“Do not make new dishes for guests.”
I read that advice somewhere, but I’ve ignored it many times. I’ve lost count of how many times I tried new recipes for dinner guests or took a new dish to a party. Plus, I’ve been on a roll lately, turning out one new successful dish after another. By last weekend, I had begun to think I was invincible.
Having learned a little about yeast dough in the last few weeks, I started the process two days ahead. Thursday night, I mixed and kneaded the dough and set it in the fridge to rise overnight. Friday night, I kneaded the dough again (Jonah and I had fun “spanking” the dough, which I told him had been naughty), rolled it out into a rectangle, and added the filling of butter, brown sugar, and pumpkin pie spice (which I made myself by combining 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice, and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg). Then I rolled up the dough, placed it in a loaf pan, and put it in the refrigerator to rise again overnight. All I would have to do Saturday morning was bake the loaf.
And that’s where I ran into trouble.
It should have gone smoothly. I followed some tips from my Joy of Cooking for adding steam to the oven for the first 15 minutes of baking by spritzing water into the oven with a water bottle. That went well, and was fun. But the recipe said to bake the loaf for 25 minutes, and when 25 minutes had passed, I felt some doubt about the loaf being finished. I left it in for a few more minutes, but then I began to worry I would over cook it. And because I don’t have any experience baking loaves of bread, I didn’t have any instincts to rely on.
I did have this advice from Joy of Cooking: When the bread is done, it should pull away from the sides of the pan and make a hollow sound when you thump on the bottom. But to really know if it’s done, check the temperature with an instant-read thermometer.
Well, I didn’t have a food thermometer. I had been delaying the purchase of one for weeks, because I wasn’t sure what kind to get or how much to spend. But, surely, no one really needs to rely on a thermometer. Surely I could figure out from appearance, smell, and touch whether the bread was done.
After giving the bread about 5 minutes more than the called-for 25 minutes, I pulled it out of the oven. It smelled done. The crust was a nice color. The bread had pulled away from the sides of the pan. Would it pass the thump test? I slid a knife around the loaf on all sides and tried to carefully slide it out of the pan. To my horror, a giant chuck of bread stuck to the pan.
My eyes widened in horror. Not sure what to do, I thumped the rest of the loaf on the bottom, then realized I didn’t know how to interpret the sound it made. So, I shoved the rest of the loaf back into the pan and prayed it would meld to the part of the loaf still stuck inside. And maybe cook a little more while sitting in the loaf pan.
I asked myself, Should I have cooked it longer? Was 30 minutes really enough time? But I had no time to do anything about it. I was due at the breakfast in minutes. So I let the bread sit while I got ready to leave, then wrapped the pan in a cloth and drove off to my women’s breakfast.
After reaching the breakfast, I was able to let the bread sit for a few minutes because I’d arrived early to set up. Eventually, though, the time came when I had to try cutting a slice. I pulled out a knife, hoped for the best and cut in—and discovered that the entire center of the loaf was doughy and completely uncooked.
“Ooh, that’s not done,” I said … which was an understatement. Pretty on the outside, on the inside, the loaf of bread was as far from done as it could be.
“How bad is it?” said Janice, a church friend who was standing nearby. She had been drawn over by the smell of fresh bread, and now she leaned in to take a look.
“Oh, that’s really not done!” she said.
I was crestfallen.
Oddly, Janice looked as crestfallen as me. “It smells great, though,” Janice said.
She sounded disappointed. I knew Janice loved bread. So I cut off a piece from the top of the loaf, where it was cooked through. “Try it,” I said.
Janice took a bite. “Well, that part tastes really good!” she said. And she perked up a little.
I looked at the loaf. Then, quickly, I sawed off the top third of the loaf, cut it into chunks, and laid the chunks of bread on the cloth I’d brought from home.
I carried the rest of the loaf over to the trash can and dumped it in.
At the breakfast, I watched women walk by the serving table, stop to look at the bread chunks, and read the grand little sign I’d made at home before coming: “Pumpkin spice bread.”
Then, wonder of wonders, I watched almost all of it disappear.
Even so, serving those chunks as “pumpkin spice bread” was humiliating.
I learned some valuable lessons from this failure. First, I was taking a big risk baking a loaf of bread for guests when I’d never baked a loaf of bread before. Second, l didn’t leave myself enough time to make sure the bread was done before leaving the house. Third, sometimes a baker can salvage part of a loaf, but I’ve been humbled—I know I can’t count on that every time, and there’s very little to be proud of in serving ruined chunks of bread instead of a glorious full loaf.
Also, that afternoon I went to Walmart and bought an instant read thermometer.