Tag Archives: yeast

In love with stecca

steccaMY FRIEND NANCY knew that I often baked bread using Jim Lahey’s no-knead approach, using the Dutch oven to make a crusty round or oval loaf.  She’d tried a lot of Lahey’s recipes, and one favorite was the stecca (“stick” in Italian), a small and thin baguette-like loaf that incorporates olive oil as well as the usual flour-water-salt and yeast combo and is baked on a baking sheet rather than a Dutch oven.  Nancy’s partner, Duane, is Steve’s brother, and he would gladly eat stecca every day. After Steve and I tried it at their home in California, we fell in love with it too, so Nancy copied the recipe for me.

When I got home, I made it once or twice. It was a little messy — as Nancy had warned me, the tea towel was permanently marred by impossible-to-remove oil stains–but very, very good. Still, maybe because it was a bread that should be eaten in a day or two rather than a loaf to last for days (sometimes almost a week), I forgot about it and didn’t make it again for a year or two.

That all changed recently. I came across the recipe and thought I’d try it again. It was so easy — as long as I started it the night before we wanted to eat it — and made a wonderful accompaniment to soup or salad. It was delectable on its own with a bit of butter or some cheese. I made it again and again, playing around with variations, substituting a bit of whole wheat flour, sometimes adding seeds to the top.

Now I’m making it often, but only half a recipe at a time. Not that we couldn’t eat four stecca loaves in two days (it would be very easy to eat a stecca loaf by oneself in one sitting, especially if it’s still warm from the oven) — but it’s probably better if we don’t.

Isn’t it amazing what just 1/4 of a teaspoon (or 1/8 in the half recipe) will do, given a bit of time? Maybe there’s a moral there: Give it time.

sesame stecca


I tweaked Jim Lahey’s recipe just a little. This is the recipe for four little sticks of bread.

  • 2 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon yeast (instant or regular)
  • 1 1/2 cups cool water
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt; (sesame or other seeds optional)
  • cornmeal and additional flour for dusting
  1. In a medium bowl, stir together both flours, table salt, sugar and yeast. Add the water, and using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until it comes together as a wet, sticky dough. Cover the bowl and let it sit at room temperature until it is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled, 12 to 18 hours (a few more won’t hurt).
  2. When the first rise is complete, generously dust a work surface with flour. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the dough out of the bowl. Fold the dough over itself two or three times and gently shape it into a somewhat flattened ball. (If it is too sticky, you may need to first add a little more flour, but it should still be quite a moist dough).
  3. Place a tea towel on the work surface and generously dust it with cornmeal. Place the dough on the towel, seam side down, and brush the top with some of the olive oil. Sprinkle top with 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt and a light dusting of cornmeal. Fold the ends of the tea towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place in a warm draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled, and when you gently poke it with your finger it holds the impression.
  4. Half an hour before the end of the second rise (approximately) preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. with a rack in the center. Lahey says to oil your 13-by-18 baking pan, but sometimes I don’t oil, and it’s been fine.
  5. Cut the dough into quarters. Gently stretch each piece more or less evenly (mine is always a little uneven, but it’s part of the charm) approximately the length of the pan. Brush with olive oil (you may not need the entire 1/4 cup) and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt. Sprinkle with sesame, poppy or other seeds if you like.
  6. Bake for 14 to 20 minutes (I find it’s done at 14 or 15 minutes), until the crust is golden brown. Cool on the pan for five minutes, then transfer the stecca to a rack to cool (or not, if you must have some now).

NOTE: The crust of the stecca is thinner than a baguette, and the combination of the oil and salt may make it soggy in just a few hours. You can reheat the loaves in a 350 degree oven for a few minutes until the crust crisp but watch carefully — the stecca is so thin that it may turn into a cracker very quickly!


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Pleasures of baking

oatmealbreadSome days it’s seems as if we’re living in a bread-phobic culture, but regardless — I love to bake. Bread, challah, pizza, cinnamon rolls, scones and biscuits, are all regular visitors to my kitchen.

In the week before Passover, I’m appreciating them even more as I contemplate the eight days of doing without both the eating and the baking of bread (though I may try baking my own matzo this year).

Ah, the baking. The magic of creating something that can grow and transform, the thrifty satisfaction of turning such basic ingredients into appealing and sustaining foods, the fragrance in the kitchen. . . .

Yes, it takes time, but most of that is not active hands-on time (though the hands-on part is fun), and, besides, it’s a good way to slow down and be productive at the same time.

I’ve heard it said that many people are afraid of yeast (yeast-phobia?) and that’s a shame. It is really not so scary! If you are new to bread baking, you do not, repeat NOT, need a bread machine. What’s the worst that can happen? Your bread doesn’t turn out? You haven’t wasted a lot of money or time, and some birds in the neighborhood might be grateful for your efforts. Anyway, we learn by mistakes — don’t we?

I’ve been making bread doughs with yeast or sourdough starter (whether knead or no-knead) for a long time, so I’m pretty confident that I know how the dough should feel, and I rarely look at a recipe.

