Soda Bread

Originally published March 16, 2014.

Soda bread cooling on the deck.Soda bread is plain quick bread, bread made with a chemical leavener like baking soda instead of yeast.

You’ve no doubt heard of Irish soda bread.  The two defining characteristics of the national bread of Erin are 1) the inclusion of lesser parts of the wheat berry, such as the germ and husk, and 2) the use of buttermilk.

One way that my soda bread differs from true old-school Irish soda bread is the inclusion of such luxuries as butter, eggs, and honey.  This is emphatically not traditional, but it makes for a moist, delicious bread.  Picture a fine cornbread, only instead of corn meal there are coarse bits of wheat germ.  The wheat germ gives the bread a slightly yellow hue.

Just what the internet needs
Another Soda Bread Recipe

Ingredients

  • 165 g all-purpose flour
  • 105 g whole wheat flour
  • 30 g wheat germ
  • 12 g baking powder
  • 2 g baking soda
  • 8 g kosher salt
  • 50 g unsalted butter, melted
  • 140 g whole milk
  • 125 g buttermilk
  • 30 g egg
  • 15 g honey
  • 30 g sour cream

Procedure

  1. Combine the dry ingredients, the flours, wheat germ, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, in a medium mixing bowl.  Make a well in the centre.
  2. Combine the wet ingredients, the melted butter, whole milk, buttermilk, egg, honey, and sour cream, in a separate bowl.  Whisk thoroughly.
  3. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, then mix with a spatula until just combined.  Do not over-mix!
  4. Transfer batter to a buttered baking vessel and bake at 375°F until the centre of the bread is set, roughly 30 minutes, though exact times will depend on the dish you have selected.

A slice of soda bread, with butter

English Muffins: Best Toast Ever

English muffins make the best toast: much crispier than standard pullman loaves, but not overly-crunchy like rustic artisan loaves.  I think there are at least four reasons for their toasting superiority:

  1. The dough is enriched with a small amount of sugar and fat.
  2. The way they are shaped, as individual pucks instead of slices from a loaf.  A typical slice of bread is cut from the interior of a larger loaf, so the two sides are from the soft, interior “crumb” of the bread.  When you cut and toast an English muffin, one of the surfaces of each half used to be the exterior crust of the bread, making a crispier piece of toast.
  3. The way they are cooked.  Unlike most bread, which is baked by convective heat, the two flat sides of an English muffin are baked with conductive heat.  Small-scale operations might fry them on a griddle.  Larger operations might put a sheet pan on top of the muffins before throwing them into the oven.  This is what gives English muffins their distinctive, flat shape, and their golden brown, crispy crusts.
  4. The open, irregular, slightly crumbly interior.  When you cut open an English muffin and toast it, the irregular surface makes for lots of crispy nooks and crannies.

English Muffins at Home

English muffins are a very simple, straightforward bread to make at home.  Bakers typically use the direct mixing method (ie. no starter or over-night fermenting).  They’re fun to fry up on a griddle.  They freeze extremely well, especially because they are always toasted before consuming, which freshens them up.

 

English Muffins

Ingredients

  • 300 g bread flour
  • 12 g granulated sugar
  • 6 g kosher salt
  • 4 g instant yeast
  • 15 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 195 g whole milk, at room temperature

Baker’s Formula

  • 100% bread flour
  • 3.75% granulated sugar
  • 1.9% kosher salt
  • 1.4% instant yeast
  • 5% unsalted butter
  • 65% whole milk

