A Moment of Mea Culpa

I was just looking over some of my old posts and, to my chagrin, realized that I had given some poor advice. In my post on proofing dough, I mixed up the test results for overproofing and underproofing. It has been fixed now. I apologize to anyone who relied on my bad advice!

BBA Challenge Challah

The Week 6 BBA Challenge bread is Challah, a traditional Jewish braided egg bread. Unlike Cindy at Salt and Serenity, who has been making Challah weekly for the past 12 years, until this challenge, I had never made Challah. I think I’ve eaten it before, but even that would have been 25 years ago when my family took a trip to Israel. So I approached this challenge with both the excitement of trying something new and the trepidation of jumping in blind.

The bread itself is a fairly straightforward egg dough, so I wasn’t concerned about that. What made me a bit nervous, however, was the thought of braiding the dough. Although I have been baking for about 30 years, I’ve never braided bread dough, and I wasn’t sure how it would work out. I received a lot of encouragement from other BBAers, so I figured I’d dive in and have a go at it.

If you’ve read any of my other BBA blog posts, you know I don’t do things the simple way. For example, I made all three versions of brioche. So it shouldn’t surprise you to note that, even though I was nervous about the braiding, I decided to make two versions of Challah — a traditional yeasted bread, and a sourdough version.

For the sourdough version, I fed up Adrian to about 15 ounces, of which I used 14 ounces for the Challah, and the remaining ounce to feed and store for later. I keep Adrian at 100% hydration, so by using 14 ounces I replaced 7 ounces each of flour and water in the original recipe. I omitted the yeast from the dry mixture and didn’t add any additional water to the egg and oil mixture.

Sourdough Challah Ingredients

I took Adrian out of the refrigerator about an hour before I mixed up the dough, but the starter was still quite chilly. Because I didn’t add any additional water (I ended up mixing in quite a bit of flour during the kneading stage), I wasn’t able to adjust the dough temperature by using warm water. So after the mixing, the dough was still quite cool. This was fine with me, as I like to use a long ferment with sourdough to build in as much flavor as possible. However, I didn’t want it to be an all-day process, either, so I fermented the dough in my “proofing box“.

Microwave Proofing Box

By increasing the temperature and humidity, I was able to kick start the fermentation process. It still took the dough longer to rise than the yeasted dough, which you would expect with sourdough.

While the sourdough Challah was fermenting, I mixed the yeasted Challah per the recipe. I again had to add extra flour during the kneading process, and I ended up with a beautiful, golden dough that was supple but not at all sticky. I fermented this dough at room temperature, and it rose beautifully.

After degassing and the second ferment, I divided the yeasted dough into three pieces. It is important that the dough pieces be of equal size for braiding, so I weighed the dough and then scaled each piece.

Challah Dough

Dividing Challah Dough

Then I preshaped the pieces into boules and set them aside to rest.

Challah Dough - Divided and Rounded

After a 10-minute rest (for me and the dough), I began rolling the dough into ropes. I wanted to make the ropes about the length of my Silpat, as that would give me plenty of length to work with when braiding. The dough resisted rolling and tried to pull back quite a bit, so I set the ropes, which were about half the length I wanted, aside and let them rest for another 10 minutes. This allowed the dough to relax and made it easier to roll out into ropes.

First attempt at rolling out ropes

First attempt at rolling out ropes

Ropes, after a 10-minute rest

Ropes, after a 10-minute rest

Once I got the ropes rolled to the length I wanted, I was ready to try my hand at braiding. I read, reread, and read again PR’s directions for a 3-strand braid. It sounded simple enough. Starting in the middle, you cross one of the outside strands over the center strand, then do the same from the other side. Once you have braided half the dough, you turn it around and braid the other end.

3-Strand Braid - so far, so good

3-Strand Braid - so far, so good

For the second half, you tuck the braids under the center, rather than taking them over the top. Again, it seemed easy enough, and before I knew it, I had what looked like a respectable Challah on my hands. The braids weren’t quite as tight as they might have been, but for my first time, I was pleased. I set the dough aside to proof for an hour or so, then sprinkled it with poppy seeds and preheated the oven.

Challah - Braided with Poppy Seeds

I baked the loaf at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, then took it out to rotate the pan. I was surprised by how done the loaf appeared, so at this point, I inserted my probe thermometer before returning the loaf to the oven.

