Category Archives: Bread & Baking

Looking back on 2013


Rodin's ThinkerIt’s been quite a year, both personally and politically. The best of times, the worst of times, to paraphrase Dickens.

Looking back on 2103, it was a busy, eventful, successful, and yet often challenging year. I accomplished many things on different levels – personal and professional – and, I believe, overcame some of the challenges I faced.

A lot happened locally, too, much of which development I take pride in having been a party to. Collingwood Council has been very productive, pro-active and progressive this term; more so than any council I’ve ever participated in or reported on when in the media. It’s also been a generally cohesive, well-behaved and respectful group that has worked together for common goals and the greater good.

Most of us, anyway. Some strong bonds of friendship and cooperation have formed this term among several of us. Friendships born from mutual respect and trust.

We don’t always agree, we don’t always vote the same way, but we respect one another’s views. We discuss options, compromise and solutions without rancour or anger. We communicate, we share ideas, we argue in a friendly manner, and we are open and accepting. That’s what good government is all about.

Of course, there was also the bad: the unfounded allegations, gossip, rumour and even outright lies about council that emerged this spring. Some people only see the mote in another’s eye, not the beam in their own.

The incessant (and continuing) ad hominem attacks from local bloggers, political opponents, and, sadly a former, once-respected and admired friend, hurt and disappointed me personally, but the rest hurt the whole community.

Our community’s once-bright reputation, our image and our honour were indelibly tarnished by unjustified allegations and accusations. Every resident of Collingwood; every parent, every child, every senior was hurt by the actions of a few angry people in 2013.

How did it benefit anyone? Cui bono? as a lawyer might ask. Certainly not the town, nor its residents. How did it make our community a better, more livable, more progressive place? How did it make our future politics better? Who will want to run for council and risk ridicule and scorn, to expose him- or herself and family to such public flagellation, just for the entertainment of those who conduct the whipping?

What happened to our Canadian sense of justice and fairness? Of not judging others without proof?

Gord Hume wrote in 2011:

“Explosive internet columns, blogs, and opinion pieces that do not seem to be overly-burdened with concerns about facts or accuracy are now being added to the traditional media mix, and have further aroused this toxic brew.”
Gordon Hume: Take Back Our Cities, Municipal World

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The last loaves of 2013


Pumpkin cranberry loafAs my stock of bread dwindles, I’m contemplating what breads to bake this weekend, as well as what I may want to try before the New Year. I’m also pondering my baking successes and failures these past few months. Mostly successes, although a few have been “qualified” successes – edible but not optimal.

First my levain – sourdough – mix got dumped last week. It went off and really stank. Unpleasant. I suspected it was struggling for a couple of weeks, ever since I tried – and failed – to make a decent sourdough bread with it as a starter. They rose only minimally, even when left overnight, and baked into bricks with uncooked centres.

The starter didn’t respond well to feedings any more, either. A crust formed over it and I knew it was dying. Very disappointing, but we motor on.

I have to try to make a starter again, this time I will begin with pineapple juice rather than water, to ensure a lower pH (more acidity), which will discourage some of the more competitive bacteria. I had used some in my first batch, but later, not from the start.

Black & Decker bread machineSecond my bread machine. I bought one recently on sale at Canadian Tire – a Black & Decker B6000C that advertises it makes 1.5,2 and 3 pound loaves. (What ever happened to metric? Isn’t Canada supposed to use metric?)

All of the recipes in its book have volumetric measurements, and I’m using weight measurements for everything else to have greater consistency, so I didn’t try anything until I found an interesting pumpkin-cranberry bread machine loaf online. That’s when I finally unpacked it.

The machine started grumpily and hesitantly, a bit like I am some mornings after a rough, sleepless night. It didn’t want to knead the bread, and after a few dis-spirited grunts that suggested it was having a difficult time with the paddles and the dough consistency, it simply sat there. The ingredients unmixed.

After an hour of fretting and waiting while it did nothing, I reset it, roughly mixed the dough by hand, and started again. This time it worked, the paddles paddled, and the cycle completed without any problems that I could find.

The bread that resulted was – well, okay. Nothing spectacular.  Although rather yellowy-orange looking, the pumpkin flavour is very subdued, the cranberries too few to really influence the taste.* I also used buttermilk and molasses instead of water and honey, so I set myself up with this loaf right from the start. It’s edible and not bad toasted, but hardly what I expected. The texture and crust were fine so I’m eating my way through it.

I’m also unsure if the recipes in the machine’s instruction book are designed for American or Canadian flours. I’ve read comments online that recipes need to be altered when using Canadian flour in many of these recipe. Again, one of those things that requires some testing.

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Salt and bread making


Salt is one of the four essential ingredients in making bread, along with flour, yeast and water. Nothing more is needed, although often a lot more is added.

Salt is listed in all the recipes. Only one bread I’ve ever read about is salt-free (a Tuscan specialty mentioned in William Alexander’s book, 52 Loaves).

