Tuesday, October 8, 2013


As has been the story for the last few weeks, the house project is moving, but at a rather slow pace.  The technical details of construction are still being hashed out.  We are also speaking with construction firms and collecting bids, but we are still far from signing a contract and getting the work started.   It's really hard to say at this point when things will start moving, only that we are working on it, and it will happen as soon as possible.  It is, naturally, a little frustrating but our eyes are still firmly fixed on the goal, and our determination is unwavering.

So this is another blog post about keeping ourselves busy with productive diversions.

First a few words about the concept of TerraPlana;  from the beginning, our goal has been to create a comfortable space for people to meet, hang out, drink, and relax.  We are putting a lot of effort and planning into the space to achieve these goals.  We also plan to serve food, but it's important for us not to create a 'restaurant feeling'.  Food service will be order at the bar, and the main item on the menu will be pizza.  Pizza is great food for the environment we want to create.  It's a communal food, but it's also a comfortable, non formal relaxed meal.  A group of 5 or 6 people would generally feel totally comfortable sitting at a table where only 2 or 3 in the group are having pizza while the rest chat and enjoy company...  That wouldn't normally happen with a soup, or steak dinner, or just about any other meal apart from sandwiches.

We want to create great pizza, but this ambition is within bounds.  The pizza should be great tasting and memorable, but not over-the-top gourmet.  TerraPlana should be known and liked for a variety of aspects and great pizza should fit nicely into the total experience, without overpowering it.

Although we have a little restaurant experience, none of us have cooked commercially, and none of us have experience making pizza, so there's some learning to do!

As with any project, the first step is research.  In the last few months, we have been digging into the internet, talking with pizzaioli (pizza chefs - yes, there's a word for it) and of course eating LOADS of pizza!

Pizza is a huge world unto itself, and it is not short of fanatics.  Some of what I'm about to say will almost certainly be disputed.   We've done our homework, and we have our goals (one of which is not to be annoying pizza fanatics) so I will leave it to the pizza fanatics to argue how many angles can dance on a well made margarita.

Basically, pizza consists of 4 elements; crust, sauce, cheese and toppings.  With the exception of crust, all the elements can be varied (or even left out) to a great degree.  Nonetheless while QUALITY is extremely important, the sauce, cheese and toppings can be easily sourced.  Marinara sauce is not hard to make, but quality sauce can be purchased readymade and will not have a huge impact on the final product.

The pizza bread crust is the key differentiating factor that separates great pizza from the rest, and early in our research we became determined to unlock the mystery of a great crust.

It's not easy.  Flour, water, yeast and salt.  Simple enough ingredients, but baking is an art.  There are endless variations, and most of the art is in the preparation.  In fact, bread is one of humanities more impressive creations.  The seed of grass is incredibly nutritious, but it is also a well designed vault which evolution has constructed to insure that those nutrients are used for growing new grass rather then feeding animals, bacteria, or yeast.  Most animals that feed on raw grass spend nearly their entire day chewing, but even that is not enough.  Take the cow for example; the cow's anatomy and digestion is notably different from humans in many ways.  One notable difference is that cows actually have TWO stomachs!  After chewing, the grasses are processed in the rumen (the first stomach).  The rumen is in fact, a fermentation chamber.  After grinding down the grasses and seeds, they are fermented by bacteria and yeast.

Humans do not have a rumen.  Instead, we have bread!  The process is in fact, remarkably similar, instead of chewing the grass and seeds (for hours) we grind them in a mill (creating flour).  Then the baker mixes the flour with water and infects  it with a yeast culture.  The baker uses yeast to ferment the bread dough, a process instantly recognizable to a cow as what happens in the rumen.   Unfortunately for the cow, they do not have a third stomach to bake their fermented dough, instead, it is passed to their second stomach and digest it in raw form.  Lucky for us, our ancestors tamed fire and learned to use it to cook and bake.  Baked bread has a longer shelf life then raw, fermenting dough and, of course, it's also much more tasty.

At this point, I have diverged off topic enough that my dear reader is probably wondering "what the fuck does a cow's second stomach and bread have to do with pizza?"  A fair question really; the simple answer is that I learned all the above facts researching how to create great pizza crust (which is of course very flat bread).   Learning how to bake bread is a process of learning how to handle and 'read' dough, and these will be critical skills when the time comes to create our pizza crust.

Personally, (if it's not already apparent) I love bread.  When I heard that there are people in the world suffering a condition called 'Gluten Intolerance' (poor, retched souls) I cried for them.  If I were to become stricken with this debilitating ailment, I would surely die!

Given my love for bread, it may seem surprising that I never learned how to bake anything larger or more complicated then a cupcake.  There was one time we made pot brownies, but how am I supposed to remember how that turned out?

As it became clear that learning to bake would help prepare us for the multitude of small, flat, round breads to be served at TerraPlana, I became excited with the challenge of baking.  The journey is still ongoing, but I am ready to share my experience so far.

Rather then following the simple path to baking competence... that is, starting with the humble cupcake and then working your way up, I decided to turn the process on its head and start with a slightly more ambitious first loaf.  Lucky for me, Chad Robertson, a master artisan baker and owner of the Tartine bakery in San Francisco wrote a book in 2010 for people like me:

Tartine Bread

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Chad, and his amazingly instructive and beautiful book.  We have not yet settled on our pizza bread recipe and it may not bear any resemblance to the Tartine recipe, but using this book I feel I have learned much more then how to bake a loaf of bread.  I have learned how to think about baking, how to experiment, and how to create.

Tartine bread is a high hydration, wild culture, wholewheat blend bread.  Any one of those attributes would generally be described by an experienced baker as tricky to work with.  Put them all together and you have a real challenge.