Challah with Probe Thermometer

For those of you not familiar with a probe thermometer, it is a thermometer that sits on the counter with a probe that can be stuck into a loaf of bread or piece of meat. The probe has a long wire on it, so whatever you are baking or roasting can be put into the oven with the probe in it, and you can monitor the temperature by looking at the unit sitting on the counter. Most probe thermometers, in addition to showing the internal temperature of your bread, also allow you to set the desired temperture. When the loaf reaches the correct internal temperature, an alarm will sound, telling you that it is done. Although the recipe said the loaf would take another 20 to 45 minutes to finish baking, my loaf reached 190 degrees in the center in about 7 more minutes.

Meanwhile, back to the sourdough Challah. After degassing the dough, I set it aside for the second ferment, which was supposed to take about an hour, according to the recipe. I put my dough in a measuring bowl (as seen in the proofing box picture above) so I could tell when it had increased to 1 1/2 time its original size. I wasn’t surprised that it took longer than an hour, and indeed it took almost 3 hours to reach the desired size.

Flush with my yeasted Challah braiding success, I decided to up the ante and try a 4-strand braid with the sourdough Challah. So I divided the dough into 4 equal pieces, rested them and rolled them out into ropes.

Sourdough Challah Divided into Boules

Sourdough Challah 4 Ropes

Following the directions for a 4-strand braid (or so I thought), I joined the ropes at the top and began braiding, 4 over 2, 1 over 3, 2 over 3, and on and on.

Sourdough Challah Braiding

It wasn’t until I was more than halfway through braiding that I realized I had somehow left one of the strands completely out of the braiding process. I ended up with a lovely, 3-strand braid sitting on top of a straight rope.

Sourdough Challah Braided

I went ahead an baked it. It came out a little lopsided, as the straight rope sort of tipped over the braid. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of the finished product. We were on our way out the door to a dinner party, to which I was taking both loaves. My dining companions and I had a good laugh about my braiding techniques, but everyone (including a couple who had lived in Israel for a while) agreed that the Challahs were a success. We didn’t notice much of a difference between the sourdough and yeasted loaves, except that the sourdough had a slightly softer crust.

All in all, I would call both Challah loaves a success. And I’m no longer afraid of braiding. In fact, I’m anxious to try a 4-strand braid again, to see how it looks when you use all 4 ropes!

Microwave Proofing Box

Microwave Proofing Box

A proofing box (sometimes also called a “proof box”) is sealed space where a baker can control the temperature and humidity in order to proof dough under controlled conditions. Generally, the temperature of a proofing box is kept around 100 degrees F, and the humidity at about 85%. In a professional bakery, a proofing box might look like a large, walk-in cooler. By using a controlled environment, the baker is able to proof dough faster and more predicably than by relying on room temperature. 

For the home baker, there are a number of ways of improvising a proofing box. Some people use Styrofoam coolers or aquariums equipped with lights or submersible heaters to produce the desired atmosphere for proofing bread. Others try to control the temperature by putting dough in the oven with the light on. I have found that a simple and reliable way is to use the microwave.

Let me first clear up any misconceptions by saying that I do not run the microwave with the dough in it — ever. I have read about proofing dough in the microwave by actually nuking the dough; this to me is anathema to the whole idea of baking homemade bread.

So, how do you proof bread in the microwave? Start by placing about 2 cups of water in the microwave and heating it for several minutes, until it boils rapidly. Allow the water to continue boiling for a minute to really fill the microwave with steam. Then, working quickly to avoid losing too much of the steam, open the microwave, move the cup off to the side, put your dough in the microwave, and close the door. You have now created a warm, humid environment in which to ferment or proof your dough.

Dough proofed in a microwave “proofing box” will rise more quickly than dough proofed at room temperature, so keep an eye on it. But avoid opening the door too often, as each time you do you will lower both the temperature and humidity. Generally, I leave the dough alone in the proofing box until the minimum time given in the recipe for fermenting or proofing, then check it to see if it has developed sufficiently. For long ferments, you might even want to remove the dough, reheat the water, and then put the dough back in.

So, there you have it. At zero expense and with minimal effort and attention, you can recreate an expensive proofing box in your own kitchen.

The Proof is in the Proofing

OK, so you’ve done your mise en place, mixed, autolysed, kneaded, fermented, shaped your dough, and now it’s on it’s final rise, known as proofing.  The recipe says the dough should almost double, but what does that really mean?  How can you tell when your loaves are proofed and ready to bake?  Easy, just give it a poke.

