Let the wild (sourdough) rumpus begin!

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but you can easily substitute the word  “leftovers” or “skepticism” for the word “necessity” and get the same result. I had an abundance of leftovers and skepticism so I was well poised for some inventing. I had to nourish my neglected sourdough starter last night, which left me, as usual, with about 8 oz. of uncertainty. I also had quite a bit of rapidly browning rosemary, half of a forgotten onion in the nether regions of my fridge, and some nice plump tomatoes. So, after a pleasant romp through some new and exciting bread books, I was back to haphazard experimentation with discarded sourdough bits.

A few weeks ago I began my sourdough starter according to the instructions in Bread Alone, but somewhere along the way I’m pretty sure that I flubbed up my proportions and no longer feel comfortable following the book’s sourdough formulas, as the hydration of my starter is likely a far cry from its intended state. This has left me with sourdough avoidance and guilt. When I removed 8 oz. of the starter last night, I replenished the remaining goo with more flour and water and put it back in the fridge with much lingering doubt. I threw 4 oz. flour and 1 oz. water into the starter that I had removed until it resembled something a bit stiffer but not too stiff (as Bread Alone instructs), and I left this on the counter to bubble, hoping that some disaster might befall it so that I could avoid using it altogether.

By the time I got around to thinking about using this intimidating mass of dough, I quite simply didn’t want to, and I put it in time-out in the fridge overnight. Then, the next day, with renewed Yankee thriftiness bolstered by guilt-inspired confidence, I decided I should man up and make an experimental loaf of sourdough something.

Here was my mind set behind the decision to make a sourdough focaccia: focaccia is flat and is supposed to look all knobby. It is also supposed to have tasty things scattered on top of it. If the dough is a failure and it comes out all flat and knobby, that is just superb. Even better, it has toppings behind which it can hide.

So, armed with a plethora of leftovers and a generous portion of skepticism, I began mixing up a dough. Since focaccia is typically a stickier dough with a higher water to flour ratio than, say, French bread, I was careful not to overdo the flour. I took my starter and mushed it up in 8 oz. water. I added 1 tsp. yeast because I wasn’t sure how potent my starter would be after all that neglect. Then I added 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. sugar, and 2 TB olive oil–the key to a nice soft focaccia. I ended up adding in just a little over 12 oz. flour, putting the dough at around 65% hydration–just where a focaccia should be, according to Mr. Reinhart.

Since the dough was pretty sticky, I kneaded for a brief time, and then tried ye olde stretch and fold technique again. I stretched and folded, waited ten minutes, and repeated the procedure a few times until the dough had firmed up a little.

It was still sticky, but now manageable. I coated the dough in olive oil, and let it rise until it had doubled, which took almost two hours. Then I chopped the dough ball in half and began stretching each piece into an amoeba-esque form. The dough very gladly stretched in every direction the second I picked it up, and probably would have stretched to the floor if I hadn’t stopped it. I didn’t want to over handle the dough, though, because some nice big bubbles had formed that would puff up beautifully in the oven. I then busted out my leftovers and covered each piece of dough with a security mask, in case of impending disaster. Each one received a coating of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, and one got rosemary while the other got tomatoes and onions.

After a brief proofing of maybe half an hour, I awkwardly transferred the elastic dough onto the 400 degree oven stone, making mutant amoeba shapes even more absurd than before. The loaves cooked quickly because of their thin nature, and after very little time, my ugly duckling dough had turned into beautiful swan focaccia. The air bubbles that I had carefully avoided deflating made a nice little landscape on the surface of the golden bread, and the bottom had crisped up to just the right degree–not nearly enough to break your teeth, but enough to support the loaf and prevent it from buckling.

I ripped off a corner of the steaming loaf and was very pleased to see and hear a really nice crust and crumb. It tore easily and was filled with lofty air pockets. The bread was somehow simultaneously delicate and crispy–a hybrid soft-crunch that was very toothsome and satisfying.

