what to bake in quarantine

April 24, 2020

Well, it's been a minute since I last posted here. As time dragged on and I did not blog, it felt more and more unlikely that I would, unless something very special happened to drag me out of my blogging lethargy. ***Enter COVID-19***

Like the rest of the world, I've done quite a bit of baking in the last 6 weeks. I'm still working full time, but I'm mostly working from home instead of commuting one hour each way to my job. This has really opened up a lot of extra free time aka baking time in my schedule! Normally I keep most of my baking projects to the weekends, but now I'm able to bake pretty much any day. If I have a dough that I need to pull out of the fridge a couple hours before shaping, that's no problem when I'm working from my kitchen! I love it.

In light of the extra baking time in everyone's schedules, I've compiled a list of some of my favorite recipes to make. I know that many baking supplies are limited or hard to find right now (I had to UPS some yeast to a friend in California a few weeks ago because she was running out and couldn't find any anywhere!), so I've done my best to be mindful of that by suggesting potential substitutions where possible. I'm including a lot of different recipes aimed at different kitchens so that hopefully everyone can find a recipe on this list that they have all of the ingredients and kitchen equipment for right now.

A special note regarding bread flour: There are several recipes in this list that call for bread flour. Bread flour has a higher protein content (usually 11.5-13.5%) than all purpose (AP) flour (usually 9.5-11.5%). Rustic, lean doughs will almost always call for bread flour because the higher protein content allows for a chewier, strong dough. However, I've been unable to find bread flour anywhere in my area in over a month. In recipes that call for bread flour, if you're lucky enough to have some, use it! If not, AP flour is a suitable quarantine substitution (but try the recipe again with bread flour once it's available!). King Arthur AP flour is the best substitution because it has the highest protein content (11.7%!) of any AP flour brand. If possible, use unbleached AP flour rather than bleached for breads - the beta-carotene in unbleached flour contributes to a better flavor and better aroma. Bleached AP flour is great for cakes, cookies, and pastry doughs.

Without further ado, here are my quarantine recipe suggestions. Happy baking!

If you own a dutch oven and love a good crusty bread, then you should make Jim Lahey's insanely popular No Knead bread. Chances are you've already heard of or even made this bread before. It's a classic for a reason - it's easy, there's not a ton of hands-on time, it's delicious, and you feel like a fancy bread genius when you pull it out of the oven.

  • Where to find the recipe: I've actually posted an adapted version of this recipe before - find it in the second half of this post.
  • Special equipment needed: dutch oven
  • Potential ingredient substitutions: see special note about bread flour at the top of this post
  • My notes: Like most lean doughs, this bread tastes the best by far on the day that you bake it. A day or two after baking, it makes a great toast. After a couple days, your leftovers can be turned into amazing rustic croutons, breadcrumbs, or a delicious panzanella! 

If you've already bested the Jim Lahey recipe and are looking for a new challenge, or if you've always wanted to make baguettes but feel intimidated, then you have to try Peter Reinhart's recipe for pain à l'ancienne. This bread has the flavor, crumb, and crackliness of a baguette without the fear of not shaping them correctly. The instructions are long, yes, but read through them before you freak out. Reinhart goes in depth on each step to make it easier and clearer for you. It's actually one of the simplest bread recipes you can make, and the payoff is incredible.

  • Where to find the recipe: It's on page 192 of Reinhart's book The Bread Baker's Apprentice. It took me a little while to find it on the internet, but I finally came across it posted on this forum. There's also an updated version from a different Reinhart cookbook posted on Epicurious. The Epicurious recipe uses a totally different method of producing gluten development (stretch and fold vs kneading) which I've done in other recipes, but never this one. I've never tried this version of the recipe, but I am sure it's also delicious!
  • Special equipment needed: a baking stone is ideal, but if you don't have one, you can put an upside-down baking sheet in the oven while it's preheating, and then slide the loaves and parchment paper onto it to bake. Sliding the dough directly onto a preheated pan helps with oven spring. A bench scraper is also quite helpful for shaping the dough (if you don't have one, they're cheap and useful in many recipes. I have two and I use them all the time).
  • Potential ingredient substitutions: see special note about bread flour at the top of this post
  • My notes: This recipe is a tried-and-true favorite for me. Per the notes I've scribbled in the margins of my cookbook, I first made it in 2014 and have been baking these loaves regularly since then. It's a fairly forgiving recipe - I've added too much water before for an overly wet dough and it still turned out delicious. Just make sure your water is ice cold and you don't skip the overnight fermentation - it's crucial to the flavor and gluten development.
    Similarly to the Jim Lahey dough, these taste the best the day they are baked. To reheat the following day, wet your hands and lightly pat them all over the baguette before placed it in a hot oven for a few minutes. The loaf will reabsorb the water and have that delicious just-baked freshness.

If you're a plan-aheader and you have milk on hand, make Stella Parks's English muffins! I was planning to make these a week ago, but realized I didn't have any milk. What a disappointment. Luckily, I got some during my weekly shopping trip on Monday and was eating fresh English muffins by Tuesday. They were so tasty and so easy (another no-knead dough!) and so thrilling to make. This recipe does have two lengthy rises, so make sure to read the recipe through before starting and plan accordingly (Stella recommends mixing them up in the morning, portioning before bed, and then you can have fresh muffins in no time for breakfast the next day).

  • Where to find the recipe: Stella has posted it on Serious Eats, and you can find the link here. There's an updated version in her cookbook, Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts, on page 278, which is what I use. The updated version eliminates the honey and egg white and increases the amount of milk, and also calls for a 10 hour initial rise (instead of 4-5 hrs), but otherwise looks to be pretty similar.
  • Special equipment needed: cast iron skillet or electric griddle
  • Potential ingredient substitutions: see special note about bread flour at the top of this post. I've also successfully substituted Earth Balance for the butter, and I'd imagine you could switch in a neutral nut or soy milk if you're hoping to make a vegan version. You can also sub in white flour for the whole wheat if you don't have any.
  • My notes: I live in a household of two, so I love recipes like this because the English muffins are good for up to a week at room temp or a month in the fridge. Since you toast them before you eat them, they'll still taste as delicious on day 4 as day 1. In fact, I am toasting one for a pre-dinner snack as I write this!

