Friday 23 January 2015

Yeast bread techniques, Lesson 3: Density

In the quest for the perfect crusty, open-crumbed loaf for sopping up olive oil and making sandwiches, it can sometimes be easy to overlook the other kinds of bread out there. There are so many kinds of delightfully dark, flavorful breads to be discovered in European baking traditions - they may not have caught on here in the way that lighter French or Italian bread styles have, but they're no less delicious. 
People accustomed to whiter flours tend to equate "dense" with disappointment. Gluten-free bakers, especially, are all too familiar with that association: a slab of bland starch, a crumbly dry sandwich that falls apart when you try to bite it. We've all choked down more than a few slices of that kind of bread.

This is not that bread. 

It's true it may not be as multi-purpose as a lighter bread, but that's not a bad thing. It's somewhat akin to aged cheese, or dry sausage - slice it thinly, pair it with the right things, and you're in for a treat. Yes, dense bread can be a very good thing indeed! 
This particular recipe is a German-style loaf. Vollkornbrot simply means, literally, "whole grain bread." So, while it is most commonly a rye-based sourdough, there's nothing that says it has to be - it just needs to be composed completely of whole ingredients. 
This recipe certainly meets that definition. That's right - it doesn't need any refined starch at all. It also doesn't need any single-function binders or thickeners, not even pectin, or any baking powder. All of its structure, substance, flavor, and binding capacity comes from whole-food ingredients. In this case, that's just grains, seeds, legumes, and sweet potato...and one more, um, unconventional ingredient. You see, I was looking for a way to make good bread while waiting for my sourdough starter to wake up after we'd been out of town. I've had good results using yogurt and kefir for makeshift sourdough in the past, but this time I decided to try something new: sauerkraut! Or rather, sauerkraut juice. Don't worry, it's not enough to taste anything unusual in the bread - just enough to get some fermentation going. And I think it works even better than the yogurt! 
This is a very high-hydration bread; while it does definitely come together as a dough (as opposed to a batter), don't expect to be shaping this one with your hands! On that same note, you really don't need a mixer for this one - in fact, it comes together quite easily with just a spatula.

This bread is also very simple to make. There are no complicated techniques or skills required - the recipe is long because I've included so many notes and pictures to make it as clear and approachable as possible. 

A few notes:
- This recipe is very flexible. Just be sure to keep roughly the same basic proportions of whole grains and seeds (i.e. things you'd normally cook), soft seeds (i.e. those that can be eaten raw), and flours. Using an assortment of small, medium, and large grains/seeds will make the bread more interesting and attractive, but it should still work if you use (for example) all millet for the whole grain or all sunflower for the soft seeds. The chia, flax, and sweet potato are the essential constants - these each contribute unique properties, so changing any of them may change the result significantly. (I'd love to get into the chemistry of this, but this post is long enough already!)
- You need raw sauerkraut for this to work. This means not the canned/shelf-stable kind; it needs to be fresh with live, active cultures. Full disclosure: the kraut I used contains a little bit of ginger, which is known to increase yeast activity, but I really don't think it's enough to make a difference to the amount of yeast required in this situation.
- I touched on the difference between light and dark buckwheat flours in this post, and it may sound like I'm contradicting myself here. In this case, I recommend specifically using dark buckwheat flour from Anson Mills - the color comes from some of the hulls being milled with the grain, as with any dark buckwheat flour; the difference is, the hulls in AM's flour are toasted to bring out the aromatic aspects, and (like all their flours) it's been specially processed and stored in a way that prevents undesirable oxidation. This results in a flour that is complex and flavorful rather than harsh-tasting. However, it's still capable of overwhelming other flavors if used in high quantities, and with this recipe there's a lot of flavor complexity from the other grains and seeds that I don't want to cover up. That's where the other type comes in. Light buckwheat flour is milder, as it does not contain any hull fragments. The easiest way to get it is probably to just grind it yourself from whole buckwheat in a coffee grinder or food processor. If for whatever reason you don't want to use both, I recommend either: using the dark buckwheat in the amounts called for and adding more garbanzo or pea flour in place of the light kind, or using the light kind for all the buckwheat called for. 
- I make sweet potato puree in large batches for feeding my sourdough starter - this batch came out a bit watery, definitely much thinner than regular mashed sweet potatoes, so you may need to water yours down a bit to match the consistency shown. (It should be about the consistency of baby food...I think? It's been twentysomething years since I've encountered baby food, and I wasn't exactly in a position to evaluate it objectively, ha!) Here I used a yellow/white-fleshed variety, but the more common orange types work just as well.
- You will need a Pullman loaf pan or other bread pan with an oven-safe lid/cover (even a makeshift lid will do). Just make sure there is plenty of room for the loaf to rise without hitting the lid! 