Although I was sort of winging it on the salt, sugar and olive oil proportions, their flavors seemed well balanced, and were out-shined anyway by a slowly developing sourdough flavor that kicked you in the pants after a few moments of munching. I think because I neglected my starter for so long and made it spend the night in the fridge, the sour flavor really developed some strength. I personally enjoy a strong sour flavor on occasion if it is nestled in a nicely textured crumb, but if your taste buds are timid, you’ll definitely want to pay more attention to your starter than I did.

Regardless of your sourdough sensibilities, try experimenting! I’ve been following recipes and formulas pretty closely the last few days and it felt great to mess around and be foolish. Although I didn’t feel comfortable following any prescribed formulas because of my starter’s uncertain hydration levels, any dough that has been fermenting for a while is bound to add flavor and excitement to an otherwise straightforward bread, and should be added to the mix with zeal.

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I never met a bagel I didn’t like

I will eat just about any bagel–especially if it is toasted and spread with cream cheese. Even a poorly made bagel somehow tastes better than other poorly made food. It is, of course, quite obvious and pleasing when you feast upon a bagel of the highest order, but I will happily settle for a mediocre bagel in a pinch, and I will probably enjoy it. That being said, I’d never considered making my own bagels. When I pictured bagel making, I imagined mysterious dough formulas, giant vats of swirling boiling water, highly precise temperatures, hours of attention-requiring steps, and all sorts of other scary stuff. I don’t know where I got these notions. For some reason I relegated bagels to the “intimidating baked goods” category of my food brain, along with croissants and fondant icing, never allowing it to reside in the very accessible “bread” category where it belongs. It didn’t really occur to me that if I could enjoy a half decent bagel at the airport, then I could probably enjoy a half decent bagel from my own kitchen. I never bothered to clear up my bagel confusion (until today, of course) and preferred to enjoy their tastiness with a side of mystery and misinformation.

Once again, Peter Reinhart entered the scene, and so on and so forth. (Mr. Reinhart, I promise I will stop sharing your recipes so frequently, it’s just hard to resist!) Once again making life easy and making bread tasty, Reinhart’s signature overnight fermentation cut out at least 50% of the mystery and intimidation that comprised my silly bagel notions. (I used his bagel recipe from Artisan Breads Every Day–an even further simplified and perfected version of the one that appears in Bread Baker’s Apprentice) Ready to apply the same principal of drawing out the most flavor through a long and temperature-reduced fermentation period in the fridge overnight, I began by mixing together the dough.

I combined 1 TB honey (as I had no barley malt syrup), 1 1/4 tsp. dry active yeast (or 1 tsp. instant yeast), 1 1/2 tsp. salt, and 9 oz. lukewarm water. I then mixed in 16 oz. bread flour and began to knead. I hadn’t entirely prepared myself for such a different hydration percentage, and had to remind myself that the dough was supposed to feel this stiff. The higher ratio of flour to water is what makes bagels what they are–chewy and dense and delicious. After a few minutes of preliminary kneading I got into my bagel groove and had accepted the dough for what it was. I then gave the dough a wee rest to pull itself together before a few minutes of final kneading, at which stage it began to feel quite lovely and soft, but still noticeably more stiff than, for example, the dough of a French bread. After an hour-long rise at room temperature, the dough was ready to be manhandled into bagel shapes.

This is where I could sure use some practice. I tried both the “roll into a rope and seal the ends” method of bagel formation, and the “poke a hole in the center and expand” method. I found that I wasn’t particularly gifted at either. No matter which way I shaped, one side was always a bit lumpier than the other, and on occasion, my bagels ended up looking like very thin hula-hoops before I squished them back into recognizable cherubic forms. Regardless, each 4 oz. dough ball ended up bagel-esque.

I brushed these little fellows with olive oil, covered them tightly and stuck them in the refrigerator for their overnight transformation. When I got home from work today, I pulled them out of the fridge, and played the bobbing-for-raw-bagels game. If you stick one of the bagels in a bowl of cold water and it floats, they are all ready to be boiled and baked. If it doesn’t float, you let them proof a little longer and then try again. My little guys were as buoyant and seaworthy as could be, straight out of the fridge, so I got to work boiling some water. At this point, the other 50% of the bagel mystery fell away. No scary and rigid temperature requirements or crazy close monitoring of salinity and acidity levels with test tubes and vials and beeping implements.

