The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Elagins's blog

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It occurred to me that I wasn't clear about how the NYB free shipping offer works, and that anyone who orders will see shipping added onto their total. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to figure out how to turn off the Paypal shipping calculator, so as I've explained to those who've phoned me, you need to pay the full amount, including the shipping, which I will then immediately refund. It's a bit roundabout, but for the moment, it's the best I can do. NYB is a work in progress, and I apologize for any misunderstandings.

Stan Ginsberg

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I recently got a message from someone here whom I respect a great deal, both as a person and as a baker. However, one part of his message stung me: the part where he says, "I don't remember seeing any original recipes or methods from you." That got me thinking about what I bake, how I bake, and most importantly, why I and others bake, and whether "original recipes or methods" are or ought to be a measure of bona fides as a baker.

Obviously, there are as many reasons people choose bread baking as a hobby or occupation as there are bread bakers, but I think we all fall into a few broad groups, which naturally overlap.

- The first consists of knowledge- and mastery-seekers - bakers who strive to extract maximum flavor from wheat berries, using traditional methods and minimum ingredients, augmented by modern knowledge and the evolution of sustainable technologies. They are the people who are committed to unlocking the secrets of flavor and the magical interplay of flour, water, yeast and salt.

- The second group is made up of people who want to go back to an earlier time, to recreate breads and other foods that may be personally or culturally meaningful to them, or who want to experience another culture through this most basic of foods.

- The third group finds its motivation in the intimacy and personal engagement that's implicit in breadmaking, which is not only about nourishing the people one cares about, but also the simple fact of getting one's hands covered with dough, experimenting with new flavors, and personalizing the process of transforming an assortment of disparate ingredients into a single exquisite experience.

None of us, I think, is exclusively in one or the other; all of us fall to some degree into each of those groups, and all of those motivations are present in each of us. It is, perhaps, a matter of relative emphasis and where we go first to reap our satisfactions.

I'm the first to admit that I fall squarely into the second group - those who look backwards and use baking to recreate and recapture the experiences of those who came before me. My interest in, and satisfactions from, baking bread are largely about refining what's already out there and rediscovering what may have been forgotten or lost, like those onion rolls everyone's crazy about. I didn't come up with the recipe, Norm did. But I was the one who remembered them asked him for it. My satisfaction came from reliving an experience I hadn't had since my childhood in 1950s Brooklyn and making it part of my life today.

When I bake 100% rye black bread, I do so both for the pleasures and challenges of working with rye, which I love, but also as a means of experiencing for myself what my ancestors subsisted on for centuries in the villages of Russia and Poland, and in so doing, understand at least this tiny piece of their lives. Is that about "original recipes or methods?" Absolutely not. The methods and recipes are centuries-old. Does that make me any less a baker than others here or elsewhere? I think not. I hope not.

I think the one thing we all have in common is our search for authenticity in an increasingly commoditized and alienated world. All of us respect process, respect our ingredients, and, one hopes, respect each other's sincerity and commitment to whatever motivates us to bake bread. Life is tough enough in the world of Wonder Bread without carrying the battle back home.


Elagins's picture

I've been talking to a potential supplier who's up in the hard wheat belt and produces only certified organic flours. he was nice enough to send me a few samples, one of which is organic high gluten, milled from hard red spring wheat, about 13.5% protein. we were going to have a NY smoked fish brunch this morning, so i decided to whip up a batch of bialys using the flour.

i would love to stock this flour, but i need to know if there's enough demand to justify ordering a couple of thousand pounds of the stuff. can you folks let me know? i promise you this: it will be attractively priced.

it's interesting stuff. first, the color is rather more beige than, say, All Trumps (which i compared side by side) ... very creamy. also, the grind was slightly coarser than AT, both to the touch and to the tongue. taste-wise, the raw flour was slightly sweeter and nuttier than AT, without a trace of that bitterness you sometimes get with raw flours.

