Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bread musings

A colleague of mine asked for some advice on troubleshooting a problem with the bread he baked. I helped him to resolve the problem but he ended up using an alternative recipe I sent to him. His verdict was that the alternative was a better recipe. Given Singaporeans' preference for soft sweet dough bread, I was quite sure that the recipe would suit him. However, I stopped short of introducing the 'Tang Zhong' method. I have not tried out the method before but have read that it resulted in a soft fluffy crumb. This method was developed by Chinese Bao makers to create a soft fluffy bun and adapted by bakers to make softer fluffier bread.

I am not a fan of sweet dough bread as I prefer French bread made with only 4 ingredients namely flour, salt, yeast and water. Not a drop of oil is used. When you make bread this way, there is only one inevitable outcome, bread that has a hard crunchy crust compared to the chiffon soft sweet dough bread.  Most Singaporeans do not like hard crusty bread.  There is a softened down version of the baguette called the "Asian Baguette" sold in most neighborhood bakeries which carry mainly sweet dough buns. The type of baked products in these bakeries is proof that hard crusty bread is not popular.  I do not have the statistics to back this up, only the following anecdotes.

A colleague related this story to me about his tour of France. He told me that the breads of Paris was so hard that many people in his tour group had bleeding gums after eating bread there. I remember reading in the papers about an interview with the boss of Cedele. Her first customer returned the bread and asked if it was made of stones or something to that effect. Recently, a poster in a popular American bread forum complained about 'tasteless colleagues'. He gave a Chinese colleague a loaf of baguette which we was extremely proud of and to his chagrin, he was told that the bread was too hard and inedible. 

Ever since I started baking 'Artisan Style' bread, I have always wondered why the Chinese never made this kind of bread. They have been working with all kinds of dough cooked in every single way from dumplings to noodles. Closer to bread, they have steamed bread like Bao, Mantou and fried bread like Bing. They have baked laminated pastries but they just do not have simple baked breads common to the Europeans. A colleague from China says that they have rye bread near the HeiLongJiang area but then thats near the Russian border.

It is true that Chinese in the south prefer rice but since wheat is also grown on a large scale in China, why is it that they do not have crusty European style bread? After all, they have wood fired ovens. They have sourdough yeasts and everything that is necessary to make good bread but this did not make it into their culinary traditions. I am at a loss to explain this but in the back of my mind is the feeling that hard crusty bread is deemed to be simply too hard to swallow, literally. Maybe more intelligent readers can enlighten me.

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