Sunday, April 25, 2010

Batter Bread

I was paging through an old cookbook and ran across a recipe for something called Batter Bread. The introduction had the oh-so-common story about how this was the recipe that someone's elder relative had made, and how wonderful everyone thought it was.

It sounded interesting, but the recipe had a serious flaw. The instructions said the batter should be beaten by hand or with an electric mixer - the mixer no doubt being an update to the original recipe - but there was no way the dough in that recipe could have been beaten. I had calculated the liquid/flour ratio in the recipe, and the resulting dough would have been very kneadable and not at all a batter.

Either someone mis-translated someone's handwriting, or the elder relative used teacups and coffeecups as measures rather than using standard measuring cups. It also said the finished dough was poured from the bowl. Yeah, no way was this tested before it was published.

Since the recipe was so wrong about the batter-like consistency, I didn't trust the rest of the recipe, either. But that didn't stop me. If someone's elder relative made a yeast dough that was soft enough to beat by hand or with a hand mixer, and that dough could be poured into a loaf pan, certainly I could recreate it.


Okay, maybe not right away, but I had no doubt I could make something like it sooner or later.

My first version was interesting. One thing I learned was that trying to mix batter-like bread dough with a hand mixer might be more trouble than it's worth. The dough crawled up the beaters, and at anything over low speed, clumps of dough were flinging themselves all over me, the countertops, and the cabinets. Hand beating with a standard kitchen implement seemed easier and was much less messy.

Of course, the cookbook didn't give any instructions as far as how much beating was necessary, so that little detail was part of the learning experience.

The directions in the cookbook did include instructions to stir it down the dough once before baking, much like you'd punch down a regular dough. That seemed to make sense in terms of flavor development, but I wasn't convinced the the timing in the recipe made sense. Yet another thing to experiment with.

For baking Version 1, I generously sprinkled cornmeal on the bottom of a small loaf pan and poured the batter in. I started second-guessing my decision to just put cornmeal on the bottom of the pan rather than using a baking spray for extra insurance. But, too late. It was in the pan.

The object that came out of the oven was bread-like. There was some rise, but not much. And unfortunately, it didn't want to come out of the pan. Some chiseling along the sides and some ripping got it out of the pan in two pieces big piece and some ragged bits, The interior had holes, but I'd have a hard time calling it a successful bread.

It didn't taste horrible, but presentation points were lost, for sure. But it gave me some ideas as to what needed to be changed.

Version Two was much more successful. The bread rose nicely in the pan and grew even further in the oven. And since I used baking spray and cornmeal inside the entire loaf pan, a good thump got the bread out of the pan.

Still, not a great bread. Not even a good bread. But unlike the first version, it was recognizable as bread, so it was getting better. If you want a comparison, it was like a generic version of beer bread. It was okay, but not something you'd get excited about making a second time.

Version Three featured some adjustments in ingredients and a slight adjustment in technique. It rose nicely in the pan and a bit more in the oven. The color was nice and the bread itself had more flavor. It was a good(ish) bread, but still not good enough for me.

This version is one that falls into the category I call "It tastes better toasted." I picked up this little phrase from someone else, and it doesn't really mean what it sounds like. While many breads take on extra flavor while toasted, that's not what this is about. The translation actually is, "It's not that good plain, but it becomes edible when it is toasted."

This bread wasn't quite that bad. It was edible plain, but just not great. Toasted, the bread was pretty good. Something like an English muffin, in terms of nooks and crannies (particularly when I broke the bread with fork instead of slicing with a knife), but not the same density. But toasted, with a little butter, I wouldn't have been embarrased to serve it along with some scrambled eggs.

Still, I don't want to make a bread that has to be toasted to reach its potential. So while this one was servicable breakfast bread for a few days, tweaking was still necessary.

Version Four's new addition was semolina flour. I like the depth of flavor that semolina adds to regular white breads, and this bread needed some depth. I also tweaked the beating method one more time.

In the previous versions, I tried hand beating with a fork and a wooden spoon and a silicone spatula. The wooden spoon was the best option, but once the dough started developing its gluten, hand beating became much more difficult. It's possible to make this bread by hand with a wooden spoon, but it's a lot of work.

I also tried beating with an electric mixer. It worked well enough at the beginning, when I was working with a dough that could have been a cake batter. But again, once the gluten started developing, it got more difficult as the dough gathered around the mixer's beaters and climbed up. Increasing speed simply caused the dough to fling off the beaters. The answer was to beat slowly, which is doable but tedious.

I finally decided that while the original bread might have been manually beaten, it made more sense to take advantage of the modern appliances I own. I opted to use my stand mixer with the paddle attachment. And to cut down on the need to scrape the bowl, I used the paddle attachment with the rubber scrapers. If I'm going to go modern, I might as well go all the way.

Finally it's bread. This version looks a lot more like a dough-based bread with a little bit of doming on top. And the bread slipped easily out of the pan, with nary a protest.

And it tastes pretty good, too.

Batter Bread

1 cup semolina flour
1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon butter

Mix all the dry ingredients in the bowl of your stand mixer.

Put buttermilk and butter into a microwave-proof bowl, and microwave gently until the butter has melted and the buttermilk is just warmed. Add the 1/2 cup of water, adjusting the temperature so the liquid is lukewarm. If it's a little too warm, let cool. If it's too cool, warm it up in the microwave.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix thoroughly. Let stand for 15 minutes, then beat with the padde attachment of your stand mixer. You've no doubt seen instructions for cakes that tell you not to overmix. This is your chance to see the overmixing process in action.

At first the dough will be like a cake batter, but as you beat, the gluten will begin to develop and you'll see the dough starting to come together and stretch. Keep beating. Eventually, the dough will start to gather around the paddle. It will slump down off the paddle when you stop the mixer, but will gather again when the mixer is running.

When it's done, the dough should be smooth, glossy, and very very stretchy.

Spray an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 loaf pan with baking spray and sprinkle liberally with cornmeal. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the bowl from the mixer, cover it with plastic wrap and let it rest for 1 hour.

After one hour, stir it down, cover the bowl with plastic wrap again, and let it rest an additional 1/2 hour.

After the half hour, stir it down again, and pour it into your prepared loaf pan.

Cover the pan with plastic wrap and let it rise until it is just below the top of the pan, about an hour.

If the plastic drapes down inside the pan, it will stick to the dough and it doesn't release easily. However, you can remove the plastic for the last 10 or 15 minutes of the rise, if need be. This is a very wet dough, so it's not going to dry out much in that time.

On the other hand, the lumpy top isn't a big deal. It adds some character to the finished loaf.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Remove the bread from the pan and let it cool completely on a rack before cutting.