Honey Wheat Bread with Poppy Seeds and Lemon

Honey Lemon Poppy Seed Wheat Bread

Honey Wheat Bread with Lemon and Poppy Seeds

I broke the mold! In fact, it’s still the same Country-Style Hearth Loaf, but with a twist. I felt confident in my resolve to knead more vigorously and bake less. Confident enough to add…STUFF. STUFF can profoundly alter how much a dough will rise, so I’d planned to avoid that challenge at first. (As in any science experiment – we’ve got to limit those variables!) In fact, I usually buy plain loaves at the bakery because they go with everything, but I do love a loaf with a theme.

the ingredients

the ingredients

That weekend, I just happened to have on hand an old bag of poppy seeds and a jar of honey gone crystal. Considering last year’s very successful resolution to avoid wasting food, I was delighted to find a recipe in Bread Alone for Honey Wheat Bread with Poppy Seeds and Lemon. The recipe is essentially a Country-Style Hearth Loaf, except that it calls for half the flour to be whole wheat. Classic Liz: I just substituted my trusty ole 20% bran flour. 20% bran really is plenty for me, and besides, the 25-lb bag I bought from Wild Hive has been taking up far too much space in my fridge. (Oh, to have a pantry…and a root cellar!)

So I kneaded like a mad woman, once splitting the wad of dough into two pieces. That helped me really work the dough without tiring. I also made use of an autolyse, a technique I learned from Farmgirl Susan. I kneaded the dough for a few minutes, let it rest on the counter for 20 minutes, and then finished the kneading. I should be adding the salt to the dough after the autolyse, but I didn’t think to try an autolyse until I’d already mixed the dough. Salt tightens the gluten strands; kneading before adding salt helps develop gluten faster. I am already kneading for longer than recommended – I hope that an autolyse and practice will help quicken the process.

I’m beginning to think I am actually adding too little flour. Though I consistently add at least the maximum measure of flour, my doughs still feel tacky. Every flour absorbs a different volume of water; perhaps mine is thirstier than most. Searching for answers I stumbled upon Baking 911. Though aesthetically upsetting, this site compiles a motherload of bread baking tips, and I found one of my symptoms: “A free-form loaf spread too much as it was rising.”  The answer? “The dough was too soft. Free-form loaves must be quite firm when shaped. Next time, add more flour, use a ring to contain the dough, or let it rise in a basket.” Well, I am already using a basket for proofing, but my loaves seem to spread out the instant they’re on the peel. It’s time to try more flour!

great crumb

great crumb

Nonetheless, this was good bread! I baked the bread only 30 minutes instead of the suggested 40 minutes and achieved a soft, chewy crust. No more croutons! Though I still haven’t topped that sourdough back in April, I think this loaf is one of the best yet!

P.S. For my birthday, two co-workers bought me Kneedlessly Simple – a cookbook of knead-free breads. I’m looking forward to trying something completely new!




Well, you missed pita bread and caramelized onion foccacia. I would have written about pita but my photos were accidentally deleted! Suffice to say I was incredibly impressed with the “puff” that creates the pita pocket, and by cooking only 3 at a time, I was able to improve my technique over the course of a single batch! Next time pita comes to call I will give it a full post. Foccacia, well, foccacia is so much easier that I thought it might be a cheap post topic. But I love it to death all the same.

loaf with a hard crust

Ho-Hum, however, refers to another dogged attempt at the Country Style Hearth Loaf. While acceptable, this latest incarnation shares the same fault as the previous version: an incredibly hard, thick crust. Just cutting a slice creates a flurry of breadcrumbs. I’m thinking that during the next round I’ll try lowering the oven temperature or decreasing the bake time. I’m also noticing that the proofed loaves don’t hold their shape as I transfer them to the peel and slide them into the oven. As a reult they’re a bit flattened when they hit the oven which isn’t helping the crust situation. Next I’ll try more kneading – I could use an arm workout anyway!

Late-Night Labors

My second Hearth Loaf came into the world at 1:37am. It began as a small, wet, unformed poolish Saturday morning on May 30th. As a young poolish it grew and bubbled and smelled sweetly of yeast. Through the first fermentation it rose gracefully over the lip of its bowl, delighting me with its exuberance. I lovingly split and shaped it into two round loaves, allowing a chance to rest between. In the midst of proofing, I despaired that I could not care for this loaf in every way it deserved. I saw looming ahead a 5:30am call time on my husband’s film shoot. Pursuing my maternal instincts I vowed to properly raise my young loaves, no matter the cost to myself. Retiring at 11pm, I set an alarm for 12:30am, another for 1:00am, and yet another for 1:40am. At the first alarm I arose to light the oven. At the second alarm I bolted up to slide the hapless loaves into the inferno. Sleeping fitfully on the sofa, I woke to check them, and was dismayed to find them both sagging frightfully under their own weight. I paced until 1:37, then removed them from the hellish heat. Their youthful promise faded beneath a thick, hard crust and wrinkled edge. Joseph suggested purposing a loaf for sport: a discus throw seemed fitting, but I lamented such a base fate! Old before their time, I consumed them both, determined to give meaning to their short lives.

discus bread

Pennsylvania Poolish

My return to “humble yeast breads” was a fair success!

