Ancient Carbs

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“Who wants to take a guess? How long have people been eating bread?”

Hands shot up.

“A million years!”

“A thousand years?”

“Ummm, hmm…”

The random, hastily shouted guesses were quickly followed by more thoughtful inquiries.

“They ate bread during Roman times, right?”  

“Are we talking prehistory?” 

“As long as people have been alive?”

The kids were surprised when I told them that humans have been eating bread for at least 30,000 years.

“But how do we know that?”

Several more guesses, then finally, “Is it the tools?”

Evidence of the processing of grain has been found in archaeological excavations of ancient sites.

“These stones, called querns, were used as grinding tools. Scientists have been able to obtain microscopic amounts of grain flour from the querns and carbon date them to 30,000 BP.”

The kids inspected and chewed on some wheat kernels.

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We discussed the digestibility of grain in that form.

“Eaten raw, those kernels will come out pretty much looking the same as when they went in.”

Knowing looks.

“Grinding might have made the grain easier to eat, but raw flour still won’t sustain a body for very long. But take that same flour and water and make bread. Now that will keep a person alive.”

I mentioned the cooking theory. Kind of science heavy for the youngest of our group, but still good food for thought.

“So these nomadic people, roaming around gathering wild grasses and grains–they start settling in an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Why would they want to be near the water?”

“Plants!”

“Animals that eat the plants!”

“Animals that eat the animals that eat the plants!”

Ancient history is a new topic for a couple of the kids, so we took a little time here to review the Fertile Crescent and all of its offerings.

“Eventually, people started cultivating the plants for food–grains like barley and wheat.”

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I explained that the first breads were flat and unleavened. Leavened bread was discovered later and most likely by accident.

“Perhaps someone mixed some bread dough using the same bowl that had been used for a previous batch. If so, it probably contained wild yeast. Maybe they realized that this practice of incorporating old dough into a new batch of bread made their loaves lighter.”

While we don’t know for sure how it happened, we do know that the first leavened breads appeared around 6,000 years ago.

“Again, how do we know this?”

Most of the kids recognized cuneiform.

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We made some jokes about this very first collection of recipes.

“Since they were written on clay tablets, you wouldn’t be carrying them around your kitchen like The Joy of Cooking.”

No, these recipes weren’t meant as a “how-to” as the majority of the people couldn’t read anyway; Mesopotamian scribes were recording a culinary ritual.

“And the list of foods they recorded is pretty impressive: 20 different kinds of cheese, hundreds of kinds of soup, and 300 kinds of bread, many of which were leavened by wild yeast, also known as sourdough.”

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Wild yeast, saccharomyces exiguus, is a single-celled microorganism and the smallest member of the mushroom family.

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“It’s a fun guy! Eh, eh?” My son never gets sick of this joke.

The wild yeast is especially plentiful on the skins of fruit and grains. Grind some grain, add a little warmth and water and you create an environment in which naturally occurring lactobacilli bacteria break down the carbohydrates in the grain and allow the sugar-eating fungus to thrive.

“And just like us after we eat a big meal, the yeast will do what?”

“Burp!”

“Fart!”

Yeah, expel gas. Carbon dioxide actually. 

“But why doesn’t the gas just bubble out of the dough?”

And this is where gluten comes in.

“Gluten is a protein that is formed when wheat flour is combined with water. It gives elasticity to the dough, allowing the dough to trap the carbon dioxide and expand like a balloon. But not all wheat flours have the same gluten capabilities.”

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I measured two tablespoons of several different flours into labeled bowls: unbleached cake, bread, whole grain from hard red wheat, and two all-purpose grinds made from the ancient wheat varieties of einkorn and emmer.

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Then we added one tablespoon of water to each.

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I instructed the kids to mush and knead together the mixtures in their bowls.

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The differences were immediately obvious.

“Hey, I think mine needs more water. It’s a lot drier than hers.”

“Mine is really sticky.”

“The dark ones are stiffer.”