The only set-back was that I discovered a nice and steady drip in the bottom of my prized Goodwill purchase–the only correctly sized pot I had for this kitchen experiment. My two alternate vessel choices, aside from welding my leaky pot back together, were either insanely huge or outrageously tiny. I discovered that the insanely huge option, while allowing all of my bagels to boil at once, would never fit on top of my miniature burners, so I went the outrageously tiny route and boiled bagels one or two at a time.

I brought my small pot of water up to a boil, brought it down to a steady simmer, and then added 1 1/2 tsp. honey, 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda, and 1/2 tsp salt (reduced versions of Reinhart’s proportions) to make my “poaching liquid.”

I dropped each bagel in the liquid for a one minute bath on one side, and then flipped it for a thirty second bath on the other side.

After each poaching, I sprinkled a bounty of seeds on top of the now rather sticky little inner tubes, until all six bagels (plus one mini guy) were ready for their final oven treatment.

Sixteen or so minutes later, six (and a half) bread products that actually looked like bagels (much to my surprise!) emerged from my 450 degree oven, all nice and caramelized.

The whole process wan’t remotely intimidating, time consuming, terrifying or disastrous–all of which I had long assumed it would be. It was definitely remotely tasty, and I dare say even quite tasty. On the scale of airport bagel to whatever the opposite of airport bagel would be, these were definitely on the favorable end. The interior was soft and chewy and dense without being brick-like, and the exterior was golden and sweet. Zoom in on the interior!

And zoom in on the exterior!

The body of the bread itself was very flavorful from the long overnight fermentation and from the small amounts of honey and salt, but I couldn’t resist my favorite bagel combination, and I defiled my beautiful new bread with cream cheese. Thank you Peter Reinhart for your bagels, I will now be giving you a break so as to avoid publishing all of your recipes and receiving copyright infringement notices.

Why don’t you put some beer in that bread?

Things that are getting old in my fridge: beer, milk, mozzarella.

Things that are getting old on my counter top: onions.

Ways in which to combine old beer, milk, mozzarella, and onions into a tasty delight: at least one.

What could have been a field day for the critters who scavenge the compost pile turned into a bountiful oven harvest, all thanks to Mr. Reinhart, who saved these foods from their moldy demise with his soft cheese bread recipe from Artisan Breads Every Day. The approach throughout this book really capitalizes on the “delayed fermentation through refrigeration” concept initially presented in his pain a l’ancienne recipe. Every bread made with this method feels like cheating, but in a really tasty way. The overnight refrigerator magic provides every flavor benefit of using a pre-ferment and a long first rise, except you are sleeping while it happens, and you don’t actually have to do any of the work. It’s like watching Emeril take a perfectly baked cake out of oven number two, just seconds after he hurriedly plopped a tin-full of batter into oven number one. If I may quote Mr. Lagasse–“BAM!”

I did a little prep work for this magic trick last night, and followed Reinhart’s recipe (which I halved) for soft cheese bread. In one bowl, I mixed together 14 oz. bread flour, 1 tsp. salt, and 2.5 TB granulated sugar. In another bowl, I combined 4 oz. old refrigerator beer, and 4.5 oz. old refrigerator milk–a blend that really just felt wrong.

I then added 2 3/4 tsp. dry active yeast (Reinhart uses 2 1/4 tsp. instant yeast) to my beermilk to make it even more disgusting. (What’s important in this step is that the liquid is lukewarm so that the yeast has a brief chance to activate before it is put in the fridge to cool–contrary to the directions in the pain a l’ancienne). At the same time, I melted 1 TB butter, and tossed my 3.5 oz. chopped old onions in the melted butter. Reinhart has you mix the onions in later, but I wanted to infuse my butter with oniony flavor so I jumped the gun. Finally, I mixed all of my dry and wet ingredients together, and kneaded for maybe 5-10 minutes until the dough felt nice and smooth, and my hands smelled permanently of onions.