If you're craving pie but you're quarantined in a small household and all the gyms are closed so you really don't need a whole pie, then Stella Parks's apple turnovers are for you. Can you tell I'm a big fan of Stella's recipes? She is probably my most trusted baking source, and she definitely didn't let me down with these turnovers. I just made them for the first time last week and I was absolutely blown away. Honestly I'm not really an apple pie fan (shocking, I know), but I LOVED these turnovers. They are inspired by McDonald's apple turnovers and they have a deep apple flavoring thanks to a special ingredient - freeze dried apples - which you grind up and add alongside fresh apples for a doubly strong apple flavor.

  • Where to find the recipe: The recipe can be found in her book, Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts, on page 288. I also found a link to the pastry crust recipe here and the filling here. If you are using these recipe links, once you've finished step #3 of the pastry crust recipe, stop there and start following the steps in the turnover recipe - it will pick right up with more directions for the pastry dough (I think I worded this kind of confusingly, so let me know if you have any questions).
  • Special equipment needed: food processor - a high-powered blender will also work (I often use our small Ninja for recipes like this, even though I own two food processors!)
  • Potential ingredient substitutions: the freeze-dried apples are a must, but luckily freeze-dried fruit is starting to be widely available. Whole Foods has a big line, and I actually got mine at Kroger. They only had cinnamon flavored apples, but they were perfect in this application! If you don't have unsulfured molasses or sorghum on hand, I'd recommend subbing in honey, dark corn syrup, brown rice syrup, or brown sugar dissolved in a little water. I haven't tried any of these, but I think they would be quarantine-worthy substitutions! 
  • My notes: This recipe makes 10 turnovers, which is a lot for a small household. The good news is that they crisp up beautifully after being reheated for a few minutes in the toaster oven or regular oven. You can also freeze the raw turnovers once you've shaped them. Just let the frozen turnovers thaw in the fridge a few hours and the bake as normal.

If you've used this time in quarantine to make a sourdough starter (or if you already had one!), then I have to share one of my favorite sourdough recipes: Potato, Cheddar, and Chive Torpedoes! This bread is delicious plain or toasted with butter, or as part of a savory sandwich or (omg) as an extra-cheesy grilled cheese sandwich. I haven't made this recipe in a while because I don't usually keep a starter going for more than a few months at a time. I made this recipe a lot when I was in college, and one of my housemates enjoyed it so much that she traded me a textbook I needed for a batch of these loaves!

  • Where to find the recipe: It's on page 278 of Reinhart's book, The Bread Baker's Apprentice, or you can find a blog post featuring it here.
  • Special equipment needed: a baking stone is ideal, but if you don't have one, you can put an upside-down baking sheet in the oven while it's preheating, and then slide the loaves and parchment paper onto it to bake.
  • Potential ingredient substitutions: See special note about bread flour at the top of this post. I've made the recipe without chives and thought it was good, but the chives really elevate the flavor. If you can get your hands on any, I highly recommend including them. One ounce of chives is a lot, but don't skimp on them. You could try substituting green onions as well, although they don't have as strong of a flavor.
  • My notes: I haven't made this recipe recently, but based on my notes in the cookbook, I made it a lot in 2013 (lol). Here are some of my notes at that time: The recipe says to bake the bread for 35-40 minutes, but I've never baked them longer than 25, sometimes about 20. Baking time will really depend on size and how accurate your oven temp is, but for recipes like this, always go off visual clues over recipe times. They should be nicely browned, but not burnt. I've also noted that it's important to roll the loaves up very tightly around the cheese so you don't have gaps in slice. My final note was to not add too much potato water at the beginning of the kneading process, but to knead for several minutes and let the water hydrate the flour before adding additional water.

If you're ready for your next big quarantine baking challenge, then it's time for croissants. Yep, I'm telling you to make laminated dough. Many people are intimidated by croissants or think they are extremely difficult to make. It's time to overcome that fear! I love making croissants. I find it to be a calming process. Don't get me wrong, the recipe itself is time consuming. You have to plan your day around it a bit because of the time needed for various rises or chills in the fridge. But when you actually bake these, you let them cool for the appropriate amount of time, and then you tear one open and see those beautiful distinct layers... well. It's an amazing feeling. Also, they taste freaking delicious.

  • Where to find the recipe: One of my first blog posts covered croissants! I walked through some of the tricky steps and explained them, and then posted one of my favorite recipes. If you don't need the more extensive walk-through of the recipe, just scroll right to the end for the full recipe. Here is the blog post.
  • Special equipment needed: A bench scraper is helpful, but not necessary.
  • Potential ingredient substitutions: I know I put up a big stink about using King Arthur AP Flour and European-style butter in my blog post, but that was pre-quarantine! Feel free to use any AP flour and unsalted butter you can find.
  • My notes: If you're feeling confident in your ability to make the croissants, try adding fillings! I'm personally partial to savory fillings like ham and cheese, but chocolate or almond paste are classics as well.

If you're looking for a new and delicious recipe to try, but you don't need it to be overly complicated (in case you can't tell, I LOVE overly complicated recipes), then make the coconut white chocolate variation of Stella Parks's Honey-Roasted Peanut Butter Cookies! Of course, you could make the regular version without the coconut or white chocolate, and they are fully delicious. But the combination of coconut, white chocolate, and peanut butter in this cookies is highly irresistible. I've found that even people who don't care for coconut love this cookie. Thanks to finely ground peanuts + peanut butter, these cookies have an amazing peanut flavor and are still delicious and texturely pleasing on day 2 or 3, something I really value in a cookie. Of course, you can also make a big batch, scoop, freeze, and bake on demand, which is what I prefer to do with any and all cookie doughs.

