Monday, November 24, 2014

Bread - Number 60: Kasha Bread a Nifty Taste

With hints of Eastern Europe in the kasha and of North America in the whole wheat, this bread has an unusual soft taste, the source of which I never would have been able to pinpoint had I not seen the recipe or made this bread. There is a good amount of sourdough starter as well. I deleted from my dough the commercial yeast in the recipe as well as incorporating a nice slow rise for the sponge and a decent interval for the bulk fermentation. It does not hurt that I am rereading, nee savoring, Hamelman's Bread, a book that is quite inspiring, though I try to concentrate more than he does on whole grains. Hamelman would suggest Academy Awards for bakers; alas he is not a self-promoter and the kudos of the bread world seem not to have gone to his head. He lives in Vermont and Vermonters tend to look askance at people getting too big for their britches. 

This bread is approximately 50-50 whole grain or perhaps just slightly less so, but only because of the amount of kasha. (In case you are confused, I use the term kasha to mean cooked buckwheat groats.) The source of the recipe is Breadtime, a book I adore for its range of grains in the recipes and its commitment to whole grains, but which takes an unusual approach in its recommendation of low baking temperatures. Many books, this one included, add commercial yeast even to recipes with sourdough starter, as if fearful of relying on this ancient source of leavening. I say "screw that," basically, by refusing to add commercial yeast and adding more time instead. I do not care if a dough takes two or three days or additional hours before it is ready for baking. Except when I am in a rush, but that usually happens after I have made the no-commercial-yeast decision anyway.

Total ingredients for the dough
304g water
115g starter (about 20 percent less than the recommended 1/2 cup)
310g whole wheat flour
308g bread flour
11g salt
13g coconut oil
221g cooked buckwheat groats

243g water
115g starter
193g bread flour

I tend to keep my starter between 65 and 100 percent hydration. Since I generally use small amounts in my doughs and do a longer rise, the difference in percentages do not matter much. Here, at over 100 grams, I should be more precise. As I had recently taken to weighing (for a short while) my starter feedings, I would say it was in the 80 to 100 percent hydration range.

Mix all ingredients for the sponge. Cover. Leave out overnight or all day. I left mine out for about 10 hours. It was nice and bubbly. I then placed it in the fridge.

A few hours later, when I was ready to cook the kasha, I took the sponge out of the fridge and placed the bowl in a warm bowl of water to just de-cold the sponge bowl.

61g water
115g bread flour
310g whole wheat flour
221g kasha
13g coconut oil
11g salt

I made extra kasha because I love to eat it. This is a taste from my childhood, though I tend to combine it with beans, which my mother and the mothers before her probably would not have done. It was weird mixing it into a dough. Definitely get your hands in there to declump the kasha and the coconut oil so that they are well integrated evenly throughout the dough.

The instructions called for kneading, but I thought I would get by with stretch and folds. I ended up somewhere in the middle. 

Mixing and then what?
Mix dough thoroughly. Cover for a half hour and let rest. I did one stretch and fold at about 40 minutes. The second one I did 15 minutes later, but handling the weak dough, I changed course and kneaded for two minutes, lots of stretching and some folding with that. I left the dough to rest for another 15 minutes and ended up doing the same manipulation of the dough. It really gained strength from the extra kneading.

I would suggest doing the first kneading after a 15-minute rest and then at 15-to-30 minute intervals thereafter for two brief sets of kneading. 

My dough rose for about three hours in a warm kitchen before shaping and a final rise.

Shaping and baking
When the dough appeared fully risen (explanation below), I did a stretch and fold and allowed the dough to rest while covered for 15 minutes. 

How can you tell when the bulk fermentation - or first rise - is done?
How do you know when a dough has risen sufficiently for proceeding with the next stage? My opinion is to avoid all recipe instructions about volume increases - as in the dough should double or triple in volume. Why? The answer is that I can never tell when a dough has expanded sufficiently to qualify as having doubled, tripled or whatever. 

What I can observe and what I rely on is the condition of the dough. Here are the questions I pose to myself.