I know if I start with a cup of water, for example, how much I will need of yeast or starter, flour and salt, and what approximate ratio of whole grains I should use (Yes, I’ve had a few brick-like breads, when I overloaded the dough with whole grains, but the bread was still edible. More or less.)

Or if it is a dough for challah or sweet rolls, I may add an egg and a little oil and honey to the dough, depending on what’s on hand.

mini challah

I often make miniature challah (rolls, really) and put a few in the freezer

cinnamon rolls

I shaped part of the challah dough into cinnamon rolls and let them rise slowly in the fridge overnight. Next day, I popped them in the oven, for Sunday morning freshly baked rolls!

Of course, if you haven’t baked much before, recipes are useful guidelines. Professional bakers weigh their ingredients for consistency, but for the home baker, that’s not necessary.

When it comes to quick breads (scones, biscuits, muffins, etc.) I do look at measurements a bit more carefully, though there is still room to play around.

bigbiscuits Last week I followed my tried-and-true biscuit recipe (which you can see here) with my new, and bigger, biscuit cutter. This informative New York Times article on tender biscuits and scones offered some tips, and I wanted to see whether cutting my biscuits with a sharper cutter would make them better. I also learned that placing biscuits close together would make them rise up rather than spread. Makes sense.

biscuitsonplateThe biscuits were delicious. But were they actually better than the smaller ones? Not really. Either way, these are great and go with nearly everything.

biscuitsandfreshjamP.S. I know it looks as if we consume an unconscionable amount of baked goods. So let me just say that these photos were taken over the last month or more. Really.



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On a (cinnamon) roll….

Mmmm…. the delicious scent of cinnamon rolls baking in the oven.

Winter is a great time to make these  (you can heat your house at the same time you create these delectable rolls) –and it’s easier than you might think!

You can tell the yeast is active when it bubbles and rises up the glass

I have a basic yeast dough that I make pretty often, and I usually keep some in the fridge so I can bake when the urge strikes.

  • Put about 1/4 cup of lukewarm water in a glass, add 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of yeast and a teaspoon of sugar, and let rise for about 10 or 15 minutes to be sure the yeast is active.
  • Put the yeast mixture in a bowl, with another cup of lukewarm water, a teaspoon of salt and enough flour (bread flour and whole wheat flour, up to half the total) to make a moist, but not sticky dough (it’ll be about 3 cups or more).
  • If you want a richer dough, add eggs, oil or melted butter, and/or sugar or honey to the liquid before stirring in the flour. You can also use milk instead of water, or add powdered milk.
  • Knead on a floured board, then place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a cloth, and let rise for a couple of hours. Or put in the refrigerator, covered (make sure you have room for the dough to expand) overnight or longer. The dough will slowly rise and just needs to be brought to room temperature before you shape it. This method doesn’t require you to knead for very long.
  • To make cinnamon rolls, roll the dough out into a big rectangle, brush the top lightly with water and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and raisins or currants if you wish. (Or try a variation, like cardamom-sugar with toasted almonds) Roll the dough up, starting from the shorter end, and cut into segments.
  • Place the rolls in a lightly oiled pie pan, leaving a little space between them, and cover with a cloth. Let the rolls rise for 30 to 45 minutes while you preheat the oven to 350 degrees, then bake about 30 to 45 minutes, till golden brown.

You can bake them just like this for plain cinnamon rolls, but if you want the deluxe version, here’s a little trick I learned many years ago: put a good amount of cinnamon sugar on a large plate; then brush the outside of the rolls (sides, top and bottom) with water and then roll them in the cinnamon sugar.

If you want to turn your cinnamon rolls into sticky buns, stuff walnuts between the rolls and put some more cinnamon-sugar into the spaces.

Cinnamon rolls after rising overnight in the refrigerator, before baking

You can also make your cinnamon rolls the night before and bake them in the morning. Just cover the pan with the rolls with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator overnight. They will rise and look like the photo above. In the morning, bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 or 40 minutes.

Let cool for just a few minutes, then turn the whole pan upside down on a plate, scooping any cinnamon sugar on top. Sunday brunch, anyone?


Fennel-golden raisin twists

In my quest for a treat that has no-or-little fat and is not very sweet, I’ve been using the same dough to make fennel-golden raisin twists. A local bakery used to make something like this, and they were my pastry of choice with a cup of coffee. But since they stopped making them years ago, I decided it was time for me to figure out the recipe.

I added golden raisins to my basic yeast dough and let it rise once. Then I took a little ball of dough for each twist, and formed it into two ropes. I dipped each little rope of dough briefly into water and then rolled the in a mixture of cornmeal, sugar and fennel seeds (you can experiment with proportions) before I twisted them together and pinched the edges.

I let them rise for about half an hour, then baked in a preheated 350 degree oven. They take between 20 and 30 minutes, depending on the size, and they’re ready when they’re golden brown.

The cornmeal gives a nice crunch and there’s just the right touch of sweetness from the sugar in the rolled mixture along with the raisins.

If your bread dough has no fat or eggs, these treats will be best the day you bake them, but you can just make a few at a time and keep the rest of the dough refrigerated. Otherwise, they’re good warmed up the next day. In any case, you’re not likely to have too many leftovers…..


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