  • Where to find the recipe: It's on page 50 of Stella's cookbook, Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts, and I also found it on this blog. The blog link is for the regular cookies. To make the coconut white chocolate variation, stir in 6 oz (2 cups) shredded coconut and 6 oz (1 cup) finely chopped white chocolate into the dough right before scooping it.
  • Special equipment needed: food processor - a high-powered blender will also work (I often use our small Ninja for this recipe)
  • Potential ingredient substitutions: you could substitute regular peanuts for the honey roasted peanuts, but I would recommend dry roasted either way.
  • My notes: I notoriously overbake cookies. It's something I'm working on, and I've improved, but am still prone towards. If you're like me, pay special attention to this instruction from the book: "Bake until the edges are firm and just barely beginning to brown but the cookies are still puffed and steamy in the middle."
If you're looking for a quick and easy savory snack, I'd recommend scallion pancakes! I've seen recipes for these floating around, but had never tried making them until my friend Rachel posted them on her blog and shared a how-to video on her instagram (@milkandhoneymi). I tried them out and Kyle and I both fell in love with them. They've quickly become a staple in our house- you can make a batch, roll them out, and then freeze them individually so that when you need a snack, all you need to do is pull one out and cook it! We love them plain, with a dipping sauce (there are a million recipes out there), or topped with fried eggs, rolled up with savory fillings, you name it.

  • Where to find the recipe: On Rachel's blog - here is the link. Check out her other recipes while you're there - she's been posting a ton during quarantine, and they are all accompanied by how-to videos on her instagram!
  • Special equipment needed: I like to cook these in a cast iron skillet, but I think you could use any skillet really.
  • Potential ingredient substitutions: None! This is a pretty straightforward recipe. 
  • My notes: The first time I froze a batch, I stacked them with wax paper in between, which I don't recommend. I had trouble removing each individual pancake without breaking it. Rachel recommends parchment paper or plastic wrap which I think would work better. I've actually been using freezer paper, solely because I have a box of it that I never use (why did I buy it? no idea). Since freezer paper is only treated on one side, I cut big pieces and folded them in half, and stored one pancake per folded piece of freezer paper, and then stacked a bunch of the pancake-filled papers and kept them in a gallon ziploc bag. It's a lot of paper initially, but you can reuse them multiple times. It also makes it really easy to grab them out of the freezer one at a time AND you can even roll out the pancake directly in the folded freezer paper if you want.

If you're ready for some comfort food, then it's obviously pizza time. I'm sharing my favorite pizza dough recipe ever. I will warn you - there's a rising time of 24-72 hours. Do the 72 hour rise! It is one thousand percent worth it. Just stick it in the back of your fridge and forget about it for a few days. This recipe was developed to be made in a food processor, and that is the easiest way to quickly mix the dough, and it does provide excellent results. However, I made it by hand for years and it was delicious that way as well. It's an extremely wet dough, so you can't just knead it by hand as you would normally. Instead, you can employ the French kneading method. If you don't know what that is, here is one of my favorite videos of the technique. It might look intimidating, but it's pretty fun and a great way to get a workout while the gyms are all closed! I will note that at times I've ended up with some wayward dough on the ceiling when French kneading. Oops.

  • Where to find the recipe: The recipe originates from Cook's Illustrated, but luckily is published in full on the Serious Eats website. Here is the link. This recipe is not just for the dough, but also includes ingredients and directions for a sauce and toppings. I always go my own route in sauces/toppings, but I'm sure their sauce is delicious as well (though I've never made it).
  • Special equipment needed: Food processor (or not, see my comments above).
  • Potential ingredient substitutions: see special note about bread flour at the top of this post
  • My notes: I have a couple favorite topping combos for this dough. Do note that it if you really layer the toppings on, it will overwhelm the dough and the bottom of the crust will be soggy. Be gentle when adding toppings! (I know, it's hard.) With that in mind, there are so many options. You can stick to the classics with a red sauce and cheese, pepperoni, etc. I also love it with a white sauce, bacon, and thinly sliced onions. My favorite flavor combo though is one that Kyle and I have been making together for the last 6ish years - since before we were even dating - and have thus dubbed it the "relationship pizza". For the sauce, we make this Thai curry sauce. Then we top it with a combination of chicken, red peppers, jalapenos, thai basil, red onions, and coconut. It was originally inspired by a pizza Kyle ate at 3 Floyds Brewery!

If you're thinking of making curry and you need something to accompany it, you have to make naan. If you're never made fresh naan before, it is going to delight your socks off. It is SO good and SO easy. I am serious. Even if you're not having Indian food, you should still make it, and then eat all of it straight. I'm going to share the recipe I've always used, but I'm sure there are about a million recipes out there that are just as good or better. This is just the first one that I found the first time I made naan, and I've never strayed from it.

  • Where to find the recipe: As I mentioned, there are a lot of recipes out there. This is the only one I've ever tried - it's pretty simple and I've always had success with it. You can find it on this blog.
  • Special equipment needed: A cast iron skillet is preferred to get a nice char, but you could try it with any heavy nonstick pan you have.
  • Potential ingredient substitutions: If you don't have plain yogurt, you could sub in sour cream, buttermilk, or probably even plain milk. The anise seeds are optional - I add them for look and flavor, but it will be completely delicious without.
  • My notes: I like to finely chop or microplane some garlic and add it into the melted butter before brushing it onto the finished naan for a subtle but tasty garlic flavor.

