Monday, September 19, 2011

Yeast Starters and Bread

Fluffy Sourdough
Last week, I decided to start making bread. I had intended to do so several months ago, so I already had the necessary ingredients. Days passed, then months, and I just never felt like I had enough time or had the energy to start. Every time I scrolled through my log of recipes deciding which I should try next, I always went with something simpler and less time consuming. However, I knew that the economy-size package of yeast I purchased would eventually go bad and so, I needed to start making a dent in it pretty soon. In one of these recipe scrolling moods a few days ago, uninspired by the many desserts on my list, I looked to the bread recipes on my list, but none of them really felt like the right place to start.

For a while now, i've been wanting to make my own honey wheat bread. I love the Honey Wheat Bread at Cafe Intermezzo in Berkeley, but it's not exactly a short trip there just to buy the bread. It also seems that since I first tried this place a couple years ago, they have reduced the sweetness in the bread which was what I loved about it in the first place. Unlike typical whole wheat bread, their bread has great wheat flavor, but it is as soft and fluffy as white bread. After many unsuccessful attempts to track down a similar-tasting supermarket honey wheat bread, I just gave up altogether and hoped that I would somehow be able to recreate it in my own kitchen so I could have it whenever I wanted. Although this was the bread initially on my mind, a little internet research led me down a different path.

Last year around the time of the release of the Tartine Bread cookbook and the promo video with Chad Robertson, I was fascinated by the process of making artisan yeast bread. The idea of a starter, the preservation of it, and the intricacies of bread making intrigued me.After the proper internet research and recipe gathering, I was less daunted by the process of it all. As a native San Franciscan and sourdough lover, I thought it only right that I should attempt to raise a sourdough starter and try my hand at making sourdough bread.

From my research, I knew that it would take about two weeks for my starter to sour.  However, before it does sour, the starter can be used in the same recipes to produce delicious white bread. As of this post, my bread has not begun to sour yet, but with each loaf, I can tell that the flavors are getting more complex and slowly moving towards that sourdough flavor.I have already made several loaves of bread from this starter since I first mixed it up a few days ago from a wheat bread to an apricot and ginger loaf. As it turns out, starter is amazingly versatile and once you get the hang of how bread should feel, it's actually very easy and can be used to make a variety of breads. First, the mixing and growth of the starter.

Sourdough Starter
Adapted from Esther Nelson on

2 cups of all purpose flour
2 cups warm water
2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
1 tsp sugar

In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together with a whisk until smooth. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Leave at room temperature in a draft free area for 8 to 12 hours. You can start to bake white bread with it at this point. Leave it at room temperature for 4-8 days feeding it at least every day for faster growth or in the refrigerator for slower growth feeding every two days or so. Don't expose the starter to temperatures that are too hot as the yeast will die. If you are unable to feed the starter for a while, store it in the freezer and take it out when you can begin taking care of it again. The starter should be a creamy white. If you see any pink or yellow growth, throw the starter out and begin again. If you have a liquid at the top, that is the alcohol from the fermentation, just mix it back into your starter before using or feeding. The starter should have the consistency of pancake batter.

Feeding the starter:
For the first few days, feed it more frequently to encourage growth by adding  at least 1/4 cup of flour and 1/4 cup of warm water to the starter each day and whisking it in to incorporate air. You may remove some of the starter each time before you feed it if you like or just leave it.

However, you will need to refresh the starter every few days by removing a cup or so(either use it or discard it) leaving at least a quarter cup behind when feeding. In feeding it after the initial period, replace whatever you take out with at least a half cup each of flour and warm water(always in equal amounts) and whisk until smooth. You can add more or less flour and water depending on how much you want to end up with for baking.

After each feeding, wait at least 6-8 hours before using it again to give the starter time to grow. If your starter is in the refrigerator, take it out the night before you plan to use it to thaw.

Artisan Style Sourdough Bread
Adapted from Emeril Lagasse, makes one loaf

1 1/2 cups of sourdough starter
2 cups of bread flour, more for kneading
1 1/2 tsp coarse salt
1 1/2 tbsp sugar

In a mixer with a dough hook, mix flour gradually into the starter with the salt and sugar. Mix for 8 to 10 minutes until dough no longer sticks to the bowl. Remove dough from mixer and knead a few times into a smooth ball. Place into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about 1.5 hours until doubled. I preheat my oven for a few minutes, turn it off, then place the bowl in there to rise.

After the dough has risen, punch dough down. Shape into a loaf, then place onto a baking sheet or baking stone and let rise for another hour or until doubled. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, slash loaf and place your baking sheet or stone with the loaf into the oven. Bake for about 30 minutes until bread sounds hollow when thumped on the bottom. Let it rest about 30 minutes before serving.

For apricot and ginger bread, add in 1/4 cup of chopped dried apricots and 1/4 of chopped candied ginger when mixing dough. You can also add in many other things such as nuts or other dried fruits and cheese.

Loaf is topped with shredded Comte before baking

Fluffy Sourdough Bread
Makes two loaves
Adapted from Donna on Francisco Sourdough Bread)

2 1/4 tsp yeast
1 1/2 cups starter
4 3/4 cups bread flour
1 cup warm milk
3 tbsp sugar
3 tsp coarse salt
2 tbsp softened butter

Combine 1 cup flour, yeast, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a mixer with a dough hook. Add milk and butter. Mix in starter, then gradually add the remaining flour. Knead for 8 to 10 minutes. Then turn out onto a floured surface and knead into a smooth ball. Place in an oiled bowl and allow to rise for at least one hour in a warm place.

After the first rise, punch dough down, shape into loaves, then place on a baking sheet to rise for another hour. After it has risen a second time, bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 30 minutes until it sounds hollow when thumped. Let it rest about 30 minutes before serving.

