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Mike's Bread Blog - 2005

Wednesday, November 9, 2005 - Selling our souls - As you may know, we've been trying to run ads on our web page for some time. Sadly, our one ad relationship wasn't all that successful, so we have turned to Google's Ad-Sense ads. They are supposed to be non-offensive and bring in revenue.

I would appreciate any comments or feedback about the ads, pro or con. Just, please, be polite in your comments.

Monday, November 7, 2005 - Maximising the scare resource - You've probably heard that processes should be optimised for the scarce resource. However, the meaning of that isn't always obvious. For a few months now, I've been using a friend's bakery to make bread for the local farmers market. And now, I'm baking for the Mike's Bread bread club. And I've been having a consistent problem getting all the breads done soon enough. When we had out own bakery, we had an oven that could hold 12 sheet pans at a time. So, our goal was to mix and proof the breads so they'd ALL be ready to go into the oven at the same time. We wanted to get as much bread in and out of the oven at once, to make the most efficient use of the gas that fired the oven. And, we got very good at it.

But, my friend's bakery has a smaller oven, that can only hold three pans at once. Doughs are standing, ready to go into the oven, and they can't go in. Sometimes the breads over-proof, causing quality control issues. I've been cursing the oven for some time. But... after three months, I finally had an "aha!" experience. Instead of organizing the mixing cycle to get all the breads ready at the same time, I need to organize the mixing experience to get the fast breads ready as soon as possible, so they can be baked earlier, starting the baking cycle sooner. And to spread out the readiness of the other doughs so, hopefully, the doughs will be spread out during the bake cycle and none will have to sit too long.

It's not easy changing gears - or mind sets - but you have to do it from time to time. My next bake cycle is next week. I'll report back how it turned out.

Sunday, November 6, 2005 - You've seen the ads. A weary, but very attractive, young-ish woman comes home, and she wants something to pick her up. So, into the microwave goes Betty Crocker's "Warm Delights." And just seconds later, the woman is eating something so wonderful, you'd think she was either washing her hair with Herbal Essence Shampoo or having an orgasm. (As a side note, neither my wife nor I had orgasms when we used Herbal Essence.)

Today, in the local Walmart I finally saw Betty Crocker's Warm Delights. And being gullible, I had to try it. So I bought three of them. A few years back a comedienne said, "If you are what you eat, I'm fast, cheap and easy!" Well.... at $1.69 for a single serving, I'm not all that darn cheap.

The first surprise was you don't just put the "Warm Delights" into the microwave. You have to mix the brownie mix with water in the included plastic bowl. How much water? 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon. Unless it's still too thick to stir, in which case you add two more teaspoons. Just use two tablespoons - the added water helps the brownie rise better. Then you microwave it for about a minute at our altitude. And then you top it with the fudge sauce that is included. And then you let it cool for two minutes.

So, how was it? Well, my wife thought it was "OK". When she says "OK" that basically means, "It wasn't obviously toxic. It had some chocolate taste." And that's where I was also. It wasn't awful. It wasn't even bad. But it wasn't really good either.

Was it worth it our $1.69, plus tax, a pop? In a word, no. It was fast, but it wasn't easy, it wasn't cheap, and it wasn't all that good. I'd rather buy a brownie from a decent bakery - less expensive, and a lot better. Or, I could get a box of mix and have a whole pan of better brownies for less. Or, even better, I could make a batch of brownies from scratch and have brownies every day for a week. And they'd be better and cheaper than the mix.

None of this addresses the growing concerns health authorities have about cooking in plastic. My final suggestion - skip the "Warm Delights," unless you mean delights from someone warm, special and wonderful. Betty Crocker kinda misses the boat on this one.

October 19, 2005 - Trust your instincts! (Or, "Use the Force, Luke!") - This past summer I was baking for the Gunnison Farmers Market every weekend. I usually prepared between 120 and 140 loaves, and did them in a 12 hour period. It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun. People like buying fresh bread, and it was great to meet the fans of my breads. Last year, when we were running the Colorado High Attitude Bakery, I never made it to the market, though my breads did. This year, I learned I'd missed out on a lot!

However, there were a few times when things just didn't go very well in the bakery, and we had fewer loaves to sell. This was a triple disaster - it meant I'd wasted time and ingredients, it meant customers were going to be disappointed, and it meant that our income was reduced.

In looking back, there was a common thread through all the disasters (about 5 batches over the 15 weeks of the market). In each case, I KNEW as I handled the dough that it was WRONG and didn't do anything about it. If you've baked a while, you know what happy dough feels like. And you probably have a pretty good idea of what to do if it doesn't feel right.

One recipe in particular warned the reader to ABSOLUTELY not change the amount of flour or water in the recipe. And I listened to the recipe instead of my instincts. The dough was WRONG. It felt ... I can't even tell you what was wrong, it was just wrong. And if I'd added some bread flour, it would have been OK. But.. the recipe said, "don't even thing about changing the amount of flour or water!" so I didn't. And lost a batch of bread.

Flours are different, so what is the right amount of flour and water with one flour is not the same amount to use with another flour. Even if both flours seem to be similar - both of them being white bread flour, for instance, they might not work the same.