The whole thing went straight into the refrigerator, and I went straight to bed. Then the Nutcracker music began and the little enzymes danced silently onto the doughy stage in the darkness of the fridge to begin their secret work. 17 hours later, I returned home, took the bowl out of the magic cooling chamber, divided my nicely risen dough into two, and set to work using up the old cheese–the last of my salvaged ingredients.

I spread each dough ball into a rectangle and unleashed a torrent of dairy upon them (and perhaps also a little dusting of maple pepper). I then rolled the dough up as one would a cinnamon roll, and sealed the seams. I left one loaf whole, hiding the cheesy innards, and the other I chopped into revealing swirls of cheesy heaven. These I let rise/proof for 1 1/2-2 hours, at which point they were nice and chubby and ready to be baked.

I stuck everything in my 350 degree oven, and 20+ minutes later, the room was flooded with the rich scent of cheesy, bready goodness. BAM! My own kitchen’s Emeril magic, right before my eyes. The little rolls had puffed up beautifully and were golden brown and light as a dream. They popped out of the tin and into my mouth.

Reinhart was holding back a little when he entitled these “soft” cheese rolls. If space had allowed, I’m guessing he would have preferred to call them “aromatic and pretty, alternately sweet and savory, flaky, light and soft” cheese rolls. Personally, I prefer “nearly compostable, but so much more delicious this way” rolls. Truly, every element of these rolls pleased my sensibilities–this isn’t just an enriched bread in which the flavors of the additives dictate the flavor of the whole. This is a bread in which the complex flavors of the flour are unleashed in conjunction with the flavors of the onion, milk, cheese and beer, to create a beautiful crumb, golden crust and a nicely enhanced bready flavor.

I have to say, of all the old leftovers that made their way into this bread, I attribute the greatest accomplishments to the beer–itself a yeasted and bubbly product (and, coincidentally, a home brew). I think from now on, I may tipple a little when I make other breads, in the hopes that a few ounces of beer may find their way into the dough.

When life gives you squash, make squash bread

Everybody likes the sound of pumpkin bread (that is, if they like pumpkins). Pumpkins are non-threatening and jolly, we make faces on them and eat them, and they are generally accepted into the world of sweets with open mouths. Pumpkin pie is perhaps the most heartily welcomed dish at Thanksgiving. Yet if you plunked down a butternut squash pie in the middle of the dessert table at your next family gathering, you may very well be bumped back down to the kids’ table and kindly asked to refrain from bringing dessert ever again. What about acorn squash cookies or red kuri cupcakes? There are so many delicious winter squash with sweet, easily mash-able flesh that play second fiddle to the pumpkin in the baked goods orchestra. Perhaps I am wrong, and there are lots of folks who are welcomed by eager eaters when they show up at Thanksgiving with a sweet delicata pie, but I feel that winter squash sweets, if not under the guise of the great pumpkin, are looked at suspiciously.

With this in mind, please don’t gag when I tell you that today’s bread is a sweet maple butternut loaf. Since enriched breads don’t require as much time–as the flavor comes largely from the additions, rather than from long flavor-inducing fermentation periods–I thought that a squashy loaf would be perfect for a lazy, low-effort Sunday. I had a couple of butternut squash hanging around, so I chopped up, boiled and mashed the smaller of the two. The flesh was nice and sweet and a beautiful dark orange. I flipped to a pumpkin bread recipe (again with the pumpkin) in Bread by Eric Treuille & Ursula Ferrigno to give me a procedural guideline. The recipe is mostly theirs, although I thought maple syrup would be a nice substitution for honey, and I measured by weight instead of by cup.

I began by dissolving 2 tsp. yeast in 2 oz. water (I think next time, I will use milk instead of water to make a more rich and flavorful crumb, since I’m already going the sweet route).

To this I added 2 tsp. maple syrup (again, next time I will add a bit more sweetener to make a richer loaf, although 2 tsp. sweetener makes a very pleasant loaf with mild sweetness). Then I mixed in about 10 oz. of mashed butternut squash, but any sweet winter squash will do. Finally, I added 2 tsp. salt, a dash of cinnamon for good measure, and 16.5 oz. bread flour at which point the dough felt just right, and I gave it a good kneading.

