Archive | July, 2012

The Yurt

23 Jul

Holland is a flat country. Perhaps this was because some omnipotent being baked it in a Dutch oven before attaching it to continental Europe. My bread had a similar experience.

I’m up to my usual tricks, toying with a round-ish white loaf, desperately seeking some degree of perfection. Today’s bread employs the usual long-rise dough, this time too wet to hold a shape independently of a mould, but not so sloppy that it resembles a pancake batter.

Wet dough, while it is crumb’s best friend, unfortunately has an enemy in surface tension. So this time I resolved to stick the unruly mixture into a glorified hot bowl. I prefer to call it an improvisational Dutch oven. If you try this, obviously make sure that whatever you use (be it an all-metal casserole pot or an ovenproof bowl) can withstand 250°C plus.

Seriously, let’s not turn this into car-crash baking. No one wants that.

Anyway, this bread didn’t get off to the best start. I think I might have inadvertently overcooked the yeast. As in, I think I might have, you know, killed it. Or at least severely hampered its development.

You see, after added my usual cocktail of boiled water and cool water to the flour, I found that the mixture lacked moisture. So I par-boiled a little more water, and added that. Suffice to say that it might have been a little over-zealously par-boiled.

On top of that, I dissolved my yeast in the water before combining it with the dry ingredients. This isn’t my usual etiquette around fast-action yeast (I know, I know, don’t judge me – I finally bought some fresh yesterday), but I wanted to somehow protect it a little from the salt content of the flour. And anyway, I’d read about someone flippantly trying this, with pretty enviable results. Experimentation is key, after all.

This particular experiment, it would appear, was about as successful as my former physic teacher’s attempts to obtain an accurate figure for acceleration due to gravity. His results tended to hover around 20 metres per second squared. It should have been about 9.8, so, as the French would say, figure-toi!

(The dough barely rose at all.)

Still, I was pretty keen to try out my Dutch oven idea (even though, as I say, I simply used a deep white bowl). But here’s the rub: I wanted my dough to undergo a second prove in its destined shape, as per usual. Obviously, though, the bowl’s core temperature was hovering somewhere in the vague region between 250°C and the fiery pits of hell. Which simply won’t do for a fussy and tentative lump of dough looking to quietly heave itself up for the second time.

Ultimately, I had to forego my beloved second proof and instead grudgingly slide the whole shebang into the oven.

The rise was underwhelming, as you might have guessed from the previous Holland references. Additionally the crust was inferior to the wonderfully caramelised crunchy variety I’m used to. This is probably because my “Dutch oven” refused entry to water vapour like a bouncer who’d had a bad day. I also read that sitting your dough in too much oil can soften the crust. So bear that in mind.

And the crumb? I’ve seen better, I’ve seen worse. It did feature some satisfyingly irregular air holes, but still bore an irritatingly elastic, springy texture, which is pleasant but a little too chewy and moist for my liking.

Shape-wise, however, it was almost disconcertingly regular and perfect. In fact, when he laid eyes on it, my brother called it a teepee. On revision, I think it looks more like a Mongolian yurt, or the Teletubbies’ eco-house. The latter is particularly resonant, thanks to my impatiently prodding the top of the loaf, resulting in a rabbit hole slap bang in the centre. Luckily no miniature Pos or Tinky Winkys emerged from my loaf . Let’s be grateful for small mercies.

Regardless, it made for a decent sandwich. Yesterday, the sun made a surprise guest appearance on the Overcast Summer Show, so my brother and I packed a picnic and took to the beach. Peering out across the sky-blue Atlantic, my slightly disappointing bread hugging home-made hummus and salad, I developed a new appreciation for this particular baked creation. That’s the wonderful thing about experimenting with bread. It’s consistently very, very edible.

But I think I’m going to have to crank it up a gear. Someone fetch me my proverbial reading glasses and notepad, I’m going to do some hardcore research.

And yes, that includes the much-anticipated (poolish, I think) starter!

In the meantime, feast your eyes on the recipe for this domed wonder.


