I love food. I love to grow it, cook it, share it and eat it. Cooking to me is a very organic process and I prefer to prepare meals that allow me room to improvise. Baking on the other hand, is more chemistry, science, a level of precision that I just couldn’t imagine enjoying. Improvisation and science seemed like oil and water to me , so I avoided any serious baking for a very long time.
Then I met M., who also loves to cook and is so good at improvising a meal from what I would consider an empty fridge (I call them McGyver meals) that I knew he was the man for me. He made me homemade bread and pizza but the kicker for me was when he made bagels from scratch! I was smitten.
After we were married, I took a sabbatical from my professional life. I had an opportunity to take a few months off to try and figure out what I wanted to do next. Unfortunately, the economy decided to tank shortly thereafter, but that’s another story… Anyhow, this left me with time to venture into a lot of things and one of them was baking. M. had inspired me to try it.
First order of business was pie crust. M.’s favorite food is pie – any kind of pie – fruit pie, meat pie, basically anything with a buttery crust. I had made a few pies for Thanksgiving meals in the past, and frankly I think I just got lucky most of the time, but now I have a few pies under my belt and M. thinks they are the best pies in the world. I’ve tried several pie crust recipes from The Joy of Cooking, Macrina Bakery and Café Cookbook, The Pie and Pastry Bible and Cook’s Illustrated American Classics. The one I like best is a modified version from Cook’s Illustrated – I use all butter instead of shortening and butter combo they recommend because I do not like using hydrogenated products. I’ve even tried the organic, non-hydrogenated shortening, but I found it a little fussy to work with. I use this same crust recipe for sweet and savory pies except that I don’t add the sugar when making a savory pie.
I have actually started baking pies for others now and we toy with the idea of incorporating pies as a “value add” to our future farm business as an add on to a CSA box and/or selling them at the farmer’s market along with our produce. Whole pies, tartlettes and hand pies – sweet and savory – a pie for every man, woman and child. Oh, sorry, got carried away…
“Value-Add” is a term used in the agricultural world as a means to capture more of the food dollar by enhancing your farms’ product offerings. It is a way for farms to generate more income and protect themselves from failed crops and fluctuating prices. Farm stays are a good example of a value-add. Selling jams from fruit you’ve grown is also a great value-add. I think in order to stay afloat in this economy, you must look for ways to diversify so as to insure a steady income stream.
Next on my list was to bake bread, so I checked out a few books from the library. M. was delighted and disappointed with my first loaf – an Italian style bread – crusty on the outside and moist and chewy on the inside. Delighted because he thought it was very flavorful and the texture was bakery-worthy. Disappointed because my first loaf, and I quote, was “better than any of his bread”. Well, that was very sweet of him to say, but it takes quite a time commitment (at least 2 days) to make a loaf like that – and time is not something M. has a lot of – his schedule is a nightmare. I used a recipe that calls for a biga starter that you make at least a day or two ahead of time. Biga is what develops that wonderful tangy flavor in Italian-style loaves. The stretching and folding of the dough several times over a few hours is what develops the moist, chewy texture. The extra time and effort really makes a difference when compared to a typical yeast bread you make in one day.
I’ve been making bread for a couple of years now and I really enjoy it. I mostly bake italian-style loaves – those are our favorites. I started with recipes from Leslie Mackie’s Macrina Bakery and Café Cookbook and Baking Artisan Bread by Ciril Hitz and have come up with my own signature bread “Pane Fresca”. It’s somewhere between a Pane Francese and a Ciabatta. I also make a Pain de Mie (a white sandwich bread) for lunches. I started out using Ciril Hitz’s recipe but I think I like the Cook’s Illustrated American Classics sandwich bread recipe better. In addition to making great sandwiches, it makes excellent toast. Yeast rolls are another favorite I make from time to time – I shape them like clover leaf rolls, but we call them “Butter Balls” as each “ball” of dough is dipped in melted butter. Needless to say, they don’t really require more butter after baking.
M. takes lunches into work (part of our living frugally so we can save up for the farm). One day he was waxing poetic about the texture of his sandwich bread (made with Pane Fresca bread) with his co-workers. One of them asked if he thought I’d be willing to bake bread for him and that he’d be happy to pay. M. thought he was joking, but as it turns out, he wasn’t. One order turned into another and now I bake for several of M.’s co-workers on a weekly basis. It is certainly not a “money-maker”; what they pay per loaf only keeps me in flour and yeast. Bread-making, especially on a small scale is an incredibly labor-intensive process. There is no getting paid for my time, but hearing that they love the bread so much they eat a whole loaf in one sitting, or they don’t even wait until they get it home before tearing a hunk off is priceless.
I see this as a great opportunity for me to hone my bread-making skills and to determine whether it would be feasible to incorporate freshly-baked bread as another”value add” for our future CSA business. At the very least, I can now justify buying a few new baking tools! I picked up this baguette pan from a restaurant supply store in their “used” section. I should have measured my oven first as it is slightly too big and you can’t close the oven door, but until M. has a chance to modify it for me it works great for holding the loaves after shaping. I place each loaf on parchment and then I can just slide them into the oven after the final rise.
I love the whole bread-making process – the smell of the yeast, the feel of the dough, and of course eating that first slice spread with butter – it thrills me.