Wednesday, July 4, 2012

WheatStalk 2012

(image courtesy of BBGA)
Just back from a bread-baking whirlwind in Chicago and still under the spell, with visions of perfect loaves dancing in my head...
If you have been reading Farine for a while, you may remember previous posts about classes or events organized or co-sponsored by the Bread Bakers' Guild of America (BBGA).  I try to attend as many of these gatherings as I possibly can: they are always interesting, informative and fun and they provide great opportunities to meet other bakers. With WheatStalk which took place last week at Kendall College in Chicago, the Guild (a non-profit organization whose core mission is education) has outdone itself, bringing together two hundred participants (professional bakers, home bakers, millers, farmers, scientists, industry suppliers, etc.), for three full days of  baking and learning.
There have been two other WheatStalk-like events in the Guild's history: Camp Bread 2005 and Camp Bread 2007 (both of which took place in California) and those who attended (I have met quite a few since I joined BBGA in 2008) still talk about them with awe in their voice and stars in their eyes.
By all accounts, WheatStalk 2012 was pretty much in the Camp Bread tradition except that it was held in the Midwest so that even more people could attend (some participants even came from Canada and Central America). La fine fleur (literally the finest flour, more aptly translated as the cream of the crop) of America's baking instructors was there to offer a wide array of hands-on classes (building a commercial brick oven, functional breads, easy rye breads, gluten-free breads, ancient grains the modern way, etc.), lectures (starting your own bakery, finding whole grain solutions for formula development, the science underlying bread baking, etc.) and demos (laminating with whole grains, bread showpieces and decorations, Team USA breads, etc.).
The level of energy, enthusiasm and good will was extraordinary. Master bakers attended classes alongside home bakers. Instructors switched sides, teaching one day, apprenticing the next, attesting a simple truth: "Dough makes us humble". We can tweak it, coax it, cajole it, browbeat it, pamper it. In the end, it has a mind of its own although it definitely listens to some more readily than to others. So yes, indeed, knowledge matters and practice, practice, practice...

Jeffrey Yankellow and Mike Zakowski presenting Team USA's breads
(photo courtesy of breadsong)
Participants had been requested to apply for their classes months ahead of time (giving their order of preference) and the organizers (who did a fantastic job of marshaling resources for the event) worked very hard to satisfy most requests. But even if all of one's wishes were granted, there were so many equally desirable labs, demos and lectures that everybody had to make hard choices. I had selected two lectures (Day 1) and two all-day labs (Day 2 and 3), which means that, inevitably, I missed out on seventeen other all-day labs, ten other demos and four other lectures, almost all of which I would have loved to attend. So much too learn, so little time!
WheatStalk started on Wednesday night June 27th with a baker's math review, taught by Jeff Yankellow, the current Chair of the Board of Directors for the Guild. The class was mostly intended for home bakers, especially those who like me are resolutely number-challenged (now I know that it wasn't a smart idea to spend most of my math classes in high school practicing writing with my left hand. It is a pretty cool skill and useful all right but except for making it easy to switch hands when scoring, I can't say it has helped me very much in my baking). I should have listened to my mom - who had been a math teacher... (Dr. Freud, where were you when I needed you?) when she said I would be sorry one day...
Jeff explained that baker's percentage is a tool:
  • Combined with a fundamental knowledge of bread baking, it enables the baker to make any bread he or she wishes without having to go look for a formula in a book
  • Since it is a common language among bakers and in the industry, it makes it possible to look at a formula and know right away what it is about
  • It provides an easy way to scale a batch of dough up or down
  • It makes it much easier to identify and troubleshoot problems. 
  • Those who have trouble envisioning a dough with a 100% flour ratio can just replace the word percentage by the word "part" and it all becomes clearer.
The following day, Thursday June 28th, was the hottest day of the week in Chicago: outside temperature reached 101° F/38°C. My thoughts often wandered to the backyard where the wood fire oven was being put together (and where it was so hot that plastic cups left in the sun actually melted) and to the labs where the ovens were doing a good job of roasting everything and everyone in sight. As luck would have it, it was lecture day for me so I got to spend it in the relatively cool sixth-floor auditorium.
In the morning, Amy Scherber from Amy's Bread in New York City and Leslie Mackie from Macrina Bakery & Café in Seattle held forth on the subject of starting a bakery. Albeit living and working on either side of the country, they have a lot in common and while they made a few different choices over the years, their stories were fundamentally similar. They clearly get along famously too!
After a short presentation of their bakeries, they listed the twenty steps to follow to open a bakery or café on a small budget (they also made it clear that depending on the location, the "small budget" may in fact be quite large nowadays for an artisan baker looking to make it on his or her own).
The first step ("Dream a dream") is the most enjoyable (and presents the added benefit of costing nothing). All the others are more arduous and demanding (tip: if you have deep pockets, hire someone to do the ground work for you). The audience - among whom more than one self-described "baker trapped in the body of an accountant" (or a lawyer) - listened in rapt concentration and pored attentively over the printout of the forecast business model. In the end, once all the technical details and numbers were taken care of, the bakers' advice boiled down to this: if you want to open a bakery, you need a lot of endurance, energy and stamina, both physically and mentally. So if you are serious about it, prepare yourself: eat healthy foods and get exercise!
The afternoon lecture was devoted to food photography. It was taught by Eric Futran, a food and culinary photographer who started his career as a photojournalist and is currently the staff photographer for Kendall College. His delivery was fast, efficient and very entertaining. The class consisted in:
  • A two-hour presentation of the main trends in food photography and a close "reading"/deconstruction of various food shots borrowed either from books by well-known photographers or from Eric's own portfolio
  • A two-hour photoshoot of whatever we liked (he had brought some fruit, bread and vegetables as well as various backgrounds and a series of tripods). 

