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!


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.


Baking - Breads, Ingredient Insights

Water Temperature for Yeast

My post this week comes from a friend who asked:

How warm does the water have to be for the yeast to proof right? (Is, in fact, the temperature of the water related to the proofing of the yeast?) I was always taught to do lukewarm water (it’s possible my water is generally more than lukewarm—does that kill the yeast?) and then add some kind of sugar/honey for the yeast to eat, and then it will all work out right. But it never seems to bubble up quite like I want it to. How to change this?

This question made me automatically think back to the classes I took, and a formula we had to use whenever we made yeast breads. To get very technical for a moment, the recipes we used in our ‘professional’ book listed a temperature for the dough, usually anywhere from 78°F to 86°F. This is the temperature at which the dough should be for the best fermentation/proofing results (yeast has its best growth from 70°F-90°F). To figure out the right temperature for the water we had to multiply the desired dough temperature by three, then subtract the room temperature, the flour temperature and the machine friction temperature.

IMG_4168For example, a recipe for brioche in my book says that the dough temperature should be 84°F. Multiply that by three to get 252. The room temperature was 64°F, the flour was 58°F, and we always used an average temperature of 20°F for the machine friction. Take 252 and subtract 64, 58 and 20, and we get 110, so the temperature of the water should be 110°F. I can remember holding my thermometer under the water until it reached the right temperature, filling the measuring cup, and taking the temperature of the water again in the cup just to be sure. We also used fresh yeast for our recipes, so it didn’t need the initial proofing. However, the book instructs that if you are using active dry yeast, it should be “rehydrated in four times its weight of warm water (about 110°F).”* If the water is too warm it can definitely slow down the yeast’s growth, and warmer still will kill the yeast (140°F).

If you don’t have a digital thermometer, don’t worry. It would give you a more exact temperature, but it’s certainly not mandatory in order to get good bread. You can measure the temperature of the water like you would for a baby’s bottle. If the water feels hot on the inside of your arm, it’s probably too hot for the yeast; if it feels lukewarm on the inside of your arm, it’s probably okay; and if it feels cool on your arm, it’s probably too cold.

There are several other factors that can affect how your dough proofs.

  • Adding sugar or honey will definitely help speed up yeast’s growth. Yeast consumes the sugar and turns it into carbon dioxide and alcohol – the gas contributes to the leavening, and the alcohol is evaporated while baking. Extra sugar is not absolutely necessary, in fact many of the recipes I have don’t even call for sugar when you’re initially softening the yeast. As you make the dough the yeast feeds on sugars in the flour, but added sugar (as long as it’s in the recipe) can speed things along. If you have too much, it may make it go too fast, which can cause it to over-ferment and not come out very well.
  • Dough proofs best from 78°F to 86°F, so if you have the dough in a cool room it may not rise as well; conversely, if it is too warm it can slow growth, or kill the yeast (so don’t proof it on the vent of the oven as it preheats like I used to). I’ve heard several people say they use the top of their fridge, as it is generally warm to being with, and it is higher up in the room (warm air rises).
  • The length of time needed can vary. It is important to follow the recipe’s guidelines, but if your proofing temperature is higher than normal it will likely take less time than what the recipe calls for. It’s best to just pay close attention to the dough and watch for when it has actually doubled in bulk.

The most important thing is to keep trying. If it didn’t work well, adjust something for the next time and see if it makes a difference: add a little more (or less) sugar; try letting the dough rest in different places; try different temperatures of water; try different types of yeast if you have them available (active dry, instant, or fresh). Just make sure you keep track of what you did so you remember what works well. Happy Baking!

*Gisslen, Wayne (2005). Professional Baking (4th edition). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 51.

Baking - Breads, Ingredient Insights

Bored Blogger Confession

I’ve been trying all week to write a post about some black bean brownies I made. I kept coming back to it, and leaving it, and coming back, writing one line, and leaving it, and so on. I had absolutely no motivation. I was bored. Recipe reviews was not what I had intended when I first started this blog.

And then I got an email from my sister-in-law. She had read my post about rye bread and had a question about it. All of a sudden I got really excited, and as soon as I had a spare enough moment, I wrote out as much as I could to try and help her. And I thought to myself, ‘this is what I wanted my blog to be about.’ I want to help people understand and really enjoy baking, because the more you know about something the easier it is to play around with it and make it better. Of course I want to showcase some of the creative side of baking I often undertake, but reviewing a recipe I found on a blog where another author is basically doing a review…well, it’s redundant and unoriginal, which is not what I want to be.

So with my sister-in-law’s permission, this week I am offering her question and my response, and also extending an invitation to anyone to ask questions, which I will do my best to answer. And I will try to keep this space as original and reflective of me as possible.


“A question for you about the rye bread —  do you have to make bread with an electric mixer?  We don’t have one of those — and my attempts at bread are always pretty off.  Is that tool a big difference maker?”

  • You don’t need a mixer, but it sure makes it a lot easier. When I first started making bread I got very tired/impatient with the kneading, and my bread never came out how I expected. I started setting a timer and making myself knead the dough well for at least 15 minutes. It definitely made a difference in the outcome. Kneading develops the gluten in the dough, and it’s the gluten that makes the dough stretchy/elastic. Yeast produces carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the elasticness of the dough, and as the dough rises and bakes, the gas in it expands. Ergo, the more gluten that is developed from kneading, the better your bread will rise. All that to say I have found a big difference in using the mixer because it is stronger than my arms and works the dough that much better. It also takes less time, usually 6-8 minutes in the mixer. Your outcome can also depend on how long you leave the dough to rise and how warm it is where it’s rising. Basically it’s important to follow the timelines of whatever recipe you’re using. If it doesn’t rest long enough it won’t have enough time to produce the amount of gas needed for a good loaf and resulting in a dense bread. If it’s left too long, the yeast can overproduce and actually start to break down the gluten, making the loaf too airy and it will be crumbly and probably have a giant air pocket under the top crust. If it’s rising in a place that is too hot the yeast can actually be killed and it won’t rise (a common mistake that I used to do often). Letting it rise on a counter at room temperature is usually sufficiently warm.


If anyone is curious about the black bean brownies mentioned at the beginning, you can find the recipe here. They were pretty tasty, and are both vegan and gluten-free.

Black bean brownies fresh from the oven.
Black bean brownies fresh from the oven.