02/3/14

Corn and other breads


Corn breadThe last loaf of January, 2014 was a machine-made corn bread, made using a recipe from Washburn’s & Butt’s 300 Best Canadian Bread Machine Recipes book that I’ve mentioned previously. It’s a good book for bread machine users.

Unlike my previous efforts to tinker with bread recipes, I used the basic, printed 1.5-lb. recipe without any alterations this time (not even in the salt). Medium crust setting, basic (white) bread menu selection. The results were good, if not spectacular.

The recipe calls for 1/3rd cup of cornmeal. I used a commonly-available, supermarket brand, the sort I often use for dusting pans, parchment paper and the pizza peel, to prevent sticking. However, it didn’t really give the bread a noticeable corn flavour or the mealy/gritty texture one expects in corn bread and muffins.

I later found a bag of Bob’s Red Mill medium grind cornmeal which is less refined and will likely impart more flavour next time I make this bread, and likely heighten the texture.

Bob’s Red Mill products are available at several local supermarkets. I don’t know what sort of cornmeal is available at the local Bulk Barn, but will check next time I’m there.

Corn breadThe bread came out with a nice, light and distinctly yellow crumb, consistent throughout the loaf and evenly cooked. It had a light top crust, but a bit crunchier side and bottom.

The flavour is pleasant – in part because the recipe called for an egg (and I had some free-range eggs on hand, which are always tasty), 1 tbsp honey, and 1/4 cup skim milk powder. These add to both the texture and taste.

We tried the bread with soup one day, and with beans-on-toast the next. The cornmeal makes for a crumb that doesn’t stay together as well as an all-wheat bread, so it has a tendency to break apart. It toasts well, however. This week we will likely finish the loaf with some four-bean chili (not, of course chili con carne, which is Texan, not a Mexican dish) one night for supper.

Next time I will try some variations with this bread, aside from using the better cornmeal. I will look up cornmeal recipes online, too, to see what amounts others recommend. I don’t know if 1/3rd cup is sufficient, or if additional cornmeal will make the crumb even more friable.

I may add some gluten flour to boost the stickiness; this may avoid the tendency for the bread to crumble. I may also try buttermilk instead of water and milk powder. I’d also like to try substituting agave syrup or even molasses for honey, and maybe even some Osprey bread flour (from the K2 mill in Beeton) for a portion of the unbleached white.
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01/29/14

Reading Thucydides at last


BookshelfSomewhere on one of my bookshelves, is an old Penguin paperback copy of History of The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. It’s a bit worn, pages lightly yellowed, glue a little brittle. It’s been sitting on the shelf, stacked with many other paperbacks, piled two deep, floor to ceiling, for the past two decades and more.

It’s never been read, not completely. I read the introduction, maybe some small sections, back in my wargaming days, 30 or 35 years ago. Like many of its companions on that shelf, it’s a book I put aside for the days when I expected to have more time to read such works. My retirement. Insert canned laughter here.

Of course, when I bought it, in the 1970s, I hadn’t expected to be in politics, writing books and articles on municipal issues, blogging, playing the ukulele, and furiously baking in my “golden years.” How did I ever get so busy?

Nowadays, it seems these books may have to wait a little longer to be read. Some of them, anyway. The pile of books in progress beside the bed seems to get refreshed with new titles all too often, and few of the older ones make their way into it.

Thucydides sits on the shelf with similar Penguin editions of Herodotus, Xenophon, Josephus, Suetonius, Caesar – historians of ancient Greece and Rome. He shares shelf space with Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hardy, Wolfe, Baudelaire, Austen and other great writers of fiction. Many of them were put aside for later, although others have been read.

There’s a whole collection of Latin American authors I picked up in the 70s; mostly read back then, but many deserve rereading. There are collections of classic Japanese and Chinese poets. Books by popular modern authors – Michener, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Burroughs (read most of those), Kerouac (ditto), Heller, Vonnegut. There are philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Voltaire, Hobbes, Suzuki, Spinoza. Plays by Wilde, Shaw and Sophocles. Essays by Orwell and Voltaire.

Some days, I despair I’ll ever get to them. They deserve to be read, all of them. Each is a gateway to a whole world, a universe, even. Now and then I pick one up, read a chapter, maybe a poem or an essay, but it goes back on the shelf for years after that.