Multigrain Vollkornbrot
As written, this recipe makes a smallish loaf. If you would like to use a full-size Pullman pan, you may double the recipe.

Grain soak:
20 grams each: whole millet, whole buckwheat, whole amaranth, GF steel-cut oats, whole teff, short-grain brown rice.
120 g mineral water, hot
1/8 tsp salt

35 g dark buckwheat flour (source)
35 g teff flour
30 g garbanzo flour or pea flour
20 g GF rolled oats
110 g mineral water, hot
15 g sauerkraut juice
1/8 tsp yeast

Combine all grain soak ingredients in a small bowl. In a large bowl, stir the hot water into the flours and oats, and add the kraut juice and yeast once it's cooled a little. Cover both bowls and set aside at room temperature for about 14 hours. 

Dry mix:
50 g light buckwheat flour
30 g pea flour or garbanzo flour
20 g dark buckwheat flour 
25 g pepita (pumpkin seed) meal (grind in food processor/blender)
5 g chia meal
5 g flax meal
4 g sea salt

25 g pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
25 g sunflower seeds
15 g hemp seeds
15 g flax seeds
50 g chia seeds

Additional ingredients:
180 g sweet potato puree
40 g mineral water, or more as needed

Next day, mix the chia seeds, flax seeds, and 40 g water into the grain soak and set aside to thicken for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add in the remaining seeds. Stir the sweet potato into the sponge, then the seed/grain mixture. 
Gradually add the flour. The mixture will seem pretty runny at first, but it will become more cohesive as the chia and flax polysaccharides become more hydrated - set it aside for a few minutes to prepare the baking pan. 
Cut a piece of parchment that is large enough to line the entire inside of the baking pan, plus enough extra to come a couple of inches over the top. Fold it so it will lay smoothly against the sides of the pan, including in the corners - essentially, you're folding a paper box to nest neatly inside the baking pan. It is important that the sides be fully covered, and that the paper is folded so it overlaps to form "handles" at the short ends of the box - you will need to use these handles. (This probably sounds much more complicated than it is - the picture below should clear up any confusion.)
Remove the paper box and set it, slightly unfolded, on a flat surface.
Lightly knead the dough with the spatula for a moment - see how much more cohesive it's become? Now, scoop the dough onto the paper, aiming to put it only on the bottom part of the paper box, like so:
Forming the loaf this way produces much neater results than trying to scoop thick dough directly into a lined pan.
Now, re-fold the paper "handles" at the short ends, grab onto them, and lift the loaf into the baking pan. Adjust the paper as needed to straighten wrinkles, scraping any stray strands of dough off the paper with a spatula. Fold the excess paper over the sides of the box, like a collar.      

