Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Art of Shaping Bread Dough

I had fancied myself a good home bread baker. Until I had a morning tutorial in bread shaping with Catherine Perez, owner of Con Pane, one of my very favorite artisan bread makers in San Diego. I've known Catherine for years, followed her from her Rosecrans shop to her Liberty Station shop, and always stop by for a loaf or for rolls when I'm in the neighborhood. At my last visit, she invited to come in so she could teach me a bread-shaping trick or two, and also invited our friend Robin Ross of Cupcakes Squared. Last week we took her up on her offer, and were completely humbled.

Con Pane's Catherine Perez (l) and Cupcakes Squared's Robin Ross (r)
On any given day at Con Pane, you'll find about a dozen bread varieties for sale--from Pt. Loma Sourdough (a favorite of mine), traditional and seeded French baguettes, ciabatta, French levain, artisan multigrain, and kalamata olive to Gruyere and Chive, walnut levain, challah, and, oh, pane cioccolata. Plus any number of varieties of foccacia, scones, cookies, sweet rolls and other pastries, and seven types of sandwiches.

Catherine invited us behind the counter, had us wash our hands and don aprons, then showed us around the workspace. The light and airy workroom is divided between pastry and bread. We saw the  dry storage area, the spiral mixer that holds up to 70 kilos of dough, and a chilly walk-in proofing room.

Con Pane's oven is so large it has a nifty conveyor belt. Here, individual epis were being removed to cool.

Catherine had Robin and I watch her staff weigh, then shape various doughs before clearing a space for us to get to work.

There are two steps to the shaping because the bread proofs twice. The first is a bulk proof in dough tubs for one-and-a-half to three hours, depending on the type of bread. Then the bread dough is divided and rests, then shaped and placed on trays in racks in the proofing room overnight. Baking happens twice a day--in the morning and the afternoon.

Robin and I started out with sourdough boules--little round loaves. Robin did the cutting and weighing, using a scale, then handing off the pieces to me to roughly shape (it's rare to get the amount right on the first cut; you chop off a segment, weigh it, add a little more, take some off, until it balances). Catherine showed me how to slightly punch the dough; pull the sides up, over, and in; flip it over; then turn and smooth. It's harder than it would seem--as you can see from the creases on the boules I shaped. (By the way, if you look at the door behind me, you can see sheets of paper posted on it. They have photos of all the breads, along with weights and measurements for employees to use as reference.)

From there we moved on to sandwich loaves. That simply eluded me. My brain and my hands just couldn't coordinate the technique, which involved positioning the dough lengthwise in front of me, then pulling in the two sides at the top, folding down the top third and sealing, repeating, and then using your thumb on one hand and several fingers on the other, shaping and sealing all around until you had something like a doughy football. On the positive side, we (by then Robin was also trying this left-handed) amused Catherine no end.

I'm sure with practice, I'd be wrangling those sandwich loaves like a pro, but the experience gave me an even greater appreciation of the skills and efforts required to successfully bake a simple loaf of bread. These are talented artisans who give us breads like these.

And sandwiches, like this stunning Turkey Cobb on Rosemary Olive Oil bread:

Game to make some dough and craft a couple of loaves of bread? Catherine gave me her Pain Sur recipe, which begins with a Poolish--not exactly a sourdough starter since it doesn't require the time and ongoing commitment to keep it going, but an initial dough that provides the taste, texture, and crust of a good loaf. This is adapted from the wonderful book, The Village Baker, by Joe Ortiz, an inspiration to Catherine when she first contemplated starting a bakery.

Pain Sur
by Catherine Perez, adapted from The Village Baker
Yield: 2 loaves
(printable recipe)

The Poolish
2 teaspoons active dry yeast (I prefer SAF Red Yeast, sold at Whole Foods)
1 cup filtered water
1 cup unbleached white (all purpose) flour

Add the flour to a bowl, stir in the yeast for even distribution, then pour in the water. Stir with your hands to make sure there are no balls of flour left in the poolish. Cover the bowl with a lid, towel, or plastic film, and let rise on the counter. The poolish will be ready when the top is covered in bubbles and has begun to crack--approximately three to five hours.

The Dough
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup water
2 cups unbleached (all purpose) white flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

In the bowl of a mixer with the spiral attachment, add the flour, salt, and yeast. Stir to combine. All all of the poolish and the water. Mix on low speed for about four minutes to incorporate all of the ingredients. Switch to medium speed and mix for another five minutes. The dough should come together in a ball and be moist but not sticky.

Remove the dough from the mixer and place in a bowl rubbed lightly with olive oil, and cover with a towel. The olive oil will keep the dough from sticking to the bowl after it has risen. Allow the dough to rise for two hours. Divide it into two pieces, then shape into rounds. Cover the loaves with a towel and let rise another one to one-and-a-half hours. The loaves will be ready to bake when the dough sluggishly springs back when pressed with a finger.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees, with a baking stone set on the bottom deck of the oven. If you don't have a baking stone, the loaves can be backed on a cookie tray. Place the risen loaves on a cornmeal-dusted peel or on a cookie tray. Make two slashes in the top of each loaf using a double-edged razor blade or a serrated knife. Prior to transferring the dough to the stone or placing the loaves in the oven, you need to create steam to allow for a fuller loaf and shinier crust. Using a spray bottle filled with filtered water, open the oven door and spray inside the top and sides of the oven, then put in the loaves. Give the top and sides of the oven one more spray, then close the door. Bake the loaves for 30 to 45 minutes--less for a lighter cruse, more for a darker, crunchier crust. Allow the loaves to cool before cutting.

Note: Half of the flour can be replaced with whole wheat flour for heartier bread. YOu can also add other ingredients, such as dried fruits, nuts, grains, and herbs. Add approximately 1/2 cup after the dough if fully mixed.

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  1. Cool I love baking bread! I highly recommend the bread class at Grossmont with Chef Foran, although it does require the basic class and is 16 x 5 hour classes so requires a pretty high level of commitment! I still have the starter we made in class and dig it out and feed it every couple of weeks, it is so much nicer than sourdough from the store...

  2. I'm sure you're being too hard on yourself! I recall that wonderful article you wrote about Artisan Breads and how beautifully your loaf came out: http://www.sandiegofoodstuff.com/2010/12/my-bread-baking-adventures-part-2-pain.html. So, I imagine you fared much better than most who would have attempted this!

    Great article - I love their bread, especially the one with chocolate that they only bake on the weekends...