Classic Country

I flipped back to the very first recipe in my Bread Alone bakebook: Classic Country-Style Hearth Loaf. “A Learning Loaf,” they call it. I’d been attempting sourdough because the kind of bread I enjoy has a chewy crust and a rich, hearty taste and texture. I’d rather buy my bread at the store than eat a tasteless homemade white. Bread Alone’s “learning loaf” is designed to teach you how to work a poolish into your routine. A poolish is a wet mixture of flour, water and yeast left out to ferment for 2-10 hours. It’s like a mini-sourdough starter. It’s one of the major differences between bakery bread and homemade bread – but it doesn’t have to be that way! It adds flavor and texture but not the sourness of a true starter.

So the thing about this poolish (my first) is that is traveled! I was headed down to visit my sister in Philly on Saturday morning and decided to bake despite going out of town. So I packed up my flour and a few tools, mixed up the poolish, and buckled all of us in for a two-hour drive. Yes, my little covered bowl was buckled in to the passenger seat! I wish I’d thought to take a picture. It’s a humorous metaphor for what a needy little creature rising dough can be! And just like a fussy baby, my poolish was lulled to compliance by a good spin around the block. (At least, that’s how my sis had to be put to bed!) The perk of fermenting the poolish in the car is that I had complete control over the temperature. It was a bit toasty for human-folk but my poolish enjoyed a stable 78 degrees the whole way to Philly.

Adding more flour, yeast and water later in the day I created a true dough and gave it a good kneading. Then there was a rise, a deflate, a shape, and a proofing. Again my proofing sluggishly stretched passed midnight but I managed to stay awake and was rewarded by a loaf that was – miraculously – not dense! I give it a grade “B” – hearty sandwich stock. Not quite the airy dipping loaf I’m after, but I’d call it a crowd-pleaser nonetheless. We’ll have to ask Julianna, my extraordinary yoga teacher, who recieved one of these loaves for her birthday!

Soon I must attempt another shape – these rounds are starting to be boring. And somehow figure out how those odd puckers developed on the crust!

My thanks to Barbara Kingsolver, whose wonderful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle kept me awake during the proofing.

And also thanks to my co-worker (and expert baker) Ilene for recommending Red Star yeast; I brought my sister on a marathon trek to a Philadelphia Whole Foods in search of a second packet.

So much for beginner’s luck…

I’ve spent two weekends baking since my last post and I’m sad to report less success than my last sourdough. Here’s April 5th:

pain au levain pain au levain - cracked bottom crust

You can see that the base is cracked. From what I’ve read I think my cuts weren’t deep enough, and that my crust (again) hardened too quickly, forcing the bottom crust to crack open to let steam escape. The bottom crust is inevitably weaker than the top because when shaping the final dough you round the top and seal any flaps together on the bottom. Worse though, this loaf clearly didn’t rise all that much. I made the mistake here of trying a whole new recipe: Pain Au Levain from The Bread Alone cookbook. Pain Au Levain is technically a sourdough, but it involves a step that lessens that familiar sourdough flavor. To create the “levain” I mixed flour into my starter to create a dough and let that ferment for 8 – 10 hours. Then I added more flour and kneaded the dough. The recipe takes just as long my sourdough but the dough doesn’t spend time in the fridge, where the yeast slows down. So I think with my Pain Au Levain I may have tuckered out my yeast before the dough hit the oven.

After several busy weekends I finally had a chance to bake again this Friday. I returned to my previously successful sourdough but made a few unfortunate changes! First, I wasn’t expecting to have time to bake, so I didn’t “wake” the starter up ahead of time. I’d had it in the fridge for three weeks, feeding it water and flour only once a week. When I plan to bake I need to bring the starter to room temperature a day before and feed it every 12 hours. I really wanted to bake though so I decided to go for it despite my sleeping starter. As predicted, the dough was extremely sluggish to rise but I tried to be patient, hoping for the yeast to wake up at some point during the process. By the time I was ready for bed my dough still hadn’t risen so I put it in the refrigerator so that it wouldn’t peak while I was asleep. This turned out to be a pretty good call. I brought out the dough in the morning and left it on the counter to rise with a thermometer inserted. When the dough finally warmed above 70 degrees I started to see some action. By 9pm it had doubled so I punched it down and shaped it. But again I found myself up against a bedtime and decided to bake the shaped loaf after only 30 minutes of proofing. NOT a good idea! I keep hoping that oven spring will miraculously fix a sluggish loaf but I think I’ve proved it just doesn’t work that way.

a very sour sourdough

The other oddity you might notice here is the bubbly texture. Here’s a closeup:

close up of sour sourdough

Inspired by No Knead Bread, I deliberately added a bit less flour than usual to keep a wet dough. Comments I’d read about this loaf suggested that a wetter dough might give me those large irregular air holes. Eh, who can tell when your dough isn’t properly risen in the first place!

