Category Archives: Bread Bakers Apprentice Challenge


#40. White Bread Makeover – from Drab to Fab!!

As I turned the page to our next challenge in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice cookbook I was a little disappointed to discover that we would be making white bread.  Now don’t get me wrong here.  I’m not one of those nutrition nuts who never lets anything put whole grains pass her lips.  And I’m not such a food snob that I would never eat regular packaged white bread.  I happen to believe that certain foods call for squishy white bread.  When it comes to a peanut butter and jam sandwich, the softer the bread, the better. 

No, my disappointment stems from the fact that we are nearing the end of the book and it seems kind of anti-climactic to be making  simple white bread so close to the end.  However, the breads are listed alphabetically in this book and so thrilling brioche, ciabatta, cinnamon buns and cranberry walnut celebration bread were at the beginning of the book and white bread comes near the end.  Perhaps Peter Reinhart should have called it Basic White bread?

As I stood at my kitchen counter, trying to muster up the enthusiasm to tackle white bread, my beautiful rosemary plant caught my eye and I had divine inspiration.  I was going to give my white bread a makeover.  You know, like on the cover of all those beauty magazines, where they promise that you can go from drab to fab in 10 minutes! My plain Jane white bread would be transformed into little buns in the shape of knots and topped with poppy and sesame seeds and  coarse salt.  I also planned to make a second batch using buttermilk instead of water in the dough.  These would become rosemary and roasted garlic cloverleaf rolls.

Most white bread recipes are enriched with milk of some sort, as well as egg, butter or oil and some sugar.  I used skim milk powder and water in my first batch.  The added fat came from butter and an egg. 

The dough comes together very quickly in the mixer.  Then it is allowed to ferment for until it doubles in size.  This happened in an hour.  I weighed and divided the dough into 18 equal pieces and formed rolled out 8 inch ropes.  After a 10 minute rest the ropes are twisted into knots.

Making knots is a simple way to dress up plain dinner buns.  Think of it like taking your everyday ponytail and twisting it up into a french knot.  Although my hair is never as cooperative as this dough was.  These knots were a joy to make!

After an hour of proofing time the knots received a thin layer of egg wash and a sprinkling of poppy and sesame seeds and some coarse salt. Fifteen minutes in a hot oven and they were done.  Crunchy on the outside from the seed topping and soft on the inside. 

For my second batch of white bread, Peter Reinhart offers a buttermilk variation.  He admits to being a “buttermilk guy”.  My kind of guy!  And while we’re on the topic of buttermilk, I have a bit of a pet peeve.  Why is buttermilk only sold in 1 litre containers?  I use a cup in the recipe and the rest just goes bad in my fridge.  That is, until I discovered that you can freeze the leftover buttermilk.  So now I can be a buttermilk girl whenever the whim strikes.

To create my little garlic rosemary cloverleaf rolls, I roasted some garlic for about 45 minutes until it was nice and squishy.  I mashed it with a fork and kneaded it into the dough, along with some chopped fresh rosemary.

Once the buttermilk dough had proofed, it was divided into 18 equal pieces.  I used a scale to save my sanity.  Each piece is further divided into 3 and then each little piece is rolled into a ball.  Then the little balls go into greased muffin cups and are set aside for final proofing.

Another hour and they had swollen to fill the pans. I sprinkled them with a bit of chopped rosemary and coarse sea salt.  Into a 400 oven for 12 minutes and they emerged golden brown and adorable.  Almost too cute to eat, but the aroma was too intoxicating to resist.  They were pillowy soft and melted in your mouth.  I really loved them! 

Makeover mission accomplished.  I think our girls were really glamorous!

#39. Vienna Bread


I was surprised to learn that Austria was the center of the bread universe hundreds of years ago.  These days French and Italian breads hog all the glory, but in fact, these wonderful artisan breads came to France and Italy courtesy of the Austrian-Hungarian empire.  It was there that the technique of adding steam to the ovens was developed.  The French have taken this method and developed, arguably, some of the best breads in the world, but it is the Austrians, specifically, Vienna bakers that we have to thank for this idea.

So this week, in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge, we pay tribute to Vienna Bread.  What makes Vienna bread different from French or Italian breads is the enrichment of the dough.  A little sugar and malt powder are added to help brown the bread and some butter and an egg to help tenderize the loaf.  I decided to make little pistoles (hoagie shaped buns) with my dough.

