Alternate working title: Leaven and the Ragged Tiger
It should be no surprise that I am a crappy blogger. The real question, however, is why. I’m not a bad blogger simply because I seldom post. At the worst, this makes me a LAZY blogger.
Sometimes I rationalize this by telling myself that I have to be “in the moment,” you know, interesting food I feel passionately about, with a humorous storyline and mesmerizing visuals. A LOT has to fall into place for all of that to be in place, my friends. But, again, that’s a rationalization. Sometimes I’m just lazy.
I’m not even a bad blogger because I don’t proofread. Or verify my links or fix my #*$& WordPress template or present my recipes consistently or make sure my blogroll is current. This makes me a SLOPPY blogger. You’ve seen the stove, right? I’m working on it. I think the real reason I’m a crappy blogger? I overlook the obvious. Food I eat weekly The foods that take up most of my intellectual and culinary effort. Stuff I read about think about, talk about. I always think I’m at my best when I’m putting my cooking in the context of my “real” life – my struggles with time due to carelessness, my social ineptitude and relational crucibles, my willingness to go hungry rather than eat out of a box.
As I’ve mentioned, I make bread on most Sundays. The same loaf, every time. It is the task I plan my weekend around, my exercise, my chores, my laundry, my grocery shopping, all need to happen in such a way so that I have blocks of time available in the afternoon to knead, rest and bake. I’ve been doing it so long, the practical reasons have faded and become almost ceremonial: a ritual I undertake basically so that I can go to work on Monday without having to self-medicate with Cool Ranch Doritos.
Anyway, the last few weeks have forced me to re-think my bread recipe because, a few times, my results have varied. I’ve wound up either with a pale, zombie-like loaf that doesn’t rise and wont rise – and once I wound up with absolutely PERFECT loaf, crisp crust, soft yet stable interior, good flavor, and had no idea what I did correctly. What I had to do was take a close look at my recipe and figure out what happened when I failed, and maybe be able to replicate my perfection.
You know the old cooking truism that baking recipes require more fidelity than other recipes? Proportions matter. The method of combining fat and flour matters. Oven temperature matters. But bread is a little bit different. Not only do you have to pay attention to the recipe and method, but there are so many tiny variables that affect your final product – some of which are easier (and more important to control) than others. The temperature of the water used to bloom the yeast, and the usual pitfalls of oven temp, heating time, and precise measurements of ingredients.
So after doing some reading, I figured out my most serious problem was letting the dough rise in too hot an environment. I was killing the yeast before the little guys had a chance to gnaw on the sugar and burp. (Hence the lack of color and carmelization), but the other problem had to do with both hydration% and underkneading. I LOVE my stand mixer, and, most of the time, it makes a great loaf of bread. But I am starting to realize that it doesn’t knead the dough effectively unless the hydration is perfect. I wind up having to add much too much flour in order to prevent a mass of dough from sticking to the bottom of the mixer. So I switch to the food processor and it’s dough blade. And I was right.
The following bread is the results of two Sundays worth of tweaking. The recipe creates a soft yet toothy loaf suitable for either sandwiches or straight up noshing.
I have included instructions for either hand kneading, a stand mixer, or a food processor equipped with a “dough” feature.
Serious bakers out there may notice that there are two things I don’t do: “the slash” and the “squirt water around inside your oven before baking” thing. I’ve tried both, but I guess I’ve never been able to taste the difference in flavor and/or texture. Feel free to leave a comment and explain.
JEFF BREAD VERSION 3.0
¼ Cup Whole Wheat Flour
2 3/4 Cups Bread Flour
1 Cup bread flour
1 T Honey, warm
1 T sugar
1 ½ t salt
2 T olive oil
1 packet of active dry yeast dissolved in ¼ cup of lukewarm water spiked with a pinch of sugar.
1 cup of warm water
Once your yeast is dissolved and foamy, pour it into a large mixing bowl, along with the additional water, honey, sugar, and oil. Mix thoroughly. Place your one cup of bread flour in a small bowl and set aside.
Combine your remaining bread flour with your whole wheat flour and salt. Stir thoroughly. Slowly add the flour mixture to the water, a small glop at a time. I like to use a large, flat-edged wooden spoon for this task. Once combined, your dough ball will be a dense, dry mass.
Rest the dough for 15 minutes before kneading. This is the “autolyse” step, which will dramatically improve the texture of the final product. You are allowing the flour to fully hydrate and giving the nascent gluten network time to form.
Knead the dough: If you are kneading by hand, go for a FULL 30 minutes. Don’t punk out. If you are kneading by hand you will begin to realize why people don’t make bread as often as they used to. The advantage of this method, however, is that you are in constant contact with the dough, you are constantly aware of its hydration. Add flour as needed to make sure the dough is “tacky but not sticky.” In other words, the dough should pull cleanly away from your hand, but offer slight resistance as you pull.
If you are using a stand mixer with a dough hook, you need about 15 minutes. You will also notice that if the dough is insufficiently hydrated, the a soft mass of dough will remain at the bottom of the mixer and the dough itself will be wet to the touch. It is often necessary to add flour from your “stand by” bowl as you knead. Depending on the flour, the humidity, whatever, you may need none, you may need the entire cup. I typically end up adding about ¼ – ½ a cup.
The easiest way is to take advantage of the food processor Jeff has talked you into buying and using (Dave and Laura, I’m looking at YOU) – Use your hands to add dough until the mixture is, again, tacky but not sticky, and then place the dough in the FP with the dough blade in place, and let the FP run for about 45 seconds. I have used the dough blade three times now, and I’m almost ready to sell my stand mixer. In one loud, violent minute, the FP has turned my stiff dough ball into a soft, warm, airy ball of dough ready to rise in the oven.
The key to know when to stop kneading is to use the windowpane test. Grab a hunk of dough about the size of large gumball, and stretch the dough out as far and as think as it will go. The dough should be able to stay in shape even when it’s thin enough to allow sunlight and shadow to pass through. If it breaks too early, you have more work to do.
Let the dough rise in a warm place until it doubles in volume. This takes about 90 minutes. Once the dough has doubled, you need to redistribute the bubbles. Do NOT simply “punch down” the dough. Fold it over gently into thirds as you would a trifold wallet, and poke the dough down softly with your knuckles. Repeat this two or three times.
Place the dough into a loaf pan, and allow to rise in the oven for 45 minutes. It should double again. Turn the oven on to 400, and bake until done. It usually takes about 30 minutes, the crust should be a dark brown. Sometimes I like to extract the dough from the loaf pan a few minutes early and allow the sides to finish browning as well.
Remove from the oven, and (VERY IMPORTANT!) allow the dough to rest for 30 minutes before cutting it open and devouring.