Monday, February 26, 2007

Back to Modernity

I was getting fed up with the sours and levains of my last few loaves, the constant feeding (which I would invariably forget and thereby kill off most of the culture), the smell, the mess, and I have to admit that the sourness was just too pungent on some of them. I wanted to make a lighter loaf (since I never waited long enough for my partially-killed culture to leaven the dough) that wouldn't assault my sense of taste. So, I used commercial yeast yesterday to make a whole wheat loaf and it is strikingly different.

First off, I used brown sugar to start the yeast in about two and a half or three cups of water, using less than a tablespoon of yeast. I added whole wheat flour to that after eight minutes and continued adding flour until a very wet dough had formed. I turned it out onto a very heavily floured counter (more than a cup) and then floured the top of the mass with another half a cup and (having forgotten to add it earlier) a very large pinch of salt (maybe a quarter teaspoon). I started needing, adding flour from time to time (I maybe used four cups total; it's a large loaf). Eventually, I had a nicely elastic dough, when I remembered that I hadn't added any oil. I had melted nearly three tablespoons of bacon grease, which was sitting on the stove, but I'd neglected to add it in, so I kneaded it into the dough at that point. It was quite messy, but the dough became somewhat stiffer and much more elastic. I guess oil does make a big difference in the characteristic of the dough itself. I let the dough rise in the oven with the light on for forty-five minutes. I then greased a cast iron skillet (about a foot in diameter) with bacon grease. I turned the risen dough out, turning it inside out (so the top, which had dried out somewhat, was pushed into the bottom and the uneven surface which had been in contact with the bottom of the bowl was stretched out to be the top), forming a round loaf which was quite tall. I scored the top with a cross about half an inch deep and placed it into a 380F oven without steam (I wanted to know what happened without trying to get a crust). I baked it until it sounded fairly hollow when tapped on the bottom and cooled it upside down.


More salt.


Without a crust, the thickness of this loaf was too much. The weight of the inverted loaf during cooling nearly crushed the flimsy Great Harvest style crust. It wouldn't be bad on a sandwich loaf or a smaller round loaf, but this is a very tall rustic country round and the bread just cries for a loaf. But now I know.

Bacon grease is good.

The crumb is superb, although bordering on blandness, the springiness and cohesivenss is ideal. I don't know what caused this, but it is quite nice. Possibilities include the yeast leavening, the improvement of my kneading technique, the late addition of the oil, or just luck. I like to think it's the second.

Next time, I'm going to take off the gloves and just add salt until I feel like I should stop. No more of this wishy-washy salting; I'd rather make an oversalted loaf next time than be left with a bland loaf which is otherwise perfect. I might also try an overnight or daylong poolish, in the boulangerie style.

I'm getting tempted to try a white loaf, but I must resist. Must resist, at least until my brown bread is world class.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Follow Up

Jonathan said, and I agree with this, that the bread's flavor was too simple, i.e. there was not any complexity to the flavor of the wheat. I think he wanted a slightly sweeter bread, which is understandable, since the only sugar in the sourdough was whatever the wheat had. Some more salt would also have help it, I think. Still, it was delicious, albeit it dense. It reminded me of the dark rye bread in Scandinavia (except this had little rye).

The density was another thing which Jonathan mentioned after trying it. It was definitely dense, but that, as mentioned earlier, was due to punching down the dough when forming the loaf.

I've got some more dough rising right now and the starter was a little wilder this time, but I'll hold off telling the secret ingredient until I've tried the bread.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Sourdough Whole Wheat

Yesterday, I made the loaf with the sour I mentioned in the last entry. I started in on Thursday and fed it through Saturday night. There wasn't much activity for nearly three days, but then, when I went to bed on Saturday, I put the sour in the oven with the light on. About seven hours later, it had grown by a third, so I was relieved. I had a quart of sour in the end, to which I added an unknown amount of flour and kneaded it before heading to church.

The sour had been started with about a quarter cup of whole rye, but I used whole wheat after that. I don't think I used enough flour when making the bread, because it was awfully wet still (although not that bad, just on the wet side of a good dough). I think I should have saved some of the sour rather than using it all. I really only needed a couple cups.

I let the bread rise while I was at church, and then for a few hours more. I then flattened it out on a baking sheet greased with bacon grease (bakin' grease?), rolled it into a log, and let it rise while the oven heated to 425F. I also placed a bowl of boiling water in the oven to steam it up (actually, Peter did most of that because he was baking a loaf, too.

Since I'd punched down the dough when I formed the log, and the sour culture was slow acting, and the dough was wet, the preheating time for the oven did not allow the loaf to reach its full size. Consequently, the loaf was very dense, and the side split in the oven from a large secondary rise.

So, lessons: use less sour for a single loaf, let it rise a long time before placing in the oven, use more flour (or otherwise make a drier dough).

