Sourdough Pumpernickel

We have entered the last full week of March, and I’ve yet to mention that it is “National Flour Month,” a near-unforgivable oversight for someone who enjoys making homemade bread as much as I do. My adventures with sourdough have been well-documented here on Comfort du Jour, but it took St. Patrick’s Day to bring me back around to making our favorite sourdough pumpernickel. It had to be done, given the volume of homemade corned beef we have (not to mention all that pastrami), and the rising aroma of this bread from the oven was enough on its own to convince me I’d waited too long.

What makes this bread extra special for me is that I make my own flour for it, from freshly milled rye grain. This sounds more impressive than it really is, thanks to a handy grain mill that latches onto my KitchenAid stand mixer. I just turn the dial to select the grind, pour in the grain and turn it on. I purchased the mill in the summer of 2016, when “Pete,” my sourdough starter, was still wet behind the ears, and I’ve found it particularly useful for some of my lesser-used grains, including rye. After whole grain has been milled into flour, the freshness clock starts ticking, and there is nothing tasty about rancid flour. Now, when I want to make rye bread (or pumpernickel, which is technically almost the same), I mill the grain fresh, but only the amount I need, and I’m good to go with flour that far excels what I could have bought pre-milled.

Milling the grain myself allows me to grind only the amount I need, so my whole grain stays fresh longer.

This recipe relies on sourdough for rise and flavor, though there is also a small (optional) amount of instant dry yeast to boost the rising power and make the ferment time more predictable. As with many other sourdough loaves, this one begins the day before with a pre-ferment called a “sponge,” and that’s when the freshly milled rye flour starts working its magic. The rest of the flour is high-protein bread flour, which is needed for its strength because rye does not have a lot of gluten.

Coarse-milled whole rye grain is known as pumpernickel meal, and it may surprise you to know that the dark, rich color of “pumpernickel” bread is mostly for show, and it comes into the bread by way of either caramel color (which isn’t likely in your pantry), strong coffee (either liquid or powdered) or—as is the case with mine—cocoa powder! And no, it does not make the bread taste like chocolate. There’s also an unusual, time-honored technique that will come into play with this bread, and it involves bread from another time (more on that in a minute).

Up to this point, the sourdough pumpernickel recipe I’m describing has been drawn straight from p. 246 of Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, the same book I depended on to learn sourdough baking in the first place. But something in my nature will not let me leave well enough alone, and I have put my own spin on this recipe—not because I think I know better than the author, but because I love certain additional flavors in my rye breads, and so I have either substituted or added ingredients, following rules that Reinhart himself would approve. Rather than brown sugar, I add molasses for a deep, earthy sweetness, and I accent this bread with onions, dill and caraway seeds, none of which are called for in the original recipe.

The resulting bread never ceases to thrill my taste buds, and it has been terrific this past week with our homemade corned beef, but I confess my favorite way to enjoy it is the same as most every bread—it makes fabulous toast!

Just give me this, every day for the rest of my life, please!

Ingredients

On Day 1:

7 oz. ripe (recently fed) sourdough starter

4.25 oz. coarse whole grain rye flour* (see notes)

6 oz. water, room temperature

Combine the starter, coarse rye flour and water in a medium bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let it ferment at room temperature about 5 hours, until it looks very bubbly and active. Transfer the sponge to the refrigerator overnight.

On Day 2:

2 Tbsp. molasses

2 oz. water, room temperature

2 Tbsp. olive oil (mine is infused with dill)

1 heaping Tbsp. minced dried onion, rehydrated with warm water

9 oz. bread flour*

1 Tbsp. cocoa powder* (optional, see notes)

1 tsp. instant dry yeast*

1 1/2 tsp. fine-textured salt

1 Tbsp. caraway seed, plus a few sprinkles for topping* (optional)

Up to a cup of dry bread crumbs from a previous rye loaf* (optional)

1 or 2 tsp. dried dill leaves (optional)

Egg wash for topping and cornmeal for baking

*Notes

If you don’t have a grain mill, it’s no problem. Use whole rye flour, which is available in specialty markets such as Whole Foods. The pre-milled flour and resulting bread will have a finer texture, but all the flavors will still be present.

I mentioned above that strong coffee is sometimes used to give deep color to pumpernickel, but for this recipe, I would not recommend using brewed coffee in the overnight sponge. Espresso powder or a fine-textured instant coffee mixed with the flour would be a better bet if coffee is your coloring agent of choice.

Caraway seeds give a distinct note to rye or pumpernickel bread, but it is a polarizing flavor for some people. When someone tells me they don’t like rye bread, I usually assume it is the caraway. It is a warm, slightly biting flavor, and I love it, so I put it in the dough and also on top of the bread.