500g strong white flour, sieved

c. 200g wholemeal flour

1/2 tsp fast-action yeast (from one of those 7g sachets)

hand-hot water

1 and 1/2 tsp salt


– Combine salt and flours in a bowl

– Dissolve yeast in warm water (be conservative about the amount of water used, to guarantee that all of the yeast will be used)

– Make a well in the centre of the flour. Pour in the yeast solution and combine. Add more water if necessary. Aim for a slightly sloppy consistency, though not so wet that it’s a soup.

– Knead for about 10 mins, or until smooth. I tend to gather all of the dough into my hands and pull at it, but there are numerous kneading techniques, which I’ll explore in another post.

– Place in an oiled bowl, cover with clingfilm, and chill in the fridge for about 24 hours

– Next day, once the dough has doubled in volume (if you’re luckier than I was), remove from the fridge. Pre-heat the oven along with your Dutch oven, if you’re being fancy and proper about this, or a deep ovenproof bowl. Use the highest temperature possible – for me, that equates to 250°C, with the fan on.

– Once the oven has hit full temperature, put a baking tray on the base, and pour in a little water. Carefully remove the Dutch oven and dust with flour. Place the dough into it and sprinkle with polenta or semolina. (At this point I would also recommend sprinkling the top of the dough with cold water to enhance the humidity around it, and hence the crust).

– Bake in the oven for approximately 40 minutes. Ovens are eccentric, so this depends very much on your personal oven situation. Make sure to check it after half an hour, though.

– Leave to cool. This includes resisting a good poke.

My next white bread may take a wee bit longer to work up to, but no fear – it’ll be worth it (fingers crossed), and in the meantime I have an Indian bread recipe up my sleeve which is not wholly unrelated to my mission. Think of it as a (delicious) filler.

À La Prochaine!


If Bread Were Dynamite…

18 Jul

The day before yesterday I gave my hybrid starter a go. In English, I made an incredibly wet dough, bunged it in the fridge overnight for a chilly prove, and next day I added more flour to lend it some much-needed surface tension (it barely had enough to rise the night before: it groaned itself upwards a little but swiftly resigned itself instead to bubbling as proof of… well, proof).

In any case, as before, following the first prove, and adding the extra flour, I shaped the dough and gave it some privacy for its second prove on a sheet of oiled greaseproof paper. The dough looked a little lethargic if I’m honest, so when I returned from the gym to see this an hour or so later, I reeled in disbelief:

It went from this:


to this:


Needless to say, it had exploded. If there’s one thing I’m learning – other than how to treat burn wounds – no two loaves are alike. Never a dull moment, eh?

It was messy, too, though. It was like the new Spiderman flick. No, really: the focus is on this monstrous lizard wreaking havoc in an otherwise functional and pedestrian city, and of course Peter Parker as he saves the day. But the real nightmare involved with a rampant giant lizard, or indeed an excitable wodge of dough, is the resulting clean-up operation.

The dough really bonded with the greaseproof paper, and believe me it took some doing to tear the two apart. My irritated wrangling paid off for the most part, but I couldn’t help noticing a sliver of paper while chewing on a slice post-bake. Hopefully I was alone in that experience. The fusion of stationery and food should be left to fortune cookies. They’re the experts.

Anyway, I reshaped the dough as gently as I could, hoping against hope that the crumb wouldn’t suffer too much at my hand. I mean, I couldn’t very well bake bread’s answer to a giant reptile, even though the crumb may well have been a sight for sore eyes.


Apparently undeterred, the loaf rose spectacularly in the oven. Half an hour’s baking at full whack was enough to slightly char one side of it, but I’m resigned to this as a side effect of a stupid oven. It’s what’s inside that counts, after all.

For all its showiness, however, the bread ultimately let me down. Once cooled, it was my brother who eagerly sliced into it. The intersection revealed an underwhelming crumb, reminiscent of the Funeral Bread. Moreover the flavour wasn’t as nutty or as full-bodied as my previous sloppy dough, probably because the more recent addition of flour didn’t have time to truly meet and greet the yeast. The shape, however, was a marked improvement.

