Sunday, June 28, 2009

BBA Challenge Week 7 — Ciabatta

This week's recipe for the Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge offered a departure from the rich, eggy breads we've been making—brioche, casatiello, and challah. We switched gears to a lean dough—ciabatta. There were options in the book to add milk and/or oil, so it's not a strictly lean formula, and there are directions for adding cheese, wild mushrooms or onions if you're so inclined. I decided to stick with the basic formula since this was my first time making ciabatta.

I was nervous about making this bread long before it arrived on the schedule. Because it's new and because it's a wet dough, I was pretty certain I was going to be challenged by this bread. I did learn a few things ahead of time by reading the accounts of those who have already made the bread. But it's hard to know how it's all going to come out until you don the apron, mix up the dough and put it in the oven.

The poolish going into the the rest of the flour, yeast and salt.

The dough prep and mixing went along uneventfully. I'd mixed the poolish (pre-ferment of water, flour and a bit of yeast) Thursday night and finished up on Saturday afternoon. The dough was nice and soft and smooth, but wasn't as wet as it probably should have been, but without having made it before, I was kind of guessing about the whole process.

I went through the whole song and dance of stretching and waiting, and shaping and waiting and finally THE BAKING. Here's where things got interesting.

Now this bread is supposed to bake at a whopping 500°F, at least to start. Since the A/C was already running like crazy trying to keep up with the heat outside, I decided to skip the oven and head to the grill. I've made pizza on the grill and have read a number of recipes showing how to bake bread on one, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

My round pizza stone is so *ahem* seasoned — that is, completely black — that it's best to use on the grill anyway. It smokes like crazy and about the last thing I wanted, on top of a blazing hot oven in 90° heat, was the smoke alarm going off repeatedly. I popped the stone in the center of the grill, placed a pan on the rack above it for steam and hoped for the best.

I think it's ready.

Ooh! My first time using the pizza peel. So exciting!

Unfortunately, here came my first big mistake. I overheated the grill. If I'd been making pizza, it would have been great. But for a loaf of bread? Not so much. I knew it would lose heat when I opened the cover, slid on the bread and poured water into the pan, but I didn't bank on it getting right back up to it's previous temp— a whopping 100°F hotter than it should have been.

And I'm shocked that the first loaf burned, why?

Yeah, I totally nuked that bread. On top of the scary-high temperature, I didn't pay attention to how long it'd been on the grill. When I finally waltzed out to check on it, the smell of burning bread hit my nostrils. I opened the lid and gasped. Oh, s&^%. I was greeted with a black and smoking loaf of bread. Who ordered the blackened ciabatta? Anyone?

SURPRISE. The innards were actually edible.

On to loaf #2. I still hadn't learned from my mistake at this point, and didn't turn down the burners. I was thinking I'd just left loaf #1 on too long. I was better about checking on #2 and ended up with a lovely looking loaf. It was getting slightly burnt on the bottom, so I FINALLY decided to turn down the burners. On goes loaf #3. It is also rather lovely. Turn off the grill and call it a night, baking-wise.

I didn't cut open the non-charred loaves until this morning. That's when I discovered yet another mistake. Loaf #2 was raw on the inside. Crap. Loaf #3, however, was done through. Whew. One out of three—not the greatest record. The bread didn't have the big holes it's supposed to have, but I wasn't really surprised. I was pretty sure right from the start that my dough wasn't wet enough for the proper crumb.

Ew. Check out the center of the loaf. Raw dough. Blech.

The bottoms got a bit crispy.

Looks more like French bread, doesn't it? I did manage to get one big air pocket in the top.

As far as the taste goes, I have to confess a few things. First, I really don't know what it's supposed to taste like. I don't buy ciabatta bread and I can't remember if I've ever even had it. Yeah, I know. I live under a rock or something. So I don't know how to judge the taste, but to me, it's pretty blah. I suppose it would be better if it were dipped in olive oil and herbs, but plain? I'm underwhelmed.

