Introducing “The Pig”

I’m not sure where I first saw a salt pig. It was probably on a website that sells cooking, baking, and general kitchen supplies and equipment. It seemed familiar, like I had probably seen someone using one on TV, and I immediately wanted one. But in an uncharacteristic show of restraint, I didn’t buy it.

I figured I’d see one in a store somewhere, so I could get a better look at it and decide if I really thought it would be a nice addition to my kitchen. So I looked around, and to my surprise, not only did I not find any salt pigs, I couldn’t even find anyone who knew what I was talking about. Even in kitchen and specialty stores, the clerks just stared at me like I had asked if they had any polite Frenchmen in stock.

The closest thing I found to my elusive salt pig was a two-tiered bamboo salt cellar, which has taken up residence on my counter, but still didn’t fulfill my now single-minded quest to find le porc de sel. The problem was that by the time I realized I wasn’t going to find it in a store near me, I couldn’t remember where I first saw it. I surfed around the ‘net and found a lot of salt cellars, and even a few pigs, but not like the one that had first captured my imagination.

Or was it my imagination? Had I dreamed the whole thing? Was there a salt pig like the one I was looking for, or had my quest been in vain?

Then it happened. I got a free shipping e-mail offer from one of the kitchen sites I visit and from whom I occasionally make a purchase. I wasn’t really in the market for ingredients or supplies, so I almost deleted the message. Then I remembered the pig, and figured it was worth a shot. And, lo and behold!, I found it! Not just one like it, but the very salt pig for which I had searched in vain these many months.

I supposed it goes without saying that I ordered it immediately.

Then something strange happened. In the week between when I purchased it and when the package was delivered, I started to wonder why I thought I needed a salt pig in the first place. Sure, it’s nice to have an open and readily accessible salt container at hand while cooking, but I had cooked for decades without one, so did I really need it? And would I actually use it? Maybe I wouldn’t even like it.

When it arrived, I unboxed it, being careful to save the packaging it came in, lest I decided to return it. I liked the look of it. In fact, it was nicer than it had looked online. I filled it with salt, put it on top of the stove, and soon found myself reaching for it whenever I cooked. Before long, I could hardly remember cooking or baking without it.

So now, without further adieu, patient readers, I give you “The Pig”:

Before you read this, you may not have known what a salt pig was, and you probably never thought you needed one. But I’m telling you, you want this. It’s the best invention since, well, salt.

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Pain de Mie (A Fancy Name for White Bread)

As fate would have it, as we near the end of our Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge journey, in which we have baked everything from French and Italian breads to celebration breads to breads filled with meat and cheese, for the fortieth bread in the Challenge, we hit on a very simple (some might argue too simple) white bread. The French call it pain de mie, which translates to “bread of the crumb” but is really just a fancy way of saying everyday sandwich bread.

I wasn’t as ambivalent about this bread as some BBAers, like Paul from Yumarama. In fact, I really liked it toasted with homemade jam. But I can see his point. It’s not what you expect this late in the game. This is more of a first-loaf, getting-your-feet-wet kind of bread. I know the recipes are in alphabetical order. Still, it felt like a bit of an anticlimax to be making such a basic loaf the 40th time out.

I baked this bread twice: once using variation #1 and a second time using the sponge in variation #3. I used my Pullman pan both times, although the second time I didn’t put on the lid. Here’s how the first version came out:

Note that the Pullman pan gives you a perfectly rectangular loaf, and nice, square slices of bread. Perfect for sandwiches, but not so artisanal looking.

Version #3 starts with a quick sponge. Unlike the typical preferment, the sponge is only allowed to ferment for about an hour before it is mixed into the dough. Otherwise, it is a fairly standard enriched dough. It kneaded beautifully and had a nice texture.

I didn’t divide the dough after it fermented, as the Pullman pan requires almost 3 1/2 pounds of dough per loaf.

When I made version #1, I allowed the dough to rise until it was about 1/4-inch from the lip of the pan, then I sprayed the lid with cooking oil and slid it on the pan. I began preheating the oven at that point, and baked the loaf with the lid on for about 20 minutes. I removed the lid and allowed the loaf to finish baking.

With version #3, however, I decided to use a Dutch crunch topping, which meant I couldn’t use the lid, as I was afraid the topping would all stick to the lid and probably burn. For the Dutch crunch, I used cornmeal, flour, yeast, salt, oil, and water. I brushed it on after the bread had proofed in the pan, shortly before I put the loaf in the oven.

