Dec 042009

Flour. Water. Yeast. Salt. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? In fact, when you’re talking bread, it doesn’t get any simpler (unless you’re in Tuscany, of course).

A couple of slices from the second homey loaf with great shiny holes, drizzled with a bit of olive oil!
Nikon D50

But ingredient lists can be deceiving.
So it was with not fear, but a healthy dose of respect that I approached my seventh Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge bread: ciabatta. This is one of the wettest doughs out there – it has to be because that’s where the beautiful, big shiny holes come from. I know from experience that working with a rustic dough like this is a challenge. I’m not saying it isn’t fun – sticky, wet, messy fun – but it takes a certain amount of patience and an understanding of what you’re getting yourself into. Even then, I’d never worked with a dough quite this wet. I came in with high hopes yet a full understanding that I probably wouldn’t end up with cookbook-worthy holes the first time I tangoed with ciabatta.

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Nov 302009

A couple of years ago, several great friends from college came to visit me in Alaska. Back in those days I was always cooking for myself, so whenever I had guests I tended to go a little overboard because I was so excited to a) feed mouths other than my own and b) eat with friends. One of the meals I remember best from their visit was the morning we decided to make French toast. At the time I lived across the street from L’Aroma bakery so Jeremy and I wandered across the street while the other three folks were still asleep. The bakery had challah (pronounced ‘hallah’) that day and as we ordered the loaf one of the other employees ran across the store, raised the roof, and yelled “CHALLAH!”
Ahh, L’Aroma. You just don’t find quality people like that everywhere.

A beautiful golden brown double-decker braid!
Nikon D50

So when all my Thanksgiving baking was done (and really, it was pretty epic), it came time for our sixth bread in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge and I was pretty excited. Not only could I make this awesome bread myself, but I could also recreate that scene in my own kitchen without humiliating myself in front of several dozen strangers at the local bakery in Tucson. I was also excited to find out that this bread is nowhere near as bad for you as I thought. I had imagined challah to be a very close cousin of brioche, but in reality this bread uses only about an eighth of the fat (and that fat is vegetable oil instead of butter) and fewer eggs. So what’s not to love?

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Nov 122009

Continuing in the vein of brioche variations , today’s Bread Baker’s Apprentice bread is casiatello, a sort of savory Italian brioche with meat and cheese stuffed inside.

I’m not gonna lie: I’m kinda overdosing on all of these ridiculously rich white breads. I’m a whole-grain kind of girl and doing these white breads is certainly fun, but it’s not how I like to regularly cook and eat. Add on to that the fact that I’m not a big meat-eater (especially processed meats – I never eat them!), and it’s no surprise that I came into this bread a little under-enthused. Regardless, I decided to just go ahead and do it and get it out of the way because baby, challah and ciabatta are next! Think of casiatello as an investment. I’m sure there are those of you out there who are less Type A and are like “Uhm, Stacey, why don’t you just skip this one if you don’t wanna do it?” Because that’s not how we do it in the BBAC! It’s every bread in the book, in order! Those are the rules and even though there’s no one enforcing them it would really chafe me to break them. I come from a long line of anal retentive people so you can imagine my horror when my Mom told me she’s going to go out of order and she suggested I do the same. I may have to turn her in to the Bread Police.

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Nov 082009

This week the Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge brings us a concoction that I had really been looking forward to trying out. Brioche has a decadent reputation: it’s known as the butteriest of breads, more similar to pastry than even, say, challah. Be it due to its reputation or its availability, to the best of my knowledge, this bread had never passed my lips.

The book offers three variations: the rich man’s (in which the butter is a whopping 87 percent of the flour’s weight), a poor man’s (the butter is a scant 25% of the flour), and the middle class brioche (where the butter only matches half of the flour’s weight). Having heard about the utter decadence of the rich man’s version – and knowing/fearing my self-control around freshly baked bread – I opted not to go that route. That said, I still wanted a real brioche experience, so treating this as a special occasion, I settled on the middle class bread. Plus, I figured, since I made this on my birthday, if I happened to over-indulge I could just skip dessert after dinner. Awfully fitting, since Marie Antoinette is rumored to have actually said “Let them eat brioche” instead of “let them eat (birthday) cake!” I’d rather have bread than cake any day anyway.

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Nov 022009

Why do seagulls fly by the sea?

‘Cause if they flew by the bay they’d be bagels!


Ok, so it’s not funny, but it’s a fitting introduction to this week’s bread in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge. When I was younger, I was a huge bagel fanatic: I got introduced to good ones at the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery when I was a teenager living in Yorktown, Virginia, and once I discovered them I ate them all the time: for breakfast, for snacks after swim practice and during meets, and most especially as the outer layer of sandwiches. One of my most potent high school cafeteria memories is the day I brought a green bagel in my lunch on St Paddy’s day – that got quite the reaction, and I think someone even wrote about that event in my yearbook.