the mix was also interesting. i had to increase my hydration by about 2% in order to get the consistency i was looking for. the gluten formed relatively slowly, but came together almost immediately at about 9 minutes under the dough hook, very, very elastic and not very extensible because of all the work it had been getting.

i used a relatively small amount of fresh compressed yeast, and got doubling in about an hour, then divided the dough into a dozen boules and put them in my proofing box. they reached near full-proof after about another hour and i formed the bialys.

i was amazed at how extensible the dough was at that point. the gluten was amazingly well formed and very very smooth, and didn't fight back at all when i stretched the boules into the bialy shape.

at that point, they went immediately into the oven, and since the photo upload isn't working for me here, you can see what they looked like on this link:

the bialys tasted wonderful; the flour itself gave a nice moderately chewy crumb and the color of the flour lightened in the baking, but still had that lovely creamy beige tone to it.

i have to say that this is probably the best batch of bialys i've ever made!

Stan Ginsberg

PS, i'd give recipes, etc., but Norm (nbicomputers) and I just signed a contract to do a Jewish baking book, so I'm afraid our publisher now has first call on all our intellectual property!

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With all the focus on artisan breads and uber-ethnic loaves, I thought it might be fun to indulge my contrarian streak and bake a batch of good ol' white bread ... you know, bologna sandwiches, french toast, things like that. Thing is, I have this really nice organic bread flour and fresh compressed yeast that I hadn't used on pan bread before. So I did it: 60% skim milk, 2% salt, 8% each egg, oil and sugar, 3% yeast (to compensate for the enrichments). Well, the dough doubled in less than 45 minutes and proofed in 45 minutes. Baked at 350 for half an hour, and here's the result:

Stan Ginsberg

Elagins's picture

Elagins's picture

I've gotten some negative feedback on my visibility here on TFL as someone with an economic interest in bread baking, and it's been suggested that instead of flying my flag all over the place, that I focus on keeping a blog that details my hopes, expectations, worries, goals -- all the stuff that goes into turning a hobby into a business.

It's hard wearing two hats. On the one hand, I've been baking bread for a long time and have had both great loaves and doorstops come out of my oven. Engaging with flour, water, yeast (wild or commercial) and salt -- plus heat and maybe steam -- has been, and continues to be a source of great pleasure and challenge for me. In fact, it was the frustration I continually felt around getting reasonably priced bakers' flours, yeast, and other ingredients -- as well as decent equipment -- that motivated me to start my e-biz, so that I could provide a place for other hobbyist bread bakers, like myself, to find the things they need without having to go into their 401ks to do it.

I've been playing with the idea for years, decided earlier this year that 2009 would be my launch year, and then kept procrastinating out of pure anxiety.

Finally, in mid-August, I posted here saying that I had flours and baking stones for sale. I did it as a way of forcing myself to move forward, because I knew that if I didn't do it that way -- if I didn't make promises I had to keep -- it would never happen.

So the past month has been a mad game of catch-up. I had my suppliers all lined up before that first post, and that was really pretty much the only thing I had. Didn't have a website; had no idea how to put one together; took me a week or so of trying out half a dozen different web design programs and intensive browse through 4 or 5 books on web design and html to find the right tools. My website came together during the course of an 80-hour week, filled with trial and error, learning htmal (or at least enough to get things going) from scratch; learning about and contracting with a web hosting service. Finding space where I could set up shop. Getting all of the necessary licenses, permits and tax matters in place. Developing labels, catalog entries, packaging, finding an affordable shipper, legal-for-trade scale, and on and on. And, of course, paying for all of it.

Fortunately for me, I have a great spouse and some very good friends, both old and new, who have been incredibly supportive and who have offered their expertise. Even with their help, though, there's still so much to do. Now that the website is up and running and orders are starting to come in, I'm discovering additional layers of things that need to be taken care of -- stuff that I never knew existed, like search engine optimization and payment systems. The website, I've discovered is much less an end than it is a beginning of a whole set of processes I never imagined existed.

