bread head

My friend Sue Thelen was baking bread today, with a sourdough starter I gave her, and posted about it on Facebook. Something in her post reminded me of something I heard once – there are cooks, and there are bakers. Cooks tend to change and adapt recipes to suit their taste, their imagination, and whatever happens to be in the cupboard. Bakers, however, have to follow a recipe a little more closely. In many baked goods, for scientific reasons, a slight difference in, say, the ratio of flour to water can make a big difference. Bakers care whether they use bread flour, all-purpose flour or cake flour, and they know the difference.

I tend to be a cook, and I’m not the type to bake desserts or pastries, but I do love to bake bread, and I can generally stick to a recipe well enough for bread to turn out. I’m still amazed that I’ve been able to keep my home-grown sourdough starter alive for so long now.

Father Dominic Garramone, an actual Benedictine monk, used to have a show on public TV called “Breaking Bread with Father Dominic.” Yes, baking can be picky, but you can’t stress over it too much; Father Dominic used to say, repeatedly, “It’s bread; it’ll forgive you.” I’ve found that to be true. Even if a loaf of bread is a little denser than expected or a little softer than expected, it’s still usually good.

After I told Sue that earlier today, however, I had a less-than-forgiving moment tonight. I had reserved half of the bread dough from this past weekend, frozen it, and then thawed it overnight last night. I let it rise today and put it in the oven tonight. So far, so good; I now know I can safely freeze bread dough.

The trouble is that the rickety oven in my apartment does strange things sometimes, and I had the thermostat turned up a little too high tonight, causing the broiler to turn on, burning the top of the loaf before the center had even started really baking. I had to throw it out.

Sue’s loaves today turned out well, and since that was my starter I can at least take some solace.

I was happy that our conversation made me think of Father Dominic, by the way; I had no idea that he had a website, and a blog. There are some short videos, “Breadhead Minutes,” which apparently still run on some public TV stations (I haven’t seen them locally, but I may have just missed them).

Interestingly enough, my tech column in today’s Times-Gazette referenced Leo Laporte’s TWiT Network and the new relaunch of “The Screen Savers,” both of which feature another Catholic father who dabbles in television on the side – the likable and knowledgeable Father Robert Ballacer, a Jesuit priest. If the Wittenburg Door were still active, I’d be pitching interviews with both of them.

just loafing

Today, of course, was my second Saturday in a row to spend eight hours working a Relay For Life fundraiser – in this case, the Times-Gazette’s second annual Community Yard Sale, which was a huge success.

It was early in the day – not long after the official start time – when, wandering around, I found this:


It’s a cast iron bread pan, from the fine folks of Lodge Manufacturing in South Pittsburg, Tenn. I love cast iron cookware and have several pieces of Lodge product in my kitchen, which I use constantly. I got to tour the plant once for a newspaper story, and I love their factory outlet store. (They have a store in South Pittsburg and two stores up in the tourist mecca of Sevier County, but the South Pittsburg store is best because it’s the only one with factory seconds.)

The pan had obviously never been used, although the little Lodge tag was kind of stuck together, as if it had gotten wet. Because Lodge now factory-seasons its products, the pan has the black coating which you used to have to build up through repeated use. The pan itself was in perfect shape.

It was only $7, and I snatched it up immediately. I immediately started thinking about using it.

I’ve been baking a lot of bread lately since creating my own sourdough starter. The recipe I’ve been using most often makes two loaves, so I’ve generally been throwing one loaf into the freezer and thawing it once I’ve finished the other loaf. But now, I have a dilemma. This cast iron pan obviously has different thermal properties than the matched set of non-stick loaf pans I’ve been using. I don’t want to bake one loaf in the cast iron pan and another one next to it in a much lighter-weight pan.

After checking online, I think what I’m going to do is freeze half of the raw bread dough. The sources I’ve found online say it’s best to do this after the first rise and before the second rise.

Even though I was exhausted, I ran by the grocery store on my way home from the yard sale because I was running low on bread flour. Now, I’ve got a batch of dough mixed up that will rise overnight. Tomorrow morning, I will knead it and then divide it into two portions, one of which will be frozen immediately for later use. The other portion will rise all day in the cast iron pan and then be baked that night.