This compromise between surface tension and crumb is so tricky! But I won’t say impossible, nothing’s impossible. Perhaps a good starter’s the answer, but I have yet to actually start one. I need to do some research first, but I’ll get there.

For the time being, I’m thinking a good supportive container (like a mould, à la Jim Lahey’s no knead bread – coupled with sloppy dough. Except I’m still planning on kneading the dough. Perhaps that’s the answer to my surface-tension related prayers. Or perhaps a therapist is. Who knows?

Anyway, in the meantime sink your teeth into the recipe for the above hyperactive bread. As usual, it’s solidly based on a basic French bread dough, and only one variable’s been fully played with. I’d attach a warning, but I think it’s just a misguided dough with a penchant for greaseproof paper. Perfectly innocent.



400g strong white flour and a good deal extra

c. 200g wholemeal flour

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp dried yeast

tepid water


Sift the 400g flour, and combine with the salt and yeast. Make a well in the centre.

– Add enough of the water to form a wet dough, bordering on batter consistency.

– Knead (I had to effectively stir it, in the bowl, with my hands) until you feel the dough starting to strengthen and fuse.

– Place the dough into an oiled bowl, cover with clingfilm and put in the fridge. Leave for at least 12 hours.

– Once the mixture is peppered with little air bubbles, remove from the fridge and work in the wholemeal flour, and enough of the extra flour so that it forms a dough that is just stiff enough to sit up on its own, and not so sticky that you’re afraid to touch it. Basically, it’s dough’s answer to a teenager.

– Shape into a long oval, leave to prove for a second time, and (all going well) pop into a pre-heated oven at top temperature (mine reaches 250°C). Bake for approx 30 mins (perhaps 5 or so minutes more) with a smouldering pan of water at the base of the oven to crisp up the crust.

Et voilà! Tune in next time for yet another yeasty tragicomedy, folks.