Procedure

  1. Scale flour, sugar, salt, instant yeast, and butter in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Stir ingredients together with the paddle attachment until the butter is incorporated.
  2. Slowly add the milk while the paddle attachment mixes on slow speed.  Once the dough comes together, switch to the dough hook and knead for about 8 minutes.  (Or knead by hand for about 10 minutes.)
  3. Lightly oil a large bowl.  Lay the dough in the bowl, then turn the dough over so that all surfaces are lightly oiled.  Cover and let rise until doubled in volume, about 90 minutes.
  4. Line a sheet pan with parchment and dust lightly with cornmeal or semolina flour.  Cut the dough into 6 or 7 equal pieces, shape into boules, and line up on sheet pan.  Proof until doubled in size, about 90 minutes.
  5. Preheat an oven to 350°F.  Fry each boule on a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium heat, roughly 350°F.  Fry until each side is well browned, about five minutes per side.  Bake the fried English muffins in the oven for a few more minutes to cook through.
  6. Cool on a wire rack.  Let cool very thoroughly before cutting open.

Draff Bread – Spent Grain Bread

A fistful of spent grain, ready to be baked into breadI’ve been doing some all-grain brewing this spring.  After the mashing process the malt has given up all its caramel earthiness to the wort, and you are left with several pounds of spent grain, or draff.

There are lots of ways to use this stuff up.  Commercial breweries commonly sell or give draff to farmers as livestock feed.  It can also be composted so long as you have lots of other, greener compostable material to balance out the mixture.

Draff is also commonly baked into bread.  Realistically the home brewer will not be able to bake enough bread to use all of the spent grain – the bulk of mine still ends up in the compost heap – but it’s a tasty way to lengthen your enjoyment of the barley malt.

There are tons of recipes for spent grain bread online, often under the German name Biertreberbrot.  These recipes are all clearly made for brewers, not bakers: they use inconsistent volumetric measures, and forgo flavour- and texture-enhancing pre-ferments. Below is my first attempt at a serious recipe for draff bread.  Basically I’ve replaced the soaker from my favourite whole-grain bread recipe (from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice) with the spent grain.

Vocabulary Break: soaker.  Many bread recipes that use whole or mostly-whole grains like rolled oats or cracked rye will have you soak the grains in a bit of water overnight.  This way when the grains are mixed with the flour and water that make up the bulk of the dough, they won’t suck up all the water and prevent proper hydration, gelation, and gluten development.

Draff is already well-steeped: during mashing it sits in very hot water for about ninety minutes.  For this reason we are able to simply substitute the draff for the grain soaker in a conventional whole-grain bread recipe.  Spent grain is more woody that most whole grains, so I slightly decreased the weight of draff from the conventional soaker.

This is a tasty bread when made right.  The malt flavour of the grain is very faint (hopefully all the malt flavour is in the wort!) but the hulls give the bread an interesting, subtle prickliness.  A new brewing tradition in my home.

 

Spent grain dough

Draff Bread

Pre-Ferment

  • 6.75 oz high-protein whole-wheat flour
  • 1/4 tsp instant yeast
  • 6 oz water

“Soaker”

  • 8 oz spent grains, well-drained

Dough

  • 10 oz high-protein whole-wheat flour
  • 0.33 oz kosher salt
  • 1 tsp instant yeast
  • 1.5 oz honey
  • 0.5 oz vegetable oil
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten

Procedure

  1. The day before making the bread, combine the ingredients for the pre-ferment.  Stir until just combined.  Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature to ferment 2 to 4 hours.  Transfer to the fridge and store overnight.
  2. Combine the flour, salt, and yeast for the dough.  Add the pre-ferment, the spent grain, as well as the honey, oil, and egg.  Stir to combine.  Knead by hand until a firm, tacky dough forms, roughly 15 minutes.
  3. Lightly oil the inside of a bowl.  Add the dough.  Cover and ferment at room temperature until the dough has doubled in volume, about 2 hours.
  4. Divide the dough in two and shape as desired.  This makes a good Pullman-style loaf, or it can be shaped into a free-standing bâtard.  Proof at room temperature until the dough has nearly doubled, roughly 90 minutes.  (See this post for suggestions on proofing bread at home.)
  5. Heat oven to 350°F.
  6. Bake bread for 30 minutes.  Rotate 180° and bake until done, roughly another 20 minutes.  The loaf should sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.  If you’ve used pans, remove the bread immediately and cool on a wire rack.