We tend to assume salt is simply for flavour, but it is also part of our basic biology:

I find it easiest to think of salt as one half of the body’s water-regulation system, the other half being potassium. The membranes of every cell in the body allow water to flow through in direct proportion to how much sodium and potassium are present in the immediate area. Too much or too little sodium in the body affects everything from digestion to blood pressure to brain function.

Since proper sodium levels are so important, the body uses the kidneys to maintain a precise balance. The system is very efficient, which means that if you eat more sodium than the recommended daily allowance, you’ll simply excrete whatever you don’t need (within reason). That also means that we tend to crave more salt than we actually need to eat, which might explain its flavor-enhancing properties.

Salt, as the site above tells us, suppresses bitter flavours, which means some foods taste better salted (at least in my cultural background, which favours sweet and salty over sour and bitter). Because it suppresses bitter, which in turn suppresses  sweet and sour flavours, these flavours come across as stronger in the presence of salt.

Which suggests that a bread with a sweet factor – say raisins, coconut or cranberries – can have a higher salt content than a plain bread, because the salt will enhance the sweetness. So less sugar, more salt? (Okay, I don’t cook with processed sugar because I try to avoid it in my diet…)

Read this food science piece in Nature about salt, food and flavour. Very interesting.

Taste and flavour are not quite synonymous, as the National Institute of Health reminds us:

Taste and flavor are terms that are often confused. The word “taste” has two meanings, one technical and the other as commonly used in the English language, which encompasses the larger concept of flavor…

The sense of taste, one of the five major senses, is defined based on anatomy. In mammals, it is the sense subserved by taste receptor cells located primarily on taste buds in the oral cavity. These taste receptor cells are innervated by branches of the seventh, ninth, and tenth cranial nerves that synapse first in the brainstem prior to sending messages to other parts of the brain…

Virtually all foods and beverages impart sensations in addition to taste. For example, a complex food such as soup not only has taste properties (e.g., it is salty, sour, or sweet) but also has volatile compounds that give it its specific identity (e.g., pea soup compared to potato soup), and it may also have burning properties, such as those caused by hot peppers… In common parlance, the entire sensation elicited by this food is called its “taste.” However, most scientists would instead use the term “flavor” to refer to this total sensation, and that is how it will be used here. It should be noted that many also include the texture of a food as a component of flavor. Taste molecules such as salt can influence flavor in many ways, some of which are described below.

Of course, salt plays other roles in the baking, fermenting and gluten development stages. According to the Wild Yeast blog:

  • Salt affects dough texture, making it stronger and less sticky, as the commenter noticed.
  • Salt reduces oxidation of the dough during mixing. Oxidation causes the degradation of carotenoid pigments in the flour that contribute to flavor and crumb color.
  • Salt regulates yeast activity, causing fermentation to progress at a more consistent rate.
  • Salt affects shelf life. Because it attracts water, it can help keep bread from staling too quickly in a dry environment. However, in a humid environment, it can make the crust soggier.

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How hot is your oven?


Oven thermometerSeems like a silly question: the answer would be it’s as hot as I set it to be. Isn’t it? Well, no, it may actually be rather different from what you expect, based on my recent tests.

I was reading on several bread-baking forums about oven temperatures and the effects on baking. Specifically on the crust: higher temperatures (450F and up) lead to crunchy crusts as the sugars caramelize rapidly. Then there’s “non-enzymatic browning:” the Maillard reaction that happens at a range of temperatures:

The reactive carbonyl group of the sugar reacts with the nucleophilic amino group of the amino acid, and forms a complex mixture of poorly characterized molecules responsible for a range of odors and flavors… In the process, hundreds of different flavor compounds are created. These compounds, in turn, break down to form yet more new flavor compounds, and so on. Each type of food has a very distinctive set of flavor compounds that are formed during the Maillard reaction. It is these same compounds flavor scientists have used over the years to make reaction flavors.

The Maillard reaction is what makes bread become toast. Caramelization is different, as Wikipedia also tells us:

Caramelization is an entirely different process from Maillard browning, though the results of the two processes are sometimes similar to the naked eye (and tastebuds). Caramelization may sometimes cause browning in the same foods in which the Maillard reaction occurs, but the two processes are distinct. They both are promoted by heating, but the Maillard reaction involves amino acids… whereas caramelization is simply the pyrolysis of certain sugars.

The following things are a result of the Maillard browning reaction:
Caramel made from milk and sugar, especially in candies: Milk is high in protein (amino acids), and browning of food involving this complex ingredient would most likely include Maillard reactions.
Chocolate and maple syrup
Lightly roasted peanuts

When cooking, the Maillard reaction can be achieved at lower temperatures (for example, when using the sous-vide method or when searing meats) by increasing the pH of the item being cooked. The most common method for accomplishing this is by using baking soda as a catalyst to facilitate the reaction.

