Rise to the Occasion

When beginning any new endeavor, it’s always wise to weigh the outcomes.  Then proceed.  This philosophy comes from years of looking deep inside oneself, and accepting the good, bad, and ugly.  Well that’s all fine and dandy when stress AND anxiety aren’t involved, but since I’m me, and my brain is full of at least one of those two feelings ( usually one starting the race with the other slowly coming up on it’s tail) this is how I proceeded when I started the platform for pop up Our House Pizza dinners around Chicago.  Stress and anxiety.  How do I get the word out?  How I do I still connect with and feed people.  In any case, I thought, at least it will give me and my hands focus, and I can cook for people.  Something I’ve been missing since planting myself in front of the computer ( doing mostly productive things) all winter.

I wish I could say that after making a list of all the chef’s and businesses I’d like to work with, I bravely set out to cold call upon them to join in on my endeavors as a collaboration. And I say brave because the folks I had in mind, were acquaintances yes, but also very well accomplished, and a part of the Restaurant Owner Club I so badly wanted to belong to. I wish I could say that I confronted them.  Instead what happened was that they confronted me.  Like a flying ball at a baseball game, just landing in my lap. ( Note: this has never happened to me, and I’ve only seen it happen on TV like, once or twice, which means it must be rare.)  I was having coffee with friends, and I was approached by a very talented chef and baker named Meghan.  Meghan and her husband Dave run a small cafe and mill house that mills their own flour and uses it in everything from bread, pies, cookies,etc. They not only mill flour, but they grind cornmeal for grits, and roll oats as well.  This already sounds awesome right?  It get’s better.  They mill the flour and wanted to know if I’d be interested in making pizza with their flour, say for a special event that we sell tickets for.  Ok, uh , yeah, isn’t that I was supposed to be asking them?.

And so it began, the months long journey to creating a pizza dough using freshly milled flour that hasn’t been aged.  It’s from these months of testing I share this tidbit of wisdom, it’s the simplest tasks that tend to become the most difficult.  My first thoughts, ‘what did I just agree to do?’  I was up to the challenge though, and jumped in head first.

Problem #1:  The Flavor

First lets start off with the main difference between using freshly milled flour vs. shelf stored store bought flour.  The biggest difference is in taste and nutrition.  Freshly milled flour contains more of the essential nutrients that the wheat starts off with before it’s milled.  In simplest language, the more you wait after it’s milled, the more you lose in taste and nutrition.  SO using fresh milled flour leaves a bold taste in your mouth that I can only describe as ‘wheaty’ like the breakfast cereal, you know the one with Michael Jordan from the 90’s on the box?   That kind of wheaty.  Almost sweet like brown sugar, with a hint of molasses.  yup fresh milled grains smell and sometimes taste like sweet dark molasses.  Well that ‘wheaty flavor’ is fine for bread, because we want our bread to taste like the grain, that’s the whole goal when making bread.  Not with pizza though.  Great pizza is one where the dough, sauce and cheese unite as one singular flavor ( best described as the savory taste umami).  Pizza is a well choreographed work. Each base of flavor, needs to be flavorful and strong on it’s own, yet subtle and delicate enough that when adding sauce and cheese, it harmonizes.  This is the base, and it’s really all about the base.  Load as many toppings as you want, but the lack of base in the rhythm section is bound to leave a gaping hole called balanced, and flavor that some may even say is flat.  So, if the ‘wheaty’ flavor is too strong, it’s going to overpower anything I put on the this pizza.   So I made pizza with this dough and let me tell you, I have had this pizza before, it’s hippy whole wheat crust pizza and I was transported back to a food memory.  There is a folk music venue in Harvard Sq. in Cambridge.  I remember frequenting this place a lot when I lived there. Within the venue there’s a punk rock, hippie, health food, pizza restaurant.  All of these descriptives have one thing in common, they can be found in any liberal arts university town.  (I’ve found this is heightened when there’s Ivy League politics attached to it). So this ‘punk rock, hippie, health food, pizza restaurant’ serves all of their pizzas on a whole wheat crust.  The pizzas are tasty and filling, but that crust they are prepared on is anything but light and tender.  Think more like the texture of seitan.  This is what my crust tasted like.   The flavor of wheat needed to be toned down, I realized that the one reason why I was excited to work with this flour to begin with is also the main reason why working with this flour wasn’t working.  This wheat is heavy.