I also decided to treat the buns to a little Dutch Crunch topping. Made popular in Eastern Europe by Dutch bakers, this topping is a paste made of rice flour, bread flour, instant yeast, sugar, salt, vegetable oil and water.  You brush it on the dough before baking and the paste dries and cracks during baking, giving the surface  of the bread a mottled appearance and a crunchy texture.  Ever since I read fellow BBA Challenger Phyl’s post of his Vienna bread, I have been dying to try this topping.  It reminds me of my dry scaly dragon skin in the winter.  Not a very appetizing comparison, I realize, but kind of cool to look at.

The day before making the dough a pate fermente is prepared.  This is a starter, made with  flour, water, salt and yeast.  Peter Reinhart promises that this pre-ferment adds so much character to the finished bread.  On day 2 the dough is mixed up until satiny smooth and supple.  It rests for about 2 hours, until doubled in size and then is divided into 12 equal sized pieces.


Each lump of dough is formed into a little round ball.  This is so much fun to do!

Then after a 20 minute rest, the little balls are formed into pistolets (hoagies).

At this point, the dutch crunch can be mixed up and brushed onto the rolls, or you can wait about 90 minutes  until the rolls have proofed and are almost doubled in size and brush just before going into the oven.  If you brush them before proofing you get a more dramatic mottling effect.  I decided to brush half the rolls before proofing and the other half just before baking so I could compare.  The paste reminded me of a papier mache art project.


The buns proofed for about an hour and then into the oven, with a steam pan underneath to help enhance the crunchy topping.  The buns which were brushed before proofing (at the bottom of the photo) had a much more pronounced mottled appearance.  The mottling was much more subtle on the ones where the dutch crunch was brushed on just before baking (top of photo).

One bite through the brittle crackling topping yielded a soft pillowy interior.  These were fantastic.  Although I generally like my bread with a bit of chew, the salty/sweet crunchy topping and the fluffy tender inside were addictive.

#38. Tuscan Bread (Salt and Serenity bakes without salt!)


This week’s bread in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge presented me with a real dilemma.  You see, Tuscan bread is unique in that it is one of the only breads, the world over, that is made without salt.  If you are a regular reader of my blog you will know that those words, “without salt” chill me to my very core.  Salt is the essence of flavour. It provides a depth and complexity to whatever you are preparing.  It helps to enhance all the other ingredients and provides balance to any dish.  My greatest fear is that my doctor will tell me I have high blood pressure and then recommend a sodium reduced diet.  I am so worried about this that I actually bought a home blood pressure monitor and I religiously check my blood pressure every month.  It’s been averaging about 114 over 70, so for now I’m safe.

The response from my fellow BBA Challengers was less than stellar.  Phyl, of Cabbages and Kings said, “But, the big question was, how would it taste? Could a salt-free bread really stand up to the other amazing breads that have come out of the BBA Challenge? Would the flour paste make such a huge flavor difference that, as PR suggests, I might decide to incorporate it into other bread recipes?  In a word — meh.”

Sally of Bewitching Kitchen said,“… the lesson I took from this recipe wasthe fact that you can make a bread without salt, doesn’t mean you should”

Ok then, maybe I should just add salt to this bread.  But I think that would be cheating.  I decided to do a little research to see why the Tuscans, who make such fabulous food otherwise, would leave out the salt.  Most queries came up with the response that once upon a time, there was a prohibitive tax on salt in Tuscany and so people could not afford to use it.  Okay, I understand that was the case many years ago, but why would sane Tuscan people with fully functioning taste buds still put up with that?  There had to be another reason.

Renowned cooking  teacher and Florentine expert Giuliano Bugialli explains,  “The fact is that Tuscan food is highly seasoned and has always been so and the bread, which is eaten with the main course and is an essential part of the meal, provided a better balance without salt.”   From a culinary standpoint that made sense to me.   Alright then,  game on!  This was going to   be a double challenge for me:

1. Resist temptation to add salt and make the bread as intended.  This proved difficult as my ever-present beautiful coconut husk salt-cellar sits out on the counter in plain sight.

2.  Find some amazingly flavourful foods to go with this bread.

This bread is fairly simple to make but does require two days.  On day one you add boiling water to some bread flour, stir it up and let it sit out overnight on the counter.  Peter Reinhart explains that, “…the gelatinized starches release flavors that give this bread a distinct quality, quite unlike any other bread.”  Well good, I thought, this saltless bread is going to need all the help it can get.  As I mixed up this concoction I had a vague memory of smelling this particular aroma before but could not quite place it.


