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Aug. 19th, 2006 @ 12:30 am ghetto improv cooking special edition: yakitate panpan!
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On impulse during a particularly frustrating bout of writer's block, I baked my first loaf of bread yesterday. It was almost edible. :D

I probably could have made a much better bread if I followed a recipe, but the purpose was not so much to make something edible as it was to understand how bread works. Sure, anyone can make a decent roast chicken if they know how many cups of flour to use and exactly how long the meat needs to be baked, but would they understand why that specific amount of flour is used? Or why flour is used at all? Our cuisine is increasingly a just-add-water affair, with all the magic behind the production of food abstracted into cans and powders and plastic trays. Those things are convenient and consistant ways to produce food, but a poor way for new cooks like me to learn. We're forgetting, as a generation, that cooking is an art, not a science, and I feel like there's a lot more to learn if I play by ear. Cookbooks are for reference. Beakers and measuring cups belong in the laboratory.

There's something wonderfully elegant about bread. Optional ingredients aside, it's just flour, water, and yeast--combine and heat, and chemistry does the rest. It's simple enough to have been discovered by accident, and any combination of the three will produce a bread (if not a very palatable one), but each variable is so sensitive to change, each part of the process so important, that there are thousands of varieties, and thousands more to be discovered. Making a bread that is good enough to eat is hard enough--designing a new one is quite a feat.

There's also something intensely satisfying, on a visceral level, about producing bread. Humans are powered by bread. Wherever wheat grows, there's a bread. Every country, village, and dirt patch has its own bread. Even rice-eating cultures like China and India have breads. Breads are convenient, they can be produced with a minimum of ingredients, they provide lasting energy. To understand the process by which bread is made, and to produce some yourself, is to understand one of the most basic aspects of human civilization, on which civilizations and economies are founded. (Who the hell would care about trade if everyone had the time and energy to make bread, and also do everything else?) If we lived in a fascist society I would argue that baking your first loaf should be a mandatory requirement for citizenship, if you are able. It's what makes the difference between a consumer and a consumer-producer.

For all my pretentious whinging, however, I really suck at making bread. (Guess I'll have to wait on that citizenship, then.) I didn't have any yeast, so I decided to try for a flat, crackerlike pastry. Online recipes recommended three and a half parts flour for each part water, so I put the flour in a bowl and added water incrementally until it became a nice firm dough. I kneaded the dough for a bit (probably unnecessary, as there was no yeast, but better safe than sorry), flattened it into a rectangle the size of a Pop-Tart, wrapped it in aluminum foil and baked it for thirty minutes at 350 degrees. It came out stiff and disgustingly flour-y, but, remembering a breading technique I used on roast chicken, which turns excess flour into deliciously crispy crust, I fried the bread in canola oil over high heat. The end result looked, amusingly, like roast chicken, and was still a little to flour-y to be tasty, but with a little soy sauce it was reminiscent of 蔥油餠 (Chinese onion pancake) without the 蔥, and barely good enough to choke down.

Things didn't get any better when I tried to improve on the recipe this afternoon. Not wanting to use too much flour, as I did yesterday, I added just a bit too much water, and no amount of extra flour would even it out. The dough got too sticky to knead, and as it was baking the burning smell got so bad I had to take it out early. How did it taste? I don't know--it was so hard I couldn't penetrate it with a fork. I had to throw the whole thing out. Huge waste of flour, huge waste of time. Very discouraging.

I wonder what my grandfather would think of this? The last of a long line of bakers, he lived just long enough to watch his nine kids grow up and choose to do things other than baking, forcing the family buisness to close down. Maybe he'd be proud to see a Chen baking again. Maybe he'd be disgusted with how bad I suck at it. Most likely he wouldn't care. Oh well.
About this Entry
dd2guy
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From:drabheathen
Date:August 19th, 2006 07:36 am (UTC)
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A few notes:

1. You can make yeast-free bread with either baking soda or baking powder, I forget which. It makes stuff like muffins. Delightful.

And 2., a personal opinion: just because cooking's an art doesn't mean you have to reinvent the wheel. Just learn enough so that it tastes good to begin with, and then start experimenting.

3. Yakitate, on Youtube. 70-something episodes. Anime about breadmaking. Watch it, do.
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From:erf_
Date:August 19th, 2006 07:37 am (UTC)
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Duly noted.

And Yakitate was what inspired me to do this in the first place.
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From:drabheathen
Date:August 19th, 2006 07:49 am (UTC)
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Also, if you don't desire to use baking soda/powder, you could always try fried dough...

Eggs are a good addition, too.
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From:erf_
Date:August 19th, 2006 07:51 am (UTC)
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What I ended up making is essentially fried dough. Except it's fried dough in a literal sense, not the yummy doughnutty kind they have at county fairs.

What do eggs do? (Part of this process is figuring out what all the optional ingredients do--so far I know milk makes the bread softer and creamier, and baking soda makes the air bubbles bigger, and...that's about it.)
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From:drabheathen
Date:August 19th, 2006 08:11 am (UTC)
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Adds texture and taste. Pancakes are essentially flour, water, egg, milk, and baking soda. So are muffins.

What you should really do is get back to Oberlin and haunt a co-op or two. Find some good breadmakers and see if you can hang out with them.
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From:erf_
Date:August 19th, 2006 08:12 am (UTC)
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I will definitely ask around. No point in learning everything the hard way.
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From:drabheathen
Date:August 19th, 2006 08:15 am (UTC)
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"Fats such as butter, vegetable oils, lard, or that contained in eggs affects the development of gluten in breads by coating and lubricating the individual strands of protein and also helping hold the structure together. If too much fat is included in a bread dough, the lubrication effect will cause the protein structures to divide. A fat content of approximately 3% by weight is the concentration that will produce the greatest leavening action."

Go to Wikipedia!
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From:erf_
Date:August 19th, 2006 08:16 am (UTC)
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!

I've been to that article a bunch of times, and somehow missed all that. I guess I haven't been reading closely enough.
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From:hatmaster
Date:August 19th, 2006 11:43 am (UTC)

hey

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give me credit I SUGGESTED FRYAGE!

serious gj experiment awat!
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From:cougarfang
Date:August 21st, 2006 02:12 am (UTC)
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Re: cooking as art> I used to believe in recipes (because I never cooked before) until I belatedly started learning at Mom's elbow.
"How much salt do you put in this?"
"Oh... about this much." *shakes a random amount of salt straight from the salt container*
"How much is 'this much'?"
"As much as will make it taste good."
"*clueless*"
Same with soy sauce, oil, sugar, hell, even the main ingredients. About the only thing that's absolutely measured in any sense is the "one cube of chicken boullion" in some dishes, because the damn things come in large rectangularish slab-cubes in the first place.

And Dad loves reading cooking mangas, the kind where the judges taste the products of an Iron Chef-ish competition and ohhhh rainbows and shiny fireworks and a single tear dramatically slips down the judges' faces as they recall their childhood and etc. etc.

Also, I will probably end up trying out your ghetto improv cooking, and I *would* add recipes of my own (or rather, Mom's own) to the compendium if they didn't consist mostly of "chuck this and that into the wok, stir around for a while, sprinkle whatever the hell you like in whatever random amounts until it tastes palatable, stir around for a bit longer, serve to completely unhelpful and often ungrateful family".

Chinese onion pancake. Teehee.
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From:erf_
Date:August 21st, 2006 10:46 pm (UTC)
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Does your dad read Yakitate!! Japan?

Yay! I have a legacy already. ^_^