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We compared the resulting doughs. Some were soft and stretchy while some were crumbly.

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Each kid washed their ball of dough in a bowl of water. The range of gluten in the different flours became more visible once the starch was rinsed away.

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“You can see that some flours produce doughs that are really elastic while some flours produce doughs that stretch and break or don’t stretch much at all. This is why bread bakers usually mix their weaker flours with stronger flours, and why you would use a weak flour for cakes and pastries.”

“So, bread made with weak flour would be really flat and crumbly?”

“Exactly!”

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They compared and investigated and explored until stomachs started rumbling.

After seeing that both emmer and einkorn were weaker flours, they understood when I explained how I chose to mix each of those flours with bread flour to make the sourdough loaves we were about to eat.

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The emmer loaf was a bit darker and had a slightly grassier aroma. This wasn’t surprising since the flour had smelled really green when we opened the bag.

“It smells like hay.”

The einkorn loaf was warmer in color.

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Lacking gazelle and pigeon, I chose to offer more accessible items taken from the list of foods common in ancient Mesopotamia: yogurt cheese, honey, figs, grapes, and yes, sourdough bread.

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Overall, the kids slightly preferred the somewhat lighter einkorn loaf to the emmer. This however, did not stop anyone from devouring every scrap of bread on the table.

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Personally, I couldn’t tell much difference in the actual flavor of the loaves. It wasn’t until later, when when I ate my third snack that I could detect that slightly grassier flavor in the emmer. Maybe it had needed a chance to develop. Or maybe I was just not shoveling it in eating slower.

Whatever it was, it was delicious.

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I have not included a sourdough bread recipe in this post because, well, it’s a process. But! There are many sources online for getting a starter going and baking some bread. Here are two I would recommend:

King Arthur Flour

The Perfect Loaf

I would encourage anyone who is interested in the world of sourdough to make a starter.  Watch it. Feed it. Make some stuff with it. You don’t even need to bake bread right away–you can make pancakes or waffles. Just get used to having it around and taking care of it. Like a pet. A pet that will feed you for a change!

 

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I Vote For Cake

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“Do you think more people would vote if they got free cake?”

We’d been talking about Election Cake. It had been an interesting conversation so far — one that meandered from voting requirements to Presidential eligibility to citizenship, and finally, to the Obama birther kerfuffle. So many questions from the kids. Whew. But let me back up…

We were making a cake. Or was it a bread? And what did it have to do with the political process?

I had kicked off our class that day by explaining that all the cookbooks in early America had been wholly British, that is, they contained recipes that employed traditional British cooking techniques using ingredients common to Britain. It wasn’t until 1796 that the first truly American cookbook was printed. Published in Hartford, Connecticut, by Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life, was the original manual for cooking American dishes using foodstuffs indigenous to the young country. It was hugely popular, and public demand kept it in reprints for 35 years. It was in the second edition of the book that there appeared what some food historians consider the first recipe for an Election Cake:

“Thirty quarts of flour, 10 pound butter, 14 pound sugar, 12 pound raisins, 3 doz eggs, one pint wine, one quart brandy, 4 ounces cinnamon, 4 ounces fine coriander seed, 3 ounces ground allspice; wet flour with milk to the consistency of bread over night, adding one quart yeast; the next morning work the butter and sugar together for half an hour, which will render the cake much lighter and whiter; when it has rise light work in every other ingredient except the plumbs, which work in when going into the oven.”

American Cookery, Amelia Simmons, facsimile of the Second Edition, printed in Albany, 1796

I imagine that recipe would have produced enough cake for a whole town! Or perhaps an army?

In fact, the Election Cake is thought to be a variation of a Mustering Cake. Before the Revolutionary War, colonists would gather for military training exercises or “mustering.” The women would bake simple cakes to serve to the crowd of hungry men. After the revolution, mustering was no longer necessary but men still traveled to the town center to vote. Election Day was treated much like a holiday, with an abundance of revelry and celebration, so the Muster Cakes were fancied up a bit and evolved into Election Cakes.