If you want to make a special treat for your dog too, then make homemade dog treats! This is one the easiest, and in my opinion, most rewarding things you can bake. Sure, whipping up a batch of homemade croissants gives you a deep sense of satisfaction and pride. But seeing the look of soul-level adoration on your dog's face when you offer him one of these homemade dogs treats also feels pretty dang good. Additionally, it's really hard to mess up the recipe because dogs will eat and love them no matter what. One note of caution - I've seen a few recipes for dog treats that include bacon. While I think we all know any dog would vote for that, apparently greasy human foods like bacon can cause pancreatitis, especially in smaller dogs, and your dog may end up in pain at the vet. Since I've only made these treats for other people's dogs, I decided to err on the side of caution and skip any recipes with bacon in them.

  • Where to find the recipe: This is the recipe I use. I received positive feedback from 11 out of 11 dogs that I used as taste testers!
  • Special equipment needed: Bone-shaped cookie cutters are very cute, but not necessary.
  • Potential ingredient substitutions: This recipe is very forgiving. You could grind up oats and sub them in for the whole wheat flour. You could probably even use white flour. Use a different nut butter in place of the peanut butter. Use applesauce instead of eggs. Use squash instead of pumpkin! It's all good.
  • My notes: When adding the flour, start with about half of it and then add the rest a half cup at a time. I didn't have trouble adding it all in, but I saw many people commenting on the recipe that they found it was too crumbly with the full amount of flour. Also, the baking time on this recipe is really a guideline - it depends on your desired crunchiness. A softer treat is nice for older dogs, while young sprightly dogs may enjoy a very crunchy treat.

And that's it for my quarantine baking list - for now! I hope you've found this list helpful and that you're able to try out one or more of those recipes. As you may have noticed, I mentioned two bakers a LOT - Peter Reinhart and Stella Parks. They are two of my favorite sources for recipes and I can't recommend their books enough. I know we all have enough cookbooks already, but these are worth the addition to your shelf. Peter Reinhart's book The Bread Baker's Apprentice was foundational to my knowledge of baking. I bought it back when I was just starting to have a deeper interest in the science of baking, and I've read it cover-to-cover multiple times. If that sounds weird to you, the first half of the book isn't recipes, but instead goes over everything from breaking down the three main components of a wheat berry to explaining the 12 stages of bread baking. BBA is a wonderful book, and one I reference often.

Stella Parks's book Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts only came out a few years ago, but it's quickly become a staple for me. Stella is well known in the baking world for her deep knowledge of the science and the whys of baking, and also for responding to almost any recipe-related question you post on her instagram. Her book contains not only a lot of awesome recipes, but she also gives you a rich history of how the recipes came to be in their current state. She researches and traces them back as far as possible to their first publication and tells the story of how they changed over the years. It's really fascinating, and makes you appreciate you baked goods even more. Either of these books would be great reading during quarantine (or anytime)!

If you try any of these recipes and have questions, PLEASE let me know. These are some of my most favorite and often baked recipes. I hope you love them as much as I do, but if you run into a snag, I'd be happy to troubleshoot. Happy quarantine baking, my friends.

pita bread

troubleshooting pita bread

May 13, 2018

I've made pita bread three times in my life- four if you count the batch that's basking in the morning sunlight next to me as I type this. The first time I made it was eons ago, in high school, I think. It was made solely to be immediately made into pita chips (I was going through a major Stacy's phase). I don't remember how the bread itself turned out, but I do remember that the chips were mediocre at best. The second time I made pita bread was last month. I used a recipe from Molly Yeh that is printed in her yogurt-themed Short Stack.

My goal as a baker (and as a human) is to be constantly improving and expanding my skill set. I'm pretty good at making the same things over and over and telling myself I'm "practicing". So when I received the yogurt short stack cookbook in a cooking-themed subscription box I get (CrateChef, if you were wondering. I'd recommend it!) and saw the recipe for yogurt pitas, I figured they'd be a good way to take a small step outside of my comfort zone. Molly mentions in the book that they freeze well and I'm always on the hunt for foods I can make on Sunday and reheat throughout the week. Plus, the recipe looked quite simple. Perfect, right?

Wrong. Though they browned up quite prettily in the oven, my pitas did not puff up one dang bit. And the puffiness is kind of the calling card of the pita. It was a huge bummer for me because the process seemed to be going really well- the dough felt like it was supposed to and I followed the recipe to the letter of the law. See now this is why I only bake things that I know will turn out well! 

Kidding. If at first you don't succeed, and all that, right? As it turned out, the dense "pitas" were still pretty tasty, especially sliced in half, toasted, and slathered with butter. We ate some for dinner that evening with a Sudanese bean dip and it was a great meal. The yogurt in the pitas gave them a wonderful tanginess. Who knew failure could taste so good?

my perfectly un-puffy pitas
That said, the minute I realized my pitas didn't turn out the way they were supposed to, I knew I wouldn't be able to bake anything else until I got the recipe right. It's like when there's a fly buzzing around your head- you know it's harmless and you should just ignore it and concentrate on whatever you're doing. But that small noise is just irritating enough that you give up and spend the next five minutes slapping things until you finally get the fly. That's me when a recipe doesn't turn out right. It buzzes around my head and I have to bake it again, the sooner the better.

Before getting out my rolling pin again, I spent some time googling to figure out how I could make sure my next batch baked up correctly. And guess what? It worked! My third try (made a week after the failed batch) puffed up beautifully. In fact, I got so much joy out of seeing those puffy pitas that I was grateful the previous batch was dense. It forced me to learn a lot more about the science behind the puffiness of pita bread and also made me dance around the kitchen (literally) with pure joy when that first pita puffed up. If you've run into the same problem when baking pitas (or have been scared to even try!), I've compiled a list of theories about why my first batch was a dud and how to fix those issues so you can bake them up perfectly on the first try!

THEORY #1: Oven not hot enough
This is a common problem for many baked goods and one that I especially struggle with as my oven seems to run anywhere from 25-100 degrees cold, depending on the day. The recipe called for a 500 degree oven and I was feeling optimistic so I only preheated the oven to 525. I didn't check what my oven thermometer was reading until I was ready to bake the pitas. It was only at 400 degrees. I baked them anyways. Hmm. Obviously there are a few things I could've/should've done differently there. Noted! The next time I baked, I cranked my oven heat as high as it would go (550) and preheated well in advance. My research tells me high heat is extremely important for pitas, so if you have a standard oven, I'd recommend preheating at the maximum temperature. 