  1. Is the dough slightly larger, but in pretty much the same shape as how you left it? Not done. 
  2. Is the dough still somewhat flat on top? Not done.
  3. Has the dough lost its original shape, its appearance of having been folded or kneaded? Getting closer.  
  4. After observing #2, has the dough separated on top from the bowl and risen to a slightly spherical appearance? Probably done or very close. You want the dough at right about the point where it stops puffing up on top and it has not gone more than a tiny bit toward flattening on top.
  5. Good time now to peek frequently at the dough. Don't worry, be obsessive. You will not be able to avoid staring at the dough.
  6. Is the dough just starting to flatten after doming somewhat? Good sign it is done and time to act quickly as it is close to over rising. 
  7. Better to err on the side of an under-do for the first rise than to allow an over-rise.
  8. If the dough has flattened after it once had a roundish-appearance on top, you can always make another dough. Likely the results for an over-rise will not be stellar, but the bread will still taste okay. Just proceed and bake it; not good anyway to be too much of a bread snob.
Preheat oven one hour prior to baking to 400 degrees. Yes, this is a relatively low temperature for baking bread. The Breadtime book across the board recommends temperatures much lower than most other bread mavens. I preheated the top of my la cloche in the oven on the baking stone.

After the stretch and fold and the 15-minute rest described above, I shaped the bread for a loaf pan. I set the dough in the loaf pan to rise, covered, of course. I take the step of spraying non-stick spray into the loaf pan. I left the dough for a one-hour final rise.

I baked for 20 minutes at 400 degrees and then reduced the oven temperature to 350 degrees, which seemed absurdly low. At 30 minutes I removed the top of the la cloche. The bread took a total of 47 minutes to bake.

Wow, lots of oven spring. I was afraid I was going to fine a giant hole inside the crust, but no. Nice bread and rose very well. A bit of an unusual taste, as if the kasha softened the crumb. The kasha lends a very subtle taste, so subtle that I would bet no one would ever shout out, "Whoa, a kasha bread!" This bread tasted like a good whole wheat bread, just a bit outside of the ordinary. The appearance is not competition worthy as I failed to make any pretty slashes and allow for the dough's expansion, but a good, wonderful bread that displays my starter's continuing happiness in helping breads to rise.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Starter Experiment Results - The Winner Is ...

The four contenders in the experiment were stored for three weeks and not fed. Three of the four were placed in the refrigerator, the very back of the fridge where food is left to spoil. The contenders were:

1. 65 percent hydration starter (white all-purpose flour);

2. My regular starter (white all-purpose flour, 100 percent hydration);

3. Leftover rye starter (produced for a bread made a few weeks ago); and

4. Dried starter flakes - the only non-refridgerated contender

The award goes to ...
The clear winner was the 65 percent hydration starter. It popped back to active starter status practically the minute it was taken out of the fridge. Maybe not that quickly, but within a day.

And the runners up, in order, are
After the 65 percent hydration starter comes the rye starter, which has small bubbles and that brown, almost speckled appearance, that combine to make it more difficult to tell when the starter is active. 

Next up was the regular starter. Last, but not least, were the dried flakes.

Better than frozen
All contenders became active within two and a half days, way ahead of the five-to-seven days needed to resuscitate a starter after it has been frozen. 

I checked my source for the freezing advice so I know I did not just dream up that method of storing starter. However, if my third-grade-worthy science experiment has any validity, and I would argue that it does (though far from perfect laboratory conditions), then the freezing option will not be used again at my house. For the next duration of more than one week of non-feeding, I will be using the 65 percentage method and, for a long enough absence, the flakes, most likely with a back-up option.

For a brief historty, here's the tale of the starter experiment at the onset

Friday, November 14, 2014

Bread: Number 59: Eating the Blue(s) Cornmeal Rolls

Chuckling all the way through, I made purplish rolls with the blue cornmeal a certain family member purchased, adjusting a Hamelman Bread recipe for sourdough instead of commercial yeast and for a mid-day felafel run that necessitated using the fridge instead of continuing with the recipe that assumes one does not have a life and only exists in the kitchen (something the dog would like).
The photograph does not do justice to the purple-colored, cement-like appearance of the dough. Not quite the color of Bridget Jones' soup debacle, my dough was more a mixture of a Northwestern University t-shirt with white bread flour. This weekend I intend to go all out and make blueberry corn muffins with the blue cornmeal and plenty of butter. That batter will be absolutely purple, I'm sure.

The recipe was easy and it was no trouble to make the switch to sourdough. I also fell in love again with Hamelman's prose, his adorable acknowledgment of his wife's drawings for the book, and his reverence for bread making. Really, how can one not read prose by a man who makes bread and quotes Pablo Neruda? Incentive enough to read the book again, this time my own copy so I can basically highlight whole sections about ingredients, techniques and stages of dough development. 

