Scoring bread

One of my favorite parts of baking bread is scoring. It’s like a baker’s signature — a special touch showing the loaf was made with love by hand. But it goes beyond just looks — proper scoring controls the way bread expands in the oven. Basically, you’re creating weak spots in the dough where the steam will escape (otherwise it’ll just burst out of any weak spots created during shaping). An unscored loaf that’s allowed to burst at will has a certain rustic loveliness, but usually I opt to do a little playing with sharp objects because it’s just so fun!

Like every other part of bread baking, scoring takes practice and it can take awhile to get comfortable with it — especially when you just get maybe one or two chances to try it each week. I’m certainly no scoring expert, but I’ve definitely seen my designs improve after learning a few tricks over the months.

Start with cold dough

It is much easier to score dough that is well chilled. The surface is firmer and less fragile. I typically proof my loaves overnight, so this isn’t a problem. If you’re proofing at room temperature, try sticking your loaf in the fridge (I’ve heard some folks use the freezer too) when it’s nearly ready for at least half an hour. Additionally, I like to uncover my loaves (and keep them in the fridge) while the oven is preheating. This dries out the surface just a little, which also helps make cleaner cuts.

Always use a sharp blade

There are several different tools you can use to score, but my favorite by far is the traditional lame. I like this Mure & Peyrot lame because it’s inexpensive and you can easily rotate and change out the razor blade. I usually flip or switch out the blade every few loaves so I’m always working with a really sharp razor. If you use a dull razor your blade is more likely to snag and you won’t get a nice, sharp design. Additionally, I like to dip my blade in water right before scoring as this seems to help the blade move more smoothly as well. If I’m doing a lot of cuts, I’ll dip every line or so just to clean off any flour or residue that the blade might pick up.

Dust with rice flour

This is optional, but if you’d like your design to stand out, use a small sieve to dust your loaf evenly with a thin layer of rice flour before scoring. This will create contrast, and rice flour has a high burning point so your loaf won’t taste like burnt flour. You can see an example of me dusting a loaf (and doing a single score) in this Instagram video.

Score according to the dough

I don’t usually plan my scores out ahead of time; instead, I try to judge what type of score will best suit the dough. For example, if I have a lot of add-ins like nuts and dried fruit, I’ll usually opt for a simple score like a single slash. Same thing if the dough feels especially weak — perhaps due to high hydration or overproofing (too many cuts can cause these loaves to collapse and spread).

If the dough is well developed and proofed, it can handle more intricate scoring. While I don’t have a signature score yet, I tend to favor a large slash with some type of leaf pattern. I like the contrast of the large and small cuts, and I love the way the leaf pattern blooms in the oven. This Instagram video shows me doing both a large slash and some leaf pattern work.

Know your angle

If you’re trying to get ears, hold the blade at a shallow angle (about 40-45 degrees) to the dough and score about 1/4″ deep. If you’re not, hold the blade perpendicular to the dough. The amount of steam you can generate in your oven coupled with the development of your dough will also affect how well your cuts bloom.

Move decisively

My scores turn out best when I move quickly and, honestly, don’t think about it too much. Trust me, the dough can sense your fear and if you are tentative with your cuts your blade is more likely to snag. Try to keep your wrist still as you move the blade, and think in terms of long lines rather than individual cuts when scoring things like leaf patterns. When you’re first starting out, it’s helpful to hold the lame closer to the blade (like choking up on a bat) as you’ll have better control. As you get more used to scoring you’ll figure out a position that’s comfortable for you.

Sourdough Hot Cross Buns

Confession: I’ve never had a “real” hot cross bun. The only hot cross buns I grew up with were the ones mentioned in the children’s song. My husband, on the other hand, has bad memories of overly-spiced, dense hot cross buns riddled with candied peel and wasn’t very enthusiastic when I mentioned I wanted to make some. Mission: make a sourdough hot cross bun my husband would eat happily, not just because he’s married to an experimental baker.

I started out trying to stay true to the idea of a traditional HCB: spiced dough with a hint of citrus (but no peel, please and thank you). I soaked dried figs and raisins in warmed orange juice and added some orange zest and my two favorite spices: cinnamon and cardamom. Personally I loved this combo — for my tastes, this was the perfect amount of spice and touch of citrus. However, DH is more of a raisins-only kind of guy; so I’ve included adjustments if you / your family prefers less spice in their bun. Of course, feel free to play around with your own favorite mix-ins. I think cranberries or dried sour cherries would be lovely, as would some toasted walnuts or pecans!

The base recipe for these buns is my trusty sourdough Hokkaido milk bread dough. When mixed properly, this dough produces beautifully fluffy, soft bread and is mild enough to adapt to many flavor combinations. I’ve been experimenting a tad with this recipe, and here are a few tips for handling this versatile dough:

  • When using a stiff starter you have some leeway in when you can use it (the peak/ripe stage is longer than with a liquid levain), but when making a sweet bread I like to use it as soon as it has reached peak and has just started to flatten (for me this is about 5-6 hours). I find there is no discernible sourdough tang in the final product, provided the seed starter is fresh. I’ve used the starter 10-12 hours after making and it’s still fine, but I do notice more of a tang.
  • In the past I’ve mixed this dough by hand, but recently I’ve had the use of the stand mixer and have been testing it out with this dough. Bottom line: it’s much faster and neater to mix this in a stand mixer (I’ve included some approximate timings below). However, it’s definitely helpful to know how to mix enriched doughs like this by hand, and it can teach you a lot about dough development. (It’s also oddly therapeutic.) So if you don’t have a stand mixer, don’t let it stop you — try it by hand!
  • The final proof time is long, no getting around it. Typically it takes me a minimum of 5 hours, more often 6+, at normal room temperature. Don’t rush this step or your bread will not be as fluffy as it could be, trust me! (Honestly I don’t think I’ve ever over-proofed this dough…) However, the long final proof actually works out pretty well for shaping before bed and baking off fresh buns in the morning — just put your shaped buns in a cooler area of your house if you’re going to be leaving them for more than 6 hours.

