Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The cat who came for Christmas

Sir Winsome de Cosmos, aka Cosmo.

Around Christmas, a cat showed up at our place. For once, it was not a cougar or bobcat. For about two weeks, we'd hear this loud meowing outside our front door after dark, when the birds were all tucked in and we were inside keeping warm by the wood stove. I would open the door and call to the cat, but he instantly bolted away, and I never got more than a glimpse of a very speedy shadow.

Then one night, when I called to him, he meowed back at me, and I could tell he wasn't very far away. I kept calling, and suddenly, he ran right up to me. He let me pet him, and even let me pick him up! For the next ten days or so, we let him in at night and gave him food and water and let him sleep in a pet carrier near the wood stove. Meanwhile, I had posted ads both on craigslist and in the local paper, hoping to find the owner. He seemed like such a sweet cat, very well-behaved, and I assumed someone must be missing him and looking for him.

Unfortunately one day while he was outside, he got into something poisonous and became quite sick. David took him to the vet, and four days (and a large bill) later, we brought him home again. Although we had had several responses to our ads, none of them turned out to match this cat, and eventually we decided to keep him. Our best guess at this point was that someone had dumped him at the end of our road; our gate is 1-1/2 miles up the hill from our nearest neighbor, and unfortunately people do abandon animals there from time to time. Given our location, if he had just wandered away from home, it seems a stretch to believe he would show up at our place.

He seems to be quite used to being an indoor cat, which is good, considering all the predator problems we've had lately. David thinks he may decide to go outside during the warmer weather, so we'll see. As I said, he's a very sweet cat, and the vet said he'd been neutered and was probably 2-3 years old. He's a beautiful charcoal grey tabby; actually the vet called the color Russian Blue, and in a certain light his fur does look blue-grey. He's also very quiet. He's officially been christened Sir Winsome de Cosmos; David says that when he gets that inscrutable look that cats so often have, it's because he's busy controlling the universe. I call him Cosmo.

We sure are enjoying having a cat around the house. He even caught a mouse last week, which definitely raised his stock with us. It's hard to imagine a nicer cat than this one, and although it's very sad to think that someone may have abandoned him, we feel very fortunate that he's now a part of our lives.

As you can see from the photo above, his only problem is that he can't seem to relax. :)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Baking bread in a wood-fired oven, Round Two

This past Sunday I was down at the Alder Wood Bistro again, having fun baking more bread. This time I had four batches going: A naturally leavened multigrain bread, sourdough, onion rye and Montreal-style bagels. The only other time I had tried to make a naturally leavened bread (no yeast added), it didn't turn out well. This time, I had actually planned to make this batch a yeast bread (although I was using a starter left over from the previous week's bread), but (oops) I forgot to add the yeast. I realized it at about 4:00 AM, when I got up to mix the dough from the leaven that had been fermenting since Saturday morning. I decided to just do the best I could with it and see what happened.

Well, surprisingly to me at least, it turned out great! Although it never did look as if it rose much in the proofing baskets, I thought it looked good when I slashed it just before putting it in the oven. When I checked on it 30 minutes later, I was amazed to see how much it had risen, and it was coloring nicely. 10 minutes later it was out of the oven.

 Naturally leavened multigrain hearth bread; oh boy!

As soon as the multigrain  and sourdough loaves were in the proofing baskets, I mixed up a batch of dough for the Montreal bagels, and the rye dough. After working pretty hard for the first 45 minutes or so, I now had at least a couple of hours to kill while things were proofing and rising.

After the bagel dough had risen for 2 hours, I shaped the bagels. Then into the boiling pot they went, a few at a time, for a minute and a half. Then they drained briefly on a clean towel before being dredged on both sides with sesame seeds. Montreal-style bagels are traditionally baked in a wood-fired oven; the Bistro's oven was about 530F when the bagels went in. Naturally, being much smaller than a loaf of bread, I was nervous about over baking them, but I needn't have worried. They actually took about 20 minutes, not much less than what it takes in the gas oven I use at home. This is one bread item for which we're willing to disregard the rule of waiting until it cools to eat it; we were both pretty hungry by that time, too, and David had thoughtfully brought along some butter and cream cheese.

Montreal-style bagels just out of the wood-fired oven.

By the time I was done baking the bagels, it was time to load in the sourdough and multigrain loaves. Next I shaped the onion rye loaves; I had carmelized the onions while the dough was rising. The two loaves went into the oven about 15 minutes after the others, and while I had the oven door open I shifted around some of the other loaves; some seemed to be browning a little faster than others. I'm getting used to figuring out where to put the loaves in the oven, depending on their size.  I'm actually a bit surprised at how easily I'm learning to use this wonderful oven.

It was really hard to wait for over an hour to cut into one of the multigrain loaves, and I was anxious to see what the crumb looked like. I had used the same formula that I had the previous Sunday, but I adjusted the hydration level to 70% (it was 65% last week), as we both felt that in the center of the loaf, the crumb was a little on the dry side. (I've just recently learned a formula called the "baker's percentage," which is a means to calculate how much water and flour you need to get a dough of a particular hydration level; I'm so happy I finally got my mind around this one.) I could see right away that it was a big improvement; the crumb was uniformly moist and tender inside a delicious, crisp crust. Once again, I felt thankful that I have been keeping good records of every batch of bread I've made, so I will be able to duplicate this result.

Interior of naturally leavened multigrain bread.