Sorry for the greenish screen.
I exposed on the slides because the room had been darkened and that's how it came out! 

Since the eye spontaneously moves from top to bottom and from left to right, you want to help it travel across the shot at a diagonal:
  • Tangents are really pleasing and angles are everything
  • Never center anything!
  • Light should come from behind (to create texture) 
  • But it must be reflected by a fill card or a piece of foil so that one can see through the shadow it creates towards the camera.
On the technical side, Eric recommended:
  • Shooting food on a tripod  (to reduce camera shake)
  • Or using a high ISO setting (useful tip in the field when no tripod is available)
  • Setting the white balance (the color temperature) to shade or cloudy when shooting bread (if the camera allows it). 
I didn't use a tripod for the two shots below but I bumped up the ISO. (At home I would definitely have used a tripod). Both were shot using the light coming in through the window. In the first picture, I left the white balance on automatic and forgot to use a fill card. For the second one, I set the white balance  to shade and I did use the fill card. Notice how much more light there is in the foreground in the second shot and how much more golden and inviting the bread looks. In the end though, color temperature is a matter of taste and style. I usually set the white balance on daylight when shooting at home but I will definitely experiment with the other settings.
The very same night, at the beer and cheese tasting the Guild had organized at a nearby brewpub, I started practicing what I had learned that day (even without a tripod or fill card). I set the white balance on automatic (an easy way out when there is a mix of natural and artificial light and you don't really know what color temperature to pick). Notice how the focus is on the beer and cheese and the bread is just a prop. Well, they always say a picture is worth a thousand words. What would you say was first and foremost on my mind when I took this one? Hint: it was deliciously refreshing!
Friday was my first all-day lab: four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon with a one-hour break for lunch if the bread allowed. I had chosen to attend the gluten-free baking lab, partly because I had zero experience in the matter and wanted to learn and partly because it was taught by Michel Suas, the President of the San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI) and I knew SFBI had done extensive research on the subject over the past few years.
The class was brilliant: Michel started by having us mix and bake tiny batches of thirteen different gluten-free flours and one of all-purpose flour (which was the control). All of the flours were pre-soaked with the same amount of water, so that we would have an idea of the various absorption rates. Then they were mixed with cornstarch, xanthan gum, salt and yeast (adding more water if/as needed to obtain the same medium-soft consistency) and set to proof.

Next came the baking and the tasting.
The truth of the matter is that they all tasted pretty awful (or, at best, bland) but that was to be expected since we hadn't really made a bread, just pieces of dough. The flour that absorbed the most water was the oat and the one which absorbed the least the light millet. Some of these little "breads" were so sticky it was impossible to slice them and we had to tear them apart. All this taught us a great deal, much more than I have space here to write about (I hope to do it in a later post after I get my hands on some of the needed ingredients, not an easy task since I am spending most of the summer at our little camp on the river where baking supplies are mostly limited to all-purpose and whole wheat). 
In a nutshell, sorghum seems to be the way to go since it offers the closest texture to regular bread flour (plus it is cheap and has great nutritional value. Just remember never to sprout sorghum grains as they would turn poisonous). Teff is really good also (tasty and very nutritious but, alas, very expensive) and koda is the best rice flour to work with (the others tend to be gooey).
We proceeded to make seven gluten- (and sometimes egg-)free products: four breads, orange biscotti, a lemon poundcake and blueberry muffins. Of all of the breads, the poolish "baguette" below was the one with the best crumb structure.