The addition of the “old” bread crumbs is optional, but it adds an interesting texture and depth of flavor to the finished bread. In a way, the secondary crumbs are another type of sourdough, given that the flavor and existing yeast in them contribute something to the final product. If you choose to try this, I would recommend using crumbs from a home-baked bread, and preferably sourdough, to exclude unnecessary commercial preservatives and such.


Instructions


  1. The day before you intend to make this sourdough pumpernickel, you will need to feed your starter with the entire amount of coarse, whole grain rye flour and water to make it a soupy mixture. Cover it with plastic wrap and give it a few hours at room temperature until it becomes foamy and bubbly, then put it to bed in the fridge until morning.
  2. Remove the sponge from the fridge for about an hour to knock the chill off it. Pour a small amount of boiling water over the dried chopped onions to re-hydrate them.
  3. In the mixing bowl of a stand mixer, combine the bread flour, cocoa, salt, instant dry yeast and caraway seed. If using the “old bread” technique, also add the crumbs to the flour blend.
  4. Stir water, molasses and oil into the fermented sponge.
  5. Combine the sponge mixture and re-hydrated onions with the dry ingredients and mix with a beater blade until dough becomes a cohesive mass around the beater. Scrape down dough, cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a slightly damp towel and rest 30 minutes.
  6. Switch to the dough hook and knead in the stand mixer about 5 minutes. The dough will be dense and sticky, but resist the temptation to add more flour or you will end up with a gummy bread.
  7. Shape dough into a smooth ball and place it in a large, oiled bowl. Cover and rest in a quiet, warm spot of the kitchen until dough has doubled in size, which may be anywhere from 2 to 3 hours, depending on ambient room temperature.
  8. Grease a 9-inch loaf pan and sprinkle corn meal into the pan, tapping to distribute it evenly in the pan.
  9. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured counter, pressing and stretching the dough into an oblong shape, about 8 inches wide and 16 inches long. Sprinkle the dried dill onto the dough, then roll it up into a loaf shape to match the length of your bread pan. The loaf will rise more evenly if the ends of the dough meet the ends of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap or an elastic cover and let the bread proof 60 to 90 minutes, until dough has risen to about an inch above the rim of the pan.
  10. Near the end of the proofing time, preheat the oven to 350° F, with rack in the center.
  11. Brush the surface of the bread with egg wash and sprinkle it with additional caraway seeds.
  12. Bake for 45 minutes, turning bread halfway through baking time. Internal temperature should be about 190° F and the bread should sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.
  13. Turn bread out onto a cooling rack, and cool completely before slicing.

No, this pretty girl is not asking for pumpernickel. She can smell butter from 100 miles away!

Want to make this sourdough pumpernickel?


Sourdough Potato Bread with Onion & Dill

The joy of baking homemade bread, for me, is second only to the bliss of eating it. Or is it the other way around? When I established my sourdough culture in early 2016, I wasn’t sure how successful the adventure would be or if I would tire of eating “only” sourdough. As I’ve declared here several times, though, sourdough is not exclusively a flavor of bread, but a method of giving rise to the dough, and I rarely use commercial yeast in any form of bread anymore—whether it’s pizza dough, English muffins, waffles, soft pita breads, challah or focaccia. For me, there’s no turning back, and I cannot imagine tiring of it. Sourdough rules!

The potato bread I’m sharing today is my adaptation of a sandwich bread recipe I’ve grown to love by King Arthur Baking Company. KA’s version of this bread uses dry active yeast, but I’ve converted it by conjuring my math skills; I’ve swapped out equal amounts of liquid and flour (by grams, of course) for the appropriate percentage of my ripe-and-ready starter (sourdough nerds understand me). The result is terrific on its own, but I’ve recently taken the recipe a bit further with the addition of minced onions and a dill swirl and—well, wow.

The dill swirl lends a nice touch to your favorite sandwiches. My hubby especially loves it with his tuna salad and a fresh leaf of lettuce.

The recipe itself is unusual, in that the mixed dough does not have an initial rise at room temperature; it moves directly to the refrigerator for cold overnight fermentation. It’s very sticky dough that is not easily kneaded, so I recommend use of a stand mixer if you have one. After chilling overnight, the cold dough is easier to handle and shape into a loaf to proof at warm room temperature until it’s ready to bake. Words don’t adequately describe the aroma that wafts from the oven.

The cooked Yukon gold potato and softened butter lend a soft texture and lovely gold color, and the onion and dill I’ve added make it a great choice for all kinds of sandwiches. My hubby declared a few mornings ago that this sourdough potato bread may be his favorite bread ever for breakfast toast. Of course, he has said that about my soft sourdough rye, too (I’ll share that one soon).

My ingredients are measured by weight, because that’s how I bake. I highly recommend a digital scale for consistent results in any kind of baking, but especially for bread. If you’re not ready to get on the sourdough train, you can still enjoy this bread. Follow the original instructions offered by King Arthur, but halve the ingredients, as KA’s recipe makes two loaves. The onion and dill flavors are my own Comfort du Jour twist.