When we are beginners, fairly strict adherence to a recipe is probably a good thing. But, a major goal in learning how to bake is to learn how dough should feel, so you can make the bread you want to make. So... train yourself. Feel the dough. Learn that when the dough feels like this, the bread turns out like that. Your hands and your heart will remember. And then listen to them when they tell you that you need to add more flour or water!

October 18, 2005 - A chapter ends, a new chapter begins - Last Saturday, the 15th, was the last Gunnison Farmers Market for the season. Between baking and selling bread for the market and acting as the market director, it was a lot of work. Satisfying, but a lot of work.

My market day would start on Friday at about 6:00 AM, and I'd start getting ready for my bake day. I'd do whatever prep work needed to be done, feed starters, start poolish, mix autolyse and so on. Then, I'd move the things to the bakery, and about 6:00 PM, I'd start mixing and baking. That went on all night long. With luck, all the bread - between 120 and 150 loaves - would be finished, cooled, and wrapped by 8:00 AM. My wife, Beth, helped me mix, and then helped me wrap and label the breads.

At 8:00 AM on Saturday, we'd setup our booth at the market, and about 9:00 the fun would begin. And it was fun. People streamed in to see what breads we had that week.

I have learned a few things about farmers market and selling at farmers markets. I'll share them with you.

1. It doesn't matter when the market starts, some people will be ready to buy before then.

2. It doesn't matter when the market ends, the last hour will be so quiet you wonder why you're still there.

3. It doesn't matter when the market ends, the last 10 minutes will be hectic as people make last minute purchases.

4. It doesn't matter when the market ends, people will want to keep shopping for another 1/2 hour while you are trying to take down your booth and count your money.

5. You can't sell the same thing week after week, you need to change your selection or people will just walk away.

6. There's a person every market day who makes you want to try out your cutlery - on their throat.

7. But there are far more people who make a 36+ hour day worthwhile, and we're not just talking money here.

If you get a chance to be a part of a farmers market, take it. It really is a lot of fun!

Oh, the new chapter? Well, a number of people asked about how they could get our breads after the end of the market, so we are starting a bread club. Kinda like a book club, only you get bread.

May 21, 2005 - The new mailing list (see the April 15th entry, below) is growing nicely. And it's attracting nice people who are helpful, considerate bakers. What a nice thing it is turning into!

Again and again I've been getting questions along the lines of, "Why isn't my bread sour? So, I've added a page discussing sour, what it is, whether (and when) it's desirable, and how to get it and avoid it.

April 18, 2005 - Rude people - There are times when I just can't take it any more. What, you might ask? Rudeness in mailing lists and news groups. I've been toying with the idea of starting a new bread oriented mailing list for a while, and the last week or so convinced me it was time.

So, today I did it. The new mailing list is called "Bakingfun" and it's open to all bakers from raw beginner to seasoned pro. Whether they are making bread by hand or in an automatic bread machine. Whether they are using baking soda, yeast, pre-ferments or sourdough to raise their bread. Whether they are making wheat, rye, or other breads. While our main focus is bread, it's open to all baking. Even your Thanksgiving turkey.

What it's not open to is rudeness. People who behave rudely will be chastised - in the mailing list. Repeat offenders will be dropped from the mailing list and banned. Life is just too short to put up with arrogant posturing bozos. Ahhh.... I feel better now!

Oh, you want to know how to sign up? Just surf over to the sign-up page at otherwhen.com. Otherwhen.com is the main address for our Internet server. I hope you enjoy the new mailing list.

April 4, 2005 - Well, as has been mentioned elsewhere, the bakery has been shut down. I'm working on finding other, paying, work, and cleaning up this web site. I've learned a LOT about bread and baking in the past year, and much of it will find its way into these pages.

Also, due to Lynne Truss and her wonderful book, "Eats, shoots and leaves" I am trying to clean up the grammar in much of this web site. It's not that I was, or am, especially bad in my use of the language, it's just that I could, and should, be better. If you spot grammatical problems, please drop me a note and let me know.

In cleaning up the web site, I made a sad discovery. One of my favorite food sites, The Outlaw Cook, has been changed. I stole their recipe for a grilled cheese sandwich, because it such a clear description of what a simple grilled cheese sandwich should be. Since I started using their recipe, grilled cheese sandwiches have become one of the most requested lunch foods around here. Sadly, they re-did their web site. The grilled cheese sandwich recipe, with the lovely stories about the no-name diner, are no longer there.

The old site was simple and easy to navigate, with lots of good information. It was a site that was rich in content and that web design guru Gerry McGovern would probably have liked. Now, that's all changed. The easy navigation has been replaced by what Vincent Flanders of "Web Pages That Suck" would call "mystery meat navigation," that is, it's not clear where the links on the page are until you pass over them with a mouse, and then it's not clear where the links will take you. I suspect the new interface would be especially hard on the unsighted and their adaptive hardware and software. It's not progress.

I really miss the old site. (And let's not talk about the several months of "This site is under construction" between the time they pulled the plug on the old site and brought up the new one. A marketing disaster. *sigh* What were they thinking?)