Archive for the ‘Project Bleu’ Category

I failed at making croissants this weekend. In the end I had more butter on the kitchen counter than in the dough itself. I am going to give it another try this weekend, just as long as Dan doesn’t notice the percentage of our income being spent on butter.

I mended my bruised baking ego by whipping up a batch of David Lebovitz’s Banana-Brown Sugar Ice Cream. This recipe tastes exactly like Hagen-Dazs’ Bananas Foster flavor! I have made several ice cream recipes that taste like the top-shelf brands but are more expensive to make than to buy. This recipe is affordable and tasty since it uses coconut milk with cheap fruit.

David’s recipe gives you the option of using sour cream. I think the coconut milk adds a unique flavor that would be missed otherwise. I also used a vanilla bean instead of vanilla extract, just because I had it on hand. The added dash of rum makes the ice cream taste like bananas foster.


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The time to bake has finally arrived! Our first Project Bleu experiment is a loaf of white pan bread (aka plain old loaf of bread). I am comparing this recipe with my first and only at-home bread making experience, so you may want to reference other websites for bread making advice.

Here a run down of what I like and don’t like about the recipe.

Me Gusta

  • Speed: From start to finish, this recipe took about 2.5 hours to make. Martha’s recipe took about 3.5 hours.
  • Method: The book provides a step by step photo tutorial on how the loaf should be shaped for baking. My bread came out of the oven looking a little busted, but the book made it easy to see where I went wrong.
  • Technique: This recipe taught me several new techniques, such as “softening” the yeast in warm water and then adding it to the remaining ingredients. I have always activated the yeast with sugar before mixing it in with the other ingredients.  If you have ever baked bread, you know the sick anxiety associated with changing how you deal with yeast. Trying out this new technique filled my head with images of sad, flat dough. Luckily my worries were unfounded and the bread rose like the sun!

No Me Gusta

  • Directions: Is it unreasonable to ask for an estimated baking time? The recipe didn’t even hint at how long the loaf should stay in the oven. Instead I had to go to another section of the book for this vague piece of guidance: “A golden brown crust color is the normal indication of doneness. Loaves that are done sound hollow when thumped.” By the way, it is hard to use the old “hollow when thumped” test when your baking a loaf in a pan.
  • Shortening: The recipe calls for shortening, the very fat the book calls flavorless in an earlier chapter! Spoiler alert: the bread was flavorless.
  • Terminology: Do you know what a “non-fat milk solid” is? It sounds like something a baby would burp up. Too bad the recipe listed it as an ingredient.  After doing some research (aka rereading the book) I found out that book is actually talking about DRIED MILK! Not sure why you can’t just refer to it as dried milk. Then again, I’m not a “baking professional.”
  • Clarity: The recipe is not well written. For example, the recipe asks you to combine the ingredients (which includes the yeast and the salt). The very next line warns you to not let the yeast “come in contact with the salt.” Directions like that don’t really add much to the novice baker’s confidence level.

The end result was a loaf of bread that was certainly edible (it is, after all,  homemade bread) but not as tasty as Martha’s recipe. You can see that I did not seal the seam of the bread very well, which caused the tear along the upper edge of the loaf.

I leave you with one of the few helpful items from the recipe: shaping techniques. Hopefully our next recipe will be more fulfilling!

Step 1:  Shape the dough into a round

Step 2:  Stretch the dough into a long rectangle

Step 3:  Fold the rectangle into thirds

Step 4: Roll the dough into a tight roll that has the same length its baking pan. Seal the seam very well, or your bread will have a fault line (see my loaf).

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The book identifies 4 main characteristics of artisan bread:

  1. Handmade
  2. Use of pre-ferments and sourdough starters
  3. No chemical additives or preservatives
  4. Traditional production methods

These characteristics eliminate a lot of the supposedly “artisan” breads out there. Harris Teeter sells something called “artisan bread” that they sell in a nice bag. Chances are they aren’t making that stuff by hand. Panera sells artisan French bread. I’m pretty sure that isn’t made using “traditional methods” (unless frozen bread dough shipped in a 18-wheeler is traditional).

