Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Camillo has hives

Camillo has been our starting night man for thirty two years. Has never been late. Walks to work. Our time clock divides an hour into hundredths. He punches a time clock, his start time never varies more than five hundredths of an hour. Thirty two years. Slipped and fell on the ice comin' to work once, broke his wrist. Missed some time for that. Fell down the basement stairs here, broke his ankle. Missed some time for that. Vacationed back to Mexico a few times. Never been late. He shapes all the dough's at night. Donuts, baguettes, ciabatta, a few coffee cakes, etc. His skills are well above average. Good baker, nice guy. Nice family.

Yesterday morning, he came in raised his shirt, he is flaming red. Even his face. He is covered in hives. Had a doctors note, bottom line can't work for three nights. He said he is only taking off, two. We shifted some things around and I ended up coming in last night to help out. I never mind. It's peaceful at night. The daytime elements aren't here to interfere with my day. No deliveries, phone doesn't ring, we just work.

While I was here last night, I was again reminded of the magic of fermentation. Amber loaves coming from the oven. I thought about the mechanics of the whole process. It's so simple, I only wished I had realized earlier, the importance of the proper flour. One aspect I've yet to mention,is the way this softer flour bakes. I can remember years ago, I'd arrive here in the morning with my dad. There would always be something that got overbaked. Always. Something I learned here in the recent past is about a thing called the "Maillard" reaction. It was proven by a French chemist, that protein, in the presence of extreme heat and moisture will yield a black substance. The best example is grill marks on a steak. Ever wonder why that happens? Now you know, extreme heat, protein and moisture. This reaction is not selective about where the protein comes from. Protein is protein, linked amino acids.
The same is true in the crust of baked goods. Primarily where there isn't a lot of sugars to caramelize. Bread is a perfect example, flour, water, salt and yeast. If you reduce the amount of protein in your flour, the bread can stay in the oven longer, bake more thorough, and not get that overbaked colour. It develops a better, more sturdy crust. Been a long time since I've seen bread, darkened by the flash of oven heat. Even our croissants, danish, brioche and puff pastry bakes with better colour. One thing so simple, yet so important.

Gonna call Camillo, see how he's doing. He told me that if he felt better he'd be in tonight. I could use some sleep.

Monday, June 29, 2009

kudos to janet davies

Sorry I didn't write yesterday, I had a legitimate day off. Doesn't happen often. I couldn't tell you the last time I took a day off when I was in town. Hard to believe some people even have two of those in a row! But, you can't run a bakery via remote control. Many have tried, even more have failed. A bakery is unique, we are hand producing a highly perishable product. One day is over, and we do it all over gain for the next day. Bakeries try to get ahead by freezing some product in the raw state, and bake it as they go. Beside producing, we are a retailer as well. I guess you could say we are liable for twice the compensation, but are liable for twice the risk.

Kudos to Janet Davies on channel seven news. She does the show 190 North, on Sunday nights. Last night she reviewed a number of newer Chicago "eateries", as she calls them. After a commercial break she talked about new dessert spots. She reviewed Twisted Sister bakery in old town and Crema Bakery in Lincoln square. Very nice looking places, nice looking stuff. Tarts, cookies, cupcakes, I didn't see any yeasted items. BUT she didn't call them BAKERIES! I was very touched.

We're ramping up for a big day at our farmer's markets on Wednesday. Weather will be nice. Nice weather predicted for Saturday the fourth as well. I'm expecting the store and the markets to be jumpin' that day. We will be open that day, 8am to 3pm. Should be a busy day. There is just no way we can be closed on Saturday and open on Sunday. You know, the whole feeding the starters thing.

We decided to pull out of the Wilmette french market. It's a little to competitive for us. They allow to many people to purchase goods from a bakery and resell them. I think it's a bad policy. None of our other markets allow people to do that. Besides, they call it a "French market", not a "farmer's market". It is really more like a flea market, to us.

Gotta run the market production numbers upstairs. The bakers are anxious to get started.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Survival of the fittest

Finally a break in the action. Been nonstop since 3am. I didn't get to involved in the bake for today. Things fell into place pretty well yesterday, the folks really responsible for gettin' things done here, handled it all very well. Sometimes it doesn't work out that way. This morning I was helping get things sorted out for the farmer's markets and there was a number of loaves of cracked wheat bread that need to be sliced. I obliged, I figure it beats workin'. Nearly every time, myself, even some of the bakers, see the first loaf of a new batch of bread sliced, they ask to see the inside, the crumb. Every time I slice a loaf of bread, I look at the crumb. Maybe portion a loaf into two halves and smell it. Nothing tells you more about the roots of a loaf of bread, than the aroma. Imagine what your kitchen would smell like with that in the toaster.

I gotta say, the cracked wheat bread this morning had an amazing aroma. Had a real heavy fermented smell, not like beer, it was more rounded than that. We sweeten it with half honey and half molasses. It has a ridiculous amount of prefermented flour. We use prefermented dough(old baguette dough) for the starter. A day before the bake we measure out equal parts of cracked wheat and water. we blend them together, and it sits at room temperature, overnight. This part is called a "soaker". We soak all of our dry grains. For instance, we soak the seed blend that goes in all of our grain breads. We soak that at 59%(100 ounces seed mix, 59 ounces water). We make our own seed mix, all organic. We use equal parts of oatmeal, hulled sesame seeds, flax seed, sunflower seeds & millet. We soak the coarse rye meal that goes into our pumpernickel bread. If you don't presoak dry grains, during and after the baking process, the grains will draw moisture from the dough or baked loaf. In dough form, a dry dough will yield a loaf with a tight crumb, the extensibility of the dough is penalized. In baked form, a dry dough will yield a loaf with a very dry, brittle crumb. It will also have a very heavy crust.