So, how does the “poke test” work?  You poke a finger gently but firmly into the dough, about a quarter to half an inch (maybe a centimeter), then watch what happens when you remove your finger. 

  • If the place you poked doesn’t fill back in, you have allowed the dough to overproof. 
  • If it fills back in immediately, the dough is underproofed. 
  • If, however, the poke hole fills in slowly, your dough is properly proofed and ready to bake.

That’s all there is to it.  So, the next time you bake and want to know if your dough is ready, poke away!

Mi Casatiello Es Su Casatiello

Casatiello - Open Crumb

I was a bit leery of the BBA Casatiello to begin with.  I’m not a huge meat-in-bread fan, so I wasn’t sure I would like this bread.  I’ll spare you the anticipation and tell you that this is far and away my favorite BBA Challenge bread so far!

Up ’til now, I have followed the BBA recipes pretty much to the letter. But five recipes in, and I’ve gone astray. I don’t eat salami, so right off the bat I had to make some changes (I’m not one of those crazy generous souls who bakes bread for everyone but me to eat). And I wanted to use my sourdough starter in place of the sponge. And substitute buttermilk powder for the milk. And of course choose my own cheese.  Oh, and I didn’t have any unsalted butter on-hand, so I decided to use salted butter and adjust the salt in the recipe. So, what started out as a small departure from the recipe became a bunch of changes that added up to my own version of Casatiello.

Given all the changes I was making, I knew two things.  First, I had to take good notes if I was to have any chance of remembering (and possibly recreating) what I had done.  And second, if this bread was a colossal failure, I would have no idea why.

Probably the biggest change, and the one most likely to cause problems, was substituting sourdough starter for the sponge.  I pondered how to do this, and came up with the following:  I would use 16 ounces of a 100% hydration starter, which would equal 8 ounces of flour (leaving 10.25 ounces to add later) and the entire 8 ounces of liquid. PR’s recipe calls for 8 ounces of milk or buttermilk, but this was no problem, as I was planning on substituting buttermilk powder anyway. So I spent a day or two before I started baking feeding up my starter to just over 16 ounces, so I would have enough for the bread and a little bit to keep.

As far as the salami goes, I decided to substitute all-beef Lebanon bologna. It has a taste similar, but far superior, to salami, and my family loves it.  And the cheese? Well, I didn’t bother to pick up cheese at the store, since we eat cheese like it’s our job around here, and we always have a drawerful in the fridge. I sorted through my choices, and decided to use a mix of three cheeses:  muenster, provolone, and just a touch of a hard, white, very sharp cheese that I’m not sure exactly what it was because it wasn’t in a wrapper. I think it might have been Parmigiano-Reggiano. As indicated in the recipe, I cut up and sauteed the bologna, and shredded the cheese.

Casatiello - Lebanon bologna and cheese

Before I began mixing the recipe, I did my mise en place.  I try to do that for most recipes, although I admit to not always taking the time.  This time I felt it was important, since I was changing around a lot of things and it would be easy to forget something.

Casatiello mis en place

I started by putting 10.25 ounces of flour, the salt, yeast, and 4 tablespoons of buttermilk powder into the mixer bowl.  I mixed the dry ingredients on speed 1 with the paddle attachment just enough to stir them together.  Then I added the eggs and sourdough starter and mixed on medium speed (4) for a minute or so. 

Casatiello first mix

After a 10-minute rest, I added the butter 1/4 at a time and mixed well between each addition. Then I mixed the whole thing for 12 minutes, switching from the paddle attachment to the dough hook (which I sprayed with pan spray) after 4 minutes. The dough started out very sticky, clinging to the side of the bowl and the paddle. I was sure I would have to add flour before I was done. By the 4-minute mark, it had started to come together. And within a few minutes of switching to the dough hook, it really came together, just like the recipe said it would (imagine that!).

By the end of the mixing period, the dough was very tacky but not sticky, so I added the meat. Having had trouble kneading in add-ins with the dough hook in the past, I took the bowl off the mixer and folded in the meat with my bench scraper. Once I got the meat worked in, I did the same with the cheese. Then I put the bowl back on the mixer and gave it another minute on low to finish it off. 

