September 25, 2013
Though most people rely on commercial producers for their bread, baking one’s own at home is rather simple to do. Combined in a bowl with flour and water, dried yeast reacts marvelously, coming vigorously to life as it ferments sugars and creating a delicious balloon of gas-filled dough. Thirty minutes in the oven produces a house full of aromas and a hot, steaming loaf on the table. It’s easier, for sure, than pie. With white flour, anyway.
But using whole wheat takes things up a notch. Unlike white flour, whole wheat–like other unrefined grains–contains germ and bran. These two components bear minerals like zinc, magnesium and iron, as well as omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber. They also add a nutty array of flavors to a loaf of bread, as well as a fuller texture. Thing is, they also make life harder for bakers. For one thing, bran and germ soak up water, which can dry out a loaf and make it crumbly–and largely for this reason, bakers cannot simply substitute whole grain for white. Rather, recipes must be entirely recomposed. Germ and bran also add weight to the dough, which can impede its capacity to rise, leading to loaves almost as dense as French cobblestone. But a properly made whole wheat loaf can be surprisingly light as well as healthy to eat in ways that white bread isn’t, and if one loaf should fail, it’s worth it for the home baker to try again for that perfect honey-brown bread.
It helps to try a few basic methods. First and foremost, you must use enough water.
“Probably the most frequent mistake in baking whole wheat bread is not using enough water,” says Dave Miller, a whole wheat enthusiast and the owner of Miller’s Bakehouse near Chico, Calif. “You really need to hydrate the flour. Only then can you get really beautiful, soft bread.” White flour dough can be made with as little water as just 60 percent of the flour weight–a so-called “baker’s percentage” of 60 percent. But whole grain flour demands significantly more. Most commercial bakers use at least a 90-percent baker’s percentage of water–that is, 14.4 ounces to a pound of whole wheat flour. Miller uses even more water than that–often a 105-percent baker’s percentage. That means he uses almost 17 ounces of water to 16 ounces of flour.
And in San Rafael, Calif., Craig Ponsford, of the bakery Ponsford’s Place, goes even higher–up to 120 and even 130 percent water. “My dough is like soup when I first combine the flour and water,” says Ponsford, who makes breads and pastries with nothing but 100-percent whole grain flour. “Bread is all about the water. Water is what makes light, fluffy loaves, and in the case of whole wheat you need lots of water.”
You also don’t want to over-knead your whole wheat dough. That’s because it contains flakes of bran which can actually cut the dough like knives.
“Those will slice through the gluten strands when you’re kneading the dough,” says Jonathan Bethony-McDowell, a research baker in Washington State University’s Bread Lab, a facility used in national wheat breeding programs. This cutting action, he explains, will damage the consistency and structure of the dough and curtail its ability to rise. Anyway, an extra wet, gooey dough may be too sticky to easily knead, and a quick mix will do.
You’ll also probably have to give your whole wheat dough more time to rise than you would white dough, thanks to the heavy germ and bran particulates. But Ponsford warns that there is only so much time you can give. That is, at a certain point, a ball of dough will reach its maximum volume. Then, as the fermenting yeast continues metabolizing the sugars in the wheat, the dough stops rising and reverses. “If you let your dough over-ferment, then the gluten deteriorates, and the dough can collapse,” Ponsford explains.
So, what’s the sweet spot? The rule of thumb when using a baker’s percentage of 1 percent yeast (remember, that’s 1 percent of the flour weight) says you can let whole wheat dough rise for about three-and-a-half hours at 75 degrees Fahrenheit before it attains its maximum volume, according to Ponsford. But Ponsford usually uses one-tenth of a percent yeast. (A gram-sensitive scale would be helpful here.) Thus, the yeast takes longer to attain its full vigor–and the dough longer to reach its maximum gas capacity. Some of Ponsford’s whole wheat breads spend 36 hours rising, he says–a time span that he explains allows great development of flavor as the yeasts work on the germ, bran and endosperm. Ponsford likens these day-and-a-half breads to the great red wines of Bordeaux. Like a good Cabernet Sauvignon, he explains, such complex, long-fermented whole grain bread will last longer on the shelf and can be matched to stronger-tasting foods.