Adapted from King Arthur Baking Company
Makes one loaf

Ingredients

1 large Yukon gold potato, peeled and cut into large chunks (boil and mash the potato, then measure out 100g for use in this recipe)

100g ripe sourdough starter (fed 8 to10 hours earlier; my starter is 100% hydration)

100g lukewarm water* (include the potato cooking water in this total)

40g (about 3 tablespoons) sugar

260g unbleached all-purpose flour*

80g white whole wheat flour*

1 large egg (room temperature)

1 1/4 tsp. fine sea salt

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened to room temperature.

2 Tbsp. dried minced onion, rehydrated 15 minutes in 2 Tbsp. warm water (optional)

2 tsp. dried dill leaves (or 2 Tbsp. fresh dill if you have it)


*Notes

Reserve the water used in cooking the potato, and add more water to total the amount needed for the recipe. The potato starch in the cooking water will add to the fine texture of the bread.

The original KA recipe calls for only all-purpose flour, but I always swap in at least some amount of whole grain flour. Make it as you like, but don’t swap more than 25% of the total flour without also adjusting the ratio of liquid. My swap is within that suggested limit, and it works great.


Instructions – Day One


  1. Combine all ingredients, except butter and dill, in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix on low speed until ingredients come together and form a shaggy ball on the beater blade, and all flour is incorporated. Scrape dough from beater blade. Cover and allow dough to rest 20 minutes.
  2. Switch to the dough hook and knead the dough on low speed for about 2 minutes.
  3. Add the pieces of softened butter, one or two at a time, and mix on speed 2 until each addition of butter is worked into the dough. Continue to knead at this speed for about six more minutes. The dough will be very soft and sticky.
  4. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap or elastic cover and transfer immediately to the refrigerator at least overnight or up to 24 hours.

On Baking Day


  1. Lightly spray a clean countertop (and a 9 x 4” bread pan) with olive oil spray. Remove the refrigerated dough to the counter and use your fingers to spread it out into a rectangle shape, about 6 x 18”. Sprinkle the dough with the dill leaves.
  2. Beginning at one of the short ends, roll the dough up tightly, tucking in the ends as you go to keep the dough in a smooth cylinder shape. Use a bench scraper if needed to release the sticky dough from the counter. When you get to the end, pinch the seam closed. Tuck the ends as needed to fit the dough into the greased bread pan. Cover with plastic wrap or elastic “shower cap” cover and proof at warm room temperature until the dough rises above the top of the pan.  This may take anywhere from 4 to 6 hours, depending on the strength of your starter and the temperature of the room.
  3. Near the end of rising time, preheat oven to 350° F, with baking rack in center position.
  4. Remove plastic wrap from pan and gently transfer the loaf to the oven. At this point, the dough may appear “jiggly;” you don’t want to cause it to collapse, so try not to jostle it too much. Bake at 350 for a total of 45 to 50 minutes, turning halfway through baking time to ensure even browning. At the halfway point, cover the loaf loosely with a foil tent to prevent over-browning. Bread is fully baked when it reaches 190° internal temperature. Cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, then carefully turn it out onto a cooling rack. You may need to run a clean knife or plastic scraper along the edges of the bread for easier release. Cool at least two hours before cutting, and completely (this may mean overnight) before wrapping it up in a plastic bag.  
The dill makes a pretty swirl in this loaf, but you could easily substitute another favorite dried herb.

Want to make this bread?


Sourdough Focaccia with Pomegranate & Walnuts

I’m learning more about the Jewish traditions that are part of the tapestry of life for my husband, Les, and this week I was surprised to learn that there are multiple new year occasions worth celebrating. We had the big one, Rosh Hashanah, back in the fall, which we celebrated at our house with a twist on beer can chicken, oven-roasted with a honey glaze. This week marks another “new year,” called Tu Bishvat, an environmentally themed observance that centers on trees and all the good things we enjoy because of them. If you’ve ever sat beneath a tree to escape the high-noon heat, you know how protective they can be. And if you’re fortunate enough to have a fruit-bearing tree, you know the joy of anticipation as you watch the fragrant blossoms turn into sweet, juicy edibles.

Our local temple recently held an online celebration for Tu Bishvat, and it included a fun food challenge, which yours truly could not resist. Participants were charged with creating and virtually sharing a dish made with one of the “seven species” highlighted during this occasion—wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranate, olives and dates.

The title of this recipe gives away my assignment (pomegranate), and I’m happy to share it as my latest food adventure.

It smells so good from the oven!

What I love about focaccia is that it is an easy bread to make, as long as you aren’t bothered by the sticky, loose consistency of the dough. It’s a high hydration recipe, which is a bread nerd’s way of saying it’s a really wet dough. Kneading by hand isn’t really an option, but there’s an easy technique of stretching and folding the dough, which builds strength and makes it more workable. My focaccia is sourdough-based, because that’s what I do, but you can find easy yeast-risen focaccia recipes online using commercial yeast if you prefer (try this quick and easy recipe from King Arthur Baking Company).

