Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cracker-Bread Puffy Things (Part Two: Troubleshooting)

Every time I make cracker-bread puffs (or pitas), there are a few that don't puff completely. They get bumpy and lumpy and bubbly, but the bubbles are uneven and they never fill the whole bread, like the one at the right.

Since most of the time I'm trying to make pitas rather than puffs, the puffing doesn't matter since I'm going to flatten them anyway. I those cases, it's more of a curiosity why some puff and some don't.

So I decided to do some experimenting.

Up 'til today, I'd never made a dough just to make the puffs, Normally, I just use whatever other dough I've got on hand for making buns or bread whatever else I have planned.

Today, though, I made a batch of dough specifically so I could experiment and see if I could cause some consistent failures.

Most of the things I tried - stretching first before rolling, more or less flour on the work surface, waiting before putting the circles in the oven - didn't seem to make any difference.

The one big thing that did matter was the texture of the dough. An under-kneaded dough was very consistent at producing lumpy bubbly bread that didn't form a complete bubble. I wondered why that would make such a huge impact, so I watched a few as they attempted to rise. What I finally figured out was that the bubbles were forming and the layers were separating properly and there was steam forming as it was supposed to, but then the bubble would pop. Not a huge blowout, but a little puff of steam would escape and then there'd be no pressure left to make the bubble keep growing. So the dough needed to be elastic enough to keep stretching without breaking.

With a very elastic dough, the bubbles formed evenly, stretched, joined together, and quickly became one big bubble that held its air until the dough cooked enough.

The second important factor was the temperature of the stone and the oven. The stone needs a good, long preheat, but the temperature of the oven is also a factor. If it's too hot, the dough cooks too fast and it can set before it has fully expanded. If the temperature isn't high enough, the steam doesnt form quickly enough inside the dough to make it rise before the dough is baked

While I can offer a suggested temperature, one huge variable is how long the oven door is open when you're putting in the dough. That open door means you're losing heat, so if you're not quick about it, you might need to raise the temperature a bit. If you're really quick, you might need to lower the temperature.

If the dough is elastic and the temperature is properly adjusted, then it's all a matter of how the dough is handled. It's best to make a tight ball first, as you would for a bun. Then flatten the ball and roll it to the desired size. As far as thickness, the dough should be thinner than a corn tortilla. It seems like it's too thin, but it puffs nicely.

As I mentioned in the first post, if you get a fold, crinkle, crimp or hole in the dough, it's probably not going to puff properly. If you don't mind making a few pitas, then just carry on. But if you need the puffs, just gather the dough, give it a little knead, form a ball, and try again.

One big surprise was that when I used dough that hadn't proofed at all, I still got nice puffs. Letting a dough rise once or twice gives it better flavor, but in terms of puffiness, it's completely irrelevant. You can make the dough and start baking puffs right away.

In the previous post, I mentioned that you can use just about any dough recipe that you'd use for regular bread or buns. Since the most critical factor seems to be the elasticity, the key would be making sure that the dough is kneaded long enough and that it's elastic enough. For a dough with rye or any other non-glutinous flour, it might be wise to add some extra gluten.

Very coarse flours, or recipes with seed or other inclusions, would be tricky, since the small bits could easily tear holes in the thin dough as it stretches. That would be fine for pita bread, hut not for the puffs.

Yet to come: how to magically fill the puffs and amaze your guests.