Pain de Mie - Proofed, before Dutch Crumb

Pain de Mie with Dutch Crumb

 I baked the loaf at 350 dF for 20 minutes, turned it 180 degrees, inserted a probe thermometer, and continued baking until the internal temperature reached 187 dF.

Check out that crazy oven spring! The top of the loaf was about 1/8-inch below the top rack. And it baked over the sides of the pan quite a bit, too.

As far as taste goes, version #1 was a decent, but not remarkable, loaf of white bread. Fine for sandwiches or eating toasted with jam. Version #3 was still not an out-of-the-ballpark bread, but it was much tastier than the first version. I’m not sure whether it was the sponge, Dutch crunch, or a combination of both. I suspect they both played a role in the flavor of this bread. Again, it was a good sandwich bread and great for eating toasted with homemade jam. And it was tasty enough to eat toasted with just butter.

I will make this bread again, as I enjoy making pain de mie to use for sandwiches and toast. I’ll definitely use version #3 again. And probably Dutch crunch, too. I might try using the crunch with the lid on just to see what happens.

Stolen Stollen

The 36th recipe in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge is Stollen, a German holiday bread. Never was a bread so aptly named. But we’ll get to that in a minute. Stollen is traditionally made at Christmastime. The shape of the bread is meant to resemble a blanket in a manger. And the color (studded with candied fruit) is supposed to remind us of the gifts brought to the baby Jesus by the Magi.

Before I started this bread, I made a quick trip to the store to stock up on ingredients: candied fruit, almonds, candied citrus peel, and golden raisins. I decided to take PR’s recommendation and soak the fruit for several days before making the bread. I measure out the dried fruit, raisins, and peel (I decided to add some citrus peel); added lemon, lime, and orange oils; and then reached for the brandy.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered there was no brandy in the house. And no rum, either. It was a dark and stormy night, and I didn’t feel like running back to the store, so I decided to use something I had on hand. And the something I reached for? Scotch. Single malt scotch. Expensive single malt scotch. It’s not that I mind using expensive ingredients when I bake. I just wasn’t sure how fruit soaked in scotch would taste. But, it was what I had, so I decided to use it. After adding the whisky to the fruit mixture, I stirred it up and covered the bowl. I stirred the mixture several times a day for the next few days.

On baking day, I made the sponge. Since I don’t bake with milk, I mixed the sponge with warm water, flour, and yeast.

After an hour, it looked like this:

I mixed the dough and sponge for a few minutes in the Kitchen Aid (substituting buttermilk powder for the milk), let it rest for about 10 minutes, then added the fruit a little bit at a time. After kneading the dough for another 4 minutes, I put it in an oiled bowl to ferment for 45 minutes.

I patted the dough into a rectangle and sprinkled it with almonds, raisins, and dried fruit.

Then I rolled it into a batard and placed it on a baking sheet, curving the ends slightly.

I let the dough rise for about an hour-and-a-half, then baked it in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. I removed the loaf from the oven, turned it for even baking, then inserted a probe thermometer into the dough and let it bake for about another 25 minutes, until the internal temperature reached 190 degrees.

Then I removed the bread from the oven and immediately brushed it with vegetable oil.

And finally sprinkled it liberally with two layers of powdered sugar.

I went off to do something else for an hour or so while the bread cooled. After about half an hour, I heard my daughters laughing and yelling at the dog (never a good sign), and I walked into the dining room to see Bailey standing on the table, licking all the powdered sugar off the bread. Here’s what it looked like when he was done:

I will say that dog saliva gives the bread a nice shine. Unfortunately, it’s not too appetizing. My mom and I were the only ones brave enough to try it (without the top crust). It had a really good flavor from the spices and nuts. And the fruit in whisky wa s interesting combination. The scotch mellowed a bit with the soaking and baking, but it still had the distinct taste of the bog where it was produced and the peat harvested there.

It really was a beautiful bread, and had it not been a sugar lick for the dog, I think it might have made an excellent bread pudding.

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.

A Tale of Two (Make that Three) Brioches

When I read about the brioche variations, there was little doubt which one I would choose.  The “Rich Man’s Brioche”, in addition to its name, has the draw of containing a full pound of butter, almost 90% in terms of baker’s percentages.  But if I was going to make such a decadent loaf of bread, I had to do it right.  This meant ordering brioche molds. 