Enjoy!

Sourdough Focaccia with Pomegranate and Walnuts

Adapted from Maurizio Leo’s recipe for Simple Sourdough Focaccia
Makes one 9” x 13” rectangle or two 9” round bread loaves


Ingredients

115g ripe sourdough starter, 100% hydration* (see notes)

460g filtered water, at room temperature

350g all-purpose flour

180g bread flour*

75g white whole wheat flour

11g salt

12g mild-flavored extra virgin olive oil + extra oil for topping

Toppings*

About 1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted at 400° F until lightly browned and fragrant

1/2 cup pomegranate arils*

Several sprigs fresh thyme, washed and leaves removed

Coarse or flaky sea salt (I used a specialty salt flavored with chocolate!)


*Notes

My recipe is described with weight measurements because this is how I bake. If you prefer to measure by volume in cups, please consider following the recipe on King Arthur Baking site, where ingredients are listed by weight or volume. If you decide to delve into the world of sourdough, I highly recommend purchase of a digital kitchen scale, as measuring by weight ensures precision and consistent results. You don’t have to spend a bundle for a digital scale. Mine is adjustable for ounces, grams and milliliters, and I picked it up at Walmart for only about $20.

Sourdough starter is considered “ripe” a few hours after feeding, when it has nearly tripled in volume, then begins to fall. It will have a very bubbly surface appearance and a fruity, slightly sour aroma. My starter is 100% hydration, which means it is equal parts flour and water.

Bread flour is higher in protein than regular, all-purpose flour. The protein content gives more strength to bread dough, a benefit that is particularly important with a wet dough. I prefer the King Arthur brand, which is sold in a blue and white bag at most well-stocked supermarkets.

My focaccia is topped with pomegranate arils (which I purchased ready-to-go in the produce department), toasted walnuts and fresh thyme, but there are many other terrific combinations, so use what you like—olives, figs, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, caramelized onions are all fantastic. Try it sometime with roasted grapes and feta cheese. Yum!


If you want to “fancy up” your focaccia, try drizzling it with a reduction of pomegranate juice and balsamic vinegar. Instructions below!

Instructions

Making bread can seem a little intimidating. I know, because it used to be scary for me. But as with any relationship, it takes some time and experience, trial and error to find your comfort with dough. If you want to learn to make bread, focaccia is a great place to begin. There’s no kneading, and it doesn’t punish you if you mess up your timing. I love a forgiving recipe! Have a look at the slides to get the idea, then give it a go with the instructions below. Keep scrolling for a downloadable PDF for your recipe files. You’ve got this! 🙂

  1. Combine starter and water in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix together into a slurry.
  2. Whisk together flours and salt in a separate bowl. Add flour all at once to the starter mixture. Using the mixer’s lowest speed, beat until all flour is absorbed into the starter, which should only take 1 to 2 minutes. Increase to the next speed and beat for about 5 minutes. The dough will be wet and sticky, but gathered up around the beater blade. Remove beater blade, cover the bowl and let it rest for about 15 minutes.
  3. Using the dough hook, and with mixer on low speed, slowly pour in the olive oil and mix until oil is fully blended into the dough, plus about 2 more minutes. The dough will seem impossibly wet and heavy, but don’t give in to the temptation to add more flour.
  4. Transfer the dough to a large, wide bowl and cover, resting it in a warm, draft-free spot in the kitchen for a total of 2 hours. Don’t wander off though, because you’ll need to do some stretching and folding over the course of the first couple hours.
  5. After 30 minutes, using wet hands, grab hold of one side of the dough, keeping it in the bowl. Pull it up and over the rest of the dough. Turn the bowl halfway around and repeat with the other side of the dough, then turn it a quarter way, and repeat with the other two sides, for a total of four stretches.
  6. Repeat the stretch and folds at 60 minutes, 90 minutes, and the 2-hour mark. This intermittent stretching makes a big difference in the strength and condition of the dough, so don’t skip it.
  7. Prepare a pan (or two) for baking by drizzling olive oil into the pan. Transfer focaccia dough to the pan(s) and spread as best you can to fill the pan. Don’t worry if it doesn’t stretch all the way at first. Cover the pan and rest dough for 30 minutes, then spread it again. Use wet hands (or spray them with oil) to avoid sticking to the dough. Give the dough about 4 hours to proof. During this time, you’ll notice quite a bit of puffiness develop—this is good!
  8. Near the end of proofing time, preheat oven to 450° F with a rack in the lower third of the oven.
  9. Using wet (or oiled) hands, gently press your fingertips straight down in a wide pattern all over the focaccia dough. The goal is to make deep dimples in the dough but leave large air pockets in between. Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of additional olive oil over the surface, and sprinkle toppings evenly over the dough. It helps to arrange the toppings into the dimples so they are not sitting high on the surface of the bread. You can press them into the dough to accomplish this, but take care to only use your fingertips to keep the bubbly texture going.
  10. Sprinkle top of bread with flaky sea salt. Bake at 450 for about 30 minutes, turning bread at the halfway time for even baking. Use a loose foil tent if needed to prevent over-browning.
  11. Cool the focaccia in the pan for a few minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Enjoy it warm or cool completely before wrapping and storing.
The focaccia is about 2 inches high, and you can see the pomegranate seeds and walnuts are deeply embedded into the bread.

