It is hard to believe that not that many years ago, good bread was very difficult to find, and good bread cookbooks were scarce. In pre-Zingerman’s Ann Arbor, bakery bread was just unsliced grocery store bread. As for the bread cookbooks, most were full of recipes for over-yeasted, unnecessarily kneaded, baked-in-loaf-pan breads. Now, even the most mundane of the chain groceries carry good bread, and great bread cookbooks abound (many abounding on my very shelves). Daniel Leader, once a student of philosophy, but now a philosopher of bread has played his part in this bread revolution. He has a bakery, Bread Alone, in Woodstock, New York, and has written several great bread books, all but the first with amanuensis Lauren Chattman. Lauren Chattman herself has written a number of baking books, and her very own bread book. In this post we consider Local Breads and Simply Great Breads by Daniel Leader with Lauren Chattman, and Lauren’s own Bread Making.
In Local Breads: Sourdough and Whole-Grain Recipes from Europe’s Best Artisan Bakers, Daniel Leader takes us on a bread tour of Europe: France, Italy, Germany, Austria, and ending in Eastern Europe, with the type of rye bread his grandparents enjoyed. Daniel’s stories of his travels are interesting to read, his recipe introductions put each bread in context are are very inviting, and his recipes are meticulous. Ingredients are given by volume, U.S. weight, metric weight (mass?), and baker’s percentages. Instructions are clear, leaving no room for error; usually, there are instructions both for hand and for machine kneading, and instructions for proper oven preparation. There are lots of sourdough breads in this cookbook, both rye and wheat, Italian breads using a biga starter, and just plain yeast breads. This is a wonderful book for someone who wants to try to make European artisanal loaves.
I have a soft spot in my heart for ciabatta, as this was the first traditional artisanal type bread I ever made, following a recipe in Carole Field’s magisterial Italian Baker. Ciabatta is made from a very soft dough, and stretched into shapes resembling slippers. I did not make the ciabatta proper from Daniels book, but rather the ciabatta rolls (page 218; variation on page 221). For this bread, you mix up the biga (starter) the night before incorporating it into the characteristic very soft dough. To shape the biscuits, you stretch out the fermented dough into a rectangle and just slice it it into twenty smaller rectangles, that then rise on a baking sheet. These rolls were perfect, with just the right amount of chew, and a slightly sour wheaty taste. I used half white while wheat flour, although Daniel uses all white flour. [Go to the recipe.]
One of my bread baking quests is to find a good approximation to my grandmother’s rolls. I did not have that much hope for “Czech Crescent Rolls” (page 311) (my grandmother was not exactly Czech), but these rolls are crescent rolls, just like my grandmother’s, so at least the shape would be right, and I was sure that they would taste fine, even if they were not quite what I was looking for. The dough itself is a basic yeast dough with some butter (4 tablespoons butter for 3¼ cups flour). After the appropriate rising, the dough is rolled out, cut into triangles, and rolled into crescents, but with no extra brushing of butter. The crescents are then brushed with water and sprinkled with salt and poppy (or sesame or caraway) seeds. The rolls are baked after a further rising. It would have made more sense to brush with water and sprinkle with seeds just before popping into the oven, since after the rolls rose, all the seeds fell off or were just stuck to the side. Still, these were very nice little dough morsels!
Every time I make rye bread, I wonder why I don’t make rye bread more often, since I really like the taste of rye. Rye loves to ferment, so rye sourdough starters are easy to start, and the sourdough taste is perfect for rye. “Czech Country Bread” (page 308) is a sourdough rye, although not a strong rye. It’s made with a rye sourdough starter, 2½ cups of wheat flour, and ¾ cup of rye flour. The bread was tangy and soft on the inside while chewy on the outside.
Simply Great Breads: Sweet and Savory Yeasted Treats from America’s Premier Artisan Baker is a much less intimidating book than Local Breads. It is thinner, to begin with, and although ingredients are given in U.S. weight, metric mass, and volume, there is just an ingredient list, not a scary looking table. The breads in this book are friendlier too, as can be seen by the chapter titles: “Classic Breakfast Breads,” “An Ideal Bread Basket,” Flavor-Packed Flatbreads,” and “Quick Yeasted Treats”. However, the breads from this book are still real breads, and real breads with real taste. The title of this book says it all: simply great breads.