“We need to get going on the sponge.”

“A sponge?!”

I reminded them that we had used the same process for the brioche we had baked in one of our last sessions.

“Oh yeah.”

I also reminded them that in 1796 baking powder would not yet have been introduced, (that happened in 1843). The one chemical leaven that was in use and included in American Cookery was pearl ash, an undependable and bitter-tasting product derived from wood ashes that tended to leave ghoulish green streaks in baked goods. Thus the need for a yeasty sponge leaven.

As commercial yeast would not have been available until the 1860s, the yeast mentioned in the original Election Cake recipe would have meant barm, the foam or scum created when brewing ale.

“Ooh so they used pilsner in their cake?!”

Since we weren’t brewing any ale, we would use commercial yeast for this cake.

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When the kids had finished mixing the sponge, we set it aside to ferment. In the meantime, we gathered the rest of the ingredients together, buttered the baking dishes, and chatted some more about cooking in 18th century America.

“So, this cake is a celebration cake, but it seems pretty plain. Any idea why?”

I let them consider that for a moment before pointing out that baking in those times was kind of a pain.

“Just getting the ingredients together was more difficult. You couldn’t just scoop sugar out of a jar. Some books still included instructions on ‘How to boyle and clarify sugar.’ And in the late 1800s, white sugar was expensive, used sparingly, and had to be scraped from loaves or cones with special shears.”

Then, there was the manner of cooking. In colonial American kitchens, baking was done in small brick ovens built alongside the fireplace. By the 1840s to 1850s, brick-oven baking had been supplanted by the cast-iron wood-burning range, but cooking in one was still labor intensive:

Too much care cannot be given to the preparation of the oven, which is oftener too hot than too cool…A good plan is to fill the stove with hard wood…let it burn until there is a good body of heat, and then turn the damper so as to throw the heat to the bottom of the oven…In this way a steady heat to start with is secured…if the hand can be held in from twenty to thirty-five seconds…it is a “quick” oven, from thirty-five to forty-five seconds is “moderate,” and from forty-five to sixty seconds is “slow”… All systematic housekeepers will hail the day when some enterprising Yankee or Buckeye girl shall invent a stove or range with a thermometer attached to the oven, so that the heat may be regulated accurately…

— The Women of First Congregational Church Marysville, Ohio The Centennial Buckeye Cook Book Minneapolis, 1876

By now, we could see that our sponge had fermented and was well-risen.

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While we added the sponge into a mixture of creamed butter and sugar, we discussed the various sugar products that were available and how they were produced.

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The grating of nutmeg prompted a completely unscientific sniff-test comparing it to mace.

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“It’s important to mix your fruit with flour so it doesn’t all sink to the bottom of your cake.”

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We finished mixing the batter, and set the cakes aside to rise a second time.

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“It looks like banana bread!”

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I was unsure how tasty the cakes would be, but the kids loved them. The recipe says they keep well and are delicious sliced and toasted, but I haven’t tested that because they’ve been gobbled up each time.

If you do make this recipe you might consider making extra — depending on which way you’re leaning this election cycle you could either throw a party on election night or drown your sorrows in cake. Either way, get out and vote.

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Election Cake, adapted only slightly from Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax

Makes two 8×4-inch loaves; each serves about 8

For the sponge:

1 package active dry yeast

1/2 c packed light brown sugar

1 1/2 c lukewarm milk

3 cups all-purpose flour

For the cake:

3/4 c (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 c packed light brown sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 c all-purpose flour

1 1/2 t ground cinnamon

3/4 t fresh-grated nutmeg

1/2 t ground mace

3/4 t fine sea salt

1 c golden raisins

3 T brandy

Dissolve the yeast and 2 T of the brown sugar in 1/4 c of the lukewarm milk; let stand until bubbly, about 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining 1/4 c plus 2 T brown sugar and the remaining 1 1/4 c milk; gradually add the flour and knead in a standing mixer with a dough hook for five minutes. (You could also do this by hand with a wooden spoon). Scoop into a buttered bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled in volume, 45-60 minutes.

