Toast! and When to DIY

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March 19, 2013 by productoverprocessed

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When I’m making a meal, or even planning out meals for the week, I often ask: what is worth making myself?  If I had unlimited time and resources, I’d do it all, from grinding the meat for the burger to fermenting the pepper mash for the hot sauce.  Unfortunately, both my time and resources suffer from the constraints of full-time employment, so I am forced to pick and choose.  It comes down to a simple question: will my version taste significantly better than what I can buy at the store?  If the answer is yes and the time requirement isn’t unreasonable, I’ll usually take it on.

Michael Ruhlman dedicates a fair amount of his blogging to this very question.  His assessments of what is worth making (and what isn’t) usually square pretty well with my own.  Mayonnaise, he argues, is perfectly fine from a jar, but reaches an altogether different level of deliciousness when whipped up in a few minutes with an egg yolk and some oil.  I concur.  Store-bought potato chips, too, are great with a sandwich, but they can never measure up to the ones you’ve cut and fried yourself.  Again, I agree.  But where Ruhlman’s evaluation differs from mine is in the bread arena.  Ruhlman is no stranger to bread baking–he even has an iPhone app with ratios and recipes designed to help beginners with their first loaf–but he insists that nothing he bakes in his kitchen can be as good as the baguettes he gets from the bakery down the street.  This may be true, but from my (admittedly modest) experience, there are several steps home bakers can take to help their loaves approximate those from professional bakeries.  Pre-ferments, for instance, help to coax as much flavor as possible from the flour, while manual steam setups, ranging from a simple spray bottle to a hotel pan filled with rocks and chains and sprayed with a super soaker, help create the perfect crust.  Ruhlman’s recipes address none of these.  How can he claim his loaves can never match up to the artisan ones if he never even gives them a fair shot?

I’ll admit, I have yet to bake a loaf of bread that is anywhere near as good as the ones I get from Provence, the gold standard here in Nashville.  Any time we make soup, we stop by the local market for a Provence baguette, as its crisp crust and fluffy crumb make it the perfect accompaniment to any bowl of chowder or chili.  Still, the process involved in baking my own bread is worth it.  When I’m baking, I love knowing that I’m engaging in a craft that people have been tinkering with for thousands of years, in search of the perfect loaf.  And while I know I will not likely be the one to find it, there’s something so fundamentally human about the process that I find rewarding–not to mention the ultimate reward of a warm loaf of bread, fresh from your own oven.  Plus, despite the rather novice quality of my baguettes, I can still make a loaf of whole wheat sandwich bread that tastes better–and is far more nutritious–than anything I can find in the Kroger bread aisle.  Finding the time for baking, however, despite the relative merits of doing so, can be difficult.

Now that I’m on a two-week spring break, I’m thinking of all the things I wish I had time to make but seldom do.  I’ve already planned out a chicken, apple, and rosemary sausage project for later this week, and I’ve toyed with the idea of making a big batch of hummus.  But bread, that wonderful symbol of life, is what I decided to make first.  That and peanut butter.

I’m a fan of Peter Reinhart’s recipes, and seeing that I don’t bake often enough to trust myself with experimentation, I follow them to the letter.  The Bread Baker’s Apprentice has some great recipes for traditional breads, both lean and enriched, and has my all-time favorite recipe for cinnamon buns–now that I think about it, I’m going to have to make those this week, too.  His book on whole grain breads, aptly titled Whole Grain Breads, is my favorite, though, because the breads in it are packed with nourishing whole grains, yet are still mouthwateringly delicious.  When I have even more time–summer break, I’m looking at you–I’d love to get a wild yeast starter going so I can make some (or all) of the rye breads from that book.  But for now, the 100% whole wheat sandwich bread is my loaf of choice, mostly because it makes the absolute best toast in the world.

Sandwich bread isn’t super labor-intensive, but it does require you to be present for a long stretch of time.  On Sunday night, I made the two pre-doughs, a soaker, which is simply whole wheat flour mixed with milk, and a biga, which is whole wheat flour, water, and yeast. These are the pre-ferments I was referring to before, and letting them sit overnight not only gives you more flavorful bread, but is also necessary to get a crumb that isn’t too dense and chewy.

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The next morning, I took the biga out of the fridge, let it dechill for 2 hours, and started the final dough.  Because the bulk of the final dough comes from the pre-doughs you’ve already made, this step is a cinch.

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After mixing, I kneaded the dough by hand for a few minutes, which is truly one of the great pleasures of cooking.  The dough feels great in your hands, it smells wonderful, and kneading is a great de-stresser.

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Then I let the dough proof for about an hour, shaped it, put it in the loaf pan, and let it proof for another hour.

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Finally, I slid it into the oven, and 50 minutes later, I had a loaf of delicious whole wheat bread.

