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Bagels and Pita

Raisin Bagel

Raisin Bagel

Why bake your own bread?

I have been baking bread for 18 years.  I bake my own bread because I want to get more whole grains into my family’s diet.  Most stores and bakeries treat “whole-wheat” as a flavor, not a lifestyle.  So we are stuck with just plain honey wheat bagels instead of blueberry, poppy, etc, one type of whole-wheat hamburger roll, instead of kaiser, sesame, etc.  And forget about raisin bread and pizza.  When you bake your own bread you can make a wide variety of whole-wheat items.  And then, too, you can’t beat that smell.

Time

You can’t really rush bread.  It doesn’t take that much of your time, but it sure takes its own time.

Tools

I usually use a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, which is heavy-duty and has a dough hook, but they are about $190.  I get equal results kneading by hand, but of course that is more work.  I had two bread machines but I finally decided they didn’t make as good bread as a mixer or by hand.  They do a good job of kneading and rising, though.  I understand that food processors make very good dough, but I’ve never tried one.

Pans – do you like your pans?  Or do they stick and burn things?  I don’t like flimsy supermarket bakeware.  My favorite baking sheets are heavy duty, nice and thick, and the best of all is tin-plated steel, which I seasoned (oiled it and baked while empty, wash with just a bristle brush and hot water, never soap) and let it get nice and black – nothing ever sticks to it.  I’m no cookware expert, but if you don’t like your pans, try a heavier one and consider seasoning it.  Cook’s World on Monroe Ave has good bakeware.

Ingredients

All bread has 5 basic ingredients: water, yeast, sugar, salt, flour.  Without these ingredients, bread will not rise properly.  Even if you are watching your sugar or salt, you must not reduce these past the proportions shown below.  They are small amounts per serving, anyway.  T = Tablespoon, t = teaspoon

I adapted this bagel recipe from the internet

  • 1½ c warm water
  • 1 T yeast (1 packets)
  • 1 T sugar
  • 2 t salt
  • 1½ c whole wheat flour **NOTE: Lately I’ve been using 2 c ww & ~1-1/2 c white with good results
  • ~2 c white flour
  • 1 t cinnamon and 3/4 c raisins (optional)  or why not try blueberries?

A note about each ingredient:

  • Water: This should be baby bath-water temperature.  I microwave it on high for 30 seconds, and then pour it into the bowl before the yeast.  That way if it is a little too warm, the bowl cools it down.  Start with warm water and you will not have to worry so much about keeping your dough warm.  I mike it because I read once that it’s not good to drink water from your hot water tank due to corrosion, and besides I hate waiting for the water to run warm.
  • Yeast: This is the living organism in bread.  Put politely, its respiration causes the air pockets which make bread rise. Yeast slows down with cool or freezing temperatures; it is active when warm; higher temperatures kill it.  You can buy yeast by the 3-pack at the store for $1.60 ($34/lb), or you can buy it by the tiny jar for about $4.50 ($19/lb), but I buy it for $3.25/pound at Lori’s, from their bulk refrigerator.  Yeast keeps for a few months in your fridge, but it keeps forever in your freezer, so why fool around?  Because I am confident of my freezer yeast, I always skip the “proofing” step of bread-making, where you are supposed to pour a little water and sugar in a little cup with your yeast and see if it bubbles after 5 minutes (if it doesn’t, you throw it away and drive to the store for more yeast).  Rather inconvenient, so just use your freezer.  A single packet = 1 T.  Some cookbooks tell us to gently thaw the yeast before “shocking” it in water – I think it is a conspiracy to waste our time.  Just throw it in the water.
  • Sugar: The yeast eats the sugar to get itself going.  I think after a while it starts eating the flour.  Artificial sweetener will not work.  If a recipe calls for more than this proportion of sugar, it is for sweetness and can be reduced.
  • Salt: This slows the yeast down, regulates it.  Less than this amount will not rise properly.  More than this will add flavor but will keep your bread from rising quite as well.
  • Flour: The gluey gluten in flour, when kneaded, makes a stretchy dough which expands when the yeast “respires,” instead of just breaking bubbles like a pancake batter.  Professional bakeries make wonderful 100% whole-wheat loaves but I can’t do that – it would turn out a dense little brown patty, because it has a much lower proportion of gluten.  Most home bakers use a minimum of ½ white flour; the rest can be whole wheat, rye, etc.  I use unbleached white flour because I think it’s healthier.  For both types of flour, I use plain old Wegman’s brand.  King Arthur makes a nice “White Wheat” flour which has the health properties of wheat and the look and feel of white – give it a try!  You can keep extra flour indefinitely in the freezer wrapped in a plastic bag over the paper sack.  Store it for use in a plastic/glass/ceramic jar with a tightly-sealing lid.  I don’t trust tins to keep bugs out.
  • Other ingredients: such as oil, milk, etc, are added to change the texture or flavor, but will not affect rising so much.

Critical steps of bread-making

In my experience, the following steps are critical to a successful bread.  I will draw attention to them as we continue.  I will heap my disdain on unnecessary steps which cookbooks frequently mention.

  1. Warm dough
  2. Knead sufficiently
  3. Let rise sufficiently
  4. Bake sufficiently

Technique: Bagels by hand

Now I will tell you how to make it.  Of course any bread recipe can be made by machine or by hand, but for simplicity I will explain one way with each recipe.