In a bowl, combine the flour with all of the spices, the salt, and the raisins, tossing them to coat.

In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar until light. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Punch down the sponge and add to the butter mixture; beat just until partially combined.

Add the flour mixture to the dough, along with the brandy, and beat until well combined; the dough will be very soft.

Generously butter the loaf pans. Divide the dough evenly between the two pans, cover and let rise in a warm place until fully doubled, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Bake until the loaves are golden brown, about 45 minutes. A toothpick inserted in the center will come out clean.

Cool the cakes in the pans on a rack for about 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle invert the cakes onto the rack, unmold and turn right side up. Cool to room temperature. Wrapped well, the cakes will keep several days.

 

More in this series:

Cake As A Lens

The Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

 

Rich Bread From Tiny Creatures


And when I say “tiny creatures,” I don’t mean the kids. I mean Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as baker’s yeast.

“It’s been a while since we’ve baked anything with yeast. The last thing was…”

“Pizza!”

“This time we’ll be making a yeasted French bread called brioche. It’s a rich dough, meaning it has a lot of fat in it. Doughs that become sourdough, or baguette, or even pizza crust are called lean doughs because they are made with little to no fat in them. This brioche has quite a bit of butter in it, as well as fat from lots of egg yolks.”

We took a look at a very traditional baking and pastry book. They could see that brioche can come in many different forms: loaves, braids, baked in large molds or as little knots.

“This version even has a little head.”

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We reviewed what yeast was and how it works.

“So these little guys, these simple organisms, they eat the sugars in the dough. They eat and eat and eat, and then they do what?”

“Fart!”

“Poop!”

I waited for the giggling to die down.

“Or burp. Yeah, they expel carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the dough and causes it to rise. The thing is, fat slows down the action of the yeast. So, in order to give them a head start on their work, we’ll make a sponge with some of the ingredients, then add the rest once we can see that the yeast are really active. Finally, we’ll beat in the butter.”

We heated some milk to about 110 degrees, warmer than body temperature, but not too warm for dunking fingers into.

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They added the yeast, an egg, and some of the flour. We mixed this together to get a shaggy dough, then sprinkled more flour over the top. We covered the bowl with cling film and set it aside to ferment.

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We were using fresh yeast for the first time, so while our sponge was rising, we took the opportunity to compare different kinds of yeast.

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First up, the yeast we couldn’t see.

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Though the yeast that had made the bubbles appear in my starter wasn’t visible, there were other signs that fermentation had taken place.

“It smells like sourdough.”

We talked about how the yeast in the jar, wild yeast (Saccharomyces exiguus), is always out there in nature. The only time we see evidence of its presence might be the funkiness on a piece of fruit left too long on the counter or on the tree in the backyard — after the yeast has already started the fermentation process, feasting on the fruit’s sugars, then excreting carbon dioxide and alcohol.

Then we checked out the yeast we could see: fresh, active dry, and instant yeast.

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“These forms of yeast are produced in big factories. They grow it in vats on sugars like molasses.”

“So kind of like yeast farmers?”

“Right! They end up with something like yeast soup. Then they remove the liquid and either compress the results to make cake (fresh) yeast, or dehydrate it to make either active dry or instant yeast.”

We examined the three piles.

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure?” I mean, I wouldn’t want to eat straight yeast, but I figured a tiny bit couldn’t hurt. “If anything, it might make you gassy.”

Giggles.

They inspected and sniffed and poked. And tasted. A little.

“This one is bigger and kind of round.” (Active-dry)

“This one is tinier, and sort of longish.” (Instant)

Fresh yeast resembled a crumbly eraser.

“Fresh yeast will work the fastest because it doesn’t need to be rehydrated. But fresh yeast doesn’t store well for very long and is harder to find in the market. You can substitute one for the other as long as you use the correct converted amount.”