It's like having a new child, with the obvious difference that newborns come with a certain amount of immune system strength already programmed in and a ready-made support system. nybakers was born with only my hopes and aspirations to nourish it, and an ongoing commitment to myself and those who believe in me to make it happen.

It makes one feel very vulnerable ... throwing one's doors open and saying to the world, "here I am," and hoping that someone -- anyone -- else cares, and maybe comes in, looks around and buys something, as much to show that they're paying attention and that they support my larger goals as because they need it. But that kind of good will doesn't last, and the 300, 400, 500 hits a day of the early days dwindle down to 15, 20, maybe 40 or 50 on a good day.

And so there's anxiety, and maybe I let my anxiety show by waving too big a flag and talking too loudly, because I'm afraid that nobody cares. And if that's what I'm doing, and that's pushing people away, then it's clearly the wrong thing to do. I believe in what I'm doing, and believe there's a real need out in our world for the things I offer -- which are the things I use myself in my own baking.

It just feels very lonely out here, sometimes.

More to come.

Elagins's picture

it seems to me that one of the biggest hurdles beginning bakers face is the idea that because something shows up in a book, that's necessarily the way things have to be.

take sourdough culture, as in this thread. Peter Reinhart says, "..." and therefore that's how it has to be. Nothing against Peter Reinhart: he's an extraordinarily great baker and and extraordinarily talented teacher. the problem is simply that a lot of beginners, in their eagerness to "get it right," don't trust themselves.

fact is, we're dealing with a complex set of interrelated physical and biological processes here, and to insist that all sorts of unfamiliar (to those starting out) living organisms *must* conform with one person's observation or experience is, to me, a reversal of reality. we should be paying more attention to what actually goes on and then adjust our expectations.

so consider a starter. so much depends on the original source of the yeast (plum/grape skins? rye? capture from the air? yogurt?). yeast and lacto-/acetobacteria are everywhere and are location specific. then again, what about the flour? rye? wheat? organic? treated? high or low gluten? or the hydration ... acetobacter likes it dry; lactobacter likes it wet. ambient temperature will affect the rate of yeast and bacterial action. cold slows yeast and lactobacteria, but acetobacteria thrive in cooler temps.

reducing all this stuff, not to mention all the other random factors that may come into play, to a timetable is laudable and useful -- in fact, i've done it myself in a baking book i'm writing -- but one person's experience of the interactions among a complex set of factors and events shouldn't ever constitute a sole and immutable truth.

baking, like so many other things in life, is experience-based, and no book -- no matter how experienced the author nor how careful the research -- should ever become a substitute for observable reality.

when i use organic dark rye flour to start a culture, i usually get activity within 24 hours. like the spark from a flint, that germ of a culture needs to be nourished and nurtured over a couple of weeks of regular feedings before you can consider it a finished sourdough starter ... so what matter if the yeasts go active in 12 hours or 72? all that matters is that we capture the spark and nurture it into a flame.

baking formulas are great because they organize information and they convey an experience or set of experiences that generally work within a relatively broad set of limits. but within those limits are infinite variations of time, temperature and the interplay of ingredients ... and controlling those is the art of baking, as opposed to the science.

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I'm on the Board of a local charitable organization, and last night (Oct 17), we had our annual gala, which includes a silent auction. As I do every year, I donated a bread basket (which, I'm happy to report, fetched a very good price).

Getting there was quite a challenge, since the basket, which was Jewish bakery themed this year, included a challah, a deli rye, a dozen bagels, a dozen bialys, a dozen onion rolls, and a Russian coffee cake -- six breads, six different formulas, one KA stand mixer and two GE electric home ovens.

It was exhausting -- and also gave me a look into the life of a baker. The first thing was to figure out my logistics, since my resources are limited and my output (twice the basket quantity so I could cherry-pick). To do that, I set up an Excel spreadsheet, with each bread on a separate line and columns representing 15-minute segments, like this:

Of course, things didn't work out that way, but the exercise helped me manage my time and work flow.

