Posts Tagged ‘Bread’

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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Hello readers! Our Fourth of July week was a whirlwind of fun, resulting in 4 parties, 2-3 house guests, and minimal blogging. We kicked off the week with a dinner party for some new friends, capped it off with a celebration at Caseus, and filled the rest of the week with baking and cooking galore!

Our Fourth of July menu included the following:

  • Lechon roasted on the grill
  • Thai-inspired summer slaw
  • Grilled bread
  • Corn on the cob
  • Strawberry-blueberry pie
Lechon is a traditional pork dish in Spain and in former Spanish colonial possessions (including Venezuela). It’s typically a whole suckling pig roasted over charcoal for several hours, until it’s deliciously tender and smoky. Somehow, we couldn’t find a whole pig to buy (darn you, New Haven!) so we settled for a shoulder instead.
10-lb. pork shoulder, lean (for 15 people, with leftovers)
1 jalapeno, sliced thinly
2 onions, sliced thinly
dry rub, enough to cover surface of pork
Advance preparation: 24 hours before cooking, rub the pork liberally with your favorite dry rub. Ours was a homemade concoction of paprika, crushed red pepper, oregano, garlic powder, cracked black pepper, salt, and coffee. Wrap tightly and refrigerate. (If you fail to wrap tightly, your refrigerator may smell like pork for days!)
Day of: Light up the grill by placing hot coals on one side only of the grill. Place pork, onions, jalapeno in a grill-safe container. We used a disposable aluminum foil tray. Cover pork with two sheets of foil, leaving a bit of a crack at the top. The foil ensures that the pork will not dry out in its 8-hour sauna session, and the crack at the top ensures a wonderfully smoky flavor to circulate.  Place the pork on the other side of the grill where there are no coals. This ensures that the pork will cook with indirect heat. Do something else for the next eight hours and you might need to add more coals after 4 hours. Return, and remove pork from grill. Let it sit for one hour before serving. Pull apart gently with two forks.

Thai-Inspired Summer Slaw

Half head of red cabbage, shredded finely (on mandoline preferred)
Half head of green cabbage, shredded finely
6 scallions, diced
Fish sauce, to taste
Sesame oil, to taste
Habanero pepper, chopped

Advance preparation: Once the cabbage has been shredded, place in a large bowl and salt heavily. Refrigerate for 24 hours at least. This steps breaks down the toughness and bitterness of the cabbage.

Day of: Squeeze the excess water out of the shredded cabbage. There should be a pool of salted water sitting at the bottom of the bowl. Discard water. The cabbage should be nicely tender and slightly salty. Add scallions and habenero pepper, and mix well. Add fish sauce and sesame oil to taste, and mix well. Let sit for at least 1 hour before serving.

Strawberry-Blueberry Pie with Mark Bittman’s Crust

1/2 c whole wheat flour
1/2 c all purpose flour
1 t sugar
1/2 c butter, cold
3 T ice water, plus more as needed
3 c berries
1 T cornstarch
2 T sugar

Advance preparation: The pie crust can be prepared up to two days before baking. Combine the flour, salt, and sugar in the container of a food processor; pulse once or twice. Add the butter and turn on the machine; process until the butter and flour are blended and the mixture looks like cornmeal, about 10 seconds.

Place the mixture in a bowl and sprinkle 3 tablespoons of water over it. Use a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula to gradually gather the mixture into a ball; if the mixture seems dry, add another ½ tablespoon ice water. When you can make the mixture into a ball with your hands, do so. Wrap in plastic wrap, flatten into a small disk, and freeze the dough for 10 minutes (or refrigerate for 30 minutes); this will ease rolling. (You can also refrigerate the dough for a day or two, or freeze it almost indefinitely.)

Day of:  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Ensconce the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap. Roll with light pressure, from the center out. (If the dough seems very sticky at first, add flour liberally; but if it becomes sticky only after you roll it for a few minutes, return it to the refrigerator for 10 minutes before proceeding.) Continue to roll, adding small amounts of flour as necessary, rotating the dough occasionally, and turning it over once or twice during the process. (Use ragged edges of dough to repair any tears, adding a drop of water while you press the patch into place.) When the dough is about 10 inches in diameter (it will be less than ¼-inch thick), place your pie plate upside down over it to check the size.

