a lesson in pumpkin gingerbread

I knew there was a difference between baking powder and soda, but this pumpkin gingerbread really hammered it home. Before trying two different versions, I just trusted recipes. Baking soda? Yes sir. Now powder? All right, you’re the experts. But good food is chemistry, and that means open to all kinds of experiments. Once you understand the basics, the possibilities explode.

I made one version of pumpkin gingerbread for my cousin’s visit last weekend. Unfortunately, we gobbled it up before I could get the Nikon to it, so it’s not featured here. I used a recipe in Prevention magazine, which I’d picked up at a talk given by the magazine’s fitness editor just days before. I was surprised by the breadth of the little magazine. In flipping through its pages for the first time, I found two recipes that looked worthy of a shot.

A fall dessert with only 1/4 cup of oil that uses pumpkin for sweetness and moisture? Sign me up. Not to mention the health benefits of the humble orange squash: beta carotene, potassium, vitamins A, C, B6, B3 and fiber.

The first round of this cake was dense and moist, with the warming flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg. It was popular, but I wondered if it would be better with a little more lift. Really I just wanted so badly to incorporate kefir, my new best friend. I went searching for a recipe that included an acid ingredient, and began to experiment.

Because I had this huge can of pumpkin puree to use up, I went at it a second time. I was amazed, it yielded an entirely different species of dessert. I used a muffin recipe that otherwise looked almost exactly the same, and adapted it to the baking pan. What I got was something resembling a gingercake more than a traditional gingerbread.

I’m no chemist, but according to Mark Bittman, when you’re working with acidic ingredients (yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, lemon juice) you use baking soda as your leavener. The acid reacts with the baking soda and causes the cake to rise. Baking powder is used when there is no acid–just liquid, eggs, and heat causing the leavening. By playing around with ingredients, you can create your own custom texture.

Because, you know, all of us just have tons of time to sit around doing this.

I leave you with the two experiments while I scheme about ways to finish off that still leftover pumpkin puree. My ideal for this particular gingerbread would lay somewhere in between. Until then, both, I assure you, are delightful with coffee on a day full of woodsmoke and crunching leaves.

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Journey through the Book of Bread: II

Back in May I started a series to track my journey through The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Berenbaum. In that first post, I shared about this wonderful find and how I hoped it would be the end to a streak of bread failures. Now that I think about it they weren’t even all that terrible. But her loaves, goodness. Her loaves are worth whole afternoons. Her loaves will surely summon my heirloom tomatoes to finally redden and come home to their destiny in the revered TTS. (Toasted Tomato Sandwich, for those of you unfamiliar with my family’s tendency to abbreviate everything.)

The revelation that this book brought faded quickly with the arrival of summer, whose heat promptly bowled over all my wheaty aspirations. The flash of June left me running from an apartment that made me feel like a bun in the oven. Rose’s book went back to the library and onto my Amazon wishlist. All those bookmarked recipes gave way to store bought bread (gasp!) and meals where cooking either took place outside or not at all. In moments of extreme weakness there was always bread from the farmer’s market, but as good as it was, it just wasn’t. I hadn’t watched it grow up, you know?

Last week a serendipitous email brought me back to bread. It was from Rose herself, successful cookbook author, patron saint of Cake and Bread. It read simply “have I thanked you yet for your great posting about bread and my book and work? this was so special I was waiting ’til I had time to do it full justice.” I had emailed her my post and then forgotten all about it.

Her email, along with the news that freshcrackedpepper was being added to a famous person’s list of links have sent me running back to my oven begging for forgiveness. The cool evenings beginning to entice Syracuse into late summer might help with that too.

This can be mine again, adorned with pithy tomatoes, buttery home-grown lettuce, and sprouts born not of soil but of water in a jar in my cupboard.

This Tyrolean Ten-Grain Torpedo that was my third Bread Bible Bread was an absolute treat. Notes accompanying my pictures include: Might’ve let rise a tad too long (was working in the garden), it browned really really fast. Covered with foil and finished the latter half of baking right on the baking stone. Very crusty and the grains on top were a rustic addition. Has that almost metallic, iron-y taste I like in bread. Vital wheat gluten makes it almost impossibly soft for a baguette-style loaf.

Not my most poetic writing, but enough to take me back to that May day that passed pleasantly in my garden while my poor dough puffed its way just past perfection.