Improvements from previous loaves: the dough was not too dry, I didn't have to use commercial yeast, there was hardly any rye flavor.

As to the loaf itself, it was incredible. I didn't expect it to taste as it does. It has a strong whole wheat flavor, but there is a strong sourness as well. It's a strange flavor, but good.

A few things to keep in mind next time: a little more salt, some oil (there was none and I don't know if the bread would have been better with it), the addition of honey to the sour, a longer final rise time for a sourdough, less sour or more flour (in the second case, make two loaves). Also, I'm tired of putting water in the oven. I want to make a loaf without steam next. Maybe I should try only one or two of these changes. I'll be thinking of what my next loaf will be. I'm seriously considering a, well, I'll let you know later.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Trye Poolish

I ate the loaf the next day, partly for lunch and partly as a snack in the library. It was, being rye bread, quite heavy, and I guess maybe that's why I fell asleep at the study table for an hour. Anyway, it was delicious and, unlike many heavy rye breads, I didn't feel as though it sat heavily in the stomach after eating.

Definitely, the size of the loaf was too small. Also, since I'd tried extra hard to make a crust on it, the small size combined to make it way too crusty. I think if I ever make such a small loaf again, I will not put a crust on it if it can be helped.

My next bread will probably be on Sunday. I've started a sour using maybe a quarter cup of rye flour and water. I'm going to feed it (in fact, as soon as I finish typing) with whole wheat flour, so the rye is just in there to get the culture going. After reading, I decided that I need to let a natural yeast dough rise a lot longer than I would a common type dough; as much as four hours, perhaps. Thus, my plan right now is to feed the sour through Sunday morning and then get up before church and make the dough, letting it rise through church and then bake it around noon. I'll let you know what happens.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

First Proof - Rye Poolish

Last night, before I went to bed, I started a basic poolish using whole rye flour and water, maybe a little less than a cup each. Of course, I did all my reading afterwards, but I now know both what a poolish is and how I should have done it differently. Allow me to share the first now.

A poolish is a type of yeast starter, I suppose one could think of it as a sourdough starter (although it's more watery), which is used to preferment some dough to use as a leavener. Rye flour naturally has a very high wild yeast content, so one needn't add the extra yeast which is required for a wheat starter (in fact, for flavor, rye flour is often added to a wheat starter).

So, I started my poolish, put it in the oven to ferment, and went to bed, hoping to bake a rye loaf when I got up. Although it had activated, I found that the poolish was not active enough to leaven a loaf (which was the same problem I'd encountered last week when I tried to make a similar loaf of bread before deciding to embark on this breadmaking tutorial). I added some more yeast (Fleischmann's, I think) about midmorning and then went to class. When I came back, I defered to Peter's expert advice (the guy's been making bread since he was seven!) and he told me that, in fact, the starter was ready now, although I wouldn't have known it. That was due to a combination of the huge growth I'd gotten last week and my forgetting where the original fill level was for the poolish.* So, I started to make bread.

I poured the poolish into a mixing bowl, poured about another half cup or so of rye flour in, as well as maybe two cups of whole wheat flour, mixed in some more water, and started needing on a well-floured counter. Sorry I can't tell you how much flour I used, but I'm trying to learn to do this by touch. I'd decided with the bagels that the dough was too dry; I erred on the side of caution and got pretty much the same result, although the dough was slightly limp tonight. Also, since it was at least a quarter rye, and probably more, the gluten didn't develop nearly as much as in a wheat dough. I think I'm starting to get a handle on this whole rye thing (haha) and I need to make more slits in loaves made with rye to ensure that they don't split the sides because of the generally short stretching ability of the gluten strands.

I placed the ball of dough, which was quite small, in the oven to rise for an hour. Although it had risen some, I decided to add some more yeast, as much to find out what happens when yeast is added after the first rise as to aid in the crumb development. I think I put in another teaspoon (in addition to the teaspoon I'd added before going to class) and kneaded it in. I then let the bread rise for another hour in the oven. When I took the bread out, I formed it into a small loaf by flattening it out into a rectangle and the rolling it up (I've heard this creates tension in the surface gluten both inside and out), set the oven to 370F, put a kettle on to boil, and then let the bread rest until the oven was preheated. When the kettle was done, I poured boiling water into a pan I'd placed on the lower rack of the oven (my 8" omelet pan) and when the oven was heated a few minutes later, I put in the bread. The water is supposed to aid in the formation of a crust and, given my results, it does.

I left the bread in for an hour or so (I think 50 minutes, to be exact). I'd read that crust formation can be better aided still by turning off the oven and leaving the loaf in for half an hour to an hour, so I tried that, as well. Does this loaf have a crust or what! It's a small loaf, with a strong rye flavor, again, which I'm getting sick of, and a rather loose crumb which is itself made up of rather dense crumbs. It is delicious and I'm going to look forward to eating lunch tomorrow with my little loaf.