After mixing in the meat and cheese, the dough was back to being sticky again, and I once again thought about adding flour.  However, I decided against it, because I really wanted to see how it would turn out without the addition of flour, and because I was planning to retard the dough overnight and figured it would firm up in the fridge. Here is the dough, ready for a long, cool ferment:

Casatiello - ready for retarding

By morning, the dough had risen but not quite doubled. I took it out of the fridge and let it rest for an hour or so. After reading all the options for baking it — in a loaf pan, paper bag, or cake pan — I decided to do something completely different, and do a free-form boule.  So I shaped the dough and put it into a banneton to proof.

Casatiello in banneton

While it was proofing, I re-read the baking instructions and came across this phrase: “…the cheese will ooze out into crisp little brown pockets.”  I began to rethink the boule idea, as I had visions of cheese “oozing out” on my baking stone and the bottom of my oven. One of the options for baking given in the recipe is to use an 8-inch cake pan. I have a round 8-inch stoneware cake pan, and I could tell by looking at it that the dough as shaped would fit neatly into it.  So, after the 90-minute proof, I gently lifted the dough from the banneton and inverted it into the cake pan, which I had sprayed with pan spray.

The dough had risen some, but not as much as it seemed like it should.  Nonetheless, I decided to go ahead and bake it. In retrospect, I realize that it should have proofed longer, as the dough was still cold from the fridge. 

I baked the bread for 20 minutes at 350, then rotated the pan and inserted a probe thermometer. To my surprise, the dough was only at 65 degrees. I left the probe thermometer in the bread and put it back in the oven. I realized it would take longer than the recipe called for, so after about 15 minutes, I tented the loaf with foil to keep it from getting over-browned. I didn’t pay attention to how long the loaf took to reach 185 degrees, but it was probably close to an hour and a half.

What the dough lacked in final rise, it more than made up for in oven spring.

Casatiello - Monster Oven Spring!

And the smell! Oh, man, it was amazing. It almost killed me to wait an hour before cutting into this loaf, but wait I did. And it was more than worth it.

Casatiello - sliced

The crumb was soft and open, with lots of holes. The eggs and butter gave it a beautiful golden color. And the Lebanon bologna was delicious but not overpowering. All in all, an excellent loaf of bread and one that I will make again and again.

A (Mise En) Place for Everything

Has this ever happened to you: You’re in the middle of cooking dinner, and you open the cupboard to reach for an herb or spice only to find that you’re out of it? Or you cut into the bread or cake you just baked, only to realize that you forgot to add a key ingredient? It’s happened to me more times than I care to admit. The worst is when you don’t realize you omitted an ingredient until you serve whatever it is you made to company and it just doesn’t taste right.

I used to think the occasional disaster was just the cost of doing business when it came to cooking and baking, but I’ve recently learned that these kitchen catastrophes can quite easily be avoided. How? By using mise en place. That may sound like an intimidating and highly-technical skill only available to the trained chef. And, indeed, professional chefs use this technique. But it’s actually quite simple to learn and understand, easy to use, and can transform your cooking and baking more than any other single cooking skill.

So what is this strange-sounding technique?  Mise en place (pronounced MEES ahn plahs), literally “put in place” but more commonly translated “everything in place”, is a French cooking term, which simply refers to assembling all of your ingredients and equipment before you begin cooking. You read through your recipe, get out all your ingredients, measure, wash, chop, toast, bring to room temperature, etc., and get all of your pots, pans, bowls, utensils, and other equipment ready.

Casatiello mise en place 

Sounds easy enough, right? It really is. So why go through the extra step, not to mention dirtying the additional bowls and containers, to have everything laid out like a TV cooking show? Simple. Because it’s transformational, in several ways. First, you will avoid those unpleasant surprises, where you reach for an ingredient you always keep on-hand, only to realize you’re out of it. Next, you won’t find yourself knee-deep in a sauce that needs to be stirred constantly, only to realize you need to peel and chop the next three ingredients. Also, you will be familiar with the recipe, so there won’t be any other surprises (like needing a piece of equipment you don’t have, or having to stop and Google a technique you aren’t familiar with).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, by familiarizing yourself with the recipe and having everything you need at hand and ready to go, you will cook and bake with a whole new level of confidence and ease that you never knew possible. This last point is almost impossible to overstate, but it’s also something you have to experience to really appreciate. By having everything you need ready to go, you really will feel like a professional chef.

So hopefully mise en place doesn’t seem like such  mystery now. Give it a try the next time you cook or bake; you’ll see what I mean.

