Saturday, September 26, 2009


So here is BBA Challenge #6: Challah, baked this weekend even though I have an overflowing crate of notebooks to grade, countless spreadsheets to finish for work, the house is a mess, and hubbie is gone Friday until bedtime and all day Saturday. Still, this is going to be life for the next six weeks or so: football every evening afternoon/evening (including Fridays) and all day Saturday, pseudo-single mom-hood for me.

And I promised myself that I would do this challenge, so that even when life is hectic, I will carve out some time to be in my kitchen. I do have to laugh when I think of Peter Reinhart's advice (I chuckled when I first read it, too): "Arrange to have as few distractions as possible....Minimize conversation....Success in bread making, as in any facet of life, comes down to one word: focus" (p. 51, The Bread Baker's Apprentice). My first guess is that Peter Reinhart would shudder if he saw the conditions in which I bake: kid drumming on mixing bowls, kid clinging to my legs, kids yelling at each other and fighting over wooden spoons, dinner on the stove and needing attention, supplies still in cupboards or drawers. My second guess is that if I had to wait for his ideal conditions, I wouldn't start baking until years from now, especially since his recipes are complicated and require more than just the hour or two I have free during nap time.

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying that I made bread #6 today (challah), but didn't get any pictures taken of the process. Helpfully I've made challah before (this past summer), although not with this recipe; I used the one posted by Deb at Smitten Kitchen. This is my first challah:

We'll see how they compare.

This bread is the first to start without a starter: you just jump right into stirring the dry ingredients, whisking the wet, and combining them. He gives the option of stand mixer or hand, and (given the insanity of my house this morning) I chose the former. I mixed it for 6 minutes and only added a tiny bit of extra water, unlike the other posters I read who had to add a bunch. After 6 minutes, it was still really sticky, so I added more flour...and then more...and mixed it for another 3 or 4 minutes. Finally I got nervous, so I pulled it out of the bowl, decided to let it sit for a little while, and then continued kneading by hand. I still had to add so much flour, and although I could get the dough to register 78 degrees and it was nice and smooth, I could not get it up to 80 degrees or get the windowpane test to work. Finally after an additional 15 or 20 minutes working on it, I had to give up and take care of the kidlets. Like I said, the dough looked and felt beautiful, even if it didn't pass the tests.Link

It rose for an hour, and then I kneaded it for 2 minutes to degas it. It still felt lovely, satiny smooth. Then it's supposed to rise for another hour and get to 1 1/2 times its original size. Given when the hubbie had to leave for football, I only let it rise for about 48 minutes, although it had definitely grown to the appropriate size.

I decided to try the 4-strand braid because it looked more interesting than the 3 and I had already done the 6-strand with my last challah. As with the pretzels, I had trouble with my technique rolling out the dough into strands. I found this video how-to which gave me a few pointers (and allowed the dough to rest a bit while I was browsing for tips). Also, instead of fighting with the individual strands, I would roll one, then allow it to rest while I started on the second, then go back to the first and get it to lengthen a bit more, then start the third, then go back to the second, and so on, until I finally got all 4 strands to be equal length and thickness, with the thickest part in the middle.

I liked the 4-strand braid technique; it was easy and looked pretty. I also paid close attention to my braiding, as Jon T commented on Nicole's (Pinch My Salt) post that you need to give the dough enough room to expand during proofing and again in the oven. If you braid too tightly, the dough and bread will tear down the middle. I remember that the last time I made challah, mine did just that, so I did my best to keep it loose.

Looks: Well, I think I did a pretty good job braiding. It's not the most beautiful braid, but it didn't tear much, so I accomplished that. Has a deep golden color and it rose well.

Texture: Lighter than I'm used to with challah, but nice.
Taste: Very disappointing. It's like a good quality white sandwich bread, I guess (I'm not a big fan of white sandwich bread). It's lacking that rich, slightly sweet taste of challah, which I guess isn't too surprising since it has less sugar and fewer eggs than the other recipe.

I don't think I'll make this one again. If I want a yummy traditional challah, I'll stick to the Joan Nathan recipe posted and adapted by Deb. Not that I'm sad that I baked this one; I'm sure it will provide us with a couple of meals of delightful French toast this week!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program....

...for pretzels!

