Bread Illustrated: The Week Bread Took Over My Life

Last week, I was watching a baking TV show. The theme of the episode was bread. For whatever reason, this sent me into a bit of a panic. I had this moment where I thought, “How can I call myself a baker – I never make bread!”

In high school, I took a baking course with my aunt at George Brown College. I only missed one day of class: the one where they covered bread. Thus, I have never had much confidence in bread. To be honest, sometimes I forget it’s part of baking. In France, they have shops that sell bread and shops that sell baked goods – they’re two separate shops.

I made my way to the Squamish Public Library and checked out a big, thick book called Bread Illustrated by America’s Test Kitchen (a source that I find to be very reliable and trustworthy). I started reading all the tips, techniques, and equipment required to make a solid loaf. It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s an entirely different thing to do it – so I got to work.

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The first recipe I made was actually from Cooks Illustrated online, not the cookbook. It was a relatively simple recipe for cheddar biscuits.

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I expected these biscuits to taste like the ones from Red Lobster. They didn’t which was disappointing. I thought they were okay, overall, but a little bland. Cedric loved them.

Next up was a recipe from the cookbook for No-Knead Brioche.

I feel like mine turned out quite a bit more yellow than the photo in the cookbook did (it did call for 3 large eggs), but the taste was delightful. The lump in the middle is intentional – the loaf actually consists of two balls smooshed together, and the lump is the seam. The bread tasted very buttery and not overly sweet. We slathered it in raspberry jam and picked away at it over a few days, but it was definitely best in the first day or two – it dried out afterwards.

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Looking for a substitute for the bread I buy at the grocery store for our morning toast, I then tried the cookbook’s Classic Italian Bread recipe.

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This loaf is super unattractive, but it was actually a good learning experience because I discovered that the slit that I cut with my knife was not quite right. My knife doesn’t seem to be solid enough to get the cuts they get in the cookbook (though in my defense, they use a single-edge razor blade in the book). This recipe called for beer, which was novel.

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Although it was a little ugly on the outside, it looked good on the inside and it had a nice crust. I really enjoyed this loaf as a classic go to bread.

I had another learning moment with the next bread. It was so sad looking that I carved a little face in it:

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This is called the Almost No-Knead Bread and no, it’s not supposed to look like that. With this loaf, I discovered that there IS such thing as over proofing! At one step, the recipe said to let it sit for 8 to 18 hours. I ended up letting it sit longer than that, which apparently makes the yeast gobble up all the sugar or something. Lesson learned: stick to those timing estimates.

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It looks like a pizza dough! It was still salvageable with a healthy layer of Nutella.

To this point, I’d been working with the introductory breads (hence all the no kneads in the title). But what I really wanted to bake was a big, fat braided challah.

This recipe cheats a little – rather than a complicated 5+ strand braid, you just make two braids and stack them atop one another. One of the braids is supposed to be smaller than the other, but even though I tried to split my dough into about 1/3 and 2/3, my braids ended up pretty similar. That’s okay – just another lesson learned! Pull out that food scale to make sure your ratios are spot on.

The top braid ended up toppling over a bit in the oven. It looks a bit like a caterpillar, doesn’t it? You can see how it kind of pulled apart on the side it slid off.

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It’s pretty tasty (I’m still working on eating it all), but I find it has a slight vegetable oil flavour. In lieu of butter, it calls for 1/4 cup of vegetable oil, so that makes sense. It’s meant to be dairy free, but I’d love to try one with butter instead of oil.

I was excited to tackle the Pain de Campagne. This past summer, I was helping behind-the-scenes of the Woods 2.0 campaign. We spent a week or so in Quebec and we had breakfasts at the MOST delicious little restaurant. I remember having pain de campagne there and not knowing exactly what it was. Now I know.

The pain de campagne was a little more advanced than many of the other recipes I’d tried. For one, you have to make a “sponge” ahead of time. It looks like this:

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Next, you have to keep the oven moist while it cooks. The book suggests using lava rocks to achieve this. I found some at Canadian Tire. Now I have a huge bag of lava rocks, so it looks like I’ll be making pain de campagne for awhile.

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I learned from my too-shallow-incision mistake and sliced the top of this bread using kitchen shears.

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It worked!

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Discerning eyes will see a bit of an air pocket in the middle there. Still learning, guys, still learning.

Finally – well, not FINALLY finally, but finally for this post – I made the Scali Bread. This one also called for a sponge. I haven’t dug in yet (you have to let the bread rest for 3 hours before cutting it – by far the hardest part of baking), but it looks pretty good.

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See those stretch marks? Based on my research, it looks like I braided my braids too tightly, which is what caused them. I always thought tightly braided friendship bracelets looked better – but bread isn’t friendship bracelets. Who knew?

Just so we’re clear, this is an INSANE AMOUNT OF BREAD to bake in a week for a two-person household. Clearly, I am not getting out much (I blame the sprained ankle). But this intensive bread baking week has been really interesting – I feel like I’ve learned a lot from doing it so many times.

There are soooo many more recipes I want to try – the flatbread, the chocolate babka, croissants, cinnamon buns, more rustic loaves… luckily, I’ve still got the book for another two weeks before it’s due back at the library.

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6 thoughts on “Bread Illustrated: The Week Bread Took Over My Life

  1. You panic because you’ve never baked bread? Boy, did you ever compensate for that gap in your baking experience . Might one suggest you overcompensated? A tad? Did you find time to work that week? And what did you do with all that bread? Other than bread pudding of course.

    But all that aside, bravo. I tried French baguettes and never got them past the doorstop stage (meaning they weighed enough to be doorstops) and were basically inedible they were so dense. So I stuck with breakfast breads–banana bread etc.–and bread rolls.

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