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Easy Nonfat Giant Soft Pretzels–without weird ingredients!

Okay, one of the big mysteries of fast-food purchasing for me has always been those delicious giant hot pretzels. I always wondered how to do it, and all my attempts at shaping bread dough into pretzel shapes have been, while delicious (I mean, fresh homemade bread products of any kind are usually going to be lovely), hardly what I was looking for.

So today, my kids and I found a few online recipes and realized we could make these without any rising time, in maybe 45 minutes total, with only about 5 ingredients. And the result tasted exactly like I remember hot pretzels tasting when I used to buy them, only these have whole wheat flour and nothing weird in them.

So–on the next rainy day, try these with your short people, or just for the heck of it!

Giant Soft Pretzels 

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup (plus a few tbs) lukewarm water
  • 1.5 tsp active dry yeast
  • 3 cups flour (mixture of unbleached all purpose and whole wheat, if you wish)
  • 2 tbs brown sugar
  • 1/2-1 tsp salt
  • Coarse sea salt crystals to sprinkle on pretzels at baking time; alternatively, dipping them into a cinnamon/sugar mixture would be equally delicious.

For boiling

  • large saucepan with 2 quarts boiling water
  • 1/3 cup baking soda

Directions:

  1. Put pan of water with baking soda on to boil
  2. Preheat oven to 425 degrees
  3. Prepared greased baking sheet (not absolutely necessary, but this will make it much easier to get the pretzels off the sheet.)
  4. In large bowl, mix 1 cup water and yeast; let soften a few minutes
  5. Add flour, brown sugar, and salt; mix till soft dough forms. (Add a little more water as needed)
  6. Knead 5-10 minutes till dough is soft and elastic
  7. Cut into 8 equal sized pieces; roll into skinny 20 inch ropes and form into pretzel shapes
  8. 1 or 2 at a time only, drop pretzels into boiling water/soda for 15-30 seconds; remove with slotted spoon or spatula and place on baking sheet. (If you wish, this would be when you’d dip them into cinnamon/sugar or other spice mixture; otherwise, wait and sprinkle them all with salt before going into the oven
  9. Bake at 425 about 10 minutes or until lightly browned.

VERDICTSeriously, seriously good! Apparently it’s the baking soda in the boiling pot that gives you that “pretzelly” texture and flavor; now that I know this, I may use this method with other rolls and breads to make pretzel baguettes and things like that I know my kids love. And much much easier and less messy than I would have thought. 

Please, before you go buying any of the weird commercial ones (check out an ingredients list on the frozen ones in the grocery store, for example!), try this!

Soda bread, Schmoda bread (Bara Brith recipe!)

I figure since this is the time of year when everyone is probably posting their recipes for Irish Soda Bread, I’d be a little different.

For the record, despite living in an extremely Irish-dominated area like Chicago, I have in my veins the blood of pretty much every British Isles peoples except the Irish.  Lots of Scottish, English, and a good bit of Welsh too.

A bunch of years ago I learned to make a Welsh tea bread known as “bara brith”–literally, “speckled bread.”  Which to me sounds like there could be as many recipes as there are bakers attempting them.  It’s a tea bread with dried fruits in it, usually currants or raisins, but others seem to be fairly commonplace as well.  In North Wales they apparently tend to use yeast, and in South Wales quick bread seems to be the norm, and the variety of techniques only starts there.  Some say you steep the fruits in strong black tea before putting them into the dough, some actually put black tea into the bread itself in place of water or milk, and the amount and variety of spices seem to vary a lot too.  (I learned a whole heck of a lot from the author of the Food Glorious Food blog on the subject!)  I haven’t made it in literally 20 years, though.

So taking my cue from her, I also futzed with my own recipe to see what I could come up with.  Ironically, I used an Irish soda bread recipe as my template, the one I found here.  I halved the recipe and incorporated a number of bara brith elements I’d seen in other places, using the quick bread format rather than the yeast…I may try yeast later, but my time is limited today.

