Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Croissants, Recap of Trials and Tribulations

*See April 2008 update below

Oh good, I overcame the fear of croissants induced by my last failure, and made this pretty batch.

I used Pierre Hermé's recipe, but increased the water significantly. His recipe specifies 200g (even suggests you start with only two thirds of this amount), whereas I believe I used 320g this time.

Perhaps it was a little too much water. I think the texture of the croissants could still be a little improved*(See the update below). The first time I made this recipe the croissants seemed more flaky, with large crunchy flakes just peeling off the tops, whereas this time they didn't make as many and as large crumbs. Could too much water reduce the flakiness? There must be a reason why the recipe cautions you to start with less water and add more only if you need it.

Or maybe they didn't proof enough*(yes! see update below). I defrosted the frozen raw croissants overnight in the fridge, then left them at room temperature for three hours before baking. But it was chilly (what's with all the snow we've been having for Easter?) and they still seemed a little firm when I touched them before putting them in the oven.

The insides that came out as I pulled on one end are fluffy, but the outside should break into more crunchy flakes or large crumbs

Still, the croissants came out OK, break out the Champagne!

Some process photos and comments

I rolled out the butter between two sheets of plastic wrap, cutting and pasting in places so it would cover about two thirds of the rolled out dough. When the plastic stuck too tenaciously to the butter, I put the whole thing in the freezer for a minute, after which the plastic peeled off easily.

Folding the dough after placing the butter block. I sealed the edges carefully, but made sure there was no air trapped with the butter

Rolling out the dough to make the croissants seems impossible at first. It springs right back to a smaller size. I did my best, then covered it in plastic, folded it once (to fit in the fridge) and put it in the fridge for at least half an hour, if not more. After this long rest, it rolled out quite easily. I cut triangles 22cm tall and 12cm wide. 20 or 18cm tall would have been enough, but that was the width of my dough strip. Lift the dough off the table to make sure it is relaxed before you start cutting triangles. Otherwise these can shrink as the dough retracts. If they do, it's not really a problem, but the shape of the croissant might be a little off.

The second half of the dough is waiting to be rolled out. See -- if you can, given the lighting -- the butter layers. Each half gave about 9 or 10 croissants, plus small bits of dough for minis. I froze the croissants on a tray after shaping them, and once they were frozen placed them in a tupperware box. It's good to know I still have about 8 of these in the freezer!

*Update April 2008
I can't believe I'm still writing about croissants... Rather than create another post I'll just update this one. The 8 frozen croissants mentioned above turned out much better than the ones originally posted about here, because this time I remembered to proof them in the microwave oven, with a glass of boiling water to create humidity and warmth. If you make many croissants, you can use your oven to proof them, but make sure it is completely cool. If the temperature gets too high the butter will leak, make a mess, and the croissants won't be light and fluffy.

I was much happier with these. It's all in the proofing!

A well proofed-croissant. How do you know the croissant has risen enough? Touch it. It should feel spongy, not at all firm.

Proper proofing somehow made the croissant taste more buttery, though it was made from the same batch as previously

Stretchy insides (click to view larger image)

* * *

Summary of my croissants endeavours

I've written a total of four posts about croissants (yes...), so here's an overview:

- First attempt, recipe from Le Pétrin
This post provides the first recipe I used, a lot of process photos, and links to many other croissant resources.
- Second attempt. The recipe from Hermé is included in this post. This is my current favorite recipe, provided the water is increased.
- Third attempt, and total failure, still using recipe from Hermé.
This shows what happens when the dough is too dry (yuck)
- Fourth attempt, (this post) using recipe from Hermé.
Good croissants. Increasing the amount of water and improving proofing made a huge difference. Some process photos.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter!

A good stay-at-home Easter weekend: lots of baking!

I couldn't resist acquiring yet more cookie cutouts, this time an Easter bunny and an egg, which I used with my usual brown sugar cookie recipe.

I had thoughts of decorating the cookies with the kids, using lots of garishly colored royal icing. I have the food coloring, the sparkly sugary nonpareils... They would have loved it. But I didn't have the energy to make this a family project. And I don't like to eat royal icing (except on Christmas gingerbread cookies... which I never get to post about as Christmas time is too busy).

So I used dark and white chocolate instead. I didn't temper the chocolate. I simply melted it directly in the microwave in one of these squeeze bottles that I bought in case I might one day want to decorate a plated dessert with artful swishes of raspberry coulis or chocolate sauce. The chocolate hardened nicely, and while it isn't particularly shiny it was firm enough to withstand being wrapped up in a cellophane bag as a small gift.

I also made brioche, this time from Sherry Yard's Secrets of Baking. I just love brioche, and find it quite easy to make, provided you have a stand mixer.

Last night I also made (and froze before baking) croissants, for brunch guests tomorrow morning. I'm crossing my fingers these come out better than the last batch...