You can brush with egg for a golden brown crust and top with cheese as I have done here. The cheese and egg can weigh the bread down slightly, so that it is not as airy.

You can use all purpose flour to make your bread, but it won't have the chew of bread made with bread flour. Other types of flour can be substituted as well in varying amounts according to your taste. I have also used cream, nonfat milk, and coconut milk as substitutes for milk in these recipes, so anything will work although I've read that fat and sugar do contribute to the softness of the bread, so take that into account when making substitutions. Spritz the loaf with water or brush with egg wash for a thicker crust. Add different things to your bread for different flavors such as instant coffee granules, cocoa powder, matcha green tea powder, different extracts, etc.

I have also made an all wheat bread using this starter, but will not share that here because it is not the Honey Wheat recipe I am after. This is what it looked like.

It has now been about two weeks and I still have my starter. I've been feeding it about every two days and have been making a loaf of bread with what I take out. A few days ago, I almost killed my starter by overheating it, but was able to save it with additional yeast, flour, and water. However, the sourness has somewhat disappeared on account of the heat and it will take some time to redevelop the flavor. With the additional yeast, my starter has been doing really well, rising and falling throughout the day very easily.

I've been playing around with the dough and even with the same recipe, the bread never comes out exactly the same. Depending on the pan or stone I bake the bread on/in, the temperature during the day, or how I treat the dough, the bread comes out differently each time. I think it's good to be adventurous in bread making as with anything else in life. Figure out what you like best and play around until you have something you like.

Raspberry Cream Cake

Since I have become much more comfortable with chiffon cake in the last year and have been disappointed with the bakeries in my area lately, I decided to make my own birthday cake this year. I've also bean meaning to get more mileage out of my newly acquired cake pans which have thus far only been used to make the relatively tall chocolate cake, not to mention it's also fun to make your own cake. I still have not gotten to Christina Tosi's banana cake yet but I do hope to when I feel up to making another cake soon.

Back to my birthday cake, I love fresh fruit cakes with whipped cream and princess cake, so I decided to come up with a cake that combines elements of both. Typically, princess cake is composed of layers of genoise with raspberry jam, kirsch custard, whipped cream, and a layer of marzipan covering the entire thing. Since I'm not a fan of kirsch or marzipan, I decided to make a cake consisting of genoise, raspberry jam, vanilla pastry cream, raspberries, and whipped cream.

Overall, the cake turned out much better than expected, but I could have taken out even more sugar in each of the components and reduced the amount of vanilla slightly. The recipe below reflects these adjustments. I will probably try a white cake next time and add more jam so the flavor comes through more. I decorated the cake the same way I decorated the chocolate cake last time simply because I wasn't really sure what I could do otherwise and was too lazy to do much to it.

Raspberry Cream Cake with Pastry Cream and Jam
Adapted from Martha Stewart

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus more, softened, for pans
6 extra large eggs, room temp, separated
1 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/8 cups cake flour, sifted
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, butter the bottoms of two 8 in cake pans, line with parchment paper, set aside

Whisk egg yolks in a heatproof bowl over a pot of simmering water with 3/4 cup sugar until sugar is melted and eggs are warm, remove from heat. Add vanilla and salt, then beat 3-4 minutes until pale and thick ribbons fall from the whisk.

In another clean bowl or in your stand mixer, whip egg whites at high speed until soft peaks, then gradually add remaining 1/4 cup sugar while beating until it reaches stiff, glossy peaks. Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the yolk mixture to lighten. Then fold the remaining whites into the mixture being careful not to deflate them. Fold in cake flour, then butter carefully.

Divide the batter among the pans, bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about 25 minutes. If not using  nonstick pans and cake is securely attached to the pan, invert onto a cooling rack and let cool this way so the cake doesn't deflate. Otherwise, simply let cool until ready to assemble.

Pastry Cream
1 cup whole milk
1/4 of a vanilla bean, scraped
1/8 cup plus 1 tbsp sugar
2 egg yolks
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp unsalted butter
Pinch of salt

Whisk together egg yolks, cornstarch, and sugar in a bowl. Meanwhile, heat milk and vanilla bean with the scraped seeds and salt in a pot until simmering. Mix half a cup of milk into yolks while whisking. Pour egg yolk mixture back into pot and heat while whisking until it thickens. Pour the pastry cream over a strainer into a bowl, mix in tablespoon of butter. Cover with plastic wrap with plastic wrap on the surface of the pastry cream so a skin doesn't form. Let cool for about 2 hours.

Stabilized Whipped Cream
2 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 tsp of unflavored gelatin
2 tbsp water/pomegranate or cranberry juice
1/2 cup sugar
A drop of red food coloring(optional)
Pour water/juice into a small pot, sprinkle gelatin over. Let sit for 5 minutes to soften. Meanwhile, beat cream and sugar until very soft peaks. Heat gelatin until it dissolves. Pour gelatin mixture into the softly whipped cream and continue to beat until soft peaks.Mix in food coloring if desired.
To assemble:
Raspberry Jam, seedless
Pastry Cream, cooled and mixed to loosen
Whipped Cream
Cakes, cooled and sliced into layers
Level cakes if necessary and cut each cake into two layers. Lay bottom layer of one cake down onto cake pedestal or plate. Spread a layer of raspberry jam onto the cake, top with half the pastry cream. Lay top layer of the cake on top.
Spread with another layer of jam, then a layer of whipped cream. Cover in berries, top with another thin layer of whipped cream, and the top layer of the other cake flipped over. Spread another layer of jam, the remaining pastry cream, and top with final layer of cake. Frost the entire cake with the remaining whipped cream. Decorate with raspberries. Refrigerate to set up for 1-4 hours before serving.