It was definitely a learning experience for me and I'm glad I did it. I knew I wouldn't get it perfect the first time, so that doesn't really bother me. All I can do is keep learning and apply that to the next challenge. That's what this is all about, after all. If I already knew what the hell I was doing, why would I need this book—and challenge—in the first place!

Next week—Cinnamon Rolls. NOW we're talking. Bring it on!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

BBA Challenge Week 6 — Challah

Sunday wrapped up week 6 for the Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge group. If you're interested in learning more about the challenge, Nicole at Pinch My Salt has created an incredibly helpful FAQ here. Why not bake along with us? Here's how.

I know some challenge bakers expressed dismay at yet another enriched, eggy bread, but I was very much looking forward to Challah, the next bread on the list. I've made it a number of times in the past, most recently using the formula from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.

While I've been happy with the ABin5 challah, this was by far the best I've ever made and my favorite bread of the challenge so far.

Anadama was so different from anything I've made which made it interesting. The brioche dough was unlike any other and fun to shape, but not something I see myself making very often. The bagels were so tasty and I impressed the hell out of myself by pulling them off, but I still came away with, "Next time I'll", something I did wth nearly all of the breads.

But this challah. It has me saying, "This is perfect, just at it is." Soft, ever so slightly chewy, flavorful, lovely to look at and delicious all on it's own. Although a smidge of strawberry jam takes it to a delightful other level. I can see using this dough to make cinnamon rolls or sticky buns. But when I saw Joelen's challah post, I had a real revalation — this is the PERFECT dough for hamburger buns. I know a few challengers used the brioche for buns, but I actually perfer the taste and texture of the challah to the brioche.

The dough is gorgeous to work with and easy to roll and shape. I decided to divide the dough in half based on what I'd read from those baking ahead of me. Apparently it made a huge loaf. I believe them! I had two good size loaves out of mine. I did triple strand braids for both, but tried two differnt braiding techniques. For the first, I started at the top and braided to the end. For the second, I started in the middle and worked out to the ends. I think the second way produced a better shape. Traditional challah is supposed to be narrow on the ends and plump in the middle and the middle-to-ends technique held that shape much better. Don't you think?

Left: Braid from center Right: Braid from top to bottom

I gobbled up most of the first loaf all by myself. Dwight helped a little, but I was pretty piggy about it. The second loaf is in the freezer—I didn't want it to get stale and I was too greedy to give it away. It's destined for french toast, and I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to that.

I can honestly say that THIS is a challenge bread I will make on a regular basis. I loved it! Why not try it yourself? Pick up Peter Rienhart's book here or at your local library. Go. Now!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dear Most Major Department Stores:

(Yes, I'm looking at you Macy's, JCPenny's, Kohl's and the like.)

I'm just writing to let you know that not all "petite" women are card carrying members of the AARP with zero fashion sense and a penchant for tapered leg pants, elastic waistbands, polyester, sofa-inspired prints and shapeless button-down tops.

Some of us are thirty-something shorty types just hoping to find a nice, fashionable pair of pants that aren't 6 inches too long. Our "Juniors Section" days have come and gone — or at least they should have, (yes, now I'm looking at you, woman-not-wanting-to-look-like-a-soccer-mom-but- looking-silly-in-her-teenage-daughter's-clothing) and we're REALLY not ready to sport the atrocities lurking in the typical Petite section.

We just want a place to shop where the clothes FIT and look hip—without looking ridiculous or like we mistook upholstery fabric for a top. Is that so hard?



Monday, June 22, 2009

Happy Father's Day and Some Other Things

My dad. The greatest dad ever.
I won't challenge you if you make the same claim about your dad.
Seems only right. :)

As has become the custom since joining the BBA Challenge, the weekends have become bread baking days. But I often bake more than just bread, mostly because I just like to bake, but sometimes because the occasion calls for it. Such was the case this past Sunday as it was Father's Day and my side of the family was gathering at my sister's house to celebrate with good food and good company.