One other thing that a lot of bakers don't realize, is that every cell of yeast is encapsulated in water. The water is necessary to allow the transfer of carbon dioxide from the yeast cell into the dough. As bakers, we put a lot more yeast in dough with a higher concentration of sugar to make up for the drying powers of the sugar. In bread dough we put 2% yeast based on the flour weight. In a higher sugar dough like cinnamon roll dough, or danish dough, it might be as high as 7%. This is because the hygroscopic properties of the sugar. In the mixer it becomes "survival of the fittest". In the flour, the wheat protein and the starch will fight each other for the available water. when they are finished fighting it out, the sugar will come next. If there isn't enough water to go around, the sugar will take from the yeast cells. When we mix our dough's here, we try not to put all the water in at the start of the mix. We might start with 85%,or so. As the mix takes it up, we'll add more. This allows a chance for all things to get hydrated evenly. We'll add slowly until the right consistency is achieved. In those high sugar dough's we will only put half the sugar in, at the start of the mix. That way the gluten can come together, without having to fight with the sugar.

Gotta get upstairs and laminate some croissant dough. we're short girls in the store as well, what else is new.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Chocolate macaroons

Friday morning, a hot Friday morning, yuck. Humidity is high, the macaroon shells I made yesterday are very soft. Humidity has eaten 'em up. In fact, I was in a macaroon funk yesterday. The macaroon Bermuda Triangle. I'm trying to make chocolate macaroons. Truth is, I've never been happy with my chocolate macaroons. I always think other peoples chocolate macaroons are nicer. To make Parisian macaroons, we blend almond flour, powdered sugar, and a little egg white. We add either a little colour i.e. green for pistachio, pink for raspberry or cocoa powder for chocolate. We also add add a little red colour to the chocolate mix. In a separate kettle, we whip egg whites and thread in boiled sugar, to make an Italian meringue. The two stages get folded together and piped out. Macaroons are the devil's work. I mean it. Of all the things we make, nothing is as temperamental as macaroons. A true, true measure of a baker's skill.

Yesterday, I made two batches, only because I had to exercise my father's belief about a dependable scavenger service, if ya know what I mean. In the first batch I used a new red colour. I think it was oil based and my macaroons cracked open on top, in the oven. The second mix baked better, I mean we can use them, but they are not perfect. I was on the phone with another baker and I forgot about the macaroons and they got really dry before they were baked and in the oven they rolled to one side, instead of coming straight up. Problem is that every time I make the chocolate ones, I keep trying to improve them. Sometimes I make progress, sometimes I go backwards. Unique to baking as apposed to cooking, you can't judge an item until it's finished. When you are cooking soup, you can taste it and make adjustment. If you make changes in a cookie recipe, you have to bake it before you can decide on it.

Incidentally, I'm very pleased with our filled macaroons, pistachio, raspberry, mocha, caramel and rose. I gotta say they are spot on. I'll get the chocolate ones figured out.

Gotta get upstairs. My ganache is probably melted enough, so I can pipe it. The tricky part is gonna be gettin' the macaroons shells off the baking paper.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nestle recalls cookie dough

The summer heat has really affected the bakery business. Just like every summer. Nothing new. The Northwestern campus empties out, the temperature climbs, the city closes our streets to allow who knows who, from who knows where, to come sell who knows what, at the Evanston Art Fair. The heat chases everyone to the beach and the ice cream shop. Can't say I blame 'me to much. Tough time of year to be makin' all butter stuff. Puff pastry and croissant dough made with shortening isn't affected by the heat nearly as much. but, I just can't do it to our customers.

Last night we started at the Andersonville farmer's market. It went very well. We sold out quickly. Very quickly. Next week the gang has got to step it up. They don't know yet, I'll break it to them slowly. Our performance last night further supports my belief that the world is starving for QUALITY baked goods. Mainly bread products. I heard it, half a dozen times last night, "we can't get good bread around here". That is not meant to discredit the Stanton Family at Swedish Bakery. Great friends, nice people, we/you all know they do a great, great job with whip creme pastries, cakes and cookies. On top of that, cleanest place I've ever been in. They don't do much in the way of artisan breads. In fact when I heard about the Andersonville market, Dennis Stanton was the first call I made. He is a fellow member of the Bakers Dozen group. I asked him if he minded us being in that market(its 1 block from his bakery). I offered that we wouldn't be selling anything that conflicted with his line of goods. He said "go ahead". If he had asked me not to do it, I wouldn't have. I appreciate our relationship more than any farmer's market.

So, my favorite, first customer approaches our table, a very boisterous woman, who is very familiar with our offerings. Said she "frequents the GCM". We were just getting started, my wife Patti and I worked the market. Another woman comes close to our table. We had a basket of herb ciabatta. We brush ciabatta loaves with garlic and rosemary infused olive oil and cover it with cacciocavallo cheese. Second woman asks Patti what type of cheese we use on the herb ciabatta. Woman number one answers "they use cacciocavallo form the Serra cheese company in Michigan. It's six dollars". She loudly went on about how good our bread is, about the crust, how she gets it Saturday's and Wednesdays at the GCM, "But we're really not far from the bakery. Right up Clark street", she said. She stood there for another six, seven minutes, just going on and on about our stuff. If i could find her now I'd hire her to stand there all night, next Wednesday.

Don't know if you heard, Nestle recalled some frozen cookie dough. I'm surprised that e.coli or anything else can live in something that is laced with stuff you'll never pronounce. Again lots of x's and z's. They gotta put that stuff in there to make it last in the freezer, I guess. Don't think the Nestle cookies are any different from the ones in a grocery store. The grocery store one's might be without e.coil, but all the other junk is in there.

