By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Bethesda resident Paula Whyman calls herself a breadhead, meaning she takes, and bakes, the stuff seriously.
The sight of artisanal bread packaged in plastic bags disturbs her. The 43-year-old writer owns a baking stone, a peel, a special tool for slashing dough, a gas range and an electric convection oven. She stocks three kinds of King Arthur flour and a malt powder to build a better texture. She combs reference books, surfs Web sites and experiments with ingredients and preparation.
Then she tests the results on her family. Her husband, Bill, also 43, and son David, 9, are not likely to reject anything home-baked, but 7-year-old Eric is a more discerning judge. He had no problem giving a thumbs-down to his mother's rendition of Julia Child's French bread.
"The crumb's a little tight," he declared, objecting to the density of the loaf's interior. The maple oatmeal bread she offered a few weeks later fared no better.
Upset by such crummy reviews, Whyman contacted Chef on Call.
She wanted to produce good loaves consistently, and she requested the help of one man: Mark Furstenberg, the bread maven credited with bringing European-style bread to Washington.
When Furstenberg opened Marvelous Market in 1990, customers waited in line to receive two-loaf allotments. But the instant success meant that he could not keep up with demand. And he admits his lack of business savvy.
"People considered me a guru, but I really didn't know what I was doing," Furstenberg says. The year before, at age 51, he had gone to the famed La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles to study Nancy Silverton's techniques but soon realized he had learned how to make her bread instead of how to be a breadmaker. So Furstenberg went to Paris, where he did stints over five years at renowned bakeries such as Le Moulin de la Vierge and L'Autre Boulange.
The District resident, now 69, has fierce white eyebrows and a thinning thatch of white hair -- and a reputation for telling it like he sees it. He sold his interest in Marvelous Market in 1996 and opened the popular Bread Line downtown in 1997.
Furstenberg no longer is associated with that business; he now works as a consultant, spreading the bread gospel according to Mark and teaching regularly at the Greystone campus of the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, Calif. The bread he bakes at home, most of which is whole-grain and in the service of recipe development, is given to his Kalorama neighbors. His quest to achieve the perfect baguette is ongoing.
He arrived at the Whymans' kitchen a few weeks ago with bubbling dough starters and samples, plus an essential piece of kitchen equipment. A properly crunchy exterior was the first issue he addressed.
Humidity gives bread a desirable hard crust, he said: "Steam retards the formation of a crust long enough for the bread to expand to its maximum before the crust sets and inhibits its growth. Then it gelatinizes the crust. The sugars in the dough caramelize and become deep brown."
Whyman explained the difficulty of retaining steam in her Wolf gas range.
"I put a tray of ice in right before I put the bread in, but that only provides steam for a few minutes," she said. "One recipe says to spray the walls every eight minutes, but then the temperature goes down."
"No, don't do that," Furstenberg said. "You'll get a thick, rubbery crust rather than a crisp one."
Home bakers who lack the benefit of professional equipment, Furstenberg suggested, can use a Dutch oven or a clay baking cloche, whose rimmed plate is soaked with water that turns into moist heat contained by its bell-like lid. A Dutch oven will trap the steam long enough for a nice crust to form; then its lid can be removed to let moisture dissipate and browning begin.
Next, he attacked the gaps in Whyman's dough techniques.
"Breads with big holes are open doughs," he said, "and that means you have to use a wet dough. There's no other way to get porous bread." Wet doughs can be tough to handle. They don't require kneading but do take lots more time.
That led Furstenberg to a still-hot topic in the bread-baking world: the no-knead method of Manhattan baker Jim Lahey, as described in a 2006 New York Times article written by cookbook author and columnist Mark Bittman. It called for long fermentation and short proofing sessions, and it contradicted the standard double-rise, punch-down regimen.
"Everything I learned when I started making bread turned out to be the opposite of what I should be doing," Furstenberg said. "Cold is better than warm. Handling the dough gently is better than punching it."
But he thinks Lahey's method does not provide enough flavor. Furstenberg likes to add a pre-fermentation starter, which is a small mixture of flour, water and yeast (or something with yeast or active cultures in it, such as yogurt, a piece of bread or grapes) that is left to ferment for long periods of time.
He brought two kinds to Whyman, including one that he began "feeding" the year the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989, and has nurtured ever since. For Jewish rye bread, Furstenberg's starter contained dark rye flour and chunks of onion for extra tang. For rustic white bread, he used his trusted pouliche, or yeasted sponge, which adds a creamy, wheaty flavor. "Not a sour bread," he insisted, "but one with a greater depth of flavor than a bread made directly from yeast and white flour." Whatever he removes from it he then replaces with more flour and water.
"If you shake it and it bubbles, it's very strong. When the bubbles fall and don't come up again, you've used up all the starch in the flour, and you have to add more flour to feed it."
Whyman was so awestruck, she treated it as if it were plutonium.
Furstenberg then hauled out his Salter kitchen scale, which measures in grams and ounces and can be reset to zero (tare) during the weighing process -- a missing piece in Whyman's arsenal.
Serious bakers measure by weight, he stressed, which makes sense because it is more accurate than measuring by volume (in all sorts of home cooks' receptacles, at that). Whyman learned that professionals work with recipes and a baker's formula in which all the ingredients are converted into percentages against the total flour used. Salt, for instance, should equal between 2 and 3 percent of the flour weight in bread recipes that call for salt, Furstenberg said.
"Bakers use formulas because they are much easier to adjust and multiply for larger batches. You always get things right if you do them the same way every time," he said.
Whyman dutifully used his scale, mixed her own doughs in minutes, covered them and left them to rise.
"How do you know they're ready?" she asked.
"By sight," Furstenberg answered. "It may take eight hours, it may take 18. It depends on the heat in your kitchen." He then showed her the pre-risen doughs he had made the day before. When he shook the container of white bread dough, it wiggled like Jell-O. Whyman called it custardy; Furstenberg cautioned again that it can be tricky to work with dough that is so wet.
But Whyman handled it easily by occasionally dipping her hands into a bowl of water, which was preferable to dealing with a mess of dusting flour. Within 30 seconds, a tight ball was rising in a classic cane proofing basket called a banneton. A few minutes later, a formed rye loaf was proofing on a tea towel dusted with rice flour -- so used because wheat-flour dough does not absorb it.
Using the Dutch-oven method to bake the white bread, Whyman produced a fine loaf that was crusty outside and fluffy inside. Baking the rye loaf on inexpensive clay tiles set on a rack in her oven meant having to open its door several times to add steam.
To Furstenberg, the rye was a failure; he found the loaf too flat and not browned enough. But what did his opinion matter? Eric had returned from school and was already sampling the goodies.
"How's the crumb?" his mother asked.
His thumb was up, but he couldn't speak. It would have been impolite for him to talk with his mouth full.
David Hagedorn, chef and former restaurateur, can be reached at email@example.com. His Chef on Call column appears monthly.