Beyond bread, those with a sweet tooth can also bake using whole grain flour. That’s what professional pastry chef Kim Boyce has been doing since 2007, after she discovered while experimenting with a recipe just how good whole wheat pancakes can be. Today, Boyce owns and operates Bakeshop, a pastry house in Northeast Portland, Ore. For Boyce, using whole grains is not about the health benefits. Rather, she believes they make better pastries, plain and simple.
“Whole grains give you a toothsome texture and a little nuttiness,” she says. “There is so much more flavor in whole grains, and that lets me pair my pastries with fruits and wines.” For cookie recipes, Boyce uses entirely whole grain flour, but for items that require some fluff, like scones and muffins, Boyce uses a 50-50 blend of white flour to whole grain flour.
Boyce says it doesn’t take a pro baker to replicate her recipes, many of which she has published in her 2010 cookbook, Good to the Grain. “People can totally do this at home,” Boyce says. For those hoping to try their own creations, Boyce advises starting with a favorite baking recipe that calls for white flour and substituting in a quarter or a half cup of whole grain flour in a one-to-one swap. Those who proceed further toward entirely whole wheat pastries must start boosting the liquid volumes, she advises, whether milk, water or cream, to accommodate the higher levels of water-grabbing germ and bran.
Whole wheat baking, clearly, takes some effort and time to do well. But whole grain proselytizers believe it’s well worth it–that the health benefits of eating whole grain flour, as well as the bonus of improved flavor, outweigh the challenges of turning it into bread. White flour, says Bethony-McDowell, at the WSU Bread Lab, is nothing but powdery white endosperm–almost entirely void of nutrition. “It’s just starch,” he says. “Ninety percent of the nutrients in whole wheat go out the door as soon as you mill it into white flour.” Monica Spiller is another advocate for whole grains–plus making them with sourdough yeast, which she and others say are good for the digestive tract. She sells heirloom seeds to farmers through her online nonprofit, the Whole Grain Connection, and she voices an increasingly supported notion that gluten intolerance is a misidentified condition.”I think gluten intolerance is actually an intolerance to refined flour,” she says. Ponsford, too, has observed this, he says, in customers at his bakery who once sometimes reported stomach aches after eating refined wheat products but who can digest his whole grain pastries and breads just fine.
The verdict may not be in yet on this health claim–but the jury, anyway, is baking good bread.Following are two recipes from the experts.
Dave Miller’s Basic Whole Wheat Bread
16 ounces whole wheat flour
16.32 ounces water (102 percent of flour weight, though extra dry flour may call for 105 percent, or 16.8 ounces, of water)
3.2 ounces sourdough starter (or, for non-sourdough, 1 tsp activated dry yeast)
0.38 ounces salt
Mix the flour with 90 percent of the water in a bowl. Let sit for 30 minutes–a lapse of time called the”autolease,” during which enzymes activate and convert starches into sugar. Next, mix the dough in an automatic mixer or by hand for several minutes. Add the remaining water, sourdough starter and salt. The dough will be very gooey–almost like batter. Allow it to sit for three hours in a bowl at room temperature. Next break apart the dough and shape into loaves. Allow 20 minutes of rising. Punch down the dough loaves and allow one more rise. After three hours, place in an oven preheated to 520 degrees F (yes–this is very hot). After 15 minutes, reduce the temperature to 470 for 20 minutes. For 15 more minutes, open the oven door a crack, which allows moisture to escape and facilitates crust formation. Remove the finished bread.
Monica Spiller’s Sourdough Starter
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
Directions: Combine half the flour and half the water in a glass jar and cover with a cloth. Stir two times per day. After about three days, the mixture should be bubbling. Using ph paper, measure the acidity. Monica Spiller suggests aiming for a ph of 3.5. Now, feed the starter half of the remaining flour and water. The ph should hit 3.5 again in slightly less time–two days, perhaps. When it does, add the remaining flour and water. This time, the increasingly vigorous starter will hit the desired ph in just eight hours. It is now ready to begin using. Always leave a portion in the jar to allow indefinite propagation. Maintaining the starter is easy. You must only remove about half of its volume every week, either to discard or (preferably) use in bread, and “feed” the starter with fresh whole wheat flour and water. If you bake less frequently, keep the starter in the fridge. Keep it covered with a cloth.