This bread has an very pronounced sourdough flavor. I’m wondering why that is. One guess is that either the rise (i.e. fermenting) time was longer than usual, and another guess is that my starter has actually become more sour as it ages. Well I killed my starter this morning so maybe I’ll never know! Perhaps feeling slightly vindictive, I left my starter out on the counter for three days without feeding it and this morning found a film of mold growing over the top of it. Eew. On a small scale this shouldn’t be a problem – just spoon off the mold and the yeast will kill off the rest. But I just didn’t feel prepared to tackle a whole lot of mold. And to be honest, I’ve resolved to return to humbler yeasted breads until I am more skilled.

I’ve had requests that I give away or even export my bread (thanks for the vote of confidence Cessi)! Sure, there’s plenty to go around, but seriously my loaves are still barely edible.

oven SPRING!

I ended my last post with the word “mostly.” Meaning that my loaf “mostly” rose. Everything went according to plan until I slid the dough into the oven. Now what’s supposed to happen is that the dough rises rapidly in the hot oven, giving it that last lift and nice round top. This is not just an aesthetic – it’s the difference between airy texture and dense texture. Sadly Sourdough #1 never got it’s oven spring.

As ever, the question is why?
I have a few theories. First of all I used entirely whole wheat. I think that was overly ambitious on my part. Whole wheat is inevitably heavier than white flour and therefore rises a bit less. Secondly, I think my oven was too hot. Maybe you noticed that my crust looked a bit…um….dark? It’s basically on hairy edge of burnt. I think what happened is the crust hardened so quickly from the heat that the bread couldn’t rise any more. And also my cuts were fairly shallow – you can see from the picture that they really filled in with the wee oven spring I did get.

When I baked the next weekend I went for white flour. Or, more specifically, I went for a flour that Dan Leader (of Bread Alone fame) calls “20% bran.” Basically this means that the flour has all of the germ and 20% as much bran as a whole wheat flour has. You can’t buy this flour in the store but I easily mixed it according to Dan’s recipe: 3 cups of white flour, 3 tablespoons wheat germ, and 1 cup whole wheat flour. I also made much deeper cuts before the loaves went into the open around 1/2″ or 1″. Here is the very happy result!

oven spring!

oven spring!

This one was a joy to eat!

The other thing I did was buy some kitchen toys: a baking stone, a dough scraper, and a thermometer. My baking stone is supposed to create a better crust and better oven spring but I didn’t notice a difference. I think one of the problems is that I don’t have a peel to slide the bread onto the stone. The dough stuck to my metal baking sheet (which was doused in flour) and I may have lost some lift while struggling to transfer it to the stone. Mostly I used the dough scraper for clean up, but it’s also the perfect tool for dividing the dough into two halves. Regarding the thermometer, I’m trying to keep my rising stages at a steady 78-80 degrees. The thermometer is also useful at the end of the baking period when I measure the temperature inside the loaf – if it’s around 212 degrees I take it out of the oven, but let it cool before cutting in because the bread continues to bake even after it leaves the oven!  Here’s my thermometer in action:

thermometer in action

thermometer in action - slightly high at 81 degrees

Despite my oven spring this loaf still had a fairly even texture. That’s fine for sandwiches but I prefer bread ripped from the loaf and doused in olive oil so my next goal is to figure out how to to create those rustic breads with large uneven airholes.

Research makes perfect?

After rock #2 I turned to the internet (where else?) and found this amazing site! Farmgirl Fare: Ten Tips for Better Bread Farmgirl Susan lays out techniques that make the type of breads that are only distant cousins to supermarket sandwich loaves. Most of these techniques were a bit too advanced for my amateur skills but I took her advice and ordered the Bread Alone cookbook (or bakebook?). When it arrived I read and re-read the first chapter, which doesn’t even contain recipes. It’s all about flour textures, time, temperature and fermentation. It turns out that jump-starting the yeast with luke-warm water is actually a bad idea. Ideally you should create a long, slow rising period which helps the dough develop more flavor through fermentation, and also prevent your yeast from getting tuckered out too quickly. The science of baking is fascinating – when you knead your dough it’s temperature actually rises due to the friction! Dan Leader (the author) recommends that you calculate your individual “Friction Factor” and use that to balance the temperatures of your flour and water.

Reading about kneading dough I had the ah-ha moment: The 15-17 minute rule is important. If the dough is under-kneaded, the gluten will not be developed enough to allow the dough to rise during fermentation. It turns out that the kneading process changes the very structure of the gluten (wheat protein strands) to be longer and more elastic, which traps the air created by the yeast. SCIENCE!

Just a few days later my friend Emily invited me to take a class on sourdough bread at Brooklyn Kitchen. Though I now had a good handle on the concepts thanks to Bread Alone, the class gave me the opportunity to poke and prod properly kneaded dough at several stages. Thanks to my friend Tom I had a tiny tupperware of his sourdough starter waiting in my fridge. And so that weekend I baked bread – and it rose! (mostly)

Real Sourdough Bread...served with my favorite food.

Real Sourdough Bread...served with my favorite food.