Something surprising happened to me today, and the sad part is that it was surprising at all. In my somewhat cynical world view, I had thought customer service to be dead, or simply a policy written by corporate heads, to be followed by middle management in dealing with customer mishaps, often caused by the apathetic minimum wage drones they are supervising. And in truth, for minimum wage, how much would you care about your job? I’ve also come to expect consumers in the age of the internet, and in this economy, to care more about getting the best deal than the kind of personal, neighborly service that once earned businesses loyal customers.
Anyway, with fall around the corner, and the weather cooling off a bit, one way I like to spend my days off is baking bread. As well as being a cook, I am a self-taught bread baker – no, not with a bread machine, but with my own two hands. Admittedly I do use a KitchenAid mixer to help with some of the kneading, but that’s all. Everything else is done old-school, so once I’ve started, it’s an all day commitment.
Today, I decided to bake apricot almond bread. First thing in the morning, I made a poolish* and left it to ferment while I ran some errands, one of which included picking up dried apricots, almonds, and more flour to finish the dough. I did some banking, stopped at the local Met Foods, and Staples, then came home. When I unpacked my groceries, I realized that I didn’t have the apricots. I checked my receipt, and had indeed paid for a giant tub of them, but I couldn’t find it anywhere – not in my car, not in any of the bags… and at $9.99 a pop, it was no small loss. I immediately called the store to find out if it was still at the register with my cashier, Diane** but she didn’t have them either. So I jumped back into my car and drove back to the store, hoping maybe I had dropped them in the parking lot without noticing. I wasn’t optimistic.
As expected, the apricots were not in the parking lot, so I marched back into the store, and brought another tub of apricots to Diane’s register. She recognized me and exclaimed, “You have these, I’m sure you took them.” I explained to her that I looked everywhere for them, but that I must have left them behind. “Oh well,” I said, “I guess my good deed for the day is treating the customer behind me to a $10 tub of apricots.” To my utter surprise, she handed me the package and said “Don’t worry about it,” adding that she honestly didn’t remember if I took them or if it was in fact the customer behind me. It wasn’t even the store’s mistake. I was the one who left the item behind! I was really grateful and thanked Diane profusely before going home to finish my baking.
To understand why Diane’s generosity was so surprising, you should know about a very different experience I had at a local trainstop deli. For six months I commuted from a particular train station. And every morning I stopped in the same little deli for a single cup of coffee. It wasn’t good coffee, but it was only a dollar and packed the necessary punch. The morning clerk was friendly and gave the impression of being a manager or proprietor. He appeared to know many of the customers by name, chatted with them, and knew how they liked their coffee. On one occassion, a different clerk took my coffee order – milk, no sugar. I got on the train, looking forward to that first sip of coffee. To my dismay that sip was filled with sugar and I had to discard the whole cup. The next day, the usual clerk was back, schmoozing with the customers. When I ordered my coffee, I told him to please make sure there was no sugar in my coffee since I had to discard the one from the day before. He handed me my coffee, apologized for the day before, and took my dollar anyway. It was only a dollar, so I wasn’t going to squabble over it. After all, I have been in the service industry enough to recognize, and resent the kind of customers that complain just to get free stuff, a discount, or who return merchandise that is obviously damaged by their own actions. However, as a person in the service industry, I certainly would have comp’ed a cup of cheap deli coffee to keep a customer.
Just like everyone else, I don’t want to pay more than I have to for something, but I realized customer service still makes a big difference in my shopping experience. I can’t demand better customer service from people who just don’t care, but I can allow my choices to speak for me. I often go out of my way, to support businesses care about their customers, and take pride in their products and services. I simply don’t return to businesses that have let me down. Shame on Mr. Deli clerk. I decided that day I would not be drinking their bitter brew any longer. You can be sure that I will be a loyal customer of my local Met Foods though, and Diane will definitely get the next loaf of apricot almond bread I bake.
*A poolish, also known as a sponge, is a starter culture made of a small amount of yeast, flour, and water fermented for up to 10 hours. Using a poolish in a final dough lends complex flavor and texture to the bread. A poolish is not the same as a sourdough culture, which is fermented over several days and results in the characteristic sour bite and tang of sourdough bread.
**Persons’ real names are not used.
I love this bread with butter and a little honey alongside a hot cup of coffee. Try melting some brie cheese on a slice for a truly decadent treat. I also like to add almond flour to the final dough because I find it adds texture and results in a nice dense crumb, but if you can’t find it, it can be omitted or substituted with wheat germ.
Poolish, or Sponge:
4 oz. water (1/2 c.)
1/2 tsp. dry yeast
4 oz. 20% bran flour* (3/4c. to 1 scant c.)
20 oz. water (2-1/4 c.)
2 oz. honey, dissolved in the water
1/2 tsp. dry yeast
24-32 oz. 20% bran flour* (5-1/2 to 6-1/2 c.)
1 oz. almond flour (optional) (1/4c.)
1 Tbsp. fine sea salt
7 oz. dried apricots soaked in 2 Tbsp. of bourbon (approx. 1 pint, whole)
5 oz. roasted almonds (1 c.)
