I’m spent–from beer comes bread

Beer brewing and bread making are curiously similar. I like to think of brewers as extra patient bread makers who prefer to drink their loaves out of big cups. We both start with water, starch and yeast, and both have one primary flavor addition (hops and salt, respectively). We both extract sugars from our starches, apply heat, encourage fermentation, experiment with new ingredient additions and techniques, and practice a great deal of patience as our products mature. Brewers end up with liquid bread after waiting serenely for what feels like a terribly long time before being able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and bakers end up with really thick beer after enduring mere days or even hours of patient waiting. Although I do enjoy a good brew, I much prefer my starch-water-and-yeast medley on a plate with a nice little pat of butter or cheese, and I’m happy to leave the careful calculating and weeks of patient waiting to those who really know what they’re doing. That being said, I’m also really curious about the ways in which the bread and beer making processes can inform and contribute to one another. Having already tried putting beer in bread, much to the delight of my taste buds, I figured that it couldn’t hurt to put some of the by-products of beer into my bread and hope for the same tasty results.

I called up my friendly family brewer extraordinaire and hinted that a bounty of spent grains would be much appreciated. Armed with a fragrant container full of spent malted barley and some helpful advice from a fellow blogger (beerevolution), I set to work drying and grinding (read: pulverizing) my grains to make them a bit less bulky and chewy.

My only method of grinding was via my coffee grinder, and, incorrectly assuming this piece of equipment to be cute and demure, pushed the grind button with great enthusiasm. Not only did I turn my grains into something closely resembling peat moss, but crunchy chunks of grain flew literally everywhere.

Not to be deterred by the crunch underneath my feet or the fluff in my bowl, I forged ahead and mixed some ingredients together that I thought would nicely complement the residual malted barley flavor and texture. First I combined 12 oz. lukewarm water with 2 TB molasses and 2 1/4 tsp. yeast. I tossed in all of my ground barley (which had reduced in weight and bulk quite significantly after the oven roasting and coffee grinding debacle, ending up at a whopping 4.25 oz.) I added 3 TB melted butter, 1 TB vital wheat gluten for extra kicks, 2 tsp. salt, and roughly 18 oz. white wheat flour. The dough turned a beautiful deep brown from the molasses and the grains, and was very dense even after a good long kneading session. Luckily some larger flecks of ground malted barley remained and speckled my dough quite prettily.

After about two hours, my dense little dough ball had doubled into a nice big blob.

This I shaped into a boule and let proof for about another hour. Because this dough was so dense due to the added grain, I should probably have shaped it into two smaller loaves–I later found that it took quite a while for this big guy to cook through. Not knowing that a terribly agonizing wait of nearly an hour of baking time awaited me (how do you have such patience, brewers?), I stuck my loaf into a 425 degree oven and waited impatiently to see how it would turn out. I pulled the lovely boule out of the oven a little prematurely in my impatient state, and ended up putting it back in to finish up once I realized my blunder, but not before I managed to slice off a steaming and deliciously moist piece upon which I happily munched while awaiting the final bake.

I loved the color of the loaf and the heartiness of the texture and flavor. I felt like I should have popped open a can of beans and sung some ol’ camp cookie songs.

The malted barley, although already having been processed for beer, still retained some body and a nice little hint of flavor–not only the classic malted taste, but I thought I also detected a very mild and pleasant bitterness. The texture of the grain was really quite satisfying, with crunchy moments puncturing the soft, chewy, moist crumb. The butter and molasses chimed in with a delicate harmony and the whole thing was very nice with a slather of additional butter. I think, considering the density of this loaf, that it was wise to avoid using the spent grains when they were still fully hydrated–I can only image how much more dense it would have been. This is definitely an eat-me-immediately bread that hardens up after a day or two, but fresh out of the oven I rather enjoyed it. I’m definitely intrigued enough to continue experimenting with spent grains, and perhaps one day I’ll throw some hops in there and really make a beer loaf.

“Fast” food–making hamburger buns on the run

Generic hamburger buns are the pits. Not only are they miraculously without flavor, weight, or texture, but they are just so sad to look at. I believe the word flaccid comes to mind. That defeated looking little crumpled exterior, ever so pale, desperately trying to keep its meager innards from floating away like a balloon on a breeze–all the while knowing that life as a bun could be over without so much as the gentle crushing power of a baby’s fist. I don’t understand why we often tolerate such mediocrity in the presence of juicy hamburgers. It’s like hiring an Elvis impersonator to open for Elvis–sure the burger is the main act, but why dilute the experience with an impostor bun? A lack of time always seems to be the driving force behind the hand that grabs that giant bag of fraudulent “hamburger buns.” It is with this in mind that I would like to present you with the story of the accidental time-crunch burger bun. I am a firm believer in the fact that a great bread requires an abundance of time, but there are always occasions when time is scarce–whether accidentally, or by nature of a busy life–and yet you can still achieve a tastier bread than that sad, listless grocery variety.