If you want to make these to bake off Easter (or any other) morning, I recommend the following schedule:

Day One:

  • 7:00am: Mix stiff starter
  • 1:00pm: Start mixing final dough
  • 4:30pm: Put dough in fridge to finish bulk proofing
  • 10:30pm: Remove dough from fridge, shape, give first coat of egg wash; proof at room temperature overnight

Day Two:

  • 6:30am: Preheat oven, make topping
  • 7:00am: Egg wash buns again, pipe topping, bake
  • 7:05am: Watch 24 hours of work get devoured in 2 minutes

Sourdough Hot Cross Buns

Makes 12

Levain

  • 18g starter (100% hydration)
  • 31g milk
  • 57g bread flour
  • Mix and ferment at room temperature for about 6 hours, or until puffed and with a slightly flattened dome. You should see large bubbles if you pull back the top. When using a stiff starter you have a bit more leeway in when you can use it (the peak stage is longer than with a liquid levain), but when making a sweet bread I like to use it as soon as it has reached peak and has just started to flatten. I find there is no discernible sourdough tang in the final product, provided the seed starter is fresh.

Final dough

  • All of the starter
  • 284g bread/AP flour
  • 46g sugar
  • 52g butter, room temperature
  • 21g milk powder
  • 53g egg (about 1 large), room temperature
  • 7g salt
  • 104g milk, room temperature
  • 88g cream, room temperature
  • 90g raisins and/or figs, soaked for at least one hour in the juice of one orange OR hot water + 1 tsp vanilla, drained, and patted dry
  • Zest of one orange (optional)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cardamom (optional, preferably freshly ground) or freshly grated nutmeg

Topping

  • 53g cake flour
  • 60g butter, room temperature
  • 30 gm caster sugar
  • 1 egg, whisked with a splash of milk
  • Simple syrup or warm honey, for glazing

Method:

  1. Mix together all final dough ingredients except the salt, butter, fruit, zest, and spices until just combined. Cover and autolyse (rest) for 60 minutes.
  2. Add salt, and knead dough until gluten is moderately developed (3-5 minutes on speed 3 in a stand mixer). The dough will start out sticky and rough but should gradually come together and feel quite smooth and stretchy. Add butter a tablespoon at a time, making sure each tablespoon is incorporated before adding the next. Continue kneading until the gluten is very well developed and the dough passes the windowpane test as demonstrated here. The dough should be smooth and supple (and quite lovely to handle!). This will take quite some time, especially if done by hand (it generally takes about 10-15 minutes at speed 3 in a stand mixer). Consider it your arm workout for the day!
  3. Gently fold in the dried fruit, zest (if using), and spices until just incorporated (I prefer to do this by hand, even if mixing the dough with a stand mixer).
  4. Transfer to a clean bowl, cover, and bulk rise at room temperature for 2 hours. The dough will be noticeably expanded, but not doubled. Fold, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight (or for at least 6 hours).
  5. Take the dough out and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Divide into 12 equal pieces (roughly 70g each) and rest for about 30 minutes, covered by lightly oiled plastic, to take off the chill.
  6. Shape into buns. You can form each piece into a tight round; or use a lightly floured rolling pin to roll each piece into an oval shape, roll up like a jelly roll, then roll along the seam and roll up again like a jelly roll (I prefer the latter method). Place formed buns on a parchment or Silpat-lined baking sheet about an inch apart. (It’s fine if they grow into each other slightly as this will make piping the crosses easier.) Brush the buns lightly with egg wash, then cover the pan with lightly oiled plastic and allow to rise at room temperature until puffed and about doubled in size (this usually takes 5-8 hours, depending on the temperature — see notes above).
  7. When the buns are almost done proofing, preheat the oven to 400F. Prepare the topping by mixing together the beating together the butter and sugar until well combined, then sifting in the cake flour and mixing until it forms a paste. Transfer to a piping bag or small Ziplock bag with the tip snipped off.
  8. Brush the top of each bun with a second coat of egg wash. Pipe crosses on the top of each bun (if they’ve grown into each other, just pipe long lines instead of individual crosses).
  9. Bake for about 20 minutes, rotating the pan halfway, or until nicely browned and hollow-sounding when tapped on the bottom. About 5 minutes before the buns are done, brush with a coat of simple syrup or warmed honey; then return to the oven until finished. Brush with a second coat of glaze once the buns are finished but still warm.

So you want to bake with sourdough

Ever since seriously starting my sourdough journey about nine months ago and quasi-journaling my progress on Instagram (and on this site), I’ve gotten a number of questions about how to get started as a home sourdough baker. I’ve listed some tips along with several of my favorite books and sites in a previous blog entry, but I wanted to follow up with a few more ideas now that I have a few more loaves under my belt, in hopes that it’ll help all the hopeful sourdough bakers out there.

Commit to baking with sourdough at least once a week.

If you’re really serious about wanting to learn how to use sourdough in your baking, there is no substitute for just doing it. I had my starter lurking in the fridge for a couple of years before I really started using it; and it wasn’t until I started baking with it regularly that I saw any improvement in my breads. This sounds stupidly simple; but if you’ve ever tried to start exercising or learn any new skill, you know it’s harder than it sounds. So do what you need to do — make a goal, start a journal, have someone ping you once a week to ask what you’re making — and just start doing it. (One of the benefits of this is that you’ll be forced to feed your starter; and a fed starter = happy starter = better end product, so everyone wins.)

