Old-Fashioned White Bread from Sponge and Homemade Butter.

What were YOU doing at 1:00 this morning?

I was in my bathrobe, sitting on the kitchen floor and having big ideas. I couldn’t sleep. It was Sooin’s bachelorette party last night, and as I’ve been a tad under the weather and it was a forty-five-minute drive away, I decided to only go the dinner part, and to not drink. I drank about fifteen Diet Cokes, and then got home and tried to go to sleep. No luck – I was abuzz. Then I decided that I would make a bread sponge in anticipation of a luscious loaf of sourdough in the morning. But it doesn’t work that way. A sourdough starter takes three days, and if I was thinking clearly, I would have realized that sooner. So I made a regular bread sponge, because I made butter and don’t care to wait three days to eat it, and resolved to start a sponge for sourdough at 1:00 some other morning.

Sponge

SDC10245It’s a good idea to save a knob of your last batch of dough to add to your bread sponge. I keep a little ball of it wrapped in plastic in my freezer, so that it can be pulled out and dropped into a frothy batch of sponge and allowed to ferment and grow yeasty, yielding a richer, crustier, OMG-so-much-better loaf of bread. You don’t need much – a bit of dough about the size of a golf ball is plenty.

What is a bread sponge, you ask? Well. It’s very simple. It’s a portion of the ingredients you’re going to use to make your bread, just thrown into a bowl a few hours or a day or two in advance. Science happens in the bowl, and you end up with a loaf that’s soft and chewy on the inside, with a crusty exterior that just begs to be torn into with teeth. Also, because the yeast gets its little selves in there a bit earlier, the mix ferments a bit and develops a much better flavour. You can really just whisk everything together in a bowl and then go to bed. Eight to twelve hours later, you just put the rest of your ingredients together and proceed as usual.

Sponge:

  • 2 cups warmed milk
  • 1 teaspoon yeast
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 little dough ball

Whisk together the milk, yeast, and flour in a large bowl. If you have a ball of dough, defrost it quickly and drop it in as well. Cover with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel, and let sit at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.

SDC10244

When I woke up this morning it was sunny for the first time in a week, so I was super-impatient, so the sponge only got about eight hours to get good, but it still smelled yeasty and sour, like the perfect start to a homemade loaf. I started in immediately, because I wanted to go out to play.

Here’s the bread recipe. For the butter, go here. Follow her steps exactly. These two in combination will give you an earth-shattering foodgasm, and you’ll be all, “Thanks, Emily. I’ve always liked you.” No really. Make the butter. It won’t save you any money, but the taste (and gloating about how you made your own butter) will be totally worth it. I’ve got big plans to use it on a barbecued ear of corn tonight. BIG PLANS.

Another recipe for white bread, but this one’s different, okay?

  • bread sponge (see above)
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 3 tsp. yeast
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 tbsp. melted butter (plus extra for greasing your bowl and your loaf pans)
  • 1 tbsp. salt
  • 4 cups flour, plus extra for kneading

Combine the yeast and the water. When yeast gets foamy, add it to your sponge. Add the sugar, butter, and salt as well, and stir to combine. Add your flour and stir until mixed, and then dump the lot onto a floured surface to begin kneading. As always, please knead for eight to ten minutes. If you have athletic, powerful arms, it may take less time – you want the dough to become elastic – but I have flabby “looks good in sweaters” arms, so I knead for the full amount of time. Muscles are for chumps, right?

Transfer your dough to a large bowl that has been buttered lightly on all sides. Do round things have sides? I guess if you don’t know, they might as well. Cover with plastic and a kitchen towel, and allow to rise in a warm room until doubled in bulk. About an hour, hour-and-a-half. You know the drill.

dough in bowl, risingOnce your dough is big and smells good, dump it out onto that floured surface again (add new flour), and cut it in half. Form the dough into two loaf-pan-sized rectangles. Place your dough into your pre-buttered loaf pans, cover again with plastic and a kitchen towel, and allow to rise again, about an hour/hour-and-a-half, until the dough has risen an inch or so above the tops of the pans.

dough in pans

Preheat the oven to 375°F. I brushed the tops of my loaves with some melted butter and sprinkled them both with Kosher salt, but this is optional. Put your loaves into your oven once it’s raring to go, and bake the loaves for 35 to 40 minutes.

