Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Life Changes/Brick Oven

Hello hello, everybody. My senior thesis has been submitted, assessed, and returned: I'm graduating! Heyo! After a summer in Houston, I'll be moving to the Mississippi Delta in the fall to teach high school Spanish. Adventure time.

In the lull between senior exercise season and finals, I decided to look for a project. Since the school-owned apartments do not have ovens, a makeshift brick oven seemed like the perfect choice. Here's the current design, which one might call version 2.0 of the oven.

The walls are two bricks thick, the floor is one brick thick on top of cinder blocks, and the roof is a stout granite boulder. This is a huge improvement over the previous design, which was only one brick thick all around except for the roof. However, it still loses a huge amount of heat: as one can see, the boulder is not perfectly flush with the walls and support bricks. I guess I can't complain, since all of the materials were free.

Perhaps I will try plugging the gaps with mud and then wrapping the thing in tinfoil, as described by Hans Fugal on his wonderfully informative page, Brick Ovens for the Cheapskate.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Saving Sourdough Two Ways

Today, I'm going to talk about some ways to save sourdough: obviously, refrigeration, and less obviously, drying and bagging. The latter method is particularly import for sourdough bakers who are frequently on the go.

I'm sure that many of you out there have started sourdough starters, and you know quite well that they can be a pain to keep up. For those of you who don't know, keeping sourdough ready for baking requires two or three flour-and-water "feedings" per day, a lot of fretting, and a considerable amount tentative sniffing and testing. To save time, I keep a big jar of starter fermenting on the counter, and a smaller one chilling in the fridge. It works best to start this system on a day when you plan to bake.

-At least 1/2 cup of sourdough starter (I use Mike Avery's starter method: I've never had a starter fail me using this method)
-Two mason jars or similar containers; one quart-sized, one pint-sized
-A refrigerator

1) In your large jar (at least a quart), build up a starter like Mr. Avery suggests. Keep it alive and thriving for at least four or five days.
2) Now, rather than discarding half the starter, leave it all in there, and double this amount. I'll sort out the baker's percentages when I can find a scale, but it should be approximately 1/2 cup water and 3/4 cup flour. Stir it up like usual.
3) Wait 30 minutes, so the yeast can start working on the new material. Put about 1/2 cup of this stuff into the smaller jar, lid it, and toss it into the fridge.
4) The starter in the big jar is for everyday baking. Go ahead and use as much of it as you need to for whatever recipes you want to try, even if they require all the starter in the jar. You have a reserve stock now that can be brought to life as necessary.

This next technique is particularly useful if, like me, you need to travel by plane frequently. I don't see airport securities being very lenient with giant jars of boozy-smelling bread goo. As such, I dry portions of my starters and bring them along for rejuvenation.

-At least 1 cup of ripe sourdough starter
-Parchment paper or waxed paper
-An oven (optional)
-A ziploc bag

1) Decide how much sourdough you want to bring with you (shown above is two tablespoons).
2) Pour the desired amount into a very thin layer on the parchment or wax paper. This REALLY needs to be thin, or the starter will take a million years to dry. If you're in a hurry, put the oven on low for a couple minutes and then put the starter on a cookie sheet in the oven.
3) When all water has evaporated, crush the starter and ziploc it.
4) To rejuvenate a dried starter, simply add warm water and mix vigorously. Allow for an approximate ratio of 3/4 cup water for every 1 cup of dried sourdough.

Email me if you have problems! I have tried this drying technique thrice: twice with success, once with failure. If I find ways to make improvements, I will post them.

Also: I really wanted to avoid apologizing, but I can't help myself. I swear I'll start posting more often. This coming week will by my true vacation. I will be hiding in a remote fishing village, with access to a bad-ass convection oven. Expect great things.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Central Park Party Spelt

Nothing about Sunday was normal. Scorching heat, pouring rain, and armies of French bulldogs* in Central Park.

However, we had a collegiate get-together in spite of the strange circumstances. No party is really a party without any bread, so I whipped up an experimental spelt loaf for the occasion. Luckily, the partiers were hungry. Unfortunately for the blogosphere, I only have a photo of this bread in its very final stage:

So, there you have it. The recipe was as follows:

1 cup full-hydration sourdough starter
2 cups unbleached flour
1 cup spelt flour
1 cup water (I felt that my starter was kinda dry, so I added a couple tablespoons of water)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup whole oats (for later)

1) Mix flours and salt in a big plastic bowl. Then, mix in starter and water. I did this rather unceremoniously, as I had to be at a gig shortly after mixing this, and thus was in a hurry.

2) Cover it, and let it hang out overnight. You could probably do this in the fridge if you wanted to wait for longer than 10-12 hours.

3) After 10-12 hours, stretch and fold the bread a few times and let it proof for 10-20 minutes.

4) Then, chafe the loaf for a good 3-4 minutes. Flip the chafed loaf on to a hard and smooth surface covered with oatmeal, and flip it again on to a flour-dusted piece of parchment. The oaty side should be up. Cover it with a tea cloth.

5) Let the loaf rise for about an hour, then bake it. It should be a little less than fully risen, but I guarantee you'll get some craaaaazy oven spring out of this thing.

6) Heat up your baking stone/tiles/whatever to 450 degrees for ten minutes, then turn heat down to 425 and let it cook until the loaf is wonderfully browned. Do the usual tap test.

7) Let it cool, find a park, have a party.

Many odd occurrences led to this recipe. My cooking equipment is scattered around the nation, for one, so I'm stuck using what's in my apartment for the time being. We only have 1-cup measures and a half-teaspoon measure, but luckily, the two measuring devices here are from the same line as my mother's. I had a recipe along these lines written down in my notebook, and remembered from past improvisations that I could certainly whip something up, even with these limited tools.