Just one thing to remember, which is that this dough begins with a pre-ferment sponge development of 12 to 16 hours, though mine took only nine hours because I put it in my tiny closet, the only place in my house that stays warm overnight during the winter. Despite a 5:15 a.m. wake up to check the pre-ferment - poolish in Hamelman lingo - and then stay conscious to complete the dough, no disasters ensued.

I noted all the ingredients in grams as I am totally out of the habit of referring to pounds or ounces.

95g sourdough starter at 100 percent hydration
8g water
8g bread flour

Mix and cover. Leave to rest for 12 to 16 hours, or, in my case, with a mature starter comprising an overwhelming percentage of the poolish and resting in a warm spot, nine hours. I half considered letting the poolish go for another few hours, but it was looking at me with the equivalent of the imploring eyes of a sweet dog that needs to go outside right away.

When it is ready for the next step, the poolish should be nice and bubbly, exuberant in its look and smelling of the dough to come.

Okay, the reason for using so much starter to flour and water was that I had quite a bit of starter on hand and I wanted to get rid of some. In the middle of the summer, when the kitchen is hot even overnight, I would do just the opposite and put in maybe 10 grams of starter, 50 grams of bread flour and 50 grams of water. That way you will have enough time to sleep. Despite my 5 a.m. wake up on this and other doughs, I at least give lip service to avoiding sleep deprivation.

Must admit the middle of the night awakening was due to a concern that I work on the bread with enough time to accompany the spouse for a felafel lunch at the best place for felafel outside of the Middle East, in an innocuous strip mall at a divey-looking kosher eatery in Wheaton, Maryland, just north of Silver Spring and about 20 minutes from DC. The name is Max's

113g cornmeal
172g water

Just need to mix the cornmeal with water and allow the cornmeal to soak for 15 minutes. Obviously, do this in a different bowl than the poolish is resting in, but when the poolish seems ready to advance to the next phase of dough making.

cornmeal soaker
8g salt
8g olive oil (yes, I feel weird here going outside of the flour, yeast, water, salt purity) 

Mix all together, very well. I did this all by hand and it needed wet hands to really integrate the ingredients. I kneaded for about three or five minutes, then covered and set the dough to rest for 30 minutes. I did a stretch and fold at 30 minutes and another at one hour. That made for two stretch and folds during the 90 minute bulk fermentation.  

Not auditioning yet
Because this looked like a dough on the small side, and because I had just watched the Great British Bake-Off bread episode the night before, I made rolls instead of a loaf. Also, the purple-colored dough seemed to demand something different than the usual treatment. However, the disparate sizes of my rolls, their unusual color, and my rather spontaneous approach to baking would definitely have gotten me escorted out of the bake-off tent prior to the judging. I can hear the gasps now.

I shaped the dough into four rolls, placed them each in a separate, very small well-floured bowl, covered all with my granola-equivalent to plastic wrap (the bee's wax cover) and put them in the refrigerator while I accompanied the spouse to his dental appointment, located conveniently near our favorite felafel place. The dentist, in my own defense, was not chosen for the location.

I left the dough in the fridge for six hours and took out the bowls for the dough to rise according to the directions for a 1.25 hour final rise. I preheated the oven to 460 degrees (but did not use the top of the la cloche due to a skepticism that the four rolls would be too tightly spaced). 

Despite the bowls having been filled on the bottom with flour, they were the wrong materials - glass and porcelain - for rising dough. I should have used well-floured kitchen towels inside the bowls. No matter. A little bit of handling and reshaping caused no damage.

I used parchment paper on a baking peel to transfer the dough onto the baking stone and then quickly filled a casserole pan (not made of glass) with a cup of water for good oven steam. Due to the quicker baking time for rolls than for a loaf of bread, I removed the parchment paper at 10 minutes and kept a close eye after that. To prevent drying out, I kept the oven door ajar after the first 10 minutes as well. The rolls only needed 15 to 17 minutes total, the smaller ones being removed early.

The taste was very good and the purple rather lovely to those who noticed. Not quite the equivalent of a neon blue candied apple. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Coming Up: Blue Corn and Buckwheat Breads

Never send another person to buy flour. Instead of cornmeal, which one visualizes in a Platonic way as yellow or golden, this wonderful non-baker shopper (whom I love and adore) sees "cornmeal" on the package and purchases blue cornmeal. Since I passed on the ditzy, perhaps inattentive, genes to this person, it is not proper for me to complain. And why not use blue cornmeal? People make blue or bright green candied apples after all, though that unnatural coating seems likes a poor analogy for an attempt to branch out to new grains in my bread making. Somehow the direction to purchase a small package of whole wheat flour for the upcoming whole wheat and buckwheat bread got translated, shall we say misinterpreted, into a large package of generic, store brand flour that I have doubts about. Again, why not try it once? Just because I have grown dissatisfied with the whole grain flours of a different large flour producer does not necessarily mean anything.