Invest in a few tools, but don’t break the bank.

One of the joys of bread baking is that, at the core, it’s very simple. The only ingredients you really need are flour, water, salt, and yeast (in our case, wild). When you’re first starting out, you don’t need fancy equipment or flours. There are a few essentials, for sure: a good bench scraper, a digital scale, and a working oven. If you’re wanting to make crusty hearth breads, a pizza stone or dutch oven is super handy. Beyond that, you can survive for awhile. As you get more experienced, you’ll learn the aspects of your bread you want to improve and can invest in the tools needed for that (i.e. a lame, a digital thermometer, and bannetons). But I’d encourage anyone just beginning to start simple and work on fundamentals like proper fermentation/dough development and shaping, because all the fancy equipment in the world won’t improve your bread if you’re not working on these skills (I still feel like I have a long ways to go in these areas!).

Ask lots of questions.

If you start getting even the tiniest bit into sourdough you will quickly learn that you’ve entered what can be a very nerdy world. It’s also an extremely welcoming world where bakers are generally quite happy to share the knowledge they’ve spent hours acquiring. You’ll find plenty of forums and websites online (I’ve listed some of my favorites here), as well as many Instagram accounts where people are quite detailed about their baking philosophies and thought processes. Do your due diligence and try to figure out the answers through your own research and experimentation, but also don’t be shy — ask if you really don’t understand something or can’t figure out what’s going wrong.

Work sourdough into your schedule — not the other way around.

While I recommend following recipes closely the first several times (particularly when it comes to fermentation times, always knowing that your environment can affect timings greatly), there will undoubtedly come a time when you want to make bread according to your schedule, not a recipe’s. This is where you’ll have to sit down and figure out when you want your bread to be ready and how to get there. Sometimes it’s as simple as leaving your shaped loaf in the fridge until you want to bake it, but often you will have to be a little more nuanced than that. Learning your starter’s behavior is a big step towards scheduling freedom, so I recommend starting there. Then get to know the “sweet spots” in your environment (usually a nice warm corner or your turned-off oven with the pilot light on) and make note of the approximate fermentation times for your loaves. Once you have a baseline, you can manipulate your temperatures (to a certain degree) to speed/slow the process down. This takes considerable trial and error, but once you get a hang of manipulating times and temperatures to bake when you want, you’ll be much more likely to make sourdough a regular part of your life.

Ready to get started?

Here are a few recipes on this site to get you going!

Happy baking!

An everyday sourdough loaf

everyday sourdough

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how music taught me to bake bread. Since that time, sourdough baking has wormed its way into our everyday life. I bake bread two or three times a week; sometimes I’ll include sourdough in pancakes, crackers, tortillas, pie crust, or even cake. Partially it’s thanks to my son, who absolutely loves bread and wakes up almost every morning asking for it; partially it’s because it’s just so fun! I find bread especially satisfying to make because, at the root, it’s a very simple product: just flour, water, and salt (and your wild yeast). Watching these few ingredients transform into a delicious, nutritious loaf is one of life’s little pleasures. And once you start exploring different types of flours and grains, you realize that there are so many possibilities even with these limited ingredients! However, today’s recipe is for a simple, ordinary, everyday sourdough loaf. It’s versatile (I love it smeared with peanut butter or as a base for fancier toast toppings), and it uses ingredients I normally have stocked in my kitchen.

But before we get on to the recipe, I wanted to answer one of the questions I get fairly often: “How do you fit sourdough bread baking into your day, especially with a little kid?” When you first start baking with sourdough, admittedly it can seem a little overwhelming. Recipes look complicated, and the time schedule seems restricting. But I actually think that making bread is one of the most doable baking hobbies you can undertake with a small child. The actual hands-on time is quite small:

  • Preparing the starter (2 minutes)
  • Mixing the loaf (5-10 minutes)
  • Folding the loaf (less than 1 minute per fold)
  • Shaping the loaf (5 minutes)
  • Scoring and baking the loaf (about an hour, though most of this time is just waiting for the bread to bake)

I usually plan my bakes on days when I know I’ll be around home, but I’m also a big believer in not letting a bread’s schedule run your life. So here are some things to keep in mind when fitting bread-baking into a busy day.

  1. Temperature plays a huge factor in rising times. Warmer temperature: faster rise; cooler temperature: slower rise. I do most of my bulk-proofing in a cozy little corner of my kitchen, and I know a typical loaf like the recipe below takes about 3.5-4 hours to bulk ferment. If I want to slow this down, I’ll put the loaf in a cooler part of the house to ferment. You can also play around with refrigeration for part of the bulk fermentation; it’s not something I do often but I know many bakers use this method successfully. On the flip side, if you find your loaf is sluggish, try moving it somewhere warmer (the oven with the light on is a good place), or try mixing your loaf with slightly warmer water. You don’t want to get your dough too warm, though — somewhere around 78-82F is a pretty happy place.
  2. It’s not a big deal if you miss a fold. There are often times when an appointment runs late and I don’t get the planned number of folds in/fold at the schedule I intended. No biggie. As long as your dough is strong and fermented enough by the end of bulk fermentation, you and your bread will be fine.
  3. Bake often. Familiarity aids speed. I use my starter fairly often, so I have a daily routine of feeding and am familiar with its fermentation schedule. This helps me know approximately when it’ll be ready to use and my rising times are pretty consistent because my starter is healthy. Plus, baking often helps me be able to judge more accurately how fermentation is progressing and whether I need to manipulate it depending on that day’s schedule.

OK, enough talking and on to the recipe!