Some complex chemistry going on there (which is one of the reasons bread making intrigues me: it’s science in the kitchen!).

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Art, Science & Baking


French loaf showing crumb
You gotta love breadmaking. It’s an opportunity to get the right and left hemispheres of the brain working together, not racing about in different directions like they do most times. The logical and the creative sides working in lockstep.

Bread making combines the logic of science with the freedom of expression in art. Well, that’s really true of all cooking, but it seems more evident in baking. You get your hands into the mix, with bread. It’s a visceral thing to do. Like pottery.

Breadmaking combines four sciences, too: physics, chemistry, biology and botany. They all come into play when baking. And, as I’ve said earlier, you also get a bit of animal husbandry in it – yeast is a domesticated animal you need to nourish, tend and encourage.

And then there’s the math: I’ve been working on my bakers’ percentages in the most recent recipes, trying to understand the various levels of hydration and relative amounts of ingredients.

Plus it takes creative skill: the ability to “read” the ingredients, the dough, the ambient room conditions for rising and fermenting.  You need to feel the dough, to test it, assess its condition by fell, sight and scent. Knowing how much salt is “just right.”

And, of course, it’s a distraction from the woes and cares of daily life, from the chitter chatter of politics and the media. Baking bread requires concentration, focus. It’s a very Buddhist thing to do. It clears the mind.

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Ah, Hubris…



Annabeth: My fatal flaw. That’s what the Sirens showed me. My fatal flaw is hubris.
Percy: The brown stuff they spread on veggie sandwiches?
Annabeth: No, Seaweed Brain. That’s HUMMUS. Hubris is worse.
Percy: What could be worse than hummus?
Annabeth: Hubris means deadly pride, Percy. Thinking you can do things better than anyone else… Even the gods.
Rick Riordan, The Sea of Monsters

Two loavesYou think you know it all, and so you try to show off your talents. That’s when hubris makes you fall. So today, with company for the weekend, in between chess games, ukulele songs and great conversation, I produced the dough I’d been cold-fermenting in the fridge since Sunday.  Should be just about perfect. Time to show off my new breadmaking skills.

Oops.

Bread requires attention; patience, awareness. Like meditation, like writing.

It’s not something you should do while nattering, while showing one another Youtube videos, while trying to show another person a new song arrangement.

Whole wheatMind half on other things, I shaped the cold dough, put one mix in a ceramic pot, the other in a bread pan to warm up. Let them rise while I carried on. Clearly not quite long enough or warm enough. But I wasn’t really watching. Was the dough high enough? Awake enough? Our house is cool, so dough doesn’t rise very rapidly.

Should have warmed the pot first, but no… and forgot the lame; forgot to score the tops. Bakers shouldn’t be so distracted. Too many things to do, too many rituals to follow.

Then I baked them together at 450 for… ? Yipes. I forgot to record the time. Was it 30 minutes? 35? Best guess… look at the tops. Seem done…

Took the lid off the pot a little late, too. That might have kept the steam inside a little too long the kamut bread.

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What am I doing wrong?


Levain startedI began a levain last week (Nov 19) and it seemed to go well at first, but then it just seemed to have stopped… or slowed to a crawl. Was is dead? Or just dormant? Did I have a welcome guest growing in the bowl or was it a wet mass of unwanted invaders? Am I too anxious and not patient enough?

Sourdough bread has been called the “Everest” of breads, which I realize refers not to its towering presence but because it’s so damned hard to conquer. Getting it started seems a combination of art, science, animal husbandry and sheer luck.

Yes, animal husbandry, defined by Wikipedia as: ” the dynamic set of relationships between humans and the non-human animals, in which qualities considered to be advantageous to humans are emphasized and further developed.” Yeast is one of the oldest domesticated creatures, at least 7,000 years serving humans (although there have been fascinating arguments that yeast domesticated us, not the other way around).

I read about a dozen methods, all different, suggesting a range of approaches from absolutely basic to multi-stage methods that would make NASA engineers blanche. Being a bear of simple means, I opted for the simplest approach.

A digression: sourdough and levain are synonymous, but purists tend to reserve the term sourdough for those made in San Francisco because of the marketing and branding of that particular blend. But amateurs like me happily confuse the terminology and substitute one word for ‘t’other. Both refer to a bread made from a wild yeast and lacidophilus bacteria colony in a dough starter. Besides levain has a cachet; anything French in cooking seems just so much more sophisticated, although in reality the sourdough technique is itself ancient and the source of most peasant breads.

The starter depends on a complex micro-ecology of wild yeasts and bacteria competing for a food source and there’s always a fair chance the unwanted kind will win the battle. Plus there’s the opportunity for moulds to colonize it. It depends on the flora and fauna in the very air we breathe, so it’s a capricious way to start anything. Your home is full of these little creatures, and so is the flour (more are found in organic, wholewheat, rye or unbleached flour, I discovered). All you need to do is provide them food and water. The food is the flour.

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