Thursday night was the easy part: I started my rye sour, assembled the onion-poppyseed-salt-oil bialy/onionroll topping, and mixed and shaped the bagels, then left them in my wine cooler to retard until I had time to boil and bake them on Friday.

So Friday morning started out at 7:30 as I expected, with the bialy dough, which I mix with ice water for a long, slow ferment, and a refresh of my rye sour, which at that point had doubled nicely.  At that point, I gave myself the luxury of an hour's rest, wherein I did all the other stuff that I wouldn't be able to do later.

I got started again at around 9, with the challah dough, using Nancy Silverton's recipe, but since I wasn't using preferment, I simply included her flour and water quantities into the main mix and increased the yeast (active dry) to 1% of flour weight, which gave me a nice, silky, low-hydration dough -- around 57%, inlcuding the effects of the eggs and oil. OK, mix the dough, knead for 8 or 9 minutes and then set aside to ferment. Three doughs down, three to go.

At that point -- around 9:30, I saw that my bialy dough had more than doubled, so it was time to divide them into 3-oz boules and let them proof, which I did on parchment-lined baking sheets. However, since my baking sheets and counter space are limited, I mistakenly packed them too close together, so that when they proofed, I was unable to separate them -- but of that, more later.

It was 10am and time to turn the ovens on: top one at 375 for breads, bottom one at 460 for rolls, and eventually the rye bread.

OK, so now the challah dough had more than doubled -- beautiful, silky, elastic dough, very easy to work with. Punch it down, divide it into 12 boules (two six-strand challahs) and let it rest for 20 minutes to relax the gluten. Clean up the clutter that's rapidly filling the kitchen, wash out mixing bowls, clean up mixer now spattered with dough and flour-littered counter.Then back to the challah: roll the boules into 18-inch long tapered strands, braid the challahs -- mess up the first one and get the second one right. Mix egg and a little bit of water for the glaze and brush the challahs. Check the bialys, which are nowhere near three-quarter proof.

Meanwhile, the onion roll dough beckons, so I mix that. Of course, here's where I have a mishap: while adding the oil and egg, I dropped the small porcelain bowl I was using into my mixer, smashing it to bits and scarring my mixing paddle. So dump the dough into the sink, fish out the broken shards and consign the rest to the garbage disposal, re-scale ingredients, and re-mix the dough. The challah are at about half-proof. Re-brush them with egg glaze. Check the bialys, which are now approaching three-quarters proof and are shoulder to shoulder on the cookie sheets.

So now it's 11 and the bialys nearly ready. Use Mimi Sheraton's technique (see "The Bialy Eaters") and press the centers down with the base of a 2" diameter juice glass, then fill them with the onion mixture. Let them stand for another 15 minutes.  Challah now fat and expanded at 3/4 proof, one more brushing with egg then into my 375 oven for 35 minutes.

Bialys are at full proof, so they go  into 460 oven for 14 minutes. A hot bialy, right out of the oven, slathered with sweet butter is my lunch -- unimaginably good.Check the challahs after 20 min, give them a final brushing and turn them to brown evenly for another 15 minutes.Wash out mixing/fermenting bowls. Move bialys into the dining room where they're not in the way.

One pm and I have to be done by 4:00. Onion roll dough is fully fermented. Divide, rest, flatten them hard in a saucer covered with onion mix, set them on parchment for their proof. Pull the challah out of the oven, gorgeous glossy golden brown loaves.The Russian Coffeecake is a rich, sweet, complex dough that ferments in two stages -- 40% of the flour, equal weight (100%) of the water, and 5% yeast to fight against all the fat in the finished dough.

Now the rye, which is a quick ferment and even quicker proof and an easy mix -- sour, bread flour (okay, so I cheated) salt, caraway and a touch of yeast. Set it aside to ferment.

