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!


sometimes, joanna doesn't bake (or at least doesn't blog)

January 06, 2018

You know how sometimes you have something you need to do. And instead of doing it right away, you put it off for a bit, and then keep putting it off for another while? And then suddenly you've surpassed the time frame in which it was acceptable to do that thing and now everything is awkward and embarrassing?

For example: When I was in elementary school I took group swim lessons at the local pool during the summer. One year, my class had a temporary swimming instructor who misheard me when I introduced myself and thus took to calling me "Hosanna" (weird). As a shy child, I decided it was less embarrassing not to correct him since he was only going to be working with us for one day. Wrong. Unfortunately, I was mistaken about his tenure as our swimming teacher. He continued to teach us and address me as Hosanna for the duration of the summer. I continued to pretend "Hosanna" was my name and hope that the other kids in my class wouldn't bust me. 

Basically what I'm saying is that I didn't update this blog for a while and then kept not updating it for such an embarrassingly long time that I felt like I needed to start answering to "Hosanna" again. The fact that my last post was part one of a two part post just makes it worse. Like what is this girl doing!? Leaving such a cliff hanger of a post on the history of yeast?! I know, I know, I'm terrible. I'm sure everyone is on the edge of their seats waiting to read more about different kinds of yeast.

(Although actually someone did text me and request that I update the blog because they were waiting to make bread until they saw the second part of the yeast post. That made me feel v. popular and like people actually read this thing. Except for the part that the person who texted me is part of my immediate family.)

And yet, my first post after a four month hiatus is not yeast part 2. Sorry...let's call it Practicing Delayed Gratification. Instead, I want to publicly call myself out on not posting recently. I sincerely love baking. In my mind, it's a lot simpler and easier to get out a bunch of ingredients and spend a few hours in the kitchen than to write a post about it. Putting something out into the world is scary. If I'm unimpressed with the final product when baking, I'll just toss it or make my boyfriend eat it while sworn to secrecy. Putting a blog post out into the vast internetland means that anybody anywhere could be reading this and shaking their head in disapproval and disappointment at my poor writing skills. I guess that's part of living life, though. I don't know the best way to improve my blogging skills, but I have a strong hunch that it is not by avoiding the blog completely.

Well, that was a lot of non-baking talk. So, in reference to the title of this post, I'll share a few snippets from my baking-not-blogging activities from the past four months.

October: I realized that I was in something of a baking rut- I was only baking tried-and-true recipes without changing anything, so I wasn't challenging myself at all. It felt very stagnant. I jumped out of my comfort zone by trying my hand at these Better Nutters from Bouchon Bakery's cookbook (the book was an awesome birthday present from my cousin Marie!). Honestly, I wasn't wowed by the outcome. However, I've googled the recipe and seen that almost all of my favorite and most-trusted baking websites have posted about it, so there must be something I'm missing. These are on the list to try again!

October: Better Nutters

November: I commissioned an artist friend, Nikita Zook, to create some baking-related artwork for my kitchen/dining room area. The bare walls were really wanting for some decoration, and I absolutely love Nikita's style. I gave her some guidelines on what I was looking for and then she sent me several drawings and let me choose what I liked and didn't like about each. Being so involved in the process was awesome. She even provided framing suggestions, since that is certainly not my forte. I absolutely love the final product- this picture does not do justice to the smaller details. I would definitely recommend checking out Nikita's instagram to see more of her work.

November: Nikita Zook artwork!
December: Kyle requested my family's traditional Saturday night meal of zwiebach, scrambled eggs, and hot cocoa. Growing up, we ate this meal at my grandparents' house every Saturday night. If you're not familiar, zwiebach is an enriched yeasted dough. It comes from my German/Russian Mennonite background and is completely delicious. As a bonus- baked zwiebach also freeze well. We are still eating zwiebach leftover from this baking session!

December: Zwiebach
December: Another recipe from my Mennonite background- pfeffernusse or peppernuts. These tiny spice cookies are an essential part of Christmas for my family. In fact, I can't remember a Christmas season that didn't involve hours of peppernut baking. Most Mennonite peppernut bakers will have two or three family recipes that are baked every Christmas. My family is no different, but I always make just one- my favorite of my Grandma Goertz's recipes. Although peppernuts are traditionally flavored with anise, my recipe uses cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg for the spicing. 

December: Peppernuts
January: My sister Abi gave me these gorgeous canisters from Crate & Barrel for Christmas! I was so excited about them that as soon as we got back to Toledo, I went to Target and bought a shelf to display them on. So really, they were two presents in one, because I'd been needing a shelf for a while but hadn't been motivated to buy one. My kitchen is so happy now! I've filled three of the canisters already, but can't decide what to put in the charcoal-colored one. Any suggestions? You can also see two Airscape vacuum-sealed canisters next to them- Kyle swears by these to keep his coffee beans fresh. He is very picky about getting freshly roasted beans. Me- not so much, as you can see my pre-ground not-super-fresh bags of coffee right next to them.

January: Baking cannisters
Finally, I couldn't resist posting a photo of the two very, very cute dogs I got to spend a week with over Christmas. The lighter dog is Rory, a very active one-year-old vizsla. She loves to sit on laps and steal bones from Lucy. Lucy is the long-suffering and gentle 12ish-year-old on the right. She is very dignified and sweet and would never turn down a good belly rub.
Rory (left) and Lucy (right)
That's all for now, but you haven't heard the last of me this month. My New Year's resolution was to blog once a month. I'm writing it here to hold myself accountable. So, stay tuned for the second yeast post coming up next.

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