The next day the paste is mixed with yeast, olive oil, water and more bread flour.  Again I had a nagging sense that I had smelled this aroma before, but where?  I just could not place it.

The dough was covered and set aside to rise until doubled.   Then I formed it into two loaves.  I chose the boule shape and decided to let it have it’s second rise in a banneton (a special wicker bread basket used for proofing dough).  The banneton would give the bread a beautiful appearance even if the taste was disappointing. As I only have one banneton, the other boule was left to rise freeform.  Within an hour the dough had doubled so it was time to bake it.

I slid my freeform loaf onto the baking stone in the oven.  Then I gently tipped the bread out of the banneton and onto my bread peel.  I gave it a quick slash with my sharp knife and slid it onto the baking stone .  So far, so good.  I placed a pan of hot water beneath the baking stone to provide extra moisture to the oven.  This should ensure a better shine on the crust.  25 minutes later the breads were done.  They looked just gorgeous.

I let them cool for about an hour and sliced into them.  I handed a slice to my friend and as she held it to her mouth she took a sniff and said, “This bread smells like play-doh.”  AHA!!   That’s what the smell I could not place was.  Then I took a bite.  The play-doh aroma perfectly matched the play-doh taste.  You may be wondering how I know what play-doh tastes like. As a child I  sometimes tasted the food creations my sisters and I crafted from play-doh.  (Okay, maybe that should be placed in the “too much information” file).  To be fair, I think I may have underbaked this bread a bit as the center, even after cooking was quite doughy.

If anyone ever asks you to explain to them why most baking recipes contain a bit of salt all you have to do is hand them a slice of this bread.  No verbal explananation will be necessary.  This bread tasted flat, dull and lifeless.  But, I was not to be deterred.  I had a challenge of making this bread taste good.  Going through the list of possibilities of salty foods to pair this one with I immediately thought of my friend Sandy’s olive tapenade.  I whipped up a batch and toasted some of this bread and slathered it with the tapenade.  It did a wonderful job of masking the play-doh taste.

#37. Swedish Rye Bread and memories of an awkward teenage date.

In week 37 of the Bread Bakers Apprentice Challenge we tackle Swedish Rye bread. How, you may ask, does Swedish Rye differ from the regular rye bread we are all familiar with?  This bread is flavoured with licorice flavoured aniseed and fennel seed and a pinch of cardamom.  It also calls for dried orange zest.  Fellow challenger Janice, of “Round the Table” is so dedicated, she dried her own orange zest from oranges growing  in her own yard.  Her own orange trees!  I am more than a little envious.


 To be honest, I’m not much of a black licorice lover. I’m more of a Twizzlers girl! 

My dislike of the licorice flavour probably goes back to when I was 18 years old and went out on my first real “grown up” date.  You know, dressing up and going to a nice restaurant, not just “hanging out” at his parents place or yours!  Things were going well until after dinner when the waiter brought 2 flaming liqueurs to the table.  I had no idea what you were supposed to do.   Should I blow out the flame or wait until the flame burned out and then drink it.  It was all just so awkward.  We  just stared at the drinks and then at each other, both too embarrassed to ask what to do.  Eventually the flame burned out and we drank the liqueur.  It was awful.  Eventually the romance also burned out (OK, full disclosure here, he dumped me!) I guess ever since then, licorice flavoured things have left a bitter taste in  my mouth. 

 Since then I have learned that right after the drink is lit you are supposed to blow it out and then down it.  For the more adventurous, you can take the shot and hold it in your mouth and then light the sambuca from your mouth and let the flames light up momentarily before swallowing the shot.  And then in the “don’t try this at home kids” category, you can let the flame keep burning and down the shot while still on fire. I think the logistics of this would be quite challenging and I can only imagine setting myself on fire if I tried to do this.

Whoops, I digress.  Back to Swedish Rye Bread.  To say that I was not looking forward to this bread was an understatement.  I was telling my friend Ross about this bread and he mentioned that he loved licorice flavoured foods.  I promised  I’d bake it for him.  This bread takes 2 days to make.  On day 1 the starter “sponge” is prepared.  It contains some of my sourdough starter, molasses, orange peel, aniseed, fennel seed, cardamom amd some white rye flour.  The next day the sponge is mixed wth yeast. salt, brown sugar, shortening and bread flour.  After a quick 6 minutes of kneading, I had a smooth dough.

After the bread is allowed to rise for the first time the loaves are formed.  I opted for batards (free form ovals) as I would get a chance to practice my slashing skills.