The butternut lent the dough a very lovely color and a supple softness that made it quite pleasing to knead. I let the little orange dough ball rise for about 2 hours, at which point I shaped it into a boule, and let it proof for another hour or so. Just before popping it into a 425 degree oven, I brushed the top with maple syrup to give it a nice shine and to reinforce the maple flavor that I had only hinted at in the dough.

After about twenty minutes in the oven, the loaf had turned a beautiful deep brown, and sounded hollow when given a good rapping on the bottom.

Just to be extravagant, I brushed the hot loaf with another coating of maple syrup, and waited impatiently for the bread to cool down enough for me to judge its tastiness.

Despite my extreme lack of hunger after a very large and delicious breakfast, I couldn’t resist nibbling away at the first slice of rich, moist, deep orange bread that was steaming away on my countertop. One look at the cross-section was enough to fill me with momentary fake hunger, and I munched away happily.

Sure, butternut squash bread may sound a bit weird, but let me tell you of its many agreeable attributes that performed a lovely song and dance on my palate as I snacked away. To begin with, the moisture of the squash made the most tender, slightly chewy crumb you could ever wish for. Then you have the sweetness of the squash–encouraged but by no means masked by a small amount of maple syrup–that infused each bite with a rich and deep, yet not overwhelmingly squashy flavor. Finally, the color of the squash made me want to consume the loaf with my eyes, and its comforting fragrance kept me sniffing around my kitchen all morning. The maple glaze not only finished the loaf off with a nice shiny and crunchy crust, but its sweet burst hinted at the subtle maple flavors within the bread.

This loaf could definitely be made into more of a typical “sweet bread” by adding a little more syrup or honey, maybe a little more cinnamon, and substituting milk for water, but I found that its mellow flavor made it more versatile. Not only was it a nice accompaniment for a hearty vegetable stew, but it could easily be spread with honey for a sweet snack, or grilled with cheese for a savory lunch. So, in conclusion, don’t play favorites with the pumpkin–its many brothers and sisters in the winter squash family are a talented and delicious bunch, and they are tired of being relegated to the savory table.

Pain a l’Ancienne–a delightful and entirely misnamed bread

Unless modern refrigeration dates back a bit further than I realize, there is nothing “ancient” about this bread formula, as the name begs you to believe. The general principal behind pain a l’ancienne (as relayed to me by my new favorite book in the whole wide world–Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice) is that the dough is made with ice cold water, and is immediately plunked down in the fridge where it remains overnight, effectively putting the kibosh on yeast activation. Because the yeast is napping, the enzymes in the dough can go to work breaking the complex carbohydrates down into simple sugars without interruption. In a dough fermented at room temperature these newly freed sugars would be gobbled up pac-man style by the yeast–which is active because of the warmth–whereas the sugars in the refrigerated dough remain uneaten as long as the yeast slumbers in the cold. When the dough is removed from the fridge the next day, the little yeasties begin munching on all of the sugars, but can only process so much food before baking time. This means that a sugar reserve remains, lending a wonderful rich flavor to the dough and providing fodder for that lovely crust caramelization. Although I am enjoying the image of toga-ed Romans popping bowls of dough into the fridge and fiddling around with magnetic poetry, I’m pretty sure the ancients didn’t chill their dough in this manner, and must conclude that the name is a bit fanciful (Reinhart rightfully suggests that a more appropriate name would be pain moderne).

After reading Reinhart’s first chapter in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, I was especially intrigued by the pain a l’ancienne. Not only is it clear that this particular “delayed fermentation” method revolutionized Reinhart’s own approach to bread making, but that it would revolutionize (and perhaps currently is revolutionizing) bread making altogether. This sounded like a promising first loaf to try from my treasured new book.

Despite all the talk of revolution, this is an incredibly simple bread formula. It feels almost like cheating to get such seriously excellent loaves with so little effort, but then you get over that guilt and just enjoy eating your bread. So, here it is:

I cut the recipe in half, as it makes approximately six baguettes, and I can only eat approximately one baguette. I can now give away approximately two baguettes.