This is a basic everyday loaf I’ve been playing around with for a few weeks. I wanted a versatile bread with a decent amount of whole grains for flavor and nutrition. At 30% whole wheat, this bread is hearty but still quite soft and light, thanks to a decent amount of water and a touch of oil and honey. It’s stays fresh for several days and makes some fine toast. I’ve used different types of whole wheat with this formula — red fife, stoneground, sprouted — and they have all worked fine (you may need to adjust the water amount to suit your flour). It’s an everyday loaf; use what you have lying around!

Other news:
I was honored to be interviewed for a Reader’s Digest article about smartphone photography for Instagram. Check out the article for some of my everyday tricks, plus advice from some actual photographers!

everyday sourdough - crumb

everyday sourdough - half

everyday sourdough - boule

An everyday sourdough loaf

Makes one ~750g loaf

Ingredients

  • 260g Bread/AP flour — I usually use a mixture, but a slightly higher amount of bread (70%)
  • 111g Whole Wheat flour (30%)
  • 304g Water — reserve about 50g for mixing (82%)
  • 67g Mature, Ripe Levain @ 100% hydration (18%)
  • 8g Salt (2.2%)
  • 15g olive oil (4%)
  • 15g honey (4%)

Method

  1. Mix together the flours and water (reserve 50g for mixing later) and autolyse (rest) for 1-3 hours, covered with a tea towel.
  2. Add the mature starter and about half the reserved water and mix until the starter is incorporated. Rest for 20 minutes.
  3. Add the salt and pinch in. If the dough feels like it can handle it, add in the remaining reserved water and mix to combine. Add the oil and honey and pinch in to combine thoroughly. If you did a long autolyse, the dough should be decently strong at this point and you shouldn’t need to mix too much (maybe 1-2 minutes). If it feels weak, do a couple minutes of stretch and fold or slap and fold so the dough is moderately developed. It will continue to strengthen through bulk so it doesn’t need to be smooth at this point. Transfer the dough to a clean and lightly oiled container and cover with a clean tea towel.
  4. Bulk ferment in a warm place for 3-4 hours with stretch and folds every half hour for the first 1-2 hours. If after the second set of folds the dough seems quite strong, skip the last two folds and let the dough sit for the rest of bulk. Bulk fermentation is done when the dough has increased by 30-50%, you can see fermentation bubbles along the bottom and sides of the container, and the edges are domed where the dough meets the container.
  5. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and gently preshape into a round. Cover with a bowl or lightly oiled plastic and let rest for about 30 minutes.
  6. Prepare your basket (or other proofing vessel) by lining with a lint-free linen/cotton tea towel or lightly dusting with rice flour. Lightly flour your work surface and the rested round. Flip your preshaped round and shape as desired (boule or batard). Transfer to the prepared proofing container, cover with plastic, and refrigerate for 10-14 hours (or overnight).
  7. An hour before baking, preheat your oven to 500F (550 if it goes that high). You can bake this loaf in a Dutch oven (which you should preheat with the oven), or use your preferred method of steaming. (I bake my loaves on a pizza stone and cover them with a large foil roasting pan for the steaming portion of baking.) At this point, I also like to uncover my loaf (i.e. remove the plastic, but keep it refrigerated). This dries out the surface a little which I find makes scoring easier.
  8. When the oven is ready, invert your loaf onto a piece of parchment on a pizza peel. Score as desired, then transfer to the oven and immediately lower the temperature to 500F. Bake with steam (or covered) at 500F for 20 minutes, then lower the heat to 450F and bake for another 5 minutes. Remove the cover / steam pan and bake for another 15-25 minutes at 450F until your desired doneness, rotating a couple times for even baking. When finished, the crust should be nicely browned and the loaf should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
  9. Transfer to a wire rack and cool for at least an hour before cutting.

Sourdough Burger Buns

I know it’s a little early to be thinking about BBQ season, but here in Toronto winter has been surprisingly mild. So mild, in fact, that we actually pulled out the grill out a couple weekends ago!

My husband really enjoys BBQ’ing, and one of his specialties is homemade burgers. It’s been my goal to find a homemade burger bun recipe to contribute to the mix, and this is it! I actually started making the yeast version of these awhile back, but now that my sourdough starter is nice and healthy I wanted to convert the recipe to SD. The sourdough adds a subtle tang, and also helps keep these buns fresh a little longer.

These buns are light brioche style, so they’re slightly eggy but not too rich. They’re soft, but sturdy enough to hold hefty fillings without disintegrating into a sloppy mess. I love them lightly toasted so you get the outside crunch plus the soft interior — the best of both worlds!

I’ve broken this recipe into a two day process, though you could probably start these in the morning and have them ready by dinner. In the bulk fermentation step, just let the dough roughly double in size before proceeding.

Sourdough Burger Buns

Makes 8

Ingredients

  • 354 g flour (I use half all purpose, half bread)
  • 110 g heavy cream, at room temperature
  • 110 g water, at room temperature
  • 37 g sugar
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 8 g salt
  • 35 g unsalted butter, softened
  • 125 g mature liquid sourdough starter
  • Egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 Tbsp water or milk)
  • Sesame seeds (optional)