No one mentioned bringing dessert, so I decided to whip up something and went the easy route. Cake mix. I remembered the simple chocolate cake my mom often makes, who in turn, got the recipe from her mom. It's so simple. Chocolate or Devil's Food cake topped with a handful or so of chocolate chips then sprinkled with both white and brown sugar. Incredibly simple yet so good. The chips add another dimension of chocolate and the sugars create a delightfully crunchy top, without any need for frosting.

It turns out that my mom, my sister and I all made dessert, so I had plenty of leftovers to bring to work the next morning. You would have thought I brought in a gourmet cake. I got so many complements, it was kind of embarrassing. I kept telling them, "It's just a store-brand cake mix with a couple of things sprinkled on top." "REALLY?" "Yes, really."

It struck me as I was preparing for Father's Day, baking challah and cake, taking numerous photos, that I was thinking not only of my dad, but also of my grandmothers, both of them. As I mentioned, the cake was my maternal grandmother's super simple, super delicious concoction. And the table cloth I chose to use in my photos reminded me of my paternal grandmother. I can't tell you why. I don't recall that she owned one like it, but it was something I thought of as I unfolded, ironed then spread it over the table.

I look a lot like my paternal grandma and I love to bake, something I fondly remember of my maternal grandma. (She made the best apple dumplings.) Isn't it funny how things like random objects and certain foods bring back memories, connect us with our past, even if we're not sure why or how? I don't really have a point, it was just something I found interesting as I was going about my day, memories of both grandmothers, floating in and floating out, recalled by the simplest things.

Some shots of the day of family gathered together.

Father's Day passed quickly and happily. We got to spend time together and enjoy a nice summer evening. I hope all of the dads out there had a great Father's Day.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

BBA Challenge Week 5 - Casatiello

I really wanted to love this bread. I was looking forward to it, especially after reading rave reviews from those getting a head start on the BBA Challenge schedule. It sounded wonderful—rich, savory bread loaded with meat and cheese.

Unfortunately, it was just OK. But I'm pretty sure it wasn't the fault of the recipe. I made alterations to the it, some mentioned in the book, but the others were my own. Based on what I've read and seen, the lackluster quality of the bread almost has to be the result of these changes.

This was definitely a "learning experience" bread for me. Here's what I learned:

1. When making a recipe for the first time, follow the recipe. Don't assume you know more than the author, at least that first time. I used some whole wheat flour in place of bread flour and cut the butter in half. While the latter was an option listed in the book, the former was not. I also used less pepperoni than called for because it seemed like way too much.

2. Use chunkier pieces of cheese and meat. I used turkey pepperoni slices and sliced provolone. I was trying to keep the fat content down with the turkey pepperoni and the store I shopped at only had provolone in slices, not blocks. I think the nature of the thin slices of both ingredients made it difficult to knead into the dough and I didn't used as much as was called for (see #1). The density of chunkier add-ins would work better.

3. Use stronger flavors for add-ins. This might not be a problem if I used the correct amount of meat and cheese, but mine didn't have the depth of flavor I was hoping for.

Now, even though I didn't love this bread, it was pretty good, especially fresh out of the oven. I served it with pizza sauce, and Dwight and I had it as our dinner that night. We ate about half of the loaf, so clearly I didn't hate it. I just think it has the potential to be great, not just "good."

Check out some of the other Challenge members for better examples of casatiello. It seems like there were as many different takes on the bread as bakers.

Italian sausage and robust provolone
Mortadella and asiago
Pepperoni, extra sharp cheddar and sun dried tomatoes
(2 versions) Sun dried tomato with double cream Gouda and Sopressata with provolone

Nicole of Pinch My Salt has a list of links to additional posts as well, so check them out for inspiration and read about other experiences with casatiello.

Note: I baked this casatiello two weeks ago knowing I wouldn't have time to make it last weekend. I'm just now getting around to writing about it! I made challah today, the next BBA Challenge recipe. Stay tuned for my report on this lovely, braided bread. It definitely did NOT disappoint!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Oh my gosh, it's so cute!

