Thursday, March 26, 2015

Bread Number 72 - Perfect Crust and 2/3 to 108

Probably my best crust ever and a wonderful bread. I feel like I've made this before, but not a completely no-knead 40 percent whole wheat. Here's my post-Passover quest (one of a few): returning to higher percentages, perhaps even completely, whole grain breads.

I've been seduced by white flour, to be sure. Who would not be? That color in the bread, that spectacular oven spring, those crusts. It's addictive in its own way. 

Plus, when one buys a whole grain flour from a grocery shelf - even at Whole Foods or a food coop - who knows how long that flour has sat in its bag each step of the way or how long it has remained in that same spot on the shelf before one buys it. I keep the whole grain flours in my freezer, but I wonder whether I am getting anywhere near the taste and freshness I should if it has spent days, or, more likely, weeks, at room temperature before I use it in a dough. This is another post-spring cleaning and post-Passover quest, to do a little investigation of how long these flours take from grinding to sale.

(If I declare these quests out loud here, then I feel a bit more confident that I will actually follow through. Yes, and also pushing off until after Passover visiting the local bakeries on my short list. Add to that the updating of my bread spreadsheet, which actually is a big aid in keeping track of what happened with each bread and which ones I want to repeat.)

Adapted=more hydration
Because I wanted to use a significant amount of whole wheat flour, I added additional water to the dough. The original recipe, I believe, was only 350 grams of water, but that was for an entirely white flour bread. The whole wheat flour is more thirsty. So 76 percent hydration instead of 70 percent. 

The recipe is an adaptation of J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's recipe on Serious Eats, for which he is the managing culinary director, a job I could never hold, for too many reasons to list.  

380g water
20g starter
300g bread flour
200g whole wheat flour
9.5g salt

Day one
Late afternoon, mixed all ingredients together thoroughly and covered. No kneading, no stretch and folds. Just waiting. Right after mixing, of course, I think it would have been nice to have done a soaker with the whole wheat flour.

Day two
The dough has sat out for 21.5 hours, some in a cool kitchen, but not freezing winter cold, and some in a warm daytime kitchen. Dough pretty puffy. I put the dough in the fridge.

Day three - All day in the fridge. Real life delays dough-related tasks.

Day four
Baking day! Preheated oven, with dutch oven inside, to 475 degrees for one hour. Wary of heating oven to 500 with dutch oven after disaster of last loaf and bread entirely stuck. Right before baking, I removed dough from fridge, shaped, sprinkled flour on bottom and flaxseed meal on top (did not weigh any of that). Did a couple of slashes on top.

Removed lid of dutch oven at 30 minutes. Total baking time of 52 minutes, amply demonstrating my patience, admittedly won with the use of the internal thermometer. To my credit, however, I am checking the temperature of the bread much less often, thereby reducing loss of heat from an open oven door for a minute or so. 

Gorgeous, a little burnt on top, but a marvelous crust. A great taste and an easy bread that I shared with my writers' group. Definitely, a yummm .... mmy on this one.

Deserves a couple of extra photos

2/3 to 108
Number 72 is two-thirds of the way to 108. Too busy to celebrate at the moment. That goes on the post-Passover list as well. At the beginning, I could not imagine getting this far; so very committed of me. 
Okay, in case I'm getting cocky, I now have a beer bread dough that is supposed to be rising on the counter that is not actually rising. It's for my daughter to take back to school, but I think the dough's lack of activity is a pre-Passover message to cease with the dough obsession and to finish the spring cleaning. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Intimate Look at Giving Up Commercial Yeast

Right now, there are two doughs fermenting in my house, one in the fridge and the other in the unheated basement, still very cool with early spring temperatures. Being away all day at work, I feel almost like I did with my children when I returned to full-time office work. Am I abandoning them? Will they thrive if my hours at home are limited?

The emotional connection to a dough or a starter is reminiscent, though not exactly like, the connection to a child or a pet. (Cheaper than a child as no after-school activities or college tuition payments are required.) But for one who has never kept a starter, with the relative ease of commercial jars and packets of yeast, the question really is ...