Smooth the top with a wet spatula or pastry brush, making sure to moisten all exposed surface. Cover the loaf and set it someplace cozy. After one hour, repeat the moistening process, taking care not to tear or squish the surface - don't worry if it hasn't risen visibly by this point. Cover again and let rise another hour. By this point you should notice a slight increase in height - it won't be dramatic, just enough to prove that the yeast is active. Most of the increase in volume will happen in the oven. Make sure your lid/cover allows enough room for that!
Score the top with a sharp paring knife to allow it to expand in the oven. You may notice the top of the loaf has formed a sort of filmy skin - cut carefully so you don't tear this skin too much. Place the pan, covered, directly on the baking stone with oven pre-heated to 475F/245C and bake covered for 6 minutes. Remove cover, continue baking at that temp about 4-5 minutes, then lower the temperature setting to 440F/225 C (this makes sure the oven has returned to the starting temperature before then gradually lowering). After 40 minutes, lower the temperature once more to 425F/220C. Remove the pan from the oven, and -- carefully! -- grab hold of the folded paper "handles" on both ends of the loaf, lift it from the pan, and quickly return the paper-wrapped loaf to the baking stone. Continue baking another 20-25 minutes, until all sides of the loaf are firm.
Once the loaf is cool enough to handle, place it in a paper bag to finish cooling (this helps distribute moisture evenly).
Wait, there's still one more thing you need to do! This is the hardest step: wait 18-24 hours before cutting the loaf. Yes, I know it smells wonderful! I know warm, fresh-baked bread is tantalizing, and you will have the impulse to immediately slather it with butter. But believe it or not, even after all that baking time, it's actually still not "done" yet - the carbohydrate structure needs to finish setting, which happens gradually as it cools. This is true of any bread that gets most or all of its structure from polysaccharide chains - even 100%-rye breads, while they do of course contain gluten, actually get much of their crumb structure from carbohydrates, and as a result will be sticky and pasty if cut too soon. The amount of time this takes depends on many factors in the bread's composition - some breads are OK to cut as soon as they're cool, but others (including this one) take longer. This waiting period also gives some time for the flavor to mature.
Store the bread wrapped in a paper bag. It can be kept this way for a few days at room temperature - past that, it should probably be refrigerated. 

Friday 16 January 2015

C is for colors...and cookies!

As of a few weeks ago, I've been living gluten-free for 7 years. 7 years!! That's a long time! A lot has changed in the gluten-free world since then. I've previously mentioned how my own approach to baking has changed and evolved over that time - why I became less and less interested in duplicating the properties of gluten, per se, but have instead been increasingly drawn towards finding the inherent properties special to our ingredients, and applying them in ways that make the best foods. (There is a difference, especially in the context of bread - something I will elaborate on very soon, with a loaf bread recipe!) I've already shown you a bit of how I've been applying this...but it goes beyond just the flours and baking techniques. I promised I'd keep you updated on the bigger picture - so here's one of the pieces I've been working on these past several months. 

It all started with a cookie.

A repertoire of chocolate frostings, white fluffy buttercream, pearly royal icing, and lemon glaze will go a long way towards covering most things that require decoration of the sugary persuasion. But a little over a year ago, I got the urge to make sugar cookies for Christmas - meaning colors would be required. So festive! So pretty! I was excited to have an occasion to get a bit fancy. Now, at this point I should mention that I don't use synthetic food coloring in my kitchen. Surely there would be suitable alternatives, though...right? Yet, the (horrendously expensive) natural colors obtained from a certain (notoriously overpriced) natural food store chain turned out to be a bit...underwhelming. 

Sure, they were pretty. But the initially-bright colors faded noticeably as the icing dried, and because of the chemical nature of these vegetable pigments, the color range is very limited by what kind of recipe you're adding it to (they are very pH sensitive, among other things). Neither of these things were surprising, from a chemistry perspective - it was something else that was still bothering me.

Maybe it was frustration with hearing GF baking referred to as "imitation" or "a substitute for the real thing" that spurred me to become more critical of my choice of ingredients. Maybe it was annoyance at seeing the egregious misuse of the term "artisanal" on the packaging of one too many clearly-mass-produced food products. (Artisanal tea bags? Really? What is that even supposed to mean??) In any case, when I really thought about it, I realized it wasn't just about the results of the colors themselves, or even the expense. I was bothered by the idea of buying food coloring.

I cared about more than just what the product is made from. I realized what I really wanted was the aspect of craft. I guess that's become a bit trendy these days, but I don't think that makes it any less important. Artisanship, in the actual definition of the word - a combination of skill, knowledge, and artistry - gives the end product meaning beyond just the sum of its ingredients, much more than a vague "all-natural." I could do better than a bottle of cabbage juice concentrate - both in the sense of better results, and in the sense of fitting much better with that from-scratch philosophy. 

So, that's what I did. Using actual foods and some science, I've been working on making my icings just as special as the cookies. No recipe today, but here are some more pictures of the process: 

At first, I had two colors...then three...

...Then four...and more!
A few favorites from this year's Christmas cookies: Hedgehogs, owls, a goose, and a moose!