Back to homeschool pizza baking party, and the 411 on wheat

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Summer break has officially ended and we are back in “school mode”.  Right. This would require a celebration.

For my kids, this meant pizza with their friends. And lemonade.

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Looks like we may need to brush up on spelling.

But first things first…pizza!

The kids took up their regular “baking class” spots around the table, and we talked about how pizza dough was a simple mixture of water, flour, salt and oil, leavened with yeast.

“Anyone remember what yeast is?”

A little nudge from me: “Is it a living thing?”

“Yes!”, “It’s a fungi.”

Me again, shaking the little packet of yeast: “Anyone want to guess what we need to do first when we make any yeasted dough?”

“Wake it up!”,  “Put it in water!”

“And what does it do when we put it in our dough?”

“It eats and burps gas bubbles!”

Exactly.

We checked the temperature of our water.  I explained that yeast, like humans, need warmth, but not too much.  The temperature of the water should be about 100 degrees or so, definitely no more than 140.  They should be able to hold their fingers in the water without wanting to pull them out.

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“Ow!”  They thought it was too hot.

I added a little cool water  and checked the temperature with an instant read thermometer so they could get a clearer idea of what it should feel like.  They all agreed that, at 107 degrees, it was “much, much better.”

We stirred the yeast and some of the water together in a bowl and let it sit for a few minutes .

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Then we added the rest of our water, some olive oil, and salt.

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Next, we started adding flour, about a cup at a time.  I shared my thoughts on measuring and adding flour to pizza and lean bread doughs, as in, I don’t measure exactly, but prefer to go by the feel of the dough.  Sure, it is good to have an idea of how much flour you need to have on hand, but depending on your flour, you may use less or more in the end product, and it is a good idea to learn to gauge its quality by touch.

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We continued to add flour until the mixture became too stiff to stir with a spoon.

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I encouraged the kids to put their hands in the bowl to feel the sticky, elastic dough.

“Does anyone remember what makes the dough so stretchy?”

I reminded them of the composite protein, called gluten, that forms when water and glutenin and gliadin, the two proteins present in dry wheat flour, mix.  The action of kneading actually realigns the gluten molecules so that they run roughly in the same direction.  I like to think of a messy pile of yarn, and the kneading is the motion of straightening all the strands into a nice, neat bundle.  The resulting network of protein gives bread its structure by creating an expandable barrier that will trap the carbon dioxide gas given off by the feeding yeast, much like a balloon filling with air.

I think they get the balloon part.

Next, we scraped the resulting shaggy mass of dough out onto the generously floured table.

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We would be kneading more flour into the dough at this point, precisely why we didn’t want to add all of our flour in the very beginning.  Dough that is too dry and floury is harder to stretch into pizzas and bakes up bready.  Slightly wetter doughs bake up lighter with bigger bubbles in the crust.

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The kids took turns kneading, adding only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to their hands.

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We could feel the dough becoming more uniform, and stopped after a few minutes when it was smooth and still slightly tacky.  It was placed in a lightly oiled, covered bowl where it would rise for an hour.

While the yeast worked their magic, we turned our attention to wheat, the grain our flour was made from.

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A member of the grass family, wheat produces a dry one-seeded fruit called a kernel.

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The kids enthusiastically examined the wheat, pulling apart the head and harvesting the wheat berries.  As they gathered the kernels, “This takes a long time!”, we talked about the traditional ways the edible part of the wheat was separated from the chaff before winnowing, and the ancient and modern ways of milling it into flour. We looked at a diagram of a wheat kernel and discussed how different wheat flours are made not only from different kinds of wheat, but from different parts of, or, in the case of whole grain, the entire wheat berry.

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They examined and compared various kinds of flour: all purpose, whole wheat, whole wheat pastry, bread, cake, and buckwheat, and drew tables where they could record their observations.

“This one feels soft…

…gritty

…rough”

or “This one smells good…

…sweet

…like grass”

One of the girls pushed some whole wheat flour through a fine mesh strainer and discovered what she had left was the extracted bran.  Another attempted, unsuccessfully,  to grind the sturdy wheat berries into flour with a mortar and pestle, “These are hard! It would have taken forever!”

Next, we added water to each bowl and observed what happened.

