Baking - Breads

Leaving ‘Baker’ Status

Is your mind racing? Haha! It’s not what you think. It’s true, I lag on the posting front, but I do still bake a lot. My title refers to the categorization of people as either bakers or cooks. Bakers follow the recipe – as they should, it’s been chemically formulated that way for a reason – to make things great; and cooks tend to throw in a bit of this and a bit of that in varying amounts to make something great.

Okay, I’m not totally leaving baker status. I have always been a baker-type, and will continue to be. However, I am getting more comfortable with it. For the longest time, no matter how many times I had made a recipe I would still always have to have the recipe right in front of me. But I’m starting to get wild and crazy – or maybe just a bit more confident – and leaving my recipe book behind. Not with everything, but with the basics.

Now, for some of you this may seem unextraordinary. But I would say this is actually a big step for me. I am a perfectionist, and as such I always need the recipe in front of me to make sure it comes out perfectly. Not using the recipe is a BIG RISK for me, because I may forget something and it would not come out perfectly.

Homemade garlic bread, adapted from pizza dough.
Homemade garlic bread, adapted from pizza dough.

This year I started a daycare and I have a two week menu plan that I follow, so every other Friday I make pizza from scratch. That’s a lot of pizza dough over and over and over. With all that repetition I’ve got a pretty good grasp of my pizza dough recipe, so haven’t had the book in front of me for quite some time. It was great on vacation, we were with some friends at a cottage and I made dough for five large pizzas, and they all came out perfectly. And as I become more comfortable doing it, I’ve started expanding it to make various flatbreads or foccacia. I made a nice garlic bread the other night, simmering the garlic in fresh, warm potato water before making the dough, and it came out so lovely, soft and aromatic.

It may sound silly, but it feels very freeing to feel so comfortable with a recipe, that I can just do it on the fly and don’t need to take my recipe book everywhere with me. That may not happen with everything I bake, some things are still pretty complicated and don’t get made very often, but even just to have a base recipe that can be varied to suit different occasions is nice. Perfectionism is good for a lot of things, but so is self-confidence!

Baking - Breads

Homemade Bagels

I remember making bagels in one of my baking classes and have often thought about trying to make them again, but it’s one of those things that seems like it would be too difficult and time consuming to be worth the effort. Out of curiosity I looked up a recipe in my favourite bread book (The Wooden Spoon Bread Book by Marilyn M. Moore). After reading through the recipe it actually didn’t look that difficult. So I got the necessary ingredients and let them sit on the shelf.

Fast forward a couple months and take a moment to be grateful for my incredible husband who took our kids away for a weekend so I could have a couple days to myself for the first time in two years! What to do with a couple days to myself? Make bagels, of course!

Bagels, as I’m sure you know, are much more dense than regular bread. They require the addition of a high gluten flour (vital wheat gluten), and the recipe I used called for barley malt extract to add that distinctive flavour that good, artisanal bagels have. It was pretty straightforward once I got started. They needed to be kneaded a bit longer than regular bread to help develop the gluten more, and they actually needed less time to rise, giving the more dense, less airy texture.

Once the dough was mixed – which is way easier to do for longer when you use the mixer – I divided it into 12 pieces, and rolled each into a ball. Then I poked a hole in the middle and stretched each one into a ring. The rings only needed to rest for about 15 minutes (compared with the normal two rising times of an hour or so each for regular bread).

Another big difference with bagels is that they are simmered in almost boiling water (flavoured with more barley malt) for about a minute before going into the oven to bake. This contributes to their shiny appearance once baked, and adds to the chewiness. They bake for 10-15 minutes at a very high heat (450F), and voila! Fresh, chewy bagels from your own kitchen. They were very delicious, and because I was by myself and not on a normal eating routine, I’m pretty sure I ate three the day I made them!

I think it took just over an hour from start to finish, but I was doing something throughout that whole hour – no breaks for letting dough rest and rise. But now that I’ve tried it and know the process, I’m hoping we’ll have fresh bagels in the house a lot more often!

The dense crumb of the bagels - chewy texture and great flavour!
The dense crumb of the bagels – chewy texture and great flavour!
Baking - Breads

Muffin Mishap…or was it?

So I’ve been a bit tired lately, getting back to work after my mat leave and up through many nights with a teething baby, trying to get done what I can in whatever free waking moments I have. I try to be organized by having a list of things that need to get done (eg. laundry, email so-and-so etc.) and one recent evening I had on my list to make muffins. Most often I make banana muffins from a banana bread recipe that I love (which you can read about here).

