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June 13, 2015

Baking with Steam in Your Home Oven

Baking with steam in home oven

Steam burns hurt. Like really, really hurt. The small mark on my left forearm begs the question every day: Maurizio, was it really worth it?

But before we talk about my new baking badge of honor, let’s concentrate on overcoming the challenges of baking good bread at home. While many of these challenges present themselves early on in the two-day process (fermentation, flour selection, mixing, shaping, and so on), there is that key component at the end of this whole ordered procession: baking with steam in a high-temperature home oven.

For your bread to rise to its potential that outer, taut skin on your loaf needs to be able to expand and stretch before hardening off. Steam in the oven, and subsequently on the surface of your loaves, helps keep that skin pliable and stretchy during baking. If your dough dries and cooks too quickly on the exterior, the interior force generated by yeast/bacteria rapidly consuming food at high temperature will be dampened and never cause enough rise to attain that awesome open crumb, that fantastic fissure on top and that nice gringe that makes us grin.

So how can we get enough steam in the oven to keep those loaves rising? There are certainly methods abound and each person has a different approach, but arguably the most popular choice at the moment, and the one I started with, is baking bread in a Dutch oven. Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery, and his excellent book Tartine Bread, was my first introduction to the method and it will make an excellent loaf with a wonderful crust. However, there comes a time when you might want to bake two (or more) loaves at a time, or perhaps your loaves are scaled larger than your Dutch oven can comfortably hold. An alternative to baking bread in a Dutch oven is bake directly on stones and generate sufficient steam in your home oven by some other clever means.

Professional baking ovens have steam on tap. Press a button and in goes a wave of steam over decks of newly loaded dough. I’ve never had the pleasure to work on one of these ovens (yet), but I’m sure there are other unknown challenges just the same. Now there are some home ovens that are “steam ovens” but the ones I’ve looked at are incredibly small. You might be able to fit two loaves but I could also fit two Dutch ovens in my current home oven; no advantage there. Some other alternatives can’t inject steam at a button press but they are sealed to trap steam and have a method for generating steam1. These look very promising but are on the expensive side.

Naturally leavened sourdough, baking with steam in home oven

Since most of us bakers out there do not have one of these fancy ovens, we have to make do — read on to learn how baking with steam in your home oven can be a pretty easy process.

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  1. Rofco is a notable example. These smaller bread steam ovens are a popular choice for small home bakeries or even smaller professional establishments. I know I’d sure love one.

May 23, 2015

A Trip to Northern Italy (and What I Did with My Sourdough Starter)

Italy Conegliano

I’ve been separated from my good friend ‘baking’ for a short stint, but only because I traveled out to northern Italy, specifically the Veneto region, to attend a very important wedding: my brother’s! His fiance and her family live in the area but most of my family is in the south, with just a few up north, and so it’s a convenient central point for everyone to congregate and celebrate — and we sure did. Countless bottles of prosecco, sent back for recycling with nary a drop, provided ample proof of the full-day event. Prossecco is the life-blood of this area and every square inch of farmland has a vineyard placed on it, soaking up the rich soil to produce those lovely little pale grapes.

This area of Italy is certainly my favorite. Vineyards as far as the eye can see, wispy clouds always threatening to drop rain, and the slight smell of burning wood on the nose from fired ovens cooking slow meals for those who probably see them more often than not. There is a peacefulness out here that can only be found out in the Italian farmland, a peacefulness you don’t stop to take notice of until you’re out on vacation with no timeline and no strict work hours — you’re a spectator. Just another naive youth among ancient vines and olive trees that could tell stories of things far back before you were born. It’s humbling, and it makes you slow down, if only for a few moments, to take it all in and imagine yourself working and living here. Very hard work, to be sure, but more gratifying and fulfilling than working in a city behind a desk? Perhaps.

Vineyards Northern Italy Conegliano

Olive and Roman Ruins

One thing is for sure: a nice afternoon walk through these vines wipes your day’s troubles away.

I watched the farmers toil the earth, the grape leaves turn ever more green in the rain, and smoke slowly rise from chimneys like smoke from an old man’s pipe. Yes this truly is a perfect place for an event such as this. The reception hall was a small bed and breakfast, Moro Barel, with an ever-turning spit jam packed with meat. That smell permeated the entire place day and night, there was no escaping the siren’s call.

The Slow Spit at Moro Barel

The homestyle food at the reception was stellar. Each dish better than the one previous, and a special award goes to the stinging nettle risotto I wish I had taken a picture of… I couldn’t part with my fork long enough to document the dish.

Before the reception the actual wedding was at the Municipio, essentially the town courthouse, and what Italian wedding is complete without the fully restored Volkswagen Beetle dropping off the bide-to-be?

VW Beetle

Awesome, right? That blue color, just perfect.

It’s a big thing in Italy, the restoration of older cars and scooters, especially VW Beetles and old Vespas. It’s an interesting movement actually as most people desire older cars back when they had heavy curves and a soul to their design. Not to say a brand new Ferrari or Lamborghini isn’t a beautiful sight to behold, but I can appreciate these older models and the work they put into them just as much.