I’ve been very pleased with my sourdough starter, and I’ve even shared it with a friend. (Let me know if you want some.) I have no green thumb, and have trouble keeping plants alive, but apparently I’m better with yeast.

I also know how to take care of cast iron. I never immerse mine in soapy water. I occasionally use a soapy sponge or rag from the sink to wipe it out, but because of the non-stick properties of properly-cared-for cast iron soaking is not required. I usually just rinse it out while it’s still warm, using a brush or one of those little flat nylon pot-scrapers to dislodge any stubborn particles, then give the piece a quick hit of cooking spray and wipe it down inside and out with a paper towel.

The sun rises in the yeast

I spent a lot of last night baking three loaves of artisan bread for today’s Times-Gazette bake sale to benefit the American Cancer Society Relay For Life. I baked one loaf before Holy Thursday services and then the other two after I got home.

Two of the loaves were bought by co-workers, while my fellow Relay booster Judi Burton – who’s becoming a regular customer – bought the third.

All that baking made me want some bread of my own, so I made up another batch of dough just now. It will sit out for the next two hours, then before I go to bed I’ll snap a lid on it and put it in the fridge, where it will yield three loaves over the next week or so. (For my own use, thankfully, I only need to bake one loaf on a given day.) I use a no-knead recipe; it’s a wet dough designed to keep in the refrigerator until you need it, and the yeasty flavor improves over time. The dough starts to smell like beer after a few days.

The dough is based on the basic recipe from Jeff Herzberg and Zoë François of the “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day” cookbooks, but instead of baking on a baking stone with a pan of water to provide steam, as in their recipe, I now use Kenji Lopez-Alt’s method of baking in a cast iron dutch oven. You pre-heat the dutch oven, including the lid, in a hot oven, so it’s good and hot. and after putting the loaf in you bake it for a while with the lid on, which holds in some steam and gives you the same nice crust as that pan of water would. Then, you take the lid off for the last half of cooking to let it brown.

I use the piece of parchment called for in the Herzberg / François recipe, only I cut it sort of like a sling so that I can use it to lower the ball of dough into the blistering-hot dutch oven. I remove the parchment at the same time I take the lid off the dutch oven, so that the bottom of the loaf can make good contact with the cast iron.

I can bake myself a loaf tomorrow – a good Saturday project – and still have enough dough for two more loaves as I need them next week.

A loaf in the gadget

I hadn’t used my bread machine in months – I’d been pre-occupied with a couple of other recipes. Last year, at the Times-Gazette cooking show, I picked up a recipe for flatbread where you would make up a quantity of dough ahead of time, keep it in the fridge, and then pinch off a handful and cook it on the George Foreman grill (!!!) whenever you needed it.

Then, I found a recipe for a loaf bread that worked much the same way, and I’ve made that many times since the first of the year, including making loaves of bread for the Times-Gazette’s Relay For Life bake sales. The loaves are round and sort of lens-shaped; they bake on a pizza stone.

But tonight, for some reason, I felt like just dumping everything into the bread machine and pushing the “start” button. The machine is showing its age – it makes this slipping sound on and off when it’s kneading, and I have no doubt that it’s just going to stop working one of these days. But for the moment, it still works. There’s a loaf cooling in my kitchen right now, and the apartment smells wonderful.

I still remember reading a description of a bread machine, before they became affordable or plentiful, in the old DAK catalog. It cost hundreds of dollars, but it sounded amazing. You just dumped in the ingredients, and a few hours later, voila!

Later, after the machines became commonly available, someone gave my parents one as a gift. They used it either once or not at all, and it wound up in a yard sale. When I asked about a price, Mom quoted something, but then later decided she was going to give each of her children in attendance one item they wanted from the sale, and I wound up with the bread machine. I used that one for several years, and when it broke down, maybe five years ago, I bought my current machine, for about $45, at Walmart.

Yes, it’s a gadget. It’s a guy thing. It’s what Alton Brown dismissively calls a “unitasker” on “Good Eats.” But it’s still a pretty amazing thing.

