Last night I awoke at the ripe hour of 2:30am with all the energy of a Two-Coffees in Morning Scout, ready and rearin’ to go, and could not for the life of me get back to sleep. I did my best to calm my body and mind: list things from a category alphabetically, count up from one, purposeful muscle relaxation, a good drink of water. I even got up and just shuffled around my apartment a bit. But for about an hour I remained awake as could be. I just could not stop thinking about it. I was fueled by the repetitive thought and sense-memory of shaping a baguette.
So, I’ve taken it as a sign that it’s time I share about my beautiful two days at King Arthur Flour’s baking school.
I received the classes as a gift for my birthday in June, but for a myriad of reasons did not end up getting there until August. I struck upon a weekend that contained an ideal set of classes for me: flatbreads, sourdough baking, and baguettes. While my tortillas have been a pretty consistent success, one of my most frustrating yeast-related struggles has been pita. Try as I might, my pitas had consistently pocket-less, and more like doughy tortillas. There was always more to learn about sourdough baking and caring for Demeter, my new and thriving starter. And having recently received a baguette pan as a gift (unrelated to the classes) I was anxious to use it well, to start my relationship with it off on the right foot. A King Arthur Class was sure to be a boon in all ways. But while it was the visceral memory of sealing baguette dough onto itself for a pre-shape that kept me up at night, I’ll start what can only be a series of posts here at the very beginning with my first class in flatbread.
I would be remiss not to mention that, in addition to the perfection of late summer in New England and the situation of being on the King Arthur campus, there was also a theatre festival happening right then and there. JAG productions was running shows from August 13th to September 12th right there at King Arthur, with the company crown as the backdrop and everything. It was the confluence of the two things I love most in the world in unexpected and delightful harmony. Naturally we had to snag impromptu tickets, and while this post is not about that experience, I do heartily recommend checking out the company and going to an event of theirs if you find yourself in that area.
I attended the classes independently while my parents went on ventures of their own, meeting up at the end of the day to debrief and excursion together. And because the flatbreads class had us working in pairs, I got the chance to make a new friend. All was still Covid Conscious: masks were required and the size of the class was small. But my bench mate and I shared flour and salt and swapped stories of our baking history, and I found almost as much pleasure in learning another’s baking habits and struggles live and in person as I did in absorbing all the valuable flatbread info. We also happened to both be taking the sourdough class in the afternoon, doubling the pleasure into a friend-for-the-day phenomenon that also provided a little comfort of familiarity for the afternoon.
But about that info! Yes, pita was the big one on my list. But in the course of five hours we not only churned out pita, but also a batch of naan, and socca, a chickpea flatbread that was entirely new to me. We started with the socca, stirring the chickpea flour together with water and not a bit of yeast to make a thin batter that was poured into a well-oiled pie plate. Already I was in a state of intrigue. This looked more like crepe batter. It was unlike anything known as bread that I had made before. But I love the flavor of chickpeas, and when we topped it with fresh rosemary, kalamata olives and onions I knew it was going to be pretty hard to go wrong. And I was oh-so right. Similar to focaccia in that, depending on the topping style you roll with, it can be appetizer, side, or full meal, it was as cakey as my heart suspected yet still classifiable as bread as my mind doubted. Plain or highly customized it could easily fit into any meal of the day, and conveniently gluten-free if you’re in that camp always on the lookout for such options!
The unbaked socca. Note the tiny bubbles in the thin batter and pool of olive oil around it!
eWe flew through the naan, which I had made before with moderate success, producing glistening, ghee-covered breads I was excited to fill with any number of saucy dishes. But my attention narrowed when we finally arrived at pita. I was not about to miss the secret to a perfect pocket that had been alluding me try after try. We mixed pita dough of our own to get the experience, but the pockets we would actually be producing and taking home were done in advance due to the needed rest time. The dough balls were plopped at our stations looking very similar to those I had made before as the earlier mixing session indicated. A little tacky, not firm by any means, but not hard to handle either. So, my faltering must be found in the forming or baking, as I suspected. The Internet seemed insistent that it was all about the oven temperature and the need for a ripping hot baking stone, and while I had fiddled with these variables time and again with this in mind, nothing seemed to help. I waited for the trick to getting the dough onto the stone just right, something about the heat of the baking stone versus the surrounding temperature.
“The key to getting the pocket is to roll the dough out perfectly even”
I was in shock. Nowhere had I seen this mentioned. Not a drop about the release of moisture in this perfectly flat, ¼ inch thick slab being the recipe for the ideal singular pocket. I asked about the heat, just to be sure it played no part. That I was not switching my hyper fixation entirely in another direction for naught.
“Nope, it really is all about the evenness of the roll. You want a hot stone, yes, but if there’s even a slight ripple in the dough it won’t puff up evenly. You’ll get something either like a tortilla or no puff as all because the steam won’t release properly”
Bread baking is magical in its science, and learning moments such as this continue to make that true for me. Preciously, I rolled out my pitas and placed them on the peel, and swiftly demounted them into the ovens. These ovens were behemoths of wonder unto themselves – multiple levels of long and wide solid metal with the fortitude to endure the steaming capabilities that were built in, which I would see later when they were in action to make my sourdough expand and crust up in ways a home oven can only hope to mimic with pans of water and Dutch ovens.
Surely enough, a small bubble in each of my pitas grew and spread until they were puffed as a pita should be. And while they deflated after exiting the oven, I could not stop looking at them lovingly knowing that within that thin little circle was a stuffable puff, and that now, I had the capability to make many more.
A moment of pita pocket appreciation.
Well, theoretically. About a week or so after the revelatory class I made another solo attempt, this time armed with the knowledge of the importance of a flat dough. All through the mixing, kneading, and rolling things were looking good. Smooth, tacky but easy to handle. I produced a set of perfectly flat dough disks. But I sabotaged myself at the last minute, opting to cook them via baking stone on the grill rather than the oven. Not only did I think the higher heat capacity afforded by the method would help, but it was still late August and hot enough where a non-oven cooking method was eternally appealing. But the same factors that drove me to it were why it ended up producing, once again, bread more akin to naan than pita. The heat and humidity made the dough harder to release from the peel onto the ripping hot grill, making disks that were once idyllic ill-formed and certainly uneven. And without being able to see the inside of the grill, I had no idea how far along in the process they were, causing me to keep opening and closing the lid, therefore fluctuating the heat levels. There was some small puffing, the taste was good, and they were closer than I had gotten pre-class, but pita pockets they were not. But at least now I know where I went wrong, and can attack the recipe again with thoughtful adjustments rather than hopeful guesses!
But while my skills will forever need honing, the jam-packed morning of flatbreads gave me exactly the kind of guidance I was looking for to help me along the way, as well as showing me breads I wouldn’t have even known to look for! And there was even more discovery in store that afternoon as we delved into sourdough. But that afternoon will have to be for another day here on Scoutin’ it Out!