The really difficult thing with this baking is that I want to make a lot of bread at a time (it's a big oven, and I'm having a lot of fun). What to do with all this bread? Hmmm. I feel a taste-testing party coming on...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Baking bread in a wood-fired oven

 Recently I started baking bread again. I used to do this fairly regularly, but for whatever reasons, I just haven't done much of it in the last few years. It occurred to me that it might be fun to try baking bread in the wood-fired oven at the Alder Wood Bistro, so I started reading up on this process. Thanks to a fabulous book called "The Bread Builders: Hearth loaves and masonry ovens," my interest in this craft (or is it an art?) has gone to a whole new level.

I talked to Gabriel (chef at the Alder Wood Bistro) who was positively thrilled at the idea of his wood-fired oven being used for baking bread. In fact, it turns out that his oven was actually designed by the late Alan Scott, who was not only the co-author of The Bread Builders, but also a friend of Gabriel's. I learned from Gabriel that in the mornings, the oven is at a perfect temperature for baking bread; also, because it is closed up all night long, the temperature has generally equalized throughout the large space inside the oven. So, feeling a bit like I was cramming for an exam, I studied hard, made a lot of notes, and finally began making my first batch of dough. This was on a Saturday; I had begun the starter (much like a sourdough starter) about a week before, and I was anticipating baking bread on Sunday morning.

I had never ground grain before, but it turned out to be quite easy. I clamped David's Corona stone mill to a large cutting board and then clamped the board to our kitchen table (this prevents denting or otherwise damaging the table itself), and poured some organic rye into the mill. It certainly was some work after a while, and it took some trial and error to get the consistency right; I wanted basically coarsely-cracked hard wheat and more finely ground rye. This was added to the starter along with a carefully calculated amount of water, plus more organic white flour and salt. I stirred it all just to the point of being well mixed, then let it rest for a while; this allows all the grains, especially the coarse ones, to fully hydrate before kneading. Then 15 minutes of kneading and the dough was ready to ferment (and I was ready to take a break).

As I had too much dough to put in our tiny fridge, I left it to ferment and rise in the cool end of our kitchen, well away from the wood stove. My plan was to let it rise slowly overnight, then pack up and head down to the Bistro first thing in the morning to shape, proof and bake. I had two kinds of dough, the one with cracked wheat and rye, and also a French sourdough. It didn't occur to me at that point to figure out how many loaves this was going to make, or what I would do with them. Did I mention the learning curve?

Sourdough baguettes proofing in a linen couche.

On Sunday morning, the dough had risen pretty much the way I had hoped it would; enough, but not too much. It all smelled wonderful, by the way. I was really excited. When I got to the Bistro, I unpacked everything, got organized, and started dividing, weighing and shaping the loaves. I ended up with three sourdough baguettes (0.5 kilos each), one large sourdough round (1 kilo), two large multi-grain rounds (1.5 kilos each) and one smaller multi-grain round (1 kilo). The round loaves were proofed in traditional "bannetons," baskets lined with coarse linen; the baguettes proofed nestled among the folds of a "couche," simply a length of thick, coarse linen (see photo above).

 Multi-grain loaf proofing in a banneton.

Once the loaves were proofing, there was nothing to do but wait. I figured it would take at least two hours. I had brought some writing materials with me, as well as a New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle book, so I had plenty to do to occupy myself while I was waiting (somewhat impatiently) to be able to finally load the loaves into the oven.

2-1/2 hours later, the dough was ready (I had learned how to test for sufficient proof, although this was the first time I had tried it, so I was not totally sure of myself). Flipping the loaves onto the cornmeal-dusted peel and quickly slashing the tops, I slid the loaves one by one into the oven, right onto the hot brick floor. Here it was: I knew that in 40 minutes or so, I would find out if I'd succeeded in putting all I had learned into practice. Knowing how much of any skill is learned simply by practice and experience, I was mentally prepared for the possibility that all would not go as I'd hoped. Even so, I couldn't help feeling a sense of confidence; who knows why, I just did.

I set the timer for 30 minutes, after which time I would open the oven door and take a look. When I did, I could see that all the loaves were rising very nicely and beginning to brown. The only adjustment I made was to move the baguettes back a ways from the door; I had loaded them last, nearest the door, assuming that they would bake more quickly and would come out first. I could see they weren't browning as fast as the other loaves, though, so I moved the loaves around to make room for the baguettes further back.

10 minutes later, I decided it was time to take the bread out of the oven. It all looked beautiful, to my relatively inexperienced (and undoubtedly biased) eye. I left them to cool on racks and went back to the crossword puzzle to wait (even more impatiently) for the bread to cool sufficiently to cut.

Multi-grain loaves (left) and French sourdough loaves (center and top right).

All I can say is, if you've never tried a hearth-baked bread, you really should: The crust was incredibly flavorful, as well as having a wonderful crispy-chewy thing going on. We cut into a baguette first, since it was smaller and cooled off faster. I had never made sourdough before, but I thought this bread had a pretty nice flavor. Presumably as time goes on, the starter will increase in flavor and the bread will improve accordingly. A little while later, we cut into one of the large multi-grain loaves; it turned out quite well also, although I could see that next time I should make the dough "wetter" to achieve the more open crumb I was hoping for. The flavor was pretty good, however.

So, as I said, I'm learning, even if I am at the bottom end of a steep learning curve. In the meantime, I'm baking bread nearly every day, which both David and I are enjoying. And I always have the comforting knowledge that if a particular batch doesn't turn out right, the pigs have really good taste in bread.