There was some discussion about the need for rehydrating dried yeast. Yes, it is alive in the package, but dormant, kind of like the tree in my yard during the winter. Yes, it is alive in the bread dough. And yes, we kill it when we bake it. Poor yeast.

The yeast in our sponge was definitely alive and moving fast.
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The kids agreed that it already smelled like bread.

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They added the rest of the eggs and dry ingredients to the rising sponge.

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“It doesn’t look very yummy.”

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This dough requires a long mix, about 15 minutes on medium-high speed.

“Can you believe they used to mix this by hand?”

While the dough was mixing, I pulled out a batch of brioche I had made the night before.

“Because brioche contains so much butter, it is really impossible to work with unless it’s cold. I have dough ready and chilled so that you can see how to portion and shape it.”

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We divided the dough into 3 ounce pieces.

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I showed them how to cup their hands around the dough to shape and round it.

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Ok, so it takes a bit of practice. We got mostly rounded dough pieces.

We set the pan of dough balls aside to rise again, and turned our attention back to our mixing brioche.

It was smooth and sticky and very well mixed. Time to beat in the butter.

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“Here you guys, feel this butter. It should be somewhat soft, but not melty or oily.”

They pressed their fingertips into the butter.

“Now we’ll add it to the dough, a few tablespoons at a time.”

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They were really eager to throw their pats of butter into the mixer, but they patiently waited until I gave each person the o.k.

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Once all the butter was incorporated, we dumped the brioche dough out onto the lightly floured table and gathered it into a ball. We placed it into a buttered bowl so that it could rise.

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Our brioche rounds were ready.

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They pressed the spongy rounds flat, leaving a little raised rim around the edge.

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We spooned some crème fraîche into the center.

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Then we topped the crème fraîche with macerated strawberries and brushed the edge of the dough with a bit of egg wash.

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A sprinkling of sugar topped the whole thing off.

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The brioches went into the oven and emerged golden and puffy and smelling like butter and hot strawberries. And yes, they tasted as good as that sounds.

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But what of the first batch of dough? The one the kids actually mixed?

It was still happily rising on the counter.

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I pressed that out into a sheet pan and dusted it with flour before placing it in the refrigerator to chill.

We had needed extra dough for demonstration purposes. This batch would become cinnamon rolls for breakfast the next morning. The lengths I go to for the kids’ benefit. That’s the story I’m sticking with anyway.

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Brioche from Pastries From The La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton

yield:  2 1/4 lbs of dough

Note: This recipes takes 2 days because it must be chilled for at least 6 hours, but my preference is overnight. Also, the dough requires a lengthy mixing time to properly develop — keep an eye on your mixer so that it doesn’t shimmy its way off the counter while it’s working, and don’t let it overheat.

3/4 ounce (1 T) packed fresh cake yeast or 2 1/2 t active dry

1/3 cup whole milk, warmed to 110 degrees

6 extra-large eggs

3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 t kosher salt

2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, soft but not melting or oily

Place the yeast in the bowl of a standing mixer and pour the milk over, letting active dry yeast proof for 10 minutes. Add 1 of the eggs and 1 cup of the flour and stir to combine. Sprinkle 1 more cup of flour over the mixture without stirring. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside until the surface cracks, about 30 minutes.

Add the remaining eggs and dry ingredients to the sponge. Using the dough hook, mix on low for 1-2 minutes, until combined. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and continue to mix for about 15 minutes, until the dough wraps itself around the hook and is smooth, shiny, and slightly sticky. It may be necessary to add another tablespoon of flour to encourage the dough to leave the sides of the bowl.

Turn the mixer down to medium-low and add the butter, a few tablespoons at a time. After all of the butter has been added, turn the mixer up to medium-high and beat the dough for about 2-3 more minutes, until the dough wraps itself around the hook. If necessary, add a few pieces of flour to encourage the dough to leave the sides of the bowl. The dough will be smooth and shiny, but not oily.

Remove the dough from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface and gather into a ball. Place the dough into a buttered bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size, about 2 – 2 1/2 hours.