So here’s what I did:

Welsh Tea Bread (Bara Brith) quick bread recipe

In a measuring cup mix:

  • 2/3 cup boiling water
  • 1/3 cup currants or other dried fruit
  • 1 strong black tea bag (or chai tea bag)

Let steep for 5 minutes; if desired, remove tea bag and let fruit steep overnight.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a bowl mix:

  • 1 cup white whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup all purpose white flour
  • 1/4 cup dry powdered milk (optional)
  • 2 tbs sugar (white or brown)
  • 1/2 tbs baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp (approx) mixed spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom
  • 1/2 stick butter, softened. (Mix the other dry ingredients first, then add the butter.  Incorporate it into the mixture with your fingers till you have a sort of coarse meal kind of feeling)

Add:

  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup of the brewed tea strained off of the currants
  • 1 egg

Mix well but only as much as is needed.  You are looking for a fairly solid dough here, not a batter, so add a little more liquid or flour as needed to get the right consistency.

Form into a freeform round loaf and place on a prepared baking sheet (I used parchment paper on our pizza stone, but YMMV!).  Slash a cross shape in the top of the loaf; brush top with a little melted butter or melted butter/buttermilk mixture. (Some recipes suggest brushing the top several times during baking.)

Bake 45-55 minutes at 375.

It’s in the oven as I type this; I’ll give the verdict when it comes out!

*****

VERDICT: lovely.  Dark and spicy and not too sweet, with the beautifully juicy currants throughout.  It’s a little tougher than I would probably love it ideally, and I bet one of the “batter” versions of this quick bread would be moister than this “dough” one.  But essentially all this is is your basic raisin quick bread with brewed tea and spices used instead of whatever neutral liquid the original recipe called for, and soaked raisins to begin with.

I suspect my kids will even go for this, and despite that half-stick of butter in it, it’s still got not too much sugar and a lot of other really good things in it.  This one is a keeper!



Artisan-Bread-in-Five Experiments, part IV: sandwich loaf (and Half.com!)

Just a quick note today, the latest update on my bread baking kick. (For those who have not been following these enticing and yeasty adventures with bated breath, this is about my now 2-week-old resolve to not buy store bread any more but to make my own through this really easy recipe that involves stirring up a batch of dough, leaving it in the fridge for up to two weeks, and hacking off a chunk to make bread whenever you feel like it.  No kneading.  No punching down.  No multiple rises. Easy. Previous posts here, here, and here.)

First of all, I finally did buy the book, which happily arrived in the mail the day before my library copy was due.  I got it from Half.com, which is usually the first place I turn when looking to buy almost any book or DVD, especially the ones that would be really expensive otherwise.  On a sustainability scale, I’m not sure how it balances out–on the one hand, you’re buying mostly secondhand or overstock items, although there’s some actual smaller-business direct retail going on too (common sense should tell you that if it’s “brand new,” you’re probably not buying used, right? If you want to buy secondhand, just stay in the “like new” and “very good” sections), which helps reduce new production of books/media and saves resources, and supports the small businesses who sell them.  On the other hand, you’re having it shipped to you, which has its own carbon costs of transportation and such.  Ultimately, I guess, there’s no impact-free way to get new books or movies (unless you’re No Impact Man), so all one can do is pay attention and make choices.

ANYWAY…so last night I tried my first sandwich loaf, i.e. bread actually in a bread pan and not freeform-boule-on-foil-on-the-pizza-stone. (Okay, so the book tells you to let your dough rest, then put it on a pizza peel and slide it directly onto the stone.  Even if I had a pizza peel, this is more effort than lazyspeedymama is willing to invest, so I usually just let the dough rest on a piece of floured foil and then move the whole thing to the oven after slashing the loaf.)

The book cautions that since the dough is so moist, one must must must use a nonstick loaf pan and still grease and flour it within an inch of its life if one expects to get the loaf out.  My loaf pan is silicone, and I’m not sure if it qualifies as technically non-stick, so I just took a deep breath and tried it. I don’t like the cooking sprays since they always smell more like chemicals than oil (which shouldn’t have much smell anyway), so I just drizzled a little sunflower seed oil in the loaf pan and rubbed it around. (These oils are a good moisturizer, too, by the way, so don’t be afraid of getting your hands oily!) The little bit of excess oil settled in the corners, which is exactly where I needed it anyhow.  Then I formed my loaf, using a lot of flour on the outside and making sure there weren’t any terribly sticky portions on the bottom, and just plopped it into the loaf pan and let it settle.  Went through the usual let-it-rest-preheat-oven-slash-top-put-in-oven-with-hot-water thing.

