Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Troubleshooting Guide For Baking Bread

When I wrote about my bread recipe I claimed that it was THE easiest recipe for artisan bread. I stand by that claim. A lot of people have had good success with it. But for someone who has never baked before, a few more tips would have been helpful in that article.

So here is a little troubleshooting guide in case you need it.

1. What if the dough doesn't rise ?
Without properly risen dough, the bread is not going to be successful. In this recipe, the dough rises nearly 3 times. If the dough doesn't rise after 4-5 hours, it's not going to rise at all. Most likely the yeast that you used was old and dead. You can test your yeast very easily. Just dissolve some sugar in lukewarm water and sprinkle some yeast. If you don't see any foam/bubbles in 10-15 minutes, the yeast is dead and unusable. I buy dry active yeast and store it in the refrigerator. It stays alive for really long time.

If the yeast was fine, them most likely there was not enough water. Yeast needs water to activate and then thrive. See below on for tips on how to properly measure the ingredients.

2. How to measure ?
The best part of my recipe is that it doesn't demand absolute perfection in measurements and time and all the parameters that are generally part of any bread recipe. But the measurements still need to be at least approximately correct ! Not having the correct ratio of flour to water is the most common problem in bread baking. If the water is off by a teaspoon, it's probably going to be OK. But a tablespoon of water makes a big difference in the final result. So you cannot eye ball the amount of flour/water and you have to use a measuring cup.

For measuring flour, scoop it out and level it with a table knife, or just your fingers. Don't press the flour to tightly pack the measuring cup. When you need 1/2 cup of flour, use a scoop that is of size 1/2-cup. Don't use the scoop that's 1-cup size and try to guesstimate 1/2 cup by filling it only half. It doesn't work that way.

If you are using a big glass cup with markings to measure the water, then fill the cup, put it on the counter and bend down so that your eyes are at the same horizontal level of the marking. You cannot judge the water while looking from above.

Measuring ingredients if often considered a sign of lack of skill by many - especially Indian cooks. Because baking is not all that common in India. Baking is a bit of science, not just art. You don't get to make any adjustments once it's in the oven. So get over it, and measure your ingredients :-)

3. What if the bread didn't rise a lot in the oven ?
First the oven has to be pre-heated before you start baking. Secondly this recipe will NOT produce a tall loaf. This is not sandwich bread. After rising, the dough is almost batter like and will spread over the cookie sheet. The looser it is, more it will spread. The bread will still be fine, will have nice big holes in the crumb. If you want you can try reducing the water by a teaspoon the next time. But remember, this is a no-knead recipe. The dough has to have enough hydration. So err on the side of more water, not less. The dough has to be very sticky, not dry.

Even if it looks flat on the cookie sheet, you will get a nice oven spring. The bread will be about a couple of inches tall, not more.

4. How to do more tweaking ?
You should start with the measurements in the original recipe, oven temperature and make only minor adjustments. A regular oven is better, but I have successfully used toaster oven as well. In any oven, you shouldn't need temperature over 450. Underbaking is rarely a problem for beginning bakers, most end up overbaking their bread, because it takes time to develop the visual judgment. Take out the bread from oven and tap it's bottom. If you hear hollow sound, then baking is done. It shouldn't take more than 25 minutes for this recipe.

Do not try to change the water temperature till you get more experience. Just use room temperature water.

The flour is naturally the most important ingredient and will have the most impact on taste and texture. Bread flour will obviously give the best result. All-purpose flour has lower gluten content and hence will result in slightly shorter loaf, but the bread will still be good. Indian Roti flour results have been just about OK, as it’s mostly from Durum wheat more suitable for pasta. Whole Wheat flour (generally of Red Winter Wheat) gives dense bread that I really like. You can use this same recipe idea for other flours as well, for example Rye bread. My favorite variation is by mixing some blue corn flour with whole wheat flour.

5. Don't give up.
There is nothing like a fresh baked homemade bread made by using just simple ingredients. It's healthy and tasty. If you need more advice, just ask me. I am passionate about bread, and will be more than happy to help you.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Movie Review : Doubt
Director : John Patrick Shanley
Genre : Drama
Released : December 2008
Starring : Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
My Rating : 9 out of 10

I like to watch movies with as little information about them as possible. Due to the many nominations it received at Oscars and Golden Globe in 2009, I had filed "Doubt" in the long list I have for "must see it later, so don't read any more about it" :-) It shouldn't have taken so long for it to bubble up to the top of the queue. I should have watched it then, not later.

