I eat my words–and my quick bread

Tonight I ate humble pie–or more accurately–Irish soda bread. I was passing some serious judgement on quick breads in my last post, and I would like to formally rescind my hasty evaluation. Comparing quick breads and yeasted breads for flavor and texture is a silly endeavor. A quick bread is a quick bread is a quick bread, if you will. In my mind, I’ve somehow come to associate real, good bread with the intimate process of weighing, mixing, kneading, waiting, adjusting. This effort and personal involvement somehow infuses a mental flavor in the bread–you love to eat it because you know it rather well. Because a quick bread, as its name implies, can be made in a jiffy, it carries none of this flavorful significance, and for this reason I dismissed it as an option.

When work went on a bit longer than I expected today, my plans to make a yeasted bread tonight were thwarted. I simply didn’t have enough time before I fell into a deep sleep to make, ferment, and bake a nice yeasty loaf. Although I felt like I was cheating, I decided to bust out the baking soda and make a quick bread.

Having little experience in the quick bread realm, I opened up a tiny little book called the Irish Baking Book by Ruth Isabel Ross, because who better to turn to for quick breads than the Irish?

I opened the book up to the very first and most basic recipe for “brown soda bread,” and in a matter of seconds I had a ball of dough ready to bake. Weird. The recipe, in all its simplicity, was as follows:

Combine: 4 oz. white flour, 12 oz. whole-wheat flour, 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda. 1 1/4 tsp. salt, 1 1/4 cups buttermilk. (I substituted 4 oz. of oat flour for 4 oz. of the whole-wheat, just for a little extra flavor, and, since I was lacking in buttermilk stores, combined a little milk and yogurt to achieve a similar consistency and flavor.)

The finished dough felt so strange and crumbly and unfriendly. It didn’t want to be kneaded, it didn’t want to develop glutenous strands, and it certainly didn’t want any yeasty fellows munching away at it. This was a solid rock of simplicity–traditionally and in actuality a product of necessity, not of luxury. The dough ball, while small, looked like it could do some damage if thrown with any amount of force.

Feeling like I just wasted some fine ingredients on a brick of dough that couldn’t possibly bake into anything remotely delicious, I skeptically shoved the thing in my 400 degree oven and waited for almost a half hour with very low expectations. While the loaf that emerged still had the hefty, dense feel of its cousin dough ball, the magical stuff known as baking soda had rendered a definite transformation. It was like sticking one of those little pill-sized tabs into the bath water, and soon discovering an awesome dinosaur washcloth floating around. Here I had a magically appearing loaf of bread.

This hearty little loaf took literally no more than 45 minutes from first mix to first bite. And first bite was a pleasant surprise: definitely dense, but distinctly flavorful and comforting. Its main flavor was wheat–just what it should be–but the dairy played a nice supporting flavor role, and certainly worked in tandem with the baking soda to create a moist and soft crumb. I added a slab of butter to the equation, and I was definitely in business.

Considering this soda bread on its own, and not as the cheap brother of yeasted bread, I was filled with appreciation. I got all of the warm-fuzzies one gets from smelling baking bread, enjoying the warmth of the oven, and eating the piping hot first slice, but I didn’t have to set aside a whole afternoon to make it happen. This is not to say that I will be making quick breads from now on–far from it–but just that these breads certainly do have a well-earned place on the menu.

Thanks, Ireland.

My “workin’ 9 to 5” rustic loaf

It’s difficult to plan a good loaf of bread around your work day. Quick breads are all well and good, but lack the depth of flavor and complexity of texture that a loaf gets when given ample fermentation time. Since most folks only have a couple of hours between the time they arrive home and the time their tummies start grumbling, ample fermentation time is not exactly an option unless the bread is intended as a midnight snack.

Enter alarm clock and refrigerator.

If your morning self is willing to rise an extra half hour early, your evening self will be most pleased. The basic premise is as follows: you summon all of your energy to knead a few ingredients together in the wee hours of the morning, stick the resulting doughy mass in the fridge, proceed to work, do your work, return home, pull the dough out of the fridge where it has been fermenting at a slow-ish rate for a long-ish time, let the dough enjoy some balmier temperatures for an hour or two, and bake said dough into a fragrant loaf just in time for dinner.

