Sunday, March 2, 2014

Baking the Perfect Loaf of Bread

Don't you love the smell of freshly baked bread? Tearing it apart and smearing it with softened butter. The way the crispy crust crackles and breaks as you take your first bite. Your mouth is flooded with the taste of fields of autumn wheat. Do you like hearty breads with a denser crumb, not the fluffy, white pillows that pass for bread at the supermarket?

I had a bread machine for a few years and used it constantly. I've found recipes on-line and tried them out. I even considered bringing Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible back to Malaysia with me after a home visit, but the hefty weight of its hardcover and 640 pages precluded me from putting it in the suitcase.

My main problem is that while I can make a good loaf of bread, how to bake a great loaf of bread was eluding me.

It's that crispy crust that's my nemesis. I just couldn't seem to get it right. Merely putting the dough in the oven gave me one that wasn't crispy enough. My attempts to spray water on the loaf as it baked resulted in a hard outer shelf that made the bread ideal for a doomsday prepper bunker. Trying to compensate for Penang's high humidity made me worry as I added a half cup of flour more than the amount stated in the recipe.

On the plus side, the sunny, un-airconditioned section of my kitchen made a perfect place to proof the dough.

So, what am I supposed to do?

Take a Bread Baking Class at Irrawaddy Fine Foods.

Irrawaddy Fine Foods is a New York style delicatessen located in Penang. I've had excellent lunches there and even had them cater a poolside party I was throwing. Chef Tommes has his own show on the Asian Food Channel called Chalk and Cheese. I would tell you what the show is like but I seem to have stopped watching television ever since I moved here.

In other words, I knew that if Tommes could teach me how to make something close to what he serves at his restaurant, I'd be more than elated.

That's how I found myself in the kitchen above Irrawaddy Fine Foods for the six-hour lesson on How to Bake Real Bread.

The class began with a short lesson on the theories behind bread baking. Here's some food for thought from Chef Tommes himself:
"To make bread, you need patience, skills, experience and maybe even a sensual understanding of the process. Good bakers are silent, patient, and strong people. They can concentrate on their task ahead and let their hands create magic. 'A good loaf of bread let's cheeks turn red.' You can make people happy and children smile when you are the master of your dough." 
Hmm... silent and patient. Perhaps those are my problems because I am neither of those things.

Chef Tommes discussed how there's no general recipe for bread and that a baker has to customize it for each locale. If we followed the exact recipe of a Master Baker from France that produces the perfect loaf in Lyon, we'd be doomed because of the different environment and ingredients in Penang. The available salt, flour and yeast in Penang are not the same as what you can find in France  or America for that matter. Even using Penang's soft rainwater will affect the recipe. Also, as I pointed out, it's darn humid here. It took him months to refine the bread recipes he had been using elsewhere to produce a suitable loaf in Penang.

Bread baking is clearly not a paint-by-numbers operation. This class will hopefully help me understand the nuances involved in making a great loaf.

We started off nice and easy with a Rosemary Focaccia. It is a bread that doesn't require too much finesse or even a mixer. You can do it all by hand. With fingers slick with olive oil, we pushed the dough out on the pan and studded it with garlic and rosemary The group's first attempt turned out fantastic. It was a good start and gave us confidence to proceed to the harder recipes.

Creating an amazing Rosemary Foccacia

Interestingly, Chef Tommes does not use the supermarket variety dry yeast that I've been buying for years for some of his recipes. They instead call for a French-style starter dough to give the bread lift. His starter contains nothing but organic raisins, mineral water, and bread flour. The mix pulls the yeast from out of the air, and the sugar from the raisins feed the yeast. After a few days, you remove the raisins from the starter dough, give it a stir, and start using it in your bread recipes.

He says you only need to make it once in your life and then just pull off a bit for that day's bread while "feeding" the rest so it continues to grow. All the starter dough needs to live is more water and flour. It reminded me a bit of the Amish Friendship Bread people used to give me in America. Like a chain letter, you get a container of starter and a loaf of bread from a friend. Then, it's up to you to feed and grow the starter, use a little starter to make bread, then gift the starter and loaves to the next set of friends to keep the cycle going.

