What I learned from 7 straight days of Bread Baking

It’s been a few days since the end of Bread Week, and I’ve had some time to decompress from my bread-baking frenzy. I’ve also had some time to gather some tips and tricks I picked up along the way that I think any beginning baker could benefit from. So here they are—the things I wish I’d known before I started this crazy endeavor:
  • When kneading, use the windowpane or finger poke test to ensure the dough is ready. For the windowpane test, the dough should be able to stretch to the point of being opaque without breaking. For the finger-poke test, poke the dough with your finger. If the indent remains (the dough doesn’t bounce back), it’s ready. Everyone warns about over-kneading, but from my experience, you’re way more likely to under-knead.
  • boiling water + a really hot oven + a pizza stone = an awesomely crusty bread with moist, chewy insides. Read this post and this post to see what I mean.
  • It’s best to let dough sit overnight in the fridge before baking it—the flavors are better. Just remember that you will have to proof it (let it rise to double it’s original size) once before it goes into the fridge and a second time before it goes into the oven to bake. The second proof will take longer if the bread has been in the fridge.
  • You don’t need to knead to get a great bread. Exhibit A.
  • You can use a just-barely-warm oven to proof your dough if the room is too cool (below 75 degrees). Turn the oven on, and just when it starts to get slightly warm, turn it off, put your dough in and cover it with a damp warm towel. Don’t let the oven get above 100 degrees, however, or the yeast will die.
  • Let your yeast dissolve in warm water (85-110 degrees) before incorporating it into the flour and other ingredients.
  • You be the judge when it comes to flour and water. Recipes often aren’t exact in terms of flour and water. Sometimes the dough is too dry, in which case you’ll need to add a smidge of water. If it seems to wet, add a little flour. Usually dough should be slightly tacky, but not overly sticky.
  • Bread flour is used in most recipes because it has a higher gluten content. It also needs to be kneaded longer than regular flour. All-purpose or wheat flour can be used as a substitute, usually, however.
  • Pitas (assuming you want yours to puff) and bagels were the most difficult, the no-knead bread and Monti’s Roman Bread the easiest or bread week.

Also, here are some of the most popular bread cookbooks, all now on my personal wish list:

Anyone else have any bread-making tips?

Last day of bread week: French baguette

French Baguette_4

Well my friends, today is officially the last day of bread week, and as I type, I still have dough underneath my fingernails and a fine dusting of flour covering every square inch of my kitchen.

Dough Hands_2

I’m not going to lie: This was a lot harder and more time consuming then I thought it would be. My mixer is on the verge of suicide (it was literally walking itself off the table with a loud thumping noise on that last large batch of dough), and I am in a carb-induced coma.

But I’ve learned a lot and gained some serious patience along the way. And I can’t tell you how rewarding it was to pull those final baguettes out of the oven and marvel at their crusty, golden-brown beauty.

The french baguette, the Holy Grail of all all breads (well, maybe it’s sourdough, but I haven’t had enough time to make a starter, OK??) is the perfect end to a week of endless kneading, bagel/pita heartbreak and overall triumph.

French Baguette_2

French Baguette

Adapted from Joe Pastry’s recipe (this is a VERY helpful blog for all you baking beginners out there—thanks to Sara at I Am A Food Blog for the tip!)

You’ll need:

3 1/2 cups bread flour

1 1/2 teaspoons yeast

3 teaspoons salt

1 1/4 cup lukewarm water

1 1/3 cup poolish (see Joe Pastry’s instructions, but be sure to double his measurements)

A small chunk (5-10 oz) of old dough (dough that has been in the fridge for 1-3 days)

First, you should have a chunk of old dough before you start. You can make some just for this purpose, again using instructions from Joe Pastry, or you can set some dough aside from another bread. I used some from my pitas.

Then, about 12-16 hours before you are going to start the dough, make your poolish.

It should be bubbly and foamy when it’s ready.