Since my “9 to 5” is more like a “6 to 2,” I found that my brain was a bit more muddled than I would have liked it to be when I rose extra early this morning. In my delirium I threw ingredients into my bowl willy-nilly and ended up with the following mixture:

5 oz. water (I was hoping to make a very small loaf, as I have ample bread stores at the moment)

1/2 tsp. yeast

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. sugar

2-ish tsp. chopped rosemary

a dash of olive oil

a couple small spoonfuls of my sourdough starter for good measure (added not for its leavening abilities, but because I figured a tiny dose of this potent concoction would help boost my loaf’s flavor)

2 oz. whole wheat flour

9-10 oz. white wheat flour

After kneading the dough much like I imagine a zombie would knead–eye’s glazed over, arms stretched out, mouth agape–I popped the whole thing in the fridge and headed to work.

Ideally, my dough would have experienced a little more action by the time I had returned home, but as I remembered upon opening my refrigerator door, this fridge loves to go into deep freeze mode no matter how much you fiddle with the little dial. This meant that I had to let the dough spend a bit more time frolicking in warmer temperatures before I baked it, which would have thrown off my estimated dinner time, had I been a true 9-5-er. In a perfect world, my dough would have approximately doubled over an 8 hour period in a not-too-cold fridge (according to the authors of Bread Alone, a 50 degree environment would be ideal–somewhere between a fridge and a frugally kept house temperature). As it was, I let the dough come up to temperature for nearly 2 hours before shaping it and letting it proof for another half hour to an hour. I then brushed it with olive oil and baked it at around 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes.

Although my time-table was a bit altered due to my enthusiastic fridge, a lovely and very fragrant rustic rosemary loaf popped out just in time for dinner.

The crust was thick and crunchy, and in high proportion to the moist, rosemary-infused interior.

A rustic herbed loaf with a high crust to crumb ratio just begged to be eaten with a hearty stew. Having been sent home last night with a big tub of delicious lentil veggie soup (thanks Mom!), I was able to provide the bread with its perfect complement.

Although this recipe/time formula could definitely use some tweaking, I was able to bake a well-fermented loaf on a work day without bringing my bowl of dough to work with me, as tempting as that might have been. Perhaps a national bring-your-bread-to-work day is in order.

Semolina loaf

Well, Reny’s has me figured out. A giant wall of Bob’s Red Mill products nearly hit me in the face when I walked in, each sporting a very friendly little price tag. Who could resist in the face of such bounty?

I left with a big bag full of whole wheat flour, cornmeal, white rice flour, oat flour, soy flour and semolina flour. Semolina flour interested me in particular because of its high gluten content, a quality widely cherished by pasta-makers. I wanted to cherish this quality too, but with a little yeast thrown in the mix to expand the glorious network of glutenous strands into a loaf of bread, not a strip of linguini. I turned to Bob’s semolina bread recipe to get the basic gist of the proportions one uses when baking with semolina flour, and played around with the recipe to my liking. So, the recipe that follows is part Bob, part Nina.

To begin with, I made a small starter:

7 oz. water

3 oz. milk

2 tsp. yeast

7 oz. semolina flour

4 oz. white wheat flour

(I really wanted to throw a little dairy in this loaf to repeat the soft crumb of the ciabatta, plus I thought it would go nicely with the honey and butter that would soon be added to this rich dough.)

I let the starter do it’s thing for about 1.5 hours, although it could only have benefited from a longer fermentation.

Instead of using olive oil and granulated sugar, I melted together about 1.5 TB butter with 1.5 TB honey, let the mixture cool off a bit so as not to kill the little yeasties, and added it to my starter, along with 2 tsp. salt and about 5.5 oz. white wheat flour.

Kneading this dough was a treat. The fine texture of the semolina flour lent the dough a soft pliability that was most satisfying, and which yielded a little round ball that looked freakishly uniform.

I left my little dough ball to rise in a covered bowl. I was gone a little longer than I had anticipated, so the little guy was not so little by the time I returned home, and I quickly patted him down and stuck him in a loaf pan for a very brief proofing. After a 20-30 minute party in a 425 degree oven, things were shaping up nicely and a fragrant golden loaf emerged.

The first cut was ever-so satisfying–I could tell by the way the knife sliced through the loaf that both crust and crumb were tender and moist and light.