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01/23/14

Water, water, everywhere


K2 flour breadHydration matters. Not just to athletes and long distance runners. It matters to bakers. How much water is in your dough is crucial to how the crumb develops. It’s amazing how a few grams more or less of water can make a real difference in the resulting loaf of bread.

This week I did a little experiment that got me thinking about hydration. I made a loaf of bread in the machine using the “French” recipe and settings, (see my previous post about making French bread in the machine) but this time substituting the same volume of K2 organic bread flour for the called-for white bread flour. The result was a dense, misshapen loaf – tasty but not anywhere near the result I had expected. Very crisp crust. And I think hydration was the reason.

Or, more accurately, the lack of sufficient hydration for that kind of flour. But because the recipe is in volumetric measurements, not weight, the calculation of actual hydration is at best inexact. In future, I will have to measure then weigh the ingredients before mixing, to better understand the hydration percentage.

K2, by the way, is a small flour mill in Beeton Susan and I visited late last year. Great artisan products, and a bread market on Sundays. Worth taking a trip. I came home with 10lbs each bread flour and Red Fife flour.

Red Fife labelRed Fife is a Canadian heritage grain, a whole wheat flour I have only used minimally, but plan to experiment more with in the coming weeks. I do not know the exact protein percentage of either (although this NatPost article suggests Red Fife has lower protein, this report on a lab analysis suggests that’s not true: but that “the gliadin protein level is ~35% of this wheat’s overall gluten protein content. Wheat gluten’s insoluble proteins are gliadin and glutenin. This compares to ~80% gliadin protein levels found in a popular modern bread wheat.” And the nutritional label (see image on left) on this site suggests it’s actually higher protein that commercial AP or bread flours – 15%! Food With Legs site has a label that shows 13%. Harvest Hastings shows it at 13.4%, however… and if you wonder what the falling number of 340 cited is, see here and here*).

In my few tests, whole wheat flours and artisan blends tend to have different weights than the usual commercial bread or unbleached white flour I use. Plus the weight per cup changes depending on whether the flour is sifted or fluffed (or compacted).

My own per-cup weights are sometimes as much as 20% more than those shown in books and on sites for the weight of a cup of flour (typically 125-140 grams unsifted for AP flour, but I’ve weighed it over 160g). That would throw off the recipe’s hydration which is based on commercial all-purpose or bread flour (and a good reason to have recipes listed by weight, not volume).

By the way, Lime Leaves and Taste Buds says this about Canadian whole wheat flour, just adding to the reasons to buy artisan flours rather than commercial blends:

Even more disheartening is that fact that whole wheat flour sold in Canada is not necessarily whole grain due to a ridiculously outdated piece of 1964 regulation which allows millers to legally use “whole wheat” on the label despite their removal of up to 70 per cent of the wheat’s germ!!!

As a sidebar note, the K2 bread flour has a wonderful texture, a bit like having cornmeal added to the bread. That may lessen somewhat if there is higher hydration and longer fermentation time to soften it. However, I really liked the texture and flavour. But back to hydration…

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01/21/14

For want of a nail…


Big SwitchBought a book at Loblaws (of all places) this week, one by Harry Turtledove: The Big Switch. It’s one of his many alternative history novels, about what might have happened if things had happened a certain way – a different way from what actually transpired – in the opening years of World War Two.

He’s written several in this vein and they’ve all been generally well received. I’ve liked what I’ve read of him in the past.

Many authors have taken up this sort of speculative fiction, although none as frequently as Turtledove. What would have happened if Hitler had invaded England? If the USA had not entered the war? If Germany had developed the atomic bomb? If India and the colonies had used the war to spark a rebellion against British rule? What if the USSR sent troops and materiel to Spain to help the republican cause?

I suspect every major theme in WWII has been explored in such speculative novels.

Every event in history is open to this sort of what-if debate. Since at least the 1950s, science fiction writers have been giving us alternate reality stories – that awkward neologism, Uchronia – where timeline-changing events have shaped a universe just like ours, but made different because of different choices or results. It’s a rich field, and great intellectual exercise.

Alternate history fiction offers different sorts of challenges to fiction writers, as opposed to say, scifi where writers can create their own new worlds. And for readers too, because the skeins have to be both imaginative and close enough to reality to make sense. Orson Scott Card’s Redemption of Christopher Columbus, for example, offers an alternate history world where Columbus is shipwrecked in the Americas, and rises to political power there. Fascinating stuff.

More recently, the TV series Fringe explored the alternate-universe concept through five seasons of entertaining shows. (Well, entertaining at least through the three-and-a-half seasons we’ve watched so far).

