Girl Versus Dough

Round Nine — Quick Bran Date Bread

It is Thanksgiving. I won’t exhaust you with all the details of for what I am thankful, but I am indeed thankful for a lot of things this year. Including my husband, for whom I am most thankful, in part for his excellent photography (he painstakingly took and edited almost all these pictures for me).

Another thing I am thankful for is quick breads. I know it may be cheating in the spectrum of bread baking, as most quick breads require nothing more than a mixture to be placed in a tin and baked. It is just that — quick. And though part of me misses the process of letting dough rise, kneading it, letting it rise again, shaping it, letting it rise again… sigh… sometimes it’s just nicer to not have to do all that work. I’m also thankful that we randomly had a plethora of dates in our house, inspiring me to bake a bread featuring dates as the star player. It didn’t sound too appetizing at first, what with bran and mushy dates and nutmeats (?) — and to be honest, never looked too much better while preparing the bread — but once it emerged from the oven, the kitchen was enveloped with an aroma of warm, hearty, sweet date-y goodness. And the taste was even better.

And so I was thankful for the fact that I used the random dates well, that the bread was simple to make and required few ingredients (though some odd, including dates and bran and… once again, nutmeats?) and that I was able to share it with my family, of which I am also thankful. And I am thankful that I also get to share this recipe with you, and though you may initially shy away from it and its apparent unattractiveness, I dare you to pick up some dates and give it a try.

But, like I said, I won’t bore you with everything for which I am thankful. But thanks for reading this. Debrief: Not much to change. This was one of the simplest breads I’ve ever made. Just mix the ingredients, stick in the oven, and voila. Yum.

Quick Bran Date Bread courtesy of The Joy of Cooking

Makes two 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch loaves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare: 2 cups chopped dates Pour over them: 2 cups boiling water In a separate bowl, beat until light: 2 eggs Add slowly, beating constantly: 3/4 cup brown sugar or 1/2 cup molasses (I used brown sugar) When these ingredients are creamy, add: 1 cup whole-grain flour (I used whole wheat… is there much of a difference?) 2 tsp double-acting baking powder 1 tsp baking soda Add half the date mixture and: 1 cup whole-grain flour (or whole wheat) 2 cups bran 1 tsp vanilla Add the remaining date mixture and: 1 cup or less chopped nutmeats (I used chopped pecans and came to find this was close enough) Place the dough in lightly greased loaf pans. Bake for about 1 hour.

Round Eight — Chocolate Chocolate Chip Bread

Chocolate Chocolate Chip Bread

I have a confession to make.

Though I truly, deeply love to bake bread and delight in all its complexities, idiosyncrasies, successes and catastrophes, I must admit it is not my first love. You see, I have an indelible sweet tooth. This is no ordinary sweet tooth — oh, no. I am perplexed when I pick up a Glamour or Self Magazine and read their articles titled, “Eat What You Want And STILL Lose Weight!”, only to find that their suggestions span only as far as, “When vexed with a desire for chocolate, have one Dark Chocolate Hershey’s Kiss to diminish the craving.” This advice, however, does not subdue my monstrous sweet tooth. Once I ingest the drop of chocolate, my sweet tooth rears its ugly head and, in full force, demands several more larger portions in order to be satisfied. So when I decided to take on bread baking — a venue that often avoids recipes with heaps of sugar — it was an attempt to find a hobby that perhaps would force my sweet tooth into submission forevermore.

Then I found this recipe. With loaves like these, I will never have the courage to beat down my sweet tooth monster.

I needed to make this recipe for two reasons: one, I’ve been dying to make a dessert bread and, two, I had one of those won’t-take-no-for-an-answer kind of chocolate cravings the other day. And so, with the help of my lovely new book, The Bread Bible, I created chocolate chocolate chip bread. Yes, that’s chocolate times deux.

Round Seven — Deli-Style Rye

Deli-Style Rye

Sigh. It is officially fall.

Every day (almost), I get up and go to work and brew coffee/slice tomatoes/make garlic bread/say to customers, “Have a nice day; please take your number; would you like your receipt?”, and then I leave work and am often tired and slightly cranky, and I see the school bus-yellow, fire hydrant-red and pumpkin-orange leaves holding on for dear life to their brittle branches, shaking fiercely in the icy wind and I am suddenly warm and cozy inside, the way I feel just after imbibing a nice, hot cup of spiced apple cider from my favorite red Target mug.