Wet, wet, wet

15 Jul
This bread (baked on Friday) is, as promised, a wetter dough. I have a confession to make, however: I said I would play with one variable at a time, being all very scientific. This bread, though, differs from the last in a couple of ways: the dough was moister; the proving was time much longer (about 19 hours including the second rise); and, of course, the oven time was, necessarily, much shorter.
I did not wish for a repeat episode of the Cremation.
The thing about a longer proving time, as I’ve mentioned before, is that it works in opposition to yeast quantity and temperature. So I bunged in a mere half a teaspoon of dried yeast (need to get my hands on some active yeast at Lettercollum, a local organic food store here in Clonakilty). On top of that, I let the dough prove overnight in the fridge, much to my father’s consternation.
The second thing about the longer proving time is a more complex flavour, brought about by the development of the starches in the flour… I think. It’s a bit like sauté-ing onions. For maximum flavour, a slow, yawning sizzle that massages the flavour out of them is best. And bread, fussy and difficult as it is, needs to be spoiled and coddled in much the same way. At least, that’s the impression that yours truly, amateur baker extraordinaire, gets!
Other than that, I didn’t deviate from the previous recipe.
I’ve devoted a lot of TLC to this loaf, and I think the affection would be mutual if the bread had a frontal lobe. But, oh dear, once again trouble comes knocking on paradise’s door. You see, the compromise I made in wetting my dough (which helps with a fine, irregular crumb), was reducing surface tension. In layman’s terms, trying to get the dough to stay in a nice oval shape was a little like trying to get Flubber to stay still. My sloppy dough refused to be compliant, and, despite my best efforts, stubbornly oozed its way into a flatbread shape.
The pizza stone had turned into an effective chez longue for my lazy, lazy dough.
I remained hopeful that the hot air in the oven would give it a vertical boost. The result? Well, suffice to say that it didn’t rise as much as I’d hoped. Not that I was feeling particularly optimistic. It ended up looking like a flat bread, a lip-smacking and artisan flat bread, perhaps, but a flat bread nonetheless.
Happily it was decimated by the family – who were perhaps so relieved that it didn’t taste like cinders that they praised the flavour mightily. And, I admit, it was good, which bears testament to a nice, lethargic proof.
The crumb was pretty good too – certainly better than my last attempt: springy, more irregular and with a couple of satisfyingly gaping holes. Perhaps the lightness of the crumb had something to do with the dough being vertically challenged: the glucose bonds had less downward force to battle with. One thing I did notice was temperature’s effect on the crumb. My oven, unfortunately, heats in a non-uniform fashion, the back being hotter than the door at the front in general. This much I could gauge from the slightly charred half of my loaf.
But that same half also had a better crumb consistency. It’s obvious when I think about it, but more hot air equals a better rise in the oven.
(On a side note, the predominant oven rise takes place in the first ten or so minutes of baking – which, annoyingly, is also when the oven needs to regain heat lost through the oven door aperture. I wish there was a way of sneaking my bread in without having to open a great big door!)
As for crust, well, I think I’ve cracked it. In professional bakeries (such as the Sullivan Street Bakery in NYC, who offer an interesting “no knead” method) steam injection coupled with insanely high temperatures is common practice to achieve that no-nonsense, crunchy crust that, I suggest, makes bread sing. I just use a baking tin, heat it up to a smouldering temperature at the base of the oven, and tip in a little water. Trust me, it’s foolproof.  For further textural adventures, I sprinkled my dough with polenta (for want of semolina flour) after the second prove. That was a tip I learned at a pizza party last summer – there, the dough was rolled out using semolina flour instead of traditional plain white to prevent the dough from sticking to the counter. It really does boost the whole chewing experience.
When working the dough, I worked with sunflower oil instead of flour, not wanting to meddle too much with my moist consistency. In hindsight, perhaps it could have done with a little meddling after all, but then again, the experiment would then have been void. I think the oil may have had a part to play in the complex flavour of the loaf, too. The reason I didn’t add any lipids to the actual recipe is simply that they can interfere with the crumb. No fear, I will try a buttery loaf once I’ve found a strong foundation to work with.
Anyway, enough analysis. Here’s the basic recipe:
500g strong white flour
c. 200g wheatmeal flour
1.5 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dried yeast (from one of those 7g sachets)
hand-hot water (half boiling, half cold)
1. Sieve white flour into bowl. Combine remaining dry ingredients (including yeast).
2. Add enough water to make the dough sloppy.
3. Oil surface and hands. Knead the dough by gathering it all in hands, and rhythmically tugging at it from both sides in a cross-chest motion. Do so for about 10 mins, or until the dough is more supple and elastic.
4. Place in bowl, cover with cling film and pop in the fridge overnight. Next day, place the dough in a pan or on chosen baking surface. Shape (or try to) however you want. I warn you, this dough won’t allow you to be very adventurous in this regard.
5. Pre-heat oven to max temperature. Leave the shaped dough to double in volume.
6. Bake for half an hour.
Note: once the bread is shaped, I find it pretty awkward transferring it from one surface to another. But I like to use a hot baking stone, and since I obviously can’t let the bread go through its second prove on that (it would cook!), the risky business of moving the dough is necessary.
So I devised a little something something yesterday – I turned a baking sheet upside down, coated with oiled greaseproof paper, and slapped the dough onto that before shaping. That way I had an elevated surface (the tin) which I could carry as near as possible to the baking stone, and a means of shifting the dough slightly more effectively (the paper). It worked reasonably well, though I still have my sights on a pizza paddle.
And there we go!
As for my next loaf, I was just thinking this morning how a moist dough results in a better crumb than a dry dough. And how the first proof seems to be the most significant. Then I got to thinking about starters, about which I don’t know a huge amount. What I do know is that they’re sloppy at first, but then you add some flour to form a proper, pliable dough.
Deduced from all of this positing, I propose this as my next experiment: a wet dough (as above), allowed to prove overnight in the fridge, with flour added before shaping and the second prove. I’ll keep you posted.

