Mar 172013

Whole-wheat buttermilk loaf and rolls

Whole-wheat bread gets a bad rap. And that’s too bad, really, because it doesn’t (necessarily) deserve it. Especially when you consider that there are scads of bad white bread out there, but for some reason, those loaves haven’t painted all of white-bread-dom with the mark of evilness.

Is it just because bad whole-wheat bread tends to be heavy and dense? Don’t get me wrong: I’ve made several of those bricks, erm, loaves myself, but the flavor of the bread was still quite good.

I started to understand better when I took a bread class that had us making six or so different kinds of bread. One was the requisite whole-wheat loaf, and when I bit into it, I suddenly understood why some people hated whole-wheat bread: the loaf that had been made from that recipe was awful: the bread was not only dense, but was also bitter and completely unpalatable. I wish I could tell you what had gone wrong so that you could avoid those things, but I threw that recipe away, ne’er to look upon it again.

Whole-wheat buttermilk rolls set up to proof

So I’m here to tell you that if that has been your experience in whole-wheat bread-making, then I am here to rescue you. This recipe makes a loaf that is tender and almost feather-light. Its flavor is sweet yet pleasantly tangy and goes well in almost any application, be it shaped into sandwich loaves, toasted, or made into burger-buns or kaiser rolls. It’s really become my go-to recipe because though there are a handful of whole-grain bread recipes that I like as much or more (like this one or that one), this one is the most reliable and the easiest to make.

So give this recipe a chance, won’t you? I think you’ll find — like everyone I’ve introduced this bread to — that it’s a game-changer.

Whole-wheat buttermilk loaf

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Nov 012009

Right now I’ve got bagels for the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge retarding in the fridge, but I decided that I’m kinda overdosing on all that white flour and it’s high time that I posted a whole-grain bread. This particular bread is one of my favorites for its challenges, its fun, and its textures and I can’t believe that it’s taken me more than two years to get around to sharing it.

Wonderfully textured and flavored bulgar wheat bread
Nikon D50

First, its challenges: this bread contains a lot of chewy, delicious bulgar wheat berries. However, all those grains can really get in the way with the formation of long gluten strands. As a result, I don’t usually achieve the humongous rise that my basic whole wheat and oatmeal loaves have spoiled me with, but really, it’s ok – the flavor more than makes up fr it! Also, this dough is very soft and slippery (more on that later), which means that if you start daydreaming while you’re supposed to be focusing on push, fold, rotate, push, fold, rotate, then it could end up shooting across the room. Now, the last challenge: occasionally the dough will tear, freeing an avalanche of bulgar across the kneading board. Not to worry, you’ll learn soon enough how to poke the grains back into the dough, conceal the tear with a couple of folds, and keep kneading like a pro. Crisis managed!

Wonderfully textured and flavored bulgar wheat bread
Nikon D50

Secondly, this dough is a lot of fun. This was my first truly enriched bread and it uses a novel way to incorporate the butter into the dough: you smear it across the board and let the dough soak it up as you knead! It’s pretty ingenious, and if it wasn’t for the bulgar dotting the surface of the dough it would be the poster child for satiny and supple. It also makes the dough very soft, so if you’re looking for the culprit causing the above challenges, look no further.

Thirdly, the texture of this bread is just out of this world. In addition to the butter doing marvelous things to the taste and texture, the buttermilk acts as a dough conditioner, making it even lighter, more complex, and more delicate tasting. Throughout baking, the bulgar keeps its toothy texture and it even makes me want to nibble at the bread little by little, picking out the grains so I can eat them separately. If you can tear yourself away from eating it plain, it’s pretty devastating on a sandwich piled high with some home-roasted chicken and some fresh produce.

So if you’re in the mood for a whole-grain bread that is still wholesome and delicious but puts a new spin on the old formula, try this recipe on for size. It’s well worth the effort!

Warning: do not toast and butter - you will consume the whole loaf that way!
Nikon D50

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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.

Feb 112008

Tonight was Cooking Binge Night (bread, muffins, sandwich meat, chicken cacciatore, minestrone soup, oatmeal…). I’m going to be starting a very unpleasant work week tomorrow night and will have zero time for cooking so I had to get it all done tonight.
Last night I was supposed to start a batch of bread and let it do its twenty-four hour thang. But sleepier heads prevailed and I went to bed without so much as pulling the yeast out of the fridge.

Y’know, it must be a pretty sweet life to be yeast. Just think about it: you’re born, you go to sleep, then you get woken up with huge feast and you eat like crazy for a couple of hours, and then you die. Along the way, it’s not only normal and accepted to, well, burp and fart, it’s required.

Yep, those little critters have it pretty good. Don’t let anyone tell you that being a single-celled organism is dull.

But I digress.

The final loaf with loaf pans in foreground and mixer in rear
Nikon D50

So I finally got around to starting the bread tonight. I had forgotten to put oatmeal or any other grain on so that was right out and needed to find a recipe to make. I was tempted by my herbs de provence loaf but realized that the only blend I had on hand was the one with anise. Yuck. So I took a page from L’Aroma and settled on a rosemary loaf.

As I was kneading and shaping (and waiting) I was thinking about how I would post this (I know, I’m such a nerd). I was originally going to post it as a variation on the herbs de provence loaf, but….

See, the loaves came out of the oven, and they were exceptional. They rose impossibly high – so high that the bread was so light that I had to slice very carefully so I didn’t smoosh it. And the flavor – I can’t believe it, it’s so delicious. The wheat brings out the best in the rosemary – even though I used a very heavy hand with the herb the flavor is well-rounded, delicate, and almost sweet. I never thought I’d say it, but I think my version is way better than L’Aroma’s Pan Marino. Theirs is a white bread with sea salt sprinkled on top and I really think the rosemary needs something more than refined flour. Rosemary is a fantastic herb, but really, it’s not that good on it own. It needs something to support its flavors. I’ve known that for a while, but I never would have guessed that whole-wheat would be the perfect complement.

