Sunday, April 15, 2012

the bread crazy and a walnut bread recipe

I mentioned in the last post that breadies measure ingredients in grams, ounces and percentages. Reading a breadie recipe is hard for someone who doesn't speak breadie. These recipes use words like "hydration" and "autolyse".

Here's a great example of a breadie recipe that sounds like half gibberish to me. It looks like a very beautiful bread and I would love to be able to make it for myself, but I have no idea what 69% hydration means, or how you tell if gluten is moderately well developed, or how to 'fold' during the bulking period (although I have some guesses about that one).

As far as bread baking is concerned, I've been doing kiddie stuff. Wearing training wheels. I still talk like a regular person--and I measure flour in cups and I never use the word autolyse.

Enter this recipe for walnut bread. It looks like the most beautiful bread I've ever seen. When I saw it I knew I just had to try it, but if you clicked on the link you'll notice that all the measurements are in grams and ounces.

The Other Adult did a nice thing for me this weekend and bought me a scale.

It looks like that. As far as scales go, it's not exactly sophisticated. Or sensitive. But it's cute and doesn't take up much room in the kitchen and it will at least allow me to make some of the big girl recipes, like the walnut recipe.

Dan Lepard's Walnut Bread, preparation time around 4 hours


for the paste (makes 100g):

50g walnuts

50g water

2 tbsp honey

20g melted butter, lightly browned

a pinch of fine sea salt

for the dough:

220g water @ 68F

100g starter (I fed mine at 4PM, put it in a warm place and then used it 3 hours later)

1 1/4 tsp fresh yeast, crumbled (I used bread machine yeast because it's all I had)

100g walnut paste

100g halved walnuts

350g white flour

100g rye flour

50g wholemeal flour

1 1/2 tsp fine sea salt

Blend together the paste ingredients in a food processor, coffee grinder or blender.

Mix the flours and salt, then add the remaining combined ingredients, including the paste. Combine as evenly as possible with your fingers. Cover and leave 10 minutes.

Knead for 10 seconds. Leave for another 10 minutes. Knead once more and leave for an hour in a warm place.

Line two 1.5 litre bowls with flour-dusted tea towels. Divide dough, shape into balls and leave in the bowls seam-side up, covered with the edges of the towels, 2-2 1/2 hours or almost doubled.

Preheat oven 410F. Turn dough out onto floured baking sheet (I used cornmeal.) Slash in a criss-cross pattern. Bake in center of hot oven 50-60 minutes til a good rich brown. Cool on rack.

I also steamed the oven for the crust on this bread. I have a problem with breads developing weird, pale crusts because of the dry environment in the oven. This is a common problem and steam is the solution, so a lot of bread people find weird ways to make their oven into a moist environment for the first 15 or 20 minutes of the bake. The Jim Lahey bread doesn't have this problem because it's baked in a ceramic pot with a lid that holds in the steam and the crusts turn out just fine, but on other breads the crust tends to be pale and hard.

I don't know if steaming the oven was necessary in this recipe, but I did it anyway. I put a cast iron skillet in the bottom rack of the oven when I preheated. When I put the bread in the oven, I put 1/3 cup of water on the cast iron skillet, creating a steamy environment in the oven. After 15 minutes, I opened the oven and let out the steam for a few seconds, then I closed it and proceeded with baking as normal.

This is eventually going to ruin my cast iron, so I need to get a cast iron I don't care about that I can dedicate to this purpose.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Sourdough Starter Recipe That Works

At first I didn't even know what sourdough was, except that slices of sourdough were usually thick and white and--somehow--San Francisco was involved. I didn't even realize that it was named sourdough because it was, well, sour.

I had eaten sourdough, I guess. You know in restaurants when you order from the breakfast menu, and the server wants to know what kind of bread your toast should be made from, and you ask what the choices are and s/he says, white, whole wheat, and sourdough, and you say you'd like sourdough, and the bread comes, and it's just a thicker than normal slice of white bread? That's the type of sourdough I had tried. That's not sourdough really--its flavor is no different than normal white bread.

The Other Adult said she wanted me to make sourdough. So I started researching it, and found out that sourdough is this whole process, and people get really into it.

It turns out that I am really vulnerable to adopting new hobbies. Case in point: I recently started researching bonsai trees, and even though I had no previous interest in bonsai trees and I found them to be really dull, as I started to do the research, I started to realize that bonsai trees are like, really cool.

I got this picture of the Dwarf Schleffera Bonsai Tree from Bonsai Beginnings blog:
And um, isn't that little guy amazing? Like, don't you just look at that and think of the swamp where Yoda lives? And what if you could make that in your house? Do you know how hard it is to get this thing to grow those aerial roots?? You have to put it in a humid environment and mist it every day and prune back the little roots to get the bigger ones to get bigger, and you have to fertilize it and I mean, it's just this really long process and it takes years. And people do this for fun.