Spread the dough out onto a floured parchment-lined baking sheet. Dust with flour, cover, and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.

For fruit-topped brioche:

Separate the chilled dough into twelve 3 ounce pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into balls. Flatten into discs and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Set aside to proof until spongy to the touch, about an hour. Make a depression in the center of the discs and spoon way more crème fraîche than you feel is reasonable in the center, (trust me, we used about 1T per bun and it was not close to enough). Top with fruit, (we used strawberries macerated with sugar and orange zest), brush the edge with egg wash, and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 – 30 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

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.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cabbages and Cream Puffs

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Lesson 2: Pate a choux (paht ah shoo)

Literally translated it means cabbage paste. Sounds delicious doesn’t it?

Also known as choux, it is the crispy and slightly eggy pastry that plays a supporting role in all kinds of deliciousness.

I tell the kids the reason I want to teach them how to make it is because it is very versatile.  Like the brick in their lego sets, you can create lots of different things with it…cream filled puffs and eclairs, sugar topped or stuffed with ice cream and bathed in chocolate sauce; but it can also be piped and fried to make French crullers or beignets; made savory by adding cheese to make gougeres, or even boiled like dumplings to make Gnocchi Parisienne.

Fancy fancy, right?  I think mostly they hear “blah blah sugar, blah blah chocolate, blah blah ice cream.”

They will thank me later when they are in college and all they have in the apartment is a bit of flour, some eggs, and a lonely stick of butter.

So to the recipe we turn.  We quickly gather our mis en place and get down to business.

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We discuss why it’s important to measure liquid ingredients in a liquid measuring cup rather than a dry measuring cup…”because it will spill!”, and why you should always get down to eye level to measure the liquids accurately…”it looks like there’s too much!” from above.

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Then, a reminder of what the different measuring spoons mean…”1/4 means that four of these go into one of these.”

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And butter…”1/2 cup is always one stick, so if your recipe calls for 1 cup of butter you need what?”, “2!”

The water, milk, sugar, salt and butter all get dumped in the pot.

Then we get a bit messy with the flour.

This recipe calls for 1 cup, sifted, (which means measured first, then sifted). I wanted to show them that the best way to measure flour is not by scooping it with the measuring cup, (as most people do), but by placing the empty measuring cup down, then using another utensil to lightly fluff and lift out the flour, and add it to the waiting cup.  Finally, without tamping it down, just level it off with the straight edge of a knife, spoon, etc.

The theory is that no two people scoop with the same force and therefore, by measuring the first way, more often than not you will end up with more than the recipe requires.

In theory.

So I whip out my digital scale and ask one of the children to measure a cup of flour by the usual method.  Then I measure mine by this way more accurate method.  We weigh them, and…lo and behold they are exactly the same!

Um.

Ok!  So everybody is scooping and weighing and the kids are digging the scale and we have flour everywhere and nobody else comes up with exactly the same amount.

Aha! I. am. vindicated.

Back to it then.

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We sift to remove lumps. Don’t skip this step!

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Then the kids take turns cracking the eggs into a pitcher.

Only after all our ingredients are measured do we turn to the stove.  The contents of the pot are brought to a full boil and then, off the heat, we add the flour all at once, and stir rapidly with a wooden spoon.

“It looks like mashed potatoes!”

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It’s just like making play dough.

Everything goes back on the heat and cooked for another few minutes.  The pate a choux should be stirred until it comes away from the sides of the pot and forms a smooth, shiny mass, leaving a bit of film on the bottom of the pot.

What’s happening in there anyway?

I remind the kids that in our last lesson we kneaded our dough to activate and strengthen the gluten that provides the elastic structure needed to capture the carbon dioxide expelled by the yeast.  Think of it as an expanding balloon. Without that strong but stretchy exterior, the gas would just break through the dough and leave you with flat and heavy bread.

We are basically doing the same thing here, minus the yeast.  But, if we aren’t using yeast as leavening, what are we using to fill our “balloon”?

