Balky ingredients fail to get a rise out of bread

February 19, 1997|By ROB KASPER

SLIPPAGE HAPPENS. One day you are sailing along seemingly on top of the world, then the next day you are stumbling. Your jump shot can't hit the basket. You're confusing adjectives with adverbs. Your bread dough won't rise.

It happened to me recently. For some reason my homemade bread wasn't turning out the way it should.

Instead of being light, airy and textured, the bread was dense. It was beyond chewy. It was thick, lumpish, virtually impenetrable. Even making croutons out of it, the fallback position for most fallen breads, was out of the question. It was too tough.

Facing up to this bread-making failure was deflating. This was a skill I thought I had mastered, something I could chalk up as a "been there, down that" experience. Instead of moving onto exciting new frontiers like making olive breads, I was stuck in the trenches, still struggling with flour, water, yeast and salt. What a bummer.

It was time to go back to the basics. To examine the fundamentals. To see if I had been taking any shortcuts. Bread dough and human beings are, after all, bits of organic matter, affected by subtle changes in routine.

So I reread the original recipe, which I got from Charles van Over, a Chester, Conn., baker and restaurateur who has a knack for mixing bread dough in a food processor. And I looked over the basic bread-baking steps set out in two books, "How To Bake," by Nick Malgieri (HarperCollins, 1995, $35), and "On Cooking, Techniques from Expert Chefs," by Sarah R. Labensky and Alan M. Hause (Prentice Hall, 1995, $50).

Three likely suspects -- salt, yeast and water -- presented themselves. The recipe only had four ingredients. So only the flour, unbleached, and carefully measured, escaped suspicion.

Too much salt, the books said, can make the dough too dense. The suggested remedy was to carefully measure the amount of salt in the recipe. That struck home with me. Instead of measuring the 1 teaspoon of salt needed for the recipe, I had been "eyeballing" the amount I used. Apparently my eyesight was not as sharp as I thought it was. That could explain my trouble with my jump shot as well.

Not using enough yeast could also make the dough too dense, the book on chefs' techniques said. Once again, the criticism seemed valid. Sometimes I put the required 1 teaspoon of active dry yeast in the mixture. But other times, I "cheaped out." This happened when there was almost, but not quite, enough yeast left in an envelope. Filling the teaspoon would require opening another envelope of yeast. That seemed indulgent. Instead, I settled for 3/4 teaspoon. This made my cheapskate nature feel good. But it didn't help the dough rise.

Finally, I sniffed the cup of Baltimore tap water I had been using in the dough. Highly chlorinated water, I read, could affect the fermentation of the dough. In his book, Malgieri said using a bottled spring water instead of tap water could improve a bread.

Having re-examined my routine, I dove back into dough-making. This time I worked slowly, resisting the urge to take shortcuts. I measured 1 full teaspoon each of salt and yeast.

I was too cheap to pay for bottled water. Instead I let the cup of tap water sit out on the kitchen counter, until it had lost its distinctive chlorine aroma.

This time the dough regained its once-familiar height. This time the simple yet subtle harmony of yeast, water, flour and salt was in tune. Slippage had been stopped. The bread was rising and with it my spirits.

This recipe has been adapted from one by Charles van Over.

Bread

Makes 1 large loaf (to double recipe make 2 batches)

12 ounces (weighed) bread flour

1 teaspoon sea salt

1-1 1/4 cups water, 55-60 degrees

1 teaspoon dry yeast

Weigh flour, put in food processor with steel blade. Add salt, process for 5 seconds.

With machine running, pour steady stream of 1 cup water through processor feed tube. Process for 30-35 seconds. Dough ball should result. If dough is too wet, add tablespoon or two of flour and process for another 10-15 seconds. If dough is too dry, add remaining water and process for another 10-15 seconds.

Add yeast, process for another 15 seconds. Cover hands with flour, lift dough ball out of processor and put in a large bowl. Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap or a dish towel. Let dough rise at room temperature. This takes a minimum of 1 1/2 hours and as long as overnight.

When dough has risen, cover hands with flour and dust a counter top with flour. Put dough ball on counter top and cut into two equal balls. Let dough rest 15-20 minutes.

Dust an old cotton tablecloth lightly with flour. Working on tablecloth, press each dough ball flat, fold it over on itself, twice. You can then roll dough into long, snakelike baguettes, sealing seam, or you can simply form dough into round loaves. Place loaves in fold of cloth, cover and let rise until the loaves are about 1 1/2 times original size. This takes 1-2 hours at room temperature.

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Transfer loaves to lightly floured baking sheets. Make steam by spraying oven with water from spray bottle. Put loaves in oven. Spray again after five minutes. Bake at 450 degrees until crust is golden brown and bread feels "hollow" when thumped, or when internal temperature of bread is 210. This usually takes 20-30 minutes. Remove loaves, spray with water for shinier crust, cool on wire rack.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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