Plain bagels, boiled and awaiting their turn in the oven
Nikon D50

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and when I was fifteen we left Virginia for the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t take easily to the uprooting, and one of the items on the list of why Vancouver/Portland Was Far Inferior To The East Coast was the lack of good bagels (I’ve since done a 180 in my opinion of the Pacific Northwest, but I still maintain that the bagels were inferior). So, really, it’s been about 12 years since I’ve been all “yay bagels!” so I wasn’t super excited to try them out this week. But I’m committed to the cause, so I rolled up some sleeves, bought some malt powder, and looked at this as an opportunity to try something that I wouldn’t have made otherwise.

Cinnamon sugar bagels and black sesame and sea salt bagels, boiled and awaiting their turn in the oven
Nikon D50

The recipe was very straightforward: sponge, final dough, resting, shaping, retarding, boiling, baking. There is no critically-timed rise, no fingers to poke into fermenting dough, and perhaps best of all, this bread won’t tie you to your kitchen all day! So I got started in the late afternoon, not really thinking about how I needed to cook dinner too (oops) and as a result, I don’t have any pictures of the first day: nothing of the sponge that I got really attached too, no evidence of the stiff but amazingly smooth and supple dough, not a shred of evidence of the cute little rolls, and nada of me shaping the bagels themselves. And, thankfully, nothing to show of my near temper-tantrums as I attempted to wrap the baking pans in plastic so I could refrigerate them. Me and plastic wrap, we’re not such good friends. I suspect that it knows about my tree-hugger tendencies.

Cinnamon sugar bagels, baked and ready to eat!
Nikon D50

So this morning, I set a stockpot to boil, readied some toppings, and finished up my first batch of bagels. I decided on four plain (really a tragic misnomer, for they were quite delicious!), four sea salt and black sesame seed, and four cinnamon sugar. Aside from their refusal to brown, I’m quite pleased with the result: they’re chewy the way I remember from the CBB (and now I know why the later bagels I tried were inferior: they weren’t boiled!), flavorful thanks to the sponge and malt powder, and fairly tender and open on the inside. Now I’m looking for a New Yorker to test them out on, to see how they compare to those epic bagels, since in my infinite wisdom, I tried to eat healthily during my 36 hours in NYC two months ago and opted for a low-fat buckwheat veggie quiche instead of more stereotypical fare.

Misnomered plain bagels with the other two varieties behind, baked and ready to eat!
Nikon D50

Will I make these again? Probably, especially since there are so many ways that you can dress these up. Aside from the marathon kneading (like I said, this dough was really, really stiff – so stiff it broke my paddle attachment – not the solid metal one, but a third-party scraper paddle that I loved), this recipe was really quite simple and would be great for a brunch party, since all you have to do the day of is boil and bake. Who knows – I might even make some green ones!

Simple black sesame seed and sea salt: delicious!
Nikon D50

See also: Heather’s bagels.
Next up: Let them eat brioche!

Oct 262009

Today’s post from the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge brings you Artos, a Greek celebration bread. The book includes three versions – the standard bread, a Christmas bread, and an Easter bread. They all use the same basic enriched dough recipe that is flavored with spices, zests, and extracts, but the holiday-specific breads include fruit and nut embellishments that are specific to the season. The Easter bread even features red-dyed eggs atop the loaves.

Even though the rough goal of this group is to do one bread a week, when I realized that I don’t have to work today and that I probably have a lot of trips coming up that will preclude any bread baking at all, I decided to go ahead and press on to bread #2, even though I just baked anadama bread yesterday. The loaf offers you the choice to either use a sourdough starter or a poolish. I do indeed have a cute little seed culture named Zeke that will one day be a starter (stay tuned for that!) and if I had waited to bake until this weekend he could have been used, but since I was feeling antsy I had to go the poolish route. Poolishes are really simple – the hardest part was scaling the 23-ounce formula down to 7 ounces. This is one of the things that I really like about using starters – they offer such a huge flavor payout for what is essentially zero extra work. All they require is a bit of planning ahead and then you let the enzymes and the yeast do all the hard work making your bread delicious!

The bubbly poolish
Nikon D50

So an hour before mixing the dough, I pulled the poolish that I made last night out of the fridge and mis en placed (no, it’s not a verb, but I like to wordsmith) everything and began. I’ve been baking so much these last couple of days that I actually ran out of bread flour, so I threw in a couple of teaspoons of wheat gluten and rounded out the flour’s weight requirement with all-purpose. Disaster averted. But, alas, here’s when things began to get… sticky.