Problem #2: It’s heavy

“What do you mean it doesn’t rise the same?”  I received this question from anyone and everyone who knew what my home test kitchen was up to.  I would talk about it with anyone who’d listen.  “The flour is too heavy, there’s a lot of weight from not extracting”.  Most of the store bought flour we use has been sifted, and sifted, and sifted again. Then they treat it to lighten it, and then it’s aged.  At this point most of the actual nutrients of the wheat are lost.  Thus resulting in a light colored, light textured flour.  It’s so light that the carbon dioxide bubbles that the yeast gives off in fermentation allow it rise to a nice and puffy dough.  When baked it’s it even lighter.  But at what cost?  We just lost all reason of using flour to begin with, the nutrition.  Yes pizza can be nutritious, with the right flour, and attention paid to the ingredients that go into it, it can be nutritious. However, this task was proving to be arduous, and it was stressing me out.  It’s around this time, that it was brought to my attention an article in Lucky Peach Magazine by Chad Roberston, of Tartine, the Godfather of grain and bread to the next generation of bakers everywhere..  You can read about his similar plight here.  So if we want to keep the nutrition, all the little building blocks of the wheat  need to stay in the flour, this is called high extraction.  And all this nutrition was weighing the flour and me down.  Already I was using a lighter in color and flavored grain, white winter wheat.  The difference between red and white wheat is mainly taste and texture.  White being the milder of the two, I was working with white.

Problem #3: It’s taking too long

This was the main challenge.  I’ve made breads and even pizza dough that require a lot of fermentation and it takes a couple days to do it.  A lot can go wrong in a few days, especially working in a home kitchen where you don’t have as much control over the temperature.  I made pizza every week for 9 weeks straight.  All formulas took at least 3 to 4 days to make.  All resulted in one pizza test after another with a very sour and still wheaty flavor.  The thing with high extraction flours, is that they take a long time to ferment.  The basic process of fermentation is when the yeast eats the sugars in the proteins of the flour, and expels carbon dioxide gas, which gets trapped in the dough, and creates air pockets, thus resulting in a rising dough.  Because of all the protein in the flour, I needed something stronger then just yeast, I needed the help of bacteria too ( the healthy kind: lactobacillious).  So I began using a starter.  This worked fine to get some lift, but the dough was still too lethargic, and now had a sour flavor to the finish.  I needed to approach this dough more like a bread baker first if I was going to get anywhere.

One thing that has always helped me deal with my anxiety is naming the cause.  This can be done by simply sitting with myself, a pad and a pen, and asking questions.  Then I answer them as simply as I can.  As I answer, there’s always more questions, but keeping the answers simple can help me gain perspective.  So what were my questions?

Q. How do I tone down the flavor of strong wheat?  A. balance it’s sugar content. Q. How do I lighten the dough’s texture? A. sift and blend it, use different style leavens. Q. How do I decrease fermentation time ? etc, etc.

I needed to lighten the dough, so that it was soft and tender, but still have a crisp exterior, and a bit of chew.  The flavor had to be subtle with wheat, but able to marry with other toppings, as well as create a base flavor that was strong and balanced. And the dough had to take no more than 3 days to make.

I began playing with bigas, a type of sponge using some commercial yeast. I continued to use the hard white winter wheat, and sifted the flour till it had no large particles of bran or hull in it.  This flour was used in a biga that rose over 24 hrs as well as a leaven ( a sponge made with starter), that rose over 48 hrs.  In addition to those 2 leavens, I still needed a last minute spring of yeast that would help the dough spring into action quickly once it was blasted with heat at 700 degrees. So I added another biga  that had a short rise of 6hr.  The end result was a lighter more tender crust than I ever had imagined with this flour.  The flavor of the wheat still shown through, just in a more muted tone.  The sourness of the sourdough leaven balanced the sweetness of the wheat, and the long fermentation of the dough allowed most of the sugar to be brought down to a manageable amount.  The dough was strong enough to hold it’s own.  Mind you, this was still a far cry from the finished product, as I still had flavor combinations that needed to accent the wheat and stand up to it’s flavor, but I was getting somewhere.

Solution: The Balance of Flavor with the toppings

I ended up going with earthy and vegital flavors of toppings to round out and balance the sweet and sour found in the dough.  I used creamy dairy based sauces, and a lightly whipped ricotta to coat the palette, so that the flavor of sweet molassesy wheat wasn’t so dominant.  They were well accented by using golden beets, both sweet and earthy, and paired with pickled rhubarb, creating a tone that said “Spring is here! but not yet so I’m still eating pizza.” The other pie was covered with hearty kale, broken down with salt in a technique called ‘massaging’, which has been having it’s day all over every menu in Chicago for years.  Finished with some egg yolk and domestic parm. from Wisconsin and voila, I was ready to serve the public and Meghan and Dave.  This dough really showed what the flour can do.

This dough recipe was certainly a labor of love, and I learned so much about the process.  I’m still a far cry from using this flour exclusively, but I want to, so very, very, badly.  It’s a deep seated want, that I forgot was there.  It’s the feeling that that made me want to tackle bread making in the first place.




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