Quarantine Chronicles Day 61: ‘Baking Bad’—mistakes were made

OK, absolutely all evidence to the contrary, I think I know how to make bread now. The secret to baking, I have discovered, is learning from your mistakes, and the more mistakes you make, the more you learn. I’m, like, a baking genius now.

As the inaugural project in the Post team’s campaign to keep me busy over the next however-many days of this stay-at-home order, I was ordered to learn how to bake bread, and you’ll recall from yesterday’s column (click here if you’ve somehow forgotten), my daughter and I did the preliminary work of buying yeast and following the recipe of my editor/baking instructor Melissa Evans on the easiest bread recipe you’ll ever find. We mixed the yeast, flour, salt and precisely 130-degree water in our expensive Bosch mixer and thereby logged our first mistake fairly early in the process and earned the mix of disappointment and rage of Melissa because it turned out I was supposed to do the mixing in a regular bowl with a wooden spoon like our pioneer forebears did.

The mistakes piled up: I wasted about half the mixture by rinsing the dough out of the mixer and its paddles, and hosed about a quarter loaf of nascent bread off my hands and wrists.

Anyhow, let’s cut to the final stages, which began this morning at about 7:30 at which time I subjected myself to more verbal abuse from Melissa regarding how many errors I’ve made during the last 24 hours, and they are legion.

The dough, which had risen on Thursday evening, had receded by about an inch overnight. Did I worry? I did not. I proceeded as though nothing had gone wrong.

I buttered up a Dutch oven (after first clearing up the fact that the name isn’t horribly racist, although I learned that in the Netherlands they don’t call a Dutch oven a Dutch oven.  See, baking can be both educational and fun!) and, after more scolding from the tyrannical Bäckermeister Evans—this time in front of the entire office in a Zoom meeting—to hurry up and put it in the oven. NOW!

So 25 minutes in the covered Dutch oven, followed by another 10-14 minutes uncovered to make it a nice golden brown, and, voila! Done.

The loaf was maybe an inch and a half thick and round, rather than loaflike. It looked like a big, fluffy cookie, and yet I nevertheless loved it the way you can love the ugly runt of a litter of puppies.

“I think we just accidentally invented flatbread,” I told Hannah. And, while it was still piping hot, I cut it like a pie (mmmm, bread pie), we slapped some butter on it and polished off half a loaf. It was so crunchy on the outside that eating it made a racket that attracted the dogs, but, seriously, it was delicious in its own mutant, blunder-riddled way. Ah, the sweet taste of failure!

And when I bake bread again, I know how to do it right, which is almost the polar opposite of how I did it this time. Here’s your recipe.

In a regular bowl (not a fancy electric mixer. In fact, unplug your mixer and put it in the garage), mix three cups of flour, one-quarter teaspoon of dry active yeast and one and a half teaspoons of salt. Then pour in one and two-thirds cups of water that’s 120-130 degrees (it will help if you can imagine Melissa yelling “This is important!” from the next room). Mix that until it’s a sticky dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it on the counter for anywhere between two and 24 hours. I left it out for about 25 hours; try four. Butter up the bottom of a Dutch oven (no offense) and drop your dough onto a heavily-floured surface and toss a couple tablespoons of flour on the dough and fold it in, do this a couple more times. Now you can drop the ball of dough into the Dutch oven—I found out later (by sneaking behind my mentor’s back, and watching a nice, calm “Jenny Can Cook” YouTube video) that you can put the dough on parchment paper instead and drop that in the Dutch oven.

Let it sit for one to two hours.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees, then put the Dutch oven into your non-Dutch oven for 30 minutes, then uncover it (and take off the parchment paper if you’re going that route) and bake it for another 15 minutes.

And you and the bread are done.

I promise I’ll do better next time. Apparently, it’s really not that difficult. And, worst case, which I was able to achieve, you’ll have a nice bread pie.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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