I am normally a pretty tolerant and patient baker, but as I was kneading this dough (or, more accurately, smearing it across the countertop) I kept thinking that a more accurate name would be Greek Frustration Bread. One of the reasons I start out my knead in a machine is so that I don’t end up adding too much flour to try to make up for the stickiness of a freshly-mixed dough, but as I watched the dough resolutely refuse to form into a ball and instead just creep up the hook every ten seconds, it became clear that I was going to need to add more. So I added a little, then a little more, and then before long I was adding amounts of flour that I’ve never had to add to a dough before. The stand mixer was doing such a miserable job of kneading that I honestly thought the dough would be ready faster if I threw the hook across the room, so I took it out and started kneading by hand with a lot of flour, my bench scraper, and a temper that was barely kept in check. I was pretty furious with myself for skipping the autolyse, but it’s pretty clear to me now that even if I had waited 20 minutes after mixing to start kneading, I still would have had to battle sticky, sticky dough.

Sticky, sticky mess, under a blanket of flour
Nikon D50

After kneading for about ten minutes (and adding even more flour), the dough still stuck to my hand when I picked it up and inverted my hand – no gripping involved! This was just the sticky mass of goo resisting the force of gravity – that’s how sticky it was!. Oh, Internet, I tried to get pictures of that for you, but it didn’t work out this time. Before you complain, next time you’re up to your elbows I’d like to see you get this shot without assistance! But I digress.

After adding my entire supply of sprinkling flour (I keep one of those Parmesan/crushed red pepper shakers you see in restaurants filled with bread flour for sprinkling the stuff on the counter – makes it so much easier!) the dough finally became merely tacky instead of sticky, meaning that when I pressed my hand on the dough and lifted it off, the dough would very briefly stick but my would hand came away clean. At this point it passed the windowpane test, so an hour and ten minutes after I initially mixed the dough, I declared victory and squirreled away the dough to ferment.

The dough finally passes the windowpane test
Nikon D50
Finally, tacky (not sticky!), smooth, supple, and elastic!
Nikon D50

Keeping in mind yesterday’s over-ferment, I checked the dough often, but it went the full 90 minutes suggested in the recipe before testing done. The dough was so tacky, however, that it was difficult to test for doneness – if you poked even a wet finger in there, it stuck to your finger when you pulled it out. Now for shaping. The loaf looked huge – and almost every blogger out there commented on its enormous size – so, keeping storage in mind, I decided to divide the dough into two equally-sized boules. The dough shaped beautifully, the top never tearing now matter how tightly I stretched the gluten, and, again, was fully proofed at the end of the recommended time. The dough, covered only in damp kitchen towels, already smelled intoxicating, so I couldn’t wait to find out what it smelled like as it baked.

Proofed boules, about to go in the oven!
Nikon D50

Sure enough, before long, a delicious aroma wafted through the house. It reminded me not so much of bread as it did of Danish pastries, which surprised me not at all because of the common flavors within: nutmeg, lemon (zest in the bread, extract in the pastries), and almond extract. Not that I minded: on the contrary, since Danish pastries are one of my all-time favorite foods, both for taste and for sentimentality’s sake. Because of this delicious smell, I had a very hard time not cutting into them right away, and was able to wait less than two hours before I had to put some of it in my mouth!

Freshly baked, golden brown, and smelling like a million bucks
Nikon D50

The loaves browned beautifully. I opted not to put a glaze on them, wanting to taste the flavors of the dough alone, and looking back, I’m glad that I didn’t make one of the fancier variations. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! The bread is unquestionably delicious, perfect as a dessert or, toasted, as a treat with coffee. It would also be devastating as French toast! I’ll definitely be making this bread again. Just, y’know, with more flour next time.
See also: Heather’s Artos.
Next up: I tackle New York City-style bagels head-on!

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.

Oct 242009

If you’re a bread baker, you know that there are reams upon reams of bread books at any given bookstore. The question will inevitably arise: which one is your desert island bread book? Which book can catapult your bread baking up to the next level without having to spend hundreds on classes? Which book is the definitive bread book for serious home bakers?
For many, many bakers, the answer is The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. My mother-in-law gave me the book some time ago, and I had opened it often, ogling and drooling over the bread porn, but as of yet, I still haven’t made anything from it. I know, travesty!
So, thanks to a fabulous idea from Nicole of Pinch My Salt, I am going to take the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge! I’ll make every recipe in that venerable tome in order and, of course, will document it here! I’ve also recruited my mom Trisha and my Alaskan friend Heather, both formidable bread bakers, serious foodies, and super fun folks all-around.
If you’d like to join our small band of yeast enthusiasts, go buy a copy of the book, read the first hundred pages on deconstructing bread, and then roll up your sleeves and dive right in with anadama bread!

About to take the plunge
Nikon D50
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