The one resolution I made for 2010 was that I want to become a good baker. I'm already pretty good, especially when it comes to things like cookies, cakes, and other desserts. But I want to become an accomplished bread baker; I want whipping out a delicious, crusty, tender loaf of bread to become second nature to me. While I have a fair amount of experience with yeasted white breads, I'd never tackled any whole grain baking, and I decided that's what I'd devote the year to: learning the tricks (because there are tricks and pitfalls, I know) to turning out great whole grain bread. I decided to start 2010 off with a batch of whole wheat bread.
You can see my work in progress above. That line from T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Profrock" should come to mind: "Like a patient etherized upon a table." Or perhaps you should be thinking of a body in a morgue. Either way, you get the picture. The results were not good, not good at all.
An unflattering close-up. Even in this photo I think you can see how dry and unflexible the dough looks. It's a rocky lump. The right end of the loaf has split, and there's so little moisture and pliability to the dough that I can't work it back into a smooth oval. I decided not to bother to bake this batch of bread because it clearly would be a waste of time.
Amazingly, I regard this failure as a good thing.
I'm used to being good at the things I do. I don't ascribe my successes to massive amounts of natural talent; I think I simply don't challenge myself very much. It's easy to be successful when I keep doing things that I have been successful at in the past. For instance, I am a fantastic cross stitcher . . . . but it's pretty easy to become a cross stitch expert, and I don't think I've improved my technique in the last 20 years. The same thing goes for baking a nice loaf of white bread: I simply use the same couple of recipes that have worked so well for me in the past, and the results are predictably good. Thus, when I jumped into baking my first batch of whole wheat bread without really doing any research or taking the time to focus on the task at hand, it should come as no surprise that I failed. If I'd succeeded while taking such a slapdash approach, I wouldn't have learned anything, and learning about and understanding the whole bread-baking process are my goals for the year.
What went wrong? I think I made mistakes at every step:
1. The water wasn't warm enough. I got it warm enough to activate the yeast, all right, but I'm always worried about killing yeast with water that's too hot. So here I've got warm water that I pour into a chilly stainless steel mixing bowl and leave to activate in a cool kitchen. The yeast may have woken up, but I think it may have drifted back to dormancy as the water quickly cooled.
2. I added too much flour. The recipe said to add the flour one cup at a time. It also said that I may not need all the flour, which was definitely true but I didn't realize until I poured in that entire last cup. Some of the flour simply would not incorporate into the dough, and the dough was dry instead of very sticky, which the recipe warned me it would be. I should have been more mindful of adding that last batch in much smaller increments.
3. I didn't knead the dough enough. The recipe suggested kneading for about 10 minutes. After 10 minutes the dough was beginning to feel pliable and a little springy, although it still seemed dry. I should have kept kneading to develop the gluten some more, but instead I chose to stop and let the rise begin.
4. I didn't put the dough in a warm enough spot to rise. I did set the bowl on the back burner of the stove, and with the oven preheating I figured the rising heat would be enough to get the dough moving. But the kitchen itself was kind of chilly, and it wasn't until I turned the central heat on and closed the kitchen door to hold in the warmth that I got any kind of rise out of the dough at all.
So. Failure all around! But I feel good about identifying every way in which I misstepped. Next time I bake bread I will keep all of these errors in mind, and I won't be distracted by laundry, putting away the Christmas decorations, and updating my blog. I'll try to take a more mindful, Zen approach to my bread baking and see if I have a bit more success.