"Baguette" made with a sorghum, koda rice and brown rice poolish
My second all-day lab, on Saturday, was Ancient Grains the Modern Way. The instructor was Frank Sally (with whom I had taken Artisan I and II at SFBI a few years ago). It was excellent and I will write about it in more details at a later time. Today I'll just share a few pointers:

Dough made with kamut levain
  • Don't go too wet on spelt as it gets soupy
  • For a same dough consistency, white kamut requires way more water than white spelt
  • You may want to add gluten to spelt as it doesn't have much of a push
  • Sorghum doesn't hold water very well: don't use sorghum flour dry (see tip below)
  • The best way to incorporate sorghum, barley, teff or millet flours into any dough is to soak the flour: using 100% flour and 100% water, pour water at 120°F/49°C (neither cold nor hot) over the flour and make a paste, let cool and use. It helps set the protein and the starch and makes the flour more stable
  • Make this soaker the morning of the mix (don't hold it overnight)
  • Sprouting ancient wheats like kamut, spelt, emmer or einkorn and baking them with levain is a good idea: it makes the bread more digestible, it unlocks the mineral contents of the grain and it has a sweet flavor.
We made seven breads on that day (kamut levain, kamut with wheat germ, sprouted spelt, spelt levain,   sorghum with kamut and pumpkin seeds, teff with sunflower seeds, millet with toasted pecans) and by the time the afternoon was over, I was ready to drop! But we did really well and most of these breads were  breads I would be interested in making at home (which means that some of them might appear on Farine sooner or later). The teff ciabatta was especially gorgeous.

Now WheatStalk is over but the fever and the fervor have not abated. I have been in touch with other participants and judging from their one-track conversation, their brain is still in full fermenting mode! I know mine is. I have so much to process and so much to try. I did bring back a few formulas but more importantly I came back with tools, tools which will help me grow as a baker and be more confident and avoid mistakes that I would have made otherwise. For this I am grateful to the Guild and to each and everyone of the staff and volunteers who made WheatStalk possible as well as to Kendall College, its faculty and students for hosting the event. Thank you all! 


  1. Wow!...
    I am so happy for you, MC! what an extraordinary experience you had and you are so lucky to have gotten the chance to learn from such fabulous teachers! I loved reading every word. thank you for sharing tips, for great photos and awesome breads! I can't wait to read more in the future about your new skills and formulas.

    ps. The last photo represents teff ciabatta? It looks sooo good.
    ps. 2 the dough with kamut levan is so appealing... I wish I could get my hands in it :)

    Wonderful post, MC, really really wonderful!
    best wishes,

  2. Hello Codruta! Thank you for your comment. I would have loved it if you could have attended WS. I know you would have been in seventh heaven... Yes, it is the teff ciabatta and it was very good. That's one I will try to make at home for sure. As for kamut, it is a lovely grain which gives the bread a mellow consistency that I find very appealing. Is it available in Romania?

  3. HI.
    Kamut flour is not available here, but I received a package of 500g a while go from a friend and I still have a half of it. I was saving it, but I better go check the expiration date :) It makes a very extendable dough, interesting experience.
    What I do find here (though pretty expensive) are Kamut berries. I bought a bag and I tried to chop them, but it seems that Kamut is a hard grain and after 30 minutes and 70g my arm started to hurt. :)

    Unfortunatelly I've never seen, had or used teff flour. I'm looking for your recipe, but maybe you can suggest a replacement for teff, if possible.


    1. Hi Codruta,
      If you can find kamut berries, then you could make flour if you had access to a grain mill. You could also sprout the kamut and then grind it with a meat grinder. That would work and you wouldn't need a huge amount if you combined it with another flour like wheat or spelt. Just an idea...
      I don't know what could replace teff. It has a very specific taste and it is very nutritious. I will ask around and see if I can come up with a replacement.

  4. Hi MC, thanks for your extremely interesting post and also for sharing the good tips and pictures. Isn't everybody of us looking for the perfect loaves? It is motivating to share some of the experiences of professional bakers and also good to hear, that it isn't that easy. Many Thanks

    1. Thank you so much, bernd! I am glad you enjoyed my little corner of WheatStalk! There was so much more to see and do and I am hoping to link to other participants' post as they get published.

  5. Hello MC,
    Your post captures the essence of this event so wonderfully!
    It was such a pleasure to be at WheatStalk, spending time with you and so many other amazing bakers and teachers (la fine fleur – what at a perfect description! :^) ).
    Wasn’t this an incredible opportunity to learn? BBGA really outdid itself, organizing this event.
    Thanks so much for your post, highlighting so well the parts of the conference you attended!

    1. breadsong, thank you! It was so much fun to share the WheatStalk experience with you. Nothing like going with a friend, right? I am very much looking forward to reading your own post and learning about other parts of the event. There is so much I didn't get to see...

  6. This was a joy to read MC! For someone who couldn't attend its nice to see a bit of the event so vividly through another baker's eyes.

    1. Thank you so much, Jud, and you are so welcome. ! I just wish I could have reported on even more! But as I said, we had to choose...

  7. I am but a mere amateur baker, but your recipes and photos and this event looks very inspirational! There's an award floating around the Foodbuzz community and I nominated your blog for the Lovely Blog award - thanks for your lovely blog!

    1. Thank you so much, jenbeans! I am honored and delighted that you like Farine.



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