Yes, I know it’s been fall for a while, but I’d been too busy to notice (yes, I am guilty of ignorance) until one day, all of a sudden, I (gasp!) noticed it all around me. It was almost too late — some of the trees were already bare, sloughing off the weight of dying leaves and strengthening their naked bones for what I hear will be a harsh winter. But I did notice, and though I tend to shy away from cool weather (or anything but summer), it currently reminds me of holidays and snowflakes and pumpkin pie, and I am immediately swooned.

This recipe, however, is in no such spirit. Don’t get me wrong, this bread is divine, but it was, thus far, the most difficult recipe to prepare. Don’t let the outward appearances of simplicity fool you — this is a tricky little bread, disguised by fancy terms like “artisan” and “deli-style.” It is my moral duty to forewarn you that, for any amateur baker like me, it is not the easiest of loaves to create.

The inclusion of ingredients was nothing too shocking, but the actual preparation of the loaves (this recipe makes four 1-pound loaves) — the sticky, shapeless loaves — was a tad stressful. It was a tiresome battle pulling grapefruit-sized handfuls from the main dough, pulling apart the gluey strands and rolling the balls into ovals, all the while yanking the tack from my hands while trying to maintain the oval shape for its cornmeal-covered destination. This resulted in four balls of all different shapes and sizes — anything but “grapefruit-sized” and “oval.”

There was also the steaming technique in the oven, which is something I’ve never had to do before but had heard was beneficial to preventing the drying-out of baking bread. Under usual circumstances, placing a cup of hot water in a pan in the oven is no big deal. Add in the need to transfer sticky loaves from a surface covered in pebbles of cornmeal to a piping-hot baking stone, however (especially when you don’t have a fancy-schmancy pizza peel like they want you to have in the recipe. Pshaw), and you have a MESS.

The bread only took about 20 minutes per two loaves to bake, but they all finished in different shapes and sizes. But don’t judge a book by its cover — the smell of baked caraway seeds and the taste of fresh rye was enough to make it worth the effort. Though I may not exhaust my effort on this one again.

Debrief: Obviously, as noted above, this was one tough cookie — er, bread — of a recipe. But again, I know not much about baking bread, so for others this may be a walk in the park, and I am glad I experienced the art of artisan bread baking and do not plan to avoid it in the future. Next time, I may bake this bread in loaf tins to give the rye a more useful shape, and to avoid the whole pizza peel thing. Deli-Style Rye courtesy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

Makes four 1-pound loaves. The recipe is easily doubled or halved.

3 cups lukewarm water 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated yeast (1 1/2 packets) 1 1/2 tablespoons salt 1 1/2 tablespoons caraway seeds, plus more for sprinkling on the top 1 cup rye flour 5 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour Cornmeal for pizza peel (or, as I used, cutting board) Cornstarch wash (Blend 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch with a small amount of water to form a paste; add 1/2 cup water and whisk with a fork; microwave mixture until it appears glassy, about 30 to 60 seconds on high)

1. Mixing and storing the dough: Mix the yeast, salt, and caraway seeds with the water in a 5-quart bowl, or a lidded (not airtight) food container.

2. Mix in the remaining dry ingredients without kneading, using a spoon, a 14-cup capacity food processor (with dough attachment), or a heavy-duty stand mixer (with dough hook) (what I used). If you’re not using a machine, you may need to use wet hands to incorporate the last bit of flour.

3. Cover (not airtight), and allow to rest at room temperature until the dough rises and collapses (or flattens on top), approximately 2 hours.

4. The dough can be used immediately after the initial rise, though it is easier to handle when cold. Refrigerate in a lidded (not airtight) container and use over the next 14 days.

5. On baking day, dust the surface of the refrigerated dough with flour and cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-sized) piece. Dust the piece with more flour and quickly shape it into a ball by stretching the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go. Elongate the ball into an oval-shaped loaf. Allow to rest and rise on a cornmeal-covered pizza peel for 40 minutes.

6. Twenty minutes before baking time, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F, with a baking stone placed on the middle rack. Place an empty broiler tray on any other shelf that won’t interfere with the rising bread.

7. Using a pastry brush, paint the top crust with cornstarch wash and then sprinkle with additional caraway seeds. Slash with deep parallel cuts across the loaf, using a serrated bread knife.

8. Slide the loaf directly onto the hot stone. Pour 1 cup of hot tap water into the broiler tray, and quickly close the oven door. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until deeply browned and firm. Smaller or larger loaves will require adjustments in baking time.