Wild culture (sour dough) breads do not use commercial yeast.  Wild culture yeast is far better at creating complex flavors and character in the bread.  It is also argued that it creates a healthier bread (at least for those of us who don't believe that bread causes Candidiasis).   However because it is a wild collection of hundreds if not thousands of different yeasts, molds and bacteria it is inherently harder to work with.  A baker creates a symbiosis with his culture, and trains it the way you might train a family pet (in fact, I named mine).

Commercial yeast is a totally different process.   As with most things commercial and industrial, scientific precision is usually a desired path to efficiency and economy.  Commercial yeast is a good example.   When you purchase commercial yeast, you are generally buying a single specific species of Saccharomyses cerevisiae.  By isolating the yeast to a particular species, it's behavior became a known constant allowing for simple recipes.  100 g of flour, 50 ml of water and 5 g of commercial yeast will rise an exact amount in 20 minutes.  This kind of certainty has obvious benefits if you want to create bread in a factory.  Wild yeast on the other hand, literally has a mind of it's own.   With a wild culture, you mix your ingredients, wait 20 minutes, and then look, smell, taste and/or feel to determine if it's time to move onto the next step.

Wild culture yeast can be created easily just about anywhere.  The recipe is simple: mix some flour and water, and leave it out to rot for a few days.  The flour water mix will almost invariably become infected with yeast and bacteria already present in the flour and water, but also from the air, and even from your skin and utensils while you are mixing.  After a few days, the mixture will will show signs of microbial activity (small bubbles on the surface) and take on a smell that the Tartine Bread book describes rather euphemistically as 'mature cheese'.
After a few days... looks better then it smells
From this humble beginning, the baker 'trains' the culture by putting it on a regular feeding schedule.  After a few days of training, my culture changed slightly, and the odors became a bit less 'exotic'.

After about a week, it was following commands nicely...  After feeding, it rises for a few hours until it has grown about 20% then begins to relax until the next feeding.

At feeding time

4 hours after feeding... good boy, nice rise
Now that I had created a well trained culture, it was time to bake some bread.  First, I used my wild culture (sometimes called a starter) to create a few hundred grams of leaven.  Leaven is basically the same thing as the starter, but is then used as an ingredient in the dough.  Once my leaven had fed overnight, I mixed it with flour and water to make the initial dough.  The Tartine Bread book calls this a 'young leaven' because it is relatively early in the growth cycle of the culture, and consequently, there is more yeast then bacteria activity resulting in a less sour taste in the bread.

Looks like something a dog might vomit if it ate too much porridge, but if a dog ever vomits something that FEELS like this take the dog directly to the vet!
 Once the dough is mixed, there is a long fermentation schedule punctuated by occasional needing.  In the case of Tartine Bread, the dough is so moist that needing on a work surface is basically impossible, so the technique substitutes 'turning' the dough inside a plastic container (I used Tupperware... worked pretty well).   Below is a progression showing my 'bulk rise' or bulk fermentation.  Takes about 3-4 hours, and ever thirty minutes you have to give it some attentions (doing a turn).  You need to look closely at the pictures below to see anything, but you can notice that from top left to bottom right the dough begins to take on a different appearance, and becomes bigger (rises).

After about 4 hours, it's ready to be shaped into loaves
After the bulk rise, the dough needs to be shaped into loaves.  This is an extremely important step, but on the first attempt, my ability was a little wanting.  The dough is really wet and sticky, and I wasn't really sure what I was trying to do with it anyway.   Basically, it started as a shapeless blob, and it ended as 2 shapeless blobs.  Shaping is important because when done properly, it gives the dough an internal structure, and external tension in what will become the crust.

This is before, but they didn't look much different after shaping
After shaping the bread needs to rise for 4 or 5 hours in a towel lined basket or bowl.  The book instructed to lightly dust the towels with a mixture of rice flour and regular flour, but I didn't have any rice flour, and I wasn't sure where you would buy such a thing in Porto.  I should have looked harder!  Using regular flour didn't work at all... my loaves stuck to the towel, and any attempt I had made in shaping them was totally lost when 100 grams of dough was pulled off the top of the loaves and left on the towels, oh well.

What NOT to do.
I baked them anyway, and while they were not picture perfect (they didn't rise completely and came out looking a little too much like tall pancakes), they were certainly tasty!

Warm fresh, and great with a big slice of butter!
 On the second attempt, I got it!  A little extra dry flour to make the dough a bit more workable during shaping helped.  I was also a bit more observant and careful during the bulk rise.  The temperature in was a little cooler then the ideal 24C, so I let it rise a little longer.  It ended up taking about 5 1/2 hours to get where I wanted, so I was worried that by the time the loaves were ready to bake it would have been 11:00 at night.  It is possible to slow the process by cooling, so I let the loaves do their final rise overnight in the refrigerator.  In the morning, they were ready to go, and because I used rice flour this time, no sticking!

The end result was something I think Chad would be proud to sell in his bakery!  I am certainly proud, even amazed that I was able to create it in my kitchen.    The loaves are not only beautiful, they taste fantastic!

There are loads of blogs and information about baking bread on the internet.  It's a nerdy and slightly competitive world that even it's own lingo.  Below is what is know in the trade as the 'crumb shot' (crumb is the technical baker's term for the soft interior).  Crumb shot pictures are all over the internet, and I don't believe there is any accident that it sounds like 'cum shot' (pornographic pictures of orgasm)...  It's not the only thing about baking that's mildly sexually suggestive, holding the formed loaves is almost exactly like fondling a good size boob, and then there's the 'rise'.  Freud would love baking!

My cum shot... opps, I mean crumb shot!