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I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t even had time to get my usual winter blahs. Maybe they’re still coming, but I don’t know. I don’t know much of anything anymore, not having any time to stop and think.

But there. Complaining over. After all, I’m at home today on a beautiful sunny afternoon, trying to enjoy sitting around. One of the side effects I’ve noticed of being super-busy is monkey mind. It’s a Buddhist term that I learned from reading Nathalie Goldberg, who used it to talk about that restlessness of mind that makes it difficult to slow down, concentrate, and write. Well, in case you can’t tell by the previous awkward sentences, I am having difficulty with that writing part. But beyond that I’ve gotten so used to running around that I’m having a hard time staying put at home and just appreciating my leisure time. I keep looking around for something to clean, something to panic about, something to put on my to-do list. When I find something, I do it halfway and then get distracted by another thing that I really should be doing instead.

I thought I’d pin myself down at home for a while by focusing on  monkey bread. This is a long overdue recipe preparation, as it’s from a blog I was paired with a long time ago for a taste & create event: The Vegetarian Hausfrau. She writes twice a week from Germany, and her site offers many wonderful, healthful recipes,  so of course when I was browsing through it, I got fixated on something unhealthy. Monkey bread has sweet dough, slathered in butter and heavily layered with sugar and cinnamon. Just what I need to calm (or, um, sedate) my monkey mind.

This is a lovely old-fashioned recipe that’s easy to assemble. The only time-consuming part is the rolling of little dough balls, which must then be dunked in melted butter then coated in a sugar/cinnamon mixture. It’s like mini cinnamon rolls when it’s baked. And it’s so good that my monkey hands couldn’t resist pulling pieces out to put in my monkey mouth before I even finished photographing. Take that, monkey mind! Thanks to The Vegetarian Hausfrau for a great recipe!

Oh, the puns, the puns. I was telling Carlo yesterday, I don’t know if my pun-brain is a blessing or a curse. Probably both– a blessing for me, because it always makes me feel clever, and a curse for everyone who is subjected to it, because, really, they have to hear the pun and then smile politely through gritted teeth.

As if monthly Daring Bakers creations weren’t enough, I’ve recently set myself a new personal challenge. For the last few months, the DB challenges have focused on one of my most-beloved and most-neglected cookbooks– Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Bakers Apprentice. It was a reminder and a great jump-start for an idea I’ve been kneading around for a while (see what I did there? Kneading develops the dough, I’m developing an idea. I’m clearly a brilliant wordsmith).

See, I love baking. There’s something about being wrist-deep in dough, and the careful steps along the way that’s so satisfying. There’s very little in the world that I enjoy more than sawing into a loaf of bread that I. Made. Myself. I love the patience it requires, and the skill, and I love the way that every time I bake a loaf of bread I learn something new. I love kneading dough until it comes together into a silky mass, I love the smooth belly of risen dough before I punch it down for shaping. I love bread.

I’m a decent, but not superb, bread baker, and I know that I’ve got a lot to learn about the chemistry and formulas and proportions of bread if I want to improve. I’ve long been fascinated and intimidated by Reinhart’s book. What I love is how informational the text is, how much I’ve learned already just by paging through the book. But now I’ve decided it’s time to get a little more serious. So I’ve decided to bake my way through the book. This is not a side-project, I’m not starting a new blog, it’ll just be a bit of reporting now and again on my attempts and (I hope) successes. Obviously since I’m cooking through the whole book I won’t be posting recipes (feel free to search for them elsewhere online. I know some are out there. The book is a great investment though), but I hope to talk about what worked for me, what didn’t work, and what I learned about bread-baking technique.

I suppose that technically I’ve already started this project with my Daring Bakers pizza, so I won’t call this an inaugural post. Over the weekend, I made ciabatta. I suppose I should have chosen cinnamon rolls, or remade lavash crackers (which I MADE but then didn’t post for the DB challenge date… oops), but I recently had some incredible ciabatta from a great local bakery, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Plus, we were having a dinner party and I wanted to make something so impressive, so beautiful and tasty, that Carlo’s family (our guests) would tell Carlo he should marry me all over again. So, ciabatta.