THEORY #2: Pitas not rolled out thin enough
I rolled my little pita disks out to about 1/4" to 1/2" thickness. When I googled "pita not puff" (lol), pretty much every article or cooking forum that came up instructed to roll out the pitas to 1/4" or thinner. Okay, strike two. The reasoning is pretty simple- it's in the science of the puff. When the pita is placed in a very hot oven, the heat coming at it from every angle begins to cook the outside of the dough. At the same time, moisture builds up in the middle of the dough, eventually causing a big puff of steam. Since the top and bottom have already become solidified, the steam is contained within the bread, causing the signature puff. If the disk of dough is too thick, the intense oven heat won't reach the center of the dough (and thus cause the steamy puff) until the outside of the dough is already baked so solid that it's too rigid to puff up.

THEORY #3: Didn't let pitas proof after rolling out
My recipe didn't tell me to do this, but every other recipe or forum I've consulted has included this step. So I'll be doing it from now on! All you have to do is let the rolled-out disk rest for about 10-20ish minutes before baking, until they're slightly puffy. I cover them with a tea towel to ensure they don't loose too much moisture during this resting period.

THEORY #4: Pitas baked on wrong surface
The recipe I was following told me to bake the pitas directly on a cookie sheet, so that's what I did. Combine this with the fact that my oven was not hot enough (see theory no. 1) and my pitas were dead in the water. I have no doubt that a cookie sheet works perfectly well when you control for other variables, but if you're also nervous about your oven's variable temp or you just want to give your pitas an edge, bake them on a baking stone or at least a preheated cookie sheet. As I mention in theory no. 2, it's important that the pitas get blasted with heat on the top and bottom the instant they go into the oven. Using a baking stone leaves no question that this will happen. Make sure you preheat the oven for at least 45 minutes to ensure the stone is heated through. I bake my pitas two at a time on my baking stone, using parchment paper and a cookie sheet to slide them in and out of the oven.

THEORY #5: Dough was too dry
Moisture is crucial to the well-puffed pita. I cannot stress this enough! As I said in theory no. 2, the moisture building up in the center of the dough leads to the steam that creates the puff. Your dough should feel somewhat sticky and very soft when you've finished the kneading stage. Most bakebooks will call this feeling "tacky" which was a word that really confounded me when I first started baking. If you're also a little lost when judging your dough's tackiness, here's my best advice: I've come to the conclusion that tacky is the closest thing to stickiness without being sticky. I judge the level of tackiness in a dough in three ways: 

1. The dough is almost too sticky to knead, but is still kneadable (you'll think you need to add flour. resist!) 
2. When you poke the dough with your index finger, a little bit of dough clings to your finger as you pull it back.
3. How easily the dough folds on itself. When you fold it as you're kneading, the fold line should easily disappear. This is the hardest to explain, but you'll intuitively understand it as you knead.

When you're mixing a dough that needs to end up feeling tacky, it's often difficult to resist adding in a bunch of flour at the beginning of the kneading process. This is because the dough will feel insanely sticky at first. As you continue to knead, the flour absorbs the liquid, and the dough becomes stiffer. If you're kneading in a stand mixer, you shouldn't have any issues with this. However, if you're kneading by hand, sometimes it's just too dang sticky at the beginning not to add flour. I've run into this problem many times. Luckily, part of my pita research lead me to a very interesting pita-moisturizing hack. If your rolled-out disks are a little drier than desired, this technique is your saving grace. (and it's really easy! yay!) Three or four minutes before you're going to place your pitas in the oven, gently flip them over (this helps with the dispersement of air pockets in the dough) and lightly spritz each disk with water. That's all! The dough will absorb the extra water and puffy pitas will be in your immediate future.

THEORY #6: Finished pitas not wrapped in towel
This is an issue I didn't run into initially since my pitas didn't puff properly. However, it's an important final step when you do have success with the recipe. As soon as you take the pitas out of the oven you should be swaddling them in a clean kitchen towel. This may seem counterintuitive since you usually leave baked goods out in the open to cool so they don't become soggy. However, since the puffed pitas are so thin, you actually want them to reabsorb some of that steam so that they stay soft rather than becoming hard and brittle and unstuffable. I've done this with my last two batches and it's worked very well.

Now that I've reached the end of all my theories, I've also reached the end of my fourth-ever batch of pitas. I'm happy to report that this batch puffed up just as beautifully as my third batch- maybe even more so! I can't pinpoint one theory as being the most important, because I used them all in conjunction. Just follow all of these recommendations and you'll be golden. I've adapted the original recipe I started with to include these extra steps, and it is posted below. I love this recipe because the yogurt lends such a unique tanginess to the pitas.

If you want to read some of the recipes/posts I consulted to come up with these theories, here are my sources (in no particular order): KAF Flourish blog, Rose Levy Beranbaum via Smitten Kitchen, Chowhound home cooking forumSeasoned Advice forum on StackExchange, and Serious Eats.

For my next batch, I want to try this recipe from Serious Eats, which incorporates some wheat flour. In the meantime, here's my current go-to recipe. Thanks for baking along & I'd LOVE to hear about your pita baking tragedies and triumphs!

Yogurt Pita
Adapted from Molly Yeh (original pita recipe included in this post)

1 3/4 t instant yeast
1 T + 1 t sugar
3 3/4 cup bread flour (plus more for dusting)
1 1/2 t kosher salt (I prefer Diamond Crystal brand)
3/4 cup warm water (approx 105 degrees)
3 T extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup whole milk Greek yogurt (I use Greek Gods plain yogurt)

In medium bowl or stand mixer fitted with dough hook, add yeast, sugar, bread flour, and salt. Mix to combine. Add in warm water, olive oil, and yogurt. Since ingredients at the same temperature mix together more easily, I like to bring my yogurt to room temp (I cheat by heating it in the microwave for a bit) rather than adding it straight from the fridge. 

