Posts Tagged ‘Baked Goods’

At this point you can relax and anticipate your freshly baked bread–all that remains is tinkering punctuated by a few moments of quickly opening and closing the oven door.  Instructions for the actual baking vary pretty dramatically.  I’ve seen temperature variations of 75 degrees for the same type of bread!  Some say start at 450 and drop to 400, while others bake at 375 with no drop.  There’s no real mystery as to what difference that makes: a warmer oven is going to give you a harder, thicker crust.  With all the variation, there are some underlying themes to note.

First, if you are making a free-form loaf, put the dough onto something that is already hot, like a baking/pizza stone or a pre-heated cast iron pan.  When you open the oven and put in the dough, the temperature in the oven is going to fall, so having a hot stone or a dutch oven will ensure that the dough starts baking right away.  Be sure to put the dutch oven or the pizza stone into a cold oven and then preheat, otherwise it may crack!

Second, try to keep the dough moist.  The easiest way to do this is to bake in a dutch oven with the cover on for the first 25-30 minutes.  This will trap the steam that is naturally released from the dough.  A wet environment will prevent the crust from getting too hard and will thus allow the bread to rise more as it bakes.  If you don’t use a dutch oven, one suggestion is to put a baking dish with some ice cubes on the bottom of the oven.  The ice cubes will let off steam as they melt.

Third, be sure to slash the bread to release steam.  You can be pretty aggressive with the slashes–as deep as an inch–and use any pattern you want.  Parallel slashes can make it easier to cut so long as you cut along the slashes later (cutting between slashes is a chore).  Take a sharp, non-serrated knife, oil the blade, and cut along the top of the dough just before putting it in the oven.

Fourth, let the bread cool 20-30 minutes after it comes out of the oven.  The bread will be very hard when it first comes out but will soften significantly as it cools.

As for knowing when the bread is done–if you think it’s done it probably is.  Yes, you can test with a thermometer or tap and listen for a hollow thud.  Getting an accurate read with a thermometer is difficult with bread, and a “thud” is far from a technical term.  But the real point is that I’ve found that for standard loaves, there isn’t much of a difference between 5 minutes undercooked and 5 minutes overcooked, which gives you a good 10 minute window to have acceptable bread.  So find a few recipes and get a range.  Experts will surely disagree with me.

As for the European yeast bread we’ve been making in this series, 50 minutes at 400 in a dutch oven, covered for 25-30 minutes and uncovered for the remainder–that’s the best method I’ve found.


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At this point your dough is kneaded and rising away and there’s very little left to do but shape and bake.  Before discussing the last bit of handling you’ll need to do, it’s worth mentioning some things that I, well, forgot to mention earlier.

First, you can use less yeast and less sugar the longer you intend to let your bread rise.  More sugar will speed up the yeast, and more yeast will fill the dough faster.  If you find that your bread is rising more quickly than you had hoped, pop it in the fridge to slow it down, but be sure to take it out the fridge well before you shape it.  If not, the dough will be too cold to develop volume–though it will still develop flavor.  Obviously if you’ve added too little yeast the remedy is to just wait longer.

Second, it is possible to let yeast do their thing for too long, but only if not refrigerated.  Along with carbon dioxide, yeast also produce acids and alcohols during fermentation, which in moderation are good for flavor.  But fermenting yeast in a hot environment for too long could produce too many.  This is more of a disclaimer than a serious warning you should take, because even a 24-hour rise unrefrigerated should usually still be safe.

When your dough has doubled in size, you “punch” it down–which is a terrible misnomer.  Before punching down, the yeast and the air in the dough are unevenly distributed and as soon as you even touch it it’s going to collapse as the gigantic bubbles deflate.  Which is to say, it’s not ready for baking yet.  Before baking you must “shape” the dough, and before that you must “punch.” (Although, I have seen some people recommend against punching down precisely because they want the gargantuan bubbles.  Perhaps they’re better at handling the dough than I am.)

To “punch” all you are really doing is pressing on the dough to redistribute the air.  Turn out the dough on a floured surface.  Gently press down, fold over like a letter, and continue to press and repeat a few times.  If you were looking forward to letting out your aggression at this point, you’d be better served finding another outlet.  You can return the bread to continue rising for approximately another hour, or you can proceed to shape now.  (If you let it rise, you will punch it down again before shaping.)

If you are going to shape the dough now, let it rest about 20 minutes, covered with plastic wrap, before you shape it.  This is not imperative but it will make shaping easier.  How you shape the loaf will determine how it bakes, obviously.  But in particular, if you shape the loaf shallow, it’s going to bake up shallow.  This is especially important because any time you handle a risen loaf it collapse a bit, so if the loaf is not tall before you put it in your baking dish, it’s not going to be tall when it bakes.