Want to print this recipe?


Who’s getting fancy in here?

Les teases me all the time about my use of “balsamic reduction,” which is nothing more than quality balsamic vinegar simmered until it’s reduced to half volume. This is not rocket science, but it sure does seem to impress people! For this focaccia, I combined about 1/2 cup pure pomegranate juice (easy to find in the produce section) with a couple tablespoons of real balsamic vinegar from Modena. I happened to have a bottle that is also infused with pomegranate, and you can find it at one of the specialty oil & vinegar shops that have popped up all over the U.S. A reduction can vary in flavor from tart to sweet, depending on the ingredients, and it adds a nice final pizzazz to even a simple dish.

Let me hear you say, “Ooooh, aaah! 😀

Sourdough Pumpkin Challah (a bread maker’s journey)

When I set out in 2011 to learn the terrifying skill of bread making, my primary goal was to have the welcoming aroma waft out of my oven and throughout the house. Who doesn’t love the smell of freshly baked bread? My first few attempts were pretty confused, with some downright inedible, but also with a couple of winners that were probably accidental. I finally got good at making the simplest bread of all time, the English muffin loaf, a minimal ingredient recipe which requires no kneading and is really hard to screw up. And then, me being me, I decided to go ahead and up my game without first mastering the basics of real kneaded bread. It’s just what I do, setting the bar very high for myself. Perhaps the result of being raised by a perfectionist father and impossible-to-please mother? That is a motive I’ll leave to my therapist for analysis.

“I’ll make artisan loaves,” I declared, having absolutely no idea what I was getting into. When I had my first successful artisan boule (a bread nerd’s term for a round crusty bread made without a loaf pan), I charged forward with another idea—that I would henceforth make only sourdough bread. As I have mentioned in a previous post, “sourdough” is commonly (though incorrectly) assumed to be a flavor of bread, but it is more accurately understood as a leavening method. The process begins with creation of a culture that you feed regularly, only flour and water and nothing else, and the culture replaces commercial yeast. For me, this began in early 2016.

My sourdough culture does the same work as the recognizable yellow yeast packets, but in twice the time (you have to be patient, which means it’s been a learning experience for me) and resulting in five times the flavor of bread that is produced with commercial yeast. Sourdough is a fussy thing to learn (with lots of math involved), but once the light bulb goes off and you understand how to relate to it, there’s no going back. This is exactly the thing I’ve wanted my whole life—a relationship that is so solid, there’s no going back. Thank you, God.

Somewhere along the way of making sourdough bread, however, I lost a bit of my gumption and started playing it safe—making only a few “safe” sourdough breads, or the ones that worked out just right every time. The potato onion sourdough loaf that is easy to shape because you do it while the dough is cold, and it stays so soft and is perfect for my husband’s beloved tuna salad sandwiches. The sourdough rye loaf that seems to work backward from all the other loaves, in that the sponge (nerd speak for “wet starter”) contains the full amount of water for the recipe, but somehow the bread comes out perfect every time. The “basic” sourdough loaf from my Peter Reinhart book that is supposed to emerge from the oven with a crackling crust, but mine only did so on my very first try, giving me a confidence that I hadn’t yet earned. And the sourdough challah, which many experienced bread makers have doubted is even possible, given that challah dough is sweetened with a good deal of honey, which tends to put the whole process into even slower motion than sourdough already does. But I’ve made sourdough challah successfully for two years, though only for celebration of the big Jewish holidays that allow leavened bread: Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah.

Still, I wanted to push it further and make a pumpkin challah, for which there are plenty of recipes on the internet. Except none were made by way of sourdough, and so that became the new high bar for me. For two years, I kept this challenge off in the distance, lest I be disappointed in the outcome. If you’ve ever baked with pumpkin, it was probably muffins or quick bread or something that is intended to be soft and kind of crumbly in texture. I’ve tried making chocolate chip cookies with pumpkin, and they were tasty, but cake-y and more like muffin tops than cookies (let’s not discuss what they did to my own muffin top). I made a successful sourdough pumpkin artisan boule a couple years ago, and it was delicious, but dense. I really, really wanted a sourdough pumpkin challah.

Fast forward to this week, and this gorgeous, swirly slice of sourdough perfection.

