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.

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.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Passover: The Un-Bread Holiday

Passover in four parts: What it is, why it is, and what it means to me, followed by questions that have started to haunt (plague?) me since beginning the bread quest, which coincides almost exactly with a significant interest in religious language and studies.

Part 1 - A quick synopsis
Passover is the week-long holiday that we start with the annual retelling of the story and a celebration of the Ancient Israelites' quick liberation from Egypt and slavery. Pharoah finally sends them away at the last of the 10 plagues (the last so unimaginable that there was wailing throughout the land), a story with the famous, perhaps first, labor demand of Let My People Go! We ask the four questions, thank God, discuss ministering angels, sing songs, drink wine, eat matzo and bitter herbs, and enjoy an awesome meal with family gathered from far and near.

The whole point of a seder, the ritual and meal, is to tell the story and discuss it. There's two seders, one on each of the first two nights. 

The rest of the week we do not eat any bread, but ingest lots of only-on-Passover foods. For Eurpoean Jews (or descended from them), the custom extends to a ban on beans, corn, rice, foods that in some way expand. (Quinoa is, mysteriously, allowed, as are potatoes.) Do not question; this does not make sense. If you are lucky - meaning you like matzo - this is a great holiday from start to finish. It is a challenge for a vegetarian, I'll admit.

Part 2 - The meaning of the un-bread holiday
With its parallel universe of different dishes, foods, tablecloths, glassware and even ideology, Passover is at home in a Jewish tradition that reminds us of the fleeting nature of life, our vulnerability, and the thin veneer of culture. Like some other Jewish holidays and even the Sabbath itself, we forgo the everyday, carving out time to remind ourselves of God, ritual, and history and to consider ourselves links in that historical chain. 

With Passover, the themes of freedom from slavery and treating the stranger well are front and center. Whether one accepts God as the change agent or not in this drama is a different question. Telling the story of the exodus from Egypt is a commandment. And throughout our sacred texts, the obligation to the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan are always described as familiar - because we knew what it was like to be strangers in a land not our own, because we are always close to being without all of the protections and comforts of home.

Part 3 - Rituals I love
In millions of homes, on the seder nights, haggadahs (or, in Hebrew, haggadot) (the book, in many, many versions, read at a seder) are opened, children are singing the four questions, families discuss or or speed through the reading, and beloved foods are oohed and ahhed over before being eaten.

As a child, I would wake up to a kitchen transformed, cleaned of anything leavened or anything that co-existed with it throughout the year, with different dishes, glasses, and the Passover tablecloth. And with the morning before the ritual of the first of two Seders would begin the breadless week of matzo, which I love, and meals we would have only during those days or only on the most important holidays. Matzo brei, bubeleach, gefilte fish, and piece after piece of whole wheat matzo, always my favorite.  

After my children were born, I did the same for them, from the cleaning through the treks to family, to our beautiful seders. I enjoy the zen state of taking each book out of each bookcase, each kitchen item out of each cabinet, and culling through stored food, to ready the house. Each year at our seders, crossing lines of religious observance from atheist to nutcase (did I say that?), half of the family discusses the story, the interpretations, at length, and the other half begs to go faster so that we can get to the meal already.

Part 4 - Questions and bread
In the last couple of years I have begun to question. One question was pointed out to me: How can matzoh be both the bread of affliction during slavery and the bread of liberation? But other questions are my own: There were hours before the Israelites fled Egypt and they took many possessions, so why did they not bake some bread? 

In terms of bread, the Jews left Egypt with, among other things, such as animals, their kneading bowls, suggesting that they were already making bread, which, at the time, surely meant that they were either using old dough or a replenished sourdough culture, or both. The Egyptians created not only a great civilization - sans the slavery - but culture in both its artistic and culinary senses. They invented the fermented staples of beer and bread. Read Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History, one of my favorite books (warning: no recipes). 

The author, H.E. Jacob, posits that the holiness of the liberation from slavery rejects - for one week a year - bread as the centerpiece of that culture, though there is a theory that the bread-less celebration pre-dated the holiday. But this is just one way that Judaism harkens back in its cycle of holidays to our nomadic, pre-urban, civilization. Baking needs an oven; a dough needs to sit, undisturbed, to rise. These practices, happen with agriculture, with culture, in many senses of the word, and with being rooted in one place. 