Dough re mi

As I posted a few months back, I have become a big fan of a bread recipe that lets you make up a big batch of wet and sticky dough, without kneading. You let it stand at room temperature for a couple of hours then store it in the fridge for up to two weeks. Whenever you want to make a loaf of bread, you guesstimate and take out about a pound of dough, shape it with floured hands into a ball, let it sit on the counter for 40 minutes up to an hour, and then slash a few vents in the top and bake it on a pizza stone. It yields a nice round lens-shaped loaf.

When the Times-Gazette’s “Press Power” Relay For Life team held a bake sale a couple of weeks back, I made two loaves of bread – but neither sold to the general public. My fellow RFL committee member Judi Burton told me to hold one for her before the sale even started, and my T-G co-worker Mary Cook bought the other.

Well, Judi and Mary, I didn’t say this at the time, but I was kind of disappointed in the way those loaves turned out. All three of the loaves from my next batch after that were much better – they rose more and looked more attractive.

The T-G is having another bake sale this Friday, and I made up a fresh batch of the dough tonight. (You don’t want to let the dough go longer than two weeks, but the yeasty flavor and aroma improves over the first week, week-and-a-half.) The dough is going through its initial rise right now; I’ll put it in the fridge at 10 tonight and leave it there until Thursday night. Last time, I had somewhere to be Thursday night and had to wait until I got home to make my two loaves (and my pizza stone isn’t big enough to bake both at the same time). So far, I don’t have any commitments Thursday night, and so I think I’ll save all of this batch and make three loaves for the bake sale. Hopefully, they’ll turn out well.

Loafing on a Saturday

I have really enjoyed the recipe I got during last fall’s T-G cooking show for a yeast-raised flatbread dough which you keep in a bowl in the fridge, using a bit as you need it. It keeps up to two weeks in the fridge, and the yeasty flavor changes and improves during that time. It stirs together in a bowl, with no kneading required.

So, I found this recipe for a loaf bread which works pretty much the same way. It makes enough for three or four loaves. Like the flatbread recipe, you don’t knead it; you stir it together into a sticky dough. You let it sit on the countertop loosely covered for a couple of hours for an initial rise, then cover it tightly and put it into the fridge.

When you get ready to bake a loaf, you sprinkle a little flour on the surface of what’s in the bowl to make it easier to handle, then pull out the desired amount and shape it easily into a little round loaf. You let the round loaf rest on the counter for 40 minutes or an hour before baking. The yeast is still quite active, and the loaf rises well in the oven. You bake it on a pizza stone on the middle rack, with a pan of water on the bottom rack to provide steam, which helps the crust.

When you pull it out of the oven, it looks a little – no, exactly – like this:


I’m about to go for a walk, and when I get back it will have cooled and I’ll get a slice and taste it. It smells pretty darn wonderful.

As with the flatbread recipe, the dough lasts for two weeks in the fridge. The recipe says that, also like the flatbread, the yeast flavor develops during that time.

Another option for baking the loaf is to use a slow cooker, and I may try that next time. If the crust isn’t brown enough to suit you using the slow cooker method, you just put the bread under the broiler for a few minutes.


I admit it; occasionally, my mind wanders during church.

Today, during a hymn, I started thinking about the bread I had baking in my bread machine, so that it would be waiting for me when I got home.

This morning, I loaded the ingredients into the machine. I had a half an onion, and so on a whim I chopped it up and threw it in with the rest of the dough. When I reached for my bread flour, I wondered whether it would be enough – and I’d already loaded the wet ingredients into the machine. But it worked out perfectly. A few tablespoons were left in the plastic container in which I store my bread flour. After the initial mix, the dough was a little wet, so I went ahead and dumped that flour in as well. Perfect.

Well, as I thought about the bread in church, something occurred to me. I’d been so worried about whether or not I had enough flour that I had forgotten to add the one item which comes after the flour.


Pretty important to yeast bread.

I stopped by the grocery store on the way home from church and bought a new bag of bread flour. Sure enough, when I got home, there was a rubbery, unrisen lump sitting there, hot and ready, in the bread machine.

