Sliced ( a little squooshed since it wasn't completely cool).

Sliced ( a little squooshed since it wasn’t completely cool).

The weeks, they’ve been a flyin’ and I’ve been a busy little bee. Laminated doughs, viennoiserie, more laminated doughs: croissants, brioche, laminated brioche (definitely a sin). I will be posting pictures of all those because they are delectable.

But right now I am working on my bread project. Part of the requirement for HRM 201 Intermediate Breads is to design your own bread formula for production on the last day of lab. It is, for all intents and purposes, our practical exam. So, I gave it some thought. And I decided I wanted to build a pretzel bread with the crust of a Philly style soft pretzel, but a modern interior. That’s Philly-style now, not mall-style pretzel, so I waded through sample recipes using egg washes and butter washes and cinnamon sugar toppings to get to the hardcore old school style pretzel recipes. I found a few versions of something that looked reasonable and started tweaking them.

Hmmm, got to get that braiding worked out.

Hmmm, got to get that braiding thing worked out.

If you know baking at all you know it’s a series of moves and counter-moves. It’s like a chess game: every move you make has repercussions all the way down the line. Change the flour, add some sugar, leave out an egg and the whole thing could go haywire. It’s a very delicate chemical balance and my rule of thumb is to never make more than one change at a time or you might never know what action caused what reaction. So, I was in for a long development phase. I thought about flours and read about flours and thought about flours and read about flours…then I threw in dark rye, and some ground flax, and some white whole wheat. Then I ditched the white whole wheat and upped the flax and subbed out some of the rye, then went back to my original combo and stayed there. Then, I started shaping my little heart out doing rolls with snipped tops, and twists and knots and logs before settling on the most problematic shape of all for a pretzel: the braided loaf.

Pretzels are meant to be bathed in a caustic solution to give it that distinctive and desirable crust. Lye is used commercially, but I settled for a water bath with a high concentration of baking soda. And I got a little chemistry lesson for my efforts.

Getting schooled about the properties of sodium bicarbonate.

Getting schooled about the properties of sodium bicarbonate.

Another challenge of the bath is that, unlike a roll or a twist, a braided loaf is large and fragile and not at all easy to bathe without marring it or having it fall apart going in or coming out of its bath. So, I made a lot of loaves of flax pretzel bread to try to get it right. Let’s try this again, but without the surprises.

Now that's better.

Now that’s better.

Working on building that particular pretzel crust.

Working on building that particular pretzel crust.

The final run-through before the practical exam itself.

The final run-through before the practical exam itself.

The day of the practical felt more like a treat than an exam. All we had to do was produce two loaves of the bread recipe we had developed. No teamwork — yay! While I’ve had much better luck this semester in terms of lab partners, it was going to be mighty fine to just be able to handle my own business. All I had to do was make sure I worked the dough enough to develop the gluten, but not too much since it has rye flour in it, hope that it rises in good time, get the braid shaped properly without it looking distorted or uneven, boil the long loaves without marring them or having them split apart, and then get the baked loaves off of the parchment before they stick since the water bath actually turns the wet dough into a kind of floury glue to whatever surface it is touching as it bakes. Piece of cake.

Well, four out of six ain’t bad.

The dough turned our gorgeous but it took forever to rise — 2 full hours in the proof box, which is bizarre. It rose faster at home without a proof box! A few of us had trouble with our rises in last week’s lab (totally different dough), and another gal at the final…well, her dough didn’t rise at all and she had turned her formula out perfectly at home the night before so I’m going to chalk that up to some kind of classroom yeast anomaly. Nevertheless, it finally proofed, was shaped, and made it through the rest of the process. There were a few other glitches, but nothing major, and I’m happy to report that the Flax Pretzel Braid did indeed have a pretzel crust (it should have — I dumped double the baking soda into the water bath at the last minute just to see what would happen…) and while it wasn’t Philly-style in the strictest sense, one could definitely see its Philadelphia roots.

Getting ready for its bath.

Getting ready for its bath.

The bath! Don't ask me why those bubbles are so large -- they never were in the test runs -- and I have a theory but would rather not discuss it...

The bath! Don’t ask me why those bubbles are so large — they never were in the test runs — and I have a theory but would rather not discuss it…

Fresh out of the oven.

Fresh out of the oven. Topped with black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, brown mustard sees, and lots of coarse salt.

As for the others, there were a few really interesting and inspiring creations, two of which I liked so much I’m actually going to try to recreate them at home.

But, they can’t all be tens, right? And the project by the gal across from me? Well, my goodness, see for yourself. Let’s just say I’m not sure she thought hers through that well. Or practiced. Or appeared to ever have worked with, seen or even eaten laminated dough before in her life when, in fact, we spent four weeks on laminated doughs, three of them on croissant dough specifically. Behold the horror.

Sweet baby jesus. And we couldn't say a word to her about it.

Sweet baby jesus. And we couldn’t say a word to her about it.

It’s gratuitous, I know, and a little catty, but I really couldn’t take my eyes off of it. A few of us did actually try to give her some subtle pointers (“um, perhaps a few more folds?”) but to no avail. Here’s another one just because it’s so startling.

I'm sorry, I'm just fascinated by this. It's egregious.

I’m sorry, I’m just fascinated by this. It’s egregious.

Ok, sorry, I’ll stop culinary rubbernecking.

The gal who made these knew they weren’t great but she didn’t seem too fazed by it. Even so, I managed to not get busted taking this picture like I did last time (yes, same girl!) in “Every Baby Is A Cute Baby.” And Chef? Well, he just shook his head as he made rounds. Really, what could he say?

5 responses

  1. Pingback: It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year | Bean Pie and Baking

  2. They look good! I was making pretzels and used baking soda too. I noticed if I used too much baking soda the bread tasted soapy. Do you have a ratio baking soda to water?

    • Thanks! Yeah, that part was tricky. I really wanted that thin-but-chewy crust of a Philadelphia soft pretzel, so I played around with the bath quite a bit. There was a ton of variation in the recipes regarding the baking soda to water ratio. I really wanted that tang, so I went with the more-is-better thing. I can send you the proportions from my final recipe, if you want. I still really want to try using lye.

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