Mix on low to create a cohesive dough. If using a stand mixer, increase the speed to medium(ish) (or whatever feels right & comfortable to you) and knead until you have a smooth and tacky dough, about 7 minutes. If mixing by hand, knead on counter or in bowl (helps with the stickiness issue) for about 10 minutes, until the dough is very smooth and tacky. Oil a medium-sized bowl, add dough, and cover to rise until doubled (takes 1 to 1.5 hrs for me).

If you'll be using a baking stone, start preheating oven to 550 or as high as it goes about 10-20 minutes before you think the dough will be done rising. If not using a baking stone, you can hold off on preheating the oven for a bit.

After dough rise is completed, turn out onto a clean surface. If you have a digital scale (highly recommend!) weigh the big piece of dough and divide this number by 12. This will be the approximate weight for each little dough ball. Mine usually comes about around 75 grams each. Using a dough scraper or kitchen knife, divide dough into 12 equal pieces. If you don't have a digital scale, no worries! Just eyeball it. It won't be a problem- your pitas may vary in size slightly, that's all.

Once you have 12 pieces of dough, form each piece into a round ball. Here's a one-minute video from KAF showing the classic technique of shaping small dough balls. It's actually really fun, and you'll be so impressed with yourself and the extremely circular dough you end up with. When you've shaped all 12 pieces, cover with a damp-ish kitchen towel and let rest for 20 minutes. If you haven't yet preheated your oven to 550 (or at least 500), now's the time to do it! If you're planning to bake the pitas on a preheated pan, you should put that in the oven at this time.

After the dough has finished resting, roll out each ball to 1/4" or thinner. I roll them out as thinly as I can. Cover the rolled-out circles with a damp tea towel and let rest for about 10-15 min, until they are slightly puffy. If you're planning to bake on a non-preheated baking sheet, you can put the rolled-out pitas on it for the resting period. A few minutes before putting the pitas in the oven, flip them (optional- to help with even air dispersement) and spritz lightly with water.

Now for the baking (finally!). If you're using a normal baking sheet, put them all in the oven at once. If you're using a preheated baking sheet or a baking stone, bake them a few at a time (I do two at a time). Baking time for these pitas can vary. Turn your oven light on and watch them as they bake so you can see when they puff (it's fun!). I've read that you should start checking them at 5 minutes, but mine never take more than 3 minutes to puff. It's honestly totally up to you and you'll quickly figure out how long your pitas need to be in the oven. Once you see a complete puff, give them about a minute-ish more and then take them out, wrapping the fresh pitas in a kitchen towel. I highly recommend eating one warm. So. Good.

recipe post

recipe post: oatmeal bread // no-knead bread

February 18, 2018

These recipes accompany my yeast series- part one here, and part two here.

First- oatmeal bread. This recipe is a Mennonite classic. If you're not familiar with the cookbook More With Less, I highly recommend it! This recipe is a great example of an enriched dough made with instant yeast.

Oatmeal Bread
Adapted from More With Less by Doris Janzen Longacre
Makes 2 loaves

1 c. quick oats
1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 t. salt
2 T butter
2 1/2 c. boiling water
2 1/4 t. instant yeast
5 c. white flour

Combine the first 5 ingredients (oats, ww flour, sugar, salt, and butter) in a large bowl. After mixing, add the boiling water and stir to combine. Set aside to cool. While it is cooling, mix together the instant yeast and white flour.

When the oatmeal mixture has cooled to lukewarm, begin to stir in flour/yeast mixture until incorporated. Continue mixing until dough is stiff enough to handle. Turn onto floured board and knead 5-10 minutes. Place in greased bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled, approximately 2 hours. 

Punch down and shape into 2 loaves and place in greased 9x5x3 pans. Let rise again until doubled. To check if loaves are ready to bake, lightly press your finger into one of the loaves. If the indent stays after your remove your finger, the rising time is complete and the loaves are ready to go into the oven. If the dough springs back, let it continue to rise for 15 minutes and then check again.

Bake at 350 F for 30-40 minutes. To assess if bread is done, thump bread on the bottom. If it sounds hollow, it is baked through. Another option is to check the temperature with an instant read thermometer. The temperature should be about 195 degrees F. Cool on rack, brushing loaves with butter for a soft crust.

bulk fermentation finished, ready to shape!
My second recipe suggestion is this no-knead recipe from Jim Lahey. I very highly recommend this recipe- especially if you have a dutch oven to bake it in. I can promise you will not be disappointed! Please read all of the instructions before starting the dough. It may look long, but that it just because the process is explained as well as possible.

No-Knead Bread
Adapted slightly from Jim Lahey's revolutionary cookbook My Bread
Makes 10-inch round loaf; 1 1/4 pounds

3 cups (400 grams) bread flour
1 1/4 teaspoons (8 grams) table salt
1/4 teaspoon (1 gram) instant yeast
1 1/3 cups (300 grams) cool water (55 to 65 degrees F)
Wheat bran, cornmeal, or additional flour, for dusting

Special equipment:
A 4 1/2- to 5 1/2-quart heavy pot (dutch oven)

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and yeast. If possible, please use a scale to measure ingredients for accuracy. One the dry ingredients are well mixed, pour in the water. Stir with a wooden spoon until all flour has been incorporated. This should take about an minute. The dough needs to be extremely sticky. Touch it to check! If it's not, stir in another tablespoon or two of water. 

Once it seems sufficiently sticky, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it to sit at room temperature, about 72 degrees F. Do not leave it in direct sunlight. Let sit for 12-18 hours, until the surface of the dough is very bubbly and the dough has more than risen in size. The bubbles are key- these are signs of the fermentation process at work. If possible, let the dough sit for the full 18 hours. 