9. Allow to cool before slicing or eating.

Extra punches: For caraway seed-lovers, an alternative: Caraway Swirl Rye. Follow above recipe as stated, but add 2 tablespoons of caraway seeds. When rolling the grapefruit-sized dough into a ball, use your hands and a rolling pin to flatten the ball into a 1/2-inch-thick oval (avoid using extra flour here or it might remain as a dry deposit in the caraway swirl). Sprinkle the dough with caraway seeds. The amount can vary with your taste; save some for the top crust. Then roll up the dough from the short end like a jelly roll, forming a cylindrical loaf. Pinch the ends closed. Continue following above recipe as stated.

Round Six — Challah Crowns

Challah Crowns

I’m looking at a palm tree outside the window right now. Palm tree in Illinois, you ask? No, no. I am in Florida visiting my in-laws with Elliott, basking in the Southern sun (perhaps a little too much — my face is rather lobster-ish in color) and taking a respite from the hustle and bustle of regular life.

And what a week of hustle and bustle it was. Working, packing for vacation and spending 48 hours in the role of “bridesmaid” for my dear friend Kathy’s wedding left me with little time to write about, let alone bake, any bread in the past eleven days. But somehow I managed to squeeze in some one-on-one time with a recipe so delicious, it’ll leave you with sweet-smelling memories that will tantalize your nostrils for hours even after you’ve devoured the bread.

This time, I crossed over the threshold of egg breads and plunged into the depths of a challah crowns recipe reminiscent of the Jewish tradition generally reserved for high holidays, including Rosh Hashana. Though I am no Jew, there was something sacred about the wafted smell of the loaf as it baked in the oven, somewhat similar to incense or the sweet smoke diffused by a censer at a Catholic mass (ironic comparison, I know).

The loaves (this recipe makes two crowns) were fairly simple to assemble, though it can get a little confusing when encountering the constant additions of multiple ingredients (i.e., add a whole egg… add two egg yolks… a dash of sugar here, a pinch of salt there, etc. etc.). All seemed to go according to plan until the dough refused to double in size. Though it rose a little bit each time, overall the dough never grew past half of its original bulk, thus leaving the final product perhaps a tad smaller than intended. The taste of this bread was so delectable, it was almost dessert-like. Fluffy but dense, sweet and yet slightly comparable to potato bread, these crowning achievements brought me to another world where I half-expected my father to return from the fields after a hard day’s work and plop down into a seat at the head of the table, ready to give a prayer into the swirls of Challah-sweetened air before the commencement of the family’s Sabbath meal.

Though I don’t celebrate the Sabbath, this past week was filled with enough celebration to give me the excuse to bake the sacred bread. My husband and I were blessed with the chance to take a vacation from life’s usual hecticness, and one of my best friends whom I’ve known for 17 years just got married to a wonderful person. A high holiday, indeed.

Debrief: Next time I bake these crowns, I will steer clear of the wax paper I used in place of parchment paper. There is a difference. I know, because when using wax paper the kitchen became so smoky that we had to open all the windows and doors to avoid setting off the smoke alarm. Also, though the crowns themselves baked perfectly, the bottoms were completely black and I had to shave off the inedible bases.

Challah Crowns courtesy of Food Network Kitchens

Ingredients: 4 cups all-purpose flour (1 pound, 1 3/8 ounces), plus up to 3/4 cup (3 1/2 ounces) more for kneading 2 tablespoons sugar (7/8 ounce) 2 1/4 teaspoons rapid rise yeast (1/4 ounce package) (I used active dry yeast; could have been why my dough didn’t rise so well?) 1 cup warm water, about 110 degrees F 1/3 cup honey 2 whole large eggs 3 large egg yolks 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil 1 tablespoon kosher salt 1 tablespoon poppy seeds (optional) (I didn’t use these due to personal preference)

Directions: Whisk the flour, sugar, and yeast together in a large bowl and make a well in the center.

Whisk the water and honey with 1 whole egg, all the yolks, olive oil, and salt in a small bowl and pour into the well. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients with a wooden spoon to make a soft, shaggy, moist dough. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface and knead by hand, adding up to 3/4 cup more flour as needed, until the dough is soft and supple, about 8 minutes. Shape the dough into a ball.

Brush a large bowl with oil and turn dough around in bowl to coat lightly. Cover bowl with a clean kitchen towel and set aside until dough doubles in size, about 1 hour. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface; knead briefly to release excess air, re-shape into a ball and return to the bowl. Cover and set aside until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Line 2 baking sheet pans with parchment paper (parchment! PARCHMENT!). Divide the dough in half. Lightly dust hands with flour and roll each portion of dough into a 30-inch-long log. (If dough resists, then cover and let rest for 5 or 10 minutes before shaping). Spiral each length of dough around itself to form a coiled round loaf on the prepared pans. Lightly stretch the end of the coil and moisten it with water; gently press the end into the side of the round to seal the coil into a loaf. Press down on the loaves gently, cover with a kitchen towel and set aside until doubled, about 1 hour.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees F. Beat the remaining egg with a tablespoon of water and brush loaves evenly with it; sprinkle with poppy seeds if desired. Put the loaves in the oven and immediately turn the oven down to 400 degrees, and bake until golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the crown registers 190 degrees F, about 30 to 35 minutes.