The finished draff bread, with butter

Cornbread

Measuring out homemade cornmeal for cornbreadCornbread has developed a regional connotation in North America: the mere mention of the dish awakens borrowed images of the American south.  I resent this, because I know that my dad ate cornbread growing up in eastern Ontario.  They called it johnnycake, which is a very old, eastern North American term derived (we think) from “journey cake,” referring to the dry bread’s portability.[1]

The bulk of the transcendent cornmeal we made this fall was baked into cornbread and consumed with butter and maple syrup.  Below is my go-to recipe.  It makes a moist bread (mostly on account of the several types of fat in the recipe: full-fat milk and buttermilk, sour cream, canola oil…) with a fine texture and the characteristic cornbread crumble.  The subtle sweetness, distinct corn flavour, and flaky texture of the homemade cornmeal made this the single best loaf of cornbread that I’ve ever put in my face.

Cornbread

Ingredients

  • 165 g all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 135 g cornmeal
  • 40 g dark brown sugar, pressed through a mesh strainer to remove large clumps
  • 13 g baking powder
  • 3 g baking soda
  • 6 g salt
  • 115 g whole milk
  • 115 g full-fat buttermilk
  • 165 g sour cream
  • 100 g eggs (2 large eggs…)
  • 50 g neutral canola oil
Procedure
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.  Butter a loaf pan or terrine and line it with parchment paper.
  2. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Combine the wet ingredients in another.
  3. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry.  Stir until all ingredients are combined.  Do not over-mix.
  4. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan.
  5. Bake until the centre of the cornbread is set (the toothpick test is pretty much infallible) and the top is lightly browned, 30-50 minutes, depending on the shape and weight of your cooking vessel.
  6. Let the cornbread cool before turning it out of the vessel.
  7. Consume with butter and maple syrup, as seen below.

A slice of cornbread with butter and maple syrup

 

1. Civitello, Linda.  Cuisine and Culture, Second Edition.  ©2008 John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Page 152.

Serviettenknödel – Austrian Bread Dumplings

Or: How to Use Up Stale Bread

 

This post is actually about two kinds of Austrian dumplings that are made from old bread.

The first is best made with bread that is a few days old, bread that is dry, but not brittle.  If you let your bread sit for more than a week, so that it’s completely hard throughout, you can make the second dumpling.

The first dumpling, made with days-old bread, is the Serviettenknödel, which literally translates as “serviette dumpling.”  Much like the French word torchon, which means towel, Servietten implies that the dumplings are shaped into cylinders by rolling in a towel or serviette.

The old bread is first cubed and soaked in milk, butter, and egg (full recipe below).

Then the mixture is rolled into cylinders.  Traditionally this was done with a towel or napkin, but plastic wrap and aluminum foil are more common these days.

The rolls are steamed or poached until the egg has set, about thirty minutes, though cooking time depends on the diameter of the dumpling.  Once cooked the rolls can be chilled overnight, then sliced into rounds.

The rounds are often seared in butter for a bit of colour and crispness.

In Austria, serviettenknödel are most often served with stews and braises.  Below you can see them with Maibocgoulash (May deer goulash) and cranberries.
They are also an important ingredient in a regional dish called Tirolergröstl.  Tirol is a province in Austria, and gröstl simply means hash.  Tirolergröstl usually includes ham or speck, potatoes, vegetables, knödel, and a fried egg with a runny yolk.
Napkin Dumplings

serviettenknödel

Ingredients

  • 1 lb bread, between one and seven days old, dry but not brittle
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 4 oz unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 tsp kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Cut the bread into cubes, anywhere from 1/4″ to 1″.
  2. Mix all remaining ingredients and pour over the bread.  Using your hands, gently toss the bread until all the liquid has been absorbed.  Let the mixture sit for 1 hour.
  3. Shape the mixture into a cylinder 2-3″ in diameter.  Do not compress the bread, as this will yield a dense, tough, dumpling.
  4. Poach the rolls in gently simmering water until firm throughout, about 30 minutes.
  5. Remove from the water and let cool overnight.
  6. Slice into rounds of desired thickness.
  7. To serve, fry the rounds in oil and butter until golden brown and crisp.