Last night, I mixed together 13.5 oz white wheat flour (Reinhart says to use bread flour, but I only had all-purpose which has a slightly lower protein content) with 1 1/8 tsp. salt, 7/8 tsp. instant yeast, and 9 oz. ICE COLD water. The recipe calls for 7 or 8 minutes of electric mixer action, as the dough is rather wet. Having no electric mixer, and not being able to really knead as I would with a drier dough, I improvised a hands-in-the-bowl “kneading,” which turned into a hands-in-the-air “agitating,” as the bowl refused to stay in one place and was banging around annoyingly. After looking ridiculous with my air kneading for a sufficient length of time, I wrapped the bowl of dough in a bag (to keep the moisture in) and stuck it in the fridge.

I somehow managed to fiddle with the fridge dial enough to avoid deep freeze, and found a nice ball of dough, somewhat risen and a happy 40 degrees, when I pulled it out of the fridge this afternoon. After 2 1/2 hours in my warm kitchen, the dough had finished doubling in size, and I prepared it for the chopping block.

Careful not to deflate the dough, I divided this blob into three awkardly shaped (or shall I say rustic) loaves, and slashed the tops.

My oven was a toasty 475 degrees when I slid these guys in, and I gave them a nice steam bath to get things going. After 10 minutes I made all the loaves switch places in the oven to avoid the uneven browning that was setting in, and 5 or so minutes later, they emerged all evenly and beautifully caramelized and crackling. I can’t express how satisfying that crackle is to me.

I don’t wish to belittle the quick faux-French baguettes that I made the other day, but there truly is no comparison between that bread, and what I just pulled out of the oven. The natural sugar in these loaves, so cleverly retained through delayed fermentation, formed the most pleasing caramel crust–one that was made thick and crackly by high temperature, steam, and an oven stone. Because the enzymes were given such ample opportunity to deconstruct the flour (18 hours in the fridge) a many-leveled and rich flavor emerged along with a smooth and perfectly chewy texture, with lovely little holes scattered throughout the crumb.

The more I chewed on the bread, the more the flavor and texture crescendoed into a power ballad on my palate. For the first time, I felt like I had produced bona fide bread. For such a simple and logical process, the resulting loaves were so complex, in the best way possible. I was mighty pleased, as you may be able to tell. What I further love about this formula is that, according to Reinhart, this is a great dough base not only for baguettes, but also for focaccia, ciabatta, and pizza. So easy, so versatile, so delicious. With a little olive oil on top and some greens to balance out my outrageously high bread intake, this made a nice little dinner.

Thanks a million, Peter Reinhart!

The Three Little Loaves

The Three Little Loaves: a tale of blind experimentation, mis-matched techniques, and all sorts of other good stuff.

Act I: in which my sourdough starter turns one week old, and I goof up

The other night my gurgling little starter, having sat in the fridge for seven whole days, was ready for its one-week birthday feast. I stirred in the appropriate amounts of flour and water, stuck the little fellow back in the fridge, and went to bed. Yesterday morning, I realized that I had skipped a crucial step: removing a portion of the starter before adding fresh food. I rushed to the fridge to discover a yeasty volcano almost ready to erupt. I popped the top off just in time, and quickly poured out 8oz. of the fragrant goo, approximately the amount that I should have removed earlier.

Act II: in which I can’t bring myself to throw away sourdough starter

The only way I’ve learned (thus far) to use sourdough starter is to convert my entire starter seed into a levain, use a portion of the levain for bread, and convert the remaining levain back into a starter seed. Now I had only 8 oz. of recently fed starter seed, and no perfectly clear notion of what exactly to do next, other than to not throw it away. I decided that I might as well try to make the goo into a levain, and just wing it on the proportions, trying to use Bread Alone‘s sourdough chapter as, at least, a descriptive guideline. The true levain was described as being a rather thick dough, so I added 3 oz. white wheat flour to my 8 oz. starter seed. This made it just a bit too thick, so I added 1 oz. water to even things out. This seemed relatively promising, so I left my converted starter in a 75 degree oven for optimal development and went out to run some errands.