Once the bulk fermentation period is complete, prepare a well-floured surface. Using a bowl scraper if you have one, or a rubber spatula, scrape the dough out of the bowl onto the floured surface. Try to keep it in one piece. The dough should pull away in long spidery strands- this is the developed gluten. Amazing! The dough should be very sticky. 

Gently shape the blob into a round-ish shape (flour your hands first). Be as gentle as possible with the dough- the goal is to preserve as many of the trapped carbon dioxide bubbles as possible. This will ultimately result in large irregular holes in your finished loaf- which is pretty much the gold standard of a great loaf of bread. 

Once you've gently formed a round dough, grab a cotton or linen towel and dust it with wheat bran, cornmeal, or flour. With your hands or a bowl scraper, carefully transfer your round dough blob to the towel, seam side down. Sprinkle a little flour/cornmeal/bran on the top and lightly fold the towel sides over top of the dough to cover. Leave it at room temperature to rise for 1-2 hours, unless almost doubled. (If you do need to move the towel covered dough, you can slide a thin sheet pan or cutting  board under it to transfer it easily.) 

Half an hour before the end of the rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. Place an oven rack in the lower half of the oven and place a covered 4 1/2–5 1/2 quart pot (dutch oven) on the rack. To check if the dough is ready to bake, refer to the indent test mentioned in the above recipe.

When the second rise has been completed and the dough is ready to bake, use potholders to carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven. Remove the lid. Unfold the towel, dust the dough with flour again if needed, and quickly invert the towel, dropping the dough seam-side-down into the very hot pot. Put the lid on and using potholders, put the pot into the oven. Bake for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, leaving in the pot in the oven, remove the lid. Continue to bake until the bread is a deep brown color but not at all burnt. This should take about 15-30 minutes. To check if the bread is done, either thump the dough and listen to hear if it sounds hollow, or take the temperature. It is done at 205 degrees F. Let cool completely (at least 1 hour) before slicing.


a brief history of yeast, part two

February 18, 2018

FINALLY- I am finishing this post on yeast. And I've decided not to write a two part post again unless I write both parts at the same time. Someone hold me to this, please.

That being said, I'm just going to dive right in where I left off in part one.

As you near the end of the commercial yeast process, you have a form of yeast called cream yeast which is ready to be further processed to become one of three final forms: fresh yeast, active dry yeast, or instant yeast. Let's go over these three forms of yeast.

Fresh yeast or cake yeast is the least processed of the three. It has a high moisture content and expires within about eight weeks of processing. It must be refrigerated at all times. As the least processed form of the three, it is also has the most leavening power. I've honestly never used fresh yeast (or even seen it at a standard grocery store) so I'm not going to spend any more time talking about it. Moving on!
a block of compressed fresh yeast- so different looking from its more processed counterparts! image credit: by hellahulla (own work) via wikimedia commons
Both active dry and instant yeast require one last step of drying. Active dry yeast, along with some of the leftover nutrient debris, is dried at a high heat. During this drying process, the debris forms a protective covering around the clumps of yeast. Because it is dried, active dry yeast has a lower moisture content than fresh yeast, making it shelf stable. However, the protective covering of debris puts the yeast in a semi-dormant state, which is the reason that you have to activate it by soaking it in warm water. Soaking or proofing active dry yeast wakes it up by dissolving the debris covering (see next paragraph for a more thorough explanation). Active dry yeast is dried at such a high heat that many of the yeast cells are killed in the process. Approximately 25% of yeast cells in a canister of active dry are already dead when you buy it (and this doesn't include the debris that is surrounding the yeast cells- so most of your 'yeast' in a canister of active dry is not yeast at all!).

To use active dry yeast, you must first dissolve it in warm water (about 110 degrees F) for several minutes. During this time, the mixture should bloom, or begin to foam and grow in volume. This signifies that the yeast is still alive and will have the power to make your bread rise. If nothing happens during this time, the yeast is not good and should be tossed out (otherwise you will be super bummed at the end of your baking experience). Most recipes that call for active dry will include this step in the recipe directions. However, if it is not included or you are subbing in active dry in a recipe that calls for instant yeast, make sure you measure out how much water you use to dissolve the yeast and subtract that from the total liquid called for, or it will throw off the recipe's proportions.

Finally, we get to instant yeast, my go-to yeast! About 30 years about active dry yeast was invented, French yeast manufacturer Lesaffre developed instant yeast, which launched in 1973 under the name SAF-instant, which is still available to this day. Instant yeast is dried in a very similar manner to active dry yeast, but at a lower heat, so the drying is gentler, and all of the dried yeast will be alive/active when it comes to you. It is not surrounded by debris like active dry yeast. Instant yeast is the variety of yeast that goes by many names and is often called fast rising yeast, rapid rise yeast, or bread yeast. There are several prevalent misconceptions about instant yeast, which I would like to discuss. 
remember this photo from yeast, part one? this is my go-to yeast. also showcasing my messy fridge in the background!
Myth #1: Instant yeast and active dry yeast can be substituted at a 1:1 ration

This seems super logical, right? I just told you that both forms of yeast are made in the exactly same way- the only difference being the temperature at which they are dried. It is actually because of this difference in processing that you need less instant yeast than active dry. Instant yeast is more concentrated. It contains about 25 percent more living yeast cells per spoonful than active dry yeast. In my opinion, you're getting more bang for your buck when you buy instant yeast because of this.

Interestingly, if you google "substitute active dry yeast for instant" many of the website that come up will tell you that you can substitute at a 1:1 ratio, even some websites that I normally trust and often use as a resource. They claim that the active dry yeast will just be a little slower in getting the dough to rise. I guess that's technically true- you can substitute at a 1:1 ratio without epically disastrous results. But should you? Now that's an entirely different question. And the answer is: no. You should not. Luckily, it's pretty easy to figure out how much of whatever you're subbing to use- use 25 percent less yeast when subbing instant for active dry. 