All that pumpkin! And swirls of maple sugar and warm autumn spices.

Introducing pumpkin to the mix is complicated for several reasons. First, I had to speculate how much moisture vs. bulk to account for in the pumpkin puree, because I had to create my own recipe and formula. Secondly, the fibrous nature of pumpkin puree contradicts the stretchy gluten structure of bread; the puree is wet, but it isn’t liquid. Challah is made with several eggs and oil—in its classic form, it should be light and soft inside, with a delicately chewy crust. With so much adjustment, coupled with long ferment times, I was sure that I’d fail in this venture. I hate to fail. But if failure is inevitable, I will go down in flames. Dramatic? Welcome to my mind.

The trouble is, I didn’t fail. No, I definitely did not.

The round braided loaf has a maple-spice swirl, and the braided wreath is filled with a blend of dried fruits: cranberries, golden raisins, blueberries and cherries.

This first attempt at making a naturally leavened pumpkin challah had me on pins and needles from start to finish, but these two loaves far exceeded my expectations. And, just in time for Rosh Hashahah! My loaves are round in shape to symbolize the new year, and coming around full circle. I cannot wait to make French toast this weekend. Imagine the bread pudding possibilities! I feel like a proud mama, showing off pictures of a new grandbaby.

“Do I smell pumpkin?”

I’m so excited, I want to run to the market and buy every can of pumpkin puree on the shelves. The next round of sourdough pumpkin challah for everyone is on me! Wait, maybe I’ll grow the pumpkins and cook them myself—that may become the next high bar? No, perhaps I shall make it again a few more times to be sure my formula is correct. And though I know that most of my followers here will not ever roll up their sleeves and make this bread (except my fellow sourdough nerds, for whom I’ve presented my formula and notes in PDF at the end), for now, I am delighted to show you the pictures of my journey. Thank you for looking. 😀

Happy fall, everyone, and “shanah tovah!”

For bread nerd eyes only 🙂


Soft Pita Breads

(and a BONUS recipe!)

This recipe has become one of my go-to breads. It’s simple to make and doesn’t require use of the oven, which is great when the weather is warm. This is an adaptation of a recipe from King Arthur Flour. Theirs is great, but I always substitute a portion of whole wheat flour into the recipe, and I add milled flax seed and onion flavor to this one as well. It’s an unusual style of recipe, which begins with “cooking” some of the flour with boiling water. This unique method, and the addition of potato flakes, results in a very soft, bendable pita bread—perfect for gyros or souvlaki wraps, but you can also cut them into wedges and drag through a bowl of fresh hummus. Yum!

Ingredients

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided* (see notes)

1 cup whole wheat flour* (I use KAF’s white whole wheat)

1 1/4 cups boiling water

1/2 cup dried potato flakes*

1 tsp. milled flax seed (optional)

1 1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. onion powder

1 tsp. instant yeast*

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

*Notes

Accurately measure the flour by fluffing it, spooning it into measuring cup, and leveling off.

Look for potato flakes without added ingredients (Whole Foods has them). Or use real cooked potato and only 3/4 cup water in the recipe, and use the potato cooking water.

Instant yeast does not behave in the same way as active dry yeast, which needs to be “proved” first. Dissolve active dry yeast for five minutes in a few tablespoons of warm water, and reduce the overall water in the recipe by the same amount. If your yeast doesn’t become foamy during this step, it’s dead (I’m so sorry for your loss). Next time, keep it in the freezer.


Instructions

Add 1 cup all-purpose flour and the whole wheat flour into a mixing bowl, and pour the boiling water over it. Mix with a heavy spoon (or use a stand mixer) until combined and smooth. This is going to feel a little bit like paste, but trust me, they will turn out great. Cover and allow mixture to rest 30 minutes.

Combine the remaining all-purpose flour with rest of the dry ingredients and add to the cooked flour paste. Mix until fully incorporated, then add olive oil to the mixing bowl and knead several minutes until dough is smooth and supple. Shape dough into a ball and allow it to rise, covered, in a lightly oiled bowl about 1 hour until it is puffy. If it doesn’t bounce back when you poke it, you’re ready to proceed. If it giggles, well…

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, gently deflate, and cut into eight pieces. Shape the pieces into balls, then cover with a clean towel and allow them to rest 15 minutes. This gives the gluten time to relax so the dough is easier to roll.


Heat a griddle or dry skillet over medium-low heat (about 325° F). While surface is heating, roll out one dough ball at a time (on floured surface) into a thin circle, about 8 inches across. Cook about 1 minute on the first side or until you see toasty flecks on the bottom. Carefully turn to cook the other side 1 minute. The pita breads will puff up quite a bit on the griddle while the second side is cooking. Remove them to a wire rack.

These are best enjoyed right away, but you can also cool them completely and store in a tightly sealed bag at room temperature for about 4 days. King Arthur says you can freeze them, but I’ve never tried it because we always devour them within a day or two. Leftovers (if you have them) are great as scrambled egg wraps.

