Editor’s Note: I have the unbelievably cool job today of introducing a very special guest contributor, Greg Dahlmann, the Co-Founder & Co-Editor of the Capital Region’s best news website/blog All Over Albany (AoA for short). Greg and his partner-in-crime, Mary, have created a one-stop resource for all things- Capital Region.
During a recent business coffee chat, Greg made a confession: He & his wife had stopped buying bread and started making it from scratch. ‘Whaaaat?!?’ was my response along with flailing arms of excitement and a wide tooth grin. He talked fluidly on how they made the transition, the wonderful flavor adaptions, the crumb and the money-savings. I knew right then & there we needed a series, written by various friends in the non-food community, to step-up and share the diy project they conquer in the midst of their busy lives. Greg offered (I demanded & begged) to write his ‘diy confession’ for FSC. Welcome Greg! -Christina
NOTE: As of today FSC can be seen on AoA! I’ll be writing a piece every 3-4 weeks featuring a local seasonal ingredient, a local farm and a recipe from my fellow FSC Contributors. My first dispatch is all about Asian Brassicas (Pak Choi, Bok Choy and Napa Cabbage) and Kilpatrick Family Farm and its live, check it out!
My path to becoming a bread baker started at the end of a Hannaford check-out line. After watching our total ascend into the triple digits with appallingly little effort, my wife and I slowly pushed our cart toward the car, scanning our receipt for items that could be reduced, swapped, or eliminated.
“Well, I guess I don’t have to buy Rock Hill,” she said.
This was a major concession. My wife’s go-to breakfast each weekday is a slice of toast with coffee. And she loves the bread from the Rock Hill Bakehouse, with good reason. It’s excellent. It’s also about $6 a half loaf.
On the drive home we started talking about something else (odds it was our dog: 2 to 1). And then, at a stoplight, I said: “You know, I think I can make you bread.”
I had never baked a loaf of bread in my life.
I cook a lot. And as at-home cooks go, I do OK. But cooking is not baking. Cooking is a little of this and little of that, taste as you go, adjust on the fly. Baking is measures and weights, formulas and ratios, method and iteration.
Somewhere in my brain I had filed away Mark Bittman’s now (food blogger) famous article about Jim Lahey’s no-knead recipe in the New York Times, intending to get to back to it. And I had even gotten a copy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day as a gift a few years back. It sat in a stack of books… somewhere. I kept meaning to try it out. Eventually.
Now I had a reason. So I found the Bittman article, Googled a bit on the subject, bought some bread flour and yeast, and pulled out a big mixing bowl.
Measure, dump, stir. That’s not so hard. But the dough looked like a big blob of goo. How good could the bread end up being?
Scored on some sort of graph plotting effort-in against quality-out, that first loaf landed somewhere on the far side of fantastic (effort-in: very little; quality-out: really good). The crust was crackly. The inside was dense, with a yeasty flavor. And while it wasn’t as good as Rock Hill, it was at least as good as the supermarket brand “artisan” bread.
My wife saw the loaf and gave me a high five.
What quickly occurred me to was that I hadn’t just learned a recipe — this was a method. It was like being handed hammer. Now, everywhere I looked, nails.
Multi-grain bread? Bring on the bulk bins. Raisin bread? You bet. Sesame mango cashew? Why not. Cranberry orange walnut? Zing. Black pepper bacon? Everything’s better with bacon. Chocolate chocolate chunk? Hellloooo.
There’s a list stuck to our refrigerator of breads my wife has requested. I’m working through the list weekend by weekend.
Not all those attempts have been totally successful. It turns out you can put too much molasses in bread. And freshly cracked black pepper — it is really strong. Each iteration has taught me something, though. And while baking our bread hasn’t saved a bunch of money — we save maybe a three or four bucks a week — it has been fun.
I’m usually skeptical of claims about how one thing explains some broad aspect of the world. What Sock Darning Taught Me About Life. How Silly Putty Explains the World. But I do think there’s a lesson — either a small big lesson or a big small lesson — in all this: A lot of stuff that might look hard isn’t actually that hard if you’re willing to put a little effort into it.
This is especially true in the internet age. Say it with me: “If I can Google, I can probably (fill in the thing you want to learn how to do).” A few of the things I’ve figured out how to do in just the last few months, via the web:
+ Change the thermocouple on a hot water heater. (This first involved learning that a hot water heater has a thing called a thermocouple.)
+ Sew a shank button on a coat.
+ Bake bread for my wife.
Of course, there’s a difference between knowing how to do something a little bit and mastering it. Being able to turn out a few loaves of bread doesn’t necessarily make one a baker — the same way being able to play a few Christmas carols on the piano doesn’t make you a pianist.
