Sunday, January 10, 2010

baking with babicka

over christmas break i got the chance to bake with my babicka. as you may recall, i made mazanec last easter, which went fairly well, but as you can imagine, there's so much you can learn by baking along side someone, particularly if they've been doing it a good half century or so. after getting over a couple rough starts (i started the session by adding salt instead of sugar to our first batch of dough, and then babicka left out the butter the second time around) we made a few batches of dough out of which we made kolacky (the little ones), kolach (like kolacky, but a big sheet, sort of like a pizza), and poppy strudel.

some highlights and observations from my crash course:

-this lady is old-school: she uses actual spoons for measuring. like, the one you stir tea with is the teaspoon.

-babicka kneads one-handed, with her left (non-dominant) hand! this is because she has pretty bad arthritis in her right hand from squeezing a pastry bag for 30 years (she was a cake decorator). however, not only can she knead bread much more quickly and efficiently than i can, she also does it without her hands getting sticky. clearly i am a novice bread kneader, but i'm just saying: the dough is always all over my hands til i develop enough gluten for it to reincorporate into the the dough ball. she just kind of pushes the dough a few times and it's done.

-i learned how hot the water should be to wake up the yeast (the other tricky part of yeast doughs). every time she heated it up and determined it was the right temperature i made sure to stick my finger in. so now i have a better idea of what temperature it should be, though i think babicka has a perfect pitch type of sense of what temperature it should be (and i'm definitely not there yet).

-babicka makes all the bread-related products in her house. once a month she makes rolls and freezes them. she also makes rye bread as often as they need it (it is such delicious bread! it's half wheat, half rye, i believe, and it's got an almost crumbly texture. i love that stuff).

it was fun to get a behind-the-scenes look at babi's baking. she's always critiquing what exactly went wrong with whatever delicious pastry we happen to be eating at the moment (which i say with great affection. i am the exact same way: must be a genetic defect!). but the analysis is happening during the baking as well (of course!). she mentioned while we were rolling out the kolacky dough that they would probably puff up too much in the over because we didn't allow the dough to rise long enough before punching it back down (correct), and she was as fanatical about the thickness and application of the toppings/fillings as i am about properly taping or burning a screen. i guess we share the idea that if it's important enough to do it yourself, it's important enough to do right.

i also got a couple czech cookbooks from her (one czech, one slovak, to be precise). i'm going to attempt a few recipes, though that will probably require a little translation help. i'll be sure to share here when i try one.

thanks for letting me bake with you babicka!