Round Five — Cheese Bread

Cheese Bread

There’s been a lot of change in my life lately.

And by lately, I mean for nearly a year.

And by change, I mean big change.

Last November, I got engaged. In December, I graduated. In January, I learned about anthropology and business (and how to eat strange foods) in India (A+ in the class, F in adapting to the foods – I subsisted on naan for over three weeks). In February, I interned for a newspaper in Kansas City. In March, I was back home, on the search for jobs, and found myself behind the counter of a coffee shop. In April, May, June – wedding prep… and wedding. In July and August, I was working and learning how to be married. And now, at the tail end of September, I am still in the process of rolling with the punches, something that does not come naturally to me, still, but that I need to accept for now.

One thing in which I have found (comforting) stability is baking. This is an oddity to me, because I am no Top Chef, and I often find myself frustrated by my naivete of baking/cooking knowledge. I just like watching Food Network and, when I’m not working, sleeping or watching the aforementioned television station, I am in the kitchen, baking and digesting bits – or spoonfuls – of cookie/cake/bread dough that never had a chance of making it to the oven (I can’t serve food that hasn’t been taste-tested by me first, now can I?).

So, in the name of sweet, sweet comfort, I decided to try my hand at a recipe that, to me, is one that perfectly accompanies comfort foods. That is cheese bread.

The name itself exudes no fanciness, no razzmatazz or flair. It is what it is, as a dear friend always says. This is a bread that cannot be judged by its title. The flavors in this loaf, with multifaceted accents of honey and herbs, exponentially surpass the rudimentary label of cheese. It can be prepared simply, with cheese and dough and nothing else, or it can contain a medley of thyme and marjoram and pimiento and, of course, cheese. I chose the middle road, with just thyme, marjoram and mild cheddar, and was fairly pleased with the results.

Though my version featured the healthiest alternatives (whole wheat flour, honey and skim milk) and as such lost a portion of its sweetness, it still hit the spot next to a bowl of hot soup.

Debrief: Next time, for a more universally-accepted taste, I’ll try the recipe without the marjoram, and use all-purpose flour and sugar instead of wheat flour and honey. I also plan to try different kinds of cheese, including sharp cheddar (which is what the recipe originally calls for).

Cheese Bread courtesy of The Joy of Cooking

Yields two 5 x 9-inch loaves

For a pleasant variation, try using whole-wheat flour and 2 tablespoons honey instead of the sugar indicated (I used this variation, though I bet both versions are tasty).

Scald: 1 ½ cups milk Add to it and cool to about 105 degrees: 1/3 cup sugar ¼ cup butter 1 tablespoon salt In a large bowl, dissolve for 3 to 5 minutes: 2 packages active dry yeast In: ½ cup 105-115 degree water Stir in the cooled milk mixture. Add and beat until smooth: 1 well-beaten egg 1 ½ cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese (I used mild cheddar because that’s all we had, and I was too lazy to get anything else) Optional: 1 tsp powdered thyme Optional: ½ tsp powdered marjoram Optional: ½ cup finely chopped pimiento (I left this out as a matter of personal preference) Beat in well: 3 cups sifted all-purpose flour Add, and then continue beating and stirring until the dough begins to leave the sides of the bowl, about: 3 cups sifted all-purpose flour Knead the dough about 10 minutes. Allow to rise once in the bowl and once in the pans, covered, until doubled in bulk (for me, the first rise took about 2 hours, and the second about an hour). Brush the loaves with: Optional: Melted butter (I topped it with shredded cheese instead, for looks and taste) Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven about 30 minutes.

Extra punches: To ensure the dough was kneaded enough, I utilized the windowpane test again and checked its temperature (a well-kneaded dough should render 80 degrees). To test for doneness, take the loaf out of the oven and out of the tin, and stick a thermometer in the bottom. Yeast breads should yield a temperature between 210 and 220 degrees when done baking. You can also test for doneness if you thwack the bottom of the loaf and hear a hollow, “thump-like” sound.