Just another incident that supports my theory, "know your baker, know your bread". Buy it local, buy it baked. Buy it somewhere, where it is mixed and baked in the same building.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The smile on Hans face

We start the Andersonville Farmers Market tonight. Should be a very good market. They have put together a list of top notch vendors. Brunkow Cheese, River Valley Ranch, Tomato Mountain, Herbally Yours, and many more. It won't be like the Wilmette market, sellin' all kinds o' junk. Dog treats, jewelry, candles, nonsense. They even once had a person there doing massages. Ridiculous. There are four bakeries there. mostly nasty stuff. I think the other bakeries there are just re-sellers. The only reason we do that market is because it's close. We can fit it in with the vehicles, and personnel, we have. They accept anyone into that market. They have no boundaries or criteria.

Hans rye bread yesterday came out very nice. He was very pleased. He had one of the loaves sliced. I was shocked. I smelled it, as did he. He closed his eyes, drew in a breath, and smiled, said "sehr gut, wundervoll". He didn't taste it. He offered "to fresh to eat". Off he went. Feels good to make someone happy. Tis' the beauty of this business, the thing that draws me to it. Makin' peoples day, all day long, everyday. Pastries, baked goods in general, make people happy. My son is a hockey player. I used to take his skates to be sharpened, at the Wilmette Bike Shop. I'd walk in there and Larry was standing there in a sea of skates. Lady gave him a pair of skates, he gave her a claim ticket. He said "be ready tomorrow afternoon". She left. I handed Larry my sons skates, and a box of morning pastries. He sharpened the skates while I waited. We have our local welder guy. Does beautiful work. Little handles, brackets, any little stuff, him and I both know. He always tells my dad, "we work for food".

Hans rye bread will probably be best tomorrow. It takes a few days for the flavours to meld, and the gumminess to go away. Beefsteak rye, in the grocery aisle, can be eaten right away, no worries. That stuff is as far from rye bread as I am from Hans.
We make a rye loaf with eighty percent rye. We scald the rye flour with boiling water, the day before the bake. Once out of the oven, we wrap the loaves in linen and let them set overnight before we cut them into sellable size pieces. That is my favorite bread. Scalding the rye flour really get those enzymes going. There is so much transformation of starch into sugar that the crumb is almost sweet. We also add some rye sour, creates some very complex flavours. Wrapped up, the stuff will last for months. Again the ph is to low for it to mold. Ya gotta think back, few hundred years ago,folks only got to bake every other week in a communal oven. They had to learn ways to get their bread to last, without spoiling.

Gotta get upstairs, gotta get the things started that are gonna put a smile on the folks faces down in Andersonville. Just like ol' Hans.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A little about rye

Just finished mixing Hans' rye bread. He'll take a few and the rest we will sell tomorrow at our farmer's markets. I like making rye bread. I like eating rye as well. But it can't be the spongy stuff. The bread I'm making for Hans has equal parts of rye and wheat flour. So it's fifty percent rye and fifty percent wheat. We don't put any sweeteners in our rye bread. Only rye flour, wheat flour, water, salt and yeast. For Hans, I add a little whole caraway seed. I think Hans has been in the states too long. In Germany, caraway is called "kimmel". I don't think it's as common in rye bread there as it is here. Rye bread is so common from central and eastern Europe, because the rye grain is so plentiful there. The climate fits that crop very well. From a baker's standpoint, there are a couple things that make rye bread a little tricky. First, I said before that rye is loaded with pentosan, not gluten. It has a small percentage of gluten, but the quality is not favorable to baking. Due to the high amount of pentosan, there is also a high amount of the enzyme amylase. The problem that a baker faces is that the enzymatic activity in rye is denatured at a much higher temperature than the enzymes in wheat. This causes them to remain active in the oven much longer. The enzyme will have an effect on the wheat structure as well. It is very common to see rye loaves busted open on the side, because the structure is compromised via "starch attack". The gluten structure is weak to begin with because there isn't much of it. The enzymes damage it, and the gluten can't hold together.

Secondly, pentosan is like chewing gum, only it doesn't have any sweetness. If certain steps aren't taken care of before the dough gets to the oven, the crumb will be very "gummy". It will be baked, but the mouthfeel will be very sticky, ball up in your mouth, and the bread will be hard to digest. Centuries ago bakers learned that to avoid this they could lower the ph of the rye flour. Not sure how they knew. Not sure how they built such high, straight churches without a computer. Not even a slide rule. They had a string, and some bricks. Anyway, they sour the rye flour before they add the wheat flour to it. The lower ph will denature the pentosan some and eliminate some of the stickiness.

As bakers we see alot of rye formulas that preferment the rye flour before mixing. American bakers typically blend the water for the dough, the rye flour and the yeast, and let it sit for a few hours before mixing the dough. We call this the "rye sponge". In the production of German breads, sourdough yeast is used. We do the same here. We keep a "rye culture". We blend whole rye flour, very important it's whole rye, water and a piece of yesterday's culture. This step is called "feeding". What we are blending is called our "rye sour". We allow this to sit overnight, and the next day we add, wheat flour, water, salt and yeast. We always hold back a piece of the rye sour. Late afternoon it will be fed again, readied for the next day's batch.

Being Americans that we are, countless attempts have been made by bakery ingredient companies to create a chemical replacement for this rye sour process. Never have they been successful, never will be. You cannot replace the element that time has on fermentation. If you ever eat salt & vinegar potato chips next to a loaf of grocery store sourdough, they taste the same. They are trying to create sour flavour from powder. Never gonna happen.

Not long ago my daughter Deanne had the nerve to tell me that she enjoyed the pumpernickel at the Cheesecake Factory. I died a little that moment. Next she's gonna tell me she's a Cub fan.

