Musings on Making Bread and Chili, No. 1

Recent breadLongtime readers here know that before my surgery last summer, along with my pasta making I was an avid, if not always entirely competent, baker. I mostly made bread from “scratch” but sometimes for convenience used an electric bread maker. I made all sorts of bread in previous years, including soda (“quick”) breads, as well as the occasional scone, tea biscuit, and muffin.

I’ve always looked upon my baking (and cooking in general) as a sort of living chemistry experiment. I play with recipes, tweak them, explore different ingredients and processes. I have produced some spectacular loaves, a lot of adequate loaves, and a few bricks. I had a lot of fun, and a little bit of frustration, from my baking.*

In fact, I enjoy cooking in general because it is a creative art. Not that I’m an artist, but I have a reasonable level of competence in the kitchen, I’m willing to try new ideas and recipes, I enjoy experimenting with foods, flavours, textures, and developing my own recipes.

Most recent loafWell, I’m getting back into baking after all this time. My first loaf was in the bread machine: a “French bread” recipe tweaked as is my wont to make it more interesting. In this case, I added roughly two tablespoons of Fiorfiore’s “dry sourdough” mixture (purchased locally at Walmart) to the dry ingredients, plus a tablespoon of molasses (for colour and sweetness because I reduced the amount of sugar in the recipe), and substituted 1/2 cup of AP flour for whole wheat.  And I substituted a bit of 1% milk instead of the called-for water.

Overall, the result was good. Tall, nicely chewy crust, solid crumb. And the latter was important. Plus it tasted good. I think the addition of the sourdough mix really helped.

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More loafing about

bread-oct-14-2013

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I am always trying to create the perfect loaf; that one loaf that captures every element of bread in perfect harmony with the others: taste, crumb, crust and appearance. An impossible quest, I appreciate, given my lowly talents, but great bread is the Holy Grail of cooking and I cannot stop searching. It’s the journey that matters. Every step leads me towards the mountain.

Good bread is easy to make – or at least relatively easy after you’ve learned and mastered the basics. You can even make reasonably good bread in a bread machine with almost no effort aside from measuring the ingredients. But not great bread. That requires the human touch. That, and a combination of serendipitous conditions like the right heat, humidity, flour, yeast and time.

Those loaves that approach that hallowed perfection are works of artistic excellence. Mona Lisas of bakery. There is something that is both physically and spiritually gratifying about their creation. And their eating. In the latter the art proves transitory. Great bread does not last, and cannot be judged without being consumed. You give it life, then death. Then start another. Religious metaphors abound in bread baking.

Like every obsessed home baker, I have a stack of books, a binder of recipes printed put from the Web, and a head full of ideas, all collected to aid my effort to sort out what makes a more than just a good loaf, and do it consistently. To date, no single recipe, no single technique seems to achieve that every time – but that does not discourage me. In fact, it energizes me to continue my efforts.

I have a particular affection for those few of Peter Reinhart‘s dozen books books I own, especially The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (Ten Speed Press), which has the appropriately challenging subtitle, Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread. In it he has explanations, not just recipes, that help me understand the chemistry behind the magic of baking.

Reinhart is not just a remarkable baker, but he has a personal story about his life and his search for meaning that resonates with me. In a delightful interview at onlifeandmeaning.com, Reinhart – of a similar age to me – talks about his spiritual quest that began with his native Judaism, then branched out to Eastern religions in the 1960s and threaded itself through to becoming a Christian, a seminarian, and then back to the secular world. A journey that took decades. And becoming a chef and a master baker along the way. Bread is a metaphor in so many ways for his life and his beliefs.

My own journey in search of meaning – despite some parallels in pursuing Eastern philosophies – has been much less exciting and perhaps less adventurous. And my journey as a cook stumbled; I never climbed those steep peaks he conquered. But I try to follow in his footsteps – at least where they lead towards bread in the kitchen. Okay, maybe not in every footstep – I tend to experiment by traipsing outside the beaten path rather often. It’s not so much the different drummer as the different baker.

Anyway, this post is about a particular recipe that makes good bread, but which I think can be improved for consistently great bread.

I found it in a 2018 grocery-store magazine called Cooks Illustrated: All-Time Best Bread Recipes. It’s actually quite a good resource because it explains a lot of things in sidebars, like ingredients, equipment and techniques. The recipe that caught my eye was the “No-Knead 2.0” bread (p.14-16). I’ll come back to the recipe in a bit.