Needn’t have worried.  The loaf actually pulled away from the sides on its own while baking, and the oil gave even the sides a nice crispiness I didn’t expect.   Lovely sandwich bread. At this point I don’t see as hardship the idea of giving up store-bought bread–this is so much better that anything else would be sort of a letdown, and it’s easy enough to do almost daily.  (Put it this way: I was going to photograph the loaf for this blog entry, but there are only about 2 inches of it left after 5 sandwiches and my breakfast slice…)

Seriously, and I don’t mean to be all evangelical about this–I too feared yeast!  I too bought bread regularly because bread was one of those things I just lacked the time and skill and commitment to make, and the bread machine stuff was always such a disappointment that it only underlined my inadequacy! This book changed my life! (not to mention my carb intake, but that’s another story…)  (Okay, maybe a little evangelical.) I’d urge anyone who shares that feeling of awe at the Basic Staple Which Is Bread to check out the links on these posts and give it a try…

–J

p.s. for those who aren’t theology geeks (which I hope is most of you; theology geeks don’t get invited to many parties, and even then it’s usually only the ones given by other theology geeks)–the Greek “Euangelion” simply and literally translates to “good news”–so I guess the evangelical tone of the above, under those circumstances, is fairly appropriate…:-)

Healthier and Whole Grainier Artisan Bread…part trois, I think?

Last night with our Chicken and Barley Soup with Spinach and Mushrooms, we ate the last of the most recent batch of plain white bread from the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes cookbook. (Previous posts here and here.) Now I’m starting to mess with recipes and try newer things. (But do I actually follow a recipe that’s actually in the book? Of course not!)

My goal: to develop and refine the healthiest but still most kid-acceptable ur-bread recipe I can manage.  When the bread gets too brown, my kids get suspicious.  (And yet they still aren’t wise to the green zucchini-skin-colored flecks in their favorite “spice cake”…)

Starting with the recipe for Oat Flour Bread on page 104, I made some adjustments: The recipe called for 5 1/2 cups of regular flour and 1 cup of oat flour.  This isn’t near whole grain-y enough for me, so instead I used 4 cups regular unbleached flour, 1 cup white whole wheat flour, 1 cup oat flour, 1/4 cup flaxseed meal, and 1/4 cup oat bran.  I also reduced the salt from 1 1/2 tbs to only 1 tbs.  And added a little sugar. (Hopefully not enough to kill the yeast or anything, just maybe 1 tbs or so. I added it for the deeply scientific reason that I had about 1 tbs of sugar left in the bag and I’m tired of moving it around, so I tossed it into the dough.)  Other than that, I left it as it was.

GROWNUP VERDICT:  This is a very nice bread–not the kind to make you take a bite and swoon like the earlier version, but really nice nonetheless.  Just enough “other” stuff to give it a very slight whole grainy taste, but not enough to have that This Is Seriously Healthy Whole Grain Bread thing going.  The reduced salt was a very good thing; the added sugar also seemed to add a little sweetness to the final product. We might be able to increase the oat/whole wheat proportions just a little against the plain white and still sell it to the kids, but for now this is a good start.  Only other thing I’d change: I followed the recipe and baked it the full 45 minutes, which gave a really hard brown crust, something my husband and I aren’t crazy about, and the interior of the bread wasn’t nearly as moist as previous loaves. Next time I’ll only go 30 or 35 minutes, which should be plenty.

KID VERDICT: I sent  a ham sandwich to school today.  Most of it got eaten, part of it came home.  (“I ran out of time because I was chatting,” was the reason.  Since he never uses the word “chatting,” I’m assuming a teacher has been getting on his case about it.) Once home this starving boy whom I obviously never feed (not) gobbled down the rest with great gusto.  He didn’t mind the heavier crust, and he didn’t mind the brown flaxseed flecks in the bread; he liked it.  So I think we’re onto something here.

There’s enough dough in the refrigerator for at least two more loaves of Something from this bread; I’ll probably try a foccacia and maybe another cinnamon loaf since that seemed to make the kids extremely happy.