April 19, 2013
Artist Piet Mondrian used oil on canvas to create his famous geometric composition of neat red, yellow and blue squares and straight black lines.
Caitlin Freeman’s interpretation of this work of art is slightly different, and sweeter. Her medium? Flour, sugar, eggs and vanilla extract in a baking pan.
The pastry chef pulls inspiration from art and whips it into cakes, cookies, gelées and parfaits at her café on the fifth floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Mondrian cake, a compilation of moist yellow cake cubes coated in chocolate ganache, is the best seller at the museum location of the Blue Bottle Coffee Bar, which she runs with her husband, James.
In the café’s four years of operation, Freeman and her team have created nearly 100 desserts inspired by artwork that has appeared, at one time or another, on the museum’s walls. Twenty-seven of them, gleaned from works by Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo and Henri Matisse, are featured in her new cookbook, Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art, published this week. Each recipe is accompanied by a photo of the original artwork, with detailed history written by Janet Bishop, the museum’s painting and sculpture curator.
Freeman includes a photo of her very first attempt at a Mondrian cake, which she says is quite embarrassing to look back on. “It wasn’t perfect, but we just had to make a few thousand of them to feel like we had a hang of what we were doing with that cake,” Freeman says. “You don’t know until you do that final cut whether or not it’s all come together, so that one’s a tricky one.”
Crafting art-inspired cakes wasn’t always the plan for Freeman. She studied photography at the University of California, Santa Cruz, but figured she’d eventually become a dentist—a career goal she explains was likely thwarted by her big sweet tooth. During a trip to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Freeman fell in love with frequent pastry-painter Wayne Thiebaud’s Display Cakes, a 1963 oil painting of a trio of ready-to-eat cakes. Determined to become a pastry chef, she joined a new, small bakery called Miette, learning on the job and graduating from dishwasher to cake decorator (and business partner). She left Miette after seven years. Shortly after, the modern art museum called her and her husband about Blue Bottle Coffee setting up shop in its new rooftop garden.
“My reaction, since I was young, going into art galleries was seeing a piece of art that I really like, and liking it so much that I want to steal it or eat it,” Freeman jokes. “This is my way of doing something about it—just liking something so much that it inspires you to do something.”
How does Freeman move art from the canvas to the cake pan? Countless walk-throughs in the museum’s collections and multiple brainstorming sessions with her team. Some pieces lend themselves immediately to their dessert doppelgangers. For example, artist Ellsworth Kelly’s Stele I, a one-inch-thick, 18-foot-tall rust-colored oblong steel plate looks like an over-sized fudge popsicle.
But sometimes, Freeman says, the inspiration just doesn’t come. Landscape art, in the style of Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe, was tough to delineate in dessert form, so Freeman told her baristas to do the best they could with leaf-like latte art.
The colors in a given work of art usually drive the flavors in the resulting dessert. “If it’s all filled with blues and greens, it’s really hard to come up with something that’s tasty that’s blue,” Freeman says. A Ronald Fischer photograph of a shirtless beekeeper covered in bees led to a white chocolate box with a honey-pistachio parfait filling. The deep reds in Roy Lichtenstein’s triptych painting of a French cathedral became a spongy red velvet cake. Andy Warhol’s famous brightly colored print of Elizabeth Taylor gave rise to a neatly stacked gelatin treat of red, pink and mint squares.
Many of the cookbook’s desserts take several hours or even a day to complete, which can seem daunting to the average at-home baker. Freeman lays out a step-by-step assembly guide, instructing readers on how to temper chocolate, master butter cream and use chocolate transfer sheets, which add elaborate, stencil-like designs to finished sweets. “I didn’t want there to be big barriers of entry,” she says.
Frankly, when it comes to dessert, I think most people would agree.