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“This one sucks up a lot of water!” (whole grain absorbs more than white)

“This is stretchy.” (Indicating the presence of gluten and its level of strength)

“This turned out kinda runny.” (Lower protein cake flour)

“This one doesn’t stretch at all!” (The only gluten-free one we had, buckwheat, isn’t wheat, but a plant used for it’s edible seeds)

They poked, prodded and tasted the resulting mixtures and shared their various opinions.

“This one tastes like dirt.” Fair enough.

“This one tastes like peanut butter.” Okay…

And, “this one tastes like mouth-blood.” Huh?

It’s a good thing our pizza dough was ready because I was beyond hungry.

We could see that the dough had doubled in size.

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And that the yeast had indeed eaten and burped.

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It was time for stretching!

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They enjoyed deflating the dough.

I divided it into 8, 4 oz. pieces and rounded those into balls.  Ideally we would let the dough rest for a bit to let the gluten relax after the trauma of being man kid-handled and divided, but my empty tummies called.

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I showed them how to press the balls into rounds and then stretch them on the backs of their fists, letting gravity do its work.

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I advised that if the dough wasn’t stretching much, or was fighting back, they should just leave it alone for a minute to let the gluten relax.  Easier said than done.

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They also tried to stretch the dough by holding the discs up by the edges and quickly rotating it to keep the circular shape.

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Some were rounder than others.

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A little sauce…

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toppings…

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then (a late) lunch!

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And they were all very pleased with their creations.

 

Pizza Dough (makes enough for about 8 individual pizzas, or 2 – 3 large rounds, depending on the thickness of crusts)

A note about this recipe:  I use this dough when I’m making it for dinner during the week and I haven’t planned very far ahead.  It happens.  More often than not.  Having said that, when I can think more than a day in advance, I really like this recipe, (with a bit more salt), for its more developed flavor and good chew.  Obviously, explaining to the kiddos that they’ll have to wait 3 days to bake the pizzas might be a tough sell.  This one is definitely kid friendly.

1 1/2 cups warm water

2 t active dry yeast

2 t fine sea salt

2 T olive oil

About 4 cups unbleached all purpose flour, bread flour, or a combination of whole wheat and one of the others

Place 1/2 cup of the water in a large bowl and stir in the yeast.  Set aside for a few minutes to rehydrate. Add the rest of the water, salt and the oil.  Add the flour about a cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon after each addition. Stop adding when it becomes too difficult to stir.  Remove the shaggy mass of dough to a floured surface.  With floured hands, knead until fairly smooth and stretchy, using only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking.  Tacky is fine.  Place dough into a lightly oiled bowl and cover.  Set aside for 1 hr.  When the dough has risen to about double, remove to a lightly floured surface. Divide dough and form into balls.  Let sit for 10 minutes.  Stretch dough into rounds, letting dough rest longer if it is hard to stretch or springs back.  Top pizzas and bake in a very hot oven, (I heat mine, including a baking stone, for at least 30 minutes in advance to 500 degrees.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s alive!

Our first lesson was yeasted breads.  We actually made soft pretzels, but as I explained to the kids, the mixing method is the same.

Before we could begin making any dough however, we still had one “basic” to cover…how to read a recipe!  Most importantly, always read it first, and all the way through.

We went over it together…ingredient list, check, steps in order, check, how much it makes, check. Mis en place assembled, check.  At this point, my son managed to launch the filled liquid measuring cup across the table so that the child directly opposite him ended up with the first ingredient dripping down his head.

Kitchen rule #2, check.

Freshly mopped and back on track, we mixed warm water with yeast and the sugar and waited for it to bubble.

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What is yeast anyway?

I’ve found that the most kid-friendly explanation of yeast is that it is a living thing, the smallest member of the fungi family.  The powder in the little packet is just dehydrated yeast.  I guess you could say it is asleep.  To wake it up and help it grow we need to give it warmth, moisture and food.  Thus the warm, (but not hot!), water and sugar.  The yeast eats the sugar and then, like anyone who may have eaten a big meal, burps. The bubbles of carbon dioxide on the surface of the water are like yeast burps.  The kids find this funny.  Some children might go so far as to equate the burping with another way of expelling gas. This generally brings the house down.

The yeast will continue to feed off the flour in the bread dough.  This cycle of eating and burping and eating and burping, called fermentation, is what eventually leavens the bread.

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The next step in making a yeasted bread dough is to add the salt and perhaps fat, in this case melted butter.