VW Beetle

It was a great ceremony and I’m incredibly happy for my brother and new sister, but truth be told she’s been a part of our family long before this event. I’m excited for them to start their new life together — auguri!

The Bride

Just Married in Conegliano Italy

After the wedding ceremony I spent time with family for the most part with a few little trips out to see some sights and some more vineyards. One off the beaten path site we visited was Canova’s Temple in Possagno, a stunning church made in the likeness of Rome’s Pantheon (one of my favorite sites in all of Italy). We spoke to the person taking care of the place and he let us go behind a locked wooden door to climb the several flights of stairs to the top of the dome. What a view from up there. If you’re interested in architecture I highly recommend seeking out this temple, it has a wonderful mix of styles with the Doric columns, Catholic church inside, and blend of Greek and Italian influences running throughout.

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March 11, 2015

100% Whole Wheat Sourdough

theperfectloaf_whole_wheat-12

I’ve made whole wheat sourdough in the past but never a fully whole grain version, I typically mix in some white flour or sift out the bran, never to return. However, this entry is a true 100% whole wheat sourdough, through and through, and I have to say its taste really surprised me. Not too wheaty, not bitter, and a beautiful rise with a just-dark-enough colored crust. Some of this is due to the exceptional whole wheat flour I’m using (see below), but of course bread doesn’t just bake itself, the process is just as important.

The increased nutrition in whole wheat bread is definitely a welcome thing, but also, the taste is so completely different from a white country loaf and it’s great to change things up when you bake weekly (or more than that, in my case). But, not only a change in taste of the resulting bread, but also a change in process and an adaptation of skills. I feel like baking whole wheat requires a baker to elevate their observational skills to a new degree, to watch the dough closely and respond to its ever-changing attitude as the bake progresses. It keeps you on your toes!

100% Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread

To achieve a completely whole grain sourdough I employed my 100% whole wheat stiff starter. If you don’t maintain a starter that is completely whole grain you can either convert yours over, make a new one from your existing one1, or use what you have knowing that your loaf will have just a little bit of white flour in it — not really that big of a deal as the percentage of your eventual starter in the final dough is relatively small.

Flour Selection

After an exchange of emails with an astute reader (hey, Margie!) I’ve decided to add a new section to my posts that delves a little bit into the flour selected for the current bake. Sometimes the flour will be the same as the previous post, especially since I order it in 50 pound bags these days, but when there is something new to discuss I’ll add it in this section before the recipe.

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  1. Slowly convert your feedings over the course of a day or two to use all whole wheat instead of a mix of white/wheat, if that’s your situation.

February 27, 2015

My Top 3 Leftover Sourdough Starter Recipes

Leftover sourdough starter recipes

Should we take a break from baking for a bit? How about just one entry… Trust me it will be worth it when you try a few of these starter recipes. Plus, it still is related to baking when you get down to it, this entry is just going to help us make even more incredible food from our family member Brutus1, or whatever you named your sourdough starter. There is no limit to his providing.

The following recipes are tried and true here in my kitchen. Being that my sourdough starter is always feed twice daily I have plenty of excess in the morning & evening and you can add in a bit more to your feeding if you need a little more. Many people see this excess as “waste” but it’s something that can be used for many things besides going into your trash bin. After all, this “waste” is the levain we typically use to give life to our sourdough loaves from a mixture of simple ingredients — the life of your bread if you will.

Adjust the liquid portion of these recipes to suit your starter hydration: a stiff starter needs a bit more, a liquid a bit less.

As a short aside, even though you’d typically pitch your excess starter into the trash, I actually toss mine into my weekly compost bin that I bury in my garden or anywhere I know I’ll be doing some plantings the next season. I mix my starter up with whatever organic scraps are created from cooking with my farmer’s market produce and a weekly pail is saved for the weekend dig. Simple, and it’s just one more use for your starter.

I know I’ve been working with a stiff starter and levain recently, but my previously outlined schedule for feeding a liquid starter will work equally well with any of these recipes, in some cases actually a bit better. Depending on the hydration of your starter you might have to tweak each recipe a bit to get the consistency you want: some people like pancake batter to be more runny, some like it thicker, and the same goes for waffle batter.

Let’s get on to some recipes with a sourdough starter.

Golden Sourdough Starter Waffles

Golden leftover sourdough starter waffles

One of the best waffles I’ve ever eaten was at Mother’s Bistro in Portland. My brother, who lives out there, goes there just about every weekend and somewhere around 90% of the time orders their incredibly fluffy, crispy, golden brown waffle-from-heaven. It’s really a no frills ordeal: a golden brown waffle, a little fruit, a little syrup and a little whipped cream. But I tell you, it’s a life changer. Get there early to avoid the line.

rome cast iron waffle iron

My take2 on a morning waffle of course incorporates a bit of my sourdough starter, and these “golden sourdough starter waffles” come out a crispy golden brown at just the right ratio of sweetness to savory (with a welcome slight tang to them at the end). They do take a bit of preparation, so you need a smidgen of a plan to make these happen on the weekend. The batter is prepared the night before with some buttermilk and left to ferment overnight. There really isn’t a tight schedule, though, you can get to it whenever you wake up in the morning.

theperfectloaf_leftover_starter_recipes-16

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I made these recently on a snowy day here in Albuquerque which somehow fits perfectly with warm waffles. Arya, our German shepherd, wanted to go outside to do some hiking and investigating in the snow. It’s funny to watch shepherds outside when it snows: they just go ballistic running around eating it, rolling around in it, digging through it and generally creating a little storm of their own. It’s like their revert to some primal instinct to just go out there and have fun.

