Oct 252009

Today is the first official day of our Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge! Today Heather and I bring you Anadama bread, a traditional bread from the northeastern United States, reportedly named after a colorful epithet uttered by a jilted (and hungry) husband.

With this in mind, I decided to attempt to make my bread a little more colorful than the typical loaf. Anadama bread isn’t so different from most basic sandwich loaves: the only big difference is that it features the addition of some cornmeal. I decided late last night to start the bread and the only cornmeal I had on hand was blue (it really does make the best-ever southern cornbread!), so I decided to make do.

This bread was a first for me in two ways: it features both a soaker and a sponge. A soaker is a sneaky way of coaxing more flavor from grains: water activates enzymes in the grain, which on a molecular level start to peel away the protective coating that hides the really tasty bits that are lurking in the flour or meal. This soaker, just cornmeal and water, couldn’t be simpler, but it does need to be assembled the night before. The sponge is a quick pre-ferment, wetter than the final dough, which lets the yeast and enzymes get started doing their thing a bit ahead of time. My sponge took a little bit longer than I expected though, or maybe I was just expecting to see more bubbles than there were. Either way, when I added the rest of the flour after 70 minutes of sponge-ing, it visibly sighed and deflated. I’ll have to do some research to figure out whether I let pre-ferment for too long and if maybe that’s what caused my problems later on down the line.

The ripe sponge
Nikon D50

I was surprised by how much yeast the recipe called for. 2 teaspoons of instant yeast to 4.5 cups flour is quite a bit! It’s so much, in fact, that this is the other prime suspect in the problems I go over later. I thoroughly mixed in the remaining ingredients with the sponge, covered the bowl for 20 minutes (I’m a big fan of the autolyse), then kneaded with the stand mixer for 4 minutes before continuing with my hands. There are plenty of opinionated people on each side of the line in the debate of man vs. machine when it comes to kneading bread, but I tend to take a balanced view of it. I like to let the machine do its thing initially, but I always finish my doughs by hand. It allows the mixer to do the dirty work when the dough is really sticky and it also kneads very thoroughly and efficiently. Finishing manually allows me to feel the dough to make sure it’s not getting overworked and it lets me take advantage of the joys and benefits that kneading has always brought me.

I had to knead this dough for longer than I thought I would. The dough was pretty sticky so I had to keep adding a bit of flour to the countertop and I was never truly satisfied with the stickiness vs. tackiness. I eventually got the dough to pass the windowpane test, but I expected the dough to be much smoother. Perhaps it was just the cornmeal making it look less smooth than it really was.

Smoother than you first think
Nikon D50

The dough was incredibly soft (maybe this is normal – I’m not sure because this was my first 100% white sandwich loaf) and flattened out under its own weight when I rounded it into a ball before fermenting.

Kneaded dough, before fermenting
Nikon D50

Though the formula called for a 90 minute fermentation, I checked the rising dough at 70 minutes and it had already over-fermented – when I poked it it sighed and sank. Knowing that I was racing the clock now that it had fermented too long, I gave it a quick knead, hoping to re-distribute the nutrients to the yeast but noticing a faint boozy aroma (damn it!), hurried through dividing, gave it a minimal rest, and shaped the dough into loaves and put them in the pans covered with damp kitchen towels (the tree-hugger in me won’t let me use plastic wrap!).

The covered loaves, beginning and end of proof
Nikon D50

The formula called for a 60-90 minute proof, but I was taking no chances this time: I checked at 30 minutes, noticing the loaves had already crested the tops of the pans, but was relieved to see that the dough sprang back when I poked it. When I came back ten minutes later the loaves tested ready, so I prepared a hot kettle, spritzed the loaves, dusted them with cornmeal, slashed them (not strictly called for but with the way this stuff was rising it needed it), popped them in the oven, and poured the hot water into a pre-heated cast-iron skillet with pre-heated lava rocks in it (best method I’ve found thus far for creating good steam). The bread baked right on schedule, and in less than an hour I had freshly baked loaves on cooking racks, aroma-ing all over the place.

The loaves had excellent oven spring and grew quite a bit in the oven. The slashes opened up beautifully – so beautifully, in fact, that I was wondering why the formula didn’t call for it. Surely the forming crust would have inhibited the growth of the loaf. The thin crust stayed fairly soft and it’s possible that the top of the loaves shrank a bit as the air within cooled. The loaves were about the same size as my 100% whole-grain sandwich loaves typically are, but with only 75% of the flour.

Freshly baked, delicious anadama bread!
Nikon D50

After waiting a couple of hours, I finally got to slice into the bread! It was delicious, not boozy at all like I had feared, but I think that if it didn’t have molasses and butter in it you easily would have been able to tell that it had been over-fermented. Then again, it could be that the soaker and sponge really did their jobs in terms of flavor enhancement! This really is an ideal sandwich bread, since the crust is tender and the crumb is so soft as to be downright squishable. However, you can tell that one of the loaves proofed just a smidge too long since there are overly large air pockets in some sections and the bread is unstable. Despite the deliciousness, I don’t know if I will make it again because I really prefer my sandwich bread to be whole-grain, but it was fun this time around!

Sliced anadama bread!
Nikon D50

The next day addendum: I pulled the loaf out again today so I could take photos of the slices since the sun had already gone down by the time the loaf was cool. The taste had changed fairly dramatically: yesterday it was sweet and somewhat creamy on the palate, but today I picked up off-flavors that had developed. They were a mix between boozy and yeasty, so at last, I’m paying the price for the over-fermentation. However, I stuck those slices in the toaster and made some cinnamon toast (a treat I hadn’t had in years!) and of course the off-flavors were completely masked. I still think it’s exactly what most people think a sandwich loaf should be, but personally, I find it too sweet for sandwiches. Then again, I’ve already found my perfect-for-sandwiches loaf, and even as good as the anadama is, it’s really not fair to compare it to my oatmeal bread. So, again, delicious bread, but best for out-of-hand eating or toasting.

Mmm, toasted!
Nikon D50

See also: Heather’s Anadama bread.
Next up: Artos, Greek Celebration bread.

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