Monday, June 22, 2009

mit der bugs

It turns out yesterday was the busiest Sunday we've ever had, based on our customer count. Town was jumpin' Saturday night. I came in at 10pm. Streets were packed. I have a theory, could be wrong.

We have a long time customer, Hans Kocher, old German guy from Darmstadt. Knows his bakery goods. Likes to talk about rye bread. Last trip to Germany he brought me back some rye sour from the bakery he knew as a child. He buys our bienenstich, apple strudel and different rye breads. Most visits here he asks for me. His wife worked at the hardware store next door. On Friday, I was in the store talking to him. A women came in the store, and approached me. Asked if I was the owner. I always reply, why? If it's a summons or a donation, I explain, I'm the owner, but my wife is the boss. She went on to tell me that she is in town for the Northwestern Graduation. Her daughter graduated two years ago and now her son is graduating. She came to complete her order for the celebration cake to be picked up on Saturday. She said our bakery is the first place she comes to whenever she is in town. In fact she came right from the airport. She is from outside Hartford, Connecticut. We hear this a lot, maybe because of our location near the university, we get a lot of folks traveling? "We have bakeries back home, but not like this". She said she has even gone so far to ship our goods home from Evanston. I asked her if she could repeat that a little louder. Hans said "I heard her. She's right". He looked at her, said "You're right, Nobody does this anymore".

I think between parents in town for graduation weekend, the buses being loaded down at the YMCA and the fact that Dunkin' Donuts is gone, all together made for a busy day yesterday.

I'm not boasting about the woman from Connecticut. I'm boasting about our industry. I believe in this business. If your goods are made well, priced fairly, they will come. And come again. I know a lot of bakers who are doing well. Keeping very busy during these alleged tough times. The ones standing there with flour on their shoes, taking care of their business, will always be busy.

Gotta get upstairs, start some rye bread. Old Hans is visiting his son up in the U.P. of Michigan. Leaving Wednesday morning. Him too, gonna take a load of stuff with him. He looked over his glasses on Friday when he left the bakery, pointed his finger, said "Dienstag(Tuesday) three, two pounders, der heavy stuff(50% rye), mit der bugs, not sliced". I know he means with caraway seed. I know he'll be here early too. Got nothin' else to do. Wonder what he's get from the counter girl at the Costco bakery?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

father's day

Seems like we made it. Awful lot of work. My son and I worked the overnight bake, Saturday night. Day is done and we're headin' out. Yesterday's weather made for a very good market weekend. The sunshine had our outside tables full almost all day, as well.

Dad, Happy Father's day. I see my dad everyday. He's eighty five years old and comes to the bakery nearly everyday. Still works, works more than he should. Yesterday he was here over nine hours. There's a lot to be said for enjoying what one does for a living. I firmly believe it's what makes for a long life. My dad is still decorating cakes in the shop window. Always referred to as the "old man in the window". I don't think he knows how much it means to me, him being here. There is one debt I owe the bakery, that is for allowing him and I to spend so much time together. I love you dad.

I also see my son here everyday, as well. Maybe someday he will look back and think the same about me. He is just getting started in the bakery. He has a different outlook about the business than i do. It's not wrong, it's just different. I'm very proud of him. He keeps comin' back. Everyday I see babysteps in his progress. Lot to learn in the bakery. A bakery instructor friend of mine, Jeff Hamelman tells his class "I can't teach you to bake in one week. I will teach you ten BIG things about baking in that time. You will spend the rest of your life in the bakery, learning a new, little thing, everyday". I wouldn't have gotten through last night without my son.

I'm calling it a day. Don't worry, still had enough energy to fed the sourdough starter. We will have bread on Tuesday. Forecast for Wednesday is good. going to start the Andersonville farmer's market, Wednesday afternoon.

To all you Dad's, Happy Father's Day.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

God lost track

I'm sure God lost track of the days. It rained, big time yesterday. I'm sure he thought it was Saturday. I spoke to girls at GCM, and they are ankle deep in mud, but lots of customers. Haven't heard from the Evanston market yet. Bright sunny day they should be busy.

Pretty good performance last night by the bakers. They were up against long odds. When the humidity spikes it's tough to keep a crust on anything. We try to cool down the oven a little and bake the bread longer. Time isn't always on our side either. Friday nights our deck oven stays full from 5pm til 6-7am. In fact we had the discussion yesterday, we don't remember the last time it was shut completely off. Weekdays we shut the burner off but leave the circulation fan on. Couldn't tell you the last time it was down long enough to clean the windows.

I gotta get upstairs, not much extra time today. Holleratcha tomorrow.

Friday, June 19, 2009

the start of summer

Northwestern graduation weekend. It always falls on Father's Day weekend. It has an effect on us and downtown Evanston. Hotels here are full, restaurants are booked. We bake for a number of area restaurants, they've all kicked up their order. They'll all call Monday and reduce their standing orders, until middle of September. I don't like this weekend, or the next two months that follow. It marks the start of the outdoor festivals that the city tries here every year. Usually turn out disastrous. The city here tries a sidewalk sale. There are so many empty stores here now, shoot, it didn't work when these stores were full. They used to have the world's largest garage sale, there wasn't a parking place from Evanston to Highwood, that was really good for business. They do an art fair here , my favorite, they close the streets in downtown Evanston. I understand they are trying, but it doesn't help the bakery business. Maybe I should try funnel cakes.