As I looked at the BBA pictures, I realized I already owned a few molds, although when I bought them I had no idea what they were.  I picked them up at a cooking store because I thought they were the perfect size for measuring dry ingredients like yeast and salt on my scale.  I have two sizes of molds, very small and sort of medium-smallish.  I knew these would not be enough for baking the brioche, so I found some online to order.  I ordered a set of four 2 1/2-inch molds, which I think are probably about the same size as my medium-smallish ones; and a 6 1/2-inch mold, to make a loaf (kind of like the one pictured in BBA).

My molds are on the way, but I got to the weekend and decided I had to bake.  I was reading the brioche recipes again and noted that PR describes the Poor Man’s Brioche as making a good pain de mie.  Since I like to bake our sandwich bread, hadn’t used my Pullman pan in a few weeks, and figured it would make killer bread pudding, I decided to go ahead and make the Poor Man’s version this weekend and the Rich Man’s when my pans arrive.

In making the two versions, I was interested in comparing a few things.  First and foremost, the taste.  I wanted to know just how much that extra 3/4 pound of butter would do for the flavor.  And second, I was interested to see the difference in how the doughs handle, as the recipe indicates that the Rich dough can be challenging to handle, while the Poor version is more like French bread dough.

Poor Man’s Brioche

I mixed the Poor Man’s Brioche dough following the BBA recipe, with the exception of the milk.  My milk was bad, so I used water for the milk in the sponge and added powdered milk with the dry ingredients.  The dough was beautiful.  The eggs gave it a rich, golden color, even before adding the butter.  It needed a bit of extra flour during the kneading stage (I kneaded on low speed in my Kitchen Aid Artisan mixer), and the dough was silky and smooth by the end of the kneading period, and much more like the bread dough I am used to than the Rich Man’s dough would turn out (more on that below).  It rose beautifully and right on schedule.

Brioche en Bucket

I used three of my brioche molds and the Pullman pan.  I could tell right away that the dough would not fill the Pullman when it rose and baked, but I decided to use it anyway. 

Buncha Brioche Dough

After proofing, I baked the brioche molds at 400 dF for about 15 minutes.  They looked and smelled fantastic.  Two of them even lived to cool.  Then I baked the loaf at 350 dF for about 40 minutes, until it registered 190 dF on my instant-read thermometer. Since I knew it wouldn’t fill the pan, I left the lid off. The loaves were beautiful.  I especially liked the shiny top crust that the egg wash gave them. 

Brioche and Friends

As for the flavor, the small loaves were a bit dry; perhaps they should have come out of the oven sooner.  The pain de mie loaf was delicious.  Tasting it, I could see how some people described it as “tasting a sweet, buttery cloud”. But alas, it did not live to be sandwich bread, as on the first taste, it screamed out to be made into French toast and bread pudding.  So I cut some thick slices for bread pudding (see the N’awlins Bread Pudding post) and some thinner slices, which I used to make some of the best French toast ever.

Brioche French Toast

I enjoyed this bread more as French toast and bread pudding than just by the slice.  I might make it again for bread pudding, and I am interested in trying it with brie en croute.  But I wouldn’t make it with the intention of using as a sandwich loaf.  My standard pain de mie recipes (white and whole grain) are much better suited for that.

Rich Man’s Brioche

My brioche molds arrived mid-week, so I started the Rich Man’s Brioche dough on Friday evening.  We were planning to go away for most of Saturday, but I gathered from the recipe that when it comes to chilling this dough, longer is better.  

A few things really stand out about this recipe.  First, it calls for a lot of yeast (1 tablespoon instant).  And of course it calls for a perverse amount of butter (one full pound).  I was also surprised to realize that the dough is not kneaded.  Instead, it is mixed, either with the paddle attachment on your mixer (as I did it) or with a spoon.  Finally, I got the impression that this would not be your standard French bread-type dough, but would be much more slack.

I mixed the sponge according to the BBA recipe, then added the eggs (all 5 of them!) and mixed well.  I mixed in the dry ingredients (still using the paddle attachment), then allowed the dough to rest for 5 minutes.  I scraped down the dough, then added one stick of butter and mixed for a minute or so on speed 4.  I repeated the scraping, adding butter, and mixing for each stick of butter.  Then I scraped the bowl and mixed with the paddle attachment on speed 4 for about 6 minutes, stopping to scrape down the dough two or three times.  The dough was very soft and somewhat gooey.

