Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bakery Review: Spring Mill Bread Company

Our town has graduated from only having baked goods at the farmers market to now having an actual bricks-and-mortar bakery, a shop. Spring Mill Bread Company is a local DC-area chain of bakeries, but the feel is intimate and unique. There are always customers and I see people walking down the block with loaves. No small cookies to buy or to give away to child customers (that's my platonic bakery ideal), but they give away pretty big slices of different breads.  [Note: Photos taken with permission.]

We've now sampled baked treats, plain bread, and sandwiches.

In its favor
  • Very friendly - always a smile
  • Lots of whole grain choices
  • Clean
  • Well decorated - a nice spot to hang out
  • Outside tables
The flour is from Montana and Spring Mill grinds its own, so all of the bread is from freshly-milled whole grain flour and not from bags that have been sitting around for ages. They even sell flour and jams as well. 

Note of caution
There are no boules, ciabattas or any breads except baguettes and identically-sized sandwich loaves made in loaf pans. The breads are, despite the variety of whole grains, sandwich breads. In terms of added sweetener, only honey is used; no refined sugar. This is Takoma Park after all. (If you do not know Takoma Park, our nickname is "the People's Republic of Takoma Park.") Spring Mill also sells challahs on Fridays, something I appreciate for the infrequent occasions when I do not make my own.

In terms of natural leavening, the website just mentions yeast and not natural leavening or sourdough starters.

The bread is solidly good. Nice for a sandwich. No thick crusts. I have yet to try a baguette, but I'm not much of a white-bread person. We tasted the sweets and they are fine, firmly in the good category. My husband said my coffee cake is better, but that's the only cake I repeatedly make. Okay, some would say you can't stay married and say otherwise, but my husband is brutally honest about these things. He said the same about the bread, though by now he is accustomed to my sourdough boules, the majority of my home baked loaves.

Bottom line is this is fine bread for sandwiches and certainly decent if you do not bake your own. I am trying hard not to be a bread snob, as I almost never eat non-naturally leavened (meaning non-sourdough) breads anymore. 

You can't argue with a friendly place that makes good sandwiches on fresh bread. If you do not have a home baker and you want to hang out for a little while in Takoma Park, Spring Mill Bakery is a good place to do it. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Bread Number 76: Proof of a Bread Divinity

There are at least two gods, or one with two priorities: bread and parallel parking. If the mishap of getting my dough into the dutch oven this time could result in anything other than disaster, then there are surely mysterious forces at play in the universe. The same for the occasional miracle of successful parallel parking at times when there is no avoiding it. (By the way, when we get driverless vehicles and human parallel parking becomes an event in the Olympics, my husband will be the first U.S. gold medal winner. New York's Upper West Side's challenging parking situation was not only made for him, he relishes it. I think that is why he actually likes to take the car when we visit the city, because DC and its environs provides little in the way of parking challenges at his high level.)

I know, there is starvation, war, sexual assault, child abuse, poverty, and all manner of horrors in the world, so why should divine forces care about bread and parking? We are made in G-d's image, or we made gods in our own image, so our own superficialities and cares are reflected right back. Seriously, I often wonder, and I did yesterday with the disastrous transfer of dough to dutch oven (disastrous until I saw the miraculous result), why I care so much how each bread comes out. But I do care in the same way as when I paint or draw or do a collage. There's something about babying, if you will, a creation. Just like with children or sourdough starter, though, one is never actually in control, but really a part of helping another being (or, with starter, many one-celled beings) realize its own potential.

And with bread, you get to eat the realized potential. That photograph of bread #76 is worth some number of words and shows a bite-worthy bread as well.

Speaking of gods
I was reading about the mentor of a few famous bakers, the one Dave Miller of Chico, California, and for this bread I followed a recipe of his 100 percent whole wheat bread at 104 percent hydration. I followed the recipe and it went okay, with a small loaf of dough that was so un-shapeable that I made it in a loaf pan. See photo below.

More information about Dave Miller's baking and his website.

Could be that I misinterpreted the recipe, hence the mediocre results. The second time, however, I doubled the recipe and I got great results by heeding the hydration percentage, following some parts of the recipe, and wholly adhering to the spirit of how those 100 percent whole wheat breads are achieved.


520g water
500g whole wheat flour
20g starter (details below on the small amount)
10g salt

The recipe called for an autolyse of 30 minutes with just the flour and water. Mix thoroughly and cover. This produced a nice, strong pre-dough. I then incorporated the starter and the salt. Despite instructions to add almost five times as much starter, I wanted the dough to rise overnight and the very warm evening could mean too rapid a rise with the suggested amount. The much-reduced starter amount worked well.

