweetness of rhubarb that I disliked as a child. I love its ruby-red colour and the way something that looks like red celery can be cooked down with sugar into a meltingly soft puree to stir through custards for a pretty dessert or mixed with natural yoghurt and muesli for a delicious, healthy start to the day. Soft rhubarb topped with a rich, nutty crumble is a favourite winter dessert.

After buying a bunch of rhubarb at the Slow Food Farmers' Market, a rhubarb crumble was the first recipe on my list. But that only used half the bunch, so I turned my attention to other recipes. Most was used for a sweet compote to eat with yoghurt for breakfast but I used some of the compote to top spicy, buttery baby cakes in a recipe that I found on the Gourmet Traveller website. These simple cakes have a gingery taste that is beautifully offset by the little jewels of rhubarb puree dotted on the top. Although I made these cakes in the mini loaf tins as specified, I think these would also work well in muffin tins. This recipe is definitely going into the "make again" file.


225g soft unsalted butter
3/4 cup golden syrup
3 eggs
225g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves

Rhubarb compote
2 stalks of rhubarb, thinly sliced
55g caster sugar

For rhubarb compote, combine rhubarb, sugar and 1 Tb of water in a saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat, reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 2 minutes or until softened, then cook, uncovered for eight minutes or until liquid has reduced and rhubarb is soft. Cool.

Cream butter and golden syrup until pale, then add eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition, until mixed in.

Sift over flour, baking powder and spices and stir to combine, then spoon into nine lightly greased 2/3-cup capacity mini loaf pans and spoon 2 tsp rhubarb down centre. Bake at 180 degrees for 12-15 minutes or until just cooked. Allow to cool slightly, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool.

Recipe from Gourmet Traveller website

Monday, February 25, 2008

Slow Food Farmers' Market

The weather forecast was for a cool day and possible rain. Not the most enticing forecast, especially when we're still officially in summer. There were a few grey clouds dotting the sky and a cool wind but otherwise rain seemed far away, so we set off to the Abbotsford Convent on Saturday morning for the Slow Food Farmers' Market.

The Abbotsford Convent is a treasure for Melbourne. Slated for residential development in the late 1990s, the local community fought hard to keep the Convent precinct out of the hands of developers and it is now a thriving arts colony. Eleven heritage buildings and beautiful gardens are set on nearly seven hectares of land near the Yarra River, just four kilometres from the CBD. There's studios for individual artists, writers, craftspeople and health practitioners, a community radio station, and the food options include the Convent Bakery, Handsome Steve's House of Refreshment (licensed cafe) and Lentil As Anything (a vegetarian restaurant where you pay what you think the experience is worth).

Among the various festivals and events hosted by the Abbotsford Convent is the Slow Food Farmers' Market, held on the fourth Saturday of each month. Farmers' markets are a key part of the Slow Food principles, which treasure tradition, cherish communities and celebrate conviviality. Farmers' markets are a direct source of fresh produce and a chance for the buyers to meet the growers.

We pass people pulling trolleys loaded with food along St Heliers St as we approach the entrance gate at 9am. The market opens at 8am and the earlybirds have already enjoyed the array of fresh produce available. There's quite a crowd inside the grounds and there's a wonderful buzz and sense of community in the air that comes with the exhibition and purchase of delicious seasonal food. Stalls are displaying fresh organic vegetables including mounds of fat pumpkins, enormous shiny eggplants, long plump zucchinis, bags of Swiss brown mushrooms, a wide range of different potato varieties, punnets of enormous fire-engine red strawberries, glossy capsicums, small French plums, and a variety of fresh greens, such as bok choy, spinach, cabbage and cauliflower. We taste fresh pistachios from north Victoria. They are quite soft and don't taste much like the dried, salted variety you normally see in shops. The stallholder tells us that they make a good pesto, so we buy some to try.

It's easy to plan the week's meals with the variety of food on offer. A glossy purple oversized eggplant will be sliced into wedges and roasted with olive oil, some spices and tinned tomatoes to make a hearty side-dish. Bunches of crisp green asparagus can be mixed into pasta with pancetta and parmesan. The potato stallholder recommends Royal Blue potatoes, saying they are a good allrounder. (We steam them that night and serve with some fresh better and they are a truly delicious potato, with a creamy, nutty texture). A bag of Swiss brown mushrooms, cooked and flavoured with some herbs and balsamic vinegar, will make an indulgent Sunday breakfast. Broccoli, zucchini and pumpkin go into the bag to use during the week. And I can't resist a bunch of rhubarb that can be cooked into a rich crumble made with hazelnuts, flour, chocolate and butter.

There's plenty of other food on offer to sample and buy, including pates, dips, ice-cream, cheeses, saltbush lamb, free-range pork, bread, free-range eggs, blueberries, sultanas and currants, dukkah, jams, muesli and Turkish delight. We buy coffee and ciabatta rolls from the Convent Bakery for a mid-morning snack.

The rain stays away and we leave for home loaded up with food and a vow to return next month.