Thursday, October 11, 2007

I Like Bread



"I made bread!" I said to Greg. Again, and again and again. "I made bread!". As if the thin coating of fine, white flour on the front of my jeans wasn't enough to justify the accomplishment. "We're eating the bread that I made!". Enter: butter and butter knife, melting goodness all over the golden loaf. "This bread has tomatoes from our garden on it!". Wait for it: "Greg, I made bread!!!"




This is a big deal. In all of my culinary exploration, in the dozen or more hours I might spend every week cooking, I have avoided all things yeasty. Actually, avoid is an understatement, since I can't recall that last time (if there was a last time) that I opened a yeast packet. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Although I bake on occasion, I really prefer to "cook". Something about baking requires the sort of precision that my scientist's heart can't handle outside of the confines of a polymer chemistry lab and the hours of 9am-5pm. No. More. Measuring. Says the engineer.
  2. Isn't it just easier, and tastier, to buy bread at the store?


See the dense, fine crumb? This is "try #1": too little water and not enough time to rise... sandwich bread.

In my case, issue #2 becomes all the more prominent when right here in New Haven we have some of what-I-am-sure is the Best Bread in all of New England, a local brand called Chabasso. As I grapple with the English language to find words to describe the Wonder of this rather non-WonderBread-Bread, I'm at a loss. It's really good: plain, with cheese, dipped in olive oil, slathered with garlic and butter - I simply do not care, and I will, yes I will, eat a whole loaf in one sitting if allowed. Greg and I have a favorite above all others, too: the olive oil Ciabatta. It looks something like this and although the taste is out-of-this-world fantastic, it's really the texture that does me in: chewy, soft, yet substantial enough to hold its own against whatever spread you might challenge it with. So, with a ready supply of Chabasso brand Ciabatta at hand for $3 a loaf, why bother making my own?

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This is a "poolish". Ferment for several hours at room temperature and then allow for slow flavor development in the fridge


  Making three batches of bread required an excess of time I wouldn't normally afford, but having done this... it was totally worth it. I don't think I could actually even taste the bread, since the mere fact that it wasn't a hard, golf-ball sized hunk of flour took my breath away and obviated any possibility for logical critique. Making bread with my bare hands was exciting and filled me with pride. I was so excited that I could have eaten all in one sitting with nothing other than a knife and some butter irregardless of taste - though it just so happens that the taste was not terrible, either.  


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Following a first rise, the soft, supple ciabatta dough is gently folded onto itself. My guess is that this helps produce the nice, oblong holes seen in traditional ciabatta.


All three times, I intended to make an Olive Oil Ciabatta. The ciabatta recipe from this amazing book relies on utilizing a poolish - a soft, spongey, pre-ferment that is allowed to develop flavor over 24 hours. Then, I kneaded, watched it rise several times, and eventually baked it in my oven at 500 degrees.  I tried three times. First, I didn't add enough water to make a soft dough and I didn't let it rise enough, so the resulting bread was soft and finely crumbed sandwich bread. Second, I achieved the right consistency and the right texture, but I didn't let the poolish ferment for a full 24 hours, so it was good but not super flavorful. Third, I had the right consistancy, it fermented and rose correctly, and I used a stand mixer to do my kneading. The texture of this batch was far superior to the other ones, and the flavor was spot on. Now, I can almost replicate Chabasso's Ciabatta in my own home, and I know with further tweaking there is much to explore.



Yup. Butter. It's good. It's all that's needed.

All of these thoughts bring me to why I like bread, or now, more appropriately, why I like making it:

(1) Like baking, there is some degree of precision and predictability in the recipes

(2) Unlike baking, and like cooking, the sky's the limit. It won't go wrong - it'll just be different than you expected. It was the fact that I followed the recipe to a T. (exactly 6 tbsp liquid) instead of going by "feel" (perhaps 10 tbsp?) that I ended up with sandwich bread instead of Ciabatta.

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So, I like bread. I'm giving the recipe for the pre-ferment (the poolish) here and will post the complete ciabatta recipe within a few days.

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From "The Bread Baker's  Apprentice", by Peter Reinhart
11.25 oz     unbleached bread flour
12 oz           water, room temperature
1/4 tsp       instant yeast
Stir together the flour, water and yeast in a mixing bowl until all of the flour is hydrated. The dough should be soft and sticky and look like very thick pancake batter. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and ferment at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours, or until the sponge becomes bubbly and foamy. Immediately refridgerate it. It will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator.



Thursday, October 04, 2007

Tempered Tempeh



Until about two months ago I had only had Tempeh twice in my life. The first time, I bought the package, tasted it, and threw it out. The second time, I bought the package, cooked it, tasted it, and threw it out.


The third time, I had better luck. A vegetarian coworker brought in a sample of a barbeque Tempeh recipe she swore would change my heart. She was right: one bite and I was hooked. The baked Tempeh had none of  the sour, harsh, fermented flavors of my previous attempt -- it was dense and chewy, with a wonderfully hearty flavor. Although I am sure there are purists out there that eat this fermented soybean product raw and unadulterated, it turns out that my unaccustomed taste buds require Tempeh to be cooked for a really long time before it seems edible. How long exactly is "a really long time"? It probably depends on the marinade, but I have learned that the heat and flavorings better reach every last grain on the inside of the Tempeh sheet before I venture a bite. For baking, that means at least 40 minutes to an hour, depending on thickness. I strongly dislike sour flavors, so perhaps others wouldn't be so picky as I am.


I've raved about a vegetarian sandwich before, and here I'll rave again. Both sandwiches are delicious, healthy and satisfying (avacado-based fat in the former and hearty protein and fiber in the latter). This is the kind of sandwich that actually will fill you up, and as an added bonus, it turns out that Tempeh is easier to digest than Tofu. I think even if I tried, I couldn't make this recipe more simple. I don't even bother mixing the marinade: I just measure the ingredients into a pan, slice the tempeh and let it bake for an hour. I assemble the slices of baked Tempeh on whole-grain bread with sharp greens (Mache or Arugula are good), sprouts, sliced red onion, and a decent slathering of mayo - which in my opinion, is key. Greg's sandwich gets tomatoes and cheese too.



Barbeque Tempeh

Makes enough Tempeh for about four sandwiches


1 /2lb Tempeh (usually this is one package, and different varieties are available - anything grain based is fine)

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

3 tbsp maple syrup

Optional spices*: 1 tsp cumin, 1/2 tsp paprika, 1/2 tsp chipotle chili powder, 1/2 tsp thyme, and several dashes of cayenne pepper


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slice Tempeh in half once, and then in half (thickness-wise) again. Measure wet ingredients into a baking dish that is small enough so that all of the Tempeh will be covered and layer in the Tempeh. Bake for 45 minutes or until cooked through.


*The other flavors in the dish dominate so I don't usually bother with the spices... adding them gives the Tempeh more of a barbeque flavor