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Knowing I would be enjoying some toast for breakfast the next morning, I decided to try my hand at the perfect accompaniment for toast: peanut butter.  I’d made almond butter before, and thought it was delicious, but Monica is a die-hard peanut butter kind of girl, and it was her birthday, so who was I to deny her of her favorite spread?  What I learned, though, is that peanut butter, unlike bread, does not seem worth the effort, at least by the method I used.  Don’t get me wrong–it’s the best peanut butter I’ve ever had–but shelling and peeling the peanuts took the better part of an hour, which turned the entire process, from shelling and peeling to roasting and processing, into a nearly two-hour affair.  Next time, I’ll probably fork over the extra cash for pre-shelled peanuts, because as much as I love whittling time away in the kitchen, shelling nuts is not my favorite way to spend a spring afternoon.

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This morning, though, my efforts paid off.  Spreading homemade peanut butter on a slice of toasted homemade bread and drizzling some local honey on top is a deeply satisfying experience, topped only by the follow-up: eating it.  Admittedly, the bread wasn’t perfect.  The crumb was a little too tight, and there was a slightly bitter aftertaste from the crust–problems I’ll have to address with my next loaf.  But toasted and topped with peanut butter and honey, and enjoyed with a cup of coffee, it made for the perfect breakfast.

Recipes for the bread and peanut butter are below, but I’ll also leave you with a question: what food do you think warrants a homemade version?  What are you content just buying at the store?

100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread (from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads)

(Using weight measurements is highly recommended, as volume measurements, especially with flour, are extremely inaccurate.  If you don’t have a scale, get one on Amazon!  I like this one.)

Soaker:

1 3/4 cups (227 g) whole wheat flour

1/2 tsp (4 g) salt

3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp (198 g) milk

1. Mix soaker ingredients together in a bowl for one minute, until they form a ball of dough.

2. Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 12-24 hours.

Biga: 

1 3/4 cup (227 g) whole wheat flour

1/4 tsp (1 g) instant yeast

3/4 cup (170 g) water at room temperature

1. Mix all biga ingredients together in a bowl until they form a ball.  Knead with wet hands for 2 minutes.  Let the dough rest for 5 minutes, then knead again for 1 minute.  The dough should feel tacky but not sticky.

2. Move dough to a clean bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.

3. Remove dough from fridge 2 hours before you plan to mix final dough.

Final dough:

Soaker (see above)

Biga (see above)

7 tbsp (2 oz) whole wheat flour

5/8 (5 g) tsp salt

2 1/4 tbsp (42.5 g) honey

2 1/4 tsp (7 g) instant yeast

1 tbsp (14 g) melted unsalted butter

1. Stack the soaker and biga on top of each other and cut into 12 smaller pieces.

2. Put the pre-dough pieces and all other ingredients into the bowl of a standing mixer and mix with paddle attachment on slow speed for 1 minute until the ingredients form a ball.  Switch to the dough hook and mix for 3 more minutes, until the pre-doughs become assimilated into each other.  Add more water or flour until the dough is slightly sticky.

3. Lightly dust counter with flour, then toss dough in the flour.  Knead by hand for 4 minutes, only using as much extra flour as needed.  The dough should feel tacky but not sticky.  Form into a ball and rest for 5 minutes.

4. Knead for 1 more minute and make any final adjustments with flour and water.  The dough should feel very tacky.  Form dough into a ball and put in a lightly oiled bowl, rolling to coat with oil.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let proof at room temperature for about an hour, until it is 1.5 times its original size.

5. Transfer to a work surface and shape it into a loaf pan shape.  Put the dough in a greased 4 by 8.5 inch loaf pan and let proof for about an hour, until it is 1.5 times its original size.

6.  Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Place loaf pan in oven, turn temperature down to 350 degrees, and bake for 40-50 minutes, rotating halfway through.  Bread should register 195 degrees in the center and should make a hollow sound when thumped on the bottom.

7. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool for 1 hour before serving.

Homemade peanut butter

1 lb in-shell peanuts

Kosher salt

2 tbsp peanut, grapeseed, or other natural oil, divided

1 tsp honey

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Rinse peanuts in cold water and pat dry.  In a bowl, toss with 1 tbsp kosher salt and 1 tbsp oil.  Spread on a baking sheet in a single layer.

2. Roast for 30 minutes, rotating halfway through cooking.

3. Let peanuts cool slightly, then remove shells and papery skins.

4. Place peanuts, 1/2 tsp kosher salt, and 1 tsp honey in food processor and process until a paste forms, 1-2 minutes.  Scrape down sides of bowl.

5. Continue processing while slowly pouring in 1 tbsp oil.  Process until smooth, 1-2 minutes.

6. Store in airtight container in fridge for up to 2 months.

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