Months later I can’t remember why Rose called it Tyrolean. My guess is that it has something to do with Tyrol, the region of Europe that bridges part of Austria and Northern Italy. Beyond that it’s escaped me. I’m assuming the torpedo part comes from its shape and the ten grains from its crunchy composition.

Now that I occupy my own eighth of an inch a famous bread baker’s website, I’ll have to get back to work ploughing through her mammoth collection. As long as these late August nights keep wrapping themselves around the day like a cool cloth on a fevered forehead, I can be found crouched before my 400 degree oven wishing it had a window. Inside, great bread will be happening. Bread so good that just knowing about it will be enough.

Journey through the Book of Bread: I

We all have them, those kitchen dreams and gastronomic aspirations of greatness. Most everyone who’s ever made a meal, and actually enjoyed it, has at least one creation that taunts them: Try me. Perfect me.

The second one is where it starts to hurt.

so close it's crusty

Don’t label me a perfectionist too quickly though. I love experimenting in the kitchen even when the results are far less than perfect. Chalk it all up to experience, to I’ll never do THAT again. Throwing last night’s leftovers together with some pasta, marrying unlikely combinations up in a whole wheat wrap for a quick lunch, laying the contents of the crisper to rest in an impromptu omelette. But perfection, ah, that is an entirely different story.

It’s probably because of the simple fact that a person’s standards will rise proportionately to their experience. Climb a couple mountains and soon you’ll want Everest (or at least Temple.) Start drinking fresher coffee and soon you’ll want to roast your own. Run a few miles here and there and soon you’ll be signed up for a 10k. It seems this progression is part of human nature. It’s great to be an amateur climber, coffee drinker, runner, cook. In fact the word amateur is from the French for “lover of.” But I also think the desire for excellence lies dormant in all of us.

Bread has become my terminus ad quem, the Mecca to which all my baked things march. Over the last year or so, bread has risen to the top of my list of things I want to be really good at. The more loaves I attempt the better my ideal loaf gets. With mediocre and failed loaves jousting for rule of my counter, this process has paved the road to greatness with frustration. I tried a bread maker and hand-kneading. I tried recipes from Betty Crocker herself. I copied down meticulous steps from internet bread sites and researched yeast brands. My loafs ranged from sticky-gluey to coarse to bland. Maybe they weren’t all that bad, but through it all, something just didn’t seem right.

That was before I discovered Rose Levy Beranbaum, who has since become my personal bread guru. Since picking up her 2003 The Bread Bible at our local library, my bread joy has risen proportionately to the number of her loaves I’ve tried. I’ve never been so at peace with my Kitchen Aid mixer.

My first loaf was her Basic Hearth Bread, a simple, artisan-style loaf which came in rather handy for some impromptu vegan brunch company. The rustic dough was springy and supple and so tasty it disappeared before I could photograph it.

The second was a billowy sandwich bread entitled Cracked Wheat Loaf. With the addition of lecithin, it stayed tender for days. It was great for sandwiches and even better toasted. The only change I would make would be to soak the bulghur in less water next time to yield more crunch.

Because Rose’s recipe style is so well-researched and technical, I chose not to recopy her recipes here. Instead, this series of posts is going to serve more as a journal of my walk through the Bread Bible. It just wouldn’t seem right to try to represent her massive work here: her breadth of scientific and artistic knowledge, evidenced through meticulous instruction on pre-fermenting, mixing, dividing, shaping, slashing, glazing, cooling, slicing and storing, is just better done on the pages of a book.

Opening with the invitation, “this is my bread biography,” Rose chronicles her love of something so simple, something that most of us take for granted, packaged and neatly sliced on the shelves of the superstores. Any cookbook author who writes “Could it be that I’m only completely happy now when a bread is happening somewhere nearby?” deserves my allegiance, if not for her techniques alone, at least for her sense of the life of food. Her invitation to find a favorite recipe, vary it a little, re-type it in your own words, and share with others as “your bread” made me feel an instant kinship with her. She notes that bakers say “the sound of the crust crackling as it cools is the bread’s song.” When I heard this sound coming from my first loaf of Basic Hearth Bread like a cozy campfire (see below) I was surprised. I was delighted to find out later that it’s a sign of a bread well done.

If you are interested in not just baking but truly understanding bread, I highly recommend her book. Look for it at your local library (a great place to help break a cooking rut without breaking your wallet) or bookstore. You won’t be disappointed.

listening to the bread's song