28 September 2010

Lessons in Levain

Today I'm making a small batch of dough in preparation for the raisin contest.  I had to mix my starters at home last night.  The poolish and levain are in clear plastic container which allow one to see the signs of fermentation.  I thought Josie might be interested so I called it to my two year old's attention.
Me: "Look at the little bubbles, Jos, that means it's growing."

Josie: "Little bubbles?  For me?"

Me: "It's for the bread.  Tomorrow morning we'll have big bubbles and then we know it's ready."

Josie: "Big bubbles!!!  And we mix it!"

Me: "Yeah, we mix it and it makes the bread grow"

Josie: "Yeah, bread for me.  Want to smell it, Mommy."

I opened the lid on the levain and Josie take a sniff.  She wrinkled her nose a little but then she cheered.

Josie: "Yummy, Mommy.  Want to mix the bread, too."

A girl after my own heart!!!

26 September 2010

America's Best Raisin Bread

The contest application was sitting on my desk for weeks.  As least once a day, I thumbed through it, read the rules, re-read the rules and searched for inspiration.  The sales team was requesting a "muesli" bread, whatever that is.  "If the Muesli Bread includes raisins, maybe it can crossover into a contest entry," they said.  It went beyond a daily glance of the contest entry form, it was listed on my priority list (which I do not create, therefor it must actually be a legitimate priority and not just something I would like to get to today...this week...this month....)

I used my ride home from work to think of the possibilities.  I knew I wanted lots of healthy bits and lots of texture using pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, oats, bran and a variety of flours.  I would add more flavor with a wheat/rye levain and a poolish starter.  Finally, the raisins would have to be big, juicy and rustic. 

The bread:
After brainstorming for a few days, I came up with a formula and put it to the test.  I shaped a few dozen loaves and I was left with a mass of dough that didn't weigh enough to put into the pocket divider.  I didn't want to throw it away so I dumped it onto the bench, covered it in oats and cut it into rough strips.  I twisted the strips which created a spiral of oats down the loaf. 

Once the samples were baked, I fell in love with the twists and so did everyone else.  The flavor and texture were exactly the eating experience I was hoping to create.  The twisted sticks had a unique character that I adored.  After determining that American's don't really know what muesli is (I don't know what muesli is), the bread was named "Granola Twist."

The contest:
After a little more testing, I filled out the entry form.  My friend Hana took beautiful photos of my loaves to enclose with the application.  I licked the stamp and crossed my fingers!!!

Last week, I got a call from the California Raisin Board telling me I made the finals.  I immediately started calling everyone who helped me get this bread from idea to product but it was Yom Kippur and none of my friends were answering.  I had to sit on the news all weekend before anyone could rejoice with me!!!

The Bake-Off:
On October 14th, I fly to Manhattan Kansas to bake off my bread alongside the other nine finalists.  Three of us will be selected and the winners get to spend a week in Napa Valley touring the California wine country.  My friends at The Patisserie in Milford, PA are donating bakery space to the cause by letting me run a test in their kitchen this week. 

Wish me luck!!!!

15 September 2010

I'll Bring the Bread

My friend Alex recently celebrated her marriage to Ciaran at her childhood home in Sumner, Maine.  Alex and Ciaran were wed in city hall some months ago but they wanted to have a party to share the even with their friends and families.  We gorged ourselves on everything from whole roasted pig to gourmet lobster spring rolls to lemon poppy seed cupcakes. The wedding guests spent the weekend in a tent community that would put the Boy Scouts of America to shame.

Kevin and I almost didn't make it to Maine.  If we didn't have a minivan full of bread and cupcakes we would have probably turned back.  It was to be our first night spent away from the kids. In the chaos of our toy infested home, we couldn't find the battery charger for our camera.  We stopped at the store on the way out of town to buy a cheap replacement camera only to find out our mortgage check  cleared from our bank account a couple days earlier than I anticipated...our debit card was declined and we had no back-up plan.  

Kevin's boss was supposed to pay him on the Thursday before our trip but he never showed with the check (typical in the construction business).  Even though I was certain he wouldn't answer his phone at 8am on Saturday morning, Kevin called to see if we could get his pay.  Good news - he answered and he had the check for us.  Bad news - we had to drive 2 hours in the wrong direction to get it.  

At least we found out about our fiscal irresponsibility before we emptied our gas tank.  We would have been stranded in New Hampshire, calling the bride before her big day with an SOS.

We made it to Maine a few, ten,  hours later with the bread and the cupcakes in tow.  It was a little wet, a little cold but a lot of fun.  

04 September 2010

Ultra? Maybe. Super? No Way!

Did you ever wonder how a box of Fruit Loops cereal can be slapped with a Whole Grain Council seal of approval?  Burger King's buns are WGC approved too.  Kellogs and Burger King are using "ultragrain flour" or "white wheat flour" in these products.  Ultragrain was first developed by ConAgra Mills (it has since been marketed as "white wheat flour" by other millers).  Here's what they have to say about the product:

"ConAgra Mills, the maker of Ultragrain, developed a patented technology that delivers whole grain flour with the same particle size as traditional refined white flour. The Ultragrain milling process retains the fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients concentrated within the bran and germ, while yielding whole grain wheat flour with a taste, ultrasmooth texture and appearance more similar to traditional refined white flour." 