When the poolish is ready, mix the yeast and the water. Combine this with the poolish and flour and mix until incorporated. Chances are you may need a little more flour, but don’t worry, you can add that little by little as you knead. Let this sit for 20 minutes.

Now mix in the old dough (torn in pieces) and the salt and knead for 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and passes the windowpane test. It should still be a little tacky, but not so much that it’s impossible to work with. Put the dough in an oiled bowl covered in cling wrap and allow it to double in size (about 1 1/2 to 2 hours).

When the dough is done proofing, separate it into six equal sized balls, and the form them into football shapes and let rest for 10 minutes. Next time I’ll do this all on parchment to make it easier to transfer to the pizza stone (I tried to transfer the loaves to parchment after the final proof and it was difficult to say the least)

Baguette Dough

Baguette Dough_2

Then, take your hand and create an indent in the bottom of each loaf like so:

Baguette Dough_3

Then fold and pinch them together like this:

Baguette Dough_4

Baguette Dough_5

Apparently this creates tension on top for a nicer looking baguette, but I’m not sure if this did much for mine. Now roll these out into long, thin baguettes:

Baguette Dough_6

You can refrigerate these at this point (this makes the flavor better, they say. I refrigerated three and baked the other three) or let them rest for another 30 to 40 minutes. In the mean time, heat your oven to 500 with a pizza stone and a broiler tray in it.

When ready to bake, slice diagonally down the loaf (more vertical than horizontal). I think my loaves were a little too wet, or my knife not sharp enough, because this didn’t work very well for me. No biggie—this is just for show. Dust lightly with flour and slide the loaves (still on the parchment paper) onto the pizza stone.

Then pour a cup of hot water in the broiler tray and quickly close the oven.

French Baguette

Bake for 25-35 minutes, until golden brown.

My baguettes weren’t as pretty as Joe Pastry’s, but they were still completely delicious.

French Baguette_5

French Baguette_6

French Baguette_7

Well, thank you all for tagging along for this very LONG week. I’ll post within the next day or so to share the tips and tricks I’ve learned about bread making during this adventure.

Bread week, day 4: Challah


Something about bread week would be amiss without at least one recipe to celebrate my (half) Jewish heritage (and just in time for Shabbat!). Thanks to Heather at Chick n’ Pastry for the inspiration.

This challah is my first real loaf of the week—a braided one at that!—so it took some major chutzpah. Especially during my first few attempts to braid the dough. I was schvitzing like a whore in synagogue, I tell you. Oy vey.


Adapted from A Blessing of Bread

You’ll need

2 teaspoons instant yeast

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/8 cup warm water (add a little more if the dough isn’t moist enough)

3 large eggs, plus 1 for glazing

1 1/2 teaspoons salt (KOSHER, what else??)

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup dark corn syrup (original recipe calls for honey)

Mix your water, yeast and 1/4 cup of the flour in a bowl and let sit for 20 minutes. It should rise slightly and look bubbly. Then mix in your eggs, salt, oil and corn syrup or honey. When all the ingredients are well mixed, add the rest of the flour and mix thoroughly.

Work the dough into a ball. I hand-kneaded this time, as the recipe only called for 5 minutes of kneading. I was skeptical however, because after 5 minutes, my dough wasn’t passing the finger or windowpane test (which another Challah recipe called for).

I stopped kneading. I wrapped the dough in cling wrap to let sit in the fridge overnight. I unwrapped it and poked at it. I kneaded some more. I second guessed myself. I stopped kneading. Dough went back in the fridge. I hemmed and hawed and pulled it out again. I must have looked like a total meshugenah.

Once I’d quelled my O.C.D. (Obsessive Challah Disorder), I let the dough sit overnight in the fridge and proofed it (let it rise) again this morning. You can do this (proofing will take longer after it’s been in the fridge) or you can proof it immediately for about 1-2 hours, or until it’s doubled in size.

Then comes the fun part. And by fun I mean hellishly frustrating.