This bread required a pre-ferment, and I had the choice between a biga and a poolish. I chose the poolish, for no really good reason, except that it came first in the book. It’s a really easy-to-make sponge of just flour, yeast, and water, that I left out on the countertop for 4 hours to develop (it got all bubbly–see the photo below) before I popped it into the fridge overnight.

The next day I combined my poolish with flour, water and more yeast before the kneading process, which is one I’ve never used before. Because the dough was so wet, I couldn’t turn it out onto the counter to work with it. Instead, I left it in the bowl and used my hand like a dough hook, rotating the bowl with my other hand.

Yes, I could have used my stand mixer, and maybe it would even have turned out better. Hands-off work requires less flour addition, after all. And from what I understand, the reason I didn’t have nice big holes in my finished bread is because the dough wasn’t wet enough. But, like I said above, I love being wrist-deep in dough, so I went the hands-on route. I will try the stand mixer next time*.

The ciabatta baked into lovely loaves, helped along a bit by a super-preheated oven (baking stone in, oven preheated at 500 F for 45 minutes), and a little bit of spritzing in the early stages: put bread in, close oven door. Open oven door and spray walls of oven (I followed Reinhart’s suggestion and covered the glass of the door with a towel, just in case of errant sprays). Close oven door for 30 seconds, then spray again. Repeat once more.

As you can see by the picture at the top of the page, the bread baked up beautiful and golden. It had fantastic flavour, and while Carlo’s family didn’t start planning our second wedding, they all loved it, and two and a half loaves (they were small, granted) disappeared into 6 peoples mouths.

*ahem… I’ve got loaves in the oven as I write, made with the stand mixer. I’ll post an update if they work out differently from the ones I’ve already made.

I decided to try out my mother-in-law’s bread machine today. I’ver never used a bread machine before, and the loaf (challah, if you’d like to know) isn’t even a third of the way done, and I have no idea how it’s going to turn out. But it’s already a success to me, because I’ve just discovered something very interesting to me as a Canadian baker (sorry to my American buddies, this probably isn’t at all useful to you, unless you feel like importing Canadian flour). In the past year or so I’ve been experimenting with flour types, buying bread flour instead of all-purpose because it’s what my bread books advise.

In preparation for baking a bread machine loaf, I pulled up the Black & Decker bread machine manual and discovered that they provide different recipes for Americans and Canadians. Why? As it turns out, I didn’t need to be using bread flour all this time! All-purpose flour is a blend of hard wheat, which has more protein (gluten), and soft wheat, which has less. Canadian wheat is harder in general, and the blend leans more toward hard flour, so Canadians can generally use all-purpose flour for any bread recipe, as the protein content is about equal to American bread flour.

I’m not exactly sure what bearing this has on my cake/cookie/pastry baking, but I’ve never had too much trouble all-purposing those either. Maybe we ought to start experimenting with cake flour? Does anyone outside of North America have any ideas about flours elsewhere? How about Americans? Do you use bread flour or all-purpose flour for your baking? Have you noticed any differences?

Here’s an interesting explanation of the Canadian/American flour thing.

ps. Hi everyone! We’re back! (and obviously can’t resist a bit of metablogging in nearly every post)

It’s easy to be in love with an idea; it’s a lot harder to follow through on its execution.

I’ve been thinking about baking French bread for a long time now. The idea of pulling a crispy, golden baguette out of my oven appealed to my romantic bread-baker side, but it seemed so complicated. I was scared. I’m not very fond of failing, and I’d often rather not do something at all than to do it and get it wrong. I know, I know. That’s not very daring of me.

I’ve been putting off French bread for all sorts of reasons: I don’t have a spray bottle for misting the bread and making steam, I don’t have a fancy bread lame, I don’t have a canvas baking couche for proofing the bread. Oh, and I wasn’t really sure what proofing meant. And then there’s this:

We were lucky that our stove was included in our apartment, but not so lucky with the stove itself. It’s a million years old, with only one rack inside. The burners go out once a month, the broiler seldom works, and it runs at least 20 degrees cooler than it’s supposed to. It’s so poorly insulated that it just can’t hold its heat. This stove should be a recipe for failure.