Why give up reliability and simplicity?
Nothing easier than using commercial yeast. So why stop? Multiple answers: Health, confidence and the sheer miracle of growing one's own yeast source. I still open the oven curious to see the amazing sight of oven spring, a raised bread, all due to the naturally-occurring bacteria in my home. This is not from factory yeast; this is bread made the way our great-great-great grandmothers made it, all the back to the ancient peoples we (well, a good many of us) descend from. 

I admit that I am extremely skeptical of blanket health claims, period, including those made in favor of sourdough-levained breads. Many of the claims I first read were declared without any discussion of the science behind them. Plus, as I am far from being a scientific expert myself, any detailed explanations would have to be taken somewhat on faith. I have not set up a laboratory in the basement to conduct my own independent study.

On the other hand, I am even more skeptical of the fast and convenience food industry, the idea of fortified foods, and the rampant use of antibiotics and other substances employed in food manufacturing (that's my word). 

So, I rely on my instincts, Michael Pollan and other writers, albeit with my own preference for natural and ancient methods. Here are some sources that explain the health benefits of using a culture, particularly one that takes eight or more hours to raise a dough. 

Sourdough Bread and Health - article on Daniel Reid's website
The rise and rise of sourdough bread - 2014 article in The Guardian by Barbara Griggs
Top 10 reasons to eat sourdough bread - post on Cookus Interruptus
And, of course, Michael Pollan, himself. I liked The Omnivore's Dilemma and Cooked, among others. 

Basically, the bacteria and what they accomplish in eight hours or more results in healthy bread (think of artisnal cheeses) instead of unhealthy commercially-produced bread, with all manner of diseases and maladies laid at its door. Of course, in my mind, the same people eating sourdough bread are likely eating a more healthy diet than people eating Wonder Bread, McDonald's and a smorgasbord of processed foods, so this is a difficult issue to entirely divorce from other food-health chicken-and-egg questions.

Simplicity - without babysitting
Sourdough does not equal complex. It can be very easy. And this bread can be made slowly, over a day, three days or more. It can be made - again, easily - by someone who works full time. Refrigeration is your friend. Not at all expensive, either. Without any fancy gadgetry or special equipment, indeed with just flour and water, to make the starter, then some more, plus salt, for a dough, delicious breads await.

You can maneuver, not control, the taste - generally, the longer the rise, the more mature, the more sour, as in you can taste the complexity on the tongue. I know it sounds pretentious, but it's true. I'm not sure one would consider this an acquired taste because I liked it from the start. Think of it as craft brewing for bread. (Indeed, historians agree that leavening was "discovered" in Ancient Egypt, when particles from brewing made their way to the dough sitting right there.)

Confidence - leaving the safety and security of powdered yeast
When I moved beyond my bread machine, I had barely heard of growing one's own starter. My neighbor had brought some over years before and I threw it out within a few days. I had not an inkling about how to use it and I no clue that any maintenance was required. I then read 52 Loaves, which discusses sourdough starters, and even gives a recipe. The book is a journey of bread making, though one that encompasses only white flour. But like someone watching the ocean, its strong waves coming in, I wanted only to dip a toe in. I started with commercial yeast, but I quickly decreased the amounts and increased the time for a first rise - or fermentation. 

Pretty soon after, I tried making a starter and I have never looked back - except with my challahs, which I continue to make with a bread machine and commercial yeast. I might need a 108 quest just for challah, but that's for a different post.

No lack of information
I have a sourdough starter page that addresses beginning and maintaining a starter, including how to get away for vacations. But there are thousands of resources on this little universe of a topic. Again, not difficult, and not really time consuming. For more than you need, consult the freshloaf forum on starters and the sourdough companion.