While watching, it was clear to me that this must have been based on a play. Indeed it is. Director Shanley has adapted from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play, and it's equally clear why the play won so many accolades.

The setup is deceptively simple. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the Principal of a Catholic School in Bronx during 1964. An eighth grade teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams) brings to her attention that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) had called the only black student, alone to the rectory. Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn to be engaging in an improper relationship and sets out to oust him.

On the surface, the question is of course, is Father Flynn guilty ? With what we know about that period now, we are inclined to answer yes. But is it true ? This is not a detective movie, and in real life arriving at truth without any ambiguity is rare. So if you don't like loose ends, chances are, you will be unsatisfied when the movie ends. The lingering doubts harass the characters in the story, as well as the viewers. That's how the director intends it to be, and I found it very clever.

Both Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn claim to have nothing but good intentions, and may be that's true. But their approaches and personalities are polar opposite. Sister Aloysius is as strict as you would expect a principal to be in a Catholic school circa 1964. She doesn't even approve of ballpoint pens. I remember my teachers saying that ! Students are terrified by her. Father Flynn on the other hand is very accommodating and gentle. He has a good sense of humor, and kids love him. Is this difference in personalities the real reason of the conflict ?

On a deeper level, it's also a conflict between moral righteousness versus compassion. Father Flynn believes in forgiveness, whereas Sister Aloysius believes in justice. These two different faces of every religion are often incompatible.

And on an even deeper level, this is about the very nature of truth. In life, especially about behavior of real people, truth can be very illusive. How can you be certain - without any doubt ?

This ability to appeal us viewers on many different levels is why I think this is a great movie. It wouldn't have been so nuanced without the phenomenal acting by both Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. For Meryl, this earned her yet another nomination - one of her unbelievable total of 16 till date. And as for Philip Seymour Hoffman, I think he did better than Meryl ! His internal battles are clearly visible on his face. I cannot think of a better choice to play this complex role. Amy Adams provides good support, but her role is much simpler and we have seen this type of portrayal many times before. Viola Davis gets a fraction of the screen time compared to other actors, and yet, she manages to make as big an impact as others.

Director Shanley chooses to get noticed by not trying hard to get noticed. The story matter is handled with utmost respect and sensitivity. It's an uncomfortable topic for the viewers as well as for the characters. Shanley chooses to provoke thoughts in your mind, rather than jolting you out of your seat. As the writer, he paints the characters as mostly good, but not perfect. It's hard to strongly dislike any character here, each is trying hard to do what is right according to them. But it doesn't stop you from wishing that they had made slightly better choices. It's subtle and superb writing.

I definitely have a bias for character based movies, still I think this movie will impress a very large percentage of viewers. This is one the "must see" movies.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Book Review : The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Author : Stieg Larsson
My Rating : 3 out of 5

Almost everyone in the world has read this book and it's 2 sequels. Everyone except me, till now. The books have been an enormous international best seller series, but I am rarely enthusiastic about best selling fiction. The hype is usually overdone.

As almost always is the case, a movie follows such success. And like always, once the movie is scheduled to be released, I am forced to read the book before I watch the movie. Because, as we all know, books are generally better than their movie incarnations. In this case, I can safely bet that the opposite will be true.

Why do I feel that way ? Because this book is way too long and the movie will have a good chance of doing the editor's job, that is so glaringly absent here. The author tragically died before his books were published. That may be part of the reason why the book couldn't be edited and also why these books became runaway success.

I had managed to stay away from knowing any details about the plot or the theme. Didn't read any reviews. In fact I purposefully avoided reading the back cover and the inside descriptions. I like to read a book or watch a movie without any preconceptions. In the same vein, I will keep my synopsis to a minimum for those few (if any) who haven't read the book.

The story is about a financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who has been tasked by a prominent industrialist to solve a decades old cold case of disappearance of a young girl from his extended family. He gets help from Lisbeth Salander, a social nutcase and the reason for the book's title. This book is story of that investigation and about a lot of personal details about the 2 main characters.

Larsson spends a whole lot of time establishing the characters and setting the stage. The book doesn't become a page-turner till you are nearly half-way through. I have no problem with character development, I like it. But here it's too much irrelevant details and mundane stuff that fill up the pages. The characterization felt very shallow and unrealistic. Blomkvist is an average middle aged man, and still all the women in the story - from 50+ year old to twenty something Salander - cannot stop themselves from getting into bed with him. Really ? The attitude of everyone in the book towards relationships is callously casual.

He also introduces us to an extremely large family and it was hard to keep track of all those names and their relationships to one another. He gives a picture of the family tree, but a map of the island (on which the story takes place) would have been more helpful.