If you find yourself with bread that is more than a week old, bread that has gone completely dry and brittle, you’ll be better off making bröselknödl, or breadcrumb dumplings.  Use a food-processor to pulverize the stale bread into crumbs.  The procedure is then similar to making napkin dumplings, only breadcrumb dumplings are typically shaped into balls, not cylinders.

This dumpling also traditionally accompanies stews and braises.

Breadcrumb Dumplings
bröselknödel

Ingredients

  • 1 lb bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 3/4 tbsp kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Combine the eggs and melted butter.  Stir in the breadcrumbs, flour, and salt.  Let the mixture stand for 30 minutes so that the dry ingredients can absorb the moisture.
  2. Shape into balls with a 2.5″ diameter.  Poach in gently simmering water until cooked through, about 8 minutes, depending on the size of the dumplings.

Bread Pudding as God Intended It

Bread pudding with raisinsWhen I say bread pudding “as God intended it,” I mean using actual, stale, left-over bread heels.  Buying fresh bread just to tear it up and dry it out is like using striploin to make sausage, or rolling a torchon of foie gras just to melt it into cooking fat.

To make bread pudding stale bread is soaked in milk, cream, eggs, and sugar, then pressed into a casserole and baked.

There is a continuum of bread pudding textures, ranging from the dense and eggy (the well-known Jack’s Grill (RIP) bread pudding was a good example) to the light and ethereal.

I want to take a paragraph to describe an interesting style of bread pudding that chef Nigel Weber taught me in culinary school at NAIT.  He shingled slices of old bread in a tray, then poured what was essentially a creme brulee custard mix into the dish until the bread was submerged by two thirds.  He then gently baked the tray as you would for a fine custard, and later used a blowtorch to burn the tips of the bread.  And so in one spoonful the diner has a bit of pure, delicate custard, some slightly chewy bready bits, and then the crisp, scorched edges of the exposed bread.  Still undeniably bread pudding, but a very interesting, thoughtful preparation.  Classic Weber.  Anyways.

Below is a very good recipe for cohesive but delicate bread pudding.  What I like most about this recipe is that it uses the exact same ratio as all of the other custards on this site, 4-1-1 dairy, sugar, egg.

Bread Pudding

Ingredients

  • 12 oz stale bread, cut into 1″ cubes
  • 8 oz whole milk
  • 8 oz heavy cream
  • 4 oz eggs (about 2 large eggs…)
  • 4 oz white sugar
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • optional garnishes: 6 oz fresh fruit, especially saskatoons or blueberries; 8 oz dried fruit, especially raisins; 3 oz chopped dark chocolate

Procedure

  1. Whisk together the milk, cream, eggs, sugar, and salt.  Pour the liquid over the stale bread.  Toss until all the liquid has been absorbed by the bread.  Let the mixture stand in the fridge for at least one hour, but preferably overnight.
  2. Fold any garnishes such as fruit or chocolate into the mixture.
  3. Set a pot of water on the stove to boil.  Grease a loaf pan and line it with parchment.  Pack the bread mixture into the loaf pan.
  4. Set the loaf pan into a roasting tray or casserole.  Pour the boiling water into the tray so that it comes halfway up the side of the loaf pan.
  5. Bake in a 350°F oven until the centre of the pudding is set, about 40 minutes.

Sauces

Rum Sauce, or Hard Sauce.  The classic accompanying rum sauce:

  • 1 lb icing sugar
  • 1/2 lb unsalted butter
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 fl oz rum

Procedure

  1. Gently cook to remove the starchy taste of the sugar.
  2. Remove from the heat and whisk in the eggs and rum.
  3. Coat each slice of bread pudding with rum sauce, then broil the dish until there are a few burnt patches on top.  This is a trick I picked up at Jack’s.  The charred bitterness sets off the sweetness nicely.

