Chef David Pazmino conveys the reality of a bread maker’s monastic life to class and students’ homes while cultivating the love of slow-risen bread.
By Chef David Pazmiño of Newbury College
Breads are often overlooked in culinary education. While star chefs receive accolades for opening restaurants or having high-ranking TV shows, bread bakers are often relegated to the hot and dusty kitchens where they develop their craft. But the resurgence of slow-risen breads has sparked a renewed need to train future culinarians in what is an emerging craft in this country.
Culinary chefs have a world of products and ingredients at their disposal to create an endless array of flavors. Bakers have four main ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. And for some, yeast (or at least commercially created yeasts), shouldn’t even be part of the mix. Commercial yeast ushered in a period when bread could be scaled, mixed, fermented, and cooked in relative short periods of time that coincided with more industrial labor habits (working hours, machinery, etc.). Before the advent of yeast production, the baker had to rely on propagating natural yeasts present on the wheat kernel itself to produce bread. This process takes one element: time.
While living in Vermont, I had the opportunity to visit the Gerard Rubaud’s bakery, or I should say his home. The bakery was his house and his house was the bakery. If there was ever a temple to the monastic life bakers lead, this would be it. Gerard lives by the rhythms of the yeast, waking at all hours of the day and night, depending on the time of year, to feed his little hungry “children.” What Gerard produces is a masterpiece in bread production: developing complex flavors through utter simplicity. You can taste the life in his bread.
What often gets taught to students is an umbrella term called sourdough bread. Most students have never even had sourdough bread before, and those that have, are most often supermarket versions that have commercial starters with commercial acids added to mimic sourdough-like flavors. There are entire companies devoted to creating sourdough flavors in dried form that can be added to bread just in the same way that yeast is now added.
One of the first tasks a student completes in my class is to taste test breads. They try a commercial French bread found in the supermarket and then try a French baguette made with a pre-ferment. It’s amazing how students notice the stark contrast in flavors when tasting them side-by-side.
To start off with, I try to look beyond the term sourdough and have them begin thinking about the term pre-ferment. And breaking it down even further, I have nicknamed all pre-ferment “ramen-flavor packet.” I give the analogy: If you are in your dorm room cooking up some ramen, do you just break it off and eat the noodles as is or do you cook them with the flavor packet? The same goes with bread; pre-ferments are like the ramen flavor packets, and if you don’t use them, your bread will taste like well, flour.
The next step I take is teaching students to make their own starter. I have experimented over the years with several different methods for doing this. I use a successful method developed by Deborah Wink and posted on The Fresh Loaf site. This technique was later used in several books by Peter Rheinhart. It is simply: mix flour (wheat, white, or a combination) with pineapple juice (the acids cut down on the unfavorable bacteria from producing CO2 before the good yeasts have time to colonize). The beauty of this method is that you don’t have to take out some of the starter each day like you do with many other formulas. Just add pineapple juice and flour.
I send each student home with a new pint container, a small can of pineapple juice, flour, and a tablespoon. They then keep a journal about their culture. This is the key part of this assignment -- reflecting about the process. I often get nothing but moans and whines about how they can’t do the assignment, but in the end, they form a bond with their cultures. When the cultures are ready to take the next step, they bring them all to class where they smell and taste those from other people. It is amazing the different smells that can come from fermentation. In the end, it is this memory of creating and writing about the culture that bonds them to the process.
The next more vigorous journey I take them on is inputting their bread formulas into a spreadsheet, modeled after the Bread Baker’s Guild of America criteria for accepting bread formula submissions. Students take my Artisan Bread class as their second bread class. While they have worked on writing daily formulas in their introductory class, it was on a simple table-based template. Graduating to a spreadsheet that requires them to track the types and amounts of flours in a recipe along with the water (which, keep in mind, varies widely in different stages) is a major hurdle for them. Yet, it is working with this spreadsheet where they begin to understand how the manipulation of pre-ferments and the percentage of the pre-ferment in the final dough affects flavor, texture and fermentation. Many students struggle with this process. I use a template with many prompts on where to add items each day that helps build their confidence in understanding how bread formulas can be manipulated.
The final project brings together the multiple parts learned in class -- how to select a pre-ferment, how to make an artisan style bread with all the techniques involved, and how to translate the formula electronically.
It is here that the repetitious and monastic lessons I learned from Guerard come forth. Each and every bread that has come out of this class was a clear representation of the student making it. There are those that want to add all sorts of ingredients and others that stick to your basic three.
The most important take-away is this: an appreciation for time as a necessary element in making food. Once you have great bread, you never want to eat anything else again. Everything else pales in comparison. And that is what I hope they learn.