So, if your recipe call for 1 tablespoon of active dry yeast, you would only use 2 1/4 teaspoons of instant yeast. Alternatively, if you are going the other way, you would want to increase the yeast by 25 percent. If a recipe called for 1 tablespoon of instant yeast, you would want to use 3 3/4 teaspoons of active dry yeast.

As you can see from the numbers above, if you're making a recipe that calls for a small amount of yeast, the substitution ratio doesn't make a huge difference. However, if you're making a recipe with a large amount of yeast- for example if you were doubling a bread recipe that originally called for 1 envelope, or 2 1/4 teaspoons, of instant yeast and you subbed in active dry, you would need to add over a teaspoon- so yeah, the substitution ratio is kind of important!

Myth #2: Instant yeast provides a 50% faster rise time

As I mentioned above, many sources claim that you can sub active dry and instant for each other in a 1:1 ratio and the only difference is that the active dry rise will be a little bit slower. Let's dissect what this statement truly means for your baked goods.

We've already discussed how instant yeast is subjected to a gentler drying process, and therefore all yeast cells are still active, as opposed to active dry, which will only have about 75% active cells. So that right there is your answer- if your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of active dry yeast, and you substitute 1 teaspoon of instant yeast, it's like adding 1 1/4 teaspoon of active dry. That's why it's faster- you are literally increasing the proportion of yeast in the recipe. Of course it will work faster! In theory, that's great- who doesn't love a good shortcut? But this is not a good shortcut. Depending on what kind of bread you are making, the length of the rise is crucial to your finished product. 
hotdog buns. these are an enriched dough, getting their flavor from the eggs and milk. 
Why a slow rise is important and necessary

If you're making an enriched dough (if there are additives such as eggs, butter, milk, etc), your rising time isn't as crucial to the flavor of the bread. This is because much of the flavor will come from the additives. It's still necessary to include any rises called for in the recipe as they are structurally important for your dough. That said, you can feel free to slightly speed up the rise by putting your dough in a warmer spot in your kitchen or maaaaybe increasing the amount yeast by a teensy bit (honestly, I still wouldn't recommend this). If you are trying to speed up the rising time, you should use the growth of the dough as an indicator for when it is ready to be shaped- usually you want it to double in size. 

However, if you are making a lean dough (no enrichments such as butter/milk/eggs are included), the long rise time is crucial to the flavor of the finished product. This is because all of the flavor in the bread is being developed during the rising time. The longer the rise, the more complex flavor you will have.

Rising time is also known as proofing or bulk fermentation. Technically speaking, in the bread world 'bulk fermentation' refers to the initial rise of the dough and 'proofing' refers to the second and final rise when the dough has been shaped. That said, most people who are not professional bakers use all three terms interchangeably, myself included. However, knowing the name of the first rise - fermentation - does give us a very good clue about why this step is the flavor-maker. By definition, fermentation is the production of alcohol. During the bulk fermentation period, the yeast is consuming sugars in the dough and expelling carbon dioxide and alcohol. The carbon dioxide provides structure to the dough as the bubbles of CO2 expelled are trapped in the matrix of gluten. The alcohol provides the flavor. Fermentation is an anaerobic reaction, so the yeast only begins to expel alcohol after its oxygen supply has been depleted. If you cut your rising time short, your dough will have structure from the CO2 but will not have much flavor because there wasn't time for the yeast to produce much alcohol.

Conversely, letting dough rise for too long causes it to be overproofed. This means the dough becomes over-aerated and the CO2 bubbles that we normally love and praise for providing structure to our bread actually overpower the gluten structure. Overproofed dough will be totally lacking in oven-spring and will probably have a disappointing uniform crumb. 

I didn't explain the dangers of under/overproofing dough just now with the goal of scaring you away from ever making a loaf of bread again. Actually, quite the opposite. I want you to feel extremely confident that if you follow the recipe and stick to the recommended proportions, you will come away with an amazing, flavorful, well-proofed loaf of bread. If you're looking for an different outcome than what your recipe is offering, find recipes that include steps to achieve your desired results (fast rise/slow rise/more flavor/etc) rather than tinkering with a recipe. Altering the formula of a bread recipe can be pretty dangerous if you don't understand exactly why you're changing what you're changing. There are some recipes I'll change slightly, but in general I still don't feel knowledgable enough about this stuff to mess with a recipe too much. 


Remember to always store your yeast in the fridge or freezer once it has been opened. This is necessary because as soon as a container of yeast has been opened, it will slowly begin to absorb moisture from the air (remember- it's grown and packaged under extremely strict and hygienic conditions). This will cause it to become activated. If you try to use it in dough after this has happened, it will have lost all of its potency and won't give a good rise to your bread. Personally, I love buying the one pound red and blue SAF bags of Lesaffre yeast (pictured below). They are very cost effective and will last forever (literally years, depending on how often you use yeast) in the freezer.
SAF-instant, my favorite brand of yeast, next to King Arthur AP flour, my favorite brand of flour!
I'll finish this long-overdue post with two very different but very good bread recipes. The first, Oatmeal Bread, is an enriched dough. It takes its flavor from the eggs and butter and therefore the rising time is important in terms of structure, not flavor. The second is a very well known no-knead dough from Jim Lahey. In fact, this recipe is credited with starting the no-knead revolution. I chose it because A) it's delicious, and B) it's historically important, and C) it's an excellent example of a loooong rising time leading to an amazing flavor. You do have to plan ahead on this one, but it also happens to be very hands-off. To achieve the best results, you should bake it in a dutch oven. A baking stone will suffice if a dutch oven is not available. Click here to go to the recipe post!

Note: Since I tend to write such long posts, I've decided to start including the accompanying recipes in separate posts. The goal is to make it easier to get straight to the recipe if you've already read the above information and just want to get straight to baking!

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