For a more elegant sauce, consider custard sauce, crème anglaise.

Notes on Baking Bread

Even once I had a handle on basic techniques like dough-shaping, I found that the bread I made at home wasn’t as good as the bread I made at NAIT, where they have commerical equipment like proofing boxes and deck ovens.

Here are some quick notes on using household kitchen items to replicate the equipment in professional bakeries and bake better bread.

 

Proofing

I’ve always felt that my bread doesn’t proof as well at home as it does at school.  At first I thought this was a temperature issue, so I tried fermenting and proofing my bread in increasingly warmer corners of the house.  Turns out humidity was the more important factor.

In commercial kitchens bread is proofed in proofing boxes.  These are fridge-sized compartments that are temperature- and humidity-controlled.  They stay between 20°C and 30°C, the temperature range at which yeast is most active, with a relative humidity of about 70%, which prevents a dry skin from forming on the dough.

I do my proofing in a cold oven, because it is an enclosed, draft-free space.  To mimmic the humidity of a proofing box, I tried scalding a small pot of water, putting it on the bottom rack of the oven, then proofing my dough in a lightly greased casserole on the top rack.  The pot of water releases vapour, and gently warms the air in the oven.  With the added humidity, the dough develops the ideal soft, tacky feel.  Success.

 

Baking

Whether you’re searing a steak, sautéeing mushrooms, or baking a loaf of bread, you’re trying to balance the desired doneness of the interior with the desired doneness of the exterior.  For steak, we want a heavily caramelized crust on the exterior, but pink, mid-rare flesh on the interior.  We apply very high heat to develop the crust before the interior is overcooked.  If we applied the same high heat to a large roast, the exterior would burn before the interior was cooked.  For roasts we cook at a lower temperature so that the delicious brown crust is finished at the same time as the pink meat inside.

With bread we also want a deeply caramelized crust.  Besides simply cooking the interior of the dough, we also want to maximize something called oven spring.

As the dough heats up in the oven, the little gas pockets that developed during bulk fermentation and proofing expand greatly.  The yeast also has one last hurrah, binging on sugars and expelling carbon dioxide, but this does not account for nearly as much rise as the simple thermal expansion of gases.  The dramatic rise in the first few minutes of baking is called oven spring.

To maximize oven spring we heat the dough rapidly and evenly in a moist atmosphere.  The quick heating ensures that the air pockets deep inside the dough have a chance to expand before the exterior bakes.  The steam prevents the exterior from forming a crust, which would hinder spring.

To rapidly heat the dough, professional bakers use deck ovens.  The dough is placed directly onto a uniform stone or ceramic platform, called the floor or deck.

To mimmic the deck at home, I use a heavy sheet pan, inverted so that dough can easily slide on and off.  You could also use a baking stone.

Commerical bread ovens also have steam generators.  Immediately after the bread is placed on the deck, the baker injects steam into the oven.

To create a similar effect at home I was told by a few people to put a metal tray on the bottom of the hot oven, and to throw a handful of ice onto it after the dough has been loaded.  Using ice, as opposed to water, will supposedly lengthen the release of steam into the oven.

I find I get better oven spring by throwing boiling water onto the hot pan.  You get much more steam much faster.  Believers in the ice method say that the steam from boiling water dissipates before the oven spring is complete.  For my most recent batch, I put about three cups of boiling water onto the hot pan, and there was still a bit left when I pulled the bread out thirty minutes later.

Use a very heavy pan as your steam generator.  Thin aluminum pans don’t hold much heat, and therefore won’t create a lot of steam immediately.

My first time I used a Pyrex casserole.  It cracked.  Now I use a heavy stainless steel braising pot.