There was only one reason why I got into baking a year ago — and that is because of bread. I love everything about bread — baking it, eating it and savoring the smells while passing a sidewalk bakeshop. Since I’ve moved to Singapore, I noticed that all the groceries I’ve been to have a full array of ingredients to make bread, whether it’s a mom-and-pop type or a full-scale grocery. Years ago, I used to catch Chef Cy online — one of the teachers I used to work with in a culinary school (his kitchen happens to be across my classroom — what luck!) who happens to be a pastry chefs of a top hotel in Manila. Because of our casual conversations, I’ve picked up so many nuggets of knowledge when it comes to the science of baking — something I’ve avoided all this time because I hate measuring (prior to bread, I never even made brownies or cookies!). Throughout the chat, he typed out a recipe and told me, “If you want to learn how to make bread, you start with foccacia.”
That was the beginning of my journey in baking.
It wasn’t until years later that I put the recipe to use because I didn’t own an oven at that time. When we moved here, our apartment had one and my husband gave me a Christmas present that changed all our meals forever — he gave me a Kitchen-Aid mixer.
The most important thing I’ve learned about baking bread is that yeast is alive. If you prepare it too fast or too slow, too heavy or too light, too hot or too cool — everything can just go wrong. With bread, everything has to be just right.
Another friend of mine, Chef Meg, is a friend and constant chatmate. Also interwoven in our conversations of food and more food is the exchange of cooking ideas. She was the one who got me hooked on proper scientific research when it comes to baking. I stuck with my original recipe and didn’t give up until I got it right. With a step-by-step walkthrough, I would send her pictures of my finished product and she did a great job at diagnosing what went right and wrong for my bread. My very own Kitchen M.D!
Because I live in a very warm country with 90% humidity level, bread is very tricky to make because proofing time of the dough might not go according to original recipes, which were written and based in a four-season country. Eventually, I had to adjust technique and incorporate the use of three things:
1. my nose,
2. what my grandaunt would call sentido comon (common sense), and
3. old-fashioned kitchen instinct.
At about the same time I started working with focaccia, I also attempted to master pan de sal (original meaning is literally translated as “bread with salt”). This is daily fare for almost all Filipinos traditionally sold straight from panaderos (breadmakers). It is airy, slightly sweet (and to think it’s named after salt), and very dusty. Today, it is sold in groceries as well as high-end bakeries. It is seldom that households make bread back home. They make pastries, yes, but bread — not so much. I could be wrong but I think we are more a cooking country than a baking country (?).
The one who handed-down her well-guarded skills and recipes and taught me to bake bread hands-on is none other than my father-in-law’s sister, Tita Gay (so happy Tita Jeannie got her to agree to teach us!) She bequeathed to us two secret traditional recipes so much so that everyone else in the household not involved in the baking was sent out of the kitchen to keep the process confidential.
One of those is a recipe for old fashioned, uber soft pan de sal.
Here is the evolution of my pan de sal experiment through the months starting with something that looked like… a brown rock!
My second attempt ended up as dinner rolls. Edible, but not what I wanted. So I glazed it anyway and made the best of my dough.
Then one day — I got on the right track and my bread took the life and form of a true pan de sal.
A few more attempts later, and then everything clicked into place one day.
Ever since, my kitchen lingers with that heart-warming scent of freshly baked bread.
Later on, from the wannabe dinner rolls comes a real moist pan of stretchy bread.
Still using the original recipe, I justified Chef Cy’s focaccia recipe after all this time and produced this:
And because I wanted to experiment with loaves, I came up with an old-fashioned crusty loaf,
and something made out of beer.
All my kitchen experiments were made in my own home by myself, with the unwitting taste-tester: my husband (I would like to think he’s been objective.) Yet, I was not alone in my journey. It’s through the generosity of imparted wisdom and patience of Chefs Cy and Meg that I learned everything I know now about baking. Most especially, I owe Tita Gay a great deal (and Tita Jeannie who managed to convince her to teach us!) because she was the one who taught me how to make bread hands-on.
Lesson learned from bread-making: do your best… and let God do the rest! (watching bread rise and bake takes a bit of magic, really)