I have already tried Rose Levy Beranbaum’s version of angel biscuits, and was not totally happy with the result. But I was not quite ready to give up on these biscuits, and so decided to make Daniel’s version (page 54). The biscuits from his recipe were also not quite what I was looking for, and were way too sweet, biscuits only in the British sense of the word. Thus I relegated them to dessert. Our friend Mindy S was over for lunch when I produced these, and, on seeing these biscuits, cried out in delight “Pogaca!” I eyed her rather dubiously, and she explained that these looked just like the cookies her Hungarian grandmother used to make. I suggested she taste one to see if the taste matched up, but on tasting she was convinced that these were indeed pogaca. I showed Mindy the recipe with the title “Angel Biscuits”, but Mindy still suspected that the author of the cookbook must have had a Hungarian grandmother also.
Daniel’s bialys, “Boiceville Bialys” (page 41) were so good that I had to give some away to keep from eating them all. His recipe is based on the recipe from Kossar’s Bialys, which, according to Mimi Sheraton in her book The Bialy Eaters is the one place in the United States to get great bialys. For those not familiar with bialys (such as myself not that many years ago), bialys are made from a bagel-like dough and topped with onions; these bialys have an onion and poppy seed topping. Good as these were, I had problems with the recipe. Despite forming the bialys as directed before putting them in the oven, when I checked my first batch after ten minutes, the center had puffed up and all the onions had fallen off. I rather desperately pushed down the centers, and scooped all the spilled filling from the baking sheet to refill the bialys. They behaved after that. As for the second batch, I tried to stretch out the dough more, and after they went in the oven I watched them more carefully, but still had to mash down the center, just not as much. I plan to keep making these, and will no doubt eventually master the art of forming them. [Go to the recipe.]
“Mana’eesh” (page 89) is a flat bread from the Middle East. The dough is a simple flour-yeast-oil-water-salt dough; you sprinkle the flat rounds with za’atar and salt before baking. My version was not very successful because I committed one of the cardinal sins of bread baking: I forgot the salt. The salt in the topping made up for this a tiny bit, but it was not enough. I also failed to sufficiently flatten my rounds, so instead of pizza-like flatbreads I ended up with something more like rolls. Still, imperfect as these were, they were still all eaten (and by humans even, not geese).
The recipe “Whole Wheat Challah with Apricots” (page 71) looked promising; I have been neglecting regular whole wheat flour too much lately in favor of white whole wheat flour. Like most cookbook breads labelled “whole wheat”, this bread has both whole wheat and white flour; unlike most such breads, it has more whole wheat flour than white flour. I used figs instead of apricots because that was what I had; also, I like figs more. This is a high fat challah, made with olive oil. The sweetener is honey, and with the dried fruit this is a fairly sweet challah. The finished loaves were tasty enough, but , unfortunately, too dry. I doubt that I will make this bread again.
Lauren Chattman is on her own in Bread Making: A Home Course: Crafting the Perfect Loaf, From Crust to Crumb. Her target audience appears to be novice bread bakers. There is a lot of detailed introductory material on ingredients and techniques, and question and answer sections spread throughout the book. The more experienced bread baker can ignore all of this and get straight to the recipes, which are, predictably, good. Here we find straight doughs, sourdoughs; whole grain and enriched breads; flat breads and loaf breads. There is even a final section on bread machine baking, in case there are any bread machines still being used.
As my readers might realize from my Friday bread posts, I only occasionally make traditional braided challah for Shabbat. But I am always willing to try a new challah recipe, however similar it might be to other recipes, because sometimes small changes in a challah recipe can lead to significant changes in the actual loaves. Alas, this was not the case with Lauren’s recipe, although I will thank her for not attributing her challah to someone with an overly Yiddish name. Her recipe title is simply and appropriately “Challah” (page 116). Her bread is low on sugar, low on salt, and yolk-heavy. It tasted just like generic challah anywhere, and was somewhat dry.
“Rustic Flax Seed Rolls” (page 114) use a straight yeasted dough of white flour with a little whole wheat and rye, to which soaked flax seeds are added. These rolls were delightful straight out of the oven, especially when sandwiching butter or cheese. Mindy S tried one the next day and was unimpressed, and I had to admit that these rolls did not age that well. Maybe this is an illustration of sourdough versus straight dough: the sourdoughs just keep tasting good, day after day.
For some forgotten reason, I happen to have two bags of semolina flour in my cupboard. “Semolina, Golden Raisin, and Fennel Seed Sourdough Round” (page 171) was an opportunity to start using that flour. This sourdough bread is half semolina flour and half regular bread flour. The semolina flour did not seem to add much, but if I had made a loaf with all bread flour I might have noticed a difference. Danny and I agreed that the amount of fennel a]was just right in this bread. Fennel and raisins are a good combination, so this was a very satisfactory variety of raisin bread.