The list above mentions pre-ferments and starters. I have never used a starter when baking bread, primarily because it seems like something I would screw up. A starter is a mixture of flour, water, and yeast that sits and festers at room temperature. The result is a sticky substance full of bubbles that should eventually double in volume. There are different types of starters for different types of bread that require more/less yeast and more/less festering time. This book is going to force me to use a starter at some point, so stay tuned.

Artisan breads also require an extra step called autolyse. Autolyse involves just  mixing flour and water and letting the mixture sit for 30 minutes. This is done even before adding a starter to the mixture. Autolyse is great because it allows enzymes in the dough to begin hitting on proteins before they are over stretched by mixing. This improves the gluten structure of the bread and makes the bread easier to handle. It also reduces the mixing time (because your gluten is already awesome thanks to autolyse) which improves the dough’s color (because oxygen, which is added by mixing, has a bleaching effect). Who knew?!

Chapter six is next! We get to bake in chapter six!

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Tonight is study night in our little apartment. I’m studying up on yeast dough while Dan studies for his PhD prelims. The two are completely comparable in academic rigor.

Chapter four has a great chart of “bread faults” and things to blame said “bread faults” on. For example:

Problem: Split or burst crust

Cause: Overmixing, Uneven heat in oven,  underfermented dough

Problem: Blisters on crust

Cause: Too much liquid, improper fermentation, improper shaping of loaf

Problem: Dark crust

Cause: Too much sugar or milk, Oven temperature too high (duh), Under fermented dough

Problem: Flat Taste

Cause: Too little salt

It looks like you can make improper fermentation the scapegoat for pretty much all of your bread baking disasters. Perhaps that is due to fermentation’s reliance on proper, consistent temperatures. The book has a ridiculous, overly complicated method of controlling water temperature for yeast that involves:

  1. Multiplying the desired dough temperature by 3
  2. Adding together the flour temperature (sure, let me just stick a thermometer in it) and room temperature, plus 20 degrees Fahrenheit to account for friction caused by mixing
  3. Subtracting the result of step two from step one

The result is the ideal water temperature for fermentation. Unfortunately, the water may have evaporated by the time you find a device sensitive enough to measure the temperature of the flour.

One last important piece of information from the book: punching dough IS NOT hitting the dough with your fist, however therapeutic that may be. The proper way to punch dough involves pulling up the dough on all sides, folding it over the center, and pressing down. You should then turn the dough upside down in its container . This process equalizes the dough’s temperature, relaxes the gluten, redistributes yeast, and expels carbon dioxide.

Only one more chapter to go before we can start baking some recipes!

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Chapter three bombards the reader with information on basic ingredients. I think, if given the option, the author would write an entire chapter on flour alone. I am going to opt out of summarizing each type of baking flour. Instead I am going to give you some random tidbits that caught my eye along the way.

All-purpose flour is all-purpose because it is formulated to be slightly weaker than bread flour so it can be used in pastries as well. The professional baker will look down upon all-purpose flour, instead opting for flours that are formulated for specific purposes.  As the book puts it, all-purpose flour “…is not often found in bakeshops.”

Not only do you want purpose specific flour, you also want old flour. Freshly milled flour is not good for bread making. Aged flour is better because the oxygen in the air matures the proteins and makes them stronger. Since aging flour is costly, millers may add small amounts of chemicals to age the flour quickly. Yum.

Aside from sugar’s most obvious purpose, sugar also creates tenderness and retains moisture.

Confectioner’s sugar (aka powdered sugar) is classified by coarseness or fineness. 10x is the finest and gives the smoothest texture to icings. 6x is standard and is used in icings, toppings, and cream fillings. XXXX and XX is coarse and mostly used for dusting.

