Andrew’s 4-part adventure will be posted over the course of this week. Read all of his Wheatstalk coverage here.
The afternoon of my third day at Wheatstalk was spent in a demo and lecture given by Jeff Yankellow (whom you may remember as my Baker’s Math instructor from day 1) and Mike Zakowski, describing their experience competing in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie this past spring. And the following day, I attended a class given by Mike, in which he baked most of the breads from the competition in an outdoor wood-fired oven.
The Coupe du Monde is a bread-baking competition that is held approximately every four years in Paris. It’s more or less the Olympics of bread baking: Teams from around the world, each one representing its home country, compete for the title of “Best Bakers in the World.”
Jeff Yankellow (left) and Mike Zakowski (right)
Jeff was a member of the US team that won a gold medal in 2005 (along with my doughnut instructor Jory Downer), and this past year he was the team’s coach while Mike competed in the Bread category (alongside Harry Peemoeller in the Artistic category and Jeremey Gadouas in the Viennoiserie category, both of whom were also teaching at Wheatstalk). Jeff described what it was like to prepare and coach the team for the competition, while Mike demonstrated the breads that he baked for it, while discussing what it was like to train for such an event.
The Coupe competition was the culmination of more than 3 years of preparation for both Jeff and Mike. In the first stage, bakers from all over the US competed in regional events to land a spot as one of the three bakers on the team. After that, each member trains just like one would for any other competitive event: planning, testing, and refining one’s “routine” repeatedly until it is ready for prime time. Over the course of the year leading up to the Coupe, Mike worked diligently to perfect his menu back home at his bakery in Sonoma, Calif. Meanwhile, every other month or so, he and his fellow team members would gather at different locations around the country to perform practice runs for the competition. (They worked like crazy to perfect their methods, and did more than a dozen dry runs overall, often back-to-back over a single weekend.)
The competition itself began at 4:50am and lasted 8 hours. During that time the bakers have to produce everything they present from scratch (save any starters, preferments, or soakers, which obviously need to be prepped ahead of time). In addition to the three individual categories, the team also must work together to make sandwiches and snacks for a “savory” bread category.
In all, Mike baked more than 200 pounds of dough into a variety of products. This being a French competition, each baker is required to produce a basic baguette (two, actually: one shaped using an automatic dough moulder, and another hand-shaped). The Coupe has very strict guidelines for what qualifies as a “classic” baguette: It has to weigh exactly 400 grams after baking, and be 30 inches long.
The bakers must also produce a traditional naturally leavened bread, though the requirements for that category were far less strict. Mike created what he called a “ryebatta,” a ciabatta-like, highly hydrated dough containing 30% rye flour along with cracked rye.
He baked the ryebatta into ring-shaped “couronnes”, and rather than scoring them, he folded a vein of rye bran into the center of the loaf, so it would split somewhat randomly along the seams.
Those two requirements fulfilled, the remaining breads Mike baked were up to him alone to devise. Since his team was there to represent the US, he looked to American-sourced products as inspiration.
He created what he called “Kracked Kamut,” a naturally leavened bread containing 20% Kamut flour and 12% freeze-dried corn, ground into flour. Both of these are American products: Corn is one of our largest agricultural crops, and Kamut—though originally from the Near East—is a close relative of wheat that is now grown exclusively in the US. (Kamut is actually a trademarked brand name for “khorosan” wheat.)
Next, he baked “Yecora Roja,” a bread named for the heirloom wheat featured in the bread, which is grown and milled in his home state of California. In addition to a large percentage of whole wheat flour, it contained toasted sunflower seeds and millet.
Finally, he featured “Pear Pequi,” another naturally leavened bread containing three other California-sourced products: pecans and mesquite flour, both of which were important food sources for Native Americans in the Southwest, along with dried California pears.
I did not get to hear much about what Jeremey baked for the Viennoiserie category, but I did get to see Harry’s recreations of his Artistic submission to the Coupe. Like Mike, he chose to highlight an American theme:
These elaborate, detailed sculptures are made almost entirely of bread or other edible materials: stiff doughs containing no yeast (also known as “dead dough”) along with food coloring and glazes. And they are decorated entirely with edible components such as seeds and grains.
The following day, we got to hear more about Mike’s experience baking in the Coupe in a day-long class entitled “Wood-Breads from Team USA”. While the recipes he presented were identical to those from the previous class, it gave us an opportunity to see his methods up close, and to grill him more about the techniques and tricks he employed.
This is the custom-made bank of color-coded timers he used to keep track of all the many recipes he had to juggle during the competition.
It folds up for compact storage, and has a magnetic latch. (It was apparently looked over very suspiciously by the Transportation Safety Administration at the airport while Mike was en route to and from Paris.)
Mike used a number of different techniques to spruce up the finished appearance of his breads, such as this laser-cut stencil that was used to apply a dusting of flour prior to baking.
As well as this wire-mesh heating grate, which he used to create a diamond lattice pattern.
And this, a simple wooden board, used to create sharp-edged flour patterns on some loaves.
He also used a trick I’d never seen before. Using a spray bottle, he applied a coat of toasted potato starch water to the still-hot breads along the cuts. When the water evaporated, it left a glossy sheen behind.
He also showed us how he shaped various breads. Both of these breads a formed by placing smaller shapes side by side. As they proof, they merge to form a larger loaf.
And how did the US team do in the Coupe this time around? They won the silver medal, which is great in and of itself. But they missed winning gold by a hair, scoring only 5 fewer points (out of a total of 600) than the gold-medal winning team from Japan.