Method

  1. Combine all the ingredients except the salt and butter and autolyse (rest) for 1 hour. I find it easiest to combine the wet ingredients in a jug and mix it into the flour using a rubber spatula.
  2. Add salt, and knead dough until gluten is moderately developed. The dough will start out sticky and rough but should gradually come together and feel quite smooth and stretchy. Add butter in two batches, mixing in the first completely before adding the second. Continue kneading until the gluten is very well developed and the dough passes the windowpane test as demonstrated here. The dough should be smooth and supple (and quite lovely to handle!). This will take quite some time, especially if done by hand. Consider it your arm workout for the day!
  3. Transfer dough to a clean bowl, cover with plastic, and allow to rise at room temperature for 2 hours. Refrigerate overnight.
  4. The next day, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide into 8 equal parts, and roughly shape as balls. Cover with oiled plastic and allow to rest for 1 hour.
  5. Prepare a baking sheet lined with parchment or a Silpat. When the hour is up, reshape each portion into a tight ball and flatten gently into a disc. Arrange on baking sheet at least 2 inches apart. Cover again with oiled plastic and allow to rise again at room temperature until puffy and nearly doubled. (I needed to run some errands so I put the dough in a cool part of the house and let it go for 5 hours. In a warmer room I suspect it would take 3-4 hours.)
  6. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400F and set an old cookie sheet on the floor of the oven. Brush each bun with the egg wash, followed by a sprinkling of sesame seeds.
    Transfer the buns to the preheated oven and immediately pour a cup of hot water into the baking sheet on the bottom of the oven (be careful! Wear oven mitts and use a long-spouted kettle if possible). Bake buns for 18-20 minutes or until rolls are nicely browned on top, rotating the sheet halfway through baking. Cool on a rack completely.

Sourdough Hokkaido Milk Bread Twists

cinnamon raisin twist bread
One of my latest bread obsessions has been the twisty loaf. I’ve been wanting to try making those babka-esque twists that are all the rage these days, because who can resist a little swirly and pretty? Clearly, not me.

Twist breads are great for the holidays. They’re surprisingly easy to shape and faster than making a bunch of rolls; they can be equally appropriate for Christmas brunch or a potluck dinner; they double as decoration. Plus, they’re a chance to flex your culinary creativity — change up the fillings to suit your tastes and/or fridge contents!

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After making a fair share of these guys I’ve learned a few tricks that can really help your twist breads shine in looks and flavor! While I did all my testing using my sourdough hokkaido milk bread recipe below, you should be able to use your favorite enriched bread dough (i.e. babka / challah / cinnamon roll / non-sourdough hokkaido milk bread dough, etc.) to make a twist bread. I would recommend a dough that is soft but sturdy enough to be rolled out fairly easily. My trusty pumpkin version of this bread works equally well as a base, and I’ve included a couple other flavor variations below as well.

Twist bread tips:

  1. Don’t roll your dough too thin.
    I tried rolling my dough various sizes, and finally settled on an oval of about 10″ x 12″ as the ideal size for my loaf pan. I follow a process very similar to this one. You can roll your dough thinner to get more of a swirl, but (at least for my recipe) the bread will be more dense. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; but personally I prefer fluffier bread to more swirl. The nice thing about the oval shape is that the ends don’t get too thick when you tuck them under. (I never bother trimming the ends.) It’s also easy-peasy to fit the loaf into the tin; no double-helixing / multiple criss-crossing required.
  2. Don’t rush the proofing. Enriched breads take extra long to proof, whether or not it’s sourdough. In my room-temperature kitchen, this recipe takes at least 6 hours for the final proof. I’ve tried rushing it and the texture just wasn’t the same. I know mine is ready when the loaf has puffed to fill the pan almost to the top.
  3. Thick, strongly flavored pastes work best for fillings. For ease of rolling and the best swirl effect, a thick paste works better than lots of chopped up ingredients. I tend to not measure my filling ingredients; but in general I use roughly 1/2 a cup of filling per loaf. Again, I opt for a less-is-more approach here: too much filling can weigh the bread down, making it more dense and cakey. You may have to experiment a bit to find your ideal filling-to-bread ratio, but that’s half the fun.

    A few ideas for fillings: fruit and nut butters, thick jams/compotes, cream cheese + fruit curd, pesto, grated cheese, etc. This is a great place to use up some of those half-eaten jars of jams and spreads. If I want to do a fruit filling (such as cinnamon raisin), I’ll rehydrate dried fruit in boiling water for an hour or so, drain, then pulse in a food processor with a healthy amount of cinnamon sugar and softened butter. I do find it helps to incorporate the butter into the paste rather than layer it, especially if you are doing a sweet loaf. Otherwise the sugar can turn into syrup and leak out, resulting in a sticky bun situation.

  4. Bake and cool fully. It can be a bit tricky to judge when these loaves are finished, as the filling can hide bits of uncooked dough. Your best bet is to check the internal temperature: it should register at least 195F. A toothpick inserted into the center should come out cleanly. Also keep in mind that if you’ve rolled out your dough thinner to start with and/or used a lot of filling, your bread will take longer to fully cook. When in doubt, let it go a few minutes longer, and tent with foil to keep the top from burning.

    Also, cool your bread fully to room temperature before serving. This helps the bread fully set and avoids that icky gummy taste that comes from slicing too early. Better to fully cool, then gently rewarm for 5-10 minutes than cut too soon.

  5. Glaze it! A healthy dose of simple syrup (1 part sugar dissolved in 1 part water) applied to your loaf right after baking adds an attractive shine and keeps your bread tasting fresher for longer. Be generous — about a 1/4 cup for sweet loaves, a little less for savory. Warmed jelly or honey also works (you won’t need as much), but if you’re planning on having your loaf around for more than one day simple syrup is your best option. Right after glazing is also a good time to add any garnishes: toasted seeds / nuts, finely chopped herbs, pearl sugar, etc.

Time to get twisting!

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Sourdough Hokkaido Milk Bread

Adapted from The Fresh Loaf | Makes one 8.5″ x 4.5″ / 9″ x 5″ loaf

Levain Ingredients

  • 18 g mature sourdough starter (100% hydration)
  • 30 g milk
  • 56 g bread flour

Mix and ferment at room temp (73F) for 10-12 hours. When ready it should be puffy and domed and you should see large bubbles if you pull back the top.