The Bread of Death: A loaf dressed for mourning

10 Jul

I just finished the Leaving Cert, and I can safely say that it is cooking’s enemy.

The other day I made possibly my worst cauliflower curry to date – I don’t know what possessed me to follow a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe over Madhur Jaffrey’s unparalleled equivalent, but I hold my previous exams  at least partly responsible.

Today is also proof of my theory.

This morning, I set about making a basic dough. Plain flour (no strong in the cupboard, alas), a little wholemeal, water and yeast. Simple. So I kneaded it for about 10 minutes (at which point my upper arms were screaming in agony) and popped it into the airing cupboard for a relatively rapid rise.

The general idea is this: the warmer the atmosphere, the less time required for the prove, and vice-versa. My deadline was lunch, so unfortunately I didn’t have the luxury of a long and lazy rise. In other words, I skipped the daytrip around the dusty byways of Provence, and opted for the autoroute.

But needs must, and I still had high hopes for this bread. In fact, I skipped a pleasant, non-figurative walk in the woods so I could knock it back, shape it and tend to it after its second prove. I burnt my hand trying to drag the pizza stone out of the scalding oven. I made sacrifices for it. It had officially become my baby.

So you can imagine how distraught I was when I overshot the timing. Not by a little, but by a long, Provençal country mile. I told my brother how long it had been baking, and then asked when I should take it out. ‘After about half an hour,’ he replied. ‘How long did you say it had been in?’

‘Fifty minutes.’

Cue smoky oven, blackened crust, and my horrified expression as I pulled my mangled child from what had turned out to be its own personal crematorium.

I swallowed, attempted to smile, but I swear I have rarely felt so devastated. I even had to go upstairs to release a very brief sob. Pathetic, I know. But anyway.

Anyway. The crumb luckily wasn’t affected too badly, and remained springy and quite delicious. Unfortunately, it was also dense, an issue that couldn’t even be excused by my timing error.  Shape-wise, it could’ve done with a little more height, but blackened shell aside, it looked very edible indeed. The diagonal score running down its length would have worked a treat, actually. The polenta and flour mixture I rubbed the dough with would’ve also been a nice touch.

I can safely say my lesson’s learned on the timing front.

But the crumb still worries me. While I’m working on a starter, I’ll experiment with a wetter dough, using roughly the same timing and kneading process. One variable at a time.


10 Jul

Call me a bread-head, but I’m on a personal quest to bake the perfect bread.

Yeah, I know. I’m devoting a blog to that predictable hunk of flour and water that occupies a 30×10 patch in your fridge, cupboard or parlour. That dehydrated, pre-sliced white pan that must, must be made of reconstituted plastic because it’s unchanged after several weeks.

But bread is amazing: it’s been a staple of our diets for millenia. I won’t go into the history, but it’s undoubtedly been a steadfast companion to the human race over the years. It’s also the friend of innumerable dishes – curries, boeuf bourgignon, koftas – and serves as the basis of others. Even the term bread covers all manner of different types: it’s incredible the diversity that can be achieved working from such a narrow base of ingredients.

Plus, it’s got to be the most moreish foodstuff I can think of. I hate myself for it (and my hips hate me more), but I turn into a complete pig when presented with a pre-dinner basket of bread. Forget dessert, primi, secondi, cheese and wine: bread is the star of my show.

Good bread, that is.

I’m pretty into my food in general, but The Sound of Music taught me at a fairly young age to start at the very beginning. And perfecting bread seems obvious as the first port of call. I mean, it’s got to be incredibly simple, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong. There are an overwhelming number of variables – if you want to learn about them in depth, I suggest you take a peak at The Fresh Loaf – not to mention a certain skill involved.

Nevertheless, my current inability to defeat Waitrose’s finest rather warms my cheeks. Right now, I aim to conquer our familiar, Western  loaf or baton. So, what do I seek? An open and moist crumb; a caramelised, crunchy crust; a nutty, full-bodied flavour; a firm shape.

Easier said than done. But when did that stop anybody?