Separate your dough into six equal portions. Roll out each portion into a strand. The longer and thiner your strands, the longer and thinner your challah loaf will be. If the dough resists, either let it sit under a damp towel for a little or moisten it with a little water.

Now lay three of your strips out parallel to each other on floured parchment paper (this makes transferring the loaves to the pan easier). Pull the right strand over the top of the middle like so:

Braiding Challah

Then, take the left strand and pull it over the “new” middle (originally the right strand), like this:

Braiding Challah_2

Keep it going…

Braiding Challah_4

You got it …

braiding Challah_5

Don’t stop now!

OK, now pinch the ends together like this:

Braiding Challah_6

Do the other side, and then the next loaf. Let them sit and proof again for about two hours. I put mine in a slightly warm oven (no warmer than 100 degrees or so) with a dish of hot water on the bottom rack and put a wet towel over the loaves to speed up the process (took about an hour). The loaves should triple in size.

challah dough

Brush them with egg wash and a little salt and put them in a 325 degree oven for about 25-30 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.

This was by far the most labor-intensive bread yet, but well worth it. While my loaves weren’t picture perfect, they tasted pretty damn good—light, fluffy and slightly sweet, just as challah should. Not really sure what happened to the one on the left …




So mazel tov to me on my first challah loaf. Baking these troublesome things should definitely count as a mitzvah.

OK, I’m, done with the yiddish and hebrew …

Shabbat Shalom.

Now done for real.

Bread week, day 3: I say Lavosh, you say Lavash


Lavosh/lavash. Know aliases: cracker bread, lawaash, paraki, Armenian cracker bread, lahvosh, lawasha, naan-e-lavaash. But it’s moniker isn’t important. In the words of William Shakespeare, this cracker by any other name would taste as good.

Joelen at What’s Cookin’ Chicago recently made Lavosh, and after finding out that the recipe is included in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (and in fancy restaurant bread baskets everywhere), I decided that it counts towards day three of bread week.

Rosemary  and Parmesan Garlic Lavosh Crackers

(adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice)

You’ll need:

1 1/2 cups bread flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon instant yeast

1 tablespoon honey (I substituted corn syrup)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/3 to 1/2 cup water, room temperature

coarse salt, fresh ground pepper, garlic powder, rosemary, white pepper, shredded parmesan for topping

Mix all the ingredients minus the spices and parmesan for topping.

Knead for about 10 minutes. I learned another trick for checking dough doneness, in addition to the finger-poke test: if you can strech the dough without tearing it (in moderation, of course), it’s ready. This is called the “windowpane test.”

Let the dough rise in an oiled bowl covered with cling wrap until it has doubled in size. This should take about an hour and a half.

Lay out greased parchment paper on your work surface. Roll out the dough on the parchment until it is as thin as you can get it. I had to cut mine in half in order to fit the dough in two sheet pans.

Lavosh dough

Lavosh Dough_2

It should look like this:

Lavosh Dough_3

Put the dough, parchment and all, on sheet pans, spray with water and top with spices. You can get really creative here. I used freshly grated parmesan, fresh ground pepper, course salt and garlic powder for one, and rosemary, fresh ground pepper, white pepper, course salt and a few drizzles of olive oil for the other.

Then cut your dough into the desired shape. This is optional—you can always break it up into pieces after it bakes.

Lavosh Dough_5

Bake at 350 degrees for about 20-25 minutes. Some of my thinner pieces cooked faster, so I pulled them out a little early.


It turned out great—crunchy, spicy and flavorful. This would be great with soft cheese (actually, any cheese) and of course, say it with me now, “Butter!”



Bread week begins. Day 1: Bagels


Hello all. Happy belated Labor Day and welcome back to reality.

I woke up this morning ravenous for bagels. I also had a very random and nostalgic craving for Monti’s Roman Bread. I waited tables there in college and have been known to eat entire baskets of the stuff in one sitting.