It’s always fun to explore the ideas, and to read what intellectual landscapes others have created around them. Such speculation is even captured in colloquial proverbs often called for want of a nail:

For want of a naile the shoe is lost, for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse the rider is lost.
George Herbert: Outlandish Proverbs, 1640

Those readers who are also M*A*S*H fans will recall the episode in season two called, “For Want of a Boot.” Shakespeare aficionados will think of King Richard shouting “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” in Act V, Sc. 4 of Richard III.

Small changes can have ripple effects that run through to shape the larger history. or as Wikipedia says it, “a failure to anticipate or correct some initially small dysfunction leads by successively more critical stages to an egregious outcome.”
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01/20/14

The Short and the Tall of It


Mixed yeast bread 01This past week saw several new experiments in my bread laboratory. Okay, it’s a kitchen, but sometimes it feels like a lab, what with all the tinkering and testing I do. I just can’t seem to stop trying new things in bread. It would fee even more science-like if Susan would let me buy the implements and tools I want.

First, however, the good news: my levain remains thriving and healthy. I have two batches now: one on the counter, the other in the fridge. The counter batch is used as a poolish right now; the fridge is the long-term colony.

I used most of the counter colony last week to make a mixed-yeast bread, based somewhat on a recipe in Peter Reinhart’s book, Artisan Breads Every Day. I’ve since restored the levain to fuller size by feeding, and will use it again this week for another mixed-yeast loaf; this one with some tweaks.

You can read some of Reinhart’s ideas about bread, poolish, hydration and cold fermentation here in this PDF file. Or check his blog for ideas and new recipes. I really enjoy Reinhart’s writing and recommend his books. There’s always something to learn in them.

The idea of mixing the two yeasts intrigued me. I’ve learned a lot about pore-ferments and cold fermentation since I started baking. Reinhart writes:

The use of old dough or pre-fermented sponges was developed by traditional bakers as a way of slowing down fermentation and, essentially, buying the dough more time to release its flavor (a result of starch molecules releasing some of their sugar and saccharide chains, as well as the formation of acids due to fermentation by yeast and bacteria). Some of these pre-ferments are wet and batterlike, while others are dry and firm; some are made with commercial yeast, while others use naturally occurring wild yeast (sourdough starters); some have salt, and some don’t. What they all have in common is the idea of adding older, slowly fermented dough to young, freshly made dough to instantly age it so that greater flavor can be developed in less time. This is an example of the manipulation of time by the manipulation of ingredients.

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01/19/14

The 2013 Great Gatsby


Great Gatsby party scene
Watched the 2013 film of The Great Gatsby last night. The first half was spectacular, grandiose and captivating, if somewhat over the top. Like Busby Berkeley meets The Fifth Element. Extravaganza, spectacle and excess.

The film doesn’t feel like it’s set in New York of the Jazz Age. It’s too shiny, too polished, too mechanical, and not gritty enough.

That’s actually okay, and had director Baz Luhrmann chosen to make Gatsby into a scifi film set not the roaring twenties, but rather some futuristic world where the fashion craze is for 20s’ costume, it could have worked better. It would have accounted for the music, for the sets, for the Dark City- or Fifth Element-like vistas we get of New York.

One of the disconnections in the movie is the music. While updating era music with modern technology and sound works well – the Gershwin is great, and the positive influence of Brian Ferry and his orchestra is felt in much of the soundtrack – the hip hop is jarring. It pulls you out of the setting, releases you from your necessary suspension of belief to fall into the gravity of the reality: this is just a movie and we’re here today, not yesteryear.

The second half of the film seems to drift away from the great spectacle into an overblown period piece drama. Downton Abby without the accents, but also without the gangsters or the street life. Big sets surround little people and little problems. The morality tale F. Scott Fitzgerald wove into the novel seems diminished, while his illusionary, glittering world towers above us.

What started out with such promise just slides into predictability. Maybe that’s because I read the book (albeit many decades ago) and I knew the ending. Maybe it’s because Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby and one can never watch him without thinking of the film Titanic. Not to mention he doesn’t have a great range of expression.

Like that movie, this one has an inevitable (though metaphorical) iceberg Gatsby has to crash into, bringing about his ruin. And that ruin symbolizes the fall of the American dream that had built such fantasies. It’s an almost biblical theme that deserves big treatment, but doesn’t live up to its potential.
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