Sunday, 13 November 2016

On failing fast and the fartiness of bread

A small shitty loaf
I baked a shitty loaf of bread today. I was pretty certain it was going to be shitty almost from the start. Why? Because I now have sufficient knowledge and experience of baking bread to determine when things aren't going to plan.

My wholemeal bread recipe calls for:
  • 300g wholemeal flour 
  • 200g strong white flour 
  • 10g salt 
  • 5g yeast 
  • 150ml cold milk 
  • 150ml hot water 
  • 5ml olive oil 
Usually, I put the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Then combine the milk and water and pour it into the bowl. Mix it all up with my hands. Then add the oil and mix it up. Then we can start kneading.

But things went wrong even before I got to the kneading stage. I was 30g short of wholemeal flour. Not a drama, it would be sub optimal but ok. I compensated with an extra 30g of white. Of course, I could have reduced all the amounts by 10%. That would have been the better option.

I was distracted, listening to Queen Calypso Rose on Cerys Matthews’ show on BBC6 Radio. Lovely music. Instead of mixing the liquids together I poured the hot water straight into the bowl. Not only that, but I poured a full 300ml in. Actually, using only water for the liquid is fine. Not quite as good a result – for my taste – but still delicious. I also overpoured by 20ml, which means a wetter dough, not ideal, but again still very workable. Such a small difference can be ignored, or rectified with a little more flour. The problem, however, is that the water was really hot, and high temperatures kill yeast. Dead yeast don’t eat, and dead yeast don’t fart, and it’s the yeast farts that make the dough rise. Yeah, sorry, bread’s a load of farty gluten.

But I persisted, wishfully thinking that somehow all would be ok. I kneaded the dough and left it to rise. I left it longer than usual and it only rose a little.

And still I persisted. I knocked it back, and left it to prove, turning the oven on to max, ready to receive the loaf. Quite some time later, the dough was rather firm to the touch, and had only risen a little.

Still I persisted. I prepared the loaf for baking, running my bread knife along its length. The cut should have opened up immediately. It didn't. That means there's no tension in the bread. The yeast hasn't done its job.

But I persisted. I placed the loaf in the oven, and during 40 minutes, I watched as a small heavy loaf gradually cooked.

I should have thrown away the mix right at the start. I knew the bread was doomed to shit, but it felt wasteful to throw away the ingredients, so instead I went ahead and wasted some more stuff:
  • All the mix, including the olive oil, which I hadn't yet added. 
  • The effort kneading the dough. 
  • Clingfilm to cover the dough. 
  • The time spent kneading, knocking back, putting in the oven, checking it etc. 
  • The energy to heat the oven. 
  • The energy to boil the water that gets poured onto a tray at the bottom of the oven. 
  • The hot water and washing up liquid to clean all the stuff used in the baking process. 
And for all my persisting, all I have now, is a small, shitty loaf of bread, when an admission of error, and a fresh start would have meant that at this moment, a delicious loaf would be cooling on the wire rack in the kitchen.

Now, if you think the lesson is about not hiring dead people to do work, you've missed the point. If you’re in this camp, let me just explain clearly what I’m trying to share. There are times when we push on with something, because we've made some effort. We know it isn't quite right; things aren't going to plan. Yet we stifle that part of our mind that is calling us to quit, and we persevere, hoping it’ll be all right. And the result is shitty.

There is another part to this, which seems to be rarely explored. Don’t get into things that you don’t fully understand. How can you know to quit, when you don’t know that you've cocked it up? How do you know when you've killed your yeast? How can you predict that your yeast won’t fart, when you don’t even understand the fartiness of bread?

The flipside, of course, is having sufficient experience to know that things are on track. You've mixed the ingredients together in the right way, and now there's a whole load of work to be done to move it along to the next stage. Sometimes, that work will seem arduous, repetitive and boring, but having the experience to tell that it's going to deliver results, makes it feel worthwhile, as it will prove.