Fats increase keeping quality, add flavor, and add moisture/richness. The book identifies four major fats:  shortening, butter, margarine, oil, and lard. Out of the five, the book made margarine seem the least appealing. The book described margarine as  “… manufactured from various hydrogenated animal and vegetable fats, plus flavoring ingredients, emulsifiers, coloring agents, and other ingredients.” At least lard is what it is (pig fat). No artificial flavors in pig fat!

Butter has two main advantages over the other fats: flavor and melting qualities. Goods baked with shortening can leave a delicious film of waxy coating in your mouth. Butter does not.

Thank you, chapter three, for finally teaching me the difference between condensed milk and evaporated milk! Every Christmas my family makes fudge and every Christmas I forget if fudge needs condensed milk or evaporated milk (and why does it matter?). Turns out one is sweetened and the other is not.  60 percent of the water is removed in evaporated milk. Condensed milk also has 60 percent of the water removed but is heavily sweetened.

I also like that the book preaches the sin of substituting skim milk for whole milk (and visa versa). Milk has fat that is important to a recipe. If you take it out then something is going to suck.

In the USA we have this little organization called the USDA. Among other things, the USDA grades our eggs. I never fully understood what the grading system meant until I read chapter three. The grades represent the firmness of the yolks and whites. For example, the highest grade (AA) has a white and a yolk that will not spread over a large area. An egg will drop in grades if left out at room temperature.

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“…A pastry bag is nothing more than a cone-shaped piece of fabric or plastic, open at both ends. Although its construction is simple and it requires no operating manual, hours of practice are required to become skilled at using a pastry bag for decorative work.”

The author opens Chapter two with this comment, intending to segue into the many seemingly simple instruments of baking. This comment appeals to me because I feel that baking is a very simple yet temperamental process. Whipped egg whites are ruined with one piece of egg yolk. Yeast dies when the temperature isn’t just right. Cakes fall just by opening an oven door. It can take years to master these seemingly “simple” recipes made with “simple” instruments.

Chapter two is ten pages of straight up baking equipment. There is nothing flashy about this chapter but I did discover a few pieces of equipment that I did not recognize…

Q’est-ce que c’est?

(Click on the images for the source blogs)

Banneton: A bentwood basket, available in various shapes, for holding and giving shape to certain hearth breads doughs as they proof.

Baba Mold: Used for making baba, which is a spongy yeast cake traditionally baked for Easter Sunday in Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Belarus, Ukraine and Western Russia.

Barquette: A small boat-shaped mold for petits fours and small tartlets, such as the one seen to the left.

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Chapter One started off with a relatively easy concept: weighing ingredients is important. To highlight the importance of weighing ingredients, the book suggests trying an experiment: weigh a cup of flour that you have leveled off then compare the weight to a cup of flour that has been lightly packed. Usually the difference isn’t substantial enough to ruin a batch of cookies. However, the difference can make or break more complex recipes.

Alright, I can handle the concept of weighing ingredients. But then the book goes into “baker’s percentages.” According to the book, baker’s percentages express the amount of each ingredient used as a percentage of the amount of flour used. In other words:

(Total weight of ingredient/total weight of flour) x 100 = % of ingredient

Whew, stimulating stuff. Why on earth would I think of my measurements in this way? No one says “Oh, I need 15 percent sugar!” Apparently, the advantage of using baker’s percentages is that it can be adapted for any yield. The book uses this concept to convey the yield of a recipe. For example, the book doesn’t say “yields one, three layer cake.” Instead the recipe tells you how much cake batter the recipe produces. Jeez.

Other gems of wisdom from Chapter One:

  • Gluten proteins give baked goods structure. For example, French bread has more gluten proteins than cake
  • Ingredients and mixing methods are primarily determined by how they will affect the development of gluten. For example, strong flours (made from hard wheat) are used for high protein items (such as breads). Weak flours (like cake flour) are used for low protein items (such as…well…cake)
  • More mixing = more gluten development. That is why breads are mixed and kneaded whereas cakes and muffins are mixed only until the ingredients are combined

Onward to Chapter 2: Baking and Pastry Equipment!

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