A few observations:

It is a small loaf, too small for all the work that went into it. The crust is too thick for its size, as well. The flavor is good, although I'm not sure I can taste the fermentation (maybe a product of the additional yeast and short fermentation time. The slits in top were not large enough and baked through almost immediately, not allowing much additional rise to be absorbed (perhaps the knife didn't actually cut the surface gluten, merely compressed it).

Maybe more to follow later.

An idea just occurred to me, spurred on by a delicious Gouda I ate in Nottingham months ago: I should add cumin to a bread sometime. I love cumin and it might flavor (and color) the bread very nicely, much like caraway in American rye.

*After reading on starters while the bread was rising and baking, I learned that a starter, even a poolish, should be allowed to ferment for at least three days in all cases. I have heard that a poolish can be started in as little as five hours, but I now realize that the finished starter in those cases won't have fermented, merely it will have started to produce enough carbon dioxide to leaven a loaf.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Follow Up

After eating another three of the bagels and getting feedback from Peter and Jonathan, I have a few more comments.

The flavor was actually quite incredible, and the poppy seed flavor grew overnight, as did the bageliness (meaning, as it grew stale, it acquired that dry, dense texture of a classic bagel). I'm not sure what the plain bagels would have done overnight, but the honey-scent (which was very strong last night) actually diminished. I looked at some pictures of bagels online today and I think that I didn't overlap the coil enough. It looks like the Montreal bagels I was modeling mine after overlap a full third or more of the circumference; mine only overlapped about a fifth.

I've got to get to Montreal. Eat some smoked meat, too. Stop in at one of the many francophone used bookstores. And have fondue; maybe that same waitress is still working there...

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A First Proofing

This weblog, for the moment, will function as my public journal of pain. Over the next few months, I'm going to attempt to learn the art of breadmaking. I have two main reasons for doing this. Firstly, bread is such a basic joy in life, I want to be able to make a number of varieties of bread well. Secondly, I think the act of making bread will help my quite painfully injured back to heal, through the kneading and other activity (hence the pun in the first sentence).

A few notes before I procede.

I have never made bread before this week, except a loaf two years ago which ended up being made with dead yeast (not just inactive).

I eat mostly whole foods, so don't expect to see any recipes for white bread (although I expect to perfect a french baguette at some point).

I will not use any machines for this. Not only do I find the noise of electric motors disruptive, and their use would make nul half of my reason for doing this, but I also don't own anything which would help in breadmaking.

So, now that I've set out that rather inadequate description, let me get on to my first attempt at bread.

On the spur of the moment, I threw together some rather passable bagels after church today. It was pretty easy, although I'm trying to use up a bag of rye flour I bought in November, so the gluten didn't develop as I would have liked. They also have a strong rye flavor (imagine that). Basically, the recipe I used was something like three cups of whole wheat flour, a cup and some of whole rye flour, and some salt, mixed with some activated yeast in a maybe a cup and a half or two of water. Then, I kneaded the dough, let it rise for half an hour, and got a large pot of water simmering with maybe three or four tablespoons of honey. I shaped the bagels by cutting off a chunk, rolling it out in a cylinder, and wrapping it about my hand, overlapping the ends. After letting them rise for another fifteen minutes, I boiled them for between one and three minutes per side, and then put them in a 400 degree oven for 25 minutes (although I put them in initially while the oven was still preheating). Also, four of the ten got an light eggwash and a dusting of poppy seeds (because I love poppy seeds).


The overlapping ends didn't hold together in the water. The bagels developed too much of a crust for their thickness (they have a large circular diameter, but a small cross-section). The flavor of the poppy seeds is overwhelmed by the wheat and rye flavors. As for flavor, the crust and and the mou flavors weren't quite in harmony (the crust was honey-sweetened quite nicely, while I think the mou was lacked some sweetening and also tasted too much like bare wheat and rye).

Ideas for the future:

I think I make my doughs too dry (I also attempted a rye sourdough with a friend's help last week); perhaps a bit more water or a bit less flour during the kneading. When shaping the bagels, work faster and cut up all of the dough at once (otherwise, the rising causes each progressive bagel to be larger and larger and larger and larger). Make the holes smaller and the cross-section larger (roll it out less and wrap around a small object than the palm of my hand). Maybe the oven was too hot; 375F might not be a bad idea. Since the dough wasn't sweet enough to match the flavor of the boiled outside, I think honey is necessary in the dough as well, but not much at all, probably less than a tablespoon. Maybe some more salt would be good (I'm pretty sure I ended up using less than a teaspoon, but certainly not more).

All in all, the bagels are delicious. Their flavor is incredibly strong!!! I put that as a warning, not a criticism. One nice thing about that is that the overwhelming flavor of the wheat and rye requires a lot of cream cheese, so once I adjusted the quantity, they were almost too good to be true.