Saturday, December 30, 2006

Green Peppercorn Bread

Saturday, December 30, 2006
I inherited The Italian Baker, by Carol Field, from my mother, who got it as one of five cookbooks for $1 in the Book-of-the-Month Club. She could never resist a bargain. She never used the cookbook, and neither have I, although I've looked longingly at the beautiful pictures on the cover from time to time. We must have both thought the recipes would be too complicated or too exotic. But this green peppercorn bread couldn't be easier.
I'd had a bottle of green peppercorns in my pantry for a while, and this seemed like a good opportunity to use them. When I opened them, I suddenly asked myself how long I'd had them. Then I wondered if green peppercorns could spoil. If so, could they kill me? Death by green peppercorns. It seemed unlikely. I decided I could go out and buy a new bottle of green peppercorns, but that seemed wasteful. I went back and forth with myself for a while, but finally decided just to make the bread and not eat it if it didn't taste right.
I adapted the recipe for some of Rose's techniques. I used instant yeast instead of the powdered yeast that needs to be dissolved in water; I did three risings instead of just two; and I used the ice cube method of creating steam.
It looked pretty, as it came out of the oven, and it smelled good, but I was still a little worried about the peppercorns. In fact, I was starting to be obsessed, although that didn't stop me from eating two pieces of bread. I loved the bites with the peppercorns, which tasted just fine, but I still thought I could taste a hint of the brine, which tasted a little formaldehyde-y, in my now somewhat crazed and hypochondriacal opinion.

Two hours later, I checked the computer for symptoms of botulism. Drooping eyelids, difficulty in swallowing and talking, dry mouth. I looked in the mirror. The eyelids seemed OK, and I could swallow, but it might take up to 36 hours for symptoms to show up. There are only 117 cases of botulism reported annually in the United States, most of them in infants. I threw out the rest of the peppercorns, because even if they weren't really bad, they were causing me to behave strangely.
I did another internet search and discovered a site that said green peppercorns packed in brine were almost certain to spoil. Uh-oh. I checked my eyelids again.
I asked Jim if his eyelids seemed all right; he seemed surprised by the question.
I actually would recommend this bread. It's very tasty and easy; I would, however, strongly recommend making it with fresh peppercorns, not some that have been sitting on a pantry shelf for God knows how long.

Pane al Pepe Verde (Green Peppercorn Bread)
2 3/4 - 3 cups (375 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 t. instant yeast
1 t. (5 grams) salt
1 1/4 - 1 1/2 T. green peppercorns, rinsed and drained
2 t. olive oil
1 c. water

Whisk flour, yeast, and salt in mixing bowl. Using dough hook, put mixer on low speed and add olive oil and water. When dough starts to come together, increase mixer speed to medium and mix about 4 minutes, until dough is creamy and smooth. Add peppercorns which have been slightly chopped.
Knead dough by hand on floured counter briefly, and put in covered container.
When dough has doubled, about two hours, put on floured counter. Stretch it to a rectangle and make two business-letter folds. Return to container and let double again, about one hour.
Shape into either round or torpedo-shaped loaf and place on baking sheet with parchment. Cover with dish towl or oiled plastic wrap, and let rise another hour.
Preheat oven to 500, put baking stone on lowest rack. Put another baking sheet or a cast iron pan on the bottom of the oven.
When dough has risen, make several slashes and put in oven. Add 1/2 cup of ice cubes to baking sheet or cast iron pan.
Immediately lower heat to 400. Bake about 35 minutes. Halfway through baking, put loaf directly on baking stone.
(Adapted from The Italian Baker)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 25, 2006
I made Thanksgiving dinner and so, according to family tradition, I do not have to make Christmas dinner. This year Jim's sister had dinner, and, of course, I brought bread. I was planning to bake another version of butter-dipped dinner rolls, but the call of the no-knead bread was too strong for me to ignore. This time I used the same percentages of flour, water, yeast, and salt as the last time I made it, but I used Harvest King bread flour instead of King Arthur; I used about durum flour instead of whole wheat as about 15% of the flour; I used a different pan; and I sprinkled the dough with cornmeal instead of with wheat bran. Result: a totally different bread, with a very different texture and flavor.

This bread has the large holes and cracklingly crisp crust that I didn't get when I added whole wheat flour.