Never use a lackluster starter
This should be obvious, but ... a starter without mojo is not going to do the best job. For some reason, my white flour starter is perpetually happy, but when I go elsewhere I do not have the same consistently wonderful results. So the rye starter, which I wanted to finish before Passover, was not as puffy as it should have been. I put it in anyway. So there I was with bread #38, an all-white recipe, but I threw in the rye starter anyway, or less than the recipe called for as I did not have enough. It did okay, but the proof, as is said, is in the pudding, or, in this case, the bread. And maybe it wasn't the starter, perhaps it was underproofing, but near the bottom of the bread was a dense, gooey line. 

The bread was beautiful and I did my best attempt ever at a design on top, a nice square, and the taste was fantastic, but there it was, the dense, wettish line. Oh well. Whether the bread is perfect or not, as long as it tastes good, it gets eaten. Though with bread #38, which always comes out absolutely perfect, I was a bit surprised. Perhaps I was complacent and off my game.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

DC Oven Visit - Pitzze

In the big city here
Is that oven porn or what? It's Pitzze in Bethesda, Maryland, or rather it's massive oven for baking pizzas and breads. The sourdough pizza crusts are fantastic. Bread is wonderful. And everything there is made from a sourdough culture. Heaven.

I was given a tour of the oven area, up close and personal with the oven. It is incredibly hot nearby, even with the door closed. The baking peels have poles several feet long to reach all the way into the cavernous interior. There are actually two huge ovens, this one facing the front of the restaurant and another facing the back. Massive. The manager told me that it took a whole month for the oven to become sufficiently heated before it was used for baking. An employee must stoke the oven on Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the restaurant is closed, because the oven cannot go a single day without energy replenishment.

[Note: One bummer. The energy it takes? Not wood. Anthracite coal. I don't know where the restaurant obtains the coal from, but I was told that it burns much cleaner than wood. Less smoke. The environmental picture, however, not so pretty, according to the few sites I found written in plain English and unconnected to the coal industry. I am not sufficiently immersed in the science to understand the real story, but the non-renewable fuel source was a disappointment.]

Oven fantasy
Still, the Bethesda oven made me lightheaded. All I could think of was how good it would feel to bake a dough in that temple of an oven. I'd be happy to share the space for a communal experience. I can imagine the gasps of pleasure from bakers seeing those darkened crusts emerge and listening intently for the lovely crackling sounds of just-baked bread.

So, hop on the Metro to Bethesda, walk a couple of blocks, and visit Pitzze. Before you order, to whet your appetite, take a good long look at that oven; stare as much as you like. The taste of your pizza, sandwich bread or the slices delivered with your soup, will taste even better.

And if you're in Bethesda, walk a few blocks and get a few bagels at Bethesda Bagels. Even a New Yorker can enjoy these. I might have to go back and retaste these, just for professional purposes, of course. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Oven Porn (only naked loaves)

Professional staring is tax deductible?
As an accountant's daughter, I am thinking that any staring done on a professional level is both proper and tax deductible. In addition to a love for bakeries, I also have a thing for ovens. Before I start reporting on any, I offer background on my less than rational delight in the equipment that transforms a dough into a majestic bread.

Oven envy
I am jealous of all of those people with brick or adobe ovens in the backyard. When I see a brick or adobe oven at a bakery or pizza place I ogle and sometimes take a picture and share it with others who might appreciate a hot, attractive oven. I do not personally know anyone with an oven in the backyard and I emphatically do not want to build my own (how could I ever move?), but I fantasize nonetheless (also nightmares of burning down the house; hence the hesitation).

Before regularly reading and participating on the fresh loaf forum, before getting deep into fermentation, starters, and dough development, my baking porn was limited to the King Arthur Flour catalogue: designed to wet appetites and prompt gifts for the holidays. No ovens. 

Now, I fantasize  whenever I see a beautiful oven. I want to sneak in and bake one of my breads, just to know what it would look and taste like. The fantasy does not include waking at 3 a.m. to work early mornings in a bakery, however. Work before 9 has no place in any fantasy.

Some ovens worthy of a stare. Beware of developing oven envy.