Cool these on wire racks. I find that bread tastes better once it’s cooled and then reheated (toasted), because there’s a complexity of flavour that develops once the bread does it’s sciencey thing on the racks.

BREAD!I sure hope you made the butter.

Butter, homemadeButter your homemade bread with the homemade butter. Revel.

Homemade bread with homemade butter.I realize now that I promised Heather the key to easy spaghetti carbonara, and am now about a week late in following through. I don’t have any bacon at the moment, and I just made butter, so the next pasta I make will probably involve this butter and the beautiful leaves of sage that are flourishing on my deck, but that’s not to say it isn’t coming. Give me a week. Then I’ll tell you everything. I promise.

New Jersey Crumb Buns. Or, “Be Nice to your Wife, Jerkface.”

Until recently, I had no idea what a crumb bun was. They don’t exist on the west coast, and especially not in Canada. Apparently they only exist in New Jersey, which isn’t terribly helpful, and unfortunately, they are a thing that Nick is not content to live without.

About six months ago I acquired a recipe that purported to be authentic – hours of following the recipe EXACTLY and letting the bread rise to the precise specifications and topping the whole thing with a crunchy streusel topping, also from the recipe. The result?

“These aren’t them.”

“The topping’s too crunchy.”

“Yeah, I don’t really like these. Good try, though.”

That he is not smothered in his sleep is a testament to my enduring patience.

And so crumb buns were largely forgotten. By me. Nick speaks of them often enough that they never fully disappear, and fails to understand that, “crumb buns – you know, like, I don’t know. They’re kind of like cake, but not, and the topping is, you know, crumbly and stuff” is not a description I can work from.

And then, recently, as luck would have it, Nick’s parents went to New Jersey. They brought some home, and I set out to copy the recipe.

This is a crumb bun. Tasty!
This is a crumb bun. Tasty!

These have a yeasty, subtly sweet, almost eggy taste. And while Nick swears that the most important part of these is the streuselly crumb topping, I’m inclined to believe that he has no idea what he’s talking about – the base is the part that’s the riddle. I made two batches of dough before I got to a recipe I felt would work. The final dough smelled a lot like the crumb bun sitting on the arm of my couch, so I figured that’d be a start.

I figured out the problem early on: Lemonade. How am I supposed to be creative if I’m all inhibited and crap? Right? Of course! So I popped open a bottle of prosecco and set to work. Result? The right stuff.

So with the dough rising in it’s buttery pot of incubation, it was time to microanalyse the crumb part of the crumb bun. It’s not completely soft, but it’s not crunchy either. It’s buttery and cinnamony and slightly nutty, and the recipe I used for these those many months ago was right on with the taste, even if it was way off on the texture. Solution? Add more butter. (Fact: “More butter” is almost always the correct answer.)

Here’s the recipe.

New Jersey Crumb Buns

Bun part:

  • 2 tbsp. yeast
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1/4 cup for kneading

Crumb part:

  • 1/4 cup almond butter
  • 1 1/2 cups butter
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 4 cups flour

Heat the milk until just warm, about 105°F. Forty seconds in the microwave should do it. Sprinkle your yeast over top and let sit until foamy, about five minutes.

Meanwhile, cream together the sugar, salt, and butter – beat these until the sugar dissolves and the butter becomes fluffy and lighter in colour. Beat in the eggs and the vanilla. Pour in the yeast-milk mixture and continue to beat. At this point the batter will separate and you’ll probably think that you’ve ruined everything. I promise, you haven’t. Add in the flour gradually while continuing to beat the mixture.

The dough that’s produced will end up quite a bit softer than a regular bread dough. Flour your work surface, and knead the dough – eight minutes should do. It should be soft and elastic and have a slight sheen. Place the dough in a large greased bowl and cover with greased plastic wrap. Throw a kitchen towel over top, and let rise in warmth and comfort until doubled in bulk, about an hour and a half.

Make your streusel. Cream together almond butter, regular butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar. Gradually add in your flour, the same way you did with the bread part. Don’t over-beat this – you’ll see it form loose, crumbly chunks. Break apart any overly large crumbs with your fingers – crumbs should be about the size of peas. Refrigerate these until ready to use.

Cover a baking sheet (make sure it has sides) in buttered parchment paper. Once your dough has grown to the appropriate size, give it a quick knead, and stretch it out so that it’s about 10 x 16 inches. Cut into rectangles approximately two inches wide by four inches long, and lay them out on the pan so that they’re close but not touching. Brush the tops with milk, and sprinkle about half the streusel over the tops, pressing lightly to make sure it sticks. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and allow to rise until doubled (again). One-and-a-half or two hours.