This train of thought led me to reflect on my general obsession with breads of all shapes, sizes and flavors. For example …

Dave’s warnings about filling up on the bread basket when we eat out are futile. Don’t think I won’t buy a baguette and eat it with butter for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My last Trader Joe’s run yielded a glutinous bounty of sourdough, challah, bake-at-home french bread and bagels (and I was only a little ashamed). I wouldn’t last five hours on the Atkin’s diet.

I digress. The point is, all of these carb-filled daydreams brought me to a startling and embarrassing realization: I’ve never made bread. There, I said it. Phew. That feels better.

I think it’s because I can barely stand to let a loaf sit in my grocery bag for more than a millisecond before ripping it out and smearing it with butter. In fact, sometimes I can’t even be bothered to slice it or spread the butter on with a knife. So how could I possibly have the patience to bake it my own? Plus, I have to admit that something about the task has always seemed daunting.

That’s all changing this week as I attempt a carbohydrate crash course by baking a different bread each day. Without a bread maker. Break out the active yeast and let’s get going.


Basic Bagels

(Recipe adapted from bagelrecipes.net)

You’ll need:

2  eggs

1 egg white

1 potato, peeled and quartered

1 packet of active dry yeast (7 g)

4 cups of high-gluten or bread flour

¼ cup vegetable oil

1 ½ tablespoons of sugar, divided

½ tablespoon of salt

cornmeal (for pan)

First, some bagel tips. The reason I am putting these at the beginning is because, if you’re anything like me, chances are you’d skip over them otherwise:

  • When you dissolve the yeast in the water, be sure the water is about 110 degrees. Any hotter and the yeast will die, any colder and it will not develop properly.
  • Use high-gluten flour. I used all-purpose flour and the finished products weren’t as “bagely” as I thought they should be. The high gluten flour apparently makes them chewier.
  • Try adding two tablespoons malt syrup. It wasn’t in the recipe I used, but supposedly it adds a more authentic look and flavor.
  • When in doubt, knead it out. I didn’t knead my dough enough, so my bagels weren’t as puffy and chewy as I would like—kneading develops the gluten and allows the dough to rise. The picture below shows how mine fell a little flat:


First, boil a peeled and quartered potato in water for 15 minutes. Toss (or save for later?) the potato. Let 1/3 cup of the potato water cool to 110 degrees and then mix in the yeast, letting it dissolve. Set this aside for three minutes.

When ready, mix all ingredients together (using 1/2 tablespoon of sugar for the dough), plus another 2/3 cup of the potato water. Knead for about 10 minutes (a little less with a mixer). The dough should be elastic and stay indented when you poke it with your finger.

I, of course, used my KitchenAid mixer with the dough hook attachment for about 3 minutes and then hand kneaded the dough for a minute or two—ultimately not long enough.

Let the dough rest for 60 to 90 minutes in in a greased bowl covered with a damp towel. After the fact, I discovered that the dough should rest at a temperature of 80-85 degrees. You can either dial up the temp on your thermostat, or you can use an Alton Brown trick: put a shallow pan filled with very hot water on the bottom rack of your oven and put the bowl with the dough on the next rack up. The steam will rise, heat the oven, and keep the dough moist. You may want to also heat the oven for a minute or so, then turn it off just to get the temp up a little.

After the dough has risen to half it’s original size, divide it in to 12 equal parts. Roll each one into a ball and poke your finger through it to form a hole. Twirl the bagel around your finger to form a bagel shape. Let the formed dough rise (covered and warm) for another 20 minutes or so.


In the meantime, boil some water with the remaining tablespoon of sugar and preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Boil each bagel for about three minutes, flipping once. Place drained and boiled bagels on a greased and cornmeal-dusted pan and bake for about 15-20 minutes or until golden brown.


All in all, the bagels were good, but I definitely need to work on my bread-making technique. Follow the tips I’ve mentioned and hopefully yours will turn out better than mine.


Stay tuned for a new bread recipe each day this week. God help me.

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