  • Add the ingredients to the bowl in the order listed above.  If you have an electric hand mixer, you can save yourself some work by withholding the whole wheat flour (and raisins) and using your mixer on the batter for about 5 minutes; this gives you a nice head start stretching out the gluten.  In any case, after you add everything, you start kneading by hand.  Once it is holding together, you may find it easier to knead it on the counter.  Add more flour if necessary (either type), until you have a dough which sticks to your hands a little but not annoyingly.  You will have to knead it about 10 minutes, so set a timer.  This is one of those important steps – the longer you knead it the better.  When done it should be nice and smooth.  This is a stage where it helps to have seen and felt a good dough.
  • Cookbooks usually make a big deal about oiling a clean bowl and coating the dough by flipping it.  I just dump the dough back in the original bowl and cover it with a clean towel.
  • It is important to let the dough rise a full 1½ hours.  You really can’t rush it without affecting the bread.  Keep it warm if possible.
  • A note about over-rising.  If you leave your dough much more than 1½ hours, it will have an alcohol smell when you punch it down, due to the yeast having sat there in its outgassing longer than it would have liked, and it will seem wet.  When you knead it, the smell will go away, but it may not rise quite as well as before.  Some cookbooks tell you to throw it out, but that is a bit drastic.  Just knead it again, make sure you keep it warm, and get on with it.  If you realize you need to leave your dough for a while or overnight, you can protect the dough from drying out, say with wax paper right on top of the dough, and put it bowl and all in the fridge.  It will rise in there (a lot!), but very slowly.  I don’t believe this is ideal; you could try making bread dough ahead of time like this for convenience, but results may not be as good.  Bread dough freezes well – you just freeze it before rising in an airtight container, and then let it thaw and rise in a warm spot.
  • Turn the oven on to 375, and start 8 c water and 2 T molasses boiling in a soup pot or dutch oven.
  • Punch the bread down; this probably isn’t necessary, but it’s fun.  Knead it just a few times.
  • Form the bagels.  Pull the dough apart into 8 pieces.  Using your thumbs, poke and stretch a hole in each piece.  Stretch it pretty wide, as it will spring back during cooking.  Get out a cookie sheet, slotted spoon and any toppings for the bagels, such as poppy seeds.
  • The two breads we’re making today don’t really need a second rising like a larger bread does, so as soon as you and the boiling water are ready, just continue.
  • When the water is boiling, drop in four bagels.  Use the spoon to make sure they aren’t sticking to the bottom – they should be floating.  After ten seconds, flip them all over.  After another 10 seconds, take them out and put them on the cookie sheet.  Top with optional seeds while they’re still wet.  Repeat with remaining four bagels.
  • Bake for 20-25 minutes.  They should be crusty and brown.  Watch the bottoms for burning.
  • Put the bagels on cooling racks.  When completely cool, store in a plastic bag.  They can be sliced and frozen for longer storage.

Pita Bread and Sweet Potato Dal

Pita Bread and Sweet Potato Dal

Pita Bread, by stand-mixer This recipe is from the Moosewood Cookbook.

  • 1½  c warm water
  • 1½ t yeast (½ packet)
  • 1 T sugar
  • 1 t salt
  • ~3½ c flour (up to half of this can be whole wheat)
  1. Dump the ingredients into the mixer bowl.
  2. Knead: I’ll describe using a heavy-duty mixer this time.  The main difference is that the dough will seem a little stickier in the bowl, because the hook tears it apart more than your hands do.  So don’t keep adding flour expecting it to look smooth and silky.  I have found that the stickier you can stand the dough, the better your end result will be.  Leave it on the sticky side, and you can always add some flour at forming time if necessary.  Let it knead for 5 minutes or so.  I read a cookbook that said it’s possible to overknead with a mixer, leaving you with a poor texture dough, but it has never happened to me ever.  If you are not entirely confident of the dough, knead it a few times by hand to be sure it is how you want it.  This will get rid of the dough hook “damage” and give you a better feel for the texture.  But kneading by hand is not necessary.  You can leave it on the machine about 5 minutes, on fairly high speed.
  3. Let rise 1½ hours covered by a towel, as warm as possible.
  4. Preheat oven to 500.  Put bottom rack on lowest setting.
  5. Punch down.  Pull apart into about 8 pieces, depending on what size pitas you want.  Knead each one once or twice.
  6. Roll the pieces out to about ¼” – 1/8” thick, as round as possible.
  7. Place as many pieces as will fit on the pan.  It’s OK if they overlap a little.  Cover any pieces still on the counter with the towel.
  8. Bake 6-8 minutes, until browned.  They will start puffing up about halfway through.
  9. Put the pitas on the towel, and put the whole bundle in a paper bag.  Close the paper bag and put it on a cooling rack.  The paper bag keeps the pitas from turning into chips.
  10. Put in the next batch of pitas.  When they’re done, just drop them in on top of the others in the bag.
  11. Let cool.
  12. Toast them in the toaster before eating, even if you want them straight from the oven.

No preservatives means they may not keep as long as you’d think, maybe a few days, but they freeze well.

Happy baking!

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