When the buns have risen, sprinkle the rest of the crumb over the tops.

Heat your oven to 375°F. When the little red “the oven is not ready” light shuts off, put in the buns and bake for about thirty minutes. Cool on a rack, and then, when cooled, sprinkle these with confectioner’s sugar. Inhale. Delightful smell.

Crumb buns cooling on rack.

When Nick finally ate one of these, the reviews were mixed. The bread part is spot-on. Tremendous news, as that was the part I was most concerned about. The streusel?

“It’s better from the store my mom buys them at.”

He gets nothing. Ever. And I’m pouring out the rest of his beer.

The crumb wasn’t as soft as he’d wanted – it turned out a bit softer than an apple crisp kind of topping. Still good though. In the end, he ate but half of one of these. I have more than two people can eat left over, and they’re going stale waiting for validation. They are, or I am – either way, it’s not good. I’ve never liked Nick.

A blurry photo of a crumb bun in action.
A blurry photo of a crumb bun in action.

I am not sure whether I am going to continue to play at this – I think if Nick wants soft streusel topping, he can find a recipe and make it himself. He has to learn sometime, and I figured out the bread – that was the hard part. I have an inkling as to what might make it work. I might even share my theory with him. But for now, he gets dishes. And a healthy amount of fear.

Phoning it in with Focaccia Bread.

Sometimes I have a very hard time sleeping. My nephew told my mom that there is always stuff going on in his head because he has four brains, and I understand the feeling, though I don’t think I’ve got four brains, just one that’s hyperactive and not doing much of anything but keeping me up.

I usually just pour myself a giant glass of milk and eat something soothing, like homemade bread toast or this pint of strawberries, and read a book, but I’m reading a very good book and it’s so good that I don’t want to finish it right now because then it will be over. I’m not ready for that. So I’m kind of phoning this one in, sharing an old recipe, and hoping that the plicketing of my keyboard will lull me to sleep.

Focaccia bread, my stand-by for something easy and impressive that you can make with stuff you already have. File this one under cheap and easy.
Focaccia bread, my stand-by for something easy and impressive that you can make with stuff you already have. File this one under cheap and easy.

Focaccia Bread

  • 1 (1/2-pound) Yukon Gold potato, peeled and quartered
  • 1 cup cooled (but still warm) potato water
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (or one packet)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 4 1/4 cups flour, divided (1/4 cup will be used to kneed)
  • 1/4 cup herbs de provence (don’t have it? I’ve used any old dried spice – basil is nice, as is rosemary)
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon sea salt, divided (1/4 tsp. to be sprinkled on bread before baking)
  • 1/2 pound roma tomatoes, thinly sliced crosswise, or as many small tomatoes as you think look good on top
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped (but not minced)
  • 1/2 cup mozzarella or parmesan cheese
  • Two basil leaves, chopped

I never use a mixer for this – I do everything by hand, and I promise, it’s neither strenuous nor is it exhausting. Or I wouldn’t do it. But you can use a mixer, or anything you like.

Generously cover potato with salted water in a small pot and simmer, uncovered, until just tender, 10 or so minutes. Drain water into a measuring cup. Cool potatoes slightly, then mash until smooth.

Add sugar to potato water. Sprinkle yeast over mixture and let stand until foamy, about five minutes. (If mixture doesn’t foam, start over with new yeast. I have really crappy yeast at the moment, so I let it stand longer – if it doesn’t start working within ten minutes, swear out loud, dump the whole thing, and either start over or cry and then go to the store and buy new yeast. You’re only allowed to cry if you’ve invested in a full jar though. I make a lot of bread so I buy it by the jar, and that’s a lot of little organisms to have failed, so crying is okay.)

Measure out four cups of flour and dump into a bowl. Add 1/4 cup herbs de provence, and one tablespoon of salt. Add the mashed potatoes and oil, then pour in your yeast mixture. Mix it all together until the dough is very soft and sticky, then drop the dough onto a floured surface to begin the awesome task of kneading. This is my favourite part of bread-making, and is particularly delightful with this bread because of the herbs, which smell like warm sunny countries that I haven’t been to.

As usual, you’ll want to knead this until the dough is quite elastic, about eight to ten minutes.