The simplest way to shape a loaf is to form a ball by “tucking” the dough into itself on one end and letting it stretch it on the other.  Once spherical, you can press on the sides to create an oval, and even pull on the ends to create a “torpedo.”  Once shaped, let the dough rise, covered, for another hour, maybe two.  If you don’t let it rise again you’ll end up with a very dense, though still tasty, bread, since the dough does not have much time to rise once in the oven before developing a hard crust.  A “tighter” loaf will be easier to manage when you handle it again before baking.

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Technology has revolutionized the kneading step of making bread.  With a Kitchen Aid mixer you can have perfectly kneaded dough in 7 minutes; with the powerful blades of a food processor, you can have it in less than two. (Mark Bittman tells the following joke: “In the past people had to do this by hand.  To think how sharp their hands must have been!”)  In addition to taking the elbow grease out of this stage, these appliances allow you to work with a much wetter dough than would be comfortable by hand–dough sticks more to your hands than to plastic or metal–which in my opinion yields a better loaf that rises more easily.

What “kneading” does is elongate and weave the gluten proteins in the dough.  Working the dough pulls the gluten into long and stretchy strands which then form a kind of “rubber band quilt.”  The layers of gluten catch the bubbles released by the yeast and make the dough rise. They also are necessary for a combination of tenderness and chewiness and for a smooth, taut crust.

Whether you’re using a sponge or not, when you first mix your ingredients, do so only for a short amount of time and then let the dough rest  covered with plastic wrap for twenty minutes.  This will allow the flour to absorb the water on its own and for everything to loosen up.  This will make kneading more effective because the “mixing” portion will already be done. (The first picture above shows this step.)

If kneading with a machine, use the times given above and for a Kitchen Aid mixer use number 5 or 6 (medium speed).  With a food processor, the dough should form a ball that rolls around on the blade when ready.  By hand, the motion you want is to push away/stretch the dough and fold it back over and then rotate 90 degrees.  Given what you are trying to achieve with the gluten strands, the motion is pretty intuitive and natural.  The dough is ready when it passes the “windowpane test.”  If you take a small piece of dough you should be able to pull it taut and thin enough to let pass light through without the dough tearing.  (The second picture above shows how this very wet dough looks after a thorough kneading.)

Once done, leave it in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap to let it rise.

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Baking Bread: Part 2

While the simplest bread recipes start by kneading all the ingredients together, I haven’t quite got the energy to jump right into kneading quite yet, and one could even make the argument that an easier way to start a recipe is to basically do nothing and wait four hours before you really begin to do anything at all.  And so that’s how I’m going to begin this post as well, with a sponge.

The real flavor in the bread doesn’t come from the flour or the add-ins, because you could just as easily make a pancake with the same ingredients, but what makes the bread bread is the yeast.  Yeast is for more than rising, though you definitely need it for that, too.  The bubbles that yeast organisms release as they munch on the little sugars in the dough are extremely tasty.  Yeast is the reason that beer tastes so good.  Well, one of them.

In fact, bakers used to get their yeast from breweries, who would have leftovers after fermenting beer.  It’s also possible to capture “wild yeast” by leaving out a solution of water, flour, and sugar by your window.  In fact, every region has distinct yeasts in the air, which is why San Francisco sourdough is so famous.

The easiest way to add complex flavor to your bread is to let the yeast do its thing for as long as possible.  It actually only takes a few hours to get enough bubbles in the dough to get it fluffy, but letting the yeast rise for longer than that is a must.  One option is to simply opt for a long rise after kneading.  Just place the dough in a cool area–even the fridge–for up to 24 hours and then let it warm before shaping.  Another option is to use a “pre-ferment” or a “sponge,” and that’s the direction we’ll take here.

Which brings us back to my point about starting a recipe by doing nothing.  A sponge is basically that: lightly mix some of the ingredients and walk away.  In a few hours the sponge will have developed a delicious yeasty flavor that is ready to knead into the remaining flour.

Recipe for a sponge:

In the bowl you’ll use to mix the dough, whisk together 1 cup of flour (that’s 1 of the 3 cups) and all the sugar, water, and yeast.  Water should be warm but not hot.  The yeast-flour-water solution is the sponge.  In a separate bowl mix the remaining flour and the salt, and then pour that on top of the sponge.  Or skip the mixing and just dump the flour and the salt on top.  Cover with plastic wrap and wait 1-24 hours.  The sponge will begin to ferment and will even bubble through the flour covering it.  The longer you let it go, the deeper the flavors.  Then you knead everything together, let it rise, and after a few more bells and whistles, everything is ready to bake.

Whether you use a sponge or not–and I only do half the time–the key is to let the yeast ferment for as long as possible.  It’s all about time so you actually want the yeast to ferment slowly.  Putting the dough or the sponge in a warm place will fill the dough with bubbles quickly, but they will be bland bubbles.

If you don’t use a sponge, you may need to “wake up” the yeast before you use them.  This is called “proofing” and is just a fancy name for mixing the yeast with some water and sugar to give them something easy to eat right away.  Later they’ll eat the sugars in the flour, which aren’t as simple.  When proofed, the water with the yeast will start to bubble.  Also, some people say that sugar or salt or fat will kill the yeast or at least inhibit fermentation.  I haven’t noticed it so consider that one less thing you need to worry about.