Oh and I nearly forgot: on Friday I made my first attempt at soft pretzels. I'll be experimenting more with these, the shaping alone is lots of fun.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Pain à l'ancienne

Until recently I was not a bread baker. But this is changing, and I've been making bread quite regularly these last few months. My cousin gave me The Bread-Maker's Apprentice (among other wonderful cookbooks, thanks so much!), and it was worth her purchasing it and schlepping it to Europe for this bread recipe alone.

A recipe worth the effort
We live in a country that makes good bread, no doubt about it. But we sometimes miss French white bread. Now this recipe doesn't make fluffy, light baguettes. It's flatter, and a little heartier. But the crust is just right, crackling without being too hard, and the flavor of the bread (especially with butter) is excellent. And when the kids specifically ask for "Mommy's bread," I can't help but think the effort is worth it.

Cold fermentation releases flavors
The secret to the flavor of this bread apparently lies in its long, cold fermentation, which releases flavors trapped in the flour... Reinhart explains this process at length and with great enthusiasm in his book, but I'll keep this post as brief as possible. It's good, that's all I can say. And once you get the hang of it, this bread is easy to make. You have to plan ahead, yes, but the actual handling time is brief.

Bake for the whole week
I always make two batches, to justify turning on the oven so hot for so long. I don't double the recipe as my KitchenAid wouldn't be able to handle it, but making a second batch of dough takes an extra ten minutes, max. This bread gets stale fairly quickly, so once it's baked and cooled, I freeze most of the bread and defrost later by placing it in the microwave on medium for 40 seconds, then putting it in the oven at 150°C for about five minutes.

Recipe: Pain à l'ancienne
Adapted from The Bread-Maker's Apprentice

[I'm being a little lazy and not referring to the book for instructions, as I've made this recipe so many times I have it memorized. Also I've modified the quantities so that one batch makes four breads that can all fit at the same time in my oven. If you feel the explanations aren't clear enough, let me know. Otherwise these sites seem to have posted the exact recipe. For good process photos see my friend Tanya's post.]

- 500g bread flour*
- 10.5 to 11g salt
- 10.5g fresh yeast** (or 3.5g instant yeast I believe)
- 360g ice cold water (under 4°C), more or less
- flour for shaping the dough the next day (about 1/2 cup)

Special equipment
The following make my life a lot easier with this recipe:
- Stand mixer: the dough is very sticky, so hand-kneading would not be fun
- Plastic scraper: you can use a silicone spatula
- Bench scraper: you can use the largest knife you have
- Pizza peel: not essential but so comfortable to slip the bread into the oven. Replace with the back of a cookie sheet
- Ceramic pizza stone, or quarry tiles. If you don't have one, you can perhaps layer several cookie sheets on top of each other and preheat them well.
- Spray bottle for squirting water: the kind you use for plants

The day before
- Prepare your ice water. I place water from the fridge in the freezer for about 15 minutes, but you can also add ice cubes.
- Prepare a large mixing bowl by oiling it lightly.
- Place flour in bowl of stand mixer. Bury the salt under the flour so it doesn't come in contact with the yeast. Break up the fresh yeast over the flour. Pour the cold water on top.
- Mix the dough with the dough hook at speed 1 until all the flour is absorbed by the water, then mix at speed 2 for 5 to 6 minutes. The dough should be quite wet: it should clear the sides of the bowl, but stick to the bottom (so a small circle of dough stays permanently glued to the bottom of the bowl as the dough hook swings the rest of the dough around the bowl). Add water drop by drop if it seems too dry, or a little flour at a time if it's too wet.
- As soon as you are done kneading, take a wet plastic scraper and scrape the dough into the oiled bowl. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

The next day

1. Shaping the breads
- Take the dough out of the fridge. It may or may not have risen in the fridge. Let it come to room temperature for at least two hours, possibly more if after the two hours it still hasn't at least doubled in size. I've let it sit on the counter for I believe up to four hours or more.

The dough after it has fully risen. I always work with two batches at a time.

- About 45 minutes to an hour before you want to bake your bread, start preheating your oven to its maximum temperature, preferably with a ceramic pizza stone (or quarry tiles?) placed in the lower half of the oven. The stone conducts heat efficiently and creates a nice crust. If you don't have a pizza stone, use the thickest cookie sheet you can find, or several cookie sheets. Perhaps they don't need to be preheated quite as long.
- About 10 minutes before baking, place a large metal pan in the top of the oven to heat it up. This will be used later for creating steam. Also start boiling the of cup of water that will later be poured into this pan.
- Prepare: flour, a bowl of cold water, a bench scraper, a plastic scraper, a piece of parchment paper on the back of a cookie sheet, or on a pizza peel if you have one.
- Liberally flour a work surface (about 1/2 cup of flour?)
- Very gently pour the dough out of the bowl, helping it along with the wet plastic scraper so as to prevent stretching as much as possible: you don't want to degas the dough and risk losing the precious air bubbles.
- Sprinkle flour generously all over the dough, and with floured fingers, gently lift the dough around the edges to add more flour and to gently shape it into a rectangle.
- Dip your bench scraper in the water bowl, and cut the rectangle into the first of four slices. You want to press down and pinch with the scraper, as opposed to making a sawing motion. After each slice, dry and flour your hands, then carefully lift the strip of dough with two hands onto the parchment paper, where you will gently stretch the dough to the width of the paper, as you lay it down. This should be fairly easy to do, I find gravity does all the work for me. But if the dough is very springy and resists being stretched, let it rest for five minutes to give the gluten a chance to relax. Repeat with all four slices of dough, making sure they don't touch each other.
- A light touch with the dough is essential to keeping if from deflating. Make sure your fingers are always either wet or floured to prevent the dough from sticking to them.
- Scoring dough that is this wet is not easy. I don't know the first thing about scoring, but scissors dipped in flour work fairly well. The recipe says you can skip scoring altogether if the dough doesn't cooperate.
- You don't have to wait for the baguettes to proof, you can proceed with the baking step right away.