Scrape dough into a lightly oiled large bowl and cover bowl with oiled plastic wrap. I always oil my stock pot, and the lid, and put it in there with the lid on for this. Let dough rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Generously oil a cookie sheet.

Punch down dough (do not knead) and transfer to baking pan, then gently stretch to cover as much of bottom as possible (dough may not fit exactly).

Cover dough with oiled plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled, 1 to 1 1/2hours.

Preheat oven to 425°F in lower third part of oven (near the bottom, but not the whole way).

Soak tomatoes for ten minutes in balsamic vinegar, then arrange tomatoes on focaccia (do not overlap), then sprinkle with basil, cheese, chunks of garlic, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon sea salt and drizzle with remaining 1/4 cup oil.

Bake until center is firm, and top and underside is golden (lift to check), 20 to 25 minutes.

Loosen focaccia from pan with a spatula and slide onto a rack to cool slightly. Cut into pieces and serve warm or at room temperature.

Well, now … that didn’t work. I’m still awake, and nowI am getting all food-lusty for bread. Nick is snoring away in the other room, and I’m all stimulated. Probably the strawberries, which may have been a bad idea – too much fruit = the scoots. And now I’m oversharing. Make the bread. People will love you and think you’re the best, and then you can be all, “I am! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” Ugh. Maybe I do have four brains. Four parrot brains that don’t really do anything but annoy me at bedtime. Good night.

Broke and full. Success!

It’s the day before payday, which is always bleak. Well, bleak in that we can’t indulge our usual gluttonous passions – no beer, no wine, all out of eggs, and a dwindling supply of vegetables on hand. The fridge is sparse at the moment. But it’s after nine, and I’ve got bread in the oven for tomorrow’s meager breakfast before our bank balances nudge ever so slightly into the positive. And we’re full, most of a pot of soup gone, all of yesterday’s meatload depleted.

Nick said it was the best soup I’d ever made, which put me in a bit of a pout, because I like to think that my specialty, my sumptuous sweet potato and coconut soup with lemongrass and red curry spices, is far better, more interesting, more favourable. Tonight’s soup was hobo soup, essentially. A head of cauliflower that’s been tucked in the back of the fridge for three weeks, maybe a month. An onion, some garlic. The remainders of two cartons of chicken stock, about three cups. The rest of the non-sour milk, maybe a cup and a half. A small round of that delicious Boursin cheese. Salt. Pepper. Cayenne. And that’s that, simmered until the cauliflower softened, then blended with my awesome new hand blender.

Ever notice that a meal of just soup is kind of sad, no matter how good the soup? Me too. I had just enough butter left on hand for a half-batch of baking powder biscuits. Once they came out of the oven, I sliced them, and stuffed them with the remaining meatload  from yesterday, with a sprinkling of cheese.  We are fat and sassy. We are full and content, Star Trek TNG on TV, a loaf of soda bread in the oven smelling our space up real nice.

Tomorrow, I will buy groceries for the next few days, bake brownies for Nick’s bake sale (he’s not 7 … he’s 27), and life will return to normal. We will have beer again, and possibly wine. But for now, we’ve enjoyed a lovely evening. Am pleased. Tra-la-la!

Pumpernickel for Grace

Grace asked if I had any recipes for pumpernickel bread, and, as I am the proud owner of The Fannie Farmer Baking Book – edited by The Marion Cunningham, circa 1984, and dedicated to James Beard – the answer was, of course, “I have two!” But one of them contains “instant grain beverage,” which is kind of annoying since I don’t know what that is. Beer? That’s all I can think of. So, here’s the better recipe! In blog-form, which means forever!

I’ve never actually made this recipe, but if Grace makes it, the result will be beyond excellent, and more than worthy of The Marion Cunningham’s Glorious Praise.

Pumpernickel Bread

(makes two free-form round loaves)

This bread is described as “A good pumpernickel with a thick crust and a fine, moist crumb.” The recipe comes from page 476 of The Fannie Farmer Baking Book (1984). BTW, if you don’t own this book, it’s pretty comprehensive and well worth buying – you’ll get a ton of really great recipes out of it, the kind you’ll use over and over again.

  • 2 1/2 cups potato-cooking water
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
  • 1/4 cup dark molasses
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
  • 2 packages dry yeast
  • 1 cup mashed potato
  • 1 tbsp. salt
  • 3 cups rye flour
  • 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp. caraway seeds

Glaze:

  • 1 egg yolk, mixed with two tablespoons of water.