Actually, if I had time, I think I would do that for fun.

Now, I'm a little too aware of my own limitations to pick up a bonsai hobby. I'm kind of busy. Between beer, bread, the Kid, cooking, writing and needing like at least 6 hours of sleep a night, I'm just booked for the rest of my life. Plus I've started this vegetable garden in the back yard and that's completely consuming me. So it's unlikely that I'll be doing anything with a bonsai tree--but I'll admit, a big part of me wants to find a Dwarf Schefflera Bonsai and go to town.

Back to my story, the Other Adult said that I should try sourdough. And I started researching sourdough, and like the bonsai tree, even though I really had no interest in sourdough bread as a food, the more I read about sourdough, the more I wanted to be able to make it for myself.

I found out that you can buy sourdough yeasts from a store, but that seemed a little too easy, and sounded a little too much like buying the boxed potatoes, which I am basically against doing even though I think that some of the boxed potatoes (like betty crocker's julien dehydrated potatoes) are just really delicious (because I have a really unsophisticated palate). And anyway, I thought, people make these starters in their own house, so I can too.

It turns out that finding a starter recipe that works can be really hard. For one thing, breadies measure things in percentages and weights, and so a lot of the recipes I found were measured in pounds and ounces and percentages and I can't devote that kind of time to bread. Not now anyway.

And then, the first couple recipes I tried didn't even seem to work. And it would take me weeks or months to figure out that the starter was really weak or wasn't doing anything. It was a big waste of time and flour.

The recipe that finally worked for me came straight out of the River Cottage Bread Handbook, a book I highly recommend. This book has sturdy pages, sensible recipes, attractive illustrations, and it gives all its measurements in cups, pounds and ounces, so everyone can use it and be happy.

Whole Wheat Sourdough Starter

This is what you need:
1 cup stone-ground whole wheat four
1 cup warm water (I would say about 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit)
a plastic or ceramic container

  1. Mix the cup of flour with the cup of warm water in the container of your choice. Whisk vigorously and cover with plastic wrap or a loose fitting top.
  2. Leave the batter somewhere warm.
  3. Check the batter every 12 hours or so. Eventually, you'll start to see bubbles forming near the top of the batter. This is what the bubbles will look like:

    When you see the bubbles, it's ready to be fed.

  4. Feed the starter by adding one cup of the same flour, one cup of warm water. Whisk vigorously and replace the lid.
  5. Wait 24 hours, then discard half the batter. I usually discard it into a plastic shopping bag, which I then throw away.
  6. Feed the starter with 1 cup of the same flour and 1 cup cold water. Whisk vigorously and replace the lid.
  7. Feed daily at the same time every day, repeating steps 5 and 6.
That's it. That's how I made my starter. For the first couple of weeks while your starter is becoming established, feed it every day. After your starter is healthy and established, you can move it to your fridge and feed it only once a week, until such time as you need it. Take your starter out of the fridge a day or two before you plan to use it. Feed it immediately after removing it from the fridge, then feed it every 24 hours after that. Feed it around 5-7 hours before you plan to use it in a recipe.

I recommend that you become familiar with the behavior of your starter. A few hours after you feed it, it will start to rise and expand in the container. Mine is usually doubled in size about 5 hours after feeding, and that's when I use it for cooking. Once it peaks, it goes back down. Sometimes a layer of liquid forms at the top of the starter. This is called hooch. Stir it back in or dump it out, it's up to you.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter Traditions

The first holiday we ever spent with the Kid was Easter. This was after she started visitations at our apartment, before the adoption. She was then like 6, and she had some concerns that the Easter bunny wouldn't know where she was or how to find her. So I said, well, we'll do the Easter Bunny dance and of course he'll find us. Not to worry.

So that night I made up the first Easter Bunny dance. She had to do it with me, so I'd do a step and then she had to repeat what I did. More rain dance than two step, it involved some clapping and hopping and chanting things like "Easter!".

By Christmas time the Kid was confident that her change of address had gone through, and there never was a Santa dance or anything like that. I forgot about it until the following Easter, when she just expected we would do it again. It turns out that my kid now thinks this is just a normal part of Easter. The Easter dance. I have no idea if she thinks other families also do this, or why we did it that first time. This year, she asked me how I know it--the dance. but I make it up on the fly, and it's different every time.