Round Four — Light Wheat Bread

Light Wheat Bread

If at first you don’t succeed, try an easier recipe. So, in my second attempt to prevail in the wheat bread baking round of fisticuffs (though I have no harsh feelings towards the yummy grains), I decided to choose a recipe that I love because a) I found it on one of my favorite cooking blogs, Smitten Kitchen and b) there is no need for conversions. Though it’s not 100 percent whole wheat (which is what I prefer), the combination of all-purpose and wheat flour is what makes this loaf so light and tasty, leaving out that wheat-y bitterness.

I am in love with this recipe, and I’ll tell you why:

1. There is no need for the “overnight poolish sit.” Just four or so hours, and the loaf is done. This is great for those, like me, who have a hard time being patient. Why am I baking breads again?

2. It’s simple. There’s really nothing in this recipe that requires a professional to intercede in the preparation of the loaf. Even an amateur baker (including yours truly) can accomplish a loaf of wheat sandwich bread with these instructions.

3. You could probably (though I haven’t had the pleasure of trying this yet) take the basics of this recipe and modify it to whatever kind of loaf your taste buds desire at the moment (which is also where the lack of waiting comes in handy): herb bread, white bread, raisin bread, cheese bread even. Of course I say this based on theory, but I plan on testing this in the near future.

The results of my loaf were pretty excellent in comparison to my last wheat bread experience. Though the top of the loaf wasn’t taut enough to be completely domed and pretty all the way across, it was enough to don the appearance of sandwich bread. And let me tell you, I’ve had some of the best sandwiches over the past few days.

Debrief: I’m going to try this recipe again and use 100 percent whole wheat. I’m hoping (cross your fingers!) that it’ll turn out as light, fluffy and delicious, but if not, 30 percent wheat will remain a fantastic alternative.

Light Wheat Bread courtesy of The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes one two-pound loaf

2 1/2 cups (11.25 oz) unbleached high-gluten or bread flour 1 1/2 cups (6.75 oz.) whole-wheat flour 1 1/2 tablespoons (.75 oz.) granulated sugar or honey (I used sugar, only because I didn’t have any honey) 1 1/2 teaspoons (.38 oz.) salt 3 tablespoons (1 oz.) powdered milk 1 1/2 teaspoons (.17 oz.) instant yeast 2 tablespoons (1 oz.) shortening or unsalted butter, at room temperature (I used butter, for the same reason that I used sugar) 1 1/4 cups (10 oz.) water, at room temperature

From Smitten Kitchen:

1. Stir together the high-gluten flour, whole-wheat flour, sugar (if using), salt, powdered milk, and yeast in a 4-quart mixing bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer). Add the shortening, honey (if using), and water. Stir (or mix on low speed with the paddle attachment) until the ingredients form a ball. If there is still flour in the bottom of the bowl, dribble in additional water. The dough should feel soft and supple. It is better for it to be a little too soft that to be too stiff and tough.

2. Sprinkle high-gluten or whole-wheat flour on the counter, and transfer the dough to the counter, and begin kneading (or mix on medium speed with the dough hook). Add more flour if needed to make a firm, supple dough that is slightly tacky but not sticky. Kneading should take about 10 minutes (6 minutes by machine). The dough should pass the windowpane test (this really helped!) and registers 77 to 81 degrees F (I used a meat thermometer and was just fine). Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it around to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

3. Ferment at room temperature for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the dough doubles in size.

4. Remove the dough from the bowl and press it by hand into a rectangle about 3/4 inch thick, 6 inches wide, and 8 to 10 inches long. Form it into a loaf by working from the short side of the dough, rolling up the length of the dough one section at a time, pinching the crease with each rotation to strengthen the surface tension. It will spread wider as you roll it. Pinch the final seam closed with the back edge of your hand or with your thumbs. Place the loaf in a lightly oiled 8 1/2 by 4 1/2 inch bread pan; the ends of the loaf should touch the ends of the pan to ensure an even rise. Mist the top with spray oil and loosely cover with plastic wrap.

5. Proof at room temperature for approximately 60 to 90 minutes, or until the dough crests above the lip of the pan.

6. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F with the oven rack on the middle shelf.

7. Place the bread pan on a sheet pan and bake for 30 minutes. Rotate the pan 180 degrees for even baking and continue baking for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the oven. The finished loaf should register 190 degrees F in the center, be golden brown on the top and the sides, and sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.

8. When the bread is finished baking, remove it immediately from the loaf pan and cool it on a rack for at least 1 hour, preferably 2 hours, before slicing or serving.

Extra punches: Though the recipe calls for instant yeast, I used (by accident and by default) active dry yeast and water slightly above room temperature and had no issues whatsoever. I also used bread flour as opposed to all-purpose flour, but I’m sure you could tweak quite a bit of this unfussy recipe and still get away with a great-tasting bread.