But wait, there’s MORE!

Souvlaki Bonus Recipe

There’s so much flavor in these tasty little bites, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to make them. They’re mouthwateringly lemony, packed with Mediterranean herbal flavor, and versatile. Serve them on soft pita breads with tzatziki or on top of a Greek salad. They’re also not bad eaten cold, straight from the fridge. Or, so I’ve heard. Give the marinade plenty of time to work its magic—the results are definitely worth the wait!

Ingredients

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast*

Juice of 1 large lemon

1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

3 or 4 cloves fresh garlic, finely chopped

2 tsp. dried Mediterranean oregano

1 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1/2 tsp. each kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

*This marinade is also delicious on pork. Cut up 1 pound of lean pork loin and proceed as for chicken. It would be tasty on shrimp also, but reduce the marinating time to 1 hour and shorten cooking time as well.

Instructions

Cut chicken breast into bite-size chunks and add them to a large glass (or other non-reactive) bowl. In a measuring cup with a pour spout, combine lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. Drizzle the olive oil into the mixture, whisking constantly, until it’s combined. Pour marinade over the chicken pieces and toss to coat, then cover and refrigerate several hours to overnight.

Preheat gas grill to 400° F. Thread chicken pieces onto skewers or use a grilling pan. Discard remaining marinade. Cook chicken 12 to 14 minutes, turning to cook all sides, until edges are lightly charred and crispy, and juices run clear. Enjoy on a Greek salad or soft pita breads.

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Sourdough English Muffins

Who doesn’t love an English muffin? It’s a terrific change-up from the usual toasted bread for breakfast, and at our house, we’re eating a lot of them lately. They’re quick and simple to make, with or without a stand mixer, and you don’t even need to turn on your oven. My recipe makes 12, and though that may seem like a lot for one household, I’ll note that these muffins aren’t just for breakfast. They also make exceptional burger buns, and my husband uses them to make sandwiches to take to work for lunch, too!

My inspiration recipe comes from King Arthur Flour, my favorite brand. And while I would certainly disclose any financial agreements with vendors, I will be clear to say that KAF is not paying me to brag about their products (not yet, anyway, but I’m open, baking team). I just like them, and I trust their website for products, baking ideas and help when I need it.

Their recipe for Sourdough English Muffins does require the use of ripe (fed) sourdough starter, and although it typically calls for addition of commercial yeast (for quicker rise), it’s possible to omit it, and I’ve adjusted for that in my notes below. If you don’t have a starter, their yeast-risen English muffins are great, too. It’s tough to find yeast during the COVID-19 pandemic, but if you happen to have some in your pantry, you’re golden. Here’s a tip—you can ration your yeast by halving the amount called for in the recipe; just give it more time to rise. This is true for virtually any yeast recipe, by the way.

Let’s Get Cooking!

Because the KAF recipe yields 24 English muffins (holy moly, that’s a lot!), I’ve taken the liberty of adjusting all the ingredients by half. Additionally, I always swap in some portion of whole grain flour in place of white, and I usually add some milled flax seed because I cannot leave well enough alone. You decide, based on your own experience and comfort level. If you notice grainy spots in my technique photos, this is the reason. They literally are grainy spots.

When these are completely cooled, you can put them in a sealed plastic bag. They’ll keep on the counter for up to a week, or you can put them in the freezer. No need to thaw them before toasting. I hope they turn out great for you!

Ingredients and Tools

(weight measurement included for seasoned bakers; if you’re baking these for the first time, please see notes section for tips on the best way to accurately measure your flour for baking)

1/2 cup (114g) ripe sourdough starter* (stirred down before measuring – see notes)
1 cup (227g) warm filtered water (ideally, about 110° F)
1/2 tsp instant yeast (optional, for quicker rise)
1 Tbsp. (12g) sugar
3 1/2 cups (422g) all-purpose flour* (see notes for measuring and substitutions)
1/4 cup (22g) nonfat dry milk* (see notes if you don’t have this)
1 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
2 Tbsp. (28g) butter, room temperature
Additional flour for dusting counter for kneading
Cornmeal for dusting muffins before baking

*Notes

  • If you don’t have a kitchen scale, use this method for accurately measuring flour in baking
  • For sourdough science nerds who may be wondering, my starter is 100% hydration; I feed it (once or twice a week) 90/10 high protein bread flour/freshly milled rye flour
  • You may substitute whole wheat flour up to 1/3 of the total amount of flour
  • If you don’t have nonfat dry milk, adjust the water to 3/4 cup and use 1/4 cup regular milk along with it

Stand mixer or large bowl and heavy wooden spoon
Plastic wrap and clean lightweight kitchen towels
Electric griddle or pan for stove-top “baking”
Heat-safe spatula for turning
Cooling rack for finished muffins


Instructions

In a mixing bowl, bring your starter to room temperature, or at least allow some of the refrigerator chill to wear off. Combine with warm water until it’s an even slurry, and stir in the sugar (and instant yeast, if using) a minute or so to dissolve sugar.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, dry milk and sea salt until well blended. Add to the wet mixture and stir with a heavy wooden spoon or blend in stand mixer until all dry ingredients are incorporated. Switch to kneading hook or turn the dough out onto a floured countertop. Knead until the dough feels a little less shaggy and more organized. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest about 20 minutes.

