a simple crusty white, revisited

The learning curve on my flatbreads has flattened out; I'm giddy with my results.  They've become a regular accompaniment to our Indian fare and Frankie's lunches.  Whenever I spin off into a niche, I inevitably learn a new albeit subtle technique and am able to apply it to other areas, parlaying a history of nifty personal tricks.

What I learned most recently is the value of baking on a cast iron surface while using my 15" diameter low ridge cast

iron pan (Amazon).  It lives in my oven now.  The color and weight of a bake surface has a profound effect on a baked good.  Generally the darker the surface, the darker the bread - unless, I learned, it's high enough in the oven.  So, my pan is positioned in the middle of the oven to prevent overly dark bottoms.  Additionally, I learned to value how much heat is stored in that heavy mass.  I can cook pita / naan with only the broiler on.  The bottom of the bread browns from the residual heat of the steel and the top cooks via the top element, it's a nice combination.  I've used this set up for pizza too.  This heat capacity also translates to a vicious capacity to transform water to steam, more on this later.

With that in mind, I meandered back into the crusty, lean, free form loaf.  I've always admired the gods of slack doughs and natural starters - alas, that is not me.  I've dabbled many times unsuccessfully in this area and failed.  My bread today is a simple straight dough (entire dough mixed at once) but reasonably high hydration, low yeast loading and long retarded rise.  Gods of bread, kill me, I'm a commercial yeast guy.  Also, I'm not a fan of cooking in preheated cast iron, it's a great trick, but a little risky for a clutz like me and shape-limiting.

Today's loaf was mixed from unbleached white (Montana Sapphire, 360 g), atta flour (an Indian whole wheat, commonly available from local stores, 40 g), water (300-310 g, ca. 75% hydration), yeast (Fleischmann's instant active, 1/2 t), salt (7 g).  I've found that 10% or so of whole wheat and its ability to absorb more water, makes a high hydration dough more manageable.

I mixed with a wooden spoon, then used my wet hand to squish it around.  I did a few turn and folds for the first hour at room temp.  A few more turn and folds and let it rise about 6 hours.  Another turn and fold, bench rested for a 20 min or so (dog walk), loaf formation into a boule,  placed it in a banneton, placed the banneton in a plastic bag and tossed it in the fridge overnight (ca. 8 hours).  Removed it,  let it warm and finish the proof about 2-3 hours.

Baking.  Oven preheated with the cast iron in there at 500F for an hour (your oven needs to be clean to sit at 500F empty).  I dusted the proofed loaf with atta, inverted it onto a peel, slashed the top and slid it on the cast iron.  Then I opened the door and misted the crap out of the oven using a hand pumped water sprayer (from Lowe's).  I sprayed the walls and the actual cast iron the bread sat on.  I repeated this a few times for the first 10 minutes of baking.  Then turned the oven to 425 and let it go for 30 minutes.  The loaf came out and the crust slightly fractured on cooling (the singing).  Not a lot, but it happened.  The fractured crust means a lot to me.

That's it
i. tightened up the dough with a small addition of wheat
ii. long slow rise
iii. baked on cast iron with steam at 2 temps
It's a keeper.


some bean tips

I've been preoccupied with cooking legumes for about the past year.  Fortuitously, in the middle of that period, I got to spend a couple weeks in Bangalore eating lots of beans.  I left there with wonderful memories of my favorite bean dish, dal mahkani, a spiced butttery, tomatoey mix of urad dal and kidney beans.  Drawers in our kitchen now overflow with masoor dal, lentils, kidney beans, navy beans, black and white chana, black eyed peas, black beans, etc.  Beans are a big part of our diet. 

This exploration into beans started when Indian coworkers tried to impress upon me the importance of a pressure cooker.  After some practice with one (I use a Faygor 8 qt stainless steel) I realized there is a loooong way to go between the doneness of a canned bean and overcooking to mush.  Canned beans are ok, I used to be a big fan of Bush's.  But a truly silky smooth bean needs a lot of extra cooking.

Here's my tips on beans:

1. My favorite weeknight method: Pressure cooker, most beans about 8 minutes, lentils less.  I use 720 g water (3C) / 200 g beans (1C, unsoaked, I almost always forget to soak beans) and about 10 g salt, often I use a source of pork too, most of the time just a slice of bacon.
2. I fully cook beans before other ingredients are added.  
3. I also slow cook beans, but NOT in a slow cooker.  I never have luck with a slow cooker, chalky.  Instead my slow cooker is the oven.  In a tightly covered cast iron dutch oven, I use beans, water, salt and a source of fat, often a few strips of bacon and bake at 220F for 3-4 hours.  Beans this way are sublime, perfectly smooth.  I've done black eyed peas and navy this way.  I've even cooked pulled pork on top of beans.  Also pretty perfect.
4. Chickpeas are bullet proof.  I see no other way than a pressure cooker, high setting, a good 30 minutes for a properly done chickpea (then conversion to chana masala is easy).  The outer skin may burst, but still need to taste to know if it's done.

Here's some recent oven preps:

Here's navy beans in water with some bacon.  Heated in tightly covered cast iron.
After 4h, the beans are perfectly tender.  I added molasses, mustard, brown sugar and some ketchup for perfect baked beans.

Here's a pork shoulder with salt and pepper on a mound of black eyed peas.  The meat to bean ratio was kind of ridiculous, but anyway, in the oven at 325F.

Affter about 4 hours, the beans were perfect and meat fell apart.  We piled this on crisped tortillas for a kind of nachos meal.