“What do you get when you heat water on the stove?”, I ask.  “Steam!”

This is where the eggs come in.  We dry the choux paste out on the stove so we can incorporate as many eggs as possible.  Not only will the protein from the eggs provide additional strength to the pastry, but when placed in a hot oven, the moisture from the eggs will create a burst of steam, resulting in a nice lofty puff.

Once the choux paste is sufficiently cooked on the stove, it should be transferred immediately to a bowl to cool for a few minutes.  The butter will seep out if left to sit in the hot pot.

Now comes the bicep workout.  This step could be done in a mixer with a paddle attachment, but I wanted the kids to be able to see the transformation of the pate a choux.  Also, I’m always looking for ways to wear them out.

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They take turns adding the eggs, one at a time, mixing each in completely before introducing the next.

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It sloshes around a bit, looks a bit, um, slimey, and gets a little more difficult with each addition, but eventually turns into a thick and supple mixture that forms a little peak when pulled up by the spoon.

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Now we are ready to form the puffs.

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The pate a choux gets scooped into a pastry bag and piped onto a parchment lined sheet pan.  (You could also use a heavy duty freezer bag with the corner cut off, or even dropped by the spoonful.  They won’t look as pretty but they’ll taste just as good.)

In order to help the kids pipe the choux puffs as close to the same size as possible, (they would finish baking at uneven times otherwise), I traced 1 1/2″ circles onto the backside of the parchment.  To keep the paper from sliding around, we “glue” it down with a little dab of choux paste between the parchment and pan in each corner.

It’s important to pipe as straight up as possible as the choux will want to expand in the direction it’s piped.

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I show them how to twist the bag at the level of the pate a choux, place that twist in the crook of their hand and apply pressure to the bag from there, not in the middle of the bag or risk choux paste coming out the top and bottom.

Then it’s just a continuous squeeze until the circle is nearly full and when it’s time to stop piping, a little swoosh of the tip in a “c” shape to break the tip away from the puff.  It also helps if you make a little “whoop” sound.

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Any “tails” or extra pointy parts are smoothed over with a slightly damp fingertip.

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A little time in a hot oven, and voila!

We rip one apart and see that there is a big space where the steam caused the choux to puff up and then baked off.

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The puffs need to cool for about 10 minutes before we fill them and dig in!

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So does it look like a little cabbage?

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Pate a choux

1/2 c water

1/2 c milk

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

1/2 c unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 c flour, sifted

5 large eggs

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a heavy saucepan, combine the milk, water, salt, sugar and butter and place over medium heat until the butter melts and the mixture comes to a full boil. Add the flour all at once, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring over medium heat until the mixture has formed a smooth mass and pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 3 – 5 minutes. A light film should form on the bottom of the pan, do not scrape it up.

Transfer to a heatproof mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer and let sit for 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time and mix completely before adding the next. (Use the paddle attachment for a standing mixer). When all the eggs have been added, the mixture will be thick, smooth and shiny.

Transfer the choux paste to a pastry bag fitted with a ½ inch tip, adding only as much to the bag as is comfortable to work with. Pipe out rounds of pate a choux, spacing about 2 inches apart. Smooth over any “tails” with a damp fingertip.

Bake until puffed and starting to show some color, about 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees and continue to bake until the shells feel light for their size, about 12 minutes longer. They should be nicely browned and a skewer should come out clean. Remove from the oven and use the tip of a knife to poke a small hole in each to allow steam to escape. Cool completely before filling.

Makes about 30 medium size puffs

A note on filling:

You can split the puffs in half for easy filling or poke a hole in them and fill with the help of a piping bag, like so…

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You can fill the puffs with whatever strikes your fancy, classically it’s a combination of whipped cream and pastry cream.  If you decide to go that route you’ll need about 4 cups total in order to fill all the choux puffs.

I figure I can incorporate a lesson on pastry cream into the next baking series, in custards, or even an “amazing egg” sort of unit.  That could be fun.

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.