Onion rolls are ready, first dozen into the oven, 13 minutes at 460. Back to the coffee cake: Nuke 1/2 pound of butter, grind cardamom and mix it with sugar, measure extracts, separate the eggs (4 yolks, two whole eggs). By now the sponge nearly fills the mixer bowl -- fortunately, it's mainly CO2 and collapses like a tired balloon when I drop the bowl onto the counter. Assemble the dough and knead under the hook for about 10 minutes. Dough is unbelievably slack, glossy, golden yellow from the egg yolks, with little dark specks of cardamom -- the fragrance of baking onion rolls, vanilla, and sweet cardamom fill the kitchen. Wash some more bowls, check the rye, which is now fermented and ready for shaping. Move the coffeecake dough into a bowl for fermentation.

Onion rolls out and onto the cooling rack. Still have two dozen bagels retarding in the wine cooler. Punch down the rye -- god, I love working with rye, so challenging and so rewarding when you get it right -- shape into two fat batards, set them on cornmeal-dusted parchment, mist with water and sprinkle with more caraway.

The coffeecake dough has risen incredibly fast and has become much smoother and more elastic -- still challenging to work with. Turn out about 1/4 onto my flour-dusted silpat, roll it thin with a silicone rolling pin and line the baking pans. Take half of the remainder, roll it thin, brush it with more butter, cover generously with sugar, cinnamon and fat black raisins, then roll it up into an 18" long sausage. Divide it in three and lay them on top of the buttered and cinnamoned dough in the pan. Repeat with the remaining dough. Brush the cakes with more butter, more cinnamon and sugar, and a heavy sprinkling of chopped walnuts. Let them proof.

So now it's bagel time. Boil the water, add a tablespoon of food-grade lye water. When the water boils, take the first dozen out of the cooler, boil'em and arrange them on my bagel boards. 3 minutes on burlap, flip, and another 14 on the stone. Move the cool onion rolls into the dining room.  Check the rye. Do the second dozen of bagels. Coffe cake is proofing nicely, still a ways to go.

The rye is at 3/4 proof: my finger leaves an indentation when i press the dough. So big question: how will I slash the loaves? One of them is nice and high, so I'll cut that crosswise. The other is kinda flattish -- I guess I didn't draw the dough tight enough when I formed the batard -- so that one I slash lengthwise. Beauty contest: whichever one looks better goes to charity. Throw a cup of water onto the floor of the bottom oven, which I've now turned down to 350, but is still over 425 (a good thing when you're doing rye). Let the steam develop for a couple of minutes and then peel the loaves in. Boil some water and dissolve cornstarch for the glaze, let it cool. Wash more bowls. Check the coffee cake -- 3/4 proof, time to partially cut the logs crosswise so uneven oven spring doesn't throw the whole cake out of whack.

My wife comes home: she's picked up two different baskets and some really nice clear gift bags for bagging the breads.  We start judging the beauty contest and pick the best breads for the basket. Bag and tie.

By now, the Russian coffee cake is fully proofed.  Into the top oven, now dialed down to 350, for 40 minutes. The smells are unbelievable -- a mixture of caraway, cardamom, vanilla, citrus ...

4:00pm. The coffeecakes come out, beautiful, dark, rich. Hard to choose between them, so eeny-meeny-miny-mo. The rye needs another 10 minutes. Aesthetic decisions about how to arrange the basket.

Finally, at 4:15, the rye breads come out and get brushed with the cornstarch glaze. The cross-slashed loaf is clearly the winner; the lengthwise slash gets to stay home.

I sit down with a cup of tea. My back and feet hurt and I can barely see straight. The counters are invisible underneath layers of baking stuff, a light dusting of flour has settled everywhere. Despite my best efforts, the sinks -- both of 'em -- are piled high with pots, pans and bowls. My kneading board needs a good scraping. But I'm done.

This is what the winning bidder got:

Jewish Bakery Baskett
And this is what we kept:

The breads were a hit at the gala. I treated myself to a martini.


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