18 minutes? And why did an 18-minute rule for making matzoh develop? That's 18 minutes from mixing flour and water through baking. Since the ancients lacked both kitchen timers and clocks, surely this is a somewhat modern development. And since any bread maker knows that a sourdough culture takes hours, at the very least, to begin fermentation, and far longer to actually raise a dough and make a respectable bread, why such a short time as 18 minutes? Clearly, the learned elders were not mixing dough and baking bread. 

What the 18-minute rule practically guarantees is commercial matzo production rather than home production. One child needing a moment of time, one pressing telephone call, and, zappo, you are over 18 minutes. (Don't even get me started on the craziness of what wheat is acceptable for Passover among people way more observant than me.)

And why did Jewish bakeries not take a week to begin making bread after Passover? Were bakers sustaining their leavening, their sourdough starters, during the holiday? Was this the origin of the practice of selling one's chametz (the crumbs or other leavened products passed over in one's cleaning)? Selling the chametz is a legal fiction, where one sells and buys back, the food. Did this legal fiction allow the starters to survive over Passover? 

Getting rid of all leavened foods, except ...
This year, I will be hiding my starter in the back of the fridge, in a dormant state, and feeling guilty. Maybe I should bury it in the backyard, but that seems silly. I thought of asking my neighbor to keep it in the back of her fridge, but legal fictions bother me, even if I do sell my own chametz. So, technically, at least, I will not own my starter during Passover.

If you are curious, my mother made Passover egg rolls in our kosher-for-Passover house, so we had a bread-like food and sandwiches. I have a religious aversion to kosher-for-Passover cereals when we already have the best possible option. Nothing really is better than crumbled matzo with milk for breakfast. I'm a woman of simple tastes and I love my matzo.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Bread Number 73: Beer Bread Ferments Oh So Slowly and Wins Taste Race

A pre-Passover enjoyment of soon-to-be forbidden tastes of bread and beer, though just for the week of the holiday. Somehow correct that the making of this beer bread coincided with reading the fermentation section, indeed both the bread and beer chapters, of Cooked. Felt like Michael Pollan himself should have visited my kitchen, though he is definitely a creature of the West Coast and I am decidedly East Coast, if not more specifically the exiled New Yorker.

A four-day, ever so lethargic rise, that finally arrived at the stage of finishing a bulk fermentation. Not sure whether that was the beer or the relatively small amount of starter, taken right from the fridge and not exactly ripe. Still, I like a good sour taste and a slightly burnt crust, even if it was not to the liking of a significant other.

Day 1

350g beer - Snake Dog IPA
42g cornmeal
16g arrowroot flour
243g whole wheat flour
200g bread flour

Mixed well and covered. I let the autolyse sit for 35 minutes. 

autolyse plus - 
70g starter
10g salt
30g water

Mixed the autolyse and the other dough ingredients, including extra water for adequately hydrating the 60 percent whole grain dough.

I did three stretch and folds over the course of an hour and a half, the first at 20 minutes, the second 30 minutes later, and the third another 30 minutes later. Then I let the dough sit in various places due to temperature.

Evening of day 1 - day 4
I kept the dough in cool places for almost 24 hours. Overnight the dough was in the kitchen. During the entire workday, it sat in the basement. Back to the kitchen again, from day two to three, overnight. On day three, I decided that dough needed some warmth. I let it enjoy a full day in a warm kitchen, then at a proper boring bedtime of 9 p.m., I put it in the fridge. It was puffy, though not exuberant. There it was awakened on the morning of day four.

Day 4
Early in the morning, I took the dough out of the fridge and went into pre-baking mode. Since this dough had done so much time in cold environs, I decided it deserved a warm final rise. First a stretch and fold with a 15-minute rest afterward.

Preheated the oblong la cloche in the oven at a toasty 500 degrees. 

I shaped the dough into an untrained oblong shape (the untrained entity being me, not the dough), shorter and fatter than a baguette, though nowhere approaching roundness. I let the dough sit, covered, for an hour. Due to fear of dreadful burns, I let the shaped dough sit on parchment paper and took the dough, on the parchment paper, directly into the now-burning hot oblong la cloche.

Maybe I got carried away with the timing
Immediately reduced oven temperature to 475 degrees and baked for about 48 minutes. (I tried to keep track, but I had to recalculate the timing due to a few minutes of forgetfulness.) The ends and the bottom were a bit burnt, but the bread had a proud, deep brown color, and a cragginess (not a word, really) that made it rustically attractive. And very respectable oven spring, indeed, especially for a dough that had never risen in an expected way.

Yummy! Loved it. Another opinion, however, was voiced in the household, so quite possible I will play around with ingredients and starter ripeness the next time I pour a bottle of beer into a dough bowl.

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.