SOAK THE APRICOTS (24 hours)
Diced apricots won’t take as long to absorb the liquor, but I prefer to leave the apricots whole so that you cut through them with each slice. I find it best to even leave the fruit soaking in the fridge for a few days just to make sure they are fully reconstituted.
THE POOLISH AND 1st FERMENTATION (2-10 hours)
Measure out the ingredients for the poolish. The water should be room temperature, about 70 degrees (if you don’t have a thermometer, test by touch – the water should feel slightly cool, but not cold). In a large 6 quart bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water. Let it stand for about 5 minutes to let the yeast “wake up, ” and the mixture to foam slightly. Then incorporate the flour and stir continuously with a wooden spoon about 2-3 minutes until gluten** strands have developed. The dough will be sticky and difficult to stir. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, cover, and let the dough ferment at around 75-80 degrees F for at least 2 hours and no longer than 10 hours. I used to use either plastic wrap or a damp towel to cover the bowl, but recently have found that a silicone lid does the job perfectly. Once the poolish has doubled in size, usually around 2 or 3 hours, the final dough can be made. However, keep in mind, this first fermentation plays a primary role in developing the bread’s flavor, and the longer the poolish is allowed the ferment, the more complex the bread’s flavor will be.
THE FINAL DOUGH: MIX AND KNEAD (30 minutes)
Measure out the ingredients for the final dough. Pour the water/honey mixture into the poolish. Break up the poolish with a wooden spoon, or using clean hands by squeezing through your fingers. Start by incorporating 1 cup (approx 5 oz.) of flour and the almond flour into the dough. Then add the salt, and gradually add enough of the remaining flour until the dough forms into a thick, sticky mass that starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a floured board or work surface and knead for about 10 minutes, adding more flour as needed. Gradually knead in the almonds, then the apricots, and knead for about 5-10 minutes more so that the fruit and nuts are well distributed. When dough has been kneaded enough, it is smooth and elastic and not very sticky. You can test the dough by either pulling a small mass from it or making an impression with your finger. Either one should spring back quickly.
2ND FERMENTATION (2 to 3 hours)
Shape the dough into a ball place into a lightly greased 6 qt. bowl. Turn the dough to make sure it is fully coated with oil. Cover the bowl and let the dough ferment until it is doubled in volume.
REST the DOUGH (30 minutes)
If the dough has risen properly, it should be doubled in volume, and will not spring back if you poke it, as it did before. Deflate the dough and let it rest, covered for 30 minutes.
DIVIDE, SHAPE, AND PROOF (2 hours)
Deflate the dough again and turn it onto a lightly floured board or work surface. Divide the dough into two or three equal pieces, and shape into rounds or roll into torpedo shaped loaves. If you prefer, you can line bowls, baskets, or molds (couches) with flour dusted towels and place the loaves top side down to proof. I usually just shape the loaves and put them on a heavy baking sheet to proof. Either way, lightly dust the loaves with flour, cover with a damp towel, and proof until they are about 1-1/2 times the size.
BAKE (30-40 minutes)
If you are using molds or couches, transfer the loaves onto a baking sheet. Score the tops and place them in a preheated 450 degree oven. Spray the inside of the oven with some water and immediately shut the oven door to trap the steam. Repeat after 3 minutes, then bake the loaves until they begin to color, approximately 15-20 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees then continue to bake for another 15-20 minutes until the loaves are golden brown and they sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
Cool completely on a wire rack.
FREEZE WHAT YOU WON’T EAT RIGHT AWAY
I like to bake a batch of bread about once a week, but of course fresh homemade bread, free of preservatives gets stale within 3 days. For a family of four, that’s probably not a problem since the bread isn’t likely to last that long. However for my household of two, I usually divide the batch into three loaves, cool them to room temperature and freeze two of them immediately, wrapped in foil. They take a couple hours to fully defrost, and taste almost as fresh as the day I baked them. This way we can enjoy home-baked bread all week. If I want to warm the bread, I’ll throw it in the oven still wrapped in foil at about 375-400 degrees until the center is just room temp (a cake tester or meat thermometer is useful for this). Unfortunately bread that has been rewarmed this way needs to consumed immediately and will not keep until the next day. So I usually just defrost the loaf, then toast each slice as the craving hits me.
*20% bran flour is simply a mixture of 4 parts all purpose flour to 1 part whole wheat flour. Usually when I go the the grocery store, I will buy a 5 lb. bag of all purpose, and a 1 lb. bag of whole wheat. I reserve 1 lb. of all purpose for general baking and combine the rest of it with the whole wheat flour in a large container. I’m able to use all of it within two weeks, since it takes about 2-1/2 lbs. to bake one batch of bread. However, whole wheat flour contains more natural oils and will get rancid at room temperature. So if you don’t use it frequently, store it in an airtight container in the freezer and mix it into your all purpose flour as you need it.
**Gluten is the protein found in flour. Working the dough by stirring and kneading develops the strands of gluten which gives yeast doughs elasticity and structure necessary to rise, and gives yeast bread’s their chewy texture.