“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.”

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.

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.