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Glazed Maple Cookies

Last March, the girls’ annual house vacation was a gluttonous food tour up in central Vermont. Over the course of three days, we sampled serving after serving of ice cream, cider donuts, mustards, and cheese. But the real highlight of the trip began with a friendly couple we met at the local Episcopal church. Lew and Audrey Coty run a family-owned maple syrup farm, and the day we were there happened to be a major maple syrup tapping day. Armed with a few obscure directions and Laura Ingalls Wilder fantasies, off we headed to Nebraska Knoll Sugar Farm.

This sugar farm was incredible! In addition to a factory tour and free hot cider, Lew and Audrey had a maple syrup tasting station set up outside in the driveway, complete with a big wooden trough full of fresh snow and a small gas stove boiling maple syrup on the side. Every so often, one of the Cotys drizzled boiling maple syrup across the trough of snow. The maple syrup hardened just enough for us to twirl it around our plastic forks and lick off with great satisfaction.

Now short of another visit to Stowe, these maple cookies are the only comparably satisfying experience to be had with maple syrup! Most cookies and baked goods that involve maple syrup are just not maple-y enough, maple syrup on pancakes while delicious are also a poor showcase of the sheer awesomeness of maple syrup. That said, you should really try these cookies — they are fantastic.

Glazed Maple Cookies

Cookie Dough:

1 1/2 c flour
1/2 t salt
1/2 c butter, room temperature
1/2 c maple sugar (brown sugar is fine also)
1/4 c maple syrup1 egg yolk


1/4 c maple syrup
coarse salt

Combine flour and salt. In a separate bowl, beat soft butter and sugar until light and fluffy using an electric mixer. Beat in maple syrup and egg yolk until even. Reduce the mixer beat on low, and gradually add in the flour mixture. Mix until completely combined and crumbly.

In your hands, form little balls from the dough around 1  1/2 inches in size. Place them on two baking sheets 2 inches apart. Flatten the cookies using the bottom of a glass or mug. Bake the cookies at 350 F for 12-14 minutes until the edges turn slightly golden.

While the cookies are cooling, prepare the glaze. In a small pot, bring maple syrup into a boil and simmer until it has reduced to about 3/4 of the original amount. Spoon the thickened maple syrup on top of the cookies and sprinkle with coarse salt. Let the glaze set for a few minutes before serving.

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What was I thinking? I don’t think any of these pictures do justice to the sheer bulk of nuts and seeds I tried to force into my poor loaf of whole-wheat bread. Even after baking, this bread was aggressively spewing nuts and seeds everywhere! This bread was definitely not one of my best works, and to be honest, we’ve had nothing but trouble with this silly Jim Lahey phenomenon. Thankfully we’ve resolved to give up on this method and have moved on to bigger and better bread-making recipes, but nevertheless here’s the no-knead bread recipe adapted from Sullivan Street Bakery.

No-Knead Bread

3 c flour (1/2 whole wheat)
¼ t active dry yeast
1¼ t salt
1 c sunflower seeds, currants, chopped hazelnuts,  almonds, walnuts

In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (such as Le Creuset) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Pick up dough and drop into pot, scoring a few times. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is browned. Cool on a rack.

** Better bread recipe to come!

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Today was my last day at ISERP, and for the occasion, (in vague remembrance of an office cook-off held last fall), I made curried pumpkin brownies. These weren’t my best, unfortunately — I was hoping they’d be denser, thicker, more like a brownie than like a cake — but nonetheless, the indiscriminate sweet-toothed office-mates scarfed them down with a round of accolades. Goodbye, ISERP, I’ll miss you!

Curried Pumpkin Brownies (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

8 T butter
6 oz. bittersweet chocolate chips
2 c all-purpose flour (1/2 whole wheat)
1 t baking powder
1/2 t curry powder
1/2 t salt
1 c sugar
4 eggs
1 T vanilla extract
1 1/4 c pumpkin
1/4 c vegetable oil
1 t ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan or dish. (I used a 7×11 and the brownies were extraordinarily thick.)

Melt chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, stirring occasionally until smooth.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, curry powder, and salt in a large bowl; set aside. Put sugar, eggs, and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; beat until fluffy and well combined, 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in flour mixture.

Pour half of batter (about two cups) into a separate bowl and stir chocolate mixture into it. In other bowl, stir in the pumpkin, oil, and cinnamon. Transfer half of chocolate batter to prepared pan smoothing top with a rubber spatula. Top with half of pumpkin batter. Repeat to make one more chocolate layer and one more pumpkin layer. Work quickly so batters don’t set. With a small spatula or a table knife, gently swirl the two batters to create a marbled effect.

Bake until set, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool in pan on a wire rack.

24 brownies

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