Act III: in which I read too many bread books and internet articles on sourdough, thus muddling my brain

I got stuck in the cookbook section of the book store while waiting for my laundry to be done, and started skimming through Peter Reinhart’s many beautiful books. Techniques, proportions, times, temperatures, tools and ingredients were flooding my brain, and once I got home I couldn’t stop with all the bread reading. I opened up the flood gates of the internet, and became so saturated with various and rather disparate bits of sourdough information that I started to feel overwhelmed. In the end, my sweet tooth directed me. I really felt like eating cinnamon raisin bread and since I had a nice little bread base already bubbling away, I thought it might as well be a cinnamon raisin sourdough.

Act IV: in which my dough is experimented upon

Since cinnamon raisin sourdough sounded odd enough to me to potentially be a disaster, I thought this would be an opportune time to play around with the various recipes and techniques vying for space in my head. I used the sourdough chapter of Bread Alone, along with a simple and concise sourdough website as general references for proportions and timings. I peeked at an actual cinnamon raisin sourdough recipe to inspire my ingredient additions, and, just for giggles, tried out the “stretch and fold” technique that I had briefly skimmed in Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day.

After 5 hours, my starter had doubled and had become all nice and bubbly, ready to be made into dough.

To my starter I added 4.5 oz milk and 3.5 oz. water (I would have used milk for the full 8 oz. but I ran out after 4.5). I melted about 2 TB butter and 1 1/2 TB honey together, and added this to the mix as well, breaking the gooey starter up with my fingers. I next added 1 1/2 tsp. salt, about 14 oz. white wheat flour, and a dash of cinnamon. I thought about adding a little booster of yeast just in case, but I wanted to see if my starter had the strength to raise a loaf as it should.

I kneaded the dough for a couple of minutes until the ingredients were incorporated, and then tried out the “stretch and fold” method. I really didn’t read up on this technique thoroughly enough to understand it completely, or to implement it properly, but I gave it a go anyway. My very simplistic understanding of “stretch and fold” was that if you are dealing with a rather wet dough, as I was, you can avoid a long manual kneading by periodically stretching and folding the dough. Apparently this provides enough stimulation to develop the gluten properly. I thought I remembered Reinhart suggesting three “stretch and fold” episodes, spaced out by ten minute resting periods (although I very well could have remembered this incorrectly) so this is what I did. The dough was definitely still sticky but not unmanageable after all the stretching and folding.

I let the dough ferment for about 2 hours, punched it down, and let it rise again for maybe another 1 1/2 hours. Since everything about this bread was experimental, I got out the miniature loaf pans, because three mini cinnamon raisin loaves were bound to still be cute even if the bread was a disaster. I divided the dough into three parts, flattened each into a rectangle, and doled out a generous coating of melted butter, cinnamon sugar, and raisins.

I rolled the rectangles up, sealed the bottoms, and nestled each roll in a tiny tin, brushing butter over the tops for good measure.

These proofed for about half an hour, and then went straight into a 400 degree oven. When I peeked into the oven to check on the loaves, I was so happy to see that they were growing taller–a sure sign that my sourdough starter had some muscle. Once the little guys were golden brown and hollow sounding, I pulled them out and let them cool

I was most excited to cut into the bread not because there would be a raisin-y swirl to see, but because I really wanted to find out if the bread was tasty. I had played around with so many elements in this bread that I didn’t know quite what to expect.

Finale: in which my taste buds are pleased!

As the authors of Bread Alone had suggested, making a stiffer starter really did reduce the “sour” flavor in the bread, infusing a depth of flavor without the overwhelming bite. Although I love a good and sour sourdough, a gentle richness was more appropriate for a sweeter bread such as this. The crumb was beautiful–light and pleasant and quite unlike my first dense and chewy sourdough. The butter, honey, milk and salt that I added to the dough proved to be just right in proportion–the dough wasn’t competing with the sugar swirl for sweetness, and instead provided a nice soft base upon which the swirl could be enjoyed.

Since I was prepared for an epic sourdough failure, these little loaves provided a nice strife-free experimental opportunity. Although there is still a lot of information out there on sourdough approaches and techniques that I have yet to absorb, I feel a little closer to finding my own way and my own comfort level. The extreme tastiness of my experiment was an excellent bonus, and a most encouraging one at that.