The basic ingredients are:
3 cups (15 ounces) all purpose or bread flour
1/4 tsp. instant or rapid-rise yeast
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. (7 ounces) water at room temp
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. (3 ounces) mild flavored lager
1 Tbs. white vinegar
Yes, I realize those are old-fashioned imperial, not modern metric measurements, and mostly volume not weight. But it’s from an American source, so you have to make allowances for the anachronisms.
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The arts of politics and baking

In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert Prisig wrote about how dealing with the small things of daily life  – like fixing his wayward motorcycle – could teach us about the world at large. A sort of microcosm-becomes-macrocosm perspective, with the vagarities of motorcycle repair to colour the learning. What we learn in one we can apply to the other. *

Baking bread, too, offers a meta-window into other arts and crafts, in particular (for me), politics. Bakers and thinkers have oft cited bread as a metaphor for life (listen to master baker Peter Reinhart’s comments on that topic here or watch his TED talk here).

As an opener, I love making bread. I find it relaxing, rewarding, stimulating and challenging. And sometimes incredibly frustrating and disappointing. Like life. It’s both a creative process and an experimental one. When I bake, I transcend the politics, the worries, the noise of daily life and concentrate on the act itself, a focus I only rarely apply to my daily activities.**

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from making bread I feel apply to politics. They’re not necessarily in the order of importance.

Lesson one: start simple.

You can make bread with four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. Everything after that is chrome. You can make some pretty spectacular breads by adding more, but if you can’t master the four, you can’t make anything. And you can make stellar breads with nothing more – if you understand how they work together.

In politics, you have to master the basics of procedure and process, of legislation, of policies, and of budgets. These are the superstructure on which you will build everything else. If you don’t have a firm grounding in these, you cannot build anything.

Lesson two: start small.

I have a terrific textbook (Jeffrey Hamelman: Bread – A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes) about baking with recipes for commercial bakeries and restaurants. These produce from half-a-dozen to dozens of loaves. But I’ve learned to make one loaf at a time, scaling back every recipe – even many of those online that are intended for one or two loaves. If I do it properly, I’ll have a small, single, good loaf to enjoy. But if I make a mistake or try something that doesn’t work out well, I’ll probably end up tossing most of it out. I don’t want to waste bread.

Many municipal projects are grandiose dreams. But often smaller, less ambitious or even phased projects over a longer term are better and more efficient. Things change, public needs change, tastes and demographics change – what might seem a great project today in a few years might seem outdated and inefficient. Better to be conservative now than end up with an expensive white elephant in a few years. And politicians should never waste taxpayers’ money.

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Resting, Relaxing and Rising

BreadI’ve been reading of late about gluten. How it works, how it develops, why it matters. Gluten is the key to good bread and pasta (the gluten-free fadists notwithstanding, gluten-free anything is an aberration that should be shunned by anyone not diagnosed with celiac disease*).

I’m learning more about how gluten links with itself to form the chains necessary to make our food, and how to improve it in my cooking. The Canadian Grains Commission tells us:

Gluten is a protein composite that accounts for 75 to 85% of the total protein content in bread wheat. Gluten component proteins are found in the endosperm of mature wheat grain, where they form a continuous framework around the starch granules… Gluten forms when water is added to flour and is mixed. During mixing, a continuous network of protein forms, giving the dough its strength and elasticity. By holding gas produced during fermentation, the protein network allows bread to rise.

Key words: “Gluten forms when water is added to flour and is mixed.”

At one point, I tried adding extra vital wheat gluten to my doughs to help create a better crumb when I felt it was failing, but I’ve learned that is unnecessary with the typical unbleached white flour I use. With the mixes of whole grain, rye and heritage flours, however, it might help. But it seems the best remedy is mixing and time.

Recent books on baking bread and making pasta have provided me some new insights into gluten in both bread and pasta, which are, of course, related by their common component: flour. Gluten – the wheat protein strand that gives dough both its plasticity and elasticity – is essential to both bread and pasta. But it doesn’t automatically develop to its fullest without human intervention.

The Big Bake Theory adds:

…there are ways of controlling gluten to obtain the optimal amount of gluten development for the particular baked good you are working with. These include:

  • Extent of mixing
  • Type of flour
  • Amount of water
  • Presence of fats
  • Other such as pH, salt, temperature…

Humans have been eating wheat and its gluten for at least 10,000 years. Approximately 1% of us has celiac disease, a severe intolerance to gluten. Another 3-6% have a lesser intolerance. The other 93% of us can digest wheat and gluten with no ill effect, as we have done so for ten millennia.

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May’s Breads and Pasta: 1

Bread 01So far this month, I’ve made two loaves and one batch of pasta. But the month is barely started, so I have lots of time to make more. The breads so far were nothing spectacular – acceptable, reasonably tasty, but hardly exciting. I’ve made better. The pasta on the other hand, is getting quite good and I look forward to making more.