Had my mother sent me at the same adult age to the supermarket with a similar list I most likely would not have done better. The goal at that age is to be thanked, which happened before I looked at the purchases, reimbursed (check), but not appreciated sufficiently to be asked to regularly perform the task. Check on that as well. It's the Car Talk theory of domestic task avoidance: Do the task willingly, though not well. In this person's case discussed here, no such Machiavellian calculation occurred; just the airheadedness (probably not actually a word, let alone an adjective) that I myself passed on.

Next up
On my agenda are a cornmeal and white flour bread from Hammelman's Bread and that whole wheat and buckwheat from Breadtime. After a month of remaking the same two breads - numbers 57 and 58 - and rushing around so much that I resorted to old favorites I have practically memorized, I am finally moving forward with my resolution to branch out beyond wheat, spelt and rye sourdoughs, though those were all new not too long ago. Celebrate those small triumphs.

I wish my mom were here. She would be so proud of my humble blog, of my writing and bread making. She'd ask to sample everything and she would wholeheartedly and frankly offer her opinions. She would tell me "this will lead to something" as she did with my local - and this is a hyperbolic word to use - activism, which she ended up being correct about, though she passed away about six months before that happened. I still think she gave G-d or the powers that be in the universe her two cents and that was at least one of her requests. She probably had something to do with sweet AP, IB, and SAT scores (if you know the college application gamed in the US), college acceptances and perhaps one marriage. I know she would love the artwork I am doing and that she would comment that I've always had an artistic sensibility, though I'm not anyone else would agree and though she would never dream of advising me to give up the day job for anything so iffy financially as art. My dad, a quiet man, would have enjoyed the bread. It would have been just his thing. No sugar and something that would go with brisket or chicken. He would have introduced me as his daughter the bread maker, proudly, succinctly and without fanfare (after he mentioned, as he always did, that I am a lawyer - though not practicing, which he neglected ever to mention). I wish, as with some other avenues I have pursued since he passed away, that he could be here. I guess one never ceases to internalize parental pride, even long past the lives of the parents.

Color guessing
And now, in the next week, off to make blue bread (very Bridget Jones) and, cross my fingers, a nice whole wheat and buckwheat concoction. I love kasha, so very intrigued by the buckwheat recipe. I might visit the supermarket or the local food coop and purchase some "back up" flours in case doubt about the ones already sitting in my freezer overtake me. Curious nonetheless to see what colorful shade the blue cornmeal produces. I'm thinking a cloudy-day-at-the-beach, sort of blue-mixed-with-beige shade of blue.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Bread: Number 58 - Spelt/Rye on Okay Combination

I tried this recipe three times and three times it never got beyond mediocre. More than the rising and other issues I worked out, the taste combination just did not work. It was as if the heartiness of the rye and the natural almost sweetness of the spelt cancelled each other out. Perhaps also this continues my sub-par experience with the book the recipe comes from. Though there are nice grain and seed combinations in Wild Sourdough and I do like some of her baking wisdom and grain information, it's not working for me as a source of inspiration or great breads. [Note that the link is to my book review page and this review is toward the bottom. Here's a link to the book.] 

What I did like about the recipe and the one good aspect of the taste was the sourness. The dough includes 300 grams of rye starter, which comes to approximately 20 percent of the total flour. It is a 3:2 starter - three parts water to two parts flour. It took about a week to build it up to 300 grams, so in addition to the effort and attention to making the bread, I spent time all week making sure to have the right amount of starter. No matter, I used the leftover rye starter in my starter hibernation-rejuvenation experiment. Not a loss.

And truth be told, it was not a bad bread, just not really good or great. Still, after three tries, not worth another one. I'll quickly relate the ingredients and instructions. I'm also collapsing the three tries into one narrative because who wants to read or write the details of three mediocre breads of the same ilk.

300 g starter - 3:2 ratio of water to flour 
250g water 
500g spelt flour 
(on the third try, I ran out of spelt flour at 405g and added 50g bread flour and 45g whole wheat flour)
15g salt

Mix all ingredients at once. Let rest for 20 to 30 minutes. The Wild Sourdough author recommends a kind of air-and-slap kneading, but I did a combination of kneading and stretch and fold, very little because rye is fragile and does not tends to be best when left alone. Perhaps that was part of the problem here. 

