Pretzels, with Thanks and Apologies to Little t (The man, and Bakery)

Its October, that means its Oktoberfest, and that means everyone is German (apparently).  What this amounts to for me is pretzels, which is great, because I love pretzels.

Actually what I love is dipping things in lye.  Lye is, for those of you that don’t know, sodium hydroxide. It’s a caustic base. On the ph scale it’s the opposite of acids. It’s used to make soap, and clean drains (it’s Drano).

It is also used to make pretzels.  You make a solution of 3% and dip the risen pretzel in that before you salt and bake.  I don’t know the exact science, but I assume it changes the ph of the skin of the dough, and starts to act on the starch to cause it to set (if any one knows what’s really happening, please fill me in).

The whole process to making pretzels is not hard; it just has more steps than normal. First you mix the dough, and then shape it immediately. Then you let the shaped dough rise ¾ of the way or so. Then pop them in the freezer to chill so they can be dipped more easily. Once they are ready you dip them in the lye solution (gloves, goggles, rain slicker, what ever you need to keep it off your skin), let them drain for a second, then put them on sheet pans, and top with salt.  I always like to let them dry for a bit (10 min) because I think it helps the crust color evenly, but I have also put them straight into the oven.

My formula comes from Tim Healea at Little t American baker, but I tweaked it (he would expect me to tweak it, he expects me to mess with everything). The exact formula doesn’t really matter, except that it’s stiff dough, with a sugar (I like malt syrup, other people use white sugar), with just a bit of fat to make it easier to shape right out of the mixer.  Most bagel formulas would work.

The main difference between Tim and I is that I use some rye flour, and a bit of levain.  I like them for depth of flavor, but also because they help keep the baked pretzel from going stale too quickly.  It doesn’t take much; I’m at 15% for both.

Now the real problem here is to find lye.  Thanks to the head chef, I was pointed towards Chinatown. Lye solution is used in some Chinese noodles for color, and I was able to find a sodium carbonate, potassium carbonate blend. Neither of these things are sodium hydroxide. They are both base, but not as strong.  It works, but…

98% sodium hydroxide

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Levain, continued, and continued….

levain baguettes

The boy didn’t kill my starter (remember me waxing poetic about the starter  and the fridge?).  Just slowed it way down.  I had to rebuild it as though it was a fresh seed, but it lives.  Plus, I have gotten it onto a once a day feeding cycle.  Small victories.

Since I got all of my flours this week, I have finally started to try a Pain au Levain, or a country bread, or what ever you feel like calling it.

As it stands now, its 85% white flour, 7.5% whole wheat, and 7.5% whole rye (fine ground, not pumpernickel).  I like these percentages as good bases, but may start to reduce the rye a bit and up the whole wheat.

My first real try with it was the overnight dough with no commercial yeast, it was not a success.  My starter is just not strong enough yet.

It was really dense, and over fermented.

My next thought was to do a same day dough with more water, a bit more starter, and a little yeast.  I raised the water to 75% from 70%, and the starter to 35% from 30%, and gave it .2% yeast.

This worked a lot better, structure wise.  Unfortunately I didn’t adjust the salt for all of this.  So it was kind of bland.

I tried it the next day and gave it 2.8% salt, and changed the flours to 10% whole wheat, 5% rye.  Bingo.

As to shaping, I’ve tried rounds and baguettes.  The rounds just don’t work, due to the sheet pan heat shield effect (see the post on “Splitting Seams”).  The top sets and the gases force themselves out of the bottom.

The baguettes work really well, considering.  I have the perforated baguette pans, and these let them bake much more evenly.

All told, I am happy with this.  It’s not ideal (I have yet to get a really good bake on them), but I’m told people love it on the cheese plate, and with the patés.

That’s 2 formulas down.

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Rye Bread, or Black Bread, or Coffee Rye… or what ever…

these are rye pretzel rolls

In my time at little t, I developed a couple of daily specials. Loaves I would only make on certain days, or when I had time. Some of these gained a following, some didn’t.

This rye didn’t. The reason I kept making it was because I liked it (or Tim, Lee, and I liked it, and would normally eat a loaf between the three of us while working), and that’s good enough for me.

Rye is one of those strongly flavored breads that people seem to love or hate, even though a lot of people don’t know what rye tastes like, and just think of it as the caraway seeds that are so often included.

I love rye (bread, whiskey, beer). I like the way it mixes with bitter things, or sweet things. How it can be spicy, or kind of sour. Or, in the case of beer, have a flavor like citrus.

When I was asked to make a rye for the kitchen to use with a dish I was all for it. Any excuse to have the coffee rye around.

This is rich bread; in the way that sun dried tomatoes are rich, or a good stock is rich. It fills the whole mouth, hits all the notes, so to speak.

You get this by building levels of flavors, different notes, into the final bread. With the use of starters, and soakers (a soaker being any thing left to soak up water, and soften, overnight in part of the water from the formula).

Most of the rye flour in the bread is pre-femented, as a sourdough starter, for 16 hours.

The soaker is the really interesting part of this bread. It has old bread (or toast, really) and finely ground coffee, plus a bit of oil, and the rest of the water from the formula. In the past I have added a little caraway to this mixture, but for Baroque bistro I left it out (due to the flavors in the dish its going to be used in).

The ground coffee is a self explanatory, I think. We all know what coffee tastes like, and it’s not hard to imagine how this plays with the bitterness in the rye. The old bread on the other hand…

At little t, I would use a 100% spelt flour loaf, sliced and really well toasted. At Baroque, I am using any left over bread I can find, and toasting it right to the edge of burnt.

