Thursday, January 19, 2012

Making Bread

After several requests for recipe, I am putting my "learning recipe" up here. It is from "Bread Alone" by Daniel Leader and Judith Blahnik.

Heating pad / rack.
The authors go on and on about weighing instead of measuring, taking the temperature of your bread every 2 minutes, and basically fussing over it as if it's a newborn. I personally think that, beyond the first or second time (when, IF you follow EXACTLY you will get a perfect loaf), don't bother with it. This is how I did the recipe on Tuesday.

First, make the poolish, or sponge, whatever you want to call it. In a medium bowl, pour 1/2 cup of water (I used slightly warmer than my skin, but room temp is fine; don't use cold) and sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon of yeast over it. Stir gently with a wooden spoon to just wet it, then wait one minute. Stir with the wooden spoon again until all the yeast is dissolved. This takes a few minutes - I use the back of my spoon to squish any bubbles of yeast sticking together. I may be OCD about it, but my bread turns out nice...

Gluten on back of spoon.
Add 3/4 cup of flour (the book says 20% bran wheat, but I have used many high-gluten flours as well as the Better for Bread this time) and stir until it is the consistency of a thick batter. Again, it takes a while. Once it's stirred, continue going for about 100 more strokes, or until the strands of gluten come off the spoon when you press its back against the side of the bowl (see picture). Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap (I use plastic wrap because I have a very cold kitchen) and put in a relatively warm place (it should be between 74F and 80F). Because the average kitchen temperature in the morning (when I was doing this) is about 61F, I set my heating pad under a cooling rack (not touching) and put it on low, then sat the bowl on top of the rack and put a huge aluminum bowl over the whole affair to keep the heat in. It was probably closer to 82F in there, but I didn't measure and I didn't sweat it.

Bubbly poolish with water added.
This poolish has to sit there until it is bubbly and has increased in volume. I was in a hurry and only let mine sit 2 hours, but if you can put it in your oven with a light bulb on overnight, that works best. It's ready when it's got a bubbly texture, is puffy, and smells of yummy yeasties. Beyond that it's difficult to describe. You'll know it when you see it (groan... sorry).

The next step is to mix and knead the complete dough. You'll want at least 7 cups of flour reserved for this process, though you may not use all of it. Scrape the poolish into a large bowl (that metal one I used to cover it earlier worked well for me) and then add 2-1/2 cups of tepid water (again, just barely warmer than skin) and 1/2 teaspoon of dry yeast. Break up the poolish with your wooden spoon and keep stirring gently until it's loosened up and it foams a bit. Add 1 tablespoon of fine sea salt (really here, if you're going to purchase anything special, make it the salt... believe me when I say iodized salt does nothing for this bread, though it doesn't wreck it either). Add the dough a half cup at a time and mix well in between, adding just enough to make it a very thick mass that is difficult to stir. Usually I stir until it just starts clinging to the spoon and whomping around the sides, at which point I peel all the dough off the spoon and start "stirring" with my hand. It's almost-but-not-quite kneading. Work the flour in until you have a dough stiff enough (ie still incredibly sticky but not pourable like a liquid) to turn out onto a floured piece of countertop.

Kneading the dough.
This is the therapeutic part. Knead the dough and keep adding flour until it's softer, sort of like play dough in consistency though not as solid. Tacky is okay, but WET is not. Set a timer at this point, and knead that sucker for a full 17 minutes.

Yes, 17 minutes. No, I'm not kidding, and don't give me that look. You want this bread to be good. Believe me when I say this step is the make-or-break for this recipe. Even if you weren't quite right on other things, if you knead the full 17 minutes you're almost guaranteed a full success.

The dough will go through stages. It'll seem sticky one moment, smooth and silky the next. Somewhere between the 12 and 17 minute mark, it will become very elastic, just barely tacky, and soft sort of like a baby's butt. It's better to have the dough be a bit moist than too dry, so don't put too much flour in.

You will know the dough is ready if you stick a finger into it and pull it out, and the dough springs most or all of the way back out. Also if you shape it into a ball, it should hold its shape and not go all saggy on you. If you're just not sure, knead more. You cannot over-knead this if you are doing it by hand.

Shape the dough into a ball and let it rest on a lightly floured surface. Using olive oil or butter, coat the inside of a large bowl (the big one you had before would be fine, or a clay one can be nice). It should be slick but not drowning or pooling. Place the dough in the bowl and get it oily, then turn it over so the other side gets coated as well. Set it into your warm place, about 78F if you can. Cover with damp towel or saran wrap and put back in the stove or whatever non drafty place you have handy. Let it rise until it is doubled in volume. I find taking a before and after picture helps a lot here (thank you Droid Citrus!). I let mine rise about 35 or 45 minutes.

Now you deflate the dough by punching it good and hard right in the center. Pull the sides up to form it into a ball again, put it back in the bowl, and cover it yet again to rise. It needs to sit in that warm, draft free place for another 30 minutes.

... and after!
It should rise almost to doubling. Deflate it again with a punch, and put the dough onto your floured work surface again. Knead briefly (2 minutes or so) then cut in half. Flatten each piece with the heel of your hand, or use a rolling pin to roll it out. This lets out some of the yeast gas, and invigorates the yeast to work harder. They like it rough *grin*.

Shape the dough into a tight ball for round loaves, or into torpedoes (big in the middle, less so at the ends), or roll it out flat to an inch or so thick, then roll up into a loaf, seal the seam by pinching the dough together firmly, and put into bread pans well sprayed or oiled.

The best way to do this part is to make your round loaf, then take a dish towel and literally rub a cup or so worth of flour into it. Get it really in there (and never use it for anything else, by the way... it'll store natural yeast for you!), and then set your round loaf onto it. Cover with the big bowl or with plastic wrap, or with a warm damp cloth and let sit for 1-1/2 to 2 hours, until increased in volume about 1-1/2 times. Again, pictures are worth a thousand words (or bad memories).

I braided one loaf.
Preheat your oven to 450F. If you have a pizza/bread stone in it, you want it to sit at 450F for at least 15 minutes before you think about putting loaves in there, as the stone needs to be fully warmed. Make sure your rack is dead center in your oven, because if it's too low you'll burn the bottom, and too high will burn the top.

Up-end the dough gently onto your cooking surface, and with an VERY sharp knife give a single long cut to the top, or several smaller ones (you can make patterns, yes). Once the loaves are in the oven, take a metal bowl and fill it with cold tap water. Toss about half off it into the bottom of your oven (not near your light bulb or it could break!). Close the oven door quickly and time three minutes. Again, dump some water in the bottom of the oven, but this time leave the bowl in the oven, below your loaves. Close the door as quick as possible to keep the steam in. Bake for 20 minutes at 450F, then check. Mine were done at that point, but depending on your loaf size and shape, and way of cooking (I was on a pizza stone), you may need to drop the heat to 400F and cook another 15 to 20 minutes. The loaves should be a rich caramel color, with a firm crust. To test for doneness, hold the loaf in one hand and tap the bottom. If it sounds hollow, then it's done. If not, try another 5 mins or so and test again.

Now the hardest part. Those loaves need to be put onto cooling racks (not towels or counter tops that will let them get moist) and allowed to cool for a full 20 minutes before you cut into them. They will still be warm after 20 minutes, but bread continues to cook for that last 20 minutes so you can't forget it. It is part of the recipe!

Slice, slather with butter, devour!