I loved that, but I think the flavor of the bread with added whole wheat flour is slightly superior. I think that my next experiment will be to use the same pan I used this time and use a small amount of whole wheat and a small amount of durum flour and perhaps also a bit more water and see what happens.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Presents, Part II

Saturday, December 23, 2006
Our neighbors who didn't get their bread last weekend because they were in London are now back in Minneapolis, more cultured than they were before, and they thought that I'd forgotten their caraway rye. But it was they who had forgotten that I have a mind like a steel trap. And so I baked them their bread and took it over to their house. They were quite pleased and thought it would be delightful with their planned pot roast dinner.
I was delighted that my slashing technique has become much better since my first attempt at caraway rye, which tasted delicious but had overly timid slashes. (See March 18, 2006 entry). Now, with my sharp French slashing knife, it looks much better.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Basketcase and Friends Bake Christmas Cookies

My blog name is all about bread and only about bread. But in December, baking thoughts always turn to cookies. My friends Cathy and Joanne and I always get together and spend a day baking cookies. We usually turn out about ten or twelve different kinds, but this year we slowed down a bit.
Actually, there had already been a cookie day at the Wolf household. Elizabeth and her boyfriend Joe baked and designed sugar cookies. I wanted to get some new and fancy cookie cutters, but, oddly, Williams-Sonoma had nothing except some that you could put together (Tab A in Slot A) and make three-dimensional cookie Santa scenes. They looked kind of stupid, so we resisted. As always, the cookie decorating works better in theory than in practice. The tiny frosting dots come out in unwieldy blobs, and the colors are always a little off. But it was a good way to spend an evening.


and Joanne
were not happy about being photographed. I had to promise them I would not post their photos on the blog, but they should know me by now to know that that was just a flat-out lie.
I made Cashew Puffies, from Rose's Christmas Cookie Book. I must always bake at least one cookie from her book every year. I thought maybe cashews would be too strong a flavor for cookies, and I don't really like the name "puffies," but these were excellent cookies. The taste was not at all too strong, and the cookies were a little puffy, so I couldn't hold the name against them.

My second cookie was Mocha Pecan Balls, a Mexican Wedding Cake kind of cookie, only with cocoa and instant espresso powder added. This is a recipe from that I've had for years.

Cathy made a cream cheese lemon cookie with lemon icing, sprinkled with walnuts. She is a champion icer, and her cookies always look pretty. She also made another old favorite, a chocolate drop cookie with chocolate-mint icing. We've been making these for 15 or 20 years--they're from an old Ladies Home Journal. She wasn't supposed to, but she cheated and brought some krumkake, or some Norwegian cookie that requires a special iron. Minnesota is full of Norwegians and Swedes, and their specialties--lingonberries, lutefisk, lefse, Swedish meatballs, rosettes, krumkake, etc.--are always dragged out for Christmas Eve. I am very grateful that my Christmas traditions do not include white fish preserved in lye. Actually, she cheated twice because she also made some non-bake Christmas cookies. Her mother and my mother always made these: they contain peanut butter, cocoa, and oatmeal, and people love them even though they're not awfully pretty.

Oops--I guess I never took a picture of the chocolate cookies. They look like chocolate cookies, and are also from the old Ladies Home Journal.
Joanne made a very nice apricot-coconut bar that is from a cookbook with a name I can't remember. It's written by a woman who has a bakery in New York that is apparently very, very famous. Her second cookie was another old standby--the cranberry-white chocolate drop cookie. Sometimes when we make these we add macadamia nuts, but not this time.

The challenge now is to give them all away instead of eating them. This challenge is complicated by the fact that other people give you their Christmas cookies too, so sometimes even when you give cookies away, you end up with a net gain. Elizabeth tells me I am losing this battle and I must give more away. I tell her I am giving bread away this year, and it eats into my cookie giveaways. She tells me I must do better.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Christmas presents

Saturday, December 16, 2006
Our three closest neighbors are in competition for the best-neighbor-in-the-world contest, and they have cheered me on in this Year of the Yeast, so I wanted to give them a loaf of bread as a holiday present. I told them to look at my blog and see which one they wanted--no restrictions. I was a little surprised at their choices because I expected that they might opt for something fancier, but their choices were pumpernickel, caraway rye, and fresh herb focaccia. Fortunately, the caraway rye neighbors are in England this week, so I can make their bread next week; otherwise, I would have tried to bake three loaves in one day.
As it was, I baked two in one day--always a challenge for me because I lose my place in the cookbook, I don't remember which timer belongs to which bread, and I am just generally in a more confused state than usual. This day was no different than the others where I have attempted more than my mental acuity can handle; fortunately, all the ingredients went in the appropriate bread.