So as though it's not enough to be in the midst of baking my way through The Bread Baker's Apprentice, a friend of mine from work emailed me on Friday with a recipe and this message:

"I was wondering if my Auntie Abby would make me some Auntie Annie's pretzels? :)

Seriously, I just thought of you when I received this and thought you'd be the person most likely to actually make it."

While the emailed recipe didn't scream out to me, I have been wanting to make Deb from Smitten Kitchen's pretzels for quite some time. And I do have a reputation to keep up. And baking is so much more entertaining than worrying about the 803 students I have to schedule into a class by tomorrow morning.

I used my stand mixer and the dough was really pretty easy to make (especially now that I'm used to Peter Reinhart's multi-day breads). Except that it was really sticky. So I used some advice I'd read somewhere (can't remember where) to just let the dough rest for a while and maybe it wouldn't need quite so much extra flour added. Not sure how well it worked; it was still mighty sticky, although I was able to finish kneading it. (I'd also read somewhere that the pretzels will turn out better if the dough is sticky...?)

Then came the rolling and shaping part. Now, nowhere that I'd read did it give me indication of just how frustrating and time-consuming this process was. I wasn't helped any by the fact that it was 4:30, I was struggling through rolling out these sticky pieces of dough, and I was supposed to start cooking dinner NOW. The kids were starting to get fussy, a good friend was over with the baby she was watching and I really wanted to be visiting with her, it was Sunday night, and I was tired. Needless to say, it didn't go well. Finally, at 4:50, I was about to throw the rest of the dough in the garbage. Instead, I wrapped up the two pans of (badly) shaped pretzels and the unshaped dough, and shoved them in the fridge, hoping that Peter Reinhart's theory that bread resting in the fridge improves its flavor goes for pretzels, too. (Actually I was trying to make mini-pretzels like Deb's, and either the strands of dough would break or it would all mush together into a shapeless blob. When I tried making normal sized pretzels, those actually turned out fine. But I was out of time.)

After dinner was made and cleaned up (thanks to the hubbie!), the kids were in bed, and the house was quiet, I pulled the dough back out of the fridge. I let it sit for almost an hour while I browsed some pictures for rolling out the dough. According to Deb, it's easiest on a non-floured board. I had been trying to use my floured counter (due to lack of space) and when that didn't work, just roll the dough between my two hands. Anyway, this time, I did as Deb suggested and the pictures I found showed (rolling on a board, starting in the middle and working my hands outward) worked! In about the same amount of time as it had taken me to struggle through two mini-pretzels earlier, I finished all 10 of the remaining pieces! And they were adorable! I even took back my statement (to myself) that I would never make these again!

Here, look...aren't they cute?!

They were pretty popular at work, too. Another friend said they reminded her of the soft pretzels she used to get in Germany, so I considered that a pretty big compliment. I made mostly salted with a couple of cinnamon-sugar for the hubbie (who loved them). Still, it wasn't a joy, and I don't see making these often in the future. (I'd say ever, but the hubbie really liked the cinnamon-sugar ones.)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

BBA #5: Casatiello

Here I am on bread #5: Casatiello, a bread that is related to brioche, but includes meat and cheese. Who would expect that bread baking would start with this on the counter?

This bread was also fun because it's faster than the other recipes. I started the sponge at 11:40 and we were eating it by 4:30.

Normally I like to read a bunch of blog posts related to my next bread to get myself ready, see if there are any helpful hints, etc. (one of the benefits to being so far behind on the Challenge!). But I couldn't seem to find a really detailed post on this one, so I just jumped in. I ended up going back and forth between the stand mixer and my counter/spoon/hands a lot as the dough seemed to change rapidly. I started in the mixer, but it soon got so stiff that it was rocking the bowl around, so I switched to a spoon. When it came time to incorporate the second half of the butter, the dough went the other way. It was so loose, I didn't see how it was ever going to turn into actual workable dough. Check out how buttery it looks (and my awesome new dough whisk that my awesome hubbie bought me on our date last night):

I gave up on the spoon, the dough whisk, and my hands, and went back to the stand mixer. Luckily, after about 10 minutes, it started to come together and clear the sides of the bowl.