The first loaf I made in the first few days of this month was a simple boule, made with a tweaked no-knead recipe.

I used unbleached flour, corn meal, and a bit of rye flour and whole wheat. I also added some buttermilk powder, a little agave syrup and a tablespoon or so of hemp hearts. I recall I may have also added a teaspoon of gluten powder, but I didn’t record it in my notebook, so i can’t say for sure that I did.

Bread 01Overall, it was a fair bread, with a good crust, but a bit of a dense crumb. That might have been from leaving it to rise overnight, and having it fall a bit. I probably should have kneaded it and let it rise again before baking, but I hoped the oven spring would bump it up more than it did.

In taste, it was okay; good for soup, but the density wasn’t great for toasting because the heat didn’t penetrate the thick, dense slices very well. The slightly golden colour is a combination of the unbleached flour and cornmeal. Crust was okay, too.

I think that when you vary from the basic AP or unbleached white flour by adding other types, the dough really deserves to be kneaded, so that may be why these no-knead recipes don’t work as well for me.  Or perhaps I should have stuck it in the fridge overnight and let it warm and rise the next day, to avoid the collapse.

And I’ll forego the hemp hearts next time since they didn’t seem to add to the bread, but may have given it a slightly bitter taste. Ah, well…

Continue reading “May’s Breads and Pasta: 1”

Spring Breads

Winter breadIt’s been a while since I wrote about baking bread. During the election campaign last fall, my baking was sidetracked somewhat, but I did manage to get a few loaves in.

Last month I got back to baking in earnest. However, along the way, I ignored my levain and it went off. I had to toss it, and have not yet started a new one. The loaf on the right is the last one I made with my levain. It was good and crusty, with a great acidic taste, so I need to restore a levain to get that flavour in future.

The first bread I made last month (March) was an Irish Soda Bread, based on the recipe in Paul Hollywood‘s book, 100 Great Breads. I picked it up in Chapters in Barrie this winter at a bargain price (about $5).  As is my wont, I didn’t follow his recipe exactly. The recipe on his website isn’t quite the same as in the book, either.

Soda breadThe bread is an easy, self-rising, fast bread that can be assembled and baked in about 60 minutes. Soda bread is great with soups and some cheeses.

In the book he calls for 20g of baking powder, while on the web he mentions using 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (aka baking soda). They’re both leavening agents, but not the same product, however. I suspect the book should have called for baking soda not powder… but you can easily experiment with both. I stuck with the baking powder and the result was good, as you can see.

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Another fad bites the dust

Bread!The gluten-free fad took another major hit to its already weakened credibility this week when researchers who had first diagnosed “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” found out that, oops, they were wrong. It doesn’t exist.

A story in Business Insider tells the tale.

In one of the best examples of science working, a researcher who provided key evidence of (non-celiac disease) gluten sensitivity recently published follow-up papers that show the opposite…It seems to be a “nocebo” effect — the self-diagnosed gluten sensitive patients expected to feel worse on the study diets, so they did. They were also likely more attentive to their intestinal distress, since they had to monitor it for the study.

So as the article ends, “…go ahead and smell your bread and eat it too. Science. It works.” Love that term “nocebo…”

the bottom line: bread, and gluten: okay to eat. The wheat-belly, gluten-free, bread-is-the-devil diet fad? Snake oil.

I hope to see the end of the anti-gluten pseudoscience fad very, very soon. And I can get back to baking bread without the nonsense of fads and faux science interfering with my enjoyment.

May and June Breads

June bread
The past month I haven’t done as much baking as usual – just been too busy to do much, plus I was away for a long weekend holiday in Toronto. So June saw a mere two loaves baked. I made a few others in late May, however.

June breadThe two most recent loaves were a poolish-levain combination done in the oven, and a jalapeño-cheese bread done in the machine. The former was a typical bread for me: nicely solid for sandwiches and toast, but the levain added the sourdourgh flavour and a hint of acidity. Both crust and crumb were acceptable.

Nice, simple bread to make. pretty much my fall-back recipe nowadays (although my levain suffered a mishap and I may need to restart one…).

The only problem with this loaf was the shape – slightly lopsided. No big deal, of course, in the eating thereof. I suspect it had rather exuberant oven spring on that side.

Cheese & jalapeno bread bread
June breadThe jalapeño-cheese bread was based on a recipe from my favourite bread machine cookbook, but as I have often found in other of this book’s recipes, the amount of cheese and jalapeño pepper was too little for my taste.

If it has hot peppers, it should taste like it has hot peppers – even the mild ones like the modest jalapeño.

