Monday, November 10, 2014

Banana Sourdough Whole-Grains Tea Cake

The smell of ripe bananas wafted from the pantry. A lively discussion ensued, within my earshot, between my husband and my teenage daughter. Why was mom, yours truly, not making banana bread more often? My daughter instantly opined that banana bread was no challenge for mom, implying that only certain challenging recipes would get me going. Banana bread was unlikely to make the cut. Clearly, my daughter was more in tune with my true intention than my husband ever could. But there is more to the conundrum.

No debate: banana bread is a quick bread that is very easy to make. Even first graders could be successful in baking banana bread. Everyone has his or her own favorite banana bread recipe. However, the holy grail of perfecting the deceptively simple banana bread, taking it beyond the generic to the exceptional, is daunting even among the most ambitious bakers. For a long time, I’d rather go after the low-hanging fruits. It hasn't been the banana bread.  Not until I uncovered this recipe from Tartine Book No. 3.

The banana sourdough whole-grains teacake is as close to the ultimate banana bread I’ve ever come across. This bread is an overachiever. To be able to accomplish even one of those characteristics, listed below, in one recipe is a big deal. This one does it all.

  • Healthy teacake with 50% spelt and 50% whole-wheat pastry flour
  • Flavorful and fresher longer given the sourdough starter and an overnight poolish
  • Open crumb texture despite a full load of whole-grains
  • Reduced sugar: using three-quarter cup, and can be further reduced
  • Substituted majority of sugar with honey and dates
  • Cultured diary makes for a tastier and more nutritious teacake
  • Rich banana flavor accented with caramelized slices of banana on top

This recipe successfully marries flavor and texture with just the right amount of cinnamon spice and various sweeteners: honey, dates and granulated sugar. I would even cut another chunk of sugar out of this formula to a half cup. All-purpose white flour found in most banana bread recipes is completely eliminated. It is substituted with the more flavorful and healthful whole-grain varieties, spelt and whole wheat­, and without sacrificing taste or texture. Not an easy feat. This recipe is another proof that you don't have to sacrifice taste and pleasure to eat healthy.

The key in achieving a lighter texture is in the mixing technique. A full discussion in this approach can be found in an earlier posting on a similar recipe, the apple-walnut teacake. Borrowing the techniques in making flaky dough or biscuits, fat is cut into the dry ingredients before adding to the wet ingredients. The result is a light and aerated crumb structure. That has made all the difference – mixing and pulsing, briefly and gently, the unusual collection of ingredients to a crescendo.

To top it all, more banana slices are put on top of the cake. The intense banana flavor elevates this teacake firmly into the category of the sublime. Don’t take my words for it; you’d know what I mean when you give this recipe a spin. See traces of banana on top of the teacake in the pictures. They are not there just for looks. They add flavor as well as the satisfying mouth-feel. Next time I'd pile on as many thin slices of banana on top as possible, as long as they stay afloat. Make sure you use firm-ripe banana for the slices and lay them lengthwise atop the cake. They are simply divine.

This banana bread will be making frequent trips to my oven. My critics are silent.

This post is submitted to yeastspotting.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Vermont Sourdough with Whole Wheat

From time to time I like to hit the reset button and go back to the basics. A checkup, if you will, on the soundness of essential techniques and processes and see where fine tuning is needed. This Vermont sourdough with whole wheat from Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread is one of those basic bread recipes for me. Not to mention it was a variation of this master recipe from which I learned to bake sourdough bread. It was two winters ago, the place was King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vermont. (I am a skier and I count winters, instead of years, in Vermont.) I took the Artisan Baking class there without really expecting much, maybe learning a few techniques. I brought home the sourdough starter and began in earnest my bread-making experiments. Since then, life has not been quite the same. No more store- or bakery-bought breads. I’ve made friends with a few fellow bakers who help me ride the steep learning curve. And my baking has taken on a life of it’s own.

I call this a basic recipe because there is only 10% whole-wheat flour in the entire formula. Hydration is 65%, much lower than the 80% in most of the Tartine recipes I’ve been posting recently. This makes the bread much easier to handle. No sticky wet dough to worry about. Shaping it into loaves is a breeze. From here, you can work your way up, increase the amount of whole wheat or raise the hydration level to your heart’s content. Let a thousand flowers bloom from this root recipe!