The kids took turns adding flour, about a cup at a time until the dough became too stiff to stir with a spoon.  At this point we turned the shaggy dough out onto my floured kitchen table and began kneading it, adding only enough flour from the table to keep the dough from sticking.

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Why do we have to knead the dough?

Bread dough needs to be elastic in order to catch the gases created by the yeast, stretching to make space for the rapidly increasing bubbles, almost like a balloon filling with air.  Without this elasticity the finished bread would be crumbly rather than chewy, and unpleasantly heavy.

Each child took a turn at grabbing the far edge of the dough, pulling it toward them and folding it over onto itself, then pressing it forward and away before turning the dough a quarter of the way and repeating.

This action of kneading creates elasticity by knitting together two proteins contained in wheat flour.  This is kinda upper sciencey for young kids, but when the proteins gliadin and glutenin are combined with water and physically manipulated, they form a network of molecules called gluten. As the dough is kneaded the gluten gets stronger. This is what gives bread its structure.

When the dough is sufficiently kneaded you should be able to perform a windowpane test.

“A what?” you say.  Well let me tell you how to do it!  Take a piece of dough about the size of a golf ball and hold it, with both hands, between your thumb and last two fingers on the bottom, and between your first and second fingers on the top. Then just gently spread your fingers apart, stretching the dough out, like you’re making a Barbie-sized pizza. If you can stretch it into a thin membrane without tearing it, you’re done kneading.  If it rips really easily before you can extend your fingers then knead it a bit longer.

We held our sample of windowpaned dough up to the light of an actual window so we could see the web-like gluten strands.

The kids enjoyed the kneading process and especially the soft, smooth feel of the finished dough.  It’s especially fun to see what they think it feels like.  I like to say that it feels like an earlobe.

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We placed the dough into a lightly oiled bowl, covered it with plastic wrap and left it in a warm spot to rise for about 50 minutes. Lunch break!

Upon checking the dough we saw that it had doubled in size, and if we pushed a finger into it, the dough did not spring back, but an indentation remained. We pulled back a bit of it to again see the glutenny webbing and pockets of carbon dioxide from the yeasty burps.

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We knew we were ready for shaping.

We deflated the dough and divided it into 8 equal parts.

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As we stretched the soft dough we made sure not to rip it too much and destroy that network of gluten we just worked our muscles for.

Each kid started in the center of their piece of dough and gently rolled it under their palms, back and forth while slowly working their hands apart. Eventually they ended up with long, dough snakes. Yes, some were very curvy or misshapen snakes, but I reminded them that this would make their finished pretzels wonderfully different and unique. Like snowflakes!  This seemed to calm the more perfectionist members of the group.

To make our pretzel shapes, we each took our dough snake and made a U. We then crossed the ends and brought them down to the bottom of the U, pinching each end into place.

This is where pretzel-making deviates from other yeasted breads.  Usually you would allow another rising period for shaped dough, generally until it’s 1 1/2 times the size and an indentation remains in the dough where lightly pressed.  With pretzels, as with bagels, you don’t want more volume. Additionally, you want a more chewy texture to the crust.  This is achieved by submerging the pretzels in boiling water.  This kills the yeast immediately and sets the outside crust.

The kids were woefully in need of a break at this point so I sent them outside to run while I performed this step.

After all the pretzels were back on oiled sheet pans I had each child brush theirs with egg wash.  They also sprinkled them with kosher salt.

After about 14 minutes in the oven you’ll have:

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The inflatable dolphin is totally optional.

The following recipe is adapted slightly from Alton Brown

Soft pretzels

1 ½ c warm water

1 T sugar

2 t kosher salt

1 package active dry yeast

4 ½ c bread flour

2 oz unsalted butter, melted

vegetable oil, for pan

10 c water

⅔ c baking soda

1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 T water

kosher or pretzel salt

Combine the water and sugar in a mixing bowl and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam.  Add the salt and butter.  Add 3 cups of the flour and mix until combined.  Place the rest of the flour on a board and knead into dough as necessary. Knead for another 6 to 7 minutes or until the dough is smooth.  Place dough into an oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Line 2 half-sheet pans with parchment paper and lightly brush with oil. Set aside.

Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart saucepan.

In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24 inch rope. Make a U-shape with the rope, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel.  Place onto the parchment-lined half sheet pan.

Place the pretzels into the boiling water, 1 by 1, for 30 seconds.  Remove them from the water using a large flat spatula.  Return to the half sheet pan, brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt.  Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes.  Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.