More (and less haphazard) recipes to come.

*bulldog photo from flickr.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Baguette Challenge!

Okay, so I've moved to NYC for the summer. Now that things are starting to settle down, I can start baking again. YES. Birthing a new starter is first on the list of necessary tasks.

A thought occurred to me this morning while shaving. I should hold a baguette recipe challenge! The idea is as follows.

1. Collect baguette recipes that have worked well for me in the past (Peter Reinhart's standard French bread recipe, Julia Child's baguettes, pain a l'ancienne, my own recipe as described earlier on the blog).

2. Assemble a panel of judges who are familiar with baguettes, and generally familiar with the French Touch.

3. Gather a modest selection of cheese and wine, to give the bread-eaters some incentive beyond the loaves alone.

4. Calculate rising times and proofing times such that all loaves may be baked at once.

5. Find a Friday night where everyone is free (I don't have work or class during the day, so I can spend the whole day baking), bake, test, and voila! We can work together to find the best recipe.

Okay, time to run to class.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Bagels: Salt Faults.

Hello, hello. It has been an incredibly long time since I have posted on this thing, mostly due to overwork and a lack of time to use the internet (or, of course, bake). However, last week caught me in a rare free period, so I made some bagels. I can't seem to convince the above picture to upload vertically, but you get the general idea.

I took this recipe from The Fresh Loaf, where you can find specific instructions. The bulk ingredients you'll need are:

1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
7 3/4 cups flour
2 3/4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons malt powder
A pinch of baking soda for the water in which y

As a heads up: I found that this recipe yields a LOT of dough. If you want huge bagels, go ahead and divide the dough into 12 pieces, as specified on the Fresh Loaf. I found that 16 bagels was just right for getting breads of manageable size.

The salt is important! Don't use too little. I skimped, using the amount of salt that I happened to have left, and was met with disaster when all the bagels went stale literally overnight. This is a dry, dry, DRY dough, and the salt is your one hope, especially if you're baking in a dry climate (the dormitory in which I live is barely inhabitable).

Aside from being quick to dry out, the bagels were fantastic. I brought two to the dining hall for Sunday brunch as soon as they were cool enough to eat, and covered them both with cream cheese. It was impossible to resist eating another as a bedtime snack.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Friendly Sourdough

Last week I baked the "Norwich Sourdough" as described at Wild Yeast Blog. In general, I am quite pleased with how it turned out, and I'd like to make it again. For some reason, during baking, the side of each loaf exploded and high-fived the other one, leaving me with one big, connected, and very friendly loaf.

For some reason, whenever I bake sourdough, my loaf-scoring never quite works and the loaves always explode on the side. It will probably take many attempts and experiments until I can tame this problem.

The way in which my sourdough rises and bakes is slightly different from the other yeast breads I have tried. It takes much longer to rise, and the dough has more and larger air holes than instant or dry active yeast breads seem to at the same hydration levels. It tastes delicious, too.

For information on the starter I used, click here.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Peter Reinhart's Baguettes

As the above picture indicates, I recently received a multitude of wonderful new baking tools. Among them was Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice. If you are a serious bread baker, this book deserves serious consideration. I think it might be my most important baking resource.

After reading over Reinhart's richly detailed twelve-step description of the breadmaking process, I had to try one of his recipes. I decided on baguettes, which rise with a pâte fermentée (dough made the night before baking) in conjunction with traditional baker's yeast. Although I had some problems while proofing (as usual), these turned out better than any baguettes I've made before. Here's how I did it:

Ingredients for the pâte fermentée:

5 oz all purpose flour
5 oz bread flour
0.19 oz salt
0.055 oz instant yeast
6-7 oz water

Mix the dry ingredients, then add the water and mix with a spoon or dough scraper. Reinhart suggest to err on the sticky side, if the hydration does not seem correct. Knead the dough for about five minutes and place it in an oiled bowl. Let it rise for about an hour, then knead lightly for a minute to degas and put it back in the bowl for overnight refrigeration.

Ingredients for the dough:

16 oz. pâte fermentée
5 oz all purpose flour
5 oz bread flour
0.19 oz salt
0.055 oz instant yeast
6-7 oz water

Remove the pâte fermentée from the refrigerator and divide it into ten parts. Let them sit for about an hour, until they aren't quite so cold.

Mix the dry ingredients together and incorporate the pâte fermentée chunks. Add the water, but make sure it is at approximately 90 degrees. Mix until the dough is tacky, but not too sticky, and knead for ten minutes.

Let it rise for about two hours in an oiled bowl at room temperature, then divide it into three baguette shapes and proof for 45 minutes or less. I proofed in a couche made out of a tea towel. I think the dough was over-risen, or perhaps over-proofed: when I tried to slash the loaves for baking (after only twenty minutes of proofing) they instantly collapsed into a wrinkly mess.

Preheat the oven to 500. Bake these guys for 10 minutes, then turn them 180 degrees and set the oven down to 450. Bake for another 10-20 minutes, until the bread's inside temperature is 205 degrees. I used my typical steam setup, which includes a steam pan in conjunction with wall-misting for the first few minutes of baking. Reinhart also recommends this setup.

I know that baguette trays are not "proper" for authentic French baguette making, but we have one around the house now and I decided to try it out. The loaves look a little silly covered in dots, but the crust is consistently crispy all the way around (the holes on the middle loaf are from my food thermometer).

In spite of my proofing error, the baguettes possess a multitude of air-hole sizes and have a soft, creamy crumb. This is probably the most successful bread I've made, taste-wise.