Bring the potato water to a boil. In a large mixing bowl, stir together 1/2 cup of the cornmeal, the molasses, brown sugar, and the butter. Pour the boiling potato water over all and stir until well blended. Let stand until comfortably warm when you plunge your finger deep into the mixture.

Sprinkle the yeast over the potato mixture, and let stand until dissolved and fluffy. Beat in the mashed potato, salt, rye flour, two cups of the all-purpose flour, and the caraway seeds. Add enough all-purpose flour to make a manageable dough, then turn out on to a lightly-floured surface and knead for a few minutes. Let rest for ten minutes.

Resume kneading for about ten minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic, sprinkling enough all-purpose flour to keep the dough from becoming too sticky. Transfer the dough to a large greased bowl, cover with greased plastic wrap, and let rise until the dough has doubled in bulk.

Punch the dough down and shape into two round loaves. Sprinkle a baking sheet with the remaining two tablespoons of cornmeal, and place the loaves on it with a few inches space between them. Cover loosely (greased plastic), and let rise again, until double in bulk again. Brush the tops of the risen loaves with the egg-yolk glaze. Bake in a a preheated 375°F oven for 30 minutes, brush again with the glaze, and bake for another 15 minutes. Remove from the baking sheet, and let the loaves cool on racks. Invite your friend Emily over for drinks and fresh-baked bread with butter.

So … call me?

White bread with sweet potato

One of my favourite things to do is to make bread. I live in something like 600 square feet, and to fill that small space with the smell of baking is very comforting – it’s like I live in a baked fog. It smells like a hug. And the kneading! Nothing beats kneading. I own a Kitchen Aid mixer and its bread hook attachment, but I can’t be bothered. Not for loaves. For anything else, but not bread – I live for the feeling of dough writhing in my hands.

Because I bake bread at home for the week and don’t own the kind of commercial preservatives that would keep my loaves sufficiently soft and supple, I cheat. I add vegetables, which serve a dual purpose – soft, fluffy loaves of bread for as long as the loaf will last, and fibre, which is presumably absent from the soft white flour I use so much of. But I’ve never felt all that guilty about eating refined carbohydrates. If obesity is what ultimately gets me, it will have beat out a lot of other, more uncomfortable things.

In any event, here’s the recipe for the bread I love toasting the most:

White Bread for Cheaters

(1 loaf)

  • 1/2 cup mashed sweet potato (about 1 medium-sized)
  • 1 1/2 cups water from boiled sweet potato, cooled to lukewarm (or the temperature you’d heat a baby’s bottle to)
  • 1 1/2 tsp. yeast
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. soft butter (or olive oil, depending on your mood)
  • 4 cups unbleached white flour, plus 1/4 cup for kneading
  • 2 tsp. sea salt (all salts are not created equally, but whatever you have on hand will do)

Combine water, sugar, and yeast. Let sit until foamy, 5-10 minutes.

Combine salt, flour, and mashed sweet potato. When the yeasty liquid has foamed up, mix it all together. Inhale deeply. It smells lovely.

Once you’ve got your ingredients together and a ball of dough has formed, dump the lot onto a floured surface. Knead the thing for 8-10 minutes. It seems like a long time, but it’s not – two songs, or two portions of a half-hour show, plus one commercial break. Don’t think about the time, just do it. If you’re pissed off, be rough. All the better.

When the dough is soft and elastic, form it back into a nice smooth ball, and drop it into a greased bowl or pot. I like to slather my pasta pot in butter and use that – it’s the right size, and it has a lid – I hate greasing plastic wrap. Cover the bowl or pot, using either greased plastic wrap, a damp towel, or an oiled pasta-pot lid. The wamer the room, the better. I live in a building filled with old people who prefer a tropical temperature, so I always have good bread-rising conditions. I also almost never wear pants.

Let rise in a warm room for 1 1/2 to three hours. Let the thing double in size. Then, smack it down, transfer to a greased baking pan, loaf or whatever you prefer, and let rise again, 1 1/2-two hours. An hour or so before baking, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. (I’m Canadian, and yet do not know how to measure things in metric. Also, I cannot tell time on an analog clock. School district #36 failed me.)

When the dough has risen above the pan, slide the whole thing in the oven and bake for 45 minutes.