Staring at ovens isn't polite, but ...
I saw an oven at a farmers market in DC that was hitched to a pickup truck. A big adobe oven making the cold market a little warmer. It was so mobile and I thought of stealing it, but I was on foot and I could not have carried or rolled a 4x6 foot oven into the subway. Pizzas were being baked on the spot. Nice thin crusts with bubbles in them. Lots of baking longing.

I read about a couple in Vermont who ran a small bread business out of their outdoor oven. Why is it always Vermont? They seemed like such a sweet, happy couple, too. Except for the cold, I would be tempted to go up there, or out to Oregon or New Mexico, buy some Birkenstocks, and build an oven. Maybe it's only my imagination, but I think of Vermont and Oregon, and similar places as filled with lots of friendly, DIY, contented liberals who make their own breads, sweaters and pickles. 

I've seen beautiful adobe ovens right outside of modest houses in New Mexico, and was tempted to request a try at one myself.

Are these bakers happy because they have big, outdoor ovens all fired up and lovely long- (hard, dare I say) handled baking peels? I assume they are happy; how could you not be with such a spectacular oven? Their sourdough starters are bubbly and growing, their breads are beautiful with brown, snappish crusts, and their organic butter likely melts into the soft interior of the bread. [Photo: Massive oven at Pitzze in Bethesda, Md.]

My favorite oven is at Frank Pepe's pizza place in New Haven. It's covered with old subway tiles. When opened, its almost-violent baking chamber can be glimpsed. Gruff, silent and capable - like an oven equivalent of a tall, laconic movie star. But the poor thing only makes pizza. My bread doughs could make that oven so much more ... satisfied. Worth the trip. You might stare at the oven, but have some pizza as well. Obscenely good.

One more confession: I read posts, lurk, actually, on the fresh loaf forum about brick and wood ovens just to peer at the beautiful ovens. Now that is the ultimate in oven porn, sometimes of 
the oven alone, unadorned, sometimes with gorgeous loaves, all baked, in these brick or adobe hearths.

Next on the horizon, perhaps lasting through spring and summer, local ovens and bakeries that, I hope, will delight my senses. If the need remains acute, I might have to travel to ovens and bakeries far and wide. I will keep baking as well, perched as I am at the two-thirds mark on the way to 108 breads.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Bakery Defined

Before I go and get all opinionated - maybe snobby - about bakeries and the breads they sell, it is important to define what a bakery actually is - and is not.

A bakery is not a place that only sells rolls and chunks of bread to accompany salads, soups and sandwiches. That is a luncheonette, an eatery, maybe a casual restaurant, but it is not a bakery. A bakery also is not a place that sells only baked sweets, such as muffins, cookies and the like, or french pastries. A bakery can sell muffins, croissants, cakes, cookies, cupcakes and any number of other items, but bread is an essential item.

A bakery sells breads, whole loaves, unsliced or sliced, and not pre-packaged, although I am not as set on that, particularly if there are whole breads out for sale. A bakery sells loaves made in house and not at some centralized location or more than a few hours old.

A bakery is a neighborhood place that bakes its own bread. If it is part of a chain, it is a chain that remembers how a unique storefront should look, act, and feel. The person behind the counter at a bakery should be friendly, should remember you, and should give every child under 10 a free cookie and a big smile. I have high standards because I've been blessed to have lived in a few places with real bakeries.

I won't hold it against you
A bakery can have seats and tables, but it does not have to. Just because the Avenue Z bakery of my childhood and the other bakeries I've loved in Brooklyn did not, does not mean I have not matured and grown, though nothing will replace the glorious buttery smell of the old Norwegian bakery on Third Avenue, closed and turned into a CVS. (I know, take a deep breath, and cry if you need to.) Fortunately, every city seems to be sprouting bakeries anew and I mean to visit them, well, some of them.

