A corny journey–from quick bread to yeasted bread

I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy the idea of cutting into a nice thick slice of yeasted chocolate cake, or dipping yeasted muffin bits in my coffee in the morning. I much prefer to get my leavening kicks from baking powder in these particular instances. Its distinct lack of flavor is a definite selling point. Despite the fact that yeast and baking powder perform the same primary function, many recipes have rather exclusive guest lists, and these two ingredients are almost never invited to the same party. These exclusions aren’t necessarily drawn along categorical lines–for example, we welcome yeast in our breakfast repertoire when it is puffing up a cinnamon roll dough, whereas we prefer our scones to be leavened with baking powder. Furthermore, we’re happy to sprinkle some yeast in a king’s cake, but wouldn’t dream of using yeast to leaven a carrot cake. Somewhere along the line it seems to have been collectively determined where and when these two rival ingredients might appear–a decision driven, no doubt, by both expediency and flavor.

There comes a rare time when the same group of ingredients may be joined by either party and a good time is still had by all. Today I happened upon such an anomaly, and decided to invite Mr. Yeast along for the ride, leaving Mr. Baking Powder at home in the cupboard. I speak, of course, about corn bread. When corn is in our bread, it is most often joined by baking powder and eaten with profuse amounts of butter and chili, but yeasted corn bread sounded just as delicious to me, if not a bit more time consuming. Yeast is certainly the slow-poke of the leavening family. James Beard had a lovely looking cornmeal bread recipe in Beard on Bread in which yeast was used, and I thought I would give it a whirl. Besides, I am still trying to use up my ambitious Bob’s Red Mill purchases, among which medium-grind cornmeal featured prominently.

I got some water boiling and began making my dough: (I cut the recipe in half and measured by weight rather than by cup, but this is still Mr. Beard’s recipe.)

I first combined 4 oz. boiling water, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1.5 oz. cornmeal and mixed until the cornmeal was mostly hydrated and thick (my particular cornmeal had a slightly different hydration ratio than that used in the original recipe, but I just ended up pouring off the extra liquid).

I then mixed together 2 oz. warm water, 2 1/4 tsp. yeast, 1 1/2 tsp. granulated sugar, and added this to the corn mix.

This was joined by 4 oz. milk, 1 tsp. additional salt, 2 TB brown sugar, and about 14 oz. white wheat flour. (In reality, I had no milk, but upon discovering some 1/2 & 1/2 in my fridge, I diluted it with a bit of water to make some 1/3 & 1/3 & 1/3 and figured that it would resemble milk closely enough.)

I kneaded everything together for a good long while–probably 10 or more minutes–and then left it to rest.

After almost 2 hours, my dough’s girth had doubled and it was ready to be deflated and shaped.

There wasn’t quite enough dough to warrant the use of this lovely ceramic loaf pan, but I used it anyway because its ability to bake things evenly is irresistible. I let the dough proof for another hour, at which point it was trying in earnest to scale the pan’s walls, and then I popped it in my 425 degree oven. After 10 minutes at the higher temperature, I reduced the heat to 350 and let the loaf continue its transformation for another 20 or 30 minutes. Although there was no way that my tiny amount of dough was going to rise over the top of the pan and create that pleasant muffin-top-spill-over look, I got a good rise out of the little fellah, and it came out looking golden and soft and delicious.

Having just feasted on Newman-O’s, I didn’t have too much of a problem being patient and waiting for the bread to cool before sampling a slice. After digesting my cookie entree for a while, I was ready to weigh in on the “yeasted” versus “baking powdered” corn bread issue, and I sliced into the lovely soft loaf. It had a very smooth and even crumb, typical of a milk bread, and a nice mildly thick crust providing a little contrast.

Despite the visual similarities to milk bread, my first bite revealed a very different and pleasant texture, which was, of course, no surprise as I had added cornmeal to the dough. There was something really satisfying about the way the yeast flavor and the corn flavor interacted, and the rich sweetness of the brown sugar chimed in for a nice three-part harmony. The milk and salt and flour had their own supporting trio going on in the background and it was just a lovely little flavor performance all around. Since I had used a medium grind cornmeal, there were a few coarser bits of corn that accented each bite with a toothsome crunch while the smaller grounds were absorbed into the supporting body of the bread–a very enjoyable chewing experience.