Final dough ingredients

  • 276g bread or AP flour (I used half bread flour and half AP flour for a balance of chewiness and volume)
  • 45g granulated sugar
  • 34g softened unsalted butter
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 6g fine grain sea salt
  • 101g whole milk, room temperature
  • 86g cream, room temperature
  • 20g milk powder
  • All of the levain

To Finish

  • Egg wash (1 egg, whisked with 1 tsp water or milk), for brushing
  • Filling of choice, approximately 1/2 a cup
  • Simple syrup, for glaze
  • Optional garnishes (toasted nuts, seeds, herbs, etc.)

Method:

  1. Mix together all final dough ingredients except the salt and butter until just combined. Cover and autolyse (rest) for 30-60 minutes.
  2. Add salt, and knead dough until gluten is moderately developed. The dough will start out sticky and rough but should gradually come together and feel quite smooth and stretchy. Add butter in two batches, mixing the first completely before adding the second. Continue kneading until the gluten is very well developed and the dough passes the windowpane test as demonstrated here. The dough should be smooth and supple (and quite lovely to handle!). This will take quite some time, especially if done by hand. Consider it your arm workout for the day!
  3. Transfer to a clean bowl, cover, and bulk rise at room temp (73F) for 2 hours. The dough will be noticeably expanded, but not doubled. Fold, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.
  4. The next day, take the dough out and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Rest for one hour, covered by lightly oiled plastic.
  5. Grease and line a 9×5 loaf pan with parchment paper, leaving an overhang of at least 2 inches on the long sides (for easy removal later).
  6. On a lightly floured surface (I prefer a Silpat), roll out the dough into an oval roughly 10 x 12 in. Spread your filling evenly over the surface, leaving a 1/2 inch border along one short edge. Turn the dough so the short end without the border is facing you. Brush the opposite end with water, and gently but tightly roll up like a jelly roll. Once rolled up, roll gently back and forth a few times to seal. Transfer the log to the fridge or freezer for about 10 minutes to firm up (optional).
  7. If desired, trim about 1/2 an inch off each end (I don’t bother because I don’t mind if the ends don’t have filling; but if you do, trim them). Using a bench scraper or sharp knife, cut the dough in half lengthwise. Place the two sides next to each other, cut side up. Gently pinch the tops together and twist the two together, keeping the cut sides up. Transfer twist to the prepared pan. (See here for a some helpful pictures.)
  8. Cover with plastic and proof for about 6 hours at room temperature. When ready, the dough should look very puffy and have risen to the top of the loaf pan.
  9. When the loaf is nearly finished rising, preheat the oven to 400F and prepare the egg wash. Just before baking, brush the surface lightly with egg wash.
  10. Bake for 20 minutes at 400F, then turn the oven down to 375F, rotate the pan, and bake for about 15 more minutes or until the loaf is well browned and registers at least 195F in the center. If the loaf is browning quickly, tent with foil. (I cover mine for the last 10 minutes or so.)
  11. Immediately after taking the loaf out, brush all over with simple syrup and top with garnishes, if desired. Cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Dough Variations

  • Matcha: replace 10g of flour with 10g culinary grade matcha powder. Pairs well with chocolate and black sesame fillings.
  • Eggnog: replace the milk with full-fat eggnog, decrease the sugar to 34g, and add some freshly grated nutmeg to the dough. Pairs well with cinnamon sugar and cranberry fillings.

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How music taught me to bake bread

November 17th is Homemade Bread Day, so in honor of that I thought I’d share a bit about my bread-baking journey and offer some tips for those of you wanting to get started. I love learning new culinary skills, particularly those involving flour — but bread-baking, particularly with sourdough, is the first I consciously decided to take seriously. After being an occasional bread baker for several years, I took the plunge this past summer and made it my goal to be able to consistently turn out decent loaves by winter. I revived my two year old starter that had been hanging out in the fridge, and haven’t looked back since.

Although there have been failures and frustrations, I’ve definitely seen improvement in just a few short months; and bread baking has become something my family and I truly enjoy and make a part of normal daily life.

I’m a harpist and pianist by training and was for several years a private music teacher. In retrospect, I approached learning to bake bread much the same way I’d start a student or myself on a new piece of music.

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Practice.

One of the skills you obtain in music training is how to sit in a room by yourself for hours, concentrating on minute details. No joke, I’d have hour and a half lessons on a single page of music. Nothing can replace consistent and well-informed practice as a musician, and the same is true for any other skill you want to learn. In the context of bread baking, this first meant taking out my starter and feeding it twice daily at room temperature. This forced me to learn how my starter behaved and just the act of discarding and feeding made me more eager and likely to plan bakes. Are there ways of baking with sourdough that include less “wasting”? Sure, but for me the daily interaction was a key element to learning quickly and, I think, worth the price of a little flour.

Then there is also the practice of actually baking. You just have to start doing it. Once a week, twice a week — just do it consistently. You will have failures and bricks and you’ll probably drop a loaf here and there; dust the flour off your pants (and everywhere else in your kitchen) and try again.

Finally, the practice has to be informed. I spent way too much time in music school “massaging the strings” (i.e. aimlessly playing things over and over again hoping it’d get better). Turns out you can get a lot more done in a lot less time if you know what you’re striving for and tackle that problem head-on. Because I only bake once or twice a week as opposed to 40 hours / week of practicing while in school, the practice has to be that much more informed if I want to see improvement between loaves.

One thing I wish I’d started sooner is taking better notes on each bake — how long did I autolyse? How many folds? How long did the bench rest go? What temperature did I bake this at? This may seem a little obsessive, but it’s a lot easier to diagnose problems if you have some hard data and see where things may have gone wrong. It’ll also help others help you if you have that information ready — there are a lot of really generous, talented bakers out there who are more than willing to answer questions and help us newbies out!

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Know the terms.

