Pretty, ain’t it?


Rye experiment #2

Rye experiment #1, if you’ll recall, was as follows:

Sponge, 6 hours:

  • 350g water
  • 175g rye flour
  • 175g bread flour
  • powdered malt extract (about a tablespoon)
  • yeast

Add to final mix:

  • 150g bread flour
  • salt
  • caraway seeds

It was getting to where I want my rye bread to be, but had a few issues – most of them, as I discovered, due to the dough not being sour enough. So, a few course corrections on this batch. (Yes, more than one — scientific method be damned, I want tasty bread!)

Change 1: 24 hours on the sponge. I tend to think that all breads are more interesting with longer fermentations — I just wanted something in one day the last time.

Change 2: Added a few g of citric acid at the second stage; it’s not ideal — that would be making this as a sourdough — but it should help to pinpoint whether the dough pH is at the root of the issues I saw last time.

Change 3: Accidentally totally changed the recipe. UMM, OOPS. After 24 hours, I dumped the second addition of flour+additions into the bowl without stopping to think about the fact that I had already done so — with this style of sponge, you mix up the sponge ingredients, and then put the second batch of flour directly on top like a blanket; the flour blanket keeps the sponge from getting totally crusted-over and gross, and the sponge gradually bubbles through as the yeast does its fermenty magic.

This is where I have to stop to sing the praises of Ruhlman‘s Ratio app for iPhone. If you bake anything at all (or make sauces. or stocks. or, well, food), get it. Set it to metric weights, please. And then when the day comes — as it inevitably will — when you realize just a second too late that you just irretrievably dumped 150g of flour into a bowl where it really didn’t need to be, you can just tweak the quantity in the app and it will adjust the other ingredients instantly.

I’m still counting this as an experiment gone wrong: the reason for this whole series of experiments was to push the amount of rye in the recipe while keeping what I think of as a NY rye flavor rather than a German-style rye. With the extra wheat flour, we’re back to ~1/4 rye from ~1/3. It’s looking and smelling like it’s going to be damned tasty bread, but it’s not a direct comparison with the last one. I’ll just have to dispose of the evidence, I suppose.

(will update this evening with the verdict)

It’s a Trappe!

Uncorked the first of the Dubbel, named as above because OMG I cannot resist a geek joke, like, ever.

This recipe obviously has the classics of the style as its inspiration, and by “classics” I pretty much mean Chimay Rouge. Which is as close as you can get to my One True Beer, my ur-beer, the beer for which I would abandon all others if I were ever in such a horribly tragic position as to have to abandon all others. If there were such a thing as heaven, it would be a world of freely-flowing Chimay and never having to get any work done the next day.

Anyway, this is not even remotely that beer.

But it does have layers; there’s a complexity to it that the Anglo-American styles I’ve been working with just don’t have. Subtle ester notes in the nose, and a dark fruity sweetness that’s noticeably different from grain sweetness — and yet nothing goes to the point of aggressively weird. I already wish I had a second batch, because I know this one will eventually run out.

Little head, which is sad-making, but will improve. This is just a first tasting of a beer I intend to condition for at least another month or so before I get serious about drinking it. At that point, it’ll be delightful to drink.

Let’s see what the style guidelines have to say:

18B: Belgian Dubbel

Aroma: Complex, rich malty sweetness; malt may have hints of chocolate, caramel and/or toast (but never roasted or burnt aromas). Moderate fruity esters (usually including raisins and plums, sometimes also dried cherries). Esters sometimes include banana or apple. Spicy phenols and higher alcohols are common (may include light clove and spice, peppery, rose-like and/or perfumy notes). Spicy qualities can be moderate to very low. Alcohol, if present, is soft and never hot or solventy. A small number of examples may include a low noble hop aroma, but hops are usually absent. No diacetyl.

Appearance: Dark amber to copper in color, with an attractive reddish depth of color. Generally clear. Large, dense, and long-lasting creamy off-white head.

Flavor: Similar qualities as aroma. Rich, complex medium to medium-full malty sweetness on the palate yet finishes moderately dry. Complex malt, ester, alcohol and phenol interplay (raisiny flavors are common; dried fruit flavors are welcome; clove-like spiciness is optional). Balance is always toward the malt. Medium-low bitterness that doesn’t persist into the finish. Low noble hop flavor is optional and not usually present. No diacetyl. Should not be as malty as a bock and should not have crystal malt-type sweetness. No spices.

Overall Impression: : A deep reddish, moderately strong, malty, complex Belgian ale.

Vital Statistics:
OG: 1.062 – 1.075
FG: 1.008 – 1.018

This batch was at 1.076 OG and 1.018 at bottling, putting it at the top of the range — about 7.6 ABV. A noticeable whiff of alcohol on first opening the bottle, but none of the liqueury vibe that comes with really high ABV beers: Crappy hair-on-your-chest max-out-the-statistics macho-American craft beer from the other night, I’m looking straight at you.

