Presented By

Artisan bread-making: Techniques and tips

Spurred on by intense food envy after seeing photos of gorgeous loaves made by unnaturally talented food bloggers on our Instagram feed, we try baking bread from scratch at BRETTSCHNEIDER’S BAKING & COOKING SCHOOL. Verdict? It’s hard work

Brettschneider's Baking & Cooking School
Brettschneider's Baking & Cooking School
03 Jun 2016

Brettschneider's Baking & Cooking School

Today, we got to experience what it feels like to be the slowest kid in class. A gung-ho middle-aged lady elbows us out of the way so she can get a better view of the proceedings. She shakes her head emphatically when our teacher Dean says there isn’t much difference between fresh and dried yeast. “I only use fresh, it’s better,” she mutters with conviction. We have no idea what they are talking about, but we try not to let our eyes glaze over. No chance of slacking off anyway, because we’re soon put to work kneading the white bread dough at today’s Basic Bread Baking Course ($245) at the spanking new Baking & Cooking School by Dean Brettschneider of artisanal bakery-café chain Baker & Cook, which has its flagship outlet next door, and six other branches islandwide. The month-old school in a Bukit Timah residential estate is, as its press release states, “designed to replicate a dream home kitchen, with abundant counter space and top-line equipment”. The school offers various cooking classes by other teachers too, but it is bread we’ve come here for, and Dean whom we want to learn this age-old art form from.

Brettschneider's Baking & Cooking School
Brettschneider's Baking & Cooking School
03 Jun 2016

Brettschneider's Baking & Cooking School

The 47-year-old strapping platinum-blonde Kiwi started baking bread at the age of 16, has worked in European bakeries (he co-owns Crosstown Doughnuts in London) and boasts 12 cookbooks about baking. Plus, we buy Baker & Cook’s delicious sourdough and soy and linseed loaves weekly. Dean specialises in rustic European bread with heft and plenty of character, so this isn’t the class for you if you prefer airy, sweet Asian-style bakes.

It’s hands-on hard work from 10am to 4pm today, with just a brief lunch and coffee break. This beginner’s class is a prerequisite if you want to join more exciting advanced baking courses (for stuff like sourdough and croissants), and that’s why most of our 13 classmates today — the majority expat tai-tais and a few professionals — already know their way around a loaf, one even forcing us to admire photos of her home-made bakes on her phone.

Today, we’re taught how to craft three different breads from one magical white dough: a basic loaf, fougasse (French flatbread), and Italian focaccia. “We can do this,” we tell ourselves, even though the only time we ever ‘baked’ bread was a decade ago, using our mother’s idiot-proof automated bread maker. Even then, that loaf turned out so stodgy we were never tempted to make bread again, especially from scratch because of the complexity involved. Until now. But our faux confidence evaporates when Dean shows us his way of kneading dough. “Not like this,” he scoffs, demonstrating the only way we thought was right: rubbing it back and forth like a rag on a washing board.

“Don't murder it, less is more,” he advises. Instead, he deftly picks up the sticky, shaggy mass, slaps it with a satisfying thud against the marble countertop, pulls it towards him like a bed sheet, and folds it. “Use bird hands (thumb sticking out, the rest of the fingers glued together) to slap, pull, fold, slap, pull fold. It introduces more oxygen which the yeast needs — this was how my granny taught me to knead,” he shares. Apparently, this mimics the motions made by medieval bakers when they reached deep inside enormous basins to grab their dough.

We gingerly pick up our dough, but forget to use bird hands. A chunk of it breaks away like a rebellious teenager. We try again, not so much slapping it as flopping it with a whimper on the counter. Most of the dough sticks stubbornly to our fingers. By now, the other students already have shiny, baby-bottom-smooth beauties resting smugly in their bowls. We stare in dismay at our sad blob which looks more like roadkill. We tap Dean’s shoulder. “Er, why can’t we get our dough to look smooth?” we ask lamely. He picks up a small plastic scraper and in a few seconds, scrapes around the sides of our unholy creation to transform it into a respectably silky, gleaming orb. What sorcery is this? Dean is a good teacher. Knowledgeable but not cocky; gentle yet firm.  

Brettschneider's Baking & Cooking School
Brettschneider's Baking & Cooking School
03 Jun 2016

Brettschneider's Baking & Cooking School

“Do you have gluten-free (the proteins found in wheat) breads?” asks another woman. “There are gluten-free breads using gum for structure, but today, we’re making regular bread with wheat flour which contains gluten, and that’s needed to help our dough bind and develop properly. So if you want gluten-free bread — the door is over there,” he points to the exit, only half-jokingly. Gulp. Amazingly, despite our embarrassing start, we manage to produce three fairly decent breads after six hours. Okay, okay, with plenty of help from Dean. But the people of Instagram don't need to know that.