March 29, 2013
Nothing screams Easter like the arrival of brightly colored marshmallow Peeps snuggled inside crinkly packaging at the grocery store. For many people, the sweet is meant to be hidden: some stuff them into plastic eggs hidden in the backyard for their kids to find, while others tuck them away in desk drawers at the office to satisfy late afternoon hunger pangs. But for one distinct group, marshmallow chicks and bunnies are stuffed (and baked and blended and broiled) into otherwise Peep-less recipes in the kitchen. Thanks to the massive proliferation of food blogs in recent years, we can witness the surprising culinary places a few of the 2 billion Peeps produced each year end up. Here are five ways to cook with these sugar-laden holiday staples, which Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based company Just Born has manufactured for 60 years.
Bake them. Because Peeps are essentially colorful marshmallows, they won’t seem out of place in dessert recipes. Exposed to high heat, Peeps melt back into their native state, a pool of sugary liquid fluff. They’re worthy substitutes for plain marshmallows in brownies, cookies, pies—even bread. For hearty Peep-stuffed brownies, start with a regular boxed mix of the bake-sale classic, following the package directions to create the gooey batter. Spread a portion of it out onto a pan, pressing Peeps of the color of your choosing into the mixture. Layering the remaining brownie mix on top to hide the chicks, and dust some Peep powder on top for decoration once you’re done baking.
Try squishing a Peep between two globs of cookie dough, sculpting the batter into round, slightly raised shapes, and bake according to your usual cookie recipe (this one recommends folding a pretzel into the dough along with the Peep for added crunch). Or use chick or bunny Peeps as pie filling. Melt the candies in hot milk and let them cool before folding in heavy whipping cream and chopped or bite-size chocolate candies (semisweet chocolate chips, Reese’s Pieces or tiny chunks of toffee). Pour the thoroughly mixed batter into a store-bought or homemade pie crust and leave in the refrigerator overnight.
The Peep flavor can also be infused into breakfast desserts, like the sticky and gooey monkey bread. Dip buttermilk biscuits into a smoothly whisked mixture of microwave-melted Peeps, butter and vanilla extract. Roll the biscuits in sugar dyed with food coloring to match the color of the Peeps, and stack and mold them into a bundt cake shape after they’re baked and golden brown.
And bake them some more. Not all casserole recipes are a match for Peeps (think tuna or cheesy macaroni), but less savory kinds, like those made with sweet potatoes, welcome a hint of marshmallow. Bake chick-shaped Peeps atop a batter of boiled and mashed sweet potatoes, milk, brown sugar, cardamom and cinnamon, letting some of the toasted marshmallow flavor seep into the casserole. Or swap standard marshmallow topping for slightly browned Peeps in this recipe for candied yam soufflé.
Toss them. We don’t recommend pairing Peeps with arugula, baby spinach and crumbled feta—tossing them with sweet and citrusy fruits produces better results. This recipe takes a spin on the Waldorf salad, a blend of apples, celery, walnuts and mayonnaise popularized in the early 1900s at a New York City hotel of the same name. Use pink or yellow Peeps for this one—flashes of electric blue in the middle of a salad might be alarming. Pair them with diced bananas, chopped oranges, halved maraschino cherries and work in shredded coconut and your choice of nuts. Drizzle fresh lemon juice and orange-flavor liqueur on top, mixing the entire batch well before serving.
Peeps can replace regular miniature marshmallows in ambrosia salad, another well-known fruit concoction. Chop pastel-colored chicks or bunnies into the size of the average miniature marshmallow. Add them to a bowl of pineapple chunks, diced mandarin oranges and shredded coconut, and then stir in a generous helping of Cool Whip.
Blend them. Peeps’ soft texture makes them prime candidates for electric mixers. Combine chocolate mousse-flavored Peeps with milk, sour cream and vanilla ice cream in a blender for a chocolatey shake. For a hint of toasted flavor, broil the chicks for one or two minutes until lightly charred before tossing them into the blender. Make Peep-flavored frosting by heating your choice of Peeps with egg whites, sugar and water in a saucepan. Beat the batter with a hand mixer until it gains some thickness, then spread it over cupcakes. Feeling fancy? Transform Peeps into unusually colorful mousse. Melt Peeps with heavy whipping cream in a saucepan, then zest off some sugar from still-intact chicks onto the sugary mix once it’s cooled.