Rye experiment #1

Sponge, 6 hours:

  • 350g water
  • 175g rye flour
  • 175g bread flour
  • powdered malt extract (about a tablespoon)
  • yeast

Add to final mix:

  • 150g bread flour
  • salt
  • caraway seeds

The first thing to notice is that the ratio is 70% liquid rather than the normal 60. This is enough to be decidedly on the wet side, although some breads go much further – I’ve been playing with slightly higher percentages lately because a series of too-dry recipes made me VERY SAD. The second thing to notice is that the rye percentage is up to 35% of the grain bill from the 15-20 in a lot of NY-style rye breads. 35% is inching closer to a European-style rye, and definitely well into the range where it should be made as a sourdough, or at least have some acid in the recipe. It misbehaves when the pH gets too high, you see.

For this kind of recipe-tweaking, I use the bread machine all the way, with a delayed start for however long I want to let the dough develop. Normally, this is so I can (a) tweak ingredients while keeping other conditions the same and (b) go about my life and still end up with bread to eat at dinner. Once I have the flavor I want, I can mess around with rising cycles or spend the extra time to shape it in pretty ways. In this case, it has the added advantage of dealing with the rye monster.

If you don’t normally bake with it, rye is weird. Rye is funky and off-flavored and prone to picking up every hitchhiking wild yeast to come down the highway. Rye is… let’s just say that if you’re looking for an industrial adhesive, you could do a lot worse. Rye has superpowers, but they’re the kind that end up biting you in the ass.

Kneading this dough by hand is not something I would recommend for the faint of heart or professional of manicure. Let’s leave it at that.

Results: Pronounced grainy rye flavor, but I really miss having more noticeable tang/sour: 24 hours on the sponge might be enough to do the trick, or starter, or added acid. Crumb is slightly sticky (this is, again, an acid thing), but not too bad; with toasting, all stickiness is completely gone, and nothing on earth beats rye toast. Crust is incredibly crisp, which I suspect is totally due to the high water content. For round 2: sour and a longer time on the sponge. Keep the water content the same. Eat more toast.

On Defaults

In the software world, people talk a lot about good defaults — or at least they do if they’re any good. This is because we know that it’s the easiest thing in the world to code a bunch of features that answer every user’s most fervent desires, but we also know that most of them will never go out of their way to switch them on.

And I know that you, being discriminating enough to be among my half a dozen readers, are more technosavvy than the average bear, but if you’re in the US I’ll bet your copy of Word still creates all your new documents with 1.25″ margins and 12-point Times New Roman on letter-sized paper, am I right?

The much harder trick is to make the default really good; so good that it doesn’t matter if people don’t want to go digging in your preferences, or don’t even realize there are preferences to dig in. They’ll still be able to do what they want even if they never change a thing. The Mac client for Evernote assumes that I want to sync my notes with an online Evernote account even though it’s perfectly capable of letting me type and save notes with no such connection, because that’s kind of the whole point of Evernote. assumes, correctly, that I’d consider it a Bad Thing if my accounts ran low on money and it puts up a big red flag. These things aren’t done automatically by software, they were designed to do so — someone at some point decided, possibly after a lot of meetings and testing and failed attempts, that it would make a lot of sense for the great majority of users if they did it this way.

Good defaults can be wonderful or just solid, but most of all, they’re invisible. Until you train yourself to stop and look at what the default is and how it got to be that way, you probably don’t give them a whole lot of thought — although if all your work memos popped up with Star Wars font on business cards, I’ll bet you would’ve found your way to the new document preferences, cursing colorfully all the way. (Or maybe not. Maybe people still wouldn’t change the default, and we’d end up with a much weirder and more fun office culture instead.)

Food blogging is almost exactly the opposite. Everything is novelty – whether you go for the more-authentic-than-thou exotic finds, the mouth-watering food-porn pics, or even the work-straight-through-cookbook-x daily cooking style, the point is always that you’re making something different every time. And whatever you do, you don’t fess up to making another frozen pizza because you were all out of brain at the end of the day.

And I get why. I really do. For starters, nobody’s coming back for a third straight round of “we heated up more of the leftovers of Saturday’s chili”. Nobody. Not even your mother, although she might have the good grace to lie about it a little. And for seconds, the big hits are fun. I know I get a huge rush from random friends getting all “OMG you made bagels!”, and I’m pretty sure everyone who’s ever gotten (literally?) drooling feedback on a big project or a good photo feels the same way.

But the truth is, we all (and by “all” I mean humans, not food bloggers) have times when we’re eating the same old thing again. And that’s where I come back to thinking about defaults — great ones, good-enough ones, or really awful ones.

If you make the same roast chicken every week, don’t pretend that the very fact that it’s a repeat (or that it’s a chicken) makes it too pedestrian to even take notice of. Instead, make it a really, really great roast chicken. Pay some serious attention to mastering your roast chicken rather than just treating it like a bland chunk of calories and protein. Practice, change things, pay more attention to it than you would to a spectacular one-off you’re never going to make again. Make it a thoughtful and carefully-designed default that’s nearly invisible because it works so very well, not a 12-point Times New Roman chicken.