I mention the empty stores here in Evanston. A lot of the chains are pulling out. We lost a couple video stores, two print shops, independent restaurants keep comin' and goin'. You know the ones, they wanna be like Emeril or use a little "E,V,O,O,". They find out television chefs didn't cover meeting a payroll. Lost our Dunkin' Donuts, a good shot in the arm for us. Especially on Sunday morning. Our bakery is a block from an enormous YMCA. On summer Sunday's they have five or six tour type buses, pick up kids going to Camp Echo, up in Michigan. They pick up on Sunday's an drop off the next Saturday. On Sunday's mornings the few block area here fills up with parents dropping off. A lot of them stop by the bakery and load up their son or daughter on their way to camp. On Saturday's I don't think it's so effective.

Since the Dunkin' Donuts closed were are a bit busier in the mornings. We seem to sell more dozens of donuts. There is an office type business here in town, that one Friday a month they buy eight dozen donuts. No big deal, but eight dozen there, a few extra dozens a day in the store, a few more cups of coffee a day, etc. My dad always quotes senator Dirksen, long, long ago he said "a million here and a million there, pretty soon you're talkin' about a lot of money".

Well, I've avoided it long enough. Gotta go face 'em upstairs. The bakers. They be a very somber bunch today. A little overwhelmed. Oh well, not as somber as the bakers from that Dunkin' Donuts. You must keep things in perspective.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kudos to John Roeser II,III, IV,

Yesterday in the Chicago Sun Times there was a great, great story about Roeser's Bakery on North Ave in Chicago. It was two full pages, lots of colour pictures, invaluable coverage. They deserve the recognition. In 2011 the bakery will be 100 years old. What business does that? It's true testimony to their keen marketing skills and commitment to quality baked goods.

Yesterday I was dipping florentine cookies in chocolate and I realized that it is well after Memorial Day. In years past we always stopped making this variety because the summer humidity is to hard on them. The only thing holding them together is caramelized sugar. Their isn't any type of protein, be it eggs or flour to create any structure. We cook sugar, butter and honey to a precise temperature, and pour the syrup over sliced almonds. We fold them together an dump the mixture out on a sheet pan. Once it has cooled some, we divide them into pieces and drop them onto a silicone baking mat that looks like a shallow cup cake mold. We bake them and cool them. Once cooled they get dipped into chocolate on one side, and scraped with a decorating comb. They are really delicious cookies. Very popular at Passover and Christmas.

It's one of two reasons why we are still making them this late in the year. Either, the humidity hasn't gotten high enough or the fact that over the winter we completely revamped our formula/process. Last fall I contacted Robert Jorin, CMB, who is the bread and pastry chair out at CIA Greystone in Napa Valley. A very, very Swiss man. Family had a bakery in Bern, Switzerland forever. I discussed with him a few times our problems of lousy florentines and over a couple of phone calls we're in. They are really nice. Stay crisp and shiny. I'm really looking forward to this upcoming Christmas season. Remind me I said that come December twenty first.
Incidentally Robert did the viennoiserie for the '99 team that won the Coupe du Monde.

Gotta head upstairs, this is graduation weekend at Northwestern University. Weekends like this only happen once, every June. This town is up for grabs. Weather's gonna be nice Saturday, markets should be busy.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

nothin' says vanilla, like vanilla bean

It appears flour prices are on the move, in the wrong direction. Soy products climbing as well. Nothing like twelve months ago.

We've been selling a lot of custard cups lately. Even have had orders for them over the last couple days. It's just plain old egg custard, nothing special. I guess we do two things different, we add sour creme to our custard filling and we use organic Mexican vanilla. The idea for the sour creme came from a Jewish recipe for noodle kugel. We've never made it here but I saw it made in a Jewish bakery I used to work at. Long time ago, 1976, I worked at Konopov's bakery on Devon Ave. Busy place, made lots and lots of bagels, bialy's, kaiser rolls, bulkies, man they cranked it out. Had a whole bunch of guys makin' bread and pastry products and one lonely guy making all the cookies and cakes. They made nice stuff. I worked there over a Passover season. That's where I learned our line of Passover goods. Anyway, Bob, the cake baker would make noodle kugel. He would simply boil egg noodles and drain them, place them in a deep roasting pan and pour the custard mix over the noodles and bake it. When it went to the store they would cut it in squares and sell it by the pound.
We blend eggs, milk, sugar, sour creme, salt and vanilla. We pour it into individual foil cups, sprinkle the top with nutmeg and bake them. We also make bread pudding, same way, we put chunks of day old bread in the cups add a few raisins and pour them with custard. We sprinkle them with cinnamon before we bake them.

They didn't use upscale vanilla at Konopov's. Not many places do. The vanilla we use is the same vanilla I used in Paris, during the Coupe. As a team we tried many, many vanillas'. We all agreed that Mexican Vanilla had the most aroma and the best flavour. We buy our beans from the same outfit. Really nice stuff. We use the beans in our pastry creme and almond creme. We scrape out the pods and add the pod to the filling as it is cooking. Once it is cooked, we remove the pod, wash them off and bury them in sugar. They will dry and get brittle. We pour the whole deal into a food processor and run it to break up the brittle pieces and then sift them out leaving vanilla infused sugar. We use this vanilla sugar for our palmiers, monkey buns and we coat our stollen with it during the winter holidays.

Don't bother askin' at the grocery store bakery what they do with their scraped out vanilla pods. I'm sure the person behind the counter will send you to customer service. Save yourself some time and cut out the middle man by going straight to customer service.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It always rains on Wednesdays

If you ever decide to lay sod, do it on a Tuesday afternoon. You can count on rain on Wednesday. What a spring we've had! I hear from farmers at the market that all the crops are delayed because we haven't had any heat. Gotta say with weather like this, the bakery has been very comfortable. I've never been a fan of summer because of the discomfort it causes here in the bakery. I mentioned all-butter puff pastry dough. It can be a challenge in the summer, same with our croissants. The tables get warm, the mixing kettles get warm, the freezers get iced up from condensation, real pain in the neck.