I attacked the pumpernickel first. It was such fun to finally be able to make a bread for the second time! And this time I had good pumpernickel flour from King Arthur (what makes their flour so good?) and the little bottle of caramel color, so this one turned out even better, I think, than my first one. The pumpernickel recipients were very grateful, and kept telling me what a nice present it was.
After the pumpernickel was rising, I started the focaccia. I had forgotten that this focaccia is made with the Play-Doh technique of kneading. I was totally absorbed in this process when Elizabeth, home for the holidays, walked in the kitchen and asked me what I was doing. She said it in a tone that indicated I would not have a good answer. I told her it was an advanced kneading technique for super-hydrated breads. This was apparently not a good answer because she just noted that I was making a huge mess. Aside from the messy kneading, this bread is very satisfying to make because of the rolling, folding, and dimpling techniques it uses, which are all, for some reason, very pleasing to me.
As I was working on the two breads, it occurred to me that I wasn't going to be able to enjoy either of them because I was giving them both away. I started to feel mildly aggrieved, but tried to convince myself that the joy of giving was better than the joy of eating. Well, OK, I said to an unconvinced self: the joy of giving is almost as good as the joy of eating.
However, when I called the focaccia recipients to tell them I would deliver their bread, they asked us to stay and help them eat it. I hesitated--joy of giving, Marie, joy of giving--and told them we'd be over in five minutes.

Laurel and Jan Deloria
They brought out a bottle of a lovely Italian wine from Puglia, two cheeses, apples, and olive oil. (I told you they were excellent neighbors). We did restrain ourselves from decimating the bread and left them some to eat with their dinner.
I've just finished reading Rose's blog, which has a new entry on the no-knead bread. This has made me want to try some more variations, which I plan to do next weekend--along with the caraway rye.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Bread of the Century

Saturday, December 9, 2006
I am one of the very last to try the bread that has swept the nation by storm--you know the one I'm talking about: the no-knead popularized by Mark Bittman, the only bread recipe to make the "most e-mailed list." My excuse for being so late to jump on the bandwagon is that I had other things on my mind, like baking my 82nd bread. But today, with the challah being chistory, I was ready to join the parade.
How easy is it? Very. The bread baker himself, Jim Lahey, says a four-year-old could do it. Bittman says maybe an eight-year-old. I say they must both have precocious children, and I'd move it up to ten. But there is no kneading, no complicated shaping--all you really need is time.
I have noticed some bloggers commenting rather snootily that this is not a new technique at all; it's simply a variation of pain l'ancienne, which I had never heard of, although I decided it translated better as "the bread of the ancients" than as "old bread." I looked it up, and it's similar, although it relies more on cold than on time:

Pain à l'ancienne is not actually a type of bread, but rather a technique for making bread. The technique uses delayed-fermentation. Delayed-fermentation means that you make the dough then delay the fermentation by retarding the action of the yeast by chilling the dough. Ice water is used to mix the dough and then the fridge is used to hold the dough overnight. It is an easy method producing a deliciously different tasting result.I think that you could use the pain à l'ancienne method with any bread recipe, but I have not yet tested this theory.The recipe I used is from the book The Bread Baker's Apprentice which I can highly recommend for all aspects of bread baking - recipes, explanations and techniques.I made three pain à l'ancienne baguettes like this :Make a dough from 3 cups of stone-ground unbleached flour, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of dried yeast, and just over 1 cup of ice cold water. Add more water as you go if required to make a very soft almost sticky dough. Transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and put in the fridge overnight, or the equivalent.Take the bowl out of the fridge and leave at room temperature until it has doubled in size from the size it was when it went into the fridge.Gently transfer the dough to a generously floured bench, trying not to deflate the dough....
This recipe and description is from, who got the recipe from Peter Reinhart, who got it, I think, from some old guy in Provence. While I was researching pain l'ancienne, I ran across a book called No Need to Knead, by Suzanne Denny. Well, there probably is nothing new under the sun.
This no-knead bread calls for an 18-hour first rise and a two-hour second rise. 18 hours! This is difficult to plan, if you work during the day and sleep during the night. I did laborious calculations: if I stirred it up at 7:00 Friday morning, it would be done with its first rise at 1:00 a.m. and then ready to bake at 3:00 a.m. I didn't like the sound of that. If I mixed it at 6:00 Friday afternoon, after I got home from work, it would be done with its first rise at noon and ready for the oven around 2:00 p.m. Not bad, except that we were scheduled to meet some friends at a museum at 3:00 in the afternoon, and they were all coming back to our house for dinner. I solved the timing problem by leaving work early and bringing a file home with me so that, after mixing the bread, I could get back to the poor client whose brother was, to his total surprise, mixing up meth in the tool shed.
This timing worked perfectly. For me anyway.
Mark Bittman has written a second column on this bread, refining it a little, and Rose has also tackled it on her blog, so, being a late bread bloomer, I had the advantage of other people's tweaking. I used slightly less water, slightly more salt, and substituted whole-wheat flour for part of the bread flour. The dough did what it was supposed to do: it rose very, very slowly, and doubled into a bubbling mass about 18 hours later. (Even after 8 hours, it had started to bubble and had risen significantly. There's probably no magic to the 18-hour figure, but since I'd already calculated the 18-hour schedule, that's what I was going to use).
I used my LaCloche instead of the big metal pot Mark Bittman used, and I also used Rose's ice cubes in the bottom of the oven technique. I used wheat bran to cover the dough for its second rise, where it's swathed in cotton towels.
And the bread turned out to be very good. I didn't get the super big holes or the crispy, crackly crust that others have achieved. I got a good texture and a nice crust, but not the crackly one that I got in Rose's baguette recipe.

