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Tales of the Testers: Rolling in Dough

Chef Patrick Deiss's Chocolate Cherry Baguette. (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)

Last year, Food and Wine's Dana Cowin reminded me in her editor's letter what a difference a good stove can make in transforming food from good to great. Her note was comforting as I prepped my poolish to recipe test Pat Deiss's Chocolate Cherry Baguette. You see, I have the world's worst oven in the world's smallest kitchen. I expected Project Failure.

A month or so before yesterday's article ran, I spent a Friday morning learning about baguettes and boules and sourdoughs with Pat in 2941's bakery kitchen -- a temperature-controlled area with a proofer, tons of workspace, a deck oven and a fancy mixer. Even with Pat holding my hand, I wasn't great at rolling baguettes. I overworked a loaf. I was ham-handed and clumsy. If I'd been a paid employee, I would have been fired.

That said, I had to start somewhere. And if I was to find a way to make bread baking more accessible for home cooks, I should expect to fail at least once.

A close read of Peter Reinhart's "The Bread Baker's Apprentice," some chef lessons and several restaurant kitchen tours later, I apparently I learned a thing or two. My baguettes were rustic and much (much) less refined than those at 2941, though they were pretty good for a first go-round in a lousy oven.

Step One was the poolish (a kind of starter), which looks primordial by the time it's ready to be incorporated into the dough. Once the dough is in the mixer, I learned to be patient and keep it on the lowest speed: Faster mixing heats up the dough too much.

I then did an autolyse for an hour: the sit-and-wait method during which flour absorbs water and gluten develops. Afterward, the dough smells yeasty and sweet, certainly sweeter than the poolish because of the sugars. Then I did a dough window technique: Pat and Reinhart taught me how to see if the dough is ready by pulling a piece from the bowl and stretching it by two of its edges, like opening a book. As the dough thins in the center, it should be durable enough that it creates a window so thin you can see through it. If the dough breaks too early, it's not ready.

Pat's baguette recipe calls for three proofs, which are relatively foolproof (pardon the pun), provided the dough isn't overhandled and the room temperature is in the 70s. The first proof is two hours. The second is 30 minutes, after the dough is sectioned into four 12-ounce pieces. The third is following the fold-and-roll technique for making baguettes. Be gentle with this part and try not to overhandle the dough.

In the meantime, my oven was heating up with a pizza stone on the bottom shelf. Once the dough had finished proofing, I scored it, lightly sprayed my baguettes with water as well as the inside of my oven -- especially the door, as Reinhart suggests. I also filled a baking tray with a little bit of water and slid it to the top shelf to add humidity, as a deck oven does. Three-quarters of the way through, I removed the tray and finished off the baguettes for the last six or seven minutes. Per Pat's suggestion during our lesson, I opened the door for the last two or three minutes, to add crunch to the crust (this step was not included in the recipe directions online).

Despite my lousy oven, the loaves came out nicely. I'd actually serve them to guests.

I learned that decent bread can come from a lousy oven and a so-so baker, with some luck. But really, half the reason I'd make this bread is for this home-run dish you can make with it a few days later: Pat Deiss's wicked good cherry French toast. Though he lists several fruits in the recipe, I stuck with late-season strawberries and cherries. Dusted with confectioners' sugar and drizzled with maple syrup, they're a decadent breakfast for you and/or someone pretty special.

-- Melissa McCart

Cherry-Chocolate French Toast
2 servings

Adapted from Patrick Deiss, artisan baker at 2941 Restaurant in Falls Church.

1/2 Chocolate Cherry Baguette, cut on the bias into 1/4-inch slices
3 large eggs
1/4 cup whole milk or heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped (may substitute 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon canola oil
1/2 pint strawberries, hulled and cut into halves or quarters (optional, for garnish)
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup red or black cherries, pitted, for garnish (optional)
Confectioners' sugar, for garnish (optional)

The night before you intend to make the French toast, refrigerate the baguette.

When ready to cook, whisk the eggs in a wide, shallow bowl to combine. Add the milk or cream, cinnamon and vanilla; stir to combine. Place the bread slices in the egg mixture and let them soak for about 5 minutes, turning to coat both sides.

Heat the butter and canola oil in a large nonstick skillet or griddle pan over medium heat. When it the butter begins to melt, add the bread, in batches if necessary, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until golden brown; use a spatula to turn over the pieces and cook until golden brown. Transfer the French toast to individual plates.

For the fruit garnish, if using, add the strawberries to the same skillet or griddle pan over medium heat; sprinkle with the sugar and cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the cherries and cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 minute.

Dust the French toast with confectioners' sugar, if desired. Serve the fruit mixture on top of or alongside the French toast, and pass maple syrup on the side.

By The Food Section  |  June 25, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Tales of the Testers  | Tags: Melissa McCart, bread  
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