Since the character of this yeasted corn bread is very different from a traditional quick corn bread, the two aren’t really vying for the same gold medal and the leavening rivalry can be forgotten–each corn bread has merits of its own. This particular loaf I would like to use for sandwich bread, or as a vessel for toad-in-a-hole, or even as a cinnamon-sugar toast candidate, whereas traditional corn bread begs to be eaten with a hearty dinner dish, or simply on its own with butter. Depending on your time allowances and your flavor preferences, you now have two delicious choices when faced with a corny hankering.

You stay classy, Irma Rombauer

I realize that there are some pretty serious pizza dough pioneers out there, but I would like to submit that our very own Irma, of the immortal Joy of Cooking, knows a thing or two about making a pie in a pinch. Obviously, in an ideal world–where all doughs are fermented to perfection and flavors abound from the flour alone, aided only by a few choice additives–I would have had enough foresight to make my pizza dough eons before I needed to bake it, thus providing a sufficient time frame for said fermentation. However, in a realistic world, I found myself in need of a pizza dough about three hours before I knew I would find myself in need of a pizza. Since I’m not willing to starve myself in the name of fermentation, I turned to Irma and her pretty stellar pizza dough recipe for those who can’t plan ahead.

In a jiffy, I combined:

10.6 oz. water

2 1/4 tsp. yeast

17-18 oz. white wheat flour

1 TB vital wheat gluten (this I added just for giggles to give my dough a protein boost and to hopefully enhance the texture)

2 TB olive oil

1 TB salt

1 TB granulated sugar

I kneaded for a good 10 minutes and ended up with a nice soft dough.

There is a fair amount of yeast in this dough, since it is intended to be a quick riser and not a slow fermenter. With this in mind, I didn’t mind taking the cheater’s time crunch route by sticking the dough in my slightly warmed-up oven to expedite the rising process. I knew I wasn’t going to get a lot of flavors out of the flour, and I was ok with that–the dough was still going to be lovely and delicious. In Rombauer I trust. After about two hours in the warm oven, the yeast gang had used its force to expand into the glutenous strand territory, and it was ready for some toppings. They say a pizza is only as good as the crust, but there is really no denying that delicious toppings are kind of important. Homemade red sauce, a nice sharp cheddar, and some Applegate pepperoni (for the pepperonitarian in us all) got nice and friendly with the beautiful, smooth olive oily dough base. I intentionally added as little flour as I felt comfortable using when making the dough so that it would be elastic and supple and easy to stretch, and it definitely met these expectations.

It’s a bit hard to see what the dough is like under this sea of meat, but I can affirm that it felt and looked very promising for a two-hour quick crust. I stuck this smothered masterpiece into a 425 degree oven and baked it for what felt like a good long time, although I don’t honestly remember how long it took (perhaps 30+ minutes?) When it emerged it was crisp and crackling and all kinds of melty.

The dough puffed up just enough to provide a sufficient base for the cheesy madness going on above, without being overwhelmingly thick and messing up my preferred crust to toppings ratio. The whole thing was chopped up and demolished with great immediacy, and I almost forgot to stop and take a moment to evaluate my crust–the only part of the pizza that actually pertains to my flour, water and yeast theme. From what I remember in my pizza delerium, the crust was nice and crunchy on the outside, and soft and rich on the inside. It had a definite flavor (i.e. yeasty, olive oily and salty) that supported the tasty trio on top quite nicely. A lot of quick pizza doughs end up very, well, doughy and thick and flavorless. This particular dough could almost have fooled me into thinking that a bit more time had been invested in it, as the texture and flavor were both so pleasant. Alas, my short term memory isn’t so terrible as to forget that the dough had only been started a matter of hours earlier.

I accept the fact that not all doughs are created equal, and that a dough that’s been given a long fermentation at a lower temperature will always out-perform a quick dough. However, it’s impossible to replicate a 24-hour fermentation in only 3 hours, and, being human, we sometimes need dough in a pinch. In these instances, I find that Irma is my go-to pizza dough lady, and I am more than happy to crack open the Joy and use it as it was intended to be used–for regular ol’ people making regular (or even stellar) ol’ meals.

