Due to the ongoing, unfortunate hate crimes targeting Asian Americans, MasterClass offered grants supporting the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Nichi Bei Weekly Editor-in-Chief Kenji G. Taguma applied for and received a grant supporting the Nichi Bei Foundation, which included an annual complimentary membership for Nichi Bei Foundation staff members. I was one of the fortunate staff members that received a one-year subscription to MasterClass, so after setting up my account, I immediately perused the classes, especially those pertaining to food … and wine.
The Beginning of My Journey
My bread-making journey began in the Bay Area shortly after I started courting Ms. S. during graduate school. You see, two of her favorite foods were cinnamon rolls and steamed bao. Up until then, I was adept at making quick-rising breads like muffins and banana bread, but hadn’t ventured into the world of yeasted breads. But I eventually found recipes for cinnamon rolls from one of those mini cookbooks they place near the checkout aisles at supermarkets. I likely purchased my cookbook either from Cala Foods or Lucky Supermarket. I also found a recipe for manapua (char siu bao) in the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin cookbook series. I also used Beth Hensperger’s “Bread,” purchased from the Green Apple bookstore on San Francisco’s Clement Street as my bread “bible.” And several years ago, a friend gave us a sourdough starter she purchased from the King Arthur Baking Website, and I’ve been nurturing that starter ever since, refreshing the starter every other week. And I’ve since made countless baguettes, loaves, focaccia and pizza dough, though I’ve always felt that my loaves were leagues apart from what the professionals create. Enter my own private baking tutor.
MasterClass with Apollonia Poilâne
Pierre Leon Poilâne started Maison Poilâne in 1932, specializing in round, sourdough loaves at a time when most bakeries primarily made baguettes. Monsieur Poilâne felt that the round loaves kept a little longer than the baguettes, which go stale within a day. His usual clientele of artists and artisans struggled to make ends meet, and his loaves could feed them for several days. He eventually passed the bakery on to his son Lionel and his wife, Irena. Their eldest daughter, Apollonia, started her apprenticeship at 16 years old. Tragically, Lionel and Irena were killed in a helicopter crash just two years later. Therefore, Apollonia found herself as the head of Maison Poilâne at just 18 years of age. Not only did the bakery thrive, but Apollonia also obtained an economics degree from Harvard, all while running the bakery long-distance as an undergraduate student. Since then, American cooking “royalty” from Alice Waters to Martha Stewart to Ina Garten have raved about the products that exit those woodburning stoves at Maison Poilane.
There are 17 modules (about three and-a-half hours total viewing time) in Apollonia Poilâne’s MasterClass, and in Module three, she describes the steps to creating and maintaining a proper sourdough starter. For starters (pun intended), I tried creating my own sourdough starter well before obtaining the starter that King Arthur Baking sells on their Website. It involved flour, milk and a little live culture from yogurt. I never got past day three, though, as my batch always started growing a long white beard. It never got to the bubbly, soft mass that all good sourdough cultures look like, probably due to the high ambient humidity in Kane‘ohe, which fosters both good microorganisms for sourdough starter creation and not-so-good critters.
So as I’ve mentioned before, I refresh my gifted King Arthur starter every other week. Wrong! You’re supposed to refresh the starter daily! She even mentions that there are sourdough hotels in Switzerland that nurture your sourdough starter daily if you leave your house for more than 48 hours. I went back to the King Arthur Website, and while they don’t have a strict daily refresher recommendation, they do recommend refreshing the starter at least weekly. I’m not sure what I’ve been propagating by refreshing it every other week. It still smells and looks like a sourdough starter, even with my feed and starve for two weeks method of refreshing.
In Modules four and five, Apollonia describes the procedure to create their standard sourdough loaf. I was surprised that Poilâne uses half whole wheat flour. They only use French-grown wheat that’s stone ground, which maintains more of the nutrients in the flour. I had considered San Francisco institution Boudin the standard sourdough, which appeared to be pure white flour. So from now on, I’ll start using half King Arthur all-purpose and half King Arthur white whole wheat.
During the initial rise, you’re instructed to let it rise just for 45 minutes until the mass has roughly doubled in volume. If it’s still not doubled at 45 minutes, then wait another 10 minutes, but there’s no more stressing that anything longer causes over fermentation and will likely cause the top to sink upon baking. I’ve been known to let my dough rise during my weekend bike rides, which can last up to 90 minutes. When I make my panned focaccia without any yeast (letting fermentation occur just with the microorganisms in the starter), I often let it rise overnight. Both are big no-no’s with the Poilâne method.
During the second rise after shaping, I was making two mistakes. I was being too rough on the dough when creating the final shape. Apollonia gently tucks the outer edges like flower petals under the loaf, as rough shaping essentially ruins the structure created by the first rise, and once again, I was letting the dough rise too long. The second rise should take no more than two hours — my loaves probably took a lot longer as I was inadvertently squeezing the life out of the loaf when shaping it. She also recommends baking the loaf in a preheated Dutch oven to mimic the conditions in a commercial wood burning oven.
The One Positive
The one thing that I thought was wrong about my loaves turned out to be a desired quality of the loaf. My finished loaves had a very uniform structure, with evenly spaced air holes and what I was trying to create was a variety of air hole sizes that weren’t uniform. Ms. Poilâne sliced a perfectly baked loaf that had very evenly spaced small air pockets, which she stated is the texture you are trying to achieve. Okay, I guess I wasn’t doing everything wrong.
So, for the first time, I followed a recipe exactly as written and even purchased a baking couche or wicker basket lined with linen for the second rise. I also “dumped” the loaf into a cast iron Dutch oven like Ms. Poilâne to mimic the baking conditions in her wood fired oven. For this loaf, I scored the top with an actual razor or bread lame instead of the serrated utility knife I normally use.
And the results? I daresay that my loaf was almost as good as one of the top bakers in the 50th, Chris Sy. It smelled and felt just like his Breadshop Country Loaf and we enjoyed the sandwiches it produced during the work week. Next MasterClass, Aaron Franklin’s perfectly smoked Texas-style brisket, but that’s another column.
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.