After mixing the dough, I let the dough rest, covered, for 20 minutes and did three stretch and folds, each 20 minutes apart. The dough was strong, and very elastic, no doubt due to the high hydration percentage. It was not, however, especially sticky, though I did wet my hands before doing each stretch and fold.

How did the dough wake up in the morning?
The kitchen cooled off by about 12 degrees overnight, from the low 80s Fahrenheit to approximately 70 degrees. The nice thing about warm spring evenings is that the heat does not last all night. I woke up at the perfect time, the dough having sat out for nine hours and allowing me to sleep past 6:30 and to heed the not-before-5-a.m. rule. Sometimes it is impossible to sleep when I am so tempted to peek at a dough. Again, the reason for only 20 grams of starter, low enough, given the temperature, that I would not be anxious to check that the dough was ready in the middle of the night.

The dough was perfectly puffy, but not out of control.

I wet my hands and sprinkled plenty of flour on a cutting board for a stretch and fold. Left the dough covered for 15 minutes and then tried to shape it. Shaping is not the word for manipulating 104 percent hydration dough. It does not keep any form without some structure holding it up, such as a bowl or a loaf pan.

Heavy bowl mistake
I admit I was afraid to put this dough, wet as it was, on a well-floured towel in a basket. I thought the dough would get stuck even with tons of flour. So, I used non-stick spray and flour in a heavy bowl. Lots of flour.  Covered the bowl with a shower cap, which works perfectly, a genius idea that I did not come up with on my own.

I preheated the oven for one hour to 475 degrees with the dutch oven inside. With such a high hydration percentage, a good 25 percent over what I usually work with, I figured the super-hot dutch oven would be the best vessel for baking. I let the dough rest for that same hour. Perfect.

Messy transfer
So, there I am with the oven door open, 475 degrees of heat blasting in my face, the wire rack holding the now open dutch oven pulled out to the maximum extent feasible, and I'm holding the heavy bowl with the dough. I even have the lame out to score the dough once it goes into the dutch oven. Then I have to position the bowl so that the dough is aimed correctly to fall right into the dutch oven.

That part did not go well. I'm not proud of my use of profanity in this situation. I screamed SHIT! about 10 times, which would be during the misfire of the dough onto the top and side of the open dutch oven - and a few shout outs directly thereafter. Despite this clear sign of disaster, I put the lid on and said shit a couple more times. 

It's only bread; it's only bread
After shouting, then mumbling, that same expletive several times, the thought floated across my mind that my mantra is it's only bread, which means failure is no big deal. Some deep breaths and some it's-only-bread repetitions later, I was not exactly in my happy place, but I had some perspective.

And here's the part that proves there is either a bread god or that the one divine being cares about bread. Checking on the bread 43 minutes after the awkward transfer of the dough, I saw an almost-done gorgeous bread. Six minutes later, absolutely beautiful, I removed the bread from the oven. It slid right out of the dutch oven; it crackled; it practically had movie music playing right out of the crust. Total baking time at 475 degrees was 49 minutes. Only 49 minutes for the deity to transform disaster into a perfect bread.

Amazing and ...
Amazed. A very good taste. Oh there is a but. This bread screams out to be made with better whole wheat flour. Someone in the household purchased a rather generic brand of whole wheat (maybe me) and this 100 percent whole wheat needs a better flour.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Alcohol, Grain and Going to Crazy Land

Last weekend I toured the local, one could say artisanal, One Eight Distilling, makers of gin and vodka, in Washington, DC's Ivy City. Hearing that their flour grinder is not in use very much, I asked about the possibility of grinding actual flour (not flour for alcohol making) there with their local, organic whole grains. The owner gave me that look, the one that says, no and maybe you should consider a psychiatric medication. This reignites the quest for local whole grains and now I know they actually exist, albeit in the form of animal-feed quality, whatever that means. I will have to ask the new, just-opened, bakery up the street about their flour situation. Of course, I could trek again over to that downtown farmers market, the only one that carries freshly ground flours.

There is also now on the table a birthday offer of a grinder to make flour. Not sure, but very tempted. Would be great to have local, organic grains to do this. Worth a return to that market now that it's spring. The farmer who sells whole grain flours also carries wheat and rye berries.

Health at stake
Really my health is at stake. Every website I look at practically screams with dire warnings if I do not home grind. Apparently, all of the whole flours I have been baking with have already lost all of their nutritional value by the time I get them home, let alone by the time I put them into a dough. I might as well have been eating straight white flour and potato chips, well, organic potato chips. 

On top of reading website materials with alarming health warnings, I have visited the truly crazytown sites that discuss storing grain for years, something that survivalists do when contemplating the end of civilization as we know it. For them, the week-long loss of power 10 years ago was likely the small earthquake that augurs the big one that will result in the permanent cessation of electricity unless you were smart enough to invest in solar or your own personal wind farm out in the middle of the desert (assuming a water source). These are the people I will be making common cause with when I bring those first wheat or rye berries into the house. [Photo of an azalea bush down the block.]