Knowing that I soon had bun making duties to attend to, I had planned on mixing the full dough one night ahead of time, thereby giving it a whole 24 hours to develop flavor in the fridge. However, I discovered a distinct lack of un-spoiled milk in my fridge on the evening of dough making, and was forced to re-think my plan. Rather than make a milk-less hamburger bun, I decided to mix up a small starter that I could then add to my dough the next day when grocery stores were open and milk was available. This way I could still at least get a flavor boost from a day-old pre-ferment, even if I couldn’t let the whole dough enjoy a nice long fermentation.

I combined 6 oz. flour, 6 oz. water, and 1/4 tsp. yeast, and set the pre-ferment in the fridge to bubble away.

The next day my plans were once again thwarted when I stayed at work a bit longer than expected, and didn’t even begin to mix my final dough until 3:30, knowing that the buns were supposed to be out of the oven and onto a table in a house 40 minutes away by 5:30. I figured if I timed things just right and manipulated my bread’s environment a bit, I could just make it, and with a decent bread to boot. I turned to my chosen recipe, which came from the hilariously named Bread Winners Too: The Second Rising by Mel London, and got to work. I split the recipe in half, as I didn’t really want 32 large buns, and I measured in ounces rather than cups. I also accommodated for the additional liquid content of the pre-ferment by adding a bit more flour.

I began by heating together 10 oz. milk, 2 TB vegetable oil (I would have preferred butter, but I actually only had olive oil, so into the pan it went), 2 TB honey, and 1 tsp. salt. I dissolved 1 TB yeast in 4 oz. warm water. I combined both of these mixtures with my deliciously fragrant pre-ferment.

To this I added one whole beaten egg, and a whole lot of flour. By the time I had finished adding in all the flour that the dough needed to reach the right consistency, I had used 22 oz. white wheat flour, and 8 oz. whole wheat flour. The original recipe, from the kitchen of farmer Connie Hartland, called for all whole wheat flour, but I personally prefer a bit of a blend. After a 10 minute knead, the dough was elastic and glistening prettily from the olive oil.

While at this stage, I would have loved to have stuck the whole thing in the fridge to ferment overnight, I instead covered it up and strapped it into the back seat of my car where it was treated to a nice little joy ride to the kitchen of its ultimate demise.  Thankfully, my car had been sitting in the sun and was quite toasty–really quite an ideal place for bread to rise rapidly if you’re in a hurry. Also thankfully, the recipe I was working with called for an abundance of yeast, which meant that the dough was designed to be a rapid riser and not a slow fermenter.

After 40 minutes in the hot car and another 20 minutes in the new locale, I knew I had to start shaping the bread if it was to be baked in time for dinner. The dough hadn’t totally doubled, but I threw all caution to the wind for the sake of a timely meal and started speed-shaping. Soliciting help, we tore off 4 oz. chunks and rolled them into itsy bitsy baguettes before tying them into knots that could easily have been rivaled by the work of a kindergartener tying his shoes. These were brushed with olive oil and recklessly topped with sesame seeds that went everywhere but the tops of the buns. I employed another time-crunch short-cut and stuck the buns into the oven just before I turned it on, allowing them to have an accelerated proofing period as the oven warmed up from room temperature to 350 degrees.

As the oven warmed and I incessantly peeked in on the little knotted guys, I began to fear that they had been subjected to time-saving methods a bit too harshly, and that they might be a flop. Just as I believed my fears to be affirmed, the buns began to expand like little doughy puffer fish–all that extra yeast pulling its weight in the final moments. A nice golden crust emerged, and I sighed with relief.

A final brushing of olive oil, post-baking, added a lovely luster to the already golden tops. Unfortunately I once again neglected my photographic duties as soon as I was presented with the opportunity to eat, and therefore cannot show you what these little guys looked like on the inside. The interior was beautifully dense, much like a bagel, with a tight network of tiny air bubbles making up a very soft and moist crumb. The flavor was actually quite developed–thanks to the pre-ferment and to the hearty combination of whole wheat flour and honey. Although I am sure the buns would have been loftier and more deeply flavored given a proper rising time, they were quite pleasingly delicious and toothsome as they were. Instead of being a squishy and flavorless means of holding and devouring a hamburger, these little buns provided some serious sandwiching action and harmonious flavoring for beautiful, heaping piles of pulled pork (and for me a beautiful heaping pile of veggie burgers.)