Coming soon: default bread, default beer, recipe-tweaking as mindfulness

Late-night bagels

Ever since I switched to a freelance schedule, my days and nights have gone completely wonky, but they were already weird before. We’re both competitive fencers, and the spouse is a coach as well, which means that we’re normally out thwacking people with sabres at what most rational Americans would call dinnertime. No problem, we tell each other over 10pm meals – it’s not that we’re overcommitted, we’re just secretly Spanish.

Add to that a sudden shift to being able to start and stop projects as the energy flows, regardless of whether they’re work or personal, and I find myself doing things like boiling bagels in the middle of the night.

Note: You can’t actually make late-night bagels without some advance planning. Ideally, you want some large number of hours for the sponge to ferment, and then the usual longer-the-better cool rises and the like. Nothing as chewy and crusty and gluteny as a good bagel can happen on the one-hour-super-last-minute-bread schedule. So these are really mid-morning bagels, with a delay built in. The shaping and boiling and baking part of the show is remarkably quick once you get a rhythm going, but do yourself the favor of a better-developed dough.

Dough percentage for these little dudes is 63%; 60% of the flour goes into the sponge, and let it do its spongy thing for as long as you can get away with it. A longer boil = a crustier bagel. We’re all about the chewy here. High-gluten flour and savory toppings only, please, or I will have to hunt you down with every ounce of New York left in me after 20 years in the South, because, damn it, bagels are not muffins.

Challah = celebration

I baked this one for a friend’s baby shower today. Always – always – inevitably and without fail, celebrations mean challah. This is mostly because challah always makes me think celebration: and how could it not, between the eggy richness of the dough and the extra bit of care in shaping it into something more fun than just a loaf?

No post-cutting pictures of this one. It was gone too fast.


Just a quickie: I’ve signed on for Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s absolutely brilliant year-long charcuterie roundup, Charcutepalooza. She posts monthly challenges for novices and charcuterie masters (this month is bacon for beginners or pancetta if you want more challenge), and highlights the best of the results. There are over 100 bloggers signed up, and you can still get in if you want to play along, or go check out the list if you just want to explore.

I’ll be doing as many of the challenges as I can, and I’ll tag the posts accordingly.

In the mean time, I’m off to find some good belly meat.

Meet Herman

Herman is a three-day-old sourdough starter. In the method I’m using, you start with a stiff dough of equal weights rye flour and water:

Herman, Day 1

Rye flour, especially if it’s organic, has insane amounts of both wild yeast and lactobacillus (aka the tasty sour stuff) hanging around. Enough to get a good colony established before any nasties get going in its place.

After a couple of days, there’s enough crazy yeast lovin’ going on that the whole mess has turned from its previous Play-Doh consistency to glue. Serious glue. Glue with a noticeable boozy whiff when you open the jar. Gluey enough that I photographed it with the swizzle stick still in it because I couldn’t neatly get it out.

Herman, Day 3

At this point, the yeast is doing its thing and because we don’t want every loaf to be rye bread (…wait, we don’t?) it’s time to start feeding our wee anaerobic beasties a diet of wheat flour. With each feeding, the amount of rye in the mix dwindles until, like homeopathy, there’s none left. Only this mixture actually does something. In a week it’ll be robust enough to make bread; a few more weeks after that it’ll have the complex flavors I want.

I’ve always loved sourdoughs above all other breads, but really, you don’t even try it without a regular breadmaking routine. It thrives on a regular cycle of taking out half to make bread with and replacing what’s been taken with fresh flour and water. Without baking as a practice, you can keep dividing and feeding, but it somehow doesn’t make sense.

BREAKING NEWS Herman has left the building! Well, he tried to escape the pickle jar, anyway. It’s life in the refrigerator for you from now on, bucko…

Sunday in the yeast palace

I’m still working out the right brewing schedule. After bottling the handsome amber devil you see over to your right, I took advantage of having already-sanitized gear to brew up another batch the same day. Which is a lovely idea in theory, until I realized a couple of weeks later that I had a second batch ready to bottle with hardly any bottles ready to put it in and no desire to drink any faster than I was already drinking.

The holiday party season is a blessing. So is having friends with bands (and the practice spaces full of empty beer bottles that always seem to go along with them). Even so, this batch ended up with a long secondary ferment that I wouldn’t normally pick for something as straightforward as a pale ale. Oh, well – when I bottled it today, it tasted fresh and mellow and like it’ll make a lovely beer. And the next batch I’m planning (a Dubbel, for those who care about such things) is absolutely designed to sit around waiting for me to have a free weekend when I have my wits about me. Work to your strengths, I say.

Breads for this weekend are a new-to-me Jewish rye based on Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recipe, and the usual oatmeal bread. The rye is in the oven and smelling fantastically of sour/earthy/grainy rye and caraway and I can predict that a whole lot of it will disappear with tonight’s dinner. Hence the need for a second loaf.

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