Ever wonder why bread goes stale? It's kept in a plastic bag. How does it dry out? One of the things that the miller checks in the mill stream is the percentage of "damaged starch particles". As you know the flour is mostly starch. Starch is the substance that gets transformed during fermentation into simple sugars that are digestible by the yeast. The starch particles are so hard and dense, the only ones that are fermentable are the ones that get cracked open during the milling process. The starch particles are very hygroscopic. They will absorb water up to two hundred percent of their weight. So in 100 pounds of flour, there is 72-74 pounds of starch that will absorb 145 pounds of water or so. The issues is the density of the particles. They are so hard and dense that it takes days for them to fully hydrate.
Therefore, as the bread on your counter sits the starch continues to soak up any water. I'm not to familiar with the process used to produce the bread that most people buy. I'm not sure whatever it is that I can't pronounce, that commercial bread bakers use. If it doesn't come out of the ground, you shouldn't put it into your body. I'm guessin' they use somethin' that is spelled with most of the letters of the alphabet, including x's and z's.

A baker friend of mine really enjoys our miche. It's made from a simple process, lengthy but simple. Organic flour, water and salt. It is sourdough bread. Same loaf of bread you could buy centuries ago. Slow long bake, thick crust. Anyway, he eats that bread for one month. ONE MONTH. Sure it gets dry, but it won't mold. The ph of the crumb is to low. When the bread gets dry, you gotta put wetter stuff on it.

Give this try. Slice of miche, unsalted butter, thin sliced radishes, and a little salt, coarse if you please. I promise you'll consider vegetarianism.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Flour numbers are in

Just got the most recent report from the Avon mill in Avon, Iowa, where they mill Harvest King flour. I receive them every thirty days. The report is broken down week by week for that thirty day period. It's valuable information. The percentages of protein, moisture, ash and the falling number are all disclosed. I noticed that flour milled the week of June first thru the seventh had the highest protein level since March of 2008. The report is broken down into three sections, miller's data, farinograph data and alveograph data. The millers data is the most important to the baker. the other info is really info that the miller would use to adjust the mill stream as it is being milled.

One of the unique numbers is the "falling number". I have been speaking of enzymatic activity. The falling number test is one that is done to determine the amount of protease activity in the flour. In a laboratory setting, of course, at the mill, a solution is made of equal parts of flour and water. The slurry is poured into a test tube and the test tube is placed in boiling water. A kinda ski pole looking instrument is place on top of the slurry. It is free falling, pretty much weightless. Once placed in the water, a timer is started and they count the number of seconds it takes for that ski pole to fall to the bottom of the test tube. Remember, water activates the protease and heat will intensify the denaturing effect. When the enzyme is fully activated, the wheat protein will be denatured enough that all the elastic characteristics in the flour will be destroyed. consequently, it can no longer support the weight of the ski pole thingy. A good falling number is right around two hundred sixty. If that number is to low, the miller will adjust the mill stream by adding malted barley flour, or fungal amylase. If the number is to high, the miller will add more flour milled from the centre of the endosperm, where there isn't much enzyme. In God's infinite wisdom, he created the wheat berry with most of the enzyme out near the the bran where it would have an effect on things and not so much on the core of the endosperm where it wasn't needed.

I know this info doesn't matter much to most of you, much less to many bakers, but in order for us to create a consistent product, one needs to understand this.Like i said there is a difference between someone who bakes and someone who is a baker.

Tomorrow, one of life's perplexing questions: How does bread go stale?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

throw me a rope

Breaking news, "Farmer's markets get washed out. Soup kitchens rejoice". What a day. So far this market season, we rain was predicted, they were wrong. We counted on the Old Town Art Festival to bring a lot of people to the GCM, but, not. Just goes to show ya, not every day can be a good day. Store was very busy, so not all is lost.

I'm a member of a group of bakers, we call ourselves "The Bakers Dozen". Twelve bakers here in the midwest. Becoming a member of this group is probably the most important and valuable thing that ever happened to me as a baker. We share our successes, tragedies, travels and heartaches together. Very therapeutic. It is a very closely held group. One member is the third generation to represent his family bakery. We meet once a month, on the first Wednesday, 3pm. We meet and then have dinner together. Whomever is hosting the meeting calls for three items that he feels he needs help with. Al other members are required to bring the same items. A few months back, we all had to bring apple strudel made with hand stretched dough, or phyllo dough. we hadn't made this type of strudel in probably twenty years. I obliged and made our strudel. A batch made eight strips of strudel, I took one to the meeting and put the rest in the store. Sold immediately. We've been making it, almost daily, ever since.

This particular type of strudel has a Viennese origin. The dough is made from wheat flour, water, eggs, oil, salt and honey. We mix the dough and shape into a ball and let it rest for a couple hours. Once rested we use a bed sheet over a table and we pull the dough in each direction until you can see the hairs on the back of your hand thru the dough. It will be eight feet long and three feet wide. We brush it with melted butter, sprinkle it with toasted cake crumbs, chopped hazelnuts and cinnamon sugar. Along the eight foot length we pile up sliced, peeled and cored apples mixed with sugar, cinnamon and raisins. We use the cloth and roll it up into a cylinder that is about three inches in diameter. We cut it into sixteen inch lengths and bake it, very hot so the dough bakes before the liquid in the apples boils and splits open the dough. Once cool we dust it with powdered sugar and sell it by the pound. Remarkable stuff.

I'm mentioning this because we made it yesterday for the first time in two or three weeks. This type of product is an excellent example of why you should shop in your local retail bakery. You won't find stuff like this anywhere else.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

threat of rain

Another Saturday morning, dark and overcast. Maybe the rain will hold off. We were expecting it to rain thru the night, but we got the markets set up without rain gear.