A note on ingredients.  The butter and eggs should be at room temperature.  I always set them out the night before I plan to bake to make sure they are really room temp.  There is nothing worse than waiting for ingredients to warm up when you want to bake!

Mixing Rich Brioche in KA

When I was finished mixing, it was the strangest dough.  It’s difficult to describe the consistency of this dough, but I would say it was almost what you might expect to get if you mixed cake batter and sugar cookie dough.  It was very close to the consistency of my 100% hydration sourdough starter.

Rich Brioche Dough in Bowl

The directions said to put the dough on a baking sheet, but I decided it might keep its shape better in an 8×8 baking pan, so that’s what I used.

Rich Brioche Dough in Le Crueset

I sprayed the parchment with spray oil before adding the dough, and sprayed the top of the dough and my plastic wrap as well.  Then I put the dough in the fridge for a nice, long cool down.

I didn’t get around to baking on Saturday, so I pulled the dough out Sunday morning.  It really rose in the refrigertor.  I would say it almost doubled in size.

Rich Brioche - Risen

PR says to keep the dough very cold, so I cut off a chunk and put the rest back in the fridge.

Cutting Rich Man's Brioche Dough

If I thought the consistency of the dough was strange before, this really took the cake (or should I say, butter?).  The book warned that this was not an easy dough to work with, and indeed it was strange — slippery, but quite mailable.  It felt like shaping cold butter.  I worked quickly, so as not to let the dough get too warm.  From the first chunk I measured 2.5 oz pieces, which I shaped into brioche a tetes for my small molds.  Then I got the dough back out and measured out a one pound chunk for my large mold.  The rest (about 14.5 oz) I put in a standard loaf pan.

Rich Man's - Ready to Proof

I let the dough proof for about two hours, then I brushed the small brioches with egg wash and preheated the oven to 400 dF.  The small loaves took about 20 minutes to bake, and I prepared the larger loaves while the smaller ones were in the oven.  When the small loaves were done baking, I reduced the oven to 350 dF for the large loaves, which I baked for 35 minutes.

See below for the pictures of the final product.  I really liked this bread.  It was rich (bien sur!), with a dense, moist crumb.  It didn’t need any butter and was delicious with orange marmalade.  Will I make it again?  Read on….

Middle-Class Brioche

I hadn’t planned on making all three “classes” of brioche; but so many people were posting about how much they liked the middle-class version that I decided to give it a try.  I mixed up the dough while the Rich Man’s Brioche was proofing.  It was really similar in consistency to the Rich version, but not quite as gooey.  The Middle Class dough was still quite soft, but it felt a bit more like traditional bread dough than the Rich Man’s dough.  I used the same 8×8 pan to bulk ferment the dough.

Middle Class - Ready for Fridge

It didn’t rise quite as much as the Rich Man’s Brioche, but I don’t know if that was a difference in the dough or because it only bulk fermented for about 5 hours.  It definitely rose, though, and looked like it was ready to go.

Middle Class - Risen

I measured and shaped the dough exactly the same as the Rich version and let the dough proof for about the same amount of time.  Here is the dough before and after proofing.

Middle Class - Shaped and Ready for ProofingMiddle Class - Ready to Bake

Again, I baked the Middle-Class loaves as I had the Rich Man’s version, baking the small brioches first, then the larger loaves.  One thing that really surprised me was the oven spring.  Although the dough hadn’t risen as much during the bulk ferment, it looked about the same when it went into the oven.  But here’s what it looked like coming out:

Middle Class Brioche with First Class Oven Spring!

Here are the Rich Man’s loaves (on the left), along with the Middle-Class loaves.  They both came out beautifully, but the Middle-Class loaves won out on oven spring.

All the Pretty Brioches

The crumb looked almost exactly the same (Rich is on the left).

Crumby Crumb Picture

So, how about the taste?  The Middle-Class Brioche was absolutely delicious!  Again, I tried it plain and with marmalade and loved it both ways.  And imagine my surprise when I did a side-by-side comparison of the Rich and Middle-Class breads:  I actually preferred the Middle-Class version!  I thought it tasted richer and more buttery than the Rich Man’s version. 

In the end, I was glad to have tried all three versions.  And I will definitely make the Middle-Class version again (and again, and again).  The Rich bread was really delicious; but for the extra butter and the difficulty working the dough, I think I’ll stick with the Middle Class.  And the Poor Man’s version?  I’d like to try that again to use for brie en croute, as PR recommends.  And I’d bake it just to make bread pudding and French toast with it any day.