And when I eat the entire carton, I don't have to resort to the self-flagellation and the wailing and gnashing of teeth usually associated with such behavior. Even on sale at $1 each, I paid a premium for the tiny, adorable container, but the built in portion control is priceless.

I guess Edy's has redeemed itself in my eyes since my last rant. Thank you, Edy's, for limiting the damage I can do when in the presence of ice cream. Amen.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

BBA Challenge Week 4 — Bee-utiful Brioche

So how much butter DO you want in your bread? That was the question BBA participants faced with this week's bread—brioche. Peter Reinhart offers three variations on the classic, with varying amounts of butter and eggs. Because of the cost of the ingredients, the names of the different formulas—RIch Man's, Middle Class, and Poor Man's—relate to how much butter and eggs they contain.

The Rich Man's version contains a whopping 88% fat. Middle class is 50% and Poor Man's is about 20%. Ouch. One of the few recipes I've made from this book prior to the challenge was the poor man's version. I didn't think I could handle the Rich Man's, so I went for Middle Class. Don't let the name fool you. This one still has two sticks of butter (for the record, Rich Man's has four sticks—one pound—of butter) so it's plenty rich.

Brioche is very versatile so I wanted to try something whimsical with mine, especially after seeing a tweet from @bodaciousgirl showing bread in the shape of Hello Kitty. I keep an "idea notebook" with me almost all the time, so I jotted a few things down and brainstormed a bit. I landed on shaping them into a sunflower and a bumble bee.

While it was good in theory, it didn't work quite as I'd hoped, at least for the flower. Brioche is so soft that it didn't hold the shape I'd sniped with kitchen shears and formed with a toothpick. No matter. It still tasted wonderful.

The bee, on the other hand, with it's cinnamon roll wings and plump body, turned out very cute. After I took my photos, I decided to wrap up the bee and give it to the neighbors. I could hear that their grandkids were visiting, and thought they could all enjoy the bread. Besides this way it wouldn't end up in MY mouth and on MY hips!

Giving away the bread sounds like a great way to avoid consuming WAY too much delicious buttery goodness during this challenge.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Ruthmere Summer Garden Party

When you live in a fairly small city, it seems like there is never anything interesting going on or fun things to do. However, if you look more closely, pay attention to local events, there are little gems hidden in what might otherwise be just another day.

One such gem is Ruthmere, an historic mansion now a museum and special event locale. Today was the annual Summer Garden Party which I never knew existed until my mom called me last night, inviting me to join her, my sister and her three daughters. I'm so glad she asked and that I accepted.

Not only was it a beautiful day, I got to see my wonderful nieces and take lots of pictures—many good things rolled into one. There were a number of small events scheduled for the party, including a magician, a puppet show, face painting and paint your own paper lantern.

First up—the magician. He was surprisingly good, and aside from the one obnoxious kid (seriously, I wanted to smack this kid) the show was a lot of fun. The kids loved it—just look at C's face! M desperately wanted to get picked to help when Steve the Magician asked for a volunteer. Alas, she was not chosen, but Steve had a couple of announcements at the end. He's available for parties, of course, but he also offers a magic camp.

Oh my goodness. I wish I could have gotten a picture of M's face when he said this. She just lit up, slowly sucked in her breath and got this look of wonder and joy on her face—not huge, not a giant grin, just pure excitement. "I want to do that SO MUCH" was so clearly written on her face, it was adorable.

Getting information for the magic camp

On to lantern painting.

M & C jumped right in, but K wasn't interested. I asked her to do one for me and she agreed. Hooray! They all were concentrating very hard and did such a good job. All three were beautiful. The staff hung string from a nearby tree so the kids could hang their freshly-painted lanterns to dry. Aren't they all so pretty together, all of them.

Here's mine. K did a lovely job!

Next up—Face painting!
C had hers done while the other two started on their lanterns, so M & K stood in line after the puppet show to get theirs.

(Yes, M has on makeup. K did it!)

What a fun day! Although there isn't as much to do in this town as I'd like, there are moments like this that make me realize that there ARE gems to be found, I just have to do a little digging.
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