The Old Town Art Festival is happening down around North and Wells, we're expecting quite a bit of play from that. They better show up, we sent a lot of extra goods.

Getting back to that autolyse thing, there are cases when doing an autolyse is of no benefit. When a dough has an exceptionally high percentage of whole wheat flour, the bran flakes will interfere with any gluten structure. Gluten is a single strand protein. The proteins link up in a chain. The coarse bran will get in between the protein, and it in itself is already weaker. Weaker structure equals enhanced extensibility. Rye dough's are another example which, there isn't any benefit from an autolyse. Rye has some gluten, but it is minimal. Rye flour is loaded with pentosan. Pentosan is like chewing gum, without the sweetness. Rye breads almost always contain wheat flour. The strength of the wheat protein is drastically weakened because it gets diluted by the rye flour.

I have mentioned about the percentage of whole wheat flour. As bakers we talk about and use "baker's percentage". As bakers we also put together our recipes, better known as formulas, using pounds and ounces. We weigh everything. This baker's percentage thing is all based on the weight of the flour. A simple baguette formula is 100 pounds of flour, 65 pounds of water, 2 pounds of salt, 2 pounds of yeast. So, it's 100% flour, 65% water, 2% salt and 2% yeast. The secret in making really good bread is the way you manipulate the formula. What percentage of the flour gets prefermented and which method is used to ferment it.

When making whole wheat bread, it should be 100 percent whole wheat flour, no white flour. There are a number of doughs we make that contain a small percentage of either whole wheat, and/or rye flour. For instance in our California Bread we use 90 percent white flour and 10 percent whole wheat. For this dough we do an autolyse. Our cracked wheat bread is 50/50 white to whole wheat flour. We do not autolyse that dough. Our semolina sesame dough gets an autolyse as well. It uses 1/3 durum flour. 1/3 semolina, and 1/3 white flour. Durum and semolina flours are used in making pasta. Very high in protein. Moral of the story, anywhere there is excessive protein in the flour, do an autolyse.

The sad news is, there are not many hard rules in the bakery. I mentioned 65 percent water. Most of the time, that's fine. Sometimes we will mix a dough and have 10% of the water left. It's in the baker's hand.

A while back a wise Frenchman told me "in the bakery two plus two is never four, but it's always very close to the middle between three and five".

Friday, June 12, 2009

all is well

Turns out the bakery survived my absence. I learned a long time ago, I can never get away, only go away. Truthfully, after four or five days I really start to miss the bakery. I need that flour in my lungs. Hell, couple hours outside and I'm at the risk of exposure. Sometimes, especially on Saturdays after a long Friday night I feel like the guy in the movie "Bridge Over the River Kwai". They lock him up in a metal box and when he is let out he has a hard time, adjusting his eyes to the sun. I get the same feeling when I walk out of the bakery.

We had a nice mention in the Chicago Tribune, yesterday, regarding "Outdoor Dining". Mentions our coffee, sticky buns, croissants and ham and cheese sandwiches. Thanks to the folks there. Next Wednesday(I think), one of the Chicago papers is doing a story about Roeser's Bakery. Been in Chicago's Humboldt park area forever. Very well run, successful, quality minded place. John is my closest friend. I'm not plugging his bakery, but plugging our livelihood. Anytime a retail bakery gets a mention in the press, our whole industry benefits. I suppose even the places that think they are a bakery benefit as well. Tag's Bakery, here in Evanston, put up a new awning. It's beautiful. Head west on Central street and their name and the word "Bakery" is gleaming. We all benefit from that.

Yesterday, Val asked me "how do you choose which doughs to do an autolyse for"? Marc was there and he said "that autolyse thing, is magical to me". These conversations are not going on in places that think they are a bakery. Promise. Autolyse is a technique taught by Raymond Calvel. I mentioned the enzyme protease earlier, when the farmer starts the baking process. I may have mentioned that the enzyme is present in the grain. I mentioned that once the flour is hydrated, the enzyme is activated. Well, when we make our doughs here that will be used for baguettes or sourdough breads, we use this technique, autolyse. We dump the flour into the mixer, add malt if needed, add about ninety percent of the water and start the mixer in low speed. We run it long enough to get the flour evenly hydrated. We stop the mixer and cover the bowl with a plastic sheet. We set a timer for twenty minutes and wait. A lot is going on in that mass. When you tug on the dough, as soon as the mixer has stopped, the dough will tear away, and seem very shaggy. After the rest time, the dough will be much more pliable or "extensible". When you tug on it it won't tear away, it will stretch. Wheat protein, gluten, has two sides, elastic and extensible. Glutenin is responsible for the elasticity and gliadin handles the elastic side. A balance between the two creates dough strength. So the same enzyme, protease, that is responsible for denaturing the membrane between the germ and endosperm, starts to denature the elastic side of the protein. This enhances the extensible side. To us bakers this is a very useful tool. When we shape baguettes, we need to roll them long, during shaping. If the elastic side is to strong, the baguettes will snap back, as it is rolled out. It is equally important when making bread that has a lot of lumpy things added to the dough. Things like raisins, olives, nuts, garlic cloves, cheese cubes, etc. benefit from enhanced extensibility. Once the bread is baked you can see a fine membrane of dough over the lumps. First it will help the pieces stay in the dough, during shaping. Secondly, when you examine the baked loaf, this fine membrane of dough covering the protrusions, the raisins/olives/whatever, won't get quite so dark in the oven.

I know it's a lot of information. I will cover more of this tomorrow. Yes, there are instances that you shouldn't autolyse a dough.

I just ran upstairs to settle an inside dispute. While there I noticed a plain croissant, a little misshaped, reminds me of the fish Nemo. A little on the small side. Just came from the oven. I am protecting our customer. Damn, it was wonderful. I think I could live without sugar easier than I could without butter.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

the rain in spain, not sure where

Home is a terrific place to get away from, but a better place to come back to.

