Dec. 30th, 2015

I didn't post last week, and this week is a short post.

Because I've continued to have some discomfort, I'm taking a 2 week break from the running, and it's the end of the year with the feasting season, I decided to take a 2 week break from the whole thing. I'll be back to my regularly scheduled postings next week.

Instead, this week I will be talking about bread, assuming I actually write down the thoughts I have in my head.
So on Christmas, I was going to make buttermilk rolls, a thing I found on Thanksgiving that I really adored.

I've had a lot of misfires in the past with bread. At its core, bread is simple and easy, but there's so many variables that I don't understand that I've had trouble controlling to get to the attributes I want. I also want something different from a sandwich bread that I want from a crusty batard that I want from a nice soft dinner roll or a sandwich roll.

So in general, I've always been disappointed with the bread I made.

Until I made the accidental french bread. You see, what happened was that I was making pizza dough, something I've had a lot of success with. And I got all the way to the end of the process, and I had the dough all set out ready to be balled up and stuck in the fridge for the overnight rise, and I noticed I forgot to put the oil into the dough.

For a pizza dough, I was pretty sure I was going to want that oil. I make a butter based crust, which is a bit richer and that oil makes it a bit sturdier so that it holds up against all the toppings. There was no way that was going to be right. I was just going to have to redo it.

So I did, I made a NEW batch of pizza dough, this time with the correct ingredients.

But what to do with the old batch? It'd be a shame to throw it away, right? So I gave it an overnight rise, shaped it into loaves and I baked it the next morning. After all, if I bake it and it sucks, and THEN I throw it away, all I've lost is the time and energy spent on the oven, but I have a chance to gain a bread. If I was lucky, I figured, it'd be edible.

The shape turned out terrible, it went very flat. But the flavor was remarkable, and I'd managed to get the crusty exterior and the soft and dense and chewy with a small crumb (that's the holes inside the bread) that I really want in that kind of bread. It was so good I way overate of it (and have been all week, but that's part of why I'm taking 2 weeks off, so I can do these experiments with no guilt).

And so I ended up serving that bread at Christmas. There were no leftovers.

Afterward, I was still thinking about the deliciousness of that bread, and I went researching, and then I went experimenting. Since that experiment, I've now made 5 different batches of bread (each making two loaves) and supervised Charlotte through a loaf. I made another french loaf, a multi-grain, a half-whole-wheat (i.e, half white flour, half whole wheat flour), a stout rye (made with oatmeal stout) and a chocolate rye (made with chocolate powder).

Ostensibly this is all prep for New Year's Eve. I need lots of good, tasty fresh bread for dipping into cheese, and I'm going a bit extra to make sure the bread is all safe for a guest with a severe soy allergy. But also, it's kind of fun and I'm learning a few things.

So I'm no expert on bread by any means yet, but I want to record and share the things that I think led to success:

  • For each recipe, I've modified the recipe back to the proportions I used on the basic french loaf to try and minimize the number of new things I'm trying. This makes it easier to compare what the differences are. As I expand, I will change one or two things on a loaf and see what the differences are.

  • The overnight rise has been absolutely key to that yeasty flavor in the bread. The french loaf I did without the rise was just a touch on the bland side in comparison. So everything I've done is doing the overnight rise, despite what the recipe called for. (The no-knead bread actually sat out for 20ish hours and took on a bit of a sourdough flavor because of it).

  • Using a pan with water in the bottom of the oven and cooking between a pair of preheated baking stones helped ensure the correct texture. The even radiant heat coming from above and below is, I think, an important aspect.

  • I spent some time experimenting with ways to roll the bread up. The one I'm using currently has proven to be a little phallic so I'm going to try to fix that, and I've also had some issues making sure my pinch gets a tight seal, but I've dealt with that by adding some water to the pinched area. I think this is because I like my dough on the dry side, as it's easier to work with, so the pinch won't seal without some wet.

  • I don't keep bread flour around, but I do buy AP flour in 25 pound bags. But I can add vital wheat gluten to my AP flour and bam, it's bread flour. This is even more important when working with other flours such as whole wheat and rye in order to get that texture to hold up right.

As I get to it, I'll follow up with some recipes and where my inspiration has come from. For now, everything I've done has been in the shape of the french batard (torpedo) and they're all lean breads (with no oil and only a little bit of sugar to get the yeast going). Everything else has been to swap out some of flour for a different ingredient. I haven't yet tried a full whole wheat bread, for example, or a full rye, but I'll give that a shot.

So far, my absolute favorite has been the multi-grain, so I think I'm going to experiment with variations on that and see what sticks.

Realistically, 'french bread' should be a baguette. That's pretty much THE bread in France. But because we're Americans and we always get this stuff wrong, it's not. Instead, French Bread is more or less the same bread, but in the shape of a batard, or a torpedo.

French bread is a lean bread, meaning it doesn't use oil, nor sugar. I put a little sugar in to get the yeast going, because I have a big container of active dry yeast, whereas most recipes for home cooks call for instant yeast. I'm pretty sure by the time it gets to the bread, there's little to no sugar left. That's what the yeasties ate.