I fried the peppers in a bit of olive oil and some minced onion, first. The cheese was from a shredded cheddar package.

The loaf turned out well physically, with the sort of fluffy crumb one gets in commercial breads, albeit a somewhat thicker crust. It was quite symmetrical (not all of my machine-baked breads have been) and rather tall.

However, both the cheese and the peppers tended to get thoroughly blended into the crumb, so there was no particular taste of either. It was okay for sandwiches and passable for toast. Nothing I’d want to repeat without some significant changes.

Well, the first loaf has been eaten and the c-j bread is down to its last slice or two, so it’s time to start a new loaf. I began a poolish this morning with a mix of unbleached white and red fife flours. We’ll see what else I add tomorrow. Basil? Garlic? Hmmm…

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Failure and Redemption

Sourdough #1The past month has seen the rise, fall and rise again of my bread making efforts.

Mid-month, in April, I was having some success making sourdough breads and was looking at trying some experiments with herbs and other ingredients. Maybe look at other specialty breads, too.

But late in the month I tried a cheese bread in the machine – my first cheese bread, using a recipe in the 300 Best Bread Machine Recipes book. It was a failure that cost me a confidence and set me to lying awake at night wondering what I did wrong.

But then I came back with good loaves – in fact, very good – both in a mixed-sourdough and a handmade cheese bread.

I feel redeemed. Confidence was restored.

Sourdough #1Mid-April I made a sourdough from the levain in my fridge, and no additional yeast or poolish. Entirely unbleached white flour. I decided this time to add more salt than I usually do – almost the amount most recipes call for. The result was a slow rise during the day, but it rose to a reasonable height for the boule. Tall enough for sandwiches.

Crust was crisp, the crumb was a bit dense but not overly so; more like a commercial light rye (and the taste is similar to a rye because of the sour levain). But it cooked throughout to a nice consistency with just the right amount of chewiness.

There was noticeable aeration, especially at the top, although no really large holes. Makes me wonder if I should have flipped the dough over an hour or so before baking; help the aeration on the other side.

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April’s early breads

Artisan bread no. 1April has begun with three loaves of bread; generally successful efforts, although there’s still some tweaking to do with the recipes. As always. But I’m encouraged to try more – and of course experiment more with recipes and ingredients.

The first loaf of the latest batch was an artisan loaf made at the tail end of March. Started with an overnight poolish and the standard artisan recipe I’ve been using for a while now (derived from one found online). All unbleached white flour in the mix. A little less salt than was called for, but otherwise pretty basic bread.

The result was excellent. A little canned applause might be inserted here.

Artisan bread no. 1As you can see, it held a good shape, and rose well without flattening. It shows a nicely aerated crumb. Crust was fine; a little crunchy and chewy at the same time.

I was extremely pleased by this loaf – look, texture and taste all combined to produce one of the best loaves I’ve made to date. It didn’t last long: we ate it in a few days.

I might let it rise a little longer next time to boost the aeration. Or perhaps increase the hydration by a percentage point or two. Both can improve aeration. But too much water and the dough is too wet to hold its shape during the rise.

Artisan bread no. 1The second loaf was another artisan-style boule, but this time I went back to the “Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day” master recipe. And I stuck to the recipe – although I reduced all the ingredients to 2/3rds of what was called for, to make one large loaf rather than the two smaller loaves in the book.

It wasn’t as good as this recipe has produced in the past. I think it had a lot to do with the salt.

The recipe calls for 1 1/2 tablespoons of coarse (kosher) salt. That’s a lot. Even reduced for my smaller effort, it’s still a full tablespoon of salt for 4 cups of flour. I hesitated, but in the end opted to use what was called for.

My mistake. I’ve tended to reduce salt in most recipes in the past and had good results.

Artisan bread no. 1Salt adds to the flavour, but it also inhibits yeast growth. Dough doesn’t rise as well when the salt is high. I suppose to compensate, the authors call for a full tablespoon of yeast (or rather 1 1/2 tbsp for the original recipe). That’s a huge amount.

The recipe also calls for putting the yeast and salt in the warm water before mixing. Again, I did what it said, but I think that’s another mistake. Putting yeast in the water is meant to awaken it, to start it growing (putting a little flour in the water also helps that). I believe that much salt in the water will inhibit, even kill some of the yeast.

The dough is allowed to rise, untouched (no folding or kneading) for a few hours, then placed overnight in the fridge where it continues to ferment but much more slowly. The result was a dense bread, stubbornly resisting rising.

And the final loaf was way to salty for either Susan or my palette to appreciate. So I decided to try that one again, but with reduced salt.
Continue reading “April’s early breads”