King Cake {Recipe}

King Cake


  • 1 tablespoon plus 3/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 5 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm water
  • 1/2 cup warm milk (105 to 115 degrees)
  • 1/2 cup room temperature unsalted butter
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1/2 teaspoon orange oil or extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon oil or extract 
  • 1 pecan half, uncooked dried bean or King Cake Baby


  • 2 cups sifted powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon orange oil or extract 
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • Purple, green and gold sugar crystals


Combine the yeast, flour, sugar, salt, nutmeg, lemon rind in mixer bowl and add water, warm milk, butter,  egg yolks, and orange and lemon oils. Beat with dough hook on speed 1 for 2 minutes until smooth. Increase speed to 2 and continue kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic (6-8 minutes). Place the dough in a well-greased bowl. Turn once so greased surface is on top.

Cover the dough and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 1/2 hours). Deflate the dough and place on a lightly floured surface. Shape the dough into a cylinder, about 30 inches long. Place the cylinder on a buttered baking sheet. Shape into a ring, pinching ends together to seal. Place a well-greased 2-pound coffee can or shortening can in the center of the ring to maintain shape during baking. Press the King Cake Baby, pecan half or dried bean into the ring from the bottom so that it is completely hidden by the dough. Cover the ring with a towel, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove the coffee can immediately. Allow the cake to cool. For the glaze: Combine the ingredients and beat until smooth. To assemble, drizzle cake with the glaze. Sprinkle with sugar crystals, alternating colors.

Whoever gets the baby is the Mardi Gras King or Queen and has to bring the King Cake next year.

Check out my Bavarian Cream Cheese King Cake recipe, too.

Five-Grain Seeded Sourdough {Recipe}

This recipe is one I adapted from Peter Reinhart’s Basic Sourdough Bread in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.  It uses Bob’s Red Mill Five-Grain Cereal, although others have reported good results using Seven- or Ten-Grain.  It is a hearty bread that is delicious toasted and makes great sandwiches.

Five Grain Sourdough

Firm Starter

4 oz. sourdough starter
4.5 oz bread flour
1/4 cup lukewarm water


1/2 to 1 cup Bob’s Red Mill 5-Grain Cereal
1/2 cup shelled raw sunflower seeds (optional)
1/2 cup shelled raw pumpkin seeds (optional)
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup boiling water (approx.)


20.25 ounces bread flour
0.5 ounce salt
1 ½ to 1 ¾ cups lukewarm water


Day 1

1. To make firm starter, remove sourdough starter from refrigerator and allow to warm up for about 1 hour. Combine starter ingredients and knead just long enough to evenly distribute flour and sourdough starter. Spray zipper seal bag lightly with oil. Place firm starter in bag and seal. Allow to double at room temperature, approximately 4 hours. Refrigerate overnight.

2. Place cereal, seeds (if using), and salt in small bowl. Add boiling water to cover. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and allow to sit at room temperature overnight.

Day 2

3. Remove starter from refrigerator 1 hour before making dough. Combine flour and salt in large mixing bowl. Add soaker and mix well. Remove starter from zipper bag, tear into pieces, and add to flour mixture. Using large spoon or your hands, mix in enough water to bring dough together in a ball.

4. Allow dough to autolyse for 30-40 minutes. Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface and knead for 13-16 minutes, until dough passes the windowpane test. Dough should be firm but tacky, like French bread dough. Lightly oil a large bowl. Place dough in bowl, roll to coat with oil, and cover bowl with plastic wrap.

5. Ferment dough at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours or until it nearly doubles. Gently divide dough into two pieces and shape as desired. Mist dough with spray oil, cover loosely with plastic wrap or floured towel, and place in refrigerator.

Day 3 (see Note below for instructions to complete bread in 2 days)

6. Remove loaves from refrigerator 3 to 4 hours before you plan to bake them. Make sure not to overproof. When the imprint of a finger poked gently into dough springs back slowly, the dough is ready to bake.

7. Preheat oven to 500 degrees F for 45 minutes to 1 hour with baking stone and steam pan in place. Slash loaves and move carefully to baking stone. Immediately pour 3/4 cup hot water into steam pan. Close oven and lower temperature to 450 degrees F. Bake for 10 minutes, then rotate loaves to ensure even baking. Continue to bake for 10 to 20 minutes, until the loaves register 200 to 205 degrees F in the center.

8. Cool for 45 minutes before slicing.

Note: If you want to make the bread in 2 days instead of 3, after dividing, shaping, and misting the dough in step 5, cover the loaves and allow to proof at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours, then bake as directed.