One of the first things I would make my students do was look up all the unfamiliar terms in their music. It’s an easy way to get the gist of how a piece should sound without even putting your fingers on the strings. Same thing with baking — a little technical knowledge helps a ton! Get a couple of good books on bread (I’ve listed a few at the end of this post) and familiarize yourself with the basic terms of bread baking. You’ll be able to understand recipes a lot faster; and again, when you ask people for help you’ll get a lot more out of their advice. I was never great at math or science; so if I can learn baker’s math so can you.

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Work within your abilities, but don’t forget to challenge yourself.

One of the fine balancing acts as a music teacher was keeping students motivated and challenged by choosing the right mix of music. If the pieces are too easy, everyone’s yawning through the lesson. If they’re too hard, everyone’s crying.

The fastest way to get frustrated with bread-baking? Start with a difficult recipe and fail hard at the get go. And/or don’t follow the recipe and wonder why your bread didn’t turn out. Choose a good, basic recipe and follow it as closely as possible. Once you’re fairly comfortable with that, then pick something harder and/or start changing the flours around in some tried-and-true formulas to make things your own. Personally I like to alternate between “easy” (breads I’ve successfully made before) and “challenging” bakes (my own creations / new flours / high hydration doughs), which keeps both my stomach and brain pretty happy.

Love and share.

In the end, both music-making and bread-baking have this in common: you have to love it. If you truly enjoy doing either, whether or not your end product is picture-perfect is less important — you’ll have gained something in the process. The process of both can seem boring and slow; to endure at either you need to learn to love the little things: the sound of a brand new string, the smell of fresh flour, the feeling of nailing a tough arpeggio, the sound of crust crackling. It takes five minutes to perform a piece that takes months to learn. That loaf of bread you spent 48 hours making is devoured in three minutes. The journey matters.

Finally, the love is augmented by sharing. The simple act of sharing a piece of music or a loaf of bread can do wonders for a person’s day; and seeing people enjoy my music or food makes mine.

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A few recommended sites / resources:

  • The Fresh Loaf — A great forum where you can ask questions and learn from some very talented amateur bakers. I’ve started posting some of my loaves there as a bread journal of sorts.
  • The Perfect Loaf — Maurizio’s sourdough posts are incredibly detailed and helpful, and he’s great at responding to questions. I’ve tried several of his recipes with good success (though the breads are a little on the more technically difficult side). Definitely recommend reading through his tutorials on sourdough creation / maintenance if you’re new to the game!
  • My Daily Sourdough Bread — Natasa’s blog is lovely and practical. She is a very sweet and generous person too!
  • Wild Yeast Blog — Not updated anymore, but there’s a lot of good information if you dig around the archives.
  • The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, 15th Anniversary Edition: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread — the book that first got me hooked on bread baking several years ago.
  • Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes — a classic; lots of interesting technical information.
  • Tartine Bread — a modern classic; the photography and storytelling are inspiring. Tartine-style bread is quite popular (though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend starting there…) and this is the original.
  • Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and More — I recently bought this book and have had good success with the breads. The flavor combinations are unique and I’m looking forward to trying some of the sweet recipes as well!

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Sourdough Pumpkin Hokkaido Milk Bread with Salted Honey Maple Butter

If you follow me on Instagram, you may have noticed my recent obsession with sourdough. My sourdough starter has been the most successful thing I’ve grown; somehow we’re going on two years and it hasn’t died on me yet! This summer I decided to focus on maintaining a strong starter so we could have fresh bread for the long Canadian winter ahead. It’s been a dangerously delicious hobby!

Although most of my efforts have been on artisan hearth breads with a crispy, crunchy crust I’ve also been experimenting with sandwich breads which are easier for my still-relatively-gummy little guy to handle. This sourdough Hokkaido milk bread formula I found on The Fresh Loaf has been popular in our house — it’s delicious for sandwiches, but also simply toasted with jam. Or plain, fresh out of the oven.

In the spirit of pumpkin spice season, I thought it would be fun to try making a pumpkin version. I’m quite happy with how it turned out — just the right festive color! The pumpkin, to be honest, is there more for color and moisture than flavor; I think you could probably add a tablespoon or two more puree, though it’ll depend on the water content of your puree (I used store-bought).

As it is, this is a delightfully soft sandwich bread with a mild sourdough tang. We enjoyed it with salted honey maple butter, but it also made a mean grilled cheese. I think it would also make lovely dinner rolls for a Thanksgiving meal!

A few notes:

  1. I know a lot of people don’t have sourdough starter around; check out this recipe which uses similar ingredients but no starter. I suspect you could probably take your favorite Hokkaido milk bread recipe and add about 1/2 a cup of pumpkin — maybe hold back a couple tablespoons of liquid to start.
  2. I knead this dough by hand, and it starts out very sticky (sourdough or not). It also takes a lot of time, patience, and practice. You will think that it is never going to become a workable dough, but it will. I use this enriched bread dough technique for kneading and it typically takes me 10-15 minutes (it took longer the first time). Avoid the urge to add more flour as this will make your loaf dense. Just keep at it; it’s a good stress reliever! 🙂
  3. This recipe takes a long time from start to finish — about a day and a half (most of it is waiting). Because the dough is enriched it proofs even slower than “regular” sourdough.
  4. I am providing this recipe in grams as that is how I measure my breads. The correct ratios are important so I highly encourage the use of a scale!!!
  5. This bread also makes great cinnamon rolls that stay soft for days. Directions are at the end.
  6. Bread baking is a skill that takes a lot of practice and I certainly am still at the beginning stages of my journey. But I am happy to try answering any questions you might have! And I’d love to hear if this recipe works out for you!