Then came time to add the insane amounts of meat and cheese. I know that many of the reviews I read said that it could use more meat and cheese, but frankly, I can't imagine getting the dough to accept any more! I had flakes of stuff falling out all over. Hubbie started salivating when he saw it.......

The book says to let it proof for 90 minutes or until it is one and a half times the size. Here's mine after only 45 minutes:

I was a little nervous, but didn't want it to overproof, so dumped it into its pan. Not having any coffee cans around (although I thought that would be fun!), I opted to go with my smallest springform. Again, it rose really fast. So...I threw it in the oven. I had another incident with my red silicone pot holders - I need to just give up on them. They again crushed the sides of my bread when I was just trying to turn the pan around. But it seemed to recover during the second half of the baking time and I used some old fashioned cloth pot holders to pull the bread out of the oven. I was nervous again because, although the bread had reached the required temp (it was about 192 degrees), it was nowhere near golden on top.

But it was golden on the sides and bottom...I debated just flipping the whole thing over...then I thought, who cares? The people I feed generally only care what it tastes like!

I held the hubbie off for about 40 minutes (not the hour you're supposed to wait) and then we dug in. This bread received the highest BBA Challenge rating from the hubbie and my stepmom, who both said, "Do you really have to bake 38 more breads before you can make this one again?!" and the highest rating from the kids: "More!"

Thursday, September 17, 2009

BBA #4: Brioche

Well, bread #4 is finished! And an odd one it was: easiest dough to make, most difficult to shape.

In BBA, Peter Reinhart gives us three choices for brioche: Rich Man's Brioche, which contains 4 sticks of butter, Middle Class Brioche, which contains 2 sticks of butter, and Poor Man's Brioche, which contains 1 stick of butter. Preferring the middle of the road, I was pretty committed to the Middle Class Brioche; then I spent some time reading various reviews from BBA Challenge members, and the overall consensus seemed to be that Rich Man's was almost too rich and Poor Man's was pretty close to basic sandwich bread, and Middle Class was delish. So, there you go! Decision made.

This recipe calls for a lot of yeast, so the sponge only sits for 45 minutes. I couldn't tell if it had doubled because there wasn't very much sponge to begin with, but I decided to give it a go.

This recipe is also odd because it's mixed in the stand mixer with the paddle rather than the dough hook.

The texture was crazy, nothing like dough. It was like a really thick cream cheese frosting.

Then it goes in the fridge overnight to solidify. It was really too sticky to get it into the proper rectangular shape.

Here it is the next day, right before I shaped it. Doesn't it look like slabs of butter?

I didn't have the special brioche molds, so I followed Nicole from Pinch My Salt's example: I used half the dough to shape brioche a tetes and then cooked them on a cookie sheet. I also followed her example for size (about 3 oz each) only made 6 rolls, which made me a little sad. Next time, I think I would make smaller rolls in order to make more (mainly because I like to share the breads I bake!). This was by far the most difficult dough shaping experience I have ever had. I followed the instructions in the book, Nicole's pictures, and the video she posted. It was still really hard, especially as I couldn't seem to keep the dough cold enough.

I used the other half of the dough to make a loaf because I prefer to use homemade bread to make French toast...a must for this weekend. But instead of trying to wrestle the butter, uh, I mean dough, into a traditional loaf, I followed the example of another of the BBA Challenge bakers and used six rolls to create a loaf.

It was really fun and looked really cool when it was finished!

I baked the petite brioche for the length he specifies for slightly smaller rolls, but they were still over-done...over 210 degrees (they were supposed to be 180), so I think they were a little dry. I've never had brioche before, and I wasn't sure what to expect. I guess I would compare it most to a croissant. Pretty good with the rest of the apple butter I made for the Artos. The Artos and bagels are definitely still my favorites, I could see making the Anadama again for a fun kind of sandwich, but I'm not sure I'd make this one again. Just not my kind of thing.

I'll let you know how the French toast turns out!

**UPDATE** While not as good as the Best French Toast of My Life (the stuff we made with the Artos), this is probably the second best. Amazingly enough, the brioche seemed to hold some of its texture and flavor, so you'd get a bite where the crust was very French toasty, but the inside still had the richness of the brioche. I still don't think I'll make this recipe again, but if I did, it would be for the French toast.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

BBA Challenge #3: Bagels!