The investigation is gripping, in spite of being tedious at a few places. And although the mystery is not impossible to guess, there are some surprises. That's the main part of the story, and fortunately the strongest. I wish the book was far more concentrated on it. After the investigation is over the author spends another 100 or so pages in closing a subplot that could have been left open. It's so weakly written and unbelievable, that I was just skipping over it to somehow finish the book.

As you can imagine I cannot offer a strong recommendation to read this book. But it will probably lend well to a movie depiction. We will know this December, when the Hollywood version starring Daniel Craig hits the theaters as "The Feel Bad Movie Of Christmas" ! The Swedish movie has been out for a while now.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Power of Suggestion

Found this while browsing the popular financial blog Naked Capitalism.

How do we understand what we hear and what we see ? I am always amazed by the abilities of the brain - human or otherwise. Like any programmer I compare the deterministic abilities of my own code with the seemingly indeterministic behavior of any human/animal brain, It's easy to get amazed at the speed of search and pattern recognition performed by our brains. What's truly mind-boggling (!!) is how well we handle the fuzzy, unclear and incomplete data.

This demonstration highlights that point. How a suggested frame of reference makes us see patterns that do not exist. It's kind of similar to how "preconceived notions" affect our thinking. Also similar to what is referred as "Confirmation Bias". Whatever the name might be, this demonstration is quite dramatic.

Simon Singh is a very good author. I have reviewed his books Big Bang and Fermat's Enigma. Loved them.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Long long time ago I used to be an active participant on the rec.music.indian.misc usenet group. During those times, there were often debates about who is/was the best lyricist for Hindi movie songs. There were many Gulzar fans, and were particularly impressed by his wordings in songs such as

हमने देखी है, इन आँखो कि महकती ख़ुशबू

Generally I think highly of Gulzar's poetry, but I was never particularly impressed with such phrasings. To me, they always seem very forced. Some find it confusing, others find deep meaning in them. Note that I am talking only about the refrain, the song has other marvelous lines - such as

नूर कि बून्द है, सदियों से बहा करती है !

But that's subjective. The real misconception is that Gulzar is the only expert of this style when it comes to movie lyrics. Far from it. He relies on it more than others, but examples abound in the works of other lyricist.

Here is one from महाकवी गदिमा - it will be a crime to call him a lyricist - who was both Sahir and Gulzar (and much more) for Marathi movies. Sahir is my favorite lyricist of Hindi Movies, but neither he nor Gulzar has done anything to be compared to a giant such as GaDiMa. To those unaware of Marathi literature, "गीत-रामायण" has made GaDiMa (Gajanan Digambar Madgulkar) the Valmiki of Marathi Poetry.

नसेल माहित तुला कधी ते,
रोज तुझ्या मी स्वप्नी येते,
त्या स्वप्नांच्या आठवणी
ह्या ओठां देशील का ?

It's not straight-forward to attach a simple meaning to this verse. My attempt at a very loose and literal translation (forgive me, I am NOT a poet). Feel free to do your own 'काव्य-रसग्रहण' !

You may be completely unaware,
that in your dreams, I always appear
Memories of those dreams
Would you please ...
Install on my lips ?

As amazing singer Asha Bhosle is - I think she was more than that in this song - she was just perfect. Listen to the mesmerizing short आलाप at the beginning. One of the best compositions by Baabuji - Sudhir Phadke. Very typical of his compositions, easy to hum, but not at all easy to sing.

I want to make two small observations here. Both about the other stanzas in the song.

First, the word "दिनांती" (meaning 'at the end of the day'). I am trying to remember any other song/poem with that word, but I can't. It's not that unusual a word - at least it should not be - but I cannot think of an example. If you know, please share it with me.

Secondly, and more interestingly the words "एकांती" and जवळी are repeated (their two occurrences are adjacent) in the song.  I do not know of any other songs that has such a feature. It's not just that they are repeated - first occurrence ends a phrase and second begins the next phrase. It's pretty smart.  Especially the line

मी येतां पण सलज्ज जवळी, जवळी घेशिल का ?

Sudhir Phadke is known for his pains-taking attention to poetic details. His tunes fit even the ह्रस्व-दीर्घ (short and long) pronunciations of the vowels ! So it's not Babuji taking liberties with the lyrics to fit to a tune. It's GaDiMa's deliberate word play.

The song is from the famous 1952 movie लाखाची गोष्ट by Raja Paranjape.

Previously ... GaDiMa-1
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