The name game–vaguely Victorian bread

“Here is your plate of green stuff, sir, and here is your bowl of warm mushy vegetables in water.”

“Ah, yes, thank you very much. For my entree I think I would like the ribs of the cow please.”

“Very well, that will come with a side of cooked cereal grain, and I will refill your glass of musty juiced grapes in just a moment.”

I suppose it makes a lot of sense that we don’t speak about food so literally, there being a pretty staggering number of edible items to distinguish between, but sometimes I wonder a bit about the names we come up with for the things we ingest. For example, the recipe I looked at for today’s bread is entitled “Victorian Milk Bread.” I am sure that the Victorians loved putting loads of milk in their bread, and that the S-shape of this particular loaf may have been popular at the time, but I don’t think that I was really reliving the Victorian glory days when I mixed together these few simple ingredients and let them ferment. Sure “Victorian Milk Bread” sounds much better than its generic brother “Blah Bread from Nowhere,” and it conjures romantic images of ladies with fans at fancy parties munching on milky bread. And while there are certainly very many legitimately named historical breads, I think if we are being honest here, the Victorian ladies probably weren’t nibbling on this particular loaf.

Perhaps I’m completely off base, and I have just verbally defiled a sacred and historic bread formula. Or perhaps we really do just feel a burning desire to whip out our thesauri and pull vaguely historical names and foreign sounding terms out of chef’s caps when we whip something up in the kitchen. After all, making and eating food is an art, and naming it might as well be an art too. Either way, as a kid who wanted each piece of broccoli named after a tree before it could be consumed, I am really in no place to judge. Also, this bread tastes really good, so Victorian or not it is a worthwhile endeavor.

This lovely loaf came from Bread by Eric Treuille &Ursula Ferrigno (and I mean no disrespect to these brilliant authors in my namemongering!)

I cut the recipe in half in order to avoid having great excesses of bread such as those that kept me from making more bread this last week. I also gave this dough the Reinhart treatment as I am wont to do these days. Last night, I mixed together:

1 tsp. yeast

1/2 tsp. granulated sugar

6 oz. warm-ish milk

3/4 tsp. salt

9 1/2 ish oz. bread flour

I kneaded this soft ball of dough for nearly ten minutes, as it grew only softer and more pleasant to handle. This supple quality was most directly due to the dairy, but I would like to think that my new Bob’s Red Mill flour added some magic to the mix.

The sugar that is added to this dough is almost negligible, so the milk is the only real enrichment. Although milk is certainly flavorful, it is not overwhelming and it affects the texture of the bread more than the flavor. What this meant to me was that it would still be important to draw out as much flavor from the flour as I possibly could–something that is not often as important in enriched breads. With this in mind, I departed from the recipe’s procedural guidelines and stuck the dough in the fridge overnight for a nice slow fermentation.

As per usual, I took the dough out of the fridge after work today and let it finish doubling in size at room temperature. Once the dough had become nice and lofty–a process that took a few hours–I began shaping. It was at this point that I decided to give my bread further fodder for an identity crisis by abandoning the Victorian S-shape. I really wanted dinner rolls, and I could tell that this supple puffy milky dough really wanted to be made into dinner rolls too. So I listened, and I rolled a bunch of little dough balls into a happy dough ball family that proofed nicely into a bigger dough ball family in about 45 minutes.

After a nice little vacation in my 375 degree oven, the dough ball family returned all tan and beautiful, smelling pleasantly.

In a very satisfying little maneuver, I tore off a hunk of bread and saw a dreamy, steaming interior, the likes of which I envisioned when I jumped ship on the S-shape idea in favor of dinner rolls.

They tasted dreamy too–a really excellently developed wheat flavor balanced by a mild yeasty kick, all wrapped in the warm embrace of soft fluffy milk magic. A little salted butter melting into the beautiful network of tiny air holes was really excessive and delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I was seized with the sudden urge to flip through my thesaurus and to google vaguely historical reference points in search of the perfectly noncommittal epithet.