To use different logic, if Bernie Sanders, a Brooklyn boy, can move to Vermont and - decades later - run for President, I can do the Vermont-y thing of milling my own flour without totally leaping off the edge. Not quite sure there's a working analogy there.

Danger signs
Please do not let me start growing and threshing wheat in the backyard. I do not know my way around farming implements. It's that Brooklyn upbringing. And if I start storing a year's worth of canned goods, act quickly, slap my face, and shout very loudly "snap out of it." Knowing me, I will have the tons of cans, but forget the can opener.

Bread Number 75: Good Beer Bread in Normal Time

This was supposed to be a do over of bread #74, but the do over crossed the line of what could conceivably be considered the same recipe. First, I ran out of spelt and did not think to replace it, instead buying other whole grain flours this week. Second, I warmed the beer before mixing it with the flour, which, by itself, would come within a do over. Third, I did not even think to add the flaxseed meal again. Then, I added an autolyse phase. Though my lines are without fixed standards and therefore arbitrary, even I had to think of this as a different bread. Still would like to go back and redo bread #74, but that will wait for at least another trip to the grocery store and probably a while until I want to make another beer bread. 

Snail's pace kind of slow
The problem I have experienced with the beer breads has been incredibly long bulk fermentation periods with amazingly slow expansion of the doughs. Two possibilities came to mind: (1) The beer's cold temperature slowed down the first rise by several hours, perhaps inhibiting the reaching of a peak rise state, and (2) maybe it wasn't the beer - maybe my starter had gotten a bit lackluster in energy.

I fed my starter last night and by this morning it seemed happy and lively. This leads me to the tentative conclusion that the problem was not with my starter. 

This time around, I warmed the beer. I took the frigid cold, full bottle of beer - Stella Artois, by the way - and put it in a pot of very warm water (did not measure the temperature, but not hot). Within a few minutes, the beer bottle was no longer cold. The bulk fermentation was still slow, possibly also due to the relatively small amount of starter I added, given the room temperatures of cool (but not cold) nights. However, the slowness of the dough expansion was not extreme this time. There was nice expansion within 24 hours, quite the contrast from the snail's pace rising of the previous beer breads.

What I put in this time
330g beer (one bottle of Stella Artois)
70g starter (100 percent hydration)
200g whole wheat flour
200g bread flour
50g cornmeal (stoneground, white)
9g salt

Autolyse before mixing dough
I combined the beer, the flours, and the cornmeal - okay, everything but the starter and the salt - and let sit for 30 minutes. I then added the starter and the salt. I added twice as much starter as in the last bread due to the spring temperatures of warm days and cool nights. No heat yet and no humidity. Still, only 70 grams of starter is not too much for nights with temperatures in the 50s, which stops dough from rising, and days reaching maybe 70 indoors, even with sunlight and heat.

After thoroughly mixing the dough (and, of course, covering it), I did three stretch and folds, each 15 minutes apart. I was cautiously optimistic because the dough had a nice feel and strengthened over the course of the three stretch and folds. By the way, I did them only 15 minutes apart because it was late. 

I let the dough rise for 21.5 hours, overnight in a very cool kitchen and then, over the course of the next day, in whatever rooms were warmest at different times, being my closet (small, walk-in, with its own heat source) and the kitchen. Frankly, I would have allowed the dough to rise for a few more hours, but it was evening already and I suspected I would not get to baking if I waited any longer. Also the spouse said he would rather eat a crappy one of my breads than anything from Au Bon Pain. You would know what he meant if you have ever eaten one of their bagels. 

My luck, thus far, being mediocre with the beer breads, I said what the heck and prepared for baking.

Baking preparation
I did a stretch and fold and let the dough rest on a well-floured cutting board for 15 minutes, covered, of course. Putting more flour on the board, I quickly shaped the dough into a boule and placed it on a well-floured kitchen towel that was lining a small wicker basket. That's a good thing to make ready during the 15-minute window.

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees so that the oven has at least an hour to heat up. Inside the oven to also preheat were the baking stone and the top of the la cloche, with its two hairline cracks up the sides. 

I did a dent test of the dough at one hour and it popped back way too quickly. At 1.25 hours, it seemed ready, or, at the least, readier. 

In the oven
Total baking time was 42 minutes, though I looked in at 35 and took the bread's temperature at 41. Nice golden and dark brown color. Nice oven spring. 

