Another in a 2014 guest column series which builds on the one in 2009 where 50+ had written about how science /tech has evolved their hobby/interest.
This time it is Bill Hewitt, someone I have known for over 15 years as an accomplished software executive. His baking skills are even more impressive as he describes below.
I grew up in a home where fresh food was always being prepared. My mother was, and still is, and excellent cook, so I was always comfortable in the kitchen. After one of my companies was sold, I even went to cooking class in New York City to learn the basics of knife skills, sauces, cooking techniques, even how to make the perfect omelet! But one thing that has always frightened me was baking. Bread to be exact. Big, crusty breads that require pre-ferments and solid technique in kneading, forming and baking.
So I was delighted when my wife gave me a baking course as a Christmas gift; I deferred it once because I was “too busy” but she made me go. I finally did spend last week at the King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center. The center, located in picturesque Norwich, VT, is a state of the art facility to train professional bakers. I have to say I was initially intimidated but I was there as a “tourist” baker, learning how to make artisan breads, like baguette, sourdough and croissant at home.
Much of our time was learning the chemistry behind baking and the proper techniques to make high quality artisan bread. As we were all amateurs, our technique of preparing the dough varied, which had the most effect on finished product.
The technology for baking bread has not changed much, but has gotten more precise; scales have replaced measuring spoons, proofing ovens that can duplicate any condition now exist, and ovens that blast freshly inserted bread with a blast of steam are now commonplace. There are also excellent web sources like The Fresh Loaf and mobile apps like the Dough Pro to keep us from going too wrong.
The equipment these days is amazing. For the most part it has removed the areas of the process that are most prone to outside forces, like weather, humidity, the “heavy hand” and oven temperatures.
What tech cannot replace however is the skill of the baker. We compared “mass produced” breads like those baked at semi-fast food restaurants. They tend to be lighter in color, have a finer crumb and less crust, mostly because they are machine made. The process, and product are consistent, but not high quality.
What makes the difference is the bakers feel for the dough; how much hydration and rise it needs, how it is shaped and how long it gets to develop. Like any good business process, the “winners” are often those who understand that a process requires finesse, not just automation, to be the best.
What I do know is that my teenage sons now believe I am a demi-god of sorts for learning the magic of making flaky, buttery croissants. I wish I would get the same response when I implement software applications!