It’s hard to describe exactly what signals my taste buds sent to my brain when I nibbled at the first slice, but they were numerous and delightful. The milk, honey, butter and salt were in perfect balance in a toned-down-kettle-corn kind of way, while the yeastiness and the slightly nutty semolina provided a lovely flavor framework, not to mention a very pleasing texture. It was rich without being overwhelming, and moist without being dense. If I cut out the majority of the sweetener, this dough would make a very good base for an herbed bread, or perhaps dinner rolls. This bread is definitely one that I will be making again.

Thank you, Bob’s Red Mill! More flour experiments to come…

Sourdough, Round One

Sourdough has always intimidated me a little. It’s like looking at the eleven-year-olds in the back of the bus when you are only six. You desperately want the prestige of sitting in those prized seats. You have no idea why they are so elusively enviable, but you know they must be really excellent. The only problem is that when you are six, you are pretty sure you will never be eleven. Until today, I felt that the whole concept of sourdough was shrouded in mystery, much like the back of the bus. When you’re up against stories of decades-old sourdough starters, it’s a little scary to start your own. Luckily, I was armed with an excellent book, Bread Alone, by Daniel Leader & Judith Blahnik, that allowed my six-year-old self to go sit in the back of the sourdough bus.

My infantile starter (or chef, I should say), years away from even being in its adolescence, was nonetheless bubbling away happily after four days of daily feeding.

Following the instructions of the brilliant authors of Bread Alone, I had begun my chef with 4 oz. of flour and 4 oz. of water (along with an added pinch of yeast, since there probably aren’t so many wild little yeasts in my kitchen just yet). Every day for three days, I added another 4 oz. of flour and water each. Yesterday, after tasting a very pungent nibble of dough, I determined that my little chef was ready to transform into a levain. Again per the authors’ instructions, I added 6 oz. of flour, effectively rendering the transformation. I let this mixture sit in the refrigerator overnight to slow it down, since I wouldn’t be able to get to mixing my final dough until a little beyond the recommended fermentation time.

This morning, I measured out the 18oz. of levain that I needed for my bread, and converted the remaining mix back into a chef by adding 2.5 oz. of flour and 7 oz. of water. I stuck this fellow back in the fridge, where he awaits a weekly feeding, and can now provide me with a starter every two days if I so desire. As long as I don’t neglect my chef too seriously, I am now officially on the sourdough wagon!

Following Bread Alone‘s basic pain au levain recipe, I used my hands to break up the 18 oz. of starter with 18 oz. of water (a marvelous gooey job that is just not spoon-worthy). I then added 24 oz. of flour and 1 TB salt. As I kneaded, I probably added in 3 or more oz. of flour until my dough reached just the right consistency. The dough then fermented for 2 hours, went through an awkward pat down/division (I desperately need a dough cutter) and then rested for another half an hour. I next shaped my loaves–one in a torpedo shape, the other in a loaf pan–and let them proof for a further two hours.

With much anticipation, I slid my torpedo loaf into my 425 degree oven, and had a whomp-whomp moment when I realized once again that my loaf’s dimensions exceeded those of my oven. I quickly poked and prodded the loaf as it sat on the rather toasty oven stone and managed to turn it into an S-shaped torpedo without singeing my fingerprints off. After a few rotations, and about 25 minutes, my inaugural sourdough loaf emerged.

It was a silly shape for sure, but it smelled like bread heaven. The scent was noticeably different from any other bread I’ve yet baked-not only yeasty but, well, sour I suppose. It seems that we usually associate “sour” with old milk, or taste bud annihilating candies (warheads, anyone?), but this “sour” was rich and fermented and delicious. My second loaf emerged shortly after, nestled in its ceramic loaf pan-a fantastic invention I was not aware of until this Christmas (thanks Beck!)

The first cut into my S-torpedo revealed a dense crumb with a nice thick crust, and a million tiny air pockets.

As I took my first bite, I was both pleased and surprised. The flavor was incredibly rich–almost nutty–and kept evolving the more I chewed. While my taste buds were pleased with this moist and flavorful experience, my teeth were surprised at how much the bread bounced back upon first munch. It wasn’t tough by any measure, but it was quite chewy. After a few more munches, I became accustomed to the flavor/texture combo, and quite enjoyed it.

