I have started baking!
Now I’ve tried baking before, and I have ruined cookies. I have ruined more than one box mix of bread made in a bread machine. I just don’t get dough.
And now, all of a sudden, I’m baking. Bread. Without a bread machine.
Okay, so the without a bread machine part was entirely accidental, but I’d already added water to flour when I found out the motor on my bread machine had given up, and it would have been more difficult to clean up at that stage than to keep going and give it a try completely by hand.
I’m trying to keep myself to eating no more than a loaf of bread a week, so there hasn’t been an explosion of bread products. But it’s the second week of fearless breadmaking, and the second loaf of tasty bread… so I’m ready to confess to it.
Premise: Michael Ruhlman wrote a book, Ratio. And after talking it up with my friends, it was a yule gift to me (thanks!). I thought it was a book about baking, but it’s really more a book about all kinds of cooking – at a very high level. It pretty much says, “All of those techniques you know that come with complicated recipes? Well the recipes are secretly rather simple, and here are the magic formulae behind them all – in graph form, no less.”
Okay, well, I have a scale and I’m feeling a lot more comfortable with bread being able to be reduced to a framework with some flexibility.
But I’m also not an expert, so I can tell right away that the scant ten pages on bread will not be sufficient, so I also pull out the book of bread machine recipes and my Joy of Cooking.
I look at the lean dough recipe (Ratio, p.10):
20 ounces bread flour (about 2 cups)
12 ounces water
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon active or instant yeast
And I compare it with the recipes for 2 lb loaves in the bread machine cookbooks. Those tend to call for about 3 cups of flour, so I scale down the recipe to:
15 ounces flour
9 ounces water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Yeah, so I didn’t measure the yeast. The store only had packets, so I just went with a whole packet and figured that should be a loaf of bread worth.
So I pulled out my measuring cup (because it’s microwave safe) and poured in 9 ounces of water. And then I chucked in the random egg yolk I had in my freezer (thawed first) and 2 teaspoons of butter (because every recipe in the bread machine cookbook had about that quantity of lipids). And then I carefully microwaved it up to about 90F and poured some over the active dry yeast to soften it.
Into another container (a quart yogurt container was the perfect size), I started measuring out my flours. And of course I didn’t go the easy route, but I went for whole wheat flour right away. I added about 5 ounces of whole wheat, maybe another 3 ounces of rye flour, and then I was just careful adding the white bread flour to get it to exactly 15 ounces.
Then I added the liquid to the bread machine, added the flour, and topped it with the wet yeast. Plugged it in and nothing happened. Nothing! Whah!
After much despairing, I pulled out the bowl part and twirled the paddle for a bit by hand – and it came together pretty quickly and painlessly into a ball. So I dumped the ball into a large, heavy bowl to mix a little more. And here was the real moment of brilliance that will keep my coming back to bread making – I realized that I didn’t have to get a whole table messy/floury to make bread – I could knead it right there in the bowl!!! Not only was my table not getting dirty, but I was also amazed to discover that my hand didn’t end up all that messy, either. I love bread dough!
I kneaded it in the bowl for a bit, but it fairly quickly became apparent that there wasn’t enough liquid in the dough and it just felt grainy. So I slowly added water in batches as I was kneading. And then I was reading more in Joy of Cooking as I was kneading, and I saw that it said you must have sugars in the dough, too, in order to feed the yeast. So the next time the dough felt dry, I grabbed the honey bottle and squeezed in some honey. I think I ended up adding slightly less than al 1/4 cup of water and maybe an eighth of a cup of honey.
And then I had to let it rise… except my kitchen isn’t hot enough. I live in a tiny studio apartment, and I’ve come up with a solution where I heat my bedroom just a little and the kitchen not at all and this winter (thanks to the help of friends) I have the place insulated enough that it’s enough for me to be comfortable… but the kitchen’s around 40F on most days. So I (oiled the bowl, rounded the dough, turned it in the oil) dampened a kitchen towel and microwaved it until it was warm and steamy. Then I put the bowl on a cutting board and wrapped the top in the warm towel and tucked it all up close to the baseboard heater in my bedroom.
By morning it had doubled in size. Punched it down, kneaded it a little, had some errands to run, so I re-wet and microwaved the towel and put it up for a second rise. Came home and heated up the oven and baked it. (400F for 10 minutes, 350F for 25-30 more minutes – from Joy of Cooking)
Results of experiment #1: So I fully expected this loaf to fail. From no recipe to the equipment failure, from starting off trying a whole wheat loaf to the random inexplicable tinkering – this recipe was doomed to fail. Only it didn’t! It was delicious! It was bread! Okay, so it was a bit solid and tough and more suited to toasting that gobbling up straight, but it was still hard not to gobble it all up right away. I even took some to my mother that night, and she agreed it was tasty bread! Success!
Experiment #2:But I can do better.
This time I only went up to 3.5 ounces of 15 to be whole wheat flour. And I mixed some whole milk with the water (still a total weight of 9 ounces).
And I kneaded it for longer in hopes of making it chewier. Oh, and I figured that since I can keep kneading the flour in a bowl and my hand isn’t getting too dirty that the whole project is portable! So I tucked back into the warm bedroom and kneaded the flour for a whole episode of Earth 2.
The dough still needed more liquid (about the same amount more) and I still added honey (2 Tablespoons-ish). And I accidentally – because I didn’t check back with the book – only included 3/4 teaspoon salt.
And even with the long kneading time, it never reached the stage Ruhlman describes where, “To know if you’ve kneaded the bread dough enough, cut a small piece and stretch it gently. If it reaches the point of translucency before it breaks, the dough is ready.” (Ratio, p.8) But I figure that’s a feature of using the whole wheat flour. And I was starting to worry after 50 minutes of desultory kneading whether I might not be doing too much. I kept adding liquid until the dough was just slightly tacky/sticky after a thorough kneading.
Since the initial mixing had been done in this bowl, too, there was a fine crust of floury bits around the rim, so I did have to wash and dry the bowl before oiling it and putting the dough back in it to rise. But I used the same set up as last week. Only one rise, though.
Results of experiment #2: OMG BREAD! No, really – bread! Just the right amount of gumminess. It could use a bit deeper flavor, but it was exactly what bread should be! Without a recipe and done by feel! I can not express how happy this makes me! It wasn’t just beginners’ luck, either! Wooo! I can not wait until next week when I’ll let myself have another go, but I have no idea how this loaf will last through the night without getting completely devoured.
Plan for experiment #3 So I’m going to need to buy more yeast for next week, so I was perusing the King Arthur Flour website, and I stopped by to look at their recipes – some of which convert back and forth between volume and weight. I’ve noticed that they tend to go with a 16oz flour : 10 oz liquid ratio. That would be a little more wet, and I think I’ll try that next.