“I brought you flours”–an experimental semolina soy bread

After last week’s buttery indulgence, the Lady Justice of all things culinary was standing sternly before me balancing her scales, one side weighed down heavily with a plethora of croissants, the other side floating aimlessly above. I felt compelled to bring balance to my kitchen, and set to work creating a very ordinary and healthful loaf in which not a single pat of butter appeared. Still having vast stores of random flours from my latest Reny’s binge, I selected soy flour and semolina flour as my subjects for experimentation, encouraged by their nutritious benefits. Soy flour in particular packs a punch with protein, fiber, iron, and even some vitamin C. Lady Justice smiled upon me. Since soy flour lacks gluten, I thought semolina flour would be an appropriate addition, being rich in gluten itself, and hoped that their flavors would combine well. My only slight indulgence was a minuscule dollop of molasses, a flavorful sweetener that I thought might positively complement the nuttiness of the flours.

I ended up with the following amounts of hodgepodge ingredients:

8 oz. lukewarm water

1 tsp. yeast (I would use just a touch more next time)

1 TB molasses (also could use just a bit more)

3 oz. semolina flour

2 oz. soy flour

9 oz. white wheat flour

1 1/2 tsp. salt (next time just a dash more)

I mixed and kneaded, and applied my Reinhartian principles (by which I mean I stuck it in the fridge for an overnight delayed fermentation).

In the morning, I took the dough out of the fridge, went back to bed, and when I next arose after a leisurely morning snooze, the dough had magically finished doubling in size. I then decided to play a little trick on Lady Justice, and set to work making my loaf look decadent, even though it wasn’t going to taste decadent. Really, it was just an excuse to try out my braiding technique.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the chance to make a braided loaf for ages, but haven’t yet had an appropriate opportunity. I should have waited until I tried making challah, but I couldn’t resist the urge, and started braiding my very plain dough.

My elementary school french braiding technique came flying back to my fingers, and a doughy plait emerged. I let it sit and proof for about an hour before making another deceptively decadent-looking addition by slathering the top with an egg wash. I popped the whole thing into my 400 degree oven–using a slightly lower temperature than usual because soy flour is said to brown rather easily. After about 20 or 30 minutes, I pulled the braid out of the oven, and my eyes were duly deceived by the beautiful finish that disguised my ordinary loaf.

At this point, I wished that I’d been as honest as Sarah, Plain and Tall, and made this bread look like Semolina Soy Loaf, Plain and Lumpy. Instead it looked like Challah, Sweet and Eggy. Before I took my first bite I had to barrage my brain and taste buds with little reminders as to what to expect. Once I was able to shut out the visual, I was relatively pleased with the simple and light flavor that met my palate, although as I mentioned previously, it could have used just a touch more molasses and perhaps another little dash of salt. It was very pleasantly moist and ever-so-slightly chewy, with a denser crumb and nice crunchy crust. The flavors of the soy and semolina flours had a nice subtle presence, adding a nutty and rich depth of flavor without putting down a flag and claiming my palate for its own. A little extra yeast in the dough would have more fully expanded all of the glutenous strands made by my high gluten flour additions, but as it was, the denser crumb was actually quite pleasant.

All in all, a very ordinary and simple, yet tasty and nutritious bread to level the balances. If only I hadn’t confused my hungry eyes–it’s no wonder that Lady Justice is blindfolded.

Holy croissants, Batman–a study in butter

First of all, I said I would leave Peter Reinhart’s recipes alone for a while, and I lied. Secondly, I said that croissants lived in the “scary pastries” category of my baking brain, and that is now also a lie. Two falsehoods, yes, but of the most delicious variety.

After tackling my irrational fear of bagels, I figured I might as well pull another monster into the light and try my hand at croissants–my fear of which seemed a little more conspicuous and rational. After all, croissants require a French accent for correct pronunciation and are known to inspire fits of euphoria when made well. There’s something about all those buttery layers that inspires a sense of unsurpassable culinary intimidation. Of course, with my trusty Artisan Breads Every Day, the only seemingly unsurpassable challenge was getting over my guilt of publicizing one too many Reinhart recipes–a guilt that I am assuaging by telling you that my sophomoric explanations of these recipes in no way equate to actually owning this book!