This bread is my go-to everyday bread which I don’t mind baking and eating. No commercial yeast is added. The levain, built from the sourdough starter, is about 40% of the final dough. Please see the cheat sheet below for details. There is only a faint taste of sourness since bulk fermentation and final proofing are relatively short. If you like to use nuts and dry fruits, they can be incorporated in the dough, when you make the stretch-and-fold turns during the first hour of bulk fermentation. You can wrap it all up in five to six hours. The bread can be easily made in the same day, provided you build the levain the night before. It is excellent basic bread that hits all the right notes on crust, taste and texture. It is the bread that keeps on giving and asks very little in return—a joy to work with and to have in anyone’s toolbox.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Cranberry-Pumpkin Sourdough Rolls

This is a jazz-up version, with the volume turned up in flavor, of the King Arthur Flour’s cranberry-pumpkin rolls.  This is the ABC fall recipe challenge for November. The original recipe called for several warm spices: ground cinnamon, ginger and clove. I can't think of a better time to reach deep into the pantry and bring out those forgotten spices. The pumpkin dough can certainly take on extra flavors. I sprinkled some crushed green cardamom and nutmeg (a quarter teaspoon each) to the mix. The piquant and assertive aroma of freshly cracked cardamom punctuated the air as I crushed the pod. The smell positively convinced me that I was heading in the right direction. Strangely, it also awakened memories of the most alluring spicy chai tea I had in a long-ago afternoon.

If there was one thing I wished I had changed, it’s the pumpkin puree. After tasting the puree from the can, which tasted bland with a metallic aftertaste, I knew I’d have done better with a homemade version. Or at least process the can-puree a little further. Well, next time!

The magic potion in bumping up flavors, in my mind, was the sourdough starter. My much treasured sourdough starter has descended from King Arthur Flour / New England, dating back to the 1700s. I have adapted it to suit my preference for whole wheat. The sourdough starter I've been maintaining is now a 50/50 mix of all-purpose and whole-wheat flour. The starter has made a permanent mark on almost everything I bake, from breads to scones to cakes.

I incorporated mature and unfed starter to the pumpkin dough, mostly as a flavor enhancer than as a rising agent. Acidity in the sourdough culture helps to impart a more complex flavor and improve the keeping quality of the rolls. Don't expect them to be sour since the starter was old and tired and fermentation was far from active.

I replaced a quarter (5 oz) of the total amount of flour (20 oz) in the recipe with sourdough starter. Using 100% hydration (equal amount in weight of flour and water) starter I had on hand, 10 oz was needed to substitute five oz of all-purpose flour and five oz of water. For the remaining 15 oz flour, I used 10 oz bread flour and five oz whole-wheat flour. A little over one oz of water is enough, rather than six, given the amount of water in the sourdough starter. I left out the crystallized ginger; never tasted one I like. The ingredient list is shown below. All additions and changes are highlighted in blue.

The ingredient list for the jazz-up cranberry-pumpkin sourdough rolls:

  • 10 ounces bread flour
  • 5 ounces whole wheat flour
  • 10 ounces sourdough starter (100% hydration)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon instant yeast
  • 3/4 cup (6 ounces) canned pumpkin
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/8 cup (1 ounces) water
  • 1/4 cup (2 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup (4 1/2 ounces) dried cranberries

I followed the same exact procedures as the original recipe: combined all the ingredients, kneaded them in the mixer with a dough hook until a soft and cohesive dough formed, and allowed it to rise for about an hour and a half. Then the dough was divided and shaped into 16 rolls. I had fun arranging them in pans of different sizes and shapes. I settled with one 9-in round pan and several mini rectangular pans. The rolls were proofed for another hour in the pans at room temperature. When they became puffy, they were ready for the oven. Egg wash (by whisking together one egg yolk and one tablespoon of cream) was liberally brushed on top for shine. The pans, large and small, went into the 350°F oven all at once for about 20-25 minutes.

Purely for fun, I rolled some leftover pumpkin dough in a small shallow tart pan. Thin slices of apple were placed on the dough, doted with butter and sugar. In no time, it was ready to join the merry baking procession. Don’t know what I’d call it, maybe pumpkin apple pizza? Actually, it looked quite remarkable and tasted delicious, like all the rolls. Except for one thing: it suffered from, what I'd consider to be, a case of identity crisis!

The rolls turned out beautifully with a rich mahogany patina, a tender crumb and a lofty appearance. I baked up a storm with this recipe. Not an issue. Share bundles of these warm, spiced-up cranberry pumpkin rolls with friends, served with a cup of spike-up chai!

I submitted this posting to yeastspotting.