Move the dough into the pie pan by removing the first sheet of plastic wrap. Place the pie pan upside down on the uncovered side of the dough. Slide your hand underneath the pie crust, then flip both the pan and the dough right side up. Remove the second sheet of plastic wrap. When the dough is in the plate, press it firmly into the bottom and sides.. Trim the excess dough to about ½ inch all around, then tuck it under itself around the edge of the plate. Freeze the dough for 10 minutes.

Toss berries in cornstarch and sugar until well mixed. Fill pie with berries. Bake for 30 minutes or until crust is golden brown.

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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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Writers more qualified than I will do a better job describing homemade bread.  The way it tastes, the way it smells, the way it takes more time and thought and anticipation than anything else you’ll make.  And of course they are right to laud because there is nothing that tastes and smells and teases quite like it.

The misconception is that baking bread is hard or too labor intensive to make it worthwhile.  The Kitchen Aid and the food processor have made the labor irrelevant but even kneading by hand isn’t quite so bad when you are in the bread mentality.  Which is to say, trusting in a process whose final product may not be finished until tomorrow and certainly a few meals from now and the waiting and watching as your dough rises and gently gets pushed down and turned and dusted until eventually you have a warm crusty ball or torpedo that you’ve shaped all along the way.  Just about any step in the process is improved by a little more patience.

The other misconception is that baking bread is a science.  It might be, but my experience is that as long as you do a few things right, the rest of the process is pretty forgiving.   Letting the dough rest or rise for a little longer can compensate for any deficiency in method or style.

The basic recipe we’re going to work from is for a standard European hearth bread.  The ingredients are:
Flour: 3 cups total for all kinds
Water: 1.3-1.5 cups, depending on the flour composition
Salt: 1.5 tsp
Sugar: 1.5-2 tsp (or something else sweet)
Yeast: 2 tsp active yeast

This will be the first post in a yet-to-be-determined-how-long series on bread making.  So for now, we’ll just talk about ingredients.

Bread can be simply made with all purpose flour and not much else.  What makes bread chewy and crusty and what allows it to rise (to be discussed at length later) is the gluten proteins in the flour.  For that reason, bread flour, which has a high protein content, is your “best” choice — if you couldn’t tell from the name.  Avoid cake or pastry flour because the low protein content of those flours is best for light and tender desserts, not bread.

That said, I think the protein content of the flour is not going to be the main determinant of how your bread turns out (but you probably should still stay away from cake flour).  Having used bread flour and all purpose and whole-wheat flour, I’ve found that what matters more is how wet is the dough, how long you knead, and how long you let it rise.  A long knead and a long rise will do much more for a crusty, squishy, chewy loaf than a higher protein count.

So feel free to start with cheap, regular flour and you can experiment later with fancier and more expensive stuff.  White flour alone is not very flavorful but it is good for a soft loaf.  Whole-wheat adds much more flavor but produces a slightly grainy loaf, which is not necessarily worse, either.  We typically will do half whole-wheat flour, but you shouldn’t do more than that except for flat breads. Whole-wheat flour absorbs more moisture, so the more whole-wheat you use, the more water you’ll need to keep the dough moist.  In either case you absolutely must use salt, which will bring out the flavor of the wheat in whatever flour you use.  And for extra flavor add literally anything else you want to the dough — herbs, spices, nuts, dried fruit, caramelized onions.

Finally, you also have flexibility with the yeast, though different yeasts will be “ready” sooner while others require “proofing” (we’ll discuss yeast later).  The sugar in the recipe is just enough to give the yeast something to start nibbling on and so it is my opinion that there is no reason to use anything besides what is most convenient for you.