And just so it's out there, my idea of a neighborhood, of friendliness, and of the feel of a neighborhood place, is totally out of my exiled native New Yorker's conception of the world, specifically the "real" Brooklyn, none of that Williamsburg hipster stuff. Maybe that's why when I visited Italy and enjoyed some neighborhood bakeries, I felt so at home. (That and Italy being a country filled with Catholic churches, Brooklyn being the borough of churches.)

Not everyone has the same benchmarks I have and I will not claim to be uniform in my assessments of the bakeries I visit. I just thought that before I put forth my opinions that I establish what my Platonic version of a bakery is.

Post scripts
* My own neighborhood is awaiting a bakery opening and I admit to staring between the cracks of the brown paper covering the windows to gauge just how close we are to fresh baked goods. Since I make my own bread, but I occasionally get lazy, I have high standards, but I would also like to be a customer.

A good bagel or knish is a wonderful thing
** Not bakeries, but in terms of baked goods, I will also keep an eye out for real bagels and quality knishes. My ideal in that category is Mrs. Stahl's, may the store rest in peace, which gave me an entire childhood and education in the perfection of the kasha knish. There are books, articles and websites that pay homage to Mrs. Stahl's. How lucky I was to grow up blocks away. No trip to the beach or winter shopping trip along Brighton Beach Avenue was complete without a Mrs. Stahl's knish. Plus, they gave a small ball of free dough to kids to play with. See, that's what I'm talking about. (Just google Mrs. Stahls and find a universe of appreciation and recipes.)

On the Road

It's Passover cleaning season, the weeks before the holiday when I scour the backs of every bookshelf, cabinet, and corner of some closets (not adult children's areas, however; they are adults). I will most likely be making fewer doughs and baking less bread. So I decided to cover a somewhat different topic, or set of topics.

Before I give lots of details about where I'm going - maybe hinting at new quests: 108 bakeries or 108 ovens - I thought I should define what I consider the ideals. So, the next couple of posts will be thoughts on bakeries and ovens. I have some opinions, especially about bakeries. Ovens, nice, wood-fired and other unique ovens, I am rather in awe of.  

[Image from a Passover humor page. Who knew there were whole pages and lists of these?]

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Bread Number 71 - Second Try: Crustier, Airier, and Almost the Same

What happens with the same ingredients, adding stretching and folding
I decided to take to heart a comment on the freshloaf forum to try stretch and folds with rye breads of up to 50 percent rye. Bread #71 came out so well on the first try and I was so curious about adding this dough manipulation that I could not wait to do the bread a second time and compare the results while the taste was still almost in my mouth.

I have to confess to a couple of emergency changes, but the ingredients in toto are exactly the same as the first try of bread #71, even up to the thirsty bag of flour I used the first time and the all-purpose einkorn flour. Well, not exactly, because I had no old bread to soak and add. Almost exactly. What was the emergency - or rather last-minute change? I ran out of rye flour and had to get more, despite my month-before-Passover pledge to use up the flour already in the house. This significantly changed the nature of the sponge, though the same amounts of each type of flour were used, just at different phases. 

And how did this bread - with its stretch and folds - compare to the first try of bread #71? The bread crumb (meaning interior) was somewhat airier with bigger holes. The taste was very close. The crust was better, most likely because I had a better feel for how long it needed in the oven and because I removed the top of the la cloche for the last five minutes to let the bread get some time without being covered. This allowed for a crustier crust and a darker color.

Not a scientist
If I were a scientist, I would have carefully produced this bread, changing just one aspect of the process, which would be to add the stretch and folds. But then I received some marvelous comments on the freshloaf about doing a long autolyse, and how could I wait for another bread to do that? Impossible. So, way before the sponge was done, I mixed together the bread flour and water (too much water, but can perfect that another time) and let it sit, covered, in a bowl, beside the sponge, for a long autolyse.

Just making the same bread twice in a row, I checked the dough and the baking bread less often - not opening the oven door as many times - and let it go uncovered by the top of the la cloche for the last five minutes, giving it a nicer crust.   