2. Baking the breads
The first few minutes of baking are a little hectic. The goal is to create as much steam as possible in the beginning, as this helps the bread rise and creates a pleasant crust. Since most of us don't have professional ovens, Reinhart proposes workarounds (I think he calls this hearth baking):
- After putting the bread in the oven (just slide the bread together with the parchment paper onto the preheated stone or cookie sheet), immediately and carefully pour 1 cup of boiling water into the metal pan that has been heating at the top of your oven. (In the beginning I used a large Pyrex dish, which was great, till I poured water that wasn't quite hot enough into it, and it shattered over my precious bread.) Close the oven.
- 30 seconds later, open the door and quickly squirt water onto the sides of the oven with the squirt bottle. Work as quickly as possible, and try not to squirt water on the bread or on glass (lights, the door of your oven) or the thermal shock could cause cracking. Close the door of the oven, wait 30 seconds, do it again. You'll squirt the walls of your oven a total of 3 times in this way.
- (In the interest of full disclosure, let me say I use yet another steam gadget, though I have no idea if it contributes in any way to the success of my breads: I discovered my oven has a little doo-hicky that lets you squirt water inside to create steam. It may be superstition on my part, but I do my utmost to generate as much steam as possible as soon as I put the bread in the oven).
- After the final squirting, you can lower the oven temperature to 245°C. The temperature was higher in the beginning to compensate for all the door opening.
- After about 8 minutes, check to see if the bread is browning evenly. Turn it around to ensure even baking. Take out the steam pan if it still contains water, as now you want a dry environment for the bread.
- I take my bread out 10 minutes later. The target internal temperature is 96°C (205°F). One blogger suggested leaving it longer makes for a tougher crust. I often go by the color of the bread.
- Let the bread cool on a rack for 15-20 minutes. This is the hardest part, but worth it, as the texture of the bread won't be settled if you break in too soon.

This is rustic bread, uneven shaping and scoring really don't matter.

* A word about flour
Every country has different flour. Even within Western Europe, flour is different in France, Switzerland, Germany... The recipe came from an American book, that specified bread flour, which I cannot get here. My friend Tanya has done a lot of research on flour substitutions, so I will keep this brief.

Let's just say I tried many different flours and flour combinations: French T65, Halbweissmehl, Weissmehl, I even carted a huge bag of bread flour from the US (to see what I should be aiming for) as well as some vital wheat gluten to add to white flour to strengthen it.

Though I always try two different flours or flour combinations at the same time, I do not have the discipline for a truly scientific approach: I always forget which batch is which, or else I hate to break into two breads at the same time so I can't really compare them... After all these tests and trials, I would say I have a slight preference for baking with organic French T65 flour, which perhaps gives the best flavor, and it may be worthwhile to add a little vital wheat gluten to make it stronger (this seems to make bread that is a little less flat, but some say it also makes the bread too chewy or rubbery...) Really, any kind of white (not bleached though) all-purpose or bread flour works.

One thing I don't recommend, is adding whole-wheat flour. I tried that too, as little as 10%, but it just doesn't go with this kind of bread. Or so the lovers of white baguettes in this family believe.

I believe when I took these side-by-side pictures, my intention was to show the difference between two flours. Alas, I can't remember which was which. I'm pretty certain though that for the bottom photo, the left-hand bread used American bread flour and the right-hand bread used French T65. I think the bread flour gave more rise, but was slightly more chewy, whereas the French flour had better flavor. But don't hold me to it, I am no Cook's Illustrated!

** A word about yeast
Use instant yeast or fresh yeast, not dry active yeast, which needs to be soaked first. My flattest breads came from using the wrong kind of yeast (or from rough handling of the dough). Of course in Europe the yeast is called differently, so if you have a doubt, I believe instant is the very fine powdered yeast, and active dry yeast is the kind that comes in bigger granules. Fresh yeast comes in a cubic package -- at least here it does -- and must be kept in the fridge, for a maximum of two weeks.