My husband is rolling in dough.
Oh, not the cash kind, but something nearly as good ― at least when he takes it, fragrant and golden, out of the oven.
Yes, Russ is a dough nut ― yeasty bread dough. Ever since he fell in love at a Moor head Community Education class half a dozen years ago, he’s been turning our kitchen into bread heaven at least once every week.
And as if the heavenly smell weren’t enough to gather recruits, he’s taken to evangelizing himself, preaching the gospel of the one true bread to his own cult of bakers through Community Ed classes.
Rob Roberts was his mentor. Russ still rhapsodizes about that evening class at Breadsmith in south Fargo, reveling in its perfectly appointed professional baking kitchen.
“I’ve always liked good bread. I remember both grandmothers baking, and when Mom made her famous Swedish rye, it was always a special occasion,” Russ, a Mandan, N.D., native, remembers.
“But this experience was something else. Unbelievable! We were in bread mecca,” he says. “Rob had a huge pile of dough all ready to form into loaves and rolls. We baked from 6 to 11 that night, and when I got home, I was ready to go.”
Roberts recommended the books of bread guru Peter Reinhard, starting with “Crust and Crumb: Master Formulas of Serious Bakers.”
When Russ’s cagey wife, who recognizes a hint when she hears it, gave him a copy on Christmas morning, he was in the kitchen weighing flour by afternoon.
According to Russ, that’s one of the secrets of making perfect loaves time after time, along with a proper bench cutter, parchment paper, good heavy pans and a thermometer. After baking at least two loaves every week for the past six years, it turns out that he’s right. Careful craftsmanship ― plus the best bread flour, the right kind of yeast, kosher salt and tap water at just the right temperature ― is the secret enabling serious bakers to sidestep the hit-or-miss results that discourage beginners from trying.
Baking, he says, is simply following the formula: “You need to create a standard for your own kitchen and stick with it. You develop a feel for how to do it right.”
Another secret, he adds, is giving the dough just the right amount of attention.
After mixing the meticulously measured flour, salt and instant yeast (instead of fresh or active dry yeast), he slowly beats in water at low speed. (Always low speed ― or you might as well bring the vacuum right into the kitchen.) After it’s incorporated by his trusty orange KitchenAid mixer, he lets it rest for a few minutes to give the dry ingredients time to hydrate. Then he adds a tablespoon or two of olive oil or melted butter, stirs it in and lets the mixer work the dough until it snakes up and down the paddle ― just three or four minutes, about half the time that hand-kneading would require.
If the dough doesn’t seem to be developing right, he says, there’s only one fail-safe remedy: Throw it out and start over.
“If you’ve made a mistake in the formula, don’t mess around,” he says. “You can’t really fix it.”
After a good long rise, he turns the bread blob onto his bread board, then portions it with a wicked-looking scraper thingie called a bench cutter. “You don’t want to tear the dough. Cut it,” Russ advises. “The kneading is all about building up strands of gluten. When you rip those strands, you’re basically starting over.”
The oven counts, too. Despite the reliability of modern ovens, he suggests bakers trust their temps … but verify.
“Buy yourself a proper oven thermometer. Let the oven come up to heat, and measure. Then close the door, get it up to heat again, and measure another part of the oven. You’d be surprised,” he says, “at how much oven temperatures may vary from what you expect and from one spot to another.”
Finally, the master baker rates self-control very highly. Think about the moment when that golden, impossibly fragrant creation comes out of the very hot oven? You know you want to stab it with a knife, slather it with butter and savor every crumb.
Don’t. Just don’t.
“The internal part, the crumb, is still baking inside when you take it out. If you slice it, all the steam escapes and the process stops prematurely,” he notes. “You must ― must! ― give it at least an hour cooling on a rack.”
You’ll be able to taste the difference.
Russ revels in his favorite style of artisan bread, the free-form oval loaves called ciabatta. It’s a versatile, classic recipe. Shaped into a flatter configuration, the same formula becomes foccaccio to top with cheese, garlic and a blend of flavorful seeds … then serve with a small dish of fine olive oil, another of balsamic vinegar and a third of finely grated Parmesan for dipping.
But he’s worked his favorite bread books from cover to cover. Other favorites: dark, molasses-rich anadama bread; homemade bagels, which are boiled before baking; soft, fragrant pretzels; holiday breads with dried and candied fruit; caramel, orange and cinnamon rolls; and savory hamburger and hot-dog buns.
His current infatuation, though, is homemade crackers.
Russ is making snappy Armenian-style crackers, or lavosh ― the starting point for all kinds of savory treats perfect for appetizers or uninhibited nibbling. “They’re different from all the manufactured crackers you’ve ever tried,” he predicts. “More flavor, more possible variations ― and they’re fun, too.”
Naturally he has found a secret here, too. Instead of rolling the dough (which includes a small amount of instant yeast and honey) after it rises, he slices and pats it into rectangles, then runs it through his mixer’s pasta roller. After it reaches a reasonable thickness, he slices it by hand and tops it with whatever savory combinations his appetite calls for.
That’s what he’s teaching Tuesday in his upcoming Moorhead Community Ed class. He’s been teaching several sessions each spring and fall for the past five years.
“I thought it would be fun to share this with others who enjoy the kitchen,” he says. “I auditioned for Lauri (Winterfeldt, the program’s director); I brought her and her staff a warm loaf of bread and some butter. She started calling before I got back home, and I’ve been teaching ever since.”
Like Russ himself, some of his students have become devotees of the dough. Many of the same students ― usually half of them men, half women ― have become bread-class regulars. “Some of them have been bitten by the same bug by now,” he reports. “We learn a lot from each other.” They often stay in touch, asking questions or trading tips via email.
“Once you’ve set the standard, you can never go back to supermarket bread,” he asserts. “You just can’t buy the kind of bread we make.”