But I will absolutely make it again. How could you not make it again when it requires so little effort and so little skill and turns into a better loaf of bread than you can get at most bakeries?
I think it's the "so little skill" part that may be making serious bread-bakers have mixed feelings about this bread. After all, if your 10-year-old nephew can whip up a loaf of bread that rivals a professional baker's best loaf, how does that make the baker feel? Since I'm not a professional baker, I don't have to feel too sensitive. But I do have this to say to the 10-year-old: "Let's see you make croissants, sonny."

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Traditional Challah

Saturday, December 2, 2006
Number 82! I've done it--with nearly a month to spare! (And, by the way, here is my horoscope for today: You subscribe to the idea of trying everything, or most things, once. That's what makes today such an adventure.).
But it's very odd because I feel almost like crying. There were many days, especially in July, when I really didn't want to turn on the oven, and there were weekends when I felt like I was a slave to my bread-rising schedule. But somehow I feel more melancholy than triumphant.
What am I going to do with my weekends now? What will duplicate the satisfaction of crossing another bread off my list? But before I get too weepy, I should talk about the challah.
This bread was one of the most delicious ones that I've made. Alas, it was not picture perfect, as you will see from the pictures. Jim tried his best to disguise the fact that the top of the bread, rather than being shiny-glazed and full of seeds, was stretchy looking whitish bread dough. I'm not sure if I braided too tightly (or not tightly enough), or if the dough didn't have quite enough flour, or if I didn't let it rise enough after it was shaped so that there was too much oven spring. (A year ago I didn't know what oven spring was).
Anyway, the mixing went swimmingly, the rising took place nicely on schedule, so that I could go to a one-year-old friend's birthday party (Happy birthday, Anton!) between risings, and the braiding, following the directions on pp. 72-74, looked quite good. So I was not prepared for the shock when I opened the oven door and found that the braiding was somehow on the sides of the loaf and the top was just plain old bread dough. I thought about re-glazing it, but decided to just wait and see what happened. When it came out of the oven, I told Jim he had a challenge ahead of him. He took a look and said, "whoa! What happened here?" Note to Jim: these are not words of encouragement. I told him to take disguising pictures, but he failed to work miracles.
Here is a full-on picture of the challah from hell (chell?):

A slightly disguised photo of the same.
But all was forgiven when I sliced the bread and ate it. I had wondered whether it would lack the nice buttery flavor of the typical white bread, or whether the five eggs would make it tough. But the bread was very rich and it tasted great with just a little butter. Jam or honey would have been nice options, but I didn't want to disguise that fresh-from-the oven taste. Tomorrow I'll have it for breakfast, and will have two big decisions to make: jam or honey? toasted or not?
But now I must take a moment to wax nostalgic. What an amazing year this has been! Not only have I had wonderful bread every week, but I've also met some extraordinary people through this blog. I appreciate all the people who popped in now and then to watch my progress and to leave warm, funny, encouraging, and helpful comments. And, of course, I especially thank Rose Levy Beranbaum, who knows everything about bread, and quite a lot about life, and who has never once taken me to task for messing up one of her beautiful breads.
But I don't need to get too sentimental because I'm not leaving the blogosphere even though my project is over. Stay tuned for: lists of favorite breads, new baking adventures, a blow-by-blow description of a kitchen remodeling job, and, eventually, pictures of breads baked in a new Wolf oven. (What other kind of oven could a Wolf kitchen have?)