That doesn’t make it any less useful — or fun. It also gives me more respect for the people who have put in the time and effort to really master the craft.
And if you’re feeling really crazy… start applying the “I can teach myself how to (fill in the blank) idea to other parts of your life: your career, your neighborhood, the world.
It might not always work out. But there’s a good chance you’ll end up with excellent toast.
Of the different varieties of bread that I’ve made, one of wife’s favorites is the cinnamon raisin (cranberry orange walnut is the other). Here’s the recipe I developed based on the method popularized by the Sullivan Street Bakery’s Jim Lahey, as shared by Mark Bittman.
RECIPE: Raisin Bread
+ A dutch oven or some sort of oven-safe pot or dish with a tightly-fitting lid. (I’ve heard that wrapping aluminum foil tightly over a pot can also work.) This method achieves the crackly crust by trapping the steam that escapes from the bread.
+ A large mixing bowl and a scraper spatula for stirring.
+ Parchment paper and plastic wrap (and a little bit of cooking oil)
(Weights are listed in parentheses. Yep, I bought a scale. I’ve become one of those people.)
2 cups bread flour (8.5 oz)
1 cup whole wheat flour (4 oz)
1/2 cup oat bran (50 g)
1 cup raisins, lightly soaked with water and drained (5.25 oz)
2 tsp cinnamon (4 g)
1.25 tsp salt (8 g)
1/8 cup molasses (1.5 oz)
1/3 tsp yeast*
1 5/8 cups water
1 tb (not roasted) sunflower seeds (optional)
Cornmeal for dusting the pot
* The original Lahey/Bittman recipe uses 1/4 tsp of “instant” yeast. I use “active” (not rapid-rise) yeast because it’s easier to find in the regular supermarket. You should proof the yeast in 1 cup of lukewarm water with a few pinches of sugar before you start mixing.
1. Dump the flours, oat bran, raisins, cinnamon, and salt in the bowl. Stir to mix.
2. Has the yeast bubbled? Yes? Dump it with the cup of water into the bowl. Add the other 5/8 cup of water. (No frothing or bubbles? Your yeast is probably dead. My condolences. You’ll need new yeast.)
3. Add the molasses to the bowl. (Zapping the molasses in the microwave for 10-15 seconds makes it easier to pour and scrape from the measuring cup/dish.)
4. Stir, stir, stir. Make sure to get all the flour off the bottom and sides. Stir until it’s all wet and combined. Scrape down the sides. The dough should look kind of shaggy. It will probably seem too wet.
5. Cover the bowl in plastic wrap. Place the bowl on the countertop. Then let it sit there for 12-18 hours. Longer is better. Near the end it will have grown to about twice its size and you’ll see bubbles on the surface.
6. OK, it’s the next day. Put the piece of parchment paper down on the countertop. Lightly sprinkle it with about 2 tablespoons of flour. Tear off a sheet of plastic wrap, lay it flat. Drop about a teaspoon of cooking oil on the sheet. Smear it around. Wash your hands.
7. Reach into the bowl with the dough. Pull it off the sides, and fold/smoosh it into something resembling a loaf-like ball. Place the glob of dough on the floured parchment. Cover it with the oiled plastic wrap, oil side down. (You can use another sheet of parchment, or a towel, to cover the dough, but I’ve found the plastic wrap works best.)
8. Wait another 2 hours or so. The dough will grow to about twice its size.
9. About a half hour before the dough’s finished its second rise, preheat the oven to 450 degrees (F) with the dutch oven inside.
10. Dough’s ready? Great. Take the dutch oven out (caution: it’s very hot) and take the lid off (also very hot). Sprinkle cornmeal in the pot — don’t be too stingy, because it will keep the dough from sticking to the pot. Form the dough into something vaguely resembling a loaf (it’ll be sticky) and dump it into the pot. It probably won’t look great. You can shake the pot a little bit in order to even the dough out. Sprinkle the sunflower seeds on top of the loaf.
11. Put the lid back on and put the dutch oven in the oven. Bake with the lid on for about 30 minutes (I’ve found 32 minutes works best in my oven). Take the lid off the dutch oven — bake for another 15 minutes or so. Peek at it after 10 minutes to make sure the top isn’t burning.
12. Does the bread look nicely browned and crusty? Great! Take it out. Carefully transfer the bread to a rack to cool. (I’ve found a spatula can help get the bread out with burning yourself on the pot.)
Once you use this method a few times, you’ll know it by heart. And then you can start experimenting with all sorts of other varieties.