Freeze them. Peeps don’t always have to be melted down beyond recognition in the kitchen. The marshmallow candies can also make for tasty frozen desserts, which this recipe dubs “peepsicles.” Press wooden craft sticks into bunny-shaped Peeps and submerge them into a bowl of melted chocolate. Coat the peepsicles with shredded coconut, slivered nuts or sprinkles and store them in the freezer. Move beyond the obvious with this recipe for ceviche, a marinated seafood dish usually served raw and cold. Soak frozen bits of Peep in lime juice, dried chili peppers, fresh strawberries and dark chocolate, and dig in before they thaw and all the juices break them down. Peeps get very crunchy in less than zero temperatures, and really frozen ones (well, those submerged in a bucket of liquid nitrogen) easily shatter.
When cooking with Peeps, remember that, just like fruits and vegetables, they’re seasonal, available only around Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas. However, the marshmallows have an astonishing shelf life of two years, so finding a forgotten pack of five in the pantry can be a sweet (albeit slightly stale) surprise.
July 18, 2012
Would you be able to manage a kitchen if you no longer had the use of one—if not both—of your hands? This question came to me as a colleague—who is quite kitchen savvy and is a fellow brown bagger—had to go in for shoulder surgery, leaving her with only one usable arm for the next six weeks. She was told point-blank that cooking for herself was not an option and that family would have to fill in—and that just wouldn’t do.
Google searches for “cooking with a broken arm” or “one-armed cooking” were fruitless, with the latter phrase simply turning up lots of parenting sites. Perhaps everyone is told to grin and bear it while recovering from surgery and that’s the way things are.
But what if the appendage is permanently lost? Searching for “amputee cooking” didn’t generate a wealth of information, but it did bring up a YouTube video of Jennifer Griffin making brownies. Normally, this is an unremarkable activity. But Griffin is a quadruple amputee, the result of a sepsis infection. While some might see the lack of either hand—let alone both—as an end to a life of cooking, Griffin took a constructive attitude and figured out how to revamp and revise her methodology for pulling a meal together. She was kind enough to correspond via email to tell me about her new relationship to the kitchen.
What was your relationship to your kitchen like before the infection?
I enjoyed baking a lot and always have but I wasn’t cooking meals as much. My husband loves to cook—lucky girl that I am—and got me much more interested in taking time to learn about what I was eating and where it was coming from. That said, after I got sick I had more time on my hands (excuse the pun) and could learn. So I became much more interested after getting sick.
During recovery, did you raise the question of how to cook for yourself with your doctors?
It was interesting to me that cooking hardly even came up in discussions with my rehab doctors and therapists. I expressed an interest in wanting to learn how to manage the kitchen. So, one day I made lunch. Mac and cheese—great start! I’m not sure they knew exactly how far to take me so we pushed the envelope every day.
What kinds of resources were available to you that addressed cooking for people in your situation?
Not much at all. There is a site I use called Patterson Medical that offers some devices in addition to several items in Williams-Sonoma. However, I was looking for an instructional class with a teacher who could really think outside the box. No such luck.
What was the first dish you tried preparing?
The mac and cheese I made while in rehab and was a bit sketchy, but edible. Then I made brownies when I got home and the taste was great but I recall the presentation being a little questionable. The good thing on the brownies though was I remember having a desire to learn how to do it right and I started practicing!
What kitchen skill was the most difficult for you to re-learn or adapt?
I would say learning to stir, cracking an egg and cutting. If I’m not using a mixer, anything I stir moves the bowl around since I can’t hold onto it. So I’ve learned to have my bowl in a corner that the bowl can push into & stabilize or use something on the bottom that makes it stick.
Learning to crack an egg was fun. That just took trying over and over and now I do it without thinking. Since I can’t hold a knife it’s very difficult to cut/dice, etc. So, I’ve learned how to use a pizza slicer (ones with thick handles and I can grip it and use the rolling blade) and found a few good choppers such as this one from Williams Sonoma.
How did you navigate around the varieties of food packages?