 After slashing, the loaves rise for another 90 minutes.  They are egg washed and baked.  I have to admit they looked quite beautiful.  I sliced off a small piece to try and it was not as bad as I feared.  I guess my tastebuds as well as my taste in men have grown up a bit.  My friend Ross loved the bread.

P.S.  I have now gone through my second 10 kilogram sack of bread flour.  Had anyone told me that at the beginning of this challenge, last May, I would have found it hard to believe.  Here is a photo of my empty bag!

#36. Stollen and the visual learner.


Who knew that a German fruit filled bread could demonstrate my learning deficiencies so clearly?  As I read through the recipe for Stollen,  this week’s bread in Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, I knew that I had a real challenge on my hands.  I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to shape this loaf.  I read through the directions at least 4 times and it just didn’t make any sense to me.  There were even some pictures to demonstrate the method but I still could not figure it out. 

Full disclosure here, I am not really great with written instructions.  (I can see my husband laughing his head off right about now as he reads this).  I never the read instruction manuals that come with anything new I buy.  I believe that things should be designed so that they are intuitive.  Usually I end up breaking something before I give in and pull out the manual.  I have never assembled anything from Ikea where I did not have at least 3 or more extra bolts or screws left over, leaving me wondering about the stability of whatever I just put together. 

Sorry, got a little off track there.  I proceeded to make the dough for the Stollen, without a clear plan on how I was going to shape it.  I figured that I’d just wing it when I got to that part.  The recipe begins with mixing some warm milk with flour and instant yeast to make a sponge.

This mixture is set aside for about an hour, to get all bubbly.  The recipe called for golden raisins and candied fruit mix to be soaked in brandy or rum and orange or lemon extract.  I remembered  my experience with the Panettone bread I made back in November.  I hated that bread with the dried fruits soaked in alcohol so I decided to forgo this step.  As well, I decided to leave out the citrus extract.  I figured I’d get enough citrus flavour from orange and lemon zest.  I decided to skip the candied fruits as well and went with a combo of golden raisins, sultana raisins, dried cherries and dried apricots. 


Once the sponge was all bubbly, it is added to all-purpose flour, sugar, salt, orange and lemon zest and cinnamon.  Butter, an egg and a bit of water are added until a sticky dough is formed.  Then about 3/4 of the dried fruit is added. The remainder gets added during shaping. I was feeling a bit lazy and decided to knead the fruit in by machine but it soon became apparent that hand kneading was in order.  I dumped the mixture onto the counter and kneaded for about 5 minutes until I had a silky dough and all the fruit was evenly incorporated.

Then the dough was set aside to rest, covered for about 45 minutes.  At that point I figured I’d better do some research to figure out what I was going to do about shaping this bread.  I googled Stollen and came up with several variations and shaping suggestions. 

There was a wreath shaped stollen from Martha Stewart’s mother. David Lebovitz formed his stollen into simple batards (oval-shaped loaves).   My favourite, however, was the stollen shaped like Mick Jagger’s lips from Philadelphia Chef John Gallagher.  Once baked, his version is dipped in melted butter and then rolled in a sugar-cinnamon mixture. 

I was just about to make the Mick Jagger version when I decided to read the shaping instructions in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice book one last time.  Eureka!  After my 5th read through I thought I finally understood how to do this.  It seemed that the shaping instructions were describing a simple letter fold.  Because I am a visual learner, I videoed myself shaping the bread for all you other visual learners out there.

I was quite proud of myself for figuring out how to shape this bread, and I only had to read the instructions 5 times.  I was just about to slide the stollen into the oven when a phrase in the instructions caught my eye, “Turn the dough seam side up….”  Huh?? I read it one more time and it was on my 6th read through that I finally understood that Peter Reinhart was describing an accordion style fold.  So I opened up my stollen and reshaped it.

Although the recipe called for brushing the baked bread with vegetable oil, I opted for melted butter.   Then 2 coats of icing sugar and it’s done.

 As I baked this bread on Friday, I used it as our Sabbath challah stand-in.  I believe that the finished loaf is supposed to symbolize the blanket of baby Jesus.  Oh well, the world needs a little more culinary coexistence.  It was delicious and a nice change from our usual challah.  It was even better toasted with butter for breakfast the next day.

P.S.  I just discovered that fellow BBA challenger Kelly of Something Shiny figured out the accordian fold about a month ago and posted about it on her blog.  She also originally thought it was a letter fold and only after making it a second time worked out the proper shaping technique.