As I was getting the ingredients ready I realized that I only had enough banana to make about a 1/2 cup instead of the full cup needed, so I decided to be adventurous and substitute a 1/2 cup of peanut butter to see what would happen. Having read this far you probably think that this addition of peanut butter was the mishap referred to in the title of this post. Read on.

I got the wet ingredients all ready to go, and usually I mix the brown sugar in because that’s what the recipe says to do, but there wasn’t enough room in the measuring cup, so I told myself to add it in with the dry. I went and mixed all the dry ingredients together, combined them with the wet and then scooped it all into the greased muffin tins (I am so on the ball!)

As I scooped the last bit of batter in it dawned on me that I had totally forgotten to add the brown sugar to the mix. Changing the order of things is a bad idea when you are sleep deprived! A very small part of me thought about dumping it all out to add the sugar, but most of me said “just bake them and see what happens.”

They came out a lot better than I expected. They rose nicely, had good texture, and although not as sweet as most muffins, they were actually not bad for taste either. My biggest concern was that all the kids for whom I made them would take one bite and turn up their noses, but I was happily proven wrong, there were no crumbs left when they were done.

So my muffin mishap turned out to be…well, maybe not a triumph, but certainly acceptable, and a good reminder that we don’t always need to use as much sugar as our recipes call for.

Baking - Breads, Ingredient Insights

Finding Local Flour

When we lived in Nova Scotia I enjoyed baking with a local rye flour from Longspell Point Farm in Kingsport, NS; I actually stocked up before we moved so I can keep making my favourite rye breads!

20140917_093719Now that we’re in London, ON, and getting to know this new area, I have to start over with finding good local ingredients. Luckily I didn’t have to wait too long to find some good flour. One of my husband’s colleagues told me about a flour mill just north of the city, so a few weeks ago my kids and I paid a visit to the Arva Flour Mill.

They offer several types of wheat flour, including pastry flour for cakes and pastry, and hard flour for breads. I picked up a bag of hard bread flour and have been enjoying the results ever since. It worked especially well in my favourite buttermilk rye bread recipe.

I tried making a batch of no-knead bread with it, and it actually didn’t come out very well. It seemed to be too sticky, so next time I may need to try it with either a bit less water, or a bit more flour. I also wonder whether the higher protein content of hard flour makes it need the kneading. Something to investigate in a future post! Until then, I will enjoy my regular breads made with this local flour, and look forward to trying some of their other flours in the future!

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Baking - Breads, Ingredient Insights

Gluten-ous Maximus

Wow! I was talking with my mom recently about oats, and we were both wondering if oats contained gluten. I thought it would be interesting to do a post about gluten, but do you have any idea just how much information (legitimate or otherwise) is out there about gluten? You probably do. I figured there would be a lot, given the abundance of gluten-free hype and products these days. It’s pretty overwhelming, and much of it seems conflicting – like so many things (fats, sugars, meat, dairy, etc.)

What's in a flour? Depends on the flour, but all the flours in my bin contain gluten.
What’s in a flour? It depends on the flour, but all the flours in my bin contain gluten.

Let me re-ground myself. Here’s what I knew about gluten before. It is produced by two proteins in wheat flour when liquid is added and worked around. The more the dough is worked, the more gluten is formed. It gives breads their structure and strength. Hence why so many gluten-free things end up crumbly (in my experience).

Here is a very little bit of what I know now that I have tried to find more information about it. These proteins that produce gluten are present not only in wheat, but also in barley and rye flours; and there are A LOT of different varieties of wheat (spelt, semolina, kamut and graham to name a few). There are many conditions that can be aggravated by gluten, including celiac disease and many skin conditions. I’m not going to formulate any opinions or conclusions right now, as I have not done nearly enough reading to do so in a truly informed way. And I don’t have the time right now to read everything and decide what’s legitimate or not. It’s a lot to process. I do know that I really love bread, and am very grateful that I don’t have to worry too much about what I’m eating in that respect.

To the original question of oats, I learned that pure oats do not contain gluten (meaning the proteins that produce gluten), but they do contain another protein (avenin). However, many oat products cannot guarantee that they are totally gluten free, especially if they are processed in an environment that also processes wheat, barley or rye, so for people who have serious reactions to gluten they still need to pay close attention to package labels; and if you are preparing something for the gluten-free person at the party you’re going to, make sure the oats are pure, because it can only take a little bit of gluten to cause serious repercussions for some people; and a certain percentage of people with celiac disease actually react to the avenin in oats the same way they do to gluten, so if you’re not sure then it’s probably best not to use oats as a gluten free option.