To get the shape of a batard seems to require two things: A properly rolled dough that has been pinched and sealed to create surface tension so that it rises upward, not outward. It also requires being baked on a stone (or in a french loaf pan, but I don't have one nor do I think it's necessary). The stone provides even heat radiating from the bottom which seems to help create that perfect crust.

The last trick I have for french bread is to put about half a cup of water into a small metal pan at the bottom of the stove, which is situated to the side (so the steam can more easily travel upward). This steamy environment helps provide that perfect crust which is essential to a proper french bread.

The ingredients here are super simple:

  • 4 cups bread flour (or as I use, 4 cups AP flour and 1 tablespoon of Vital Wheat Gluten)

  • 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water (I go for right around 110 degrees)

  • 1 tablespoon active dry yeast (many recipes call for less, it's possible I'm using too much but it seems to work for me)

  • 3/4 tablespoon kosher salt (many recipes just call for salt; I use kosher salt which has lower volume due to ragged crystals, so I have to increase the amount by 50% to be correct).

  • 1 tablespoon sugar.

First, add the sugar and the yeast to the lukewarm water and stir to combine. Set aside until the yeast is ready, which means the water has a nice thick head of foam on it, like a really serious beer might.

In the meantime, whisk together the flour, gluten if using it, and the salt. Place in a stand mixer and put in the dough hook.

When the yeasts are bubblin' and troublin', pour the water in, and turn the standmixer on one of the lower settings until combined. Because the density of flour changes considerably due to many factors, you may have to add a little flour or a little water to get to the right consistency. For me, that consistency means that there's a little bit of stickiness to the bottom of the bowl, but it doesn't stick to the sides. Once combined, allow the dough hook to knead it for 3 minutes.

Take it out of the mixer, remove the dough hook, cover the bowl with a cloth and let sit for 20 minutes. This phase is called the autolyse phase, and it allows the gluten to hydrate which will give a better structure to the bread later. My experiments show this phase definitely matters.

In 20 minutes or so, take your lump of dough and turn it out onto a floured surface. Knead the dough by flattening out with your knuckles and palms, then fold it in half, rotate a quarter turn and repeat. I find it takes 10-12 rotations to get the dough ready. You can tell it's done kneading when you push a knuckle into it and it springs back most of the way fairly quickly, and the rest of the way after a short time. When it's fully kneaded, pull the corners down and pinch them together so you have a nice, tight little dough ball. Place in an oiled bowl, oil the top, cover and place in the refrigerator for an overnight rise.

I like the overnight rise a lot. This gives the yeast time to do their thing, which is to eat up the rest of the sugar and some of the starch and provide flavor. In the refrigerator it slows things down a little. The No Knead bread did its thing on the countertop, and the flavor from that was fantastic. As an experiment I want to try to let this rise on the countertop once and see if it's different. Maybe I'll do a batch, split it into two and let one rise on the counter and the other in the refrigerator to see what happens. Anyway, I digress.

The next day, pull your dough out of the refrigerator. Give it an hour or two to warm up; I find that the chilled dough is hard to work with at first, so warming it up makes things easier. Punch the dough down and flatten it into a rectangle. Cut the rectangle in half.

I'm not fully there on all the experiments I can try with rolling the dough, but what's working for me right now is this one: wet the top of the dough just a little bit, then fold one side of the dough so the edge is about halfway. Use the palm of your hand and smash this down so it forms a nice little seal. Wet and fold this side again so that it's now about 2/3s of the way across, and then pinch and punch that down to seal it. Finally, wet and fold the remaining third across and seal it all the way down. Fold the end just a little bit and pinch that closed.

Place the dough, seam side down onto a cookie sheet, oil the top, cover with a towel and set aside to rise for 30-60 minutes.

In the meantime, preheat your oven and baking stone to 450 degrees. Give this one a good long time to heat to make sure that the baking stone is fully hot. Place a pan at the bottom of your oven (or you can just throw the water on the bottom of the oven, but the one time i tried that I didn't think the results were great. With that much surface area it evaporates very fast).

Once the dough has risen, take a good sharp knife and make several diagonal slashes across the top of the loaf. These slashes allow the bread to continue to expand while cooking; without them it'll crack (and even with them I've had a couple loaves crack along the sides, so perhaps I need to make longer slashes). I find that if I oil my knife a bit first, I get slashes without tearing the dough. Otherwise the dough likes to stick to the knife and will drag a bit.

I put the cookie sheet directly onto the baking stone. It's a lot easier than transferring the dough and potentially deflating it, and the cookie sheet should conduct the heat just fine. It seems to work great for me! Make sure the sheet is to one side so the pan has a clear path for steam to get up above the bread; it wont' do any good if it's all trapped underneath. Pour 1/2 cup of water into your nice hot pan, which should shoot steam up at you so be a bit careful.

Bake for 20-25 minutes (i'm finding 24 is the right number for my oven) and remove. Allow to cool a bit. If you can. I never can, because hot fresh bread.


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