So I was unreasonably thrilled when I found out that Julia Child’s French bread was my very first Daring Bakers challenge. If I failed, well, so be it. It wasn’t going to be my fault–I didn’t have the right supplies! As it turns out, Julia Child’s detailed instructions, combined with some anxiety and improvisation with equipment, gave us an amazing result. This was SO not a failure. What we had in the end was a bread with a moist, almost creamy crumb, with large holes; and a crisp, golden, crackling crust that sprang open beautifully where I slashed it before slipping it into the oven. The recipe made three baguettes slightly longer than 12 inches each.

I’m so happy (and pleasantly surprised!) with how this bread turned out, especially given the equipment I was working with. That’s the magic of Julia Child and 10-page-long instructions. The only thing I would do differently is to use better flour. With the intention of conquering my perfectionism, I decided to use the regular, not-special all purpose flour I had in the house. With three(!) rises, and so few ingredients (water, flour, yeast, salt), the flavour of the flour really develops, so it only makes sense to use the best you can get your hands on. I’ll do this next time. And yes, there will be a next time.

The Daring Bakers is a huge group, and there’s a lot of bread online today, so I won’t reprint the recipe. You can check it out here. What I’d like to offer you are some of the resources, materials, and techniques I used.

KNEADING: I’m always a pretty anxious cook, and I was especially so with this recipe. On the day of my baking, my nerves were eased when I discovered this video of Richard Bertinet demonstrating his kneading technique. This was perfect for the French bread dough. Ignore the ingredients he’s using and just focus on the super-cool kneading. My damp, sticky dough was transformed, but I didn’t need to use any extra flour, so the final product wasn’t even the slightest bit tough!

RISING: Here’s a trick my mother has used for years. I use my oven for the first rise, and in the case of this bread, the second rise too. I set my oven to the lowest temperature it runs at. I leave it there for two minutes, and then turn it off, turning on the oven light at the same time. This makes a nice cozy environment for the bread to grow in. Another trick is to put the covered bowl of dough on top of the fridge. It’s usually nice and warm up there too.
Another essential is patience. This dough required hours to rise to its full height. It had finally gone through its final rise and fully cooked 12 HOURS after I first pulled the flour off the shelf. Monitor the dough closely, but don’t skimp on time.

MAKING STEAM AND HEAT: Julia Child’s recipe recommends unglazed quarry tiles and a spray bottle to reproduce the heat and steam of a professional bread baking oven. Well, I didn’t have those, but I do have a pizza stone. I heated the oven hotter than the recommended temperature with the pizza stone inside. This heated the stone up nice and hot, so it would hold the heat that our crappy oven couldn’t. When I slid the baguettes onto the stone, we made steam by tossing a bit of water directly onto the bottom of the oven. The recipe recommends ice cubes, but I didn’t want to sacrifice any heat at all (precious, precious, heat), so we used hot water. We did it three times, about a minute between each steam bath. Carlo whipped open the oven door, I tossed the water from a cookie sheet directly onto the floor of the oven, and Carlo whipped the door closed again. Total time per steam bath: maybe 5 seconds. After all that, I finally reduced the oven heat to the recommended temperature.

NOT BEING AFRAID: Don’t be afraid!

Thanks to the hostesses of this month’s Daring Baker challenge — Mary from The Sour Dough and Sara from I Like to Cook — I’ve conquered my fear of French bread. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

You can see other Daring Bakers’ French bread by going to the Daring Bakers Blogroll.

Here is Hanne’s Mom’s oft-requested recipe for overnight buns. I just scanned the original recipe to send back to friends out East. We’re home for Christmas now, which is why we’ve been absentee bloggers. We’ll do our best to mine and publish our parent’s secret recipes to a) share with you and b) keep this blog semi-active over the holidays.

These fist sized rolls are great for sandwiches and burgers or for filling out your Christmas feast. Enjoy! We’ll be back soon.