Spain is a beautiful place, Barcelona not so much, but the island of Mallorca, paradise. Just got back from nine days there, five on the mainland, four on the island. Weather was perfect, couple drops one day. Terrible time to leave the bakery. We were busy, busy, with graduation and all.I was with Alex Vesselinovitch and his daughter. Alex has been all over the world. Says the only place he has seen more dramatic is the island of Kaua'i,in Hawaii. I can only compare it to Bern, Switzerland.

Gotta say, not much in the way of bakeries in Spain. Seems all the bread is pretty much the same. In Barcelona there are a lot of bakeries, small, very small. They do a lot of bakeoff, frozen dough type stuff. Le Fornet has a number of locations. A kinda Spanish "Panera Bread" set up. Saw a "Paul" location. Nice stuff. "Paul" is a French based "Panera Bread" type place. They have one for sure here in the states, in Miami, on South Beach. The two bakers I spoke to were both using Spanish flour. Bread had a very white crumb. Very even/tight grained. Obviously no winter wheat there. Not much in the way of fermentation, stuff was all made with gun powder(sarcastic name for dough conditioners). The last night there, we ate at Seven Portes, an old Spanish bistro, close to the water. THEY had some bread. Closest thing I found to our bread here. Even had a creamy coloured crumb. Nice pretty hole structure. Nice crust, was baked pretty close to dinner time. All the bread I saw was baked on screens in a convection oven. When you turn over a baguette, it should have a smooth bottom. Should be darker, where it made contact with the stone while baking. If it looks like it was baked on a window screen or patterned metal, it is not baked on a hearth. Subway, grocery stores, warehouse clubs, turn over their bread and you will see what I mean.

The Spaniards get by with mediocre bread because of the wonderful olive oil they serve at the table. They also serve the best olive tapenade, I've ever eaten. I guess they view their bread as a way of getting these olives items up to their mouth.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Takin' some time off

This will be the last posting for nine days. I'm off to visit bakeries in Spain. The exchange of ideas and techniques between bakers is unlike any other group of professionals. It's never a good time to leave the bakery. Now it's graduation season, but the bakery made it the first forty seven years without me. It's not like I'm here doing all the work anyway. We are fortunate to have a terrific group of folks behind the scenes that keep it all going. In fact, if all goes well, our Marc Levy will earn his Certified Journey Baker degree in August. With that Bennison's will lead the country in the number of CB's, CJB's and CMB's, Certified Master Baker.

My son, Guy Downer, is also in class this week at the French Pastry School in Chicago. He is taking a Whole Grain Class with Jeff Hamelman. Jeff is a great baker and friend. He's one of those celebrity types, written books, teaches around the world. But one truly genuine person. He runs the production bakery and school at King
Arthur Flour in Vermont.

Do you think your grocery store/warehouse club bakery department goes to those lengths to improve their goods?

I think not.

I'll holleratcha next week.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Just to let you know

At Bennison's we are not infallible. I entered the bakery today, and there is a full double rack of croissants that are unsellable. I think the sugar was left out of the dough. As American bakers we call it croissant dough. Well that's really incorrect. The dough, before it's laminated with the butter, is called "detrempe". Once the butter has been put into it, it's called "pate de croissant", or croissant dough. So the sugar was left out of the detrempe. So we have a lot of product that is lost. My dad told me, a long time ago, that Herb Doerner from Heinemann's Bakeries in Chicago told him that "the secret to running a successful, quality minded retail bakery is a dependable scavenger service and a free flowing sewer". Case in point. Doesn't happen often, but it happens.

I attended that Artisan I class, back in October of 2000. I drove up to Minneapolis, and roomed with Greg Vetter from Tag's Bakery, here in Evanston. Nice people, nice bakery. If you don't buy it here, at least buy it there. They're maikn' it real, as well. We drove up together and I knew I would rent a car and return to Chicago by myself. Greg had a chance to stay and visit some college friends in Minnesota. The first day of class was alot of discussion, and limited demo. Didier talked about the baking process and in the afternoon, he made some pre-ferments. We made poolish, sponge, biga and pre-fermented dough. All to be ready to bake Tuesday morning. We arrived Tuesday morning, started mixing and on Tuesday afternoon we started tasting an array of baguettes. It was also explained that we weren't focusing on baguettes because he was French, he used baguettes because there is nothing more easy to judge and to learn the idiosyncrasies of the different flours and different processes. There isn't anywhere for things to hide. Nothing to mask a baker's shortcomings. Simple, remember, flour, water, salt and yeast.

It was the second time I was that close to bread baked in a real hearth oven. It was the first time I tasted bread made with the proper flour, properly fermented and properly baked. My first trip to the NBC, I was there to compete, I didn't get to taste anything we baked. As soon as we were finished baking, we had to leave so the judging could take place. So there we were, Didier, twelve students and hundreds of baguettes. We tasted the bread, variety by variety. Easily distinguishing the difference that the different process created. They were all good, better than any bread I'd ever eaten. But the one made using a poolish was incredible. Slightly acidic, with heavy nutty tones from the unbleached flour. The winter wheat creates an almost sweetness to the crumb. The crust was crunchy yet yielding when bitten, the hole structure was open and palatable, because of the lower protein flour. That was it. I never looked back. I had to get this bread to Evanston, on a daily basis.

Didier spent the rest of the week explaining why we should do what we should do. He explained why we/me get the results we do back at Bennison's. Trying to define the impact that week had on me is difficult. I will tell you that class ended on Friday at 4:30. I got on the road around 7pm. I drove in a car, by myself, in the dark for three hours, without the radio on.