We (maybe just me?), as adults, are always so hesitant to get dirty and get on with making a mess, sometimes it’s great to see kids or your pets just throw all that aside and care only about the moment and having fun. Safe to say after we chased each other around and hiked around a bit I had a cleaning session on my hands before she came back in the house. Worth it.

theperfectloaf_leftover_starter_recipes-1

Sometimes I’ll make a few extra and freeze them in Ziplock bags — perfect for a quick morning breakfast via the toaster.

Let’s talk about waffle irons. I love my Rome cast iron waffle iron but if you plan to have guests over to eat these waffles, you better have an apparatus that can make more of these bad boys at a time. It’s a bit laborious for me to make a stack of waffles but I just dig the way these waffles cook up in a smokin’ old cast iron pan. A little bit of golden color all over, a little bit of char here and there, and crunchy & crispy throughout.

My pan and I actually have quite a long, quarrelsome history together. As you can see it doesn’t have any area that remains cool and I still have a few burn marks on my hands from accidentally grabbing the handles. In the end, though, we’ve come to terms and I keep it clean and it cooks my waffles to crunchy-perfection.

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  1. My starter was donned the name Brutus after trying to get a few of his kin started unsuccessfully. I was just in the middle of reading a brief history of Julius Caesar and the name seemed appropriate for such a stubborn character in my life.

  2. These waffles are a hodgepodge of Jennifer Latham’s and King Arthur’s with my own twist.

February 5, 2015

Tartine Millet Porridge Sourdough

Tartine millet porridge sourdough

I’ve baked many Tartine-style loaves through the years, but really only a few from their third book, Tartine No. 3: Ode to Bourdon whole wheat and their oat porridge loaf. Both extremely good loaves and worth the little bit of extra work required, but why haven’t I made more of the several dozen, sometimes very unique, recipes? The answer is simply that I haven’t had the time to derail my focus on the constant improvement of my country loaf. Each time I get the opportunity to bake I want to do a “simple” country loaf to try and open up the crumb, get a more gelatinized interior and increase the caramelization of the outward crust.

However, we recently had a need in the kitchen for millet and I just knew there was going to be a recipe in Tartine No. 3 for this whole grain. Sure enough, a millet porridge recipe almost opened up to itself as I was perusing the tome. Before heading to my local market to pick up the small amount we needed, I decided to double it and attempt this porridge recipe a few times. My previous oat porridge bakes produced some of my favorite sourdough to date and I just knew, if executed properly, a millet porridge bread would rank equally high on my favorite recipe list.

Tartine No. 3, Millet Porridge

Millet is high in fiber and relatively rich in iron and phosphorus; the bran layers of millet are a good source of B-complex vitamins.

I’ve never really eaten millet before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve read adjectives like “nutty” and “crunchy” so how could I go wrong. Holding the grain in my hand it really does look like what most people call it: bird seed. I believe millet has actually been used as bird food for a long, long time. Isn’t it funny these once cheap and undesirable grains are now becoming highly desired for their health benefits and flavor?

I knew going into this bake hydration was going to be an issue. However, my lessons learned from the oat porridge loaf had me prepared this time. I dialed back the initial hydration of the loaf in preparation for a super-hydrated dough by the end of bulk. A few minutes planning before executing saved me from one of those cursing-while-shaping scenarios I’ve been through in the past.

Onward to baking our version of the Tartine millet porridge sourdough!

Prepare the millet – the night before (for me, around 10:00pm)

The Tartine recipe specifies first gently toasting your raw millet and then soaking the toasted grain overnight. Toast 150g raw millet on a baking sheet at 350ºF for about 20 mins. The millet should darken slightly but not burn. Then, remove from oven and place in a bowl with 2 cups cold water poured over.

Cover and leave overnight until the morning.

Cook millet porridge – 9:00am

Take your soaking millet and pour all the contents into a saucepan and bring to a boil. After boiling reduce heat to a gentle simmer and cover. Cook for around 20 minutes or so, until all the water added from the night before has cooked away. Be sure to stir often near the end of this 20 minutes to ensure your millet doesn’t burn on the bottom.

Once cooked, fluff up the porridge with a fork in your pan and then pour out onto a baking sheet lined with a silicone mat or parchment paper. Keep covered with aluminum foil with a little vent here and there to let hot air escape. You don’t want it to try out too far but you want it to cool down as much as possible before adding into your dough.

Millet porridge

We will let this porridge cool significantly until we’re ready to use it later this afternoon (around 3:00pm).

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