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This summer has been one of the most exhausting, least restful summers on record.  I realized this morning that I wanted summer to end so that I can relax–among the most ridiculous things a person (in school, no less) could feel.  Though we’re halfway through summer at this point, it still didn’t feel quite summery to me. We decided that some serious therapy was in order, and we picked up a package of chicken thighs, ten ears of corn (in-husk), and lit up the grill.

Yes, the grill!  The newest addition to our family, a beautiful fat-bellied 22.5 inch Weber charcoal grill.  We inaugurated the grill last week with a full rack of spare ribs, rubbed heavily, cooked slowly for three hours, and finished with a cranberry-habanero sauce.  But today was impromptu, so chicken, which cooks in half the time, would do perfectly.

Luckily, Stop & Shop is selling corn 10 ears for $2.  This price, of course, is irresistible.  The only thing better than grilled corn is cheap grilled corn.  Several summers Joann was very excited to make corn chowder, but corn was too expensive for my taste–“It’ll get down to 10 for $2, you’ll see, and then we’ll buy.”  Turned out that summer there was a serious crop failure in the Midwest — the price of corn never fell and this former hedge fund trader missed the trade.  And then never heard the end of it.

For added fun, we’ve started grilling bread.  It’s easier than bread-bread.  Okay, I know some people will say that bread-bread is far from easy–trust me, this is easy.  Standard bread recipe, a single rise for an hour, cut into 8 pieces, roll out or stretch by hand, grill for 2, 3 minutes per side.  And one last experiment: grilled escarole.

Three hours later, we’ve grilled twice as much food as we could possibly (or, had planned to?) eat, and it finally felt like summer.  I needed an evening with iced tea in hand, a smokey grill smoldering away, and piles of smokey corn, chicken, bread, and escarole.   It feels like summer, but we’ve decided to keep up this habit well through the winter.

We’ll have many grilling posts coming your way.

Grilled Corn: You can’t do this wrong, and my family has cooked them all of these right ways.  Leave them in the husks; take them out of the husks; dunk them in water, or don’t; smother them in butter and spices, or don’t.  My favorite just happens to be the easiest.  Shuck the corn, place over a hot fire, don’t do anything else to it.  Flip every few minutes until the corn is cooked all around and (if you desire) lightly charred.  Do not overcook or the corn will dry out; in fact, in peak season corn is good enough that you can eat it raw, so err on that side.

Grilled escarole: Maybe even easier than the corn (at least, by design; this might not be the best way to do it, but it worked for us today).  Cut a head of escarole in half, rinse with water, dry, drizzle with olive oil and salt.  Place over hot grill, flip after a few minutes; escarole should be lightly wilted, lightly charred.  You can use any sturdy “green” (radicchio would be great, but it’s more of a “red” than a “green”).  We topped with another drizzle of olive oil and some grated cheese; a light vinaigrette, or an anchovy-infused oil would work delightfully, too.

Grilled bread: 3 cups flour (recommended: 2 whole wheat, 1 all purpose), 1 cup water, 1 T yeast, 1 T sugar, 1 T salt.  Mix, knead, etc., let rise for one hour.  Turn out on a floured surface and cut into 8 pieces.  At this point you can either roll out with a pin or gently stretch with your hands.  Lightly oil each side of the loaves.  Thicker loaves will give you chewier (read: preferred) final product.  Throw over hot grill; they’ll be ready to flip after 2, 3 minutes when they feel ready to flip (try too early and the dough won’t be set yet).

Barbecue chicken: Whatever you do, use low, direct heat, skin side up for the first hour, flip and cook for another 30 minutes, then apply sauce (if you want) at the very end.  Starting with the skin up will allow the fat in the skin to render and to drip through the meat and it will also keep the fire from flaring up.  Keep the fire low by covering and closing all the vents more or less (each grill holds heat differently, so for some grills you can get away with closing everything, while for others you’ll need to keep at least some–top or bottom–open).  A low, smokey grill will do all the work for you.  But if you want to do a little more work you can marinate (see future posts), or rub the chicken before hand.  See previous rib post for an example of sauce and rub.

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