You are supposed to check the dough after another 30-minutes rest, but the recipe fails to provide advice for what to do if the dough is in any way inadequate. Rise for four to six hours. Well, mine in a 65-to-70 degree kitchen was clocking in at nine hours when I finally said - enough, I want this bread made before I go to sleep. I even filled a bowl one-third way with hot water (not terribly hot) and put the dough bowl inside the water bowl so that the dough would get some warmth. It worked and the dough rose and prospered. 

Turn on the oven
At a random time beyond six hours I wasted energy (mea culpa) by turning on the oven and keeping it on - way above 400 degrees - just because I did not know when the dough would be ready. When your kitchen is not at an absurdly cold or hot condition, shouldn't the dough be ready within the range of times given in a recipe? Just got cranky about the whole method recommended and came down to earth because rising times can vary considerably. Many recipes afford six hours of variation in a long rising time and I don't get snitty about that, after all.

Shape and bake - or not
I tried this recipe following and not following the instruction to shape and then bake. No joke, just an instant thought of shake-and-bake 70s bad food that my mother refused to buy and I was curious about, even desiring, at the time in a nine-to-14-year-old way. Shape and bake did not work. I tried stretch and fold, leave for 15 minutes, shape and rest for an hour. No difference. And the results either way were none too impressive upon doing the finger dent test.

Bake and taste
Preheated the oven to the recommended initial heat of 455 degrees, but also tried 500 for the initial phase, though that was not a trial run but rather a mistake. After 10 minutes decrease to 410 degrees. About 45 minutes total. None of the various methods or mistakes produced a wonderful bread. 

Alas, who wants 108 great breads? The choice when deciding what to make would be overwhelming. It's preferable to have some lousy ones so one can remain humble, not consider oneself a bread-head genius and not be deer in the headlights with possible selection overload. Really, it's like being thankful for a bad haircut, but not one where you've had the beautiful tresses shorn off only to decide that a pixie is not for you. That is a disaster. 

Update: Defrosted the half of the bread I had put away and on a second try (or maybe that's a fourth try), it actually tasted pretty good. Nice whole grains and a good sour from the large percentage of starter in the dough. Really enjoyed it.


Friday, October 24, 2014

So Many Kinds of Flours to Try

So may flours to try, so many breads to make, so many stores and websites to investigate to determine what is available. I am overwhelmed with the burden of possibility.

After the sense of dread comes on, my response to the demons of limitless choice is to make a list, a table of all of the flours and flour-like ingredients I am interested in and what local stores they can be found at, and whether they are packaged or are available in bulk. 

To do list
I have so far discovered locally: Amaranth, millet, buckwheat, bulgur, barley, faro, flax seed, oats, quinoa, cornmeal. (Confession: I bought some a year ago and never used it. I put it in the compost.) That doesn't even cover most of the bean and rice flours from Bob's Red Mill. The ones I have not found yet are teff, einkorn, kamut, and triticale. Unfortunately, the endless possibilities require research, decisions, and planning. Take this last weekend for example. I bought spelt flour from the bulk aisle at the food coop, which only had a scale with pounds and ounces, not grams. One more bit of planning to add into the mix - weight conversions when writing down the shopping list. But I'm learning to plan because I love this journey of experimenting and the wonderful breakfasts of fresh bread and hot water (I liked my tea so weak, I just stopped using the tea bags). A little butter or some home made jam from a friend to go with it. A book or favorite website to read.

So proud of my table of flours and grains 
Please note that some of these entries are for beans or rice or other food materials that must be cooked, soaked or otherwise smashed before incorporating into a dough. Spreadsheet is not quite complete. Some of the entries are for foods I know I can find easily, so I did not bother to jot down where I can find those. I also have not yet gone to Whole Foods and written down exactly what is available in packages in the baking aisle.





whole grain


Bulgar (freekah)




 of course







Flaxseed meal










of course





not for rising

Flour or cooked

Adds sweetness

Flour or cooked

Love the taste of kasha

Whole or cornmeal

Should be sweet

Flour or cooked

Rye/wheat grain


Work in progress
I've identified two breads to make, one using corn and the other buckwheat. Will proceed from there and perhaps update and alter the table as well.

I now need a spreadsheet for my life, though currently other projects are proceeding well (the biblical Hebrew project, the artwork, the art and Hebrew project, and the local grain and milling exchange project, still in the fantasy stage, which it might ever remain in, but who knows).