Stretch out the dough and spread the soft butter over it. The KAF recipe suggests adding the butter at the start, but I’ve learned to add fats after the flour is fully hydrated, so this is my method. Fold the dough up with butter inside and continue kneading, about 10 minutes by hand or 5 to 6 minutes by machine with dough hook. This part will get messy, but keep at it and eventually, the butter will work its way through the entire dough. You want smooth and even dough—soft and slightly tacky, but not sticky. Shape dough into a tight ball (if you imagine squeezing it around and toward the bottom, you’ll get a feel for this), place it in a lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap or lid and let it rise at room temperature until it’s puffy and nearly doubled in size. If your room is warm and you used additional yeast, this will be about 60 minutes. If you didn’t use yeast, it may be a couple of hours—give it the time it needs. Gently deflate the dough by pushing the center with your closed fist (one day soon, I’ll explain why I hate the term “punching down your dough”). With lightly oiled hands, reshape it into a ball, cover the bowl and put it into the refrigerator overnight. This step is beneficial either way, but especially important if you did not add yeast. Sourdough bakers already know that cold fermentation is a magical thing, and this down time in the fridge will result in extra flavor and improved texture.

In the morning, turn the cold dough out onto a lightly floured countertop and cut it into 12 roughly equal pieces. The simplest way I’ve found to do this is the cut the ball in half, then each half into halves, and each resulting half into thirds, like 12 little pieces of pizza. Shape each wedge into a tight ball, and flatten each ball with your fingertips onto a piece of parchment paper, sprinkled lightly with corn meal. They should measure about 3 1/4” across, or the size of—you guessed it—an English muffin! You will probably want to do two cookie sheets, each holding 6 muffins. Sprinkle the tops of the muffins with additional corn meal.

If the dough is still cold, it will probably shrink back—that’s OK. Cover them with plastic and let them rest 15 minutes to relax the gluten, then flatten them again. Cover the muffins with loose plastic wrap, lay a clean lightweight kitchen towel over the plastic and allow the muffins some privacy in a warm (but not hot) spot in your kitchen. I usually slide the pans into the oven, where it’s quiet and not at all drafty.

About 2 hours later, your muffins should look soft and puffy. My last batch rose to about 1/2” thickness, but they will puff more when you introduce them to heat.

If you have an electric griddle, heat it to about 325° F. If not, you can do it stove-top in a cast iron pan or griddle over medium-low heat. Our gas range has a “griddle in the middle” that allows me to do 6 muffins at a time; in a skillet, you’ll probably want to limit to 3 at once. I kept the flame pretty low because it’s better to cook them a tiny bit longer than to burn them.

I squeezed my camera underneath the griddle so you can see how low I set the flame. If you’re cooking your muffins stove-top, give the pan or griddle plenty of time to reach consistent heat.

When the griddle or pan is radiating consistent heat (you should be able to feel it easily with your hand about 6” above), gently place the muffins onto the surface. They will puff a bit more as they cook, but they won’t spread outward the way cookies do. Still, try to keep a bit of room between them so you can wiggle in a spatula when it’s time to turn them over.

After about 7 minutes, your muffins are probably ready to turn. Check by gently lifting up one edge and peeking underneath. If it looks golden and toasty, it’s time! Gently turn them without flipping too hard—you don’t want to deflate them in the process.

Give the second side about 6 more minutes, then check for doneness and remove them to a cooling rack to calm down. The sides of the muffins will still feel a bit soft, and that can be a little unnerving until you’ve made them a few times. Here’s a simple tip for testing doneness: when you turn over the first muffin, tap the cooked side lightly with your fingernail or the tip of your spatula. If it sounds hollow, you’re good. If it still feels a little soft or spongy, they probably need another minute. To be certain, you can slide the finished muffins onto a cookie sheet and into a pre-warmed 350° F oven for a few minutes to finish any raw insides.

When the muffins have completely cooled (and please, not one second sooner), use the tines of a fork to split through to the middle, all the way around.

Fork-splitting the muffins creates a perfect texture inside, and ensures plenty of pockets for butter or jam. Be certain they are completely cool before splitting them.

This will allow you to easily break them open later, for the beautiful nooks and crannies that I’m probably not allowed to talk about because of trademark rules.

But just look—can you think of a better way to describe those butter-loving pockets?

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