After the focaccia, our next recipe to attack is Laugenbretzel (German pretzel). No matter how many times I've attempted an Auntie Anne's copycat recipe at home or even bought the kit from the store, I can't get the perfect results. The key part that I'd been getting wrong is the alkaline solution you brush on the dough after shaping them but before baking. I'd been trying to make an alkaline wash in my kitchen out of water and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) instead of using sodium hydroxide which has a higher pH level. Since sodium hydroxide isn't readily available at the grocery store, Chef Tommes has it available for students to purchase. The finished pretzels tasted divine, but I need to work on speeding up how long it takes me to shape each one.

Irrawaddy Fine Foods, bread baking class, Penang
Chef Tommes carefully brushes the alkaline wash onto the shaped pretzel dough.

Irrawaddy Fine Foods, bread baking class, Penang
Pretzels fresh from the oven

We also bake a Sourdough Rye Bread that depends upon the starter dough instead of yeast to rise. Because the rye flour available in Malaysia is so much stronger than the European kind, Tommes had to fiddle with the proportions of rye versus bread flour. Luckily for me, this type of bread is almost impossible to overbake. It's done when you knock on the bottom and hear a hollow sound. The rye acts as a preservative, enabling the loaf to be good for a week, unlike many other breads which quickly go stale or mold in Malaysia's humidity.

One of the most interesting things we learn in class is how to knead bread. Tommes demonstrates pushing the dough forwards with the heel of the hand and then using the fingers to pull the back edge up and over to the front. He repeats this over and over again in a continuous motion until he achieves the desired "like a velvety soft baby bottom" texture. Kneading works the protein in the dough and is key giving bread its nice, chewy texture. He divides up the dough for all of us to practice. How well you master the technique clearly makes a difference. Even though we are all starting with the same material, some of us (ahem) end up with sticky, tacky dough whereas others get that baby bottom smoothness.

The class shapes the dough by smoothing our hands from the top to the bottom in a cupping motion while rotating it a quarter turn until we have a round mound of dough. For smaller rolls, we cup the ball of dough, palm facing downwards, and make a wide, circular motion on the table to form it just right. We let the loaves and rolls rise in the proofing oven (30 degrees Celsius) until it has doubled in size. To help the steam escape, we quickly score the bread after placing it on the the baking tray.

Irrawaddy Fine Foods, bread baking class, Penang
Slashing the dough helps the steam to escape.

Then comes the best part. Tommes slides the tray into the preheated oven while one of us stands ready with a mug of water. Working fast, he grabs the mug and slings the water across the oven floor causing a giant, hissing cloud of steam to form. He rapidly closes the door to keep the steam contained and then instructs us to not open the door for the first 10 minutes of baking. Moisture is the secret to great crust. Some commercial ovens even have a built-in water mister for this purpose. For the home cook, he suggest placing a bowl or pan of water on the oven bottom before preheating it to create steam. Another alternative would be to have a baking pan already on the bottom rack to quickly pour water into after putting in the dough. I suppose that my old method of spraying water on the dough was too much of a good thing. The water simply needs to be in the air, not directly on the bread.

Irrawaddy Fine Foods, bread baking class, Penang
Chef Tommes explains that moisture is the secret to good crust.

Over the two-day baking course, we also learn to make Sesame Seed Bread, Semolina Bread, and Oregano Bread. These all involve both the starter dough and dry yeast. Since these three loaves have similar recipes, we divide into groups and focus on making just one. We have a little fun, too, experimenting with making large loaves, small rolls, pull-apart rolls that almost look like flowers. Someone even makes what I think must be an armadillo.

By the end of the second day, a little over four hours each, my feet ache from standing on the concrete floor. However, I've learned how to make phenomenal bread. We proudly display our finished goods on the table before us for a group picture. Then, it's time to pack up our share in paper bags to bring home for others to enjoy. Frankly, we produced quite a lot, and I ended up having to freeze some of the loaves to eat later.

Irrawaddy Fine Foods, bread baking class, Penang
Sesame Seed bread, Semolina rolls, pull-apart Oregano Rolls, dark Sourdough Rye and Pretzels

If you're living in Penang, and you want to know the secret to how to bake the perfect loaf of bread, I highly recommend enrolling in one of Irrawaddy Fine Foods' monthly classes. Spaces are limited, so you may have to book a few months out. Along with many loaves of delectable, baked goodness, you'll bring home a recipe book, starter dough, and an apron. A few times a year, Chef Tommes also offers a 6-hour advanced class that covers French baguettes and English muffins.