A little slice of heaven
Nikon D50

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Nov 012007

Imagine 100% whole grain bread bought from the grocery store: bland, bitter, gross.
Now, I’d like you to completely forget that.

Instead, I’d like you to imagine a bread that’s fluffy, tender, mellow, rich, and complex.
That bread is also 100% whole grain. The difference? It’s been made by hand with a secret ingredient — cooked oatmeal. This bread is outstanding for all purposes but makes a singularly spectacular sandwich — especially when paired with homemade roasted chicken, red leaf lettuce, and tomatoes.

As I write this, there are a couple of loaves rising in the kitchen. I practically start to salivate when I think about the utter sensory bliss that this bread will bring about. I often wonder why I bother making any other recipes at all — this one is that good. It’s even better when you use fancy leftover oatmeal that’s been cooked with cinnamon and buttermilk – the cinnamon complements the bread in a savory way somehow and manages to not remind you at all of sweet cinnamon raisin bread, and the buttermilk conditions the dough to give it a special tenderness. It’s just utterly fabulous and unique – you won’t find anything like it in a bakery!

I first got trapped in this recipe’s tractor beam one day while flipping through my favorite baking book, Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book. Here’s what the author has to say about this particular bread:

“When … made with rolled oats, the bread is light and bright; it has a rich creamy flavor — very subtle, but with great warmth… You get bread good for toast, good for any kind of sandwich. We consider this one of the best basic breads for everyday eating.”

Hear, hear! They speak the truth — this bread performs as advertised! Let me know if you need convincing… you may just end up with a loaf or two on your hands.

Take a bite out of this wonderful loaf
Nikon D50

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Jul 052007

Whole-wheat bread with herbes de provence

Since I’ve discovered all of the wonderfully yummy things you can do with bread, making plain ol’ whole wheat just seems so… blasé. You can add herbs or bulgar wheat or seeds or oats or hundreds of other things. So when I got back from my honeymoon I wanted to make something delicious, but since I was tired I didn’t want it to be too taxing. I was looking for the ease that comes with familiarity with a recipe.

I first gravitated towards an herb bread I’ve made before. That particular recipe is labeled as a good soup bread because it will rise and bake and give you a wonderfully high-rising loaf in about the time it takes to make a pot of soup, but there was so much yeast in it (how else could you get such eye-pleasing results that quickly without it?) that it was very sour and not very yummy.

So, I’ll admit it — I took the basic whole wheat bread I’ve posted here and just added herbs to it. There is something special about it though — this bread is the first I’d used the long-rise methods with. I was simply amazed with the results! Allow me to extoll the virtues of long-fermented bread once again:

Whole-wheat bread dough with herbes de provence

The dough was a joy to work with. It was soft, supple, contained plenty of air to press out during deflating, rounding, and shaping, and shaped more easily than any loaf I’ve ever formed. It also filled out the loaf pan completely — all the way to the corners — something no yeast dough of mine has done before.

In short, this loaf defied my already raised expectations. I had looked forward to a loaf with superior flavor but stiff dough and a lackluster rise. Instead, I feel like I’m eating bread like it is supposed to be now — light, airy, wholesome, with great texture, flavor, and shape. Consider me a long dough convert! (A note: my bread-baking methods have improved considerably since this picture was taken — I now achieve oven spring with each loaf. Next time I bake it I’ll post a new picture of the impossibly high-risen loaf.)

Whole-wheat bread with herbes de provence

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Jun 282007

Bread-baking has become a bit of an obsession of mine. As I mentioned in my writeup for The Herbed Bird, I started doing it around Thanksgiving when I got really, really tired of store-bought bread and realized that I could probably do a much better job myself.

Well, I turned out to be right. Since I had never kneaded before and didn’t have anyone to show me how to do it, it took me a couple of months to really figure out what the heck I was doing. My first couple of loaves were, well, bricks, but they were much better tasting bricks than the stuff you buy from the grocery store! I probably wasn’t doing myself any favors by skipping the refined flour either — ask just about anyone who bakes bread and they’ll tell you that whole wheat bread is much more difficult to make. I didn’t care — I was going to make delicious whole wheat bread and that was final.

I did see many improvements in my bread over time, as my mom came to visit and showed me how to knead, as I read more on the subject, and finally, as I bought the cookbook that taught me just about everything that matters about whole-grain bread baking, Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book. The acquisition of my Kitchen Aid stand mixer might have something to do with it too. Once all that came together, I started making what I would consider very good bread.

Basic whole-wheat bread

About a month ago though, I started making what I would call outstanding bread. I credit this entirely to the low temperatures long-rise method outlined in the book mentioned above. By letting the dough ferment for 24 hours instead of the usual 3, you get incredibly light dough whose flavors have developed marvelously without any of that sour taste that is so often found in bread. Let me assure you that you do not need to stuff two teaspoons of yeast into your dough to get your loaf to rise! I also find it much easier to fit this rising-deflating pattern into my daily life. I can make bread any day of the week with this method because I do not need to block off six hours to attend to dough that must be deflated every hour or so. Another bonus: for reasons that I can’t explain, the loaf is more nutritious and keeps longer than its rushed cousin.

So what are you waiting for??? Go make this loaf! I find it’s perfect for anything from sandwiches to toast to eating with soup to dipping in olive oil. You (and anyone you bestow this magnificent loaf upon) can thank me later.

Basic whole-wheat bread

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