I wish I could find a way to reconcile trying to lose those last 15 lbs. and experimenting with new recipes, especially when my recipes are starting to actually work out well with greater consistency…

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes, part Deux

Yesterday I posted about my preliminary adventures with Jeff Herzberg and Zoe Francois’s somewhat amazing Artisan Bread in Five Minutes book. (Or more precisely, my adventures with the basic recipe while I waited for  the book to come into the library.)

bread photoLast night I got the book and pored over it. Today I did a little more experimentation, though still more or less not using any specific recipes–just the Basic Master Plan and my own sense of “what if.”

Today we’re eating a lot of bread–three different loaves:

1. Rosemary Foccacia–for this I just took the basic refrigerated dough (which was, by the way, 2/3 unbleached flour and 1/3 white whole wheat flour), formed it into a ball and flattened it into a circle, and let it rest.  Before putting it into the oven I dented it with my fingers and poked it with a fork a bit, and then sprinkled coarse sea salt and rosemary all over the top.  VERDICT: Amazing. This is a keeper.  I will use this to impress dinner guests, or take some to parties, or what-have-you.

2. Cinnamon Bread–this was sort of an experiment for the kids. To do this I used the basic refrigerated dough again and formed the requisite ball, then flattened it into a sort of oval shape.  I sprinkled cinnamon and sugar (could have done raisins too, just didn’t) all over it, rolled it up, and curled under the ends again to make another ball, which I then let rest for the 40 minutes the original calls for.  (This is how the book suggests making anything from date-walnut bread to olive bread to all kinds of Bread With Stuff In It.) Before baking I sprinkled more cinnamon and sugar on top.  VERDICT: the kids each had a slice as their after-school snack; they love it. I think for sweet breads in general I will need to cut back on the salt quite a bit, because it’s still a little salty even though I used the coarse salt the book calls for this time instead of the finer salt I used on my first batch.  But in general, this was lovely.  If any of it survives till morning, I bet it would make an amazing french toast. This might also be nice with jam or something spread on the bread before rolling it up…

3. Baguette: This is more of a no-brainer, I guess, and I’m not following the exact book recipe at all–just once again using the same basic dough but shaping it into a long log instead of a round boule.  (Which is, now that I look it up, exactly what the book says to do.) VERDICT: Perfect.  I will never buy grocery store bakery bread again.  This stuff is amazingly good. (I should qualify: perfect tasting.  I still haven’t got the hang of exactly how to do the slashes in a way that lets it do all the springing it needs to in the oven without splitting open on the sides, particularly for the long breads. Boule-shape seems to work for me, though…)

The point of the exercise for me was really to see how many different breads I can make from one single basic dough type in the fridge.  I mean, if you mix up 4 loaves worth of herb bread dough, you’re going to make 4 loaves of herb bread or foccacia. You’re not going to be making french toast, right?  And if you mix up a sweet bread dough, it’s not going to go so well with the Chicken Piccata.  So while some of the other breads look very appealing, my guess is that even if I do buy the book (and I’m fairly sure I will), I’ll come back to the basic-but-tweaked recipe again and again.

The Book itself–it’s a great book, and I’m still waffling on whether to go out and buy it after my library two weeks are up.  In general I’m not a cookbook kind of cook; I find a basic template and then mess with it to see what I can do with it.  Also, the book gets a lot schmantzier than I ever will in a good half of its recipes (and once you hit schmantzy, 5 minutes goes out the window), and has a lot more recipes for salads and sandwiches and Things To Do With This Bread than I would ever use.  On the other hand, there are enough other template type recipes–like Oatmeal bread, Pumpkin bread, Challah, Brioche (which I will probably never make because of the high fat content), and such which I expect I’d probably make often enough that having the book might be worthwhile.  Over the next two bread-laden weeks I’ll think about it and try some of those other “basic” recipes to see what happens. My copyright consciousness says that if there are only maybe 1 or 2 recipes in the book I think I will ever make, I will feel fairly comfortable making a photocopy of those couple of pages for my own use later.  Any more than that and I would feel like a thief and would instead just buy the whole book.  At the moment I have post-its in 9 pages, though, so I expect I’ll be shelling out the “dough” for this one fairly soon.  (And the sequel is coming out soon too!)