Overnight Buns

When I looked out the window this morning, the street looked like this:

It snowed all night, it’s snowing now, and they’re saying it will continue to snow for the next few days. Later, I will put on my suit, rolling up the cuffs of the pants and secure them with binder clips (one hazard of Canadian winter–your pants can’t be tailored for your heels and your boots at the same time. And you do not want to have damp pants cuffs). Then I will venture out to wade through the snow to go teach a class. For now, though, I’m wrapped in layers of blankets and sweaters, keeping snug indoors.

They’re saying that this winter might be a cold one, full of snow and low temperatures. Something about La Nina. I say, bring her on! I’ve got chicken stock on my balcony (hey, what’s the frozen outdoors for if not to augment my freezer space?), tea in my cupboards, many, many pairs of wool socks in my dresser drawers. And on my table right now I’ve got a loaf of tender, toasty bread. It’s not beautiful (witness the lumpy, flattened top–I think my loaf tin was a little too big), but it’s cozy.

This is wild rice onion bread. It’s moist and full of onion flavour. The recipe comes from Peter Reinhart’s “Brother Juniper’s Bread Book,” which is once of my favourite bread books. It’s a great read, and it’s got some great recipes. Wild Rice and Onion bread uses a mix of brown and wild rice as a base to add fluffiness and moisture to the dough. If you can’t get your hands on wild rice, I think brown rice would work fine on its own. The recipe calls for one cup of raw, diced onion, but when I make it next time, I think I’ll use 1 1/2 cups of raw onion and cook it down to caramelize and concentrate the flavours. Other than those modifications, this bread is a keeper! It’s firm enough to use as a sandwich bread, but it’s also moist and light enough to be toasted and eaten on its own or made into rolls. The rolls make me think of onion bagels, just begging for some whipped cream cheese. It also makes fantastic warm and crunchy and light toast.

PETER REINHART’S WILD RICE ONION BREAD
adapted from Brother Juniper’s Bread Book– Makes two loaves, or 30 rolls

8 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup diced fresh onions
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp instant yeast
1 1/2 Tbsp salt
1 cup cooked wild rice blend (I used a mix of wild rice and brown rice. I added 3 parts water to one part rice and cooked it for about 45 minutes, until the water was absorbed and the wild rice had split open– make sure the wild rice is tender enough. This should be added at room temperature, so it’s a good idea to make it a day ahead)
1/3 cup buttermilk
about 1 1/2 cups of water

In a steel bowl, mix all the dry ingredients together, including the yeast, the onions and the wild rice blend. Next, add the liquid ingredients. Don’t add all the water. Set some aside in case you need to add more to adjust the consistency of the dough while you’re kneading it. Mix everything together as best you can. I usually eschew the spoon and just use my hands to bring the mix together.

Turn out the shaggy mess of dough onto a floured counter. Knead the dough for about 10-15 minutes, until it comes together in a smooth, stretchy, silky mass. It should pass the windowpane test. Enjoy this part of the process. Remember (or pretend) that it’s snowing outside anyway, and you’re inside your warm kitchen with this beautiful mass of dough in your hands, making magic.

When you are finished kneading, put your dough into a clean bowl and cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel or saran wrap. If your kitchen is a little cool or drafty, feel free to coddle your dough by protecting it in the oven. I turn my oven on to 200 F for about 30 seconds, then turn off the heat and turn on the light in the oven before putting my dough in. The dough loves the insulated warmth. Leave your dough to rise until it has approximately doubled in size, between 45 minutes and 1 1/2 hours, depending on the heat.

Punch down your dough and form it into rolls or loaves. Place the formed dough in greased baking tins, re-cover it and allow it to rise for another 45 minutes to 1 hour, until it doubles in size. You can brush the tops of the dough with an egg wash before you bake them.

Bake your bread at 350 F for approximately 45 minutes. If you are making rolls, they will be done in about 12-15 minutes.

When your bread is done, take it out and allow it to cool before slicing into a loaf or ripping into a roll and toasting it.

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