Not-so-French French bread for a lazy Sunday

If there were some culinary crisis in which it were decided that only one type of bread could exist in this world, I would undoubtedly choose baguette as my life-long bread companion. It is such a versatile loaf, happily accepting both savory and sweet toppings, grilling up nicely when made into a sandwich, toasting beautifully when cut into little rounds for crostini or sliced the long way for garlic bread, easily rip-able for instant hand-to-mouth conveyance, perfectly pleasant without any toppings, a nice base for bread crumbs, croutons, or bread pudding, and quite simply beautiful to behold. I love handling baguette dough, and especially enjoy shaping and slashing the loaves. There is nothing more satisfying than gently squeezing a fresh baguette and hearing a million tiny crackles.

Today felt like a baguette kind of day, but I wasn’t sure if I would be around at the proper time intervals to perform the various doughy tasks necessary. Although I’m sure I’ve never made a baguette that any French person would recognize as such, I have a basic baguette system that I am relatively pleased with, involving an initial sponge, two risings, and a proofing. Today, I thought I would try out James Beard’s “French-Style Bread” that simplified these tasks down to one single rising before baking (as found in Beard on Bread–the 2007 edition). As Mr. Beard points out in his introduction to the recipe, this basic bread could be referred to as “French-style,” “Continental,” or “Cuban bread,” which seems to be a way of saying “don’t be offended that I’ve made this dough into a baguette shape–I know it’s not really baguette, but it’s a good honest loaf and I like the shape.”

This sounded perfect to me. Cutting the recipe roughly in half (and playing around a little with the flours that I added), I dissolved 2 tsp. yeast and 1 1/2 tsp. granulated sugar in 7 oz. water, and then added 1 1/2 tsp. salt, 9 oz.white wheat flour, and 2 oz. whole wheat flour. After a nice long knead, I had a very soft, supple dough. Although the recipe suggested a 1 1/2 to 2 hour rising time in a warm environment, I found a nice cool corner of my apartment where my dough could rise more slowly for a longer period of time. I knew I would be gone for at least a few hours, so I thought that a 58-60 degree environment would be ideal.

Unlike my deep-freeze refrigerator experiment, the time and temperature in this scenario conspired in my favor, and when I returned five hours later, I had a perfectly doubled dough ball hanging out at exactly 60 degrees–the yeast neither under nor over exhausted.

I deflated the dough, divided it in two, and–just for giggles–shaped one into a baguette, and one into a pain d’epi.

Because Beard’s simplified recipe skips the proofing stage, he instructs the recipe-follower to put the loaves into a cold oven, and then set the temperature to 400 degrees. In this way, the loaves get a brief and accelerated proofing as the oven warms, and then transition straight into baking. It took around 30 minutes from the time the loaves went into the cold oven to the time they emerged all nicely browned–at least half (if not more) of the time it would have taken for them to proof and then bake.

Touching and tasting these loaves revealed a few notable observations: first, that by skipping many of the rising and proofing stages of a true French bread, there was only a mild fermented flavor, and fewer air pockets in the crumb; second, that by starting with the loaves in a cold oven, the thick, crisp crust usually formed on a French bread when shoved into a piping hot oven was missing.

This being said, the bread was most delicious, if not entirely French. The crumb was as soft and supple on the tongue as the dough had been on my hands, and had a perfectly balanced chewiness. It was slightly more dense than a real French bread, as it lacked quite as many lofty air bubbles, but this only served to raise the crumb-to-topping ratio, and allowed the pleasantly mild yeasty flavor to make a bigger appearance in each bite. The versatility of the real baguette was definitely not lost on these loaves. Case in point: excellent vehicle for nutella:

So, Mr. Beard was very diplomatic in calling this a “French-style” loaf, and I consider it an excellent go-to recipe/formula when time is a precious commodity. If one could create a 50 degree environment, this dough would be a perfect contender for a “9 to 5” loaf. The decrease in temperature would allow for a couple more hours of fermentation without over-exhausting the yeast, and the loaves could be popped in the oven immediately upon arrival home–fresh bread ready just in time for dinner.

Thank you, James Beard!