I actually own a bread machine, but after a few weeks of using it, I decided that there was no point to such a machine. None of the bread that I made completely with the machine was very good, and all the loaves had that immensely annoying hole in the bottom. As for using the machine only to knead the bread, I had other machines that were far better at that. The thing that bread machine aficionados (if there are any left) do not realize is that making bread is not hard to do, and certainly not so hard as to merit a dedicated machine. Lauren does, however, have a section on bread machine breads, in which appears the recipe for “Pane alla Cioccolata” (page 252). I used the listed ingredients and completely ignored the instructions for this bread, and ended up with a great tasting chocolate bread. The chocolate comes from cocoa in the dough and from chocolate chips. The dough is very challah-like, with an egg yolk, some sugar, and a little bit of butter. The dough was easy to handle, and the resulting loaves had a perfect texture and just the right amount of sweetness to complement the chocolate. [Go to the recipe.]
Adapted from Daniel Leader, Local Breads
1⁄3 cup water
1⁄2 teaspoon instant yeast
2⁄3 cup flour
2 teaspoons instant yeast
31⁄4 cup flour
2 teaspoons salt
13⁄4 cups water
To make the starter, mix together the water, yeast, and flour in a bowl. Cover the bowl and let the starter sit at room temperature for an hour or two, then stick it in the refrigerator overnight.
To make the dough, mix together all the dough ingredients and knead. I prefer to do this using the food processor: combine everything but the water in the processor bowl with the steel blade. With the motor running, add the water and process for one minute. Add more water or flour to get the right consistency, the point at which the dough just leaves the side of the bowl and comes together into a ball. Or use the heavy duty mixer: mix all the dough ingredients in the mixer bowl and knead with the kneading attachment for 5 to 7 minutes. Again, add more water or flour if kneaded. Finally, for those of you who like to get their hands and counters messy, knead by hand, however you want. Put the kneaded dough in a large bowl, cover, and let it rise for 3 or 4 hours until doubled or even tripled.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. On a floured counter, flatten the dough into a flat rectangle and cut into 20 little rectangles. Place the rolls on the baking sheet, cover with a napkin or towel, and let them rest and rise for another 30 to 60 minutes. At least 20 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 475º. Bake for about 20 minutes.
Adapted from Daniel Leader, Simply Great Breads
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons yeast
11⁄2 cups water
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
I make the dough in the food processor. Combine the flour, salt, and yeast in the food processor bowl, fitted with the steel blade. With the motor running, add the water, adjusting the amount of water or flour to achieve the ideal texture. Or knead in a heavy duty mixer or by hand. See above for slightly more detailed instructions. But the dough in a bowl, cover, and let it rise until doubled, about two hpours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator.
To make the filling, heat 2 or 3 teaspoons of olive oil in a skillet. Add the onion, poppy seeds, salt, and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and just starting to color.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Separate the dough into ten pieces. Form each piece into a round and place the rounds on the baking sheets, well separated. Cover with a towel and let the dough rise for about 1½ hours. After an hour of rising, turn the oven on to 450º, so that it will preheat for at least half an hour.
Just before cooking, press each dough round down into a disc, flattening the center in particular. Fill each center with the filling. Put the bialys in the preheated oven. Check after 5 minutes. If the centers have puffed up too much, mercilessly push them back down. If any filling has fallen off, put it back. Check after another 5 minutes, although you have no more problems with puffing. Cook until done, perhaps 20 minutes total.
Adapted from Lauren Chattman, Bread Making
21⁄4 cups flour
1⁄4 cup sugar
1⁄4 cup cocoa
1 teaspoon salt
11⁄4 teaspoons instant yeast
3⁄4 cup water
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon butter, softened
3⁄4 cup chocolate chips
Combine the flour, sugar, cocoa, salt, and yeast in the bowl of a food processor, fitted with the steel blade. Mix the egg yolk and water together. With the motor running, add the egg yolk water to the flour. Process for 30 to 45 seconds, adding more water or more flour if necessary to achieve the ideal texture. Add the softened butter and process until the butter is incorporated. Remove the dough from the food processor, and fold in the chocolate chips. See above for slightly more detailed mixing instructions and other kneading methods. Put the dough in a bowl, cover, and let rise either at room temperature for several hours or overnight in the refrigerator.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. The dough can be used to make one large loaf, two smaller loaves, three even smaller, etc. I made four loaves. So separate the dough into however pieces you want, form then dough pieces as you wish, place on the parchment lined baking sheets, cover, and let rise for an hour or so until puffy. Preheat the oven to 350º, and bake until done, 20 to 30 minutes.