I do think, however, that the chewiness of the dough was due to the prolonged fermentation period of my levain. Instead of the recommended 8-10 hours at room temperature, my levain spent about 15 hours in the fridge. I think my little yeasty friends used up too much of their umph by the time I mixed my final dough. Since the yeast in the levain is the only leavening agent in a sourdough bread, it is important that it is not taking a nap by the time you are ready to put it to work. This probably accounts for my slightly flat torpedo, as well as the more dense, chewy texture. The beautiful thing about having my own sourdough starter now is that I can try again in two days!

Thank you to Daniel and Judith for debunking the sourdough mystery with such clarity!

Ciabatta

I’ve always loved ciabatta as the perfect grilled sandwich bread: chewy and toothsome on the outside, tender and pleasantly spongy on the inside. The ideal base onto which one can melt all manner of things that are tasty when melted. This being my first attempt at home baked ciabatta, I followed the recipe laid out in one of my favorites bread books: Bread by Eric Treuille & Ursula Ferrigno (a killer combo of French and Italian baking sensibilities).

The recipe begins with an overnight starter that I allowed to sit out at room temperature (which was probably hovering in the low 60’s) for 24 hours. Since it wasn’t too warm in my kitchen, I figured the little yeasties could handle a slightly longer fermentation period without becoming too exhausted.

Starter:

1/2 tsp. dry yeast

2/3 cup water

3 TB milk

1/4 tsp. honey

1 cup + 2 TB flour

(Side note: after looking at other ciabatta recipes, I realize that this starter formula is relatively unique in that the dairy is included at such an early stage, rather than in the final mixing. The addition of a sweetener–albeit a small amount–also seems to be non-universal in ciabattaworld. I personally like this starter combo, as I think it allows for a deeper flavor to develop, and provides a little more of a feast for the yeast.)

The next day, I followed the rest of the recipe, and added to my starter:

1/2 tsp. dry yeast

1 cup water

1/2 TB olive oil

2 1/2 cups flour

1 1/2 tsp. salt

Per the authors’ instructions, I beat the dough with a wooden spoon for 5 or so minutes, and then let it rise for 3 hours. It was strange not to hand-knead a bread dough, but ciabatta is simply too sticky a dough for hand involvement. In a vain attempt to provide my yeast friends with an ideal work environment, I gave my oven a burst of heat, shut it off, waited for it to cool a bit, and then set the bowl of dough inside to rise. Unfortunately it remained a bit toastier than I thought it would, giving the yeast a chance to party a little too quickly. Once I caught my mistake, I brought the temperature down to a happy 75 degrees, and the little fellows slowed down a bit. After  three hours I had a bubbling bowl full of beauty:

Covering everything, myself included, with a liberal coating of flour, I split the dough in two, and transferred each half in all its sticky glory to a well-dusted baking sheet. The dough felt heavenly. It was soft and supple and just barely firm enough to be manageable. I gently shaped (or encouraged, rather) each blob into what could nearly be considered a loaf-ish form, careful not to expel any of the lovely air bubbles that are so prized in ciabatta. I let these loaves proof for almost half an hour while pre-heating my oven (and beloved bread stone) to 425 degrees.

In a delicate operation, I somehow managed to transfer my loaves into my miniature oven (seriously, it’s tiny) without ensuing disaster. They baked for close to half an hour, with some periodic burn-preventing rotation. When they emerged, I had to laugh a little. According to my lovely bread book, “ciabatta was given its name because the bread resembles a well-worn slipper.” If these slippers were made for Andre the Giant, then this statement would be absolutely true. The loaves were a lovely crackling brown and had expanded beautifully, but had that sort of flattened look that is so typical of comfort footwear after years of experiencing the full brunt of one’s body weight. Nevertheless, I was pleased.

Cutting into and munching on the fresh loaves made me forget about slippers, and focus on the pleasing contrast of crust and crumb-the latter so very tender and soft from the added dairy. Revealing the cross section of a newly baked loaf is always one of my favorite moments, like finding the prize in the king’s cake (although less of a dental risk). You never know what it will reveal about the bread’s inner character and it is almost (almost) as exciting as eating the first slice.

These particular loaves revealed just what I was hoping to see: a beautiful network of air pockets, perfect for mopping up the sauce of dinner to come.

All in all, quite delicious. I think next time I will add a touch more salt, and will use a different blend of white and wheat (a little heavier on the whole wheat). Thank you to Eric and Ursula for writing such an accessible recipe!