I started making Peter Reinhart's bagel recipe this past spring when I stumbled on the recipe Deb had posted on Smitten Kitchen. I had not had much bread baking experience (maybe four loaves in my whole life), but they were so tasty that I made them quite often this spring and summer. So this was the first time in the BBA Challenge where I felt very confident going into the baking, didn't have to double-check and re-read things dozens of times.

Nonetheless, having the experience of the Anadama bread and the Artos, plus having read his entire first section, plus following his actual recipe with photos, I did find that things went better than before.

My sponge with this recipe (unlike the last two breads) has never given me a problem and was beautifully bubbly and doubled after two hours.

Knowing how stiff this dough is, I always start it in the KitchenAid, which I did again today. Oh, I did have one little mishap however! I was getting all set to weigh my additional flour into the bowl with the sponge (I love working with weights rather than measures! So much easier, so much more accurate, so much less mess!) when my scale shut off! I had just poured in the first little bit...argh! Luckily because the the sponge is so wet and the new flour was dry, I was able to scrape most of it off and start again...and I know that you always end up adding more flour, but still! GR!

Anyway, I started with the KitchenAid and then moved to the counter. Oh, and here's another little odd tidbit: I always, always, always have to add extra flour when I'm kneading. Today, whether it's because it's not as humid out or because I have had experience with truly sticky dough (in the Anadama and Artos), I not only didn't have to add any extra, I barely used the remaining 3/4 cup of flour that you work into it at the end!

After 6 minutes of kneading, the dough was registering over the correct temperature (85 degrees) but hadn't achieved the windowpane yet. I always have trouble with the windowpane test on this recipe, but I decided to keep kneading. After another 6-8 minutes, it was at the same temperature, a slightly better windowpane, and my arms were tired.

Here's where a couple of lessons I've learned from this book came in very handy. First of all, I never knew that you weren't supposed to rip dough because it damages it, that instead you should cut it. So I used my bench scraper to divide the dough, and I could really see a difference. Instead of being a...blob of sticky dough, the little dough balls really seemed to maintain the same satiny texture they'd had when I was kneading. Also, I've always just rolled the dough into balls between my two hands, but this time I followed his instructions for how to roll dough into balls using a slightly damp counter and the palm of my really seemed to work!

After spending the night retarding in the fridge, this morning I boiled them in water with a touch of baking soda, topped them, and threw them into the oven.

A few notes:
* I make mini bagels (measuring the dough into 2.25 oz balls), although they really don't seem mini to me. They are perfect size for me and for the kids (although the hubby likes to have two).
* I make plain (for the kiddos) and everything (for everyone else). Everything = kosher salt, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, garlic flakes, and onion flakes.
* I have never been able to find high-gluten flour around here, so I use bread flour plus extra wheat gluten.
* I was able to find barley malt syrup at our local Whole Foods.

"Every time I eat a bagel, I get a little angry at my parents for not teaching me the proper way to eat bagels long long ago." ~ the hubby

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

BBA Challenge #2: Artos

Well, I've made my second BBA bread: Artos, a Greek celebration bread!

This was a very different kind of bread for me; I guess it was most similar to the Challah I baked a month or so ago.

It started with a poolish, which I had never made before. Unfortunately, I was in a rush when I made it and neglected to realize that the Artos recipe only calls for 1 cup, while the poolish recipe makes over 3 cups...I hate to waste it, but apparently it doesn't keep in the freezer the way some other starters do. (Or if it does, he didn't mention it in the book...)

This morning, I took my poolish out and let it sit for an hour. It had definitely grown in size and I could see some bubbles and strings in it, but it still didn't look as bubbly as other pictures I had seen.

I mixed the rest of the ingredients in, including cinnamon, allspice, cloves, lemon zest, almond extract, eggs, olive oil, and milk. If it tastes half as good as it smells, we'll be a pretty happy household!

The bubblyness of yeast and the ability of bread to rise are both pretty cool, but I kind of understand the science behind those processes. For me, one of the neatest parts of bread baking is the way the dough goes from this:

to this:

just by kneading. This dough was very sticky. I was determined to use the lesson I'd learned from the Anadama bread and not add too much extra flour, but it must've taken close to an extra cup before I could get the dough to stop sticking to the counter with every push. I did get to use my bench scraper more than ever before, so that was good. Once I got the dough to this point (still quite tacky, but not as sticky), the dough was pretty fun to work with. It was very soft and supple and, as I said before, smelled heavenly. I kneaded for exactly 10 minutes when my phone rang; while I chatted with my hubby, I casually checked the temperature: it was perfect! So as soon as I hung up, I did the windowpane test, and it worked even better than with the Anadama bread. Pretty exciting! And with only 10 minutes of kneading!