I wanted to make a traditional Easter dish this year, but as you probably know, vegetarians don't eat ham. I settled on hot cross buns, a traditional food on Good Friday. Then the weekend came and I was just too lazy to make hot cross buns because the recipe was going to take like three hours. The Kid requested pancakes, and I settled on a plan to make pancakes in the shape of bunny heads.

It turns out that this is actually much harder than you might think. Pancake batter just doesn't want to form any shape other than a circle. The final product was globular and asymmetrical. I meant to add chocolate chip eyes and a nose, but I had no chocolate chips in the cupboard, so what I fed to the kid was this weird misshapen pancake that bore no resemblance to a rabbit whatsoever.

Monday, April 2, 2012

No-Knead Sourdough

This recipe was inspired by my version of Jim Lahey's No-Knead bread recipe, and it is virtually the same in all ways except I substituted the regular yeast for my sourdough starter.

I found this loaf to be moist and shiny inside, with big air pockets and a soft crumb. I can only hope that my future loaves are so successful.

No Knead Sourdough Recipe

Preparation time: about 15 minutes of actual work, 24 hours to make a loaf

3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt
1/3 cup active sourdough starter (approximate)
1 1/3 cup cool water

  1. Feed sourdough starter approximately 5 hours before mixing the dough. Wait until starter is risen and puffy.
  2. Mix together 3 cups flour, sea salt, starter and cool water. Work ingredients with your hands to form a wet and somewhat sticky dough. Add the remaining flour only if the dough is too wet and sticky to work with; add just enough so that the dough will form a sticky but not unworkable ball. Once the dough has been mixed, place it back in the bowl and cover with a hand towel. I usually do this around 8PM at night. Let the dough sit someplace warmish.
  3. Let the dough rise for around 15-21 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen. I usually let it sit until 5PM the following night. The dough will be risen and there will be bubbles at the surface. Scrape the sides of the dough off the bowl and tuck the sides of the dough underneath so it forms a deflated, semi-loose ball.
  4. Let the dough sit in a warm place with a hand towel over the bowl. After an hour and a half, turn on the oven to 475 degrees and place the ceramic dish with lid inside.
  5. When the dough has been sitting for two hours, scrape the sides of the dough off the bowl and tuck the sides of the dough underneath so it forms a deflated, semi-loose ball. Lightly flour the surface of the dough.
  6. Put the dough in the ceramic pot, then bake at 475 for 30 minutes.
  7. Turn down the oven to 400 degrees and remove the lid. Bake for an additional 10 minutes.
  8. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a wire rack.
It should be noted that the loaf I made in the picture was baked at 475 for the entire 40 minute time period because I forgot to turn down the temperature in the oven. The result is a very attractive, chestnut colored crust. In the past I found darker crusts to be difficult to cut, more difficult for my purposes (I use this for my sandwich bread), but I'm having no difficulty with this particular loaf. It is slightly too well done around the edges but in the future I'm not going to turn down the oven quite so much.

If your starter lives in the fridge (mine does), you'll want to take the starter from the fridge a few days before making your loaf. The starter should be room temperature and on a regular daily feeding schedule.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Freakin' Awesome Vegetarian Biscuits and Gravy

Wednesday of this week found me hungry and desperate for biscuits and gravy. I looked up a recipe. I had Thursday and Friday off work and on Thursday I wanted to make biscuits, but instead we got up and left early and went to Home Depot where we bought some plants for our garden including tomatoes and herbs and things. We spent the afternoon planting. So no biscuits and gravy on Thursday.

Friday we painted the dining room, living room and foyer. This was a HUGE undertaking because our dining room is lined with book shelves and the books had to be removed and the book shelves put in the kitchen. No biscuits and gravy on Friday.

Saturday we woke up early and cleaned up the mess from the painting the day before. Not kidding when I say this took all day long. No biscuits and gravy on Saturday.

Does my sad story have a happy ending? Yes. Today, Sunday, we had biscuits and gravy. This recipe takes around 20 minutes to prepare. The biscuits are light and fluffy and just a little bit buttery. The gravy is peppery and filling.

Biscuits and Gravy, preparation time: 20 minutes
Makes 6-7 biscuits


  • 2 cups flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups ground vegetarian sausage
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 2 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper

Preheat oven 450 degrees. Mix ingredients for biscuits in a bowl--do not over mix. Batter will be wet and sticky. Grease 1 cookie sheet and place spoonfuls of batter onto the cookie sheet. Biscuits will be approximately 2-3 inches wide and 1-2 inches tall. Note that biscuits will retain whatever shape you give them--they don't rise much. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown.

While the biscuits are baking, heat the sausage in a sauce pan with flour and butter. Add milk slowly. Add salt and pepper and stir until the biscuits are ready.