It wasn’t like I had a real strategy for this. I just played with packaging and devices. Over time I came to realize what worked best. Most things that come in bags with a Ziploc type packaging and some boxes, I use scissors to open. I’ve learned to lay the package flat on the counter and open it with the scissors. The counter supports the scissors for me and I can open and close them in a special way. The one item I’m still having problems with are cans. I haven’t found an opener that I can use very well yet. Even if it’s electric I have to stabilize the can in some way. So, if you can work that out for me it would be great. [Readers: if you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments section below!—Ed.]
Reading your website, the Positive Living for Active youth (PLAY) Foundation was created to get amputees involved in physical activities. Is cooking/kitchen skills a part of PLAY Foundation programs?
Absolutely! We haven’t had anyone apply for that yet but we would support the request 100%. PLAY is all about getting out of your comfort zone and trying things that bring out the applicants strengths. If we received a cooking application, depending upon the request, we would find a chef or school that would be willing to work with that individual, provide the financial grant, and be the facilitator during the process.
Is there a key piece of advice you would offer someone in a similar situation who wants to get back in the kitchen?
My advice would be to not be afraid of exploring and start looking at a utensils for more than what they are (e.g. using a pizza slicer as a knife). There are ways of getting it done it just takes practice and the desire to accomplish a fun challenge!
March 7, 2012
If you were to point to the most marvelous product kicking around in your pantry right now, would it be your loaf of bread? It is one of the most mundane staple foods, but as Aaron Bobrow-Strain shows in his book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, the lowly loaf is so much more than the sum of its simple parts. In American culture, bread is a status symbol, and the book provides a fascinating look at how store-bought white bread rose and fell in prominence. The book also answers the big question: Why do we have pre-sliced bread, and why it was the greatest thing to hit grocery store shelves?
To understand sliced bread, one must first understand the dramatic shift in bread making habits in America. In 1890, about 90 percent of bread was baked at home, but by 1930, factories usurped the home baker. Considering that bread making had been a part of domestic life for millennia, this is a fairly rapid change. In the early 20th century, Americans were highly concerned with the purity of their food supply. In the case of bread, hand-kneading was suddenly seen as a possible source of contamination, and yeast—those mystical, microscopic organisms that causes dough to rise—were viewed with suspicion. “Bread rises when infected with the yeast germ because millions of these little worms have been born and have died,” Eugene Christian wrote in his 1904 book Raw Foods and How to Use Them. “And from their dead and decaying bodies there rises a gas just as it does from the dead body of a hog of any other animal.” Images like this hardly make someone want to do business with the local baker.
Mass-produced bread, on the other hand, seemed safe. It was made in shining factories, mechanically mixed, government regulated. It was individually wrapped. It was a product of modern science that left nothing to chance. It was also convenient, sparing women hours in the kitchen to prepare a daily staple. Factory loaves also had an attractive, streamlined aesthetic, dispensing with the “unsightly” irregularities of homemade bread. Americans fed on factory bread because the bread companies were able to feed on consumer fear.
But factory breads were also incredibly soft. Buying pre-wrapped bread, consumers were forced to evaluate a product under sensory deprivation—it’s next to impossible to effectively see, touch and smell bread through a wrapper. “Softness,” Borrow-Strain writes, “had become customers’ proxy for freshness, and savvy bakery scientists turned their minds to engineering even more squeezable loaves. As a result of the drive toward softer bread, industry observers noted that modern loaves had become almost impossible to slice neatly at home.” The solution had to be mechanical slicing.
Factory-sliced bread was born on July 6, 1928 at Missouri’s Chillicothe Baking Company. While retailers would slice bread at the point of sale, the idea of pre-sliced bread was a novelty. “The housewife can well experience a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows,” a reporter said of the sliced bread. “So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.” The bakery saw a 2,000 percent increase in sales, and mechanical slicing quickly swept the nation. With Americans all agog at the wonders of the mechanical age, sliced bread was a beacon of the amazing things the future might hold. At least that was the mindset. “Technology,” Bobrow-Strain says, “would usher in good society by conquering and taming the fickle nature of food provisioning.”