Not to be deterred by the 7 page recipe, I began making the dough, or the detrempe, last night. This consisted of mixing 21 oz. flour, 1 3/4 tsp. salt, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 TB yeast, 7 oz. milk, 8 oz. water, and 2 TB melted butter. After a very brief mixing, the sticky, rather awkward looking dough went straight into the fridge for the night. It was hard to imagine a sleek, French-ish pastry emerging from such a sight, but I put all my eggs in the croissant basket, as it were, and carried on unphased.

I left three sticks of butter out overnight in preparation for the aptly named butter block. Since I don’t have a mixer, I knew I would need the butter to be a bit softer than it probably should be, enabling me to manipulate it into block shape more easily with my hands. When I got home from work today, I set to work making this square of fatty doom. I stuck the three sticks of butter into a bowl with 2 TB flour and squished sickeningly away with my fingers until everything was nice and pasty and my hands were sufficiently moisturized. I then formed the paste into a 6″x6″x1/2″ square, which was great fun. I couldn’t find any measuring devices, so I used my squint-and-guess ruler.

I then pulled the dough out of the fridge, rolled it into what I guessed to be (and probably was nowhere near) a 12 1/2″x6 1/2″ rectangle, and laid the butter block on top.

Then began the “laminating” process, in which the butter and dough became very intimately acquainted through a series of fun little folds. This has to be the most thoroughly entertaining kitchen technique ever. I began by sealing my little butter love letter in the big doughy envelope.

I then attempted rather clumsily to roll this out into a 16″x9″ rectangle. I found it difficult to enforce even butter distribution, and to maintain 90 degree angles at the corners of my dough, but I ended up with something roughly rectangular and buttery.

Then the first really fun step took place, and the whole unit was folded up like a fancy business letter–turning 3 layers of butter and flour into 9 layers.

This fatty layered fellow then rested for a while before being rolled back out into another big rectangle. The rectangle was again folded letter-style, making the 9 layers of love transform into 27 even thinner layers. After one more rest for the dough, the final letter-fold took place, and 81 layers of pure fat and doughy fat were nestled together ready to go to croissant town after a little nap. The little buttery bits were visible through the translucent top layer of dough, and were most tantalizing.

I rolled the dough out into an even bigger rectangle than before, and began cutting out elongated triangles–all of which turned out quite unevenly without a proper measuring stick, and would probably make any self-respecting Frenchman gasp with horror. I didn’t care about that so much as I cared about being able to see all of the beautiful layers revealed in the cross-section of the dough, once cut. A health hazard in the making, but so very pretty.

I rolled up each lumpy triangle, and let them proof for a little over 2 hours. They looked like silly little slumbering creatures on my countertop.

While I got things heated up, I brushed each little fellow with an egg wash, and then popped a select few into the 375 degree, magic-rendering oven (while the others went straight to the freezer for safe keeping). Twenty or thirty minutes later, the golden crescents emerged from the oven in a pool of bubbling butter, and it was at that point that I was slightly disgusted, and also slightly pleased. On the one hand, there was enough butter in each croissant to singularly create an entire batch of cookies. On the other hand, they looked like croissants and that was rather nice.

I confidently ignored the pool of butter and eagerly cut the first sucker open, also ignoring the fact that they were still internally hotter than the sun, and should be left alone to cool and finish baking. My heart melted just like all the butter I was about to ingest when I glanced inside my first croissant.

I closed my eyes in order to bypass my more health-aware observation systems, and took a heavenly first bite that unleashed a plethora of happy sensations. The outside crunched between my teeth like a good crispy snowfall crunches underfoot, only with 3/4 lb. more butter. The buttery, light, flaky exterior yielded a soft, yeasty and slightly chewy inside, and then the first croissant was gone.

Next time–and there will most certainly be a next time–I hope to achieve a more uniform, thin, and less lumpy lamination so that more butter stays in, and less leaks out in the baking process to remind me of exactly what I am eating. I also am going to try to handle the dough even less so that the inside dough is just slightly less chewy, and more all-around light and flaky. I am not sure what a French person would say about these particular pastries, but I know what I say about them, and that is “yum.”