Here is an experiment; (Woody!) take two pieces of bread, toast one well, and leave the other untoasted. In separate bowels cover each with water, and let them sit over night. In the morning taste them, with the untoasted going first.

Now imagine that as an ice cream.

Back to the rye… in the morning, take your soaker (coffee grounds, bread, oil, water mixture), and your rye sour, mix that with white flour and a bit more rye, salt, and yeast.

It rises really quickly, and will collapse if left too long, but all the fermentation comes from the high percentage of sourdough.

I have just been dumping the dough on the table, folding it into a rectangle and knocking it down. Then, I divide it into strips about two inches wide, and give it a final rise.

It stays dense, but develops a nice crust. It does take a longer bake to dry out the crumb enough.

My thanks to Tim for encouraging me to screw around with this.

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I got all my flours. Be prepared for a in depth flour nerd post.


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A quick note on the greatness that is Parker House Rolls… and a request for ideas on how I can convince people of their Frenchness…

This gallery contains 6 photos.

Baroque Bistro is French.  Half the staff, and half the ingredients, are French.  The head chef is not, he’s Aussie.  When I asked him what his favorite bread ever was, his response… Parker House Rolls. I find this odd. I’m … Continue reading

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Baguettes continued, square pegs in busy pastry kitchens, and bad timing plus blast freezing equals… something?

This week I spent my time just making bread for the bistro, and trying to really dial in the formula and technique.  With just a few tweaks here and there, I think I nailed it all down. My formula is:

Flour (French bread flour aka tt 65): 100% (say, for the sake of comparison 1000 grams)          

Water: 68% (or 680g)

Salt: 2% (this is a little higher than I would like, but the people that pay me love it, so…)(20g)

Yeast: .8% (8g)

This is the total formula, meaning: when all is said and done, this is what is in the dough. The flour, water, and yeast for the poolish all come out of this total. Everything that’s left after that is what I weigh out for my final dough.

My total prefermented flour is 30%, so that ends up being (from the example above) 300g of flour, 300g of water, and 1g of yeast (really it’s a pinch, but its basically just next to nothing).  This gets mixed to a pancake-ish batter, and left to sit overnight.

After the dough is mixed, the next morning, it gets 45 min, then a punch, then another 45, than preshaped. After the preshape rests for 15 min or so it gets a final shape.  Rise, and then bake.

The bistro decided they want rolls instead of baguettes, so they get about 120 to 240 rolls that weigh 75 grams (about 3 ounces) a day, and they decided on the tabatiere (or tobacco pouch in English).

The pastry shop needs about 60-75 loaves a day at 233g(which are cut in half to make two sandwiches), and 10 or 15 baguettes (425g) to sell retail.

So the low ball on this is about 34 kilos of dough (about 75 pounds according to the internet).  This is where the real problems are.  That won’t fit in the oven. Not even in two bakes.  Nor will it fit on any rack, even in two bakes, and once the pastry chefs arrive, I don’t really have access to the oven.  Especially since I have to set it about 100c higher than anything they will use it for.

roll shape test

What this means, summed up, is; I go to work at 2 in the morning (which means I wake up at midnight).  I don’t think I need to explain how this could be a problem, or at least the effect it has on my nightlife.

The major problem with this schedule, quality wise, is that if the bread is out of the oven at 6 in the morning, then its stale by lunch, and they still need it for dinner.

Their fix; par bake the bread and blast freeze it so they can bake it as they need it.  I don’t know if my issues with this approach are moral, ethical, or imagined, but it bugs me. Really, really bugs me.  I’m open to suggestions here.

After the bread is pulled out of an inferior oven (half baked), it’s frozen to about -29c for what I hope won’t be more than 24 hours.

Please, ideas!

I also had a levain (starter) problem this week. Or, more to the point, I had a pastry chef problem.

One day, after I left, one of the pastry chefs put my levain in the walk in fridge.

I have been keeping it at room temp, and it’s just not old enough to be shocked like that.  Think of it as being cold blooded.  If you toss a young tropical lizard into a bucket of ice, he’s going to slow way down.

young tropical lizards...don't go in buckets of ice

What happens in a starter is a balance of the natural yeast, bacteria, and enzymes from the flour.  For a healthy starter you need them to keep each other in check, but it’s delicate. When you change a variable (time, amount of ingredients, temp) something becomes dominate. In this case it was the bacteria (please, some one tell me if I’m wrong)

So I came in to an under active starter, and after 5 days of trying to get it healthy again, it’s still not looking so hot.  God help that young man if I have to start from scratch again.

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Pain au Levain or… So I got a puppy, now can he pull the sled? (yes, I want a dog. Yes, I’m going to run this metaphor into the ground. Yes, I know its dumb. No, I don’t care, I like it.)

I’ve tried baking with my starter a couple times now, and I can’t say its developed into a thing just yet.  It will, but right now it’s a bit weak flavored. It is, however, very regular.

I’m not really working on a bread, for the breads sake, but just a vehicle via which to taste the starter, and see how it performs.

My simple formula for this is 100% flour, 68% water, 2% salt, and 35% levain.

I mix the dough, and then retard it over night in the walk-in.  Pull it out in the morning, pre-shape, shape, and bake.

At first I tried it with no commercial yeast at all, and its just not strong enough to raise the dough before it over-ferments.  The second time I gave it 2g of yeast to 2k of flour, and I got a real rise out of it.

Neither blistered though. Which means… something about the fermention is off, but I have to do more research.

Overall it tastes fine, but not quite… I don’t know. Its lacking. When I get in my whole wheat, and dark rye flours I’ll start playing with a bread, and see what I can do from there.  I think the thing is that I’m making a baguette with levain, and it’s neither what I want from a baguette nor a levain.

In other words, it’s a style issue.

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