I have a different take.  I try not to be too anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) because I would drive myself insane worrying about the repercussions of this process.  However, this is the best example of how a GMO directly affects me and my family.  Ultragrain flour comes from an entirely different plant than whole wheat flour...it's more than just the milling.

When this product was new to the market, I trained with the ConAgra technology rep on how to use Ultragrain flour to make bread.   The flour requires a significant autolyse time.  Autolyse is a time during which the flour and water are slightly mixed and allowed to rest.  The flour sucks up as much of the water as it can.  Because of this intense absorption, the final mix time is decreased and the dough is super hydrated yet still easy to work with.  Lots of water = open cell structure = big air holes = yum!  Without this autolyse, Ultragrain will start to break down the dough.  It's very finiky.  In addition to the autolyse, the flour behaves a little like a rye flour in the mixer.  If it is over-mixed it will turn gummy and good structure will never be achieved.

After doing signifigant market research, ConAgra determined that Ultragrain flour was undetectable by the average consumer up to 30% of the flour weight.  This means Kellogs can use 70% white flour and 30% ultragrain flour in their Fruit Loops and no one will be the wiser.   Funny, 30% is the minimum amount of whole grains needed in the dough to get the WGC seal of approval.  I'm no conspiracy theorist but I may be onto something here.

Ultragrain flour has a very distinct taste.  It's a little bitter and a little I-can't-put-my-finger-on-it.  I can sniff out ultragrain flour faster than a pig can find a truffle.  Maybe it's because I know it's there...it's everywhere.  Cereals, burger buns, Sara Lee pound cake, everyone is jumping on the whole grain band wagon.  These companies are trying to save Americans from themselves by sneaking good-for-yous into previously bad-for-you stuff, like Fruit Loops.  The Whole Grain Council doesn't care how much sugar you put on a product to mask the off-putting flavor of the ultragrain flour as long as each serving has 8 grams of whole grain.

That big grocery store chain I used to work for wants to do away with white bread all together.  A directive came down from the very top to make all breads using whole grains, even the baguettes.  The first bread they switched over was the basic Italian loaf, a huge seller.  They did not tell the customers they changed the bread they loved only that it now contains 1 serving of whole grains per slice.  A couple weeks ago, I was standing next to the bread counter and I overheard a woman asking for her Italian bread back "I used to buy 4 loaves a week."  So much for undetectible.

My baker friend, the mad scientist behind the whole grain switch, is trying to create a sweet potato brioche using the ultragrain flour.  I said yuck, he said if there's enough butter and sugar in the dough, it can't be bad.  Maybe he's on to something or maybe he could join forces with the fruit loop gang.  I tried his sweet potato bread and it was pretty tastey except for that noticably ultragrain aftertaste.

I know I'm not the typical American bread consumer but if I want wheat bread, I want wheat bread.  I want to see the flecks of bran and taste the nuttiness of the flour.  In the same thought, if I want white bread, I want white bread.  There is a time and a place for everything.  This whole scenario creates the same image for me as does the 300 pound woman ordering "diet" coke at the McDonald's drive thru.

03 September 2010

Butterless Brioche

I've been developing a brioche bun for one of our customers.  The first sample I sent was a formula based on the Challah formula which is currently in production.  I want to eliminate the frustrations for myself as well as the mixing team so I went with a concept they are already very familiar with.  I took the basic Challah dough and I added gobs of butter, 30% of the flour weight to be exact.  When the customer received the samples they requested the buns be richer, sweeter, and more yellow in color.  The customer also told advised, we are competing against La Brea Bakery's brioche buns.

I went back to my formula and made a few changes: more sugar, more eggs, little here, little there.   It's kinda like making a pot of soup only not at all.  While I'm busy working on the new formula, I was given a sample of the La Brea Brioche bun.  I was expecting to be blown away.  I was not expecting to play "Where's Waldo" with the ingredient label when trying to locate the butter.  Not only is butter missing from the list of ingredients but these buns are totally fat free.  No wonder the customer can get a cheaper version from a competitor, butter is expensive and no butter is absolutely free.  Aside from the lack of butter, the buns tasted like the $.99 special, grocery-store-branded buns I bought for our last picnic.  Sorry, I got a little carried away with myself.  I didn't actually buy the grocery store buns, I made them and even my butter-less buns had more flavor than the La Brea Brioche.

How is it possible to sell butter-less brioche?  There are rules for labeling whole grain products and for labeling nutrient contents but I don't think there is any governing body watching out for the butter factor.  Where are the butter lobbiests?  Why aren't they up in arms about this?  I stopped breathing for a few seconds after I read the La Brea label.  Screw the whole grain servings, I want to know how many grams of butter I'm ingesting with each slice and it better be in the triple digits.