I guess I’ll have bread with supper instead of lunch.

For the man who likes to loaf

I know some people are suckers for gimmicky kitchen appliances. If I could afford it, and had a bigger kitchen, I would probably have a lot more than I do. Many people buy some device, go crazy with it for a few weeks, and then it’s abandoned to the closet, and eventually to the yard sale. Alton Brown, from whom I learn so much on the Food Network, calls gimmicky devices “unitaskers” and says that there should be only one single-purpose device in your kitchen: the fire extinguisher.

Some people consider a bread machine a gimmicky kitchen appliance. But I’m on my second bread machine (I blogged back on Labor Day weekend 2008 about the transition). I use mine frequently, although I admit I will go in spurts.

My current bread machine cost me all of $43 at Walmart. I just checked the Walmart web site, and while they list some bread machine cookbooks and ingredients, they don’t list any bread machines. I hope that doesn’t mean the bread machine is losing favor, because I think it’s a modern miracle. There are plenty of machines still on Amazon, although none as inexpensive as $43.

If you’ve never used a bread machine, it could not be simpler. You dump all of the ingredients into the machine — starting with the water, then the dry ingredients, then the yeast perched right on top, high and dry, especially if you’re going to use the timer to delay the process. If you aren’t using the timer, you turn the machine on and it begins mixing.

About 10 minutes later, if you are awake and available, you can open the door and gently touch the ball of dough. It should be slightly sticky, like a Post-It note, but without leaving a big glob of dough on your finger. You can add a little bit of flour or a little bit of water if necessary. I seldom find it necessary, and have no problem using the timer setting overnight or when I’m away.

Once you’ve completed this optional step, you’re through. Go read a book, clean the house, or take a walk through the neighborhood. The machine will knead the dough, let it rest, knead it again, let it rise, and bake it. After two and a half hours, your home or apartment will be filled with the incredible aroma of baking bread. After three hours, the machine will beep at you. Open the door, lift out the non-stick pan (using oven mitts or heavy kitchen towels!), turn it upside down and shake your perfectly-brown loaf of bread out onto the countertop.

The only downside is that because of the kneading blade built into the bottom of the pan, your loaf will have a strange indention which will make a few of the middle slices unattractive. Another seeming downside is that — since this is real homemade bread, without preservatives — it will dry out and get stale faster than the chemically-preserved sandwich bread you buy at the store. But the loaf is small enough, and delicious enough, that leftovers shouldn’t really be a problem. Anyway, there’s always French toast, or breadcrumbs, or what have you.

I sometimes enjoy trying a slice of the bread while it’s still warm, with butter on it, but that lets some of the steam escape, and I imagine it may extend the life of the loaf to let it cool completely before cutting into it.

I’ve shared before that I like substituting the sugar in the standard recipe with molasses, which gives the bread a somewhat different color but a great flavor. There are all kinds of recipes available, in the instruction book and in numerous cookbooks, and there are boxed “bread machine mix” products as well, in case your kitchen doesn’t have hard-to-find niche products like flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast.

You can also use the bread machine to knead and rise yeast dough for other purposes, such as rolls or pizza crust. Most, if not all, bread machines have a special setting for this. When the dough is ready, you take it out and shape it yourself.

Anyway, my bread machine is a wonderful thing.

Today’s kitchen tip

If you have a bread machine (and if you don’t, why not?) and if you use recipes instead of those boxed bread machine mixes, get a jar of molasses and substitute the molasses, tablespoon-for-tablespoon, for any sugar called for in the recipe. It adds a nice flavor. If it’s a white bread recipe, the molasses will give your bread a darker, whole-wheat-like color — unfortunately, I doubt that it’s actually any healthier than regular white bread, even though molasses does have a little bit of calcium, iron and magnesium.

Cheese bread

Cheese bread

I made another loaf of bread tonight. I used the same basic white bread recipe as the other night, except that I used olive oil instead of butter and added some shredded cheddar cheese. I thought the cheese might make the bread heavy, so I added a tiny bit more yeast.

It certainly looks like it turned out well. I’m letting it cool right now, but I’m not sure how much longer I can wait.