It doubled in size after only an hour again.

I've never shaped a boule before, so I did the best I could and set it out to rise one last time.

It was enormous after only 50 minutes or so, so I preheated the oven and slid it in. Because it was really getting golden and my last loaves were a little over-baked, I tested this loaf after only 35 minutes. Mistake. I'm never sure how to get to the bottom to check it, rap it, and temp it. So I took my silicone handle pot holders (in the foreground of the picture) - ugh - they totally dented the sides. And then the loaf wasn't quite warm enough (only 165 degrees), so I had to pick it up and put it back in.

It's still a prettyish loaf, but when I pulled it after the requisite 40 minutes (it was at a perfect 192 degrees), I checked the temp through the top, which (I'm assuming?) caused the top to deflate a little bit.

Oh well, better luck next time. While it was cooling for its hour, I made some apple butter, and then the kids and I dug in. All I can say: YUM. Wow, that is some good bread. Definitely one I will make again. I had been planning to bring it in to work for a first day of school treat, but nope, we're keeping it all. I'm hoping to try French toast with the remainder tomorrow night. The hubby and I were talking about the Challenge: both the Anadama bread and the Artos are so different from the bread we usually eat and so different from each other and so tasty! What fun!

***Update: Best. French toast. EVER. (Used the ATK French toast recipe, as always. OMG. So. good.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Baking beginnings: A cooking bookclub?!

January 12, 2012
The summer before I started this blog, I began experimenting more in the kitchen. Without an official outlet, I wrote some brief posts on my mommy-blog. I decided that I wanted to copy them here as part of my cooking/baking record.

 August 9, 2009
So I was just getting ready to go to sleep and was thinking about my upcoming bookclub meeting...and thinking about what books I might want to suggest for us to read next.

And I realized that many of the books on my to-be-read list are cookbooks (especially since many cookbooks these days seem to be full of narrative, memoir, photos, rather than just recipes). But I don't think most of the girls in my bookclub are into cooking.

So then I thought, what about a bookclub centered around cookbooks or memoir-y/recipe-y books? Where each month (or two), we choose a book and . . . well, read it of course, and also commit to trying some recipes?

Doesn't that sound like fun??? And what books should/would be on the list??

Baking beginnings: homemade challah

January 12, 2012
The summer before I started this blog, I began experimenting more in the kitchen. Without an official outlet, I wrote some brief posts on my mommy-blog. I decided that I wanted to copy them here as part of my cooking/baking record.

July 11, 2009

Homemade challah!

Followed (of course) by challah French toast:




Baking beginnings: homemade graham crackers

January 12, 2012
The summer before I started this blog, I began experimenting more in the kitchen. Without an official outlet, I wrote some brief posts on my mommy-blog. I decided that I wanted to copy them here as part of my cooking/baking record.

June 14, 2009

Tried this recipe for homemade graham crackers yesterday. They are delicious, but were a total pain-in-the-butt to make. Hubby loves them, so I rescinded my initial "Never again!" but I did tell him that I would only make them by special request.

Baking beginnings: Homemade bagels

January 12, 2012
The summer before I started this blog, I began experimenting more in the kitchen. Without an official outlet, I wrote some brief posts on my mommy-blog. I decided that I wanted to copy them here as part of my cooking/baking record.

May 3, 2009

I know this is not a cooking blog
...but this weekend I made homemade bagels, and I just had to write about them! I love a good cooking challenge, and from the moment I read the recipe on Smitten Kitchen's website, I really wanted to try making them. So...I did!

I couldn't find high-gluten flour, so I had to make due with bread flour to which I added some vital wheat gluten. And I realized after it was already mixed in that I had mis-measured the yeast. And we didn't have onion or garlic flakes, so our "everything" bagels were limited to poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and salt. But everyone seemed to enjoy them...and how fun to have homemade bagels on a Sunday morning! =)