Taste, color, and sound?
Answers in order of how one experiences a bread: Sight - beautiful, with gorgeous deep brown crust. Sound - nice crackling sounds. So satisfying. This requires silence in order to hear the very low crackling. Taste - Delicious, very good. Perhaps another experiment would be to use whole grain einkhorn. 

So, yes, not exactly the same recipe, but almost. In an imperfect world of impatience and excited baking, this is pretty much as close to the scientific method as I am willing to get.

*** for the second time, almost, but not quite, the same instructions for bread #71 

51g starter
94g water
14g rye flour
99g bread flour

Mixed and covered. Let sit overnight and well into the next day for a total of 17.25 hours because the kitchen is still pretty cold at night.

221g water
133g bread flour

Mixed, covered, and let sit for 4.33 hours, while the sponge became sufficiently bubbly to be considered done and ready to move on to the dough phase. When the sponge was ready, I added the autolyse to the sponge, and then mixed in the dough ingredients.

92g rye flour
114g einkorn flour (all purpose; still working to finish that bag of flour)
8g caraway seeds
10g salt

Mixed everything together, the sponge, the autolyse and the remaining ingredients. The dough proved tough to mix, so wet hands at the ready, I squeezed and manipulated the dough until it became as it should be, a homogeneous blob.

Stretch and folds
Over the next hour and a half, I did three stretch and folds. The first at 15 minutes, the second 35 minutes later and the last 30 minutes after that. Covered and let sit, in this case for 4.66 hours.
Finally, we have sunshine and temperatures in the 50s. Snow is melting, hats are unnecessary, and I could go crazy with carrying my dough elsewhere so that I could tend to it on the go. Not something I do often, but I'm not going to let a dough fail just because I have something unavoidable to do. As it turned out, however, no one showed up for my meeting, and there I was in a room at my synagogue with my bowl of dough, my art supplies, some text and a creepy lonely sensation of being without anyone else in a place that is usually full of people. Like being at Grand Central without a soul; very twilight zone.

I actually did one stretch and fold in the car, paper towel and a bottle of water at the ready, and the last one in a bathroom. In my defense, I have not yet gotten sufficiently crazy that I have taken a bowl of dough on the subway and to my office. I have contemplated it. In the eyes of the law, however, conduct is what counts, not mere thoughts (unless we are talking intent, but then, of course, that is thoughts accompanied by actions).

I took home the dough, examining it every 15 to 30 minutes, to determine when it was ready to be prepared for baking, which my mind always equates with preparations for take-off, though that is completely different.

Baking preparation
When the dough was ready to move on to the next phase of baking preparation, I did a stretch and fold on a well-floured wooden board, covered the dough, and let sit for 15 minutes. That's a good time to clean up a kitchen. I also prepare the basket where the shaped dough will sit for the hour to an hour and a half before going into the oven.

I put a kitchen towel in a small wicker basket and generously sprinkle flour on that regular kitchen towel, so that the dough will not stick to the towel. In this case, I also put caraway seeds on the flour so that the top of the dough would get some pressed into it. When the 15 minute rest period has passed, I shape the dough into a boule, and - important - put the dough, upside down, onto the well-floured towel.  

I have to confess that I have never used a banneton. Curious; just have not yet spent the money.

Rye needs some more caraway seeds just before baking
At one hour, generally, and in this case, the dough is ready to be baked. I cut a nice "X" of cross-slashes on the top of the dough. Because this was a rye bread, and I love caraway seeds on a rye, I sprinkle a generous amount of water on the top of the dough, and sprinkle even more caraway seeds on top.

One hour before I will put the dough in, I preheat the oven to 500 degrees with the top of the la cloche placed on the baking stone. Immediately upon putting the dough in the oven, I reduce the temperature to 460 degrees. At 15 minutes, I reduce to 440 degrees for the remainder of baking.

This bread took 50 minutes in the oven. At 40 minutes, I removed the parchment paper and at 45 I removed the top of the la cloche.

Musical crackling sounds out of the oven. Wonderful crust. Scrumptious taste.