Sourdough Pumpkin Hokkaido Milk Bread

Adapted from The Fresh Loaf | Makes one 8.5″ x 4.5″ loaf

Levain Ingredients

  • 18 g mature sourdough starter (100% hydration)
  • 30 g milk
  • 56 g bread flour

Mix and ferment at room temp (73F) for 10-12 hours. When ready it should be puffy and domed and you should see large bubbles if you pull back the top.

Final dough ingredients

  • 276g bread or AP flour (I used half KAF bread flour and half AP flour for a balance of chewiness and volume)
  • 34g granulated sugar
  • 34g softened unsalted butter
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 5g fine grain sea salt
  • 110g whole milk, lukewarm
  • 100g pumpkin puree
  • 15g milk powder
  • Melted butter, for brushing
  • All of the levain

Method:

  1. Mix together all final dough ingredients except the salt and butter until just combined. Cover and autolyse (rest) for 30 minutes.
  2. Add salt, and knead dough until gluten is moderately developed. The dough will start out sticky and rough but should gradually come together and feel quite smooth and stretchy. Add butter in two batches, mixing the first completely before adding the second. Continue kneading until the gluten is very well developed and the dough passes the windowpane test as demonstrated here. The dough should be smooth and supple (and quite lovely to handle!). This will take quite some time, especially if done by hand. Consider it your arm workout for the day!
  3. Transfer to a clean bowl, cover, and bulk rise at room temp (73F) for 2 hours. The dough will be noticeably expanded, but not doubled. Fold, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.
  4. The next day, take the dough out and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Divide it into 3 or 4 equal parts and lightly shape each into a ball. Rest for one hour, covered by lightly oiled plastic.
  5. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll each ball into an oval and roll up (like a jelly roll). Rest for 10 minutes. Roll each piece into an oval again, along the seam, and re-roll as tightly as possible. Transfer rolls to a loaf pan, seam sides down. Cover loosely with plastic and allow to rise about 6 hours at room temperature. The dough should be well risen, puffy, and fill the pan about 80%.
  6. About 1 hour before baking, preheat oven to 400F. After the dough has finished proofing, transfer to oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, rotating pan halfway through for even browning. If the loaf is browning too quickly, tent a piece of foil over the top to keep from burning. When the loaf is finished, immediately turn it onto a rack. Brush melted butter over the top and sides while the loaf is still warm. Allow to cool before slicing.

Salted Honey Maple Butter

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup softened, unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp of honey and/or maple syrup (I used about a tbsp of each)
  • Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon

Method:

Using a handheld mixer, whip butter and honey/maple syrup together until combined. Gently stir in a generous pinch of flaky sea salt (such as Maldon). Serve at room temperature, sprinkled with more flaky sea salt.

Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls Variation:

Prepare bread through step 4, except don’t divide the dough when you take it out of the fridge. After the hour rest, on a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a rectangle about 12″ x 16″. Spread the surface with a couple tablespoons of melted butter, followed by a generous amount of cinnamon sugar (I like a 1/4 c sugar to 2 tsp cinnamon ratio). Roll up tightly, cut into 9 pieces, and place in a 8″ x 8″ square pan. Continue with proofing as above; bake at 400F for about 25 min. I spread some maple cream cheese frosting on the top when they were still a little warm, which made the frosting a bit melty (which is how we like it). If you prefer more of a frosting, wait until the rolls are completely cool.

Pork Floss Twist Variation:

This version is inspired by a popular Chinese bakery item – pork floss buns. I decided to roll and twist it like a babka because it’s pretty; plus it’s faster than making individual rolls.

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Ingredients:

  • 1 recipe sourdough pumpkin Hokkaido milk bread, prepared through the first rise (you can roll it directly from the fridge; no need to rest for an hour at room temp)
  • 3 T mayo (preferably kewpie)
  • 1/4 c pork floss
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
  • 3 T toasted sesame seeds, white or black or a mix of the two
  • 1 egg beaten with 1 tsp water or milk, for egg wash
  • 1 T sugar dissolved in 1 T hot water, for the sugar glaze
  • Additional pork floss, scallions (green parts), and sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)

Method

  1. Grease and line a 9×5 loaf pan with parchment paper, leaving an overhang of at least 2 inches on the long sides (for easy removal later).
  2. On a lightly floured surface (I prefer a Silpat), roll out the dough into a rectangle roughly 10 x 12 in. Spread the mayo evenly over the surface, leaving about a 1/2 inch border on all sides. Sprinkle on the sesame seeds followed by the pork floss and scallions. Turn the dough so a short end is facing you. Brush the opposite end with water, and gently but tightly roll up like a jelly roll. Once rolled up, roll gently back and forth a few times to seal. Transfer the log to the fridge or freezer for about 10 minutes to firm up (optional, but recommended).
  3. If desired, trim about 1/2 an inch off each end (I don’t bother because I don’t mind if the ends don’t have filling; but if you do, trim them). Using a bench scraper or sharp knife, cut the dough in half lengthwise. Place the two sides next to each other, cut side up. Gently pinch the tops together and twist the two together, keeping the cut sides up. Transfer twist to the prepared pan. (See here for a some helpful pictures.)
  4. Cover with plastic and proof for about 6 hours at room temperature. When ready, the dough should look very puffy and have risen to the top of the loaf pan.
  5. When the loaf is nearly finished rising, preheat the oven to 400F and prepare the egg wash. Just before baking, brush the surface lightly with egg wash and sprinkle additional sesame seeds over the surface.
  6. Bake for 20 minutes at 400F, then turn the oven down to 375F, rotate the pan, and bake for about 15 more minutes or until the loaf is well browned and registers at least 195F in the center. If the loaf is browning quickly, tent with foil. (I cover mine for the last 10 minutes or so.)
  7. Immediately after taking the loaf out, brush all over with the sugar glaze. Sprinkle on more pork floss and scallions, if desired. Cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.