In addition to bread baking, Tommes teaches a Saturday Kitchen 101 class focusing on different Professional Skills for the Home Cook. My friends who have attended them come away raving. These classes include:

  • Knife Skills
  • Salt and Seasoning
  • Cooking with Eggs
  • Meat Mysteries
  • Fish
  • Potatoes
  • Veggies
  • Oil, Water and Butter
  • Clean, Quick and Safe

Contact Information for Irrawaddy Fine Foods 
Telephone: 04-228-6360
Address: 54a Jalan Chow Thye, 10050 Penang; Open Monday-Saturday 10AM-5PM

This post is part of Foodie Tuesday on Inside Journeys. Check it out for more delicious inspiration.


  1. I could live the rest of my life eating nothing but bread and this post has my mouth watering! Loved your class and really loved the photos!

  2. Ah, I haven't baked bread in years! My mouth is watering at the thought though, you've brought back some good memories :) Will definitely have to try it again soon, and use some of these great tips! Thanks for sharing :)

  3. I've never baked a bread in my life, although it is one of my favorite things. Yeast scares me! I'd definitely take that class if I was in Penang. Enjoyed the photos - I could smell the warm bread!

  4. What a fantastic class to do.
    My brother is heavily into bread making and I now make his no knead bread which gives me a crisp loaf - baked at 450 with a lid on for 30 minutes is part of the reason. I could survive on good bread - no non-gluten diets for me.

  5. Have never baked bread from scratch, but I do have a bread maker, and used to like making cornbread in it. When we moved, I put it away, but am now thinking I should dig it out!

  6. This was awesome Michele and when you got to the part about the Sourdough Rye I became aware that my mouth was watering profusely!! First thing is you mentioned a bread maker and everyone always swears by them. So, I may have to dive in and do it! You said Chef Tommes talked about that Italian starter dough. I live in the U.S. and I'm going to ask a silly question...can you buy that specific kind that he uses? It sounds like it's the best of the best. But, you also mentioned all of the other mitigating factors - climate, etc that can affect it. Anyway, let me know if you know the answer to that question please and GREAT post!! :)

    1. Hi Mike, I think Chef Tommes has been carting around the Nth Generation of his starter dough all over the world from the way he talks about it. I was so glad he gave each student a tub of dough and am trying to figure out how to get mine back to Texas in my carry-on. His starter dough recipe truly calls for only raisins, water, and flour. Looking up "raisin yeast water starter" on-line will give you a general idea of how to do it.

  7. This looks like a really useful class. It sounds like the advanced French baguette session may be worth it based on the end products in the photos!

  8. I am just about to embark on some break making...this is lovely

  9. wow a bread class - how wonderful - there is nothing quite like the smell of fresh baked bread. I have only tried to make bread once of twice years and years ago. Australian Damper is about my llimit - made from SR Flour it is quick and easy!
    Have fun with that bread making - I can smell it from here! And thanks for stopping by my blog today. Good luck with the instagram photo a day.

  10. A 2-day bread making class? How fantastic! I used to see my mom put a pan of water in the oven when she baked Easter buns but I thought it was because the over used to overheat. I'll have to try it next time.
    I've never made bread, always thought it was way too complicated and judging from all the nuances Chef Tommes explained -- who knew bread making had to be adjusted to location? -- I was right. Still, I'm such a bread fan -- I love dense bread, not the flimsy, pasty white sliced type - I might give it a go. Baking relaxes me, especially when I have to knead dough, and no matter how cushiony my kitchen mat is, like you my feet hurt but I get such a sense of accomplishment and I love the finished product.
    Good job, Michele!
    Thanks for linking up this week.

  11. Sounds like a great class; there's nothing better than freshly baked bread~

  12. I would love to take a class like this. The starter yeast sounds so interesting. I also made the Amish Friendship bread. It brought back memories of why it was called Friendship Starter Yeast, because you had to make lots more friends to get rid of all the starter yeast or make more than your family could possibly eat. Thanks for the memories and now I'm going to find a bread baking class!


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