In terms of my own playfulness and experimentation, there will be a lot of messing around with flax seed, oat bran, oat flour, and whole wheat flour to see how much Good Stuff I can get in there.  Refined flour might be missing lots of the nutritional goodness of whole grains, but it does such lovely things in bread!  So the trick is always to keep enough white flour to get your nice crust and lightness and chewiness and avoid whole wheat’s bitter flavor.   But I expect having a batch of dough in the fridge could become a fairly regular thing around here.

My husband cautions me to not overdo, or we’ll get sick of it.  I can’t quite imagine that…

Jumping on the bread baking bandwagon

artisan-breadI’ve just put in a request at my local public library for Artisan Bread in Five Minutes, a book I’ve seen a lot of bloggers talking about.  It’s positively viral, but in a good way. I read Green Bean, who got the idea from Tammy over at Girls Wear Blue Too.  Then there’s Taste and Tell, and Lynn at Lynn’s Kitchen Adventures (who loves the challah recipe from this book)…I appreciate that so many bloggers are not only spreading the word about this bread but also sharing their own experiences, recipe divergences, and shortcuts… 

The fact that it’s already checked out from the library is both encouraging (because that indicates it’s in demand and thus hopefully a good thing) and sort of a pain in the neck, because I’m Instant Gratification Girl all the way.  But then, as I so often say, gotta love the internet.  The master recipe for this five minute bread is actually available online in several places, including here. So I’ve got my first batch going up in the kitchen.

This is very promising–the basic premise is that you mix up a batch of sort of wet and gooey knead-less dough and store it in your fridge for up to two weeks.  Periodically you just hack off a piece the size of a grapefruit, let it “rest” a bit on the counter, and then bake-steam it for 30 minutes into a nice fresh freeform loaf.  The dough in the fridge apparently starts its own natural “sourdough” process over the two weeks and gradually develops different flavors as it ages.  I’ve been becoming less and less thrilled with my bread machine lately, since it seems to give a bread that’s sort of dry and has a not-too-pleasant crust.  So I’m looking forward to this…

VERDICT: THE PROCESS–Well, there’s good and bad, with the positives dramatically outweighing the negatives. The good: it was really easy to mix up the master batch of dough, and that itself only took a few minutes and not much mess.  And after the master batch did its initial rise, it was incredibly easy to yank off a chunk and shape it into a loaf.  The master batch itself wasn’t the gooey kind of dough the recipe led me to expect; it was lots flour-i-er than I thought it would be, and not too wet.  And I did follow the recipe well.  Maybe my flour was too packed down or something? Anyway, next time I might try a little less flour.  But the ease of taking refrigerated dough and turning it into fresh hot bread without mess and deep involvement is lovely.

The down side–well, yeah, you really do only spend about 5 minutes actively doing anything for making bread.  But to actually get it onto the table you have to, after you spent 2 of the 5 minutes making your loaf, let it rest for 40 minutes.  And then 20 minutes into that 40 you have to turn on the oven.  And then you put it in (taking maybe 2 minutes) and bake it for another 30.  So while you’re not actually working on the bread but a few minutes, you still have to stick around and pay attention to make it work.  Which means that there’s no coming home at 5:30pm and having hot fresh bread on the table at 6:00; you have to start a good bit more than an hour before you plan to take it out of the oven in order to make this happen. But that’s a fairly small downside for this really nice, really easy fresh bread. I mean, it’s not like there are any other ways to come home at 5:30 and have fresh bread at 6:00, unless you stopped at Whole Foods on the way or something. 

VERDICT: THE BREAD–all I can say is a big “omnomnomnom” about this bread.  It’s moist and crusty and tastes absolutely lovely.  It’s a little salty (Tammy over at Girls Wear Blue Too says she pretty much always reduces the salt amount, and I think I’ll try it next batch too) but still absolutely wonderful. 

The recipe says that the dough’s flavor evolves into a gentle sourdough as it sits in the fridge; I don’t know how many days this batch will last before it all gets baked and eaten, but we’ll see how that part works out…

Aha! And I just got the email from the library that the book is in. I’ll see what it’s like, and then that may be one I have to buy…

Now I have to go eat some more bread…

(UPDATE: I did a subsequent post on my further adventures…)