I was pleasantly surprised because I wondered whether prioritizing my personal timing needs - such as going to bed early on a Sunday evening and having time, post bread making, to read - had made for a mediocre bread. But no, my laziness was rewarded with a really good result. Very nice taste and not nearly as sour as last week's beer bread. I cannot say I actually taste the beer, though there is a different flavor that lingers at the end of a chewing a bite. That could be my imagination.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bread Number 74: First Try with Hodgepodge Beer Bread

Others tell me that beer bread dough rises the same way and with the same timing as their other doughs. I must be living in the twilight zone then because each time I use beer, the bread takes three days to rise. Now even if the coldness of the beer slows down the process, the beer is certainly warm a couple of hours later. 

This time the starter was lively, there was a nice mix of flours, the hydration percentage was 78, and yet the dough rising time was already at 38 hours when I left home this morning. What's another day? 

I used 50 percent whole grains because I ran out of whole wheat and spelt flours. I also added about 40 grams of cornmeal. Plus, of course, the bottle of beer. Stella Artois. My husband thought it would be the right lightness to go well in a bread.

Two days later 
Now, on baking day, the dough will have been in the fridge for 54 hours. Not much hope for this one. Already contemplating a re-do. 

Results were not the disaster expected. Despite a dough that rose somewhat, but was flat, at the end of a long - patient on my part - bulk fermentation, there was respectable oven spring. Perhaps due to the extended four-day fermentation, with two days on the counter and two in the fridge, the bread had a decidedly sour taste. I liked it, but it did go overboard. 

Definitely will do this one again this weekend. This time, I plan to let the beer get to room temperature before mixing it with the other dough ingredients. Hoping the spouse is willing to donate another beer to the effort. Otherwise I will be compelled to actually purchase some for the first time.

Recipe after the do over
I will write up the recipe after trying this one again. Starting to think that my kitchen is located in a no-beer-baking zone. 

In other news, I am researching storage times for whole grain flours. Nothing much for storage except to keep the flours in dry, cool, places. I put mine in ziplock bags in the freezer. What I am curious about is whether there is data on average times that whole grain flours, whether in bulk or from small producers, sit on grocery store and supermarket shelves.

Update - the recipe
Because I ended up making a new bread instead of a do over of this bread, I wanted to add the recipe to this post.

330g beer
35g starter
100g whole wheat flour
100g spelt flour
200g bread flour
10g flaxseed meal
9g salt

Mixed, covered, and let sit for 38 hours. Refrigerated for 51 hours. So many hours = very sour taste. Baked at 475 degrees for 45 minutes with dutch oven. Boy that thing gets hot. Needed oven mitts AND pot holders.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Starter Lively Again, but No Baking

My starter came back to life just fine at the end of Passover, but I have been away and busy at work, so no breads just yet. Indeed, this morning was the first time in weeks that I even glanced at my bread notebook. I am contemplating a rye bread. Did not attempt the matzo or injera yet. And almost out of whole wheat flour.

Really just have to figure out the next bread and figure that April was not meant to be a baking month. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Intimate Look at the Internal Thermometer

When the term "internal thermometer" crosses my mind, invariably I think of the home thermometer my mother used to shake before using, the one that was difficult to read, and taken out when a child was sick. My mother's preference for the uncomfortable place in the body where common lore had it she would get the most accurate reading was definitely one all children fought against and the impetus, no doubt, for the invention of easy in-the-mouth thermometers ubiquitous today.

I'm not talking about that internal thermometer. I'm talking about the food kind, the kind you stick inside a food - in this case a bread - to determine its readiness.

Ode to the internal thermometer
I count an internal thermometer as a must-have tool, way ahead of bannetons, ahead of fancy proofers, ahead even of a mixer that can knead and otherwise mix and manipulate dough. (Confession: I do not have a mixer that can deal with dough; the one I have is tiny and can barely deal with cake batters.) I am lost without the thermometer. I use it half for its temperature readings and half as a kind of cake tester, which merely shows if anything is clinging to the metal stick when I pull it out from the mostly-made bread. What is the temperature in the middle and is it still wet?

Yes, this item can be pricey, but there are sales. If you let the thermometer company that I purchased from contact you, they will be a faithful correspondent and write almost everyday, even about sales, but also about the many different type of thermometers you never knew existed. After this lovely education, I unsubscribed. 

Limited experience
My thermometer is a Thermamite 5 from ThermoWorks. It's not as expensive or as fast as the top-of-the-line thermapen, but within 30 seconds the temperature is displayed. In about two years of use, I am still on the first set of batteries.

I have zero, as in completely no, experience with any other brand or type of internal food thermometer. I am sure that anyone baking bread in bulk would want something faster, but for one or two loaves at a time, mine works quite well.

The best part about the internal thermometer is that my breads are baked well and I am no longer seduced by the outward appearance in deciding when to take the loaf out of the oven.