Here’s to you, Mrs. Roosevelt

Were it not for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the home baker might still be suffering under the culinary tyranny of bland dinner rolls. Luckily, the presidential couple–evidently enamored of the Parker House Hotel’s extravagantly buttery bread offering–requested that a copy of the guarded recipe be sent to the White House kitchen. I can sort of see the appeal of recipe secrecy, but when the president of the United States rings you on the telephone and says he really likes your dinner rolls, and would you be so kind as to share your state secret with him, the game is kind of up. Needless to say, since this happy day in 1933, the Parker House roll recipe leaked into the home kitchen in various forms and to various degrees of authenticity, and began to butter people up all across the country.

I know I posted about rolls in the not-too-distant past, but I’ve been wanting to see what the fuss is all about with these Parker House rolls for a long time. According to the Parker House’s rather distinguished guest list (as culled from a brief online history blurb) it is quite possible that the following people munched merrily on this delicacy at one point in time: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles Dickens, Babe Ruth, JFK, Ulysses S. Grant, the aforementioned FDR and his lovely wife Eleanor, Judy Garland, and the infamous John Wilkes Booth. What’s more–and this really floors me–Ho Chi Minh worked as a baker in the Parker House kitchen, and Malcom X as a busboy. So I would suppose that they were also munching on Parker House rolls on their lunch breaks. The list of famous potential roll-eaters goes on and on, which is to say that if all of these distinguished folks were fueling their political, poetic, theatrical, philosophical and literary conversations with these rolls, then they must be packing a hell of a punch.

Before it occurred to me that I could likely find the original recipe online and make the rolls in their most authentic form, I found a nice little recipe in Beard on Bread. I am glad that I decided to work from this version, because it turns out that the original calls for an even more absurd quantity of butter than that with which I was currently confronted.

I cut Mr. Beard’s version of the Parker House roll recipe in half, measured in ounces rather than cups, and generally mucked about with the construction of the dough, but the recipe is still fundamentally his. To begin, I made a small poolish, because even when you’re creating an enriched dough, it’s always worth it to add extra fermentation flavors. I combined 1 tsp. yeast with 4 oz. water and 4 oz. flour and let the whole thing get nice and bubbly over the course of a few hours.

Instead of making a sponge, as Mr. Beard next instructs, I finished mixing my dough completely after adding the poolish, since using both a sponge and a poolish would be unnecessary and would exhaust the yeast. (I suppose I could have just followed his instructions and skipped the poolish, but I wasn’t reading far enough ahead to realize that he already had this step covered).

I added 1 1/4 tsp. yeast to 8 oz. warm milk. To this I added my poolish, 1/4 stick melted butter, 1 1/2 tsp. sugar, 1 tsp. salt, and about 13 oz. flour.

I kneaded away on a nice spacious counter top in a not-so-tiny (i.e. not my) kitchen until the dough was soft and supple.

I had made the dough early enough in the day that the final rise could be a colder, slower rise, allowing a few more flavors to develop during this step. Since the day was so warm, it was actually a challenge to find a cool enough spot for the dough to rise slowly. Luckily, my guest kitchen was outfitted with a handy little tool that I now wish to add to my own collection of trusty gadgets, and that aided my quest for the perfect temperature.

After taking a nice long while to double in size, my rich dough was ready for some exercises.

Instead of shaping each roll into the traditional Parker House shape, I stuck with my personal favorite–the pull-apart roll–and forced all the little dough balls into cramped quarters.

Again, I made use of some cooler temperatures to slow down this final proofing stage, and stuck the whole unit in the fridge until it was baking time. The rolls were clearly very eager to hop in the oven because even in the fridge they climbed rapidly up the sides of the baking dish and rose with alarming speed. At the last minute, I brushed the whole lot with a slather of butter (just to appease the Parker House roll gods) and stuck them into a refreshingly large oven, set to 375 degrees.

After maybe 20 minutes or so, a golden island of dough had begun to peek over the top of the dish and the sight was most pleasing.

Unfortunately, at this point, I became so engrossed in the act of eating dinner that I neglected to photograph the beauty of the interior bits. Suffice it to say that this roll is not for the faint of palate. The light, fluffy, tender crumb with a brilliant network of tiny air holes disguised a killer rich flavor, replete with sweet, milky, buttery goodness. As the reigning vegetarian at the table, I found that the rolls became my primary meat substitute–not for lack of other delicious dishes, but simply because they seduced my taste buds. I now completely understand why, according to the record, composer Jacques Offenbach broke into song when devouring these lavish rolls at the Hotel, singing “Parker rolls, Parker rolls, how I love you.”

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.

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.

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.