(Above) Lunch & tea: The lesson includes a simple but lovely lunch of quiche, bread, salads like roasted carrot with red rice, a glass of wine and also cakes, cookies and Baker & Cook’s robust coffee in the afternoon.

Dough and behold
Dough and behold
03 Jun 2016

Dough and behold

Ta-dah! The breads we baked in class:

(Left) Standard white loaf: Slightly stunted ’cos we over-proved it. Sob.

(Right) Focaccia: We’re pretty proud of this rotund cutie studded with olives, tomatoes, rosemary, caramelised garlic and painted with olive oil. Now to, uh, replicate this at home. 

Dough and behold
Dough and behold
03 Jun 2016

Dough and behold

Fougasse: We thought this leaf-shaped French flatbread would be dry and dull, but it’s like a crusty-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside baguette. Yum. Perfect for novice bakers because of its easy-to-mould free-form structure.

BOTTOM LINE: This basic bread-making lesson isn’t cheap, but that’s the price to pay for learning from an expert. Don't expect to sit back and watch him do all the work, though. It was hands-on, fast-paced, adrenalin-pumping good fun as we were thrown into the deep end of baking European-style breads. We left exhausted, slightly overwhelmed, but happy, cradling our loaves like newborn babies. Right now, we’re still nibbling on our stash, wondering when we’ll muster up the courage to bake a new batch from scratch. Or maybe we’ll just buy a loaf.

8 tips from bread guru Dean Brettschneider
8 tips from bread guru Dean Brettschneider
03 Jun 2016

8 tips from bread guru Dean Brettschneider

1. Use a digital weighing scale to measure ingredients: Weigh everything, even water. “A difference of 5ml may mean nothing to you, but it does to me. Baking is an art and science — measuring cups and jugs aren’t as accurate. I've measured out everything for you today ’cos I don't trust you… yet,” says Dean. Perhaps that's why our breads actually tasted good.

2. Use a shower cap to cover your dough: “Sure, you can use cling film, but this is perfect for keeping your dough moist. I always ask for like, five, whenever I’m in a hotel,” laughs Dean.

3. Don’t be tempted to throw too much flour on your dough: Even if it’s sticking to your fingers and everything else like a giant leech. Adding too much flour to your dough while kneading it will make it dry. Instead, just keep kneading firmly but gently and it will smoothen out and become elastic eventually as the gluten in it stretches. Also, Dean suggests using bread flour with 11 per cent protein content, because it’s “strong enough” for many types of bread, especially those requiring longer periods of fermentation (most European breads). Another tip: instead of running to the sink every two minutes to wash your hands, rub them with flour to remove excess dough. It is best to use your hands instead of an electric mixer to knead bread for a lighter-textured loaf.

4. Scrape often: This humble plastic scraper is your best friend and an extension of your hand when baking bread. It can help smoothen rough surfaces, portion out dough and is essential for picking up your painstakingly rolled masterpiece for plopping into the baking tin without mauling it with your fingers.

5. Let your dough relax: “You have to allow the proteins in the dough to rest, 'cos they become tense during kneading and you have to let them relax or the bread will be too dense,” explains Dean. So allow your dough to rest at frequent intervals mid-knead. The final resting stage is called “proving”, baker-speak for fermentation of the yeast when it comes into contact with the flour, feeds on its starches and produces gas which aerates the dough — this is what causes bread to rise and become fluffy.

6. Always bake bread on a baking stone: Preferably made out of granite or terracotta as these conduct heat well. Preheat it in your oven for an hour (Dean suggests a high temperature of 240°C for most breads) before baking. “When you place your dough on this super-hot stone, it’ll be shocked from the heat and immediately recoil from the surface, thus making the bread nicely browned and crisp at the bottom,” he shares. You can buy the stones from his school. In a pinch, Dean says a preheated aluminum baking tray is an acceptable, though not quite ideal, substitute.

7. Create steam in your oven: If you’re baking European-style breads like baguettes, steam is essential for browning the crust and giving it a nice crunch. The crust is where most of the flavour is. To create steam, Dean suggests placing your bread in the preheated oven, spraying water (about 10 squirts) at the base (never the top where the exposed heating element is) and shutting the door immediately. Open the door briefly in the last five minutes of baking — this airs out the crust slightly for a more intense crispness.

8. Don’t use the fan (convection) mode on your oven to bake bread: “The hot air circulating in a fan-forced oven dries out the exterior of your bread and causes a ‘skin’ to form first before the interior is cooked. This means you get dry bread,” says Dean. Always use the conventional mode instead, where the heat comes from the top and bottom. The same rule applies to cakes. 

Brettschneider’s Baking & Cooking School is at 1 Greendale Ave, S289495, Tel: 6463-5508. Visit www.bakingandcookingschool.com for more info.

Report a problem