A Knead to Improve

24 Jan

Last week was formal assessment week at our school.  Do you remember taking tests as a kid – or maybe even as an adult?  For me, testing was horrendous.  Stressful.  Horrific!  Needless to say, I was never a great test-taker, no matter how hard I studied.  In high school, I was one of those dreaded students who preferred written essay or short answer exams, for the simple reason that I was given opportunity and space to fully explain my thoughts.  If I was ever given a True/False test, I clear chalked it up to the 50/50 chance Gods, praying that my over-interpretation and over-thinking of one measly word in the question would prove beneficial.  Alas, I never mastered those types of tests.  Even to become a California credentialed teacher I had to take an 85-question T/F citizenship test which I, patriotically, passed by one point.  I’m sure my rambling has been made clear: Tests stress me out.

So while seeing the 500+ students at my school last week for formal computerized testing, I made a conscious effort to not pass my test anxieties onto them.  Although a new sort of anxiety filled the humming computer room air when I realized that these test scores would be the indicator for our district on exactly whether, and how much, my students are improving.  Being an intervention math specialist for the school, I work with kids grades K-4 that need the extra help in math.  Coming from a year of middle school, the age-group is refreshing, and watching them grasp and apply concepts in our small groups is incredibly rewarding.  But, like a lightning bolt shocking and freezing me, I watched as my students guessed at answers, or didn’t use the tricks we had practiced, leaving me, well, fried by the end of the week.

I was in desperate need of some comfort food, and one of my favorite pantry soups is my Spicy Tortilla Soup.  I came up with the recipe years ago when my fridge was empty minus a half eaten rotisserie chicken, and many pantry items were dangerously close to their expiration dates.  I was surprised, and still am, at how filling and belly warming this soup is.  We enjoyed the soup (although it was a bit spicy for Rob’s taste) with cheese and tortilla chips, but I woke on woke on Sunday morning still feeling anxious about the District’s reaction to my students’ impending scores.  I needed comfort in a different way.  I needed to knead.

Bread is amazing. It can be soft, hard, chewy, crunchy, tasteful, yeasty, sweet, sour, or many other mouth-watering adjectives that make me wonder if that Atkins guy was just plain crazy for giving up such a simple delicacy.  I have always been a fan of bread (just ask my mom about the time I tried to rip into a loaf in the grocery store as a baby).  I love it simply with good extra virgin olive oil and cracked black pepper, or soft butter peeking through thinly spread layers of jam.  Rich, tangy Sourdough is particularly my favorite, but yesterday morning I wanted to get down to earth and find comfort in a humble baguette.

The way my kitchen is set up my “pastry” area faces the living room, which has a perfectly placed “antique” (Target) wall-clock.  After much coaxing and encouragement, I watched my yeast finally bloom (the one thing

that’s worse than watching water boil).  I mixed the dough and turned it out onto my floured counter and went to work, keeping my eye on the clock, as to not over-knead.  I love the earthy feeling of bread dough, still warm fromthe blooming yeast, sticky and soft under my hands.  Repeatedly and methodically using the fluid back and forth, pushing and folding motion of kneading, I felt completely relaxed.  I was also consoled by the fact that I was fully in control of the chemistry experiment softening with each turn.  Satisfied, and a little floury, I covered by dough and placed it in front of the fireplace, giving it a small well-wish, “Rise, dough, rise!” (which warranted a giggle from Rob).

Holding back the urge to check for growth every 5 minutes, I was delighted to see, and smell, my risen dough.  Shaping and repeating the rising and waiting process, the dough was egg-washed and finally, delicately placed into a screaming-hot oven with a pan of water to create a sauna-like environment (enhancing chewiness).

A few hours after the initial meet and greet of flour, yeast, salt, and water, I was greeted with bread galore – my present for investing time, love and simplicity into technique and ingredients.  And really, there is no better smell then bread baking.  

It turns out that almost every single one of my students’ test scores improved from their beginning of the year assessments, showing growth.  In freaking out, I didn’t give my kiddos enough credit, as they have worked very hard, and many will “graduate” from my class.  A new group of students will be meeting with me soon, and I will most likely worry about how they will improve, and they will most likely humble me with how they progress.  As for last week, I worried for nothing.  But the stress did lead to some tasty bread.  🙂

Whole Wheat Baguette (makes 4 small baguettes)

  • 2 1/2 c all purpose unbleached flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 c whole wheat flour
  • 1 package active yeast
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1 3/4 c warm (110 degree) water
  • 1 egg lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp water

In small bowl, mix the yeast with 1/4 of the warm water, stirring with a fork.  Yeast will bloom and look foamy on top of the water – takes about 5-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the all purpose flour, whole wheat flour, and salt in stand mixer (with dough hook attachment) or a large bowl with a whisk.  Add yeast mixture to flour/salt mixture, as start mixing.  Slowly add the rest of the water, while mixing, until the dough comes together to form a ball.

Turn out dough onto floured surface and start kneading.  Dough should be sticky; keep dusting lightly with flour if it sticks to the surface.  Knead for 6-10 minutes, until dough is still slightly sticky but also smooth.  Put dough into lightly floured bowl and cover with warm damp towel.  Let rise for about 1 hour.

After risen, punch down dough and separate into 4 baguette shapes.  Place on parchment paper-lined sheet tray, re-cover with towel and let rise until doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Score slits onto the top of the baguettes, and paint the egg wash mixture (egg, water, and olive oil) on the baguettes.  Put into oven with a small pan filled with hot water on the bottom rack.  Bake for 15 minutes at 450 degrees, and then turn down oven to 400 degrees and continue to cook for about 7 minutes longer.  Cool on a rack.

Slice.  Serve.  Savor.  Enjoy!

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