In Defense of Vanilla

I’m a vanilla girl and I am not ashamed to say so.

If I have to choose between vanilla and chocolate ice creams, I invariably choose vanilla.  No, it is not because I am boring and have no imagination, or lack the refined palate that appreciates the chocolate in the chocolate ice cream.  My palate is very spoiled, thank you very much, and I prefer not to eat any ice cream than to buy one of those cones with something looking like plastic foam in it from the “fat-free sugar-free ice cream” stands.  Have you ever wondered about this – if it’s fat free and sugar free, pray tell me what does it consist of?  No, better not tell me, I am not sure I actually want to know.

But, I digress.  If the choice is between really good vanilla and really good chocolate ice cream, I prefer vanilla.  And I have come to resent the fact that this royalty of the flavor kingdom has come to be regarded as a synonym for ‘boring’, ‘unimaginative’ and generally ‘blah’.

I don’t need to search far and wide to know how we have arrived in this sorry state of affairs.  You see, the major flavoring component (but far from the only one!) in vanilla is vanillin (C8H8O3), which is not a terribly complicated chemical to make (in fact I remember us making it in the lab early on during my organic chemistry course), and entirely unproblematic to produce industrially.  And it is a good thing, because the demand for vanilla far, far outstrips production, and a lot of the products in which it is used are not nearly expensive enough to justify the expense of using real vanilla from the industry’s point of view.  I mean, who’d want basic candy bars to shoot up in price without any notable flavor difference? (and no, with everything else in them, the difference wouldn’t matter, not really)

Why is it then, that natural vanilla is so expensive*  (*I’ll come back to this as it is very relative!) and rare?  Well, that’s very simple too, really – vanilla flavor comes from vanilla ‘beans’, which are unripe pods of the climbing orchid in the genus Vanilla.  And as such (being orchids), they are not easy to cultivate to fruiting condition, and even in optimal conditions, they are not easy to propagate, and require fairly specialized care – not to mention hand-pollination.  Yes, if you have handled or seen a vanilla pod in the shop, it was likely the result of a guy with a dry paintbrush tickling a yellow orchid flower half the world away some months prevously.  If the resulting fruit set, it was allowed to mature some, then gathered and cured to develop the characteristic flavor.  In short, the process requires special climate, is labor-intensive and long.

Cheap ice-cream manufacturers don’t want to pay the premium.  Vanillin is used because people want vanilla, and they also want cheap ice cream and chocolate (ice cream and chocolate industries account for about 75% of vanilla use worldwide according to wikipedia), and so the industry responds by manufacturing cheap chocolate and ice cream – with vanillin.  And so the vanilla-flavored ice cream is born.  Which well… it tastes blah.  Like sugar, and not a whole lot else, really.  And because most people actually like the flavor of vanilla (I’ve never actually heard of anyone actively disliking it!), even approximated so, it is the most commonly bought flavor of ice cream out there.  And so we fall into the trap of “blah”, for vanillin simply does not have the rich, lush profile of natural vanilla from beans.

In contrast, chocolate, which is a far stronger flavor, does not taste nearly as blah when it is made as cheaply – it tastes at the very least of cocoa (which is a lot cheaper than real vanilla), which is not a bad thing in itself.

And so the misconception of vanilla = boring is born.  I think it is a grave injustice.

Furthermore, judging from the consumer behavior (and we aren’t talking about high-end shops in better parts of town), a lot of people do not actually know how different and lush natural vanilla extract is, because I see “artificial vanilla extract” and “vanilla sugar: made with vanillin” fly off supermarket shelves – while the pricier bottle of natural vanilla extract doesn’t sell nearly as well, and neither do the test-tube packed vanilla pods.

On the surface, that’s market economy – people try to get value for their money and when they can get something-vanilla for cheaper they do.  In reality, it’s neither good economy, nor do you get what you pay for.  To the industry, manufacturing vanillin-based “vanilla sugar” is cheap.  For you, buying it is expensive.  And if you consider that “artificial vanilla extract” is just some water in a bottle with a few crystals dissolved in it, then it doesn’t look like such a great deal anymore.

Let’s look at it from a shopping-cart point of view.  A box of vanillin-based vanilla sugar or a bottle of the artificial stuff (about 50ml) can run about 1.5€ – while buying 1 vanilla pod right next to them is only 2€ or so. (I am talking average supermarket price here in Stockholm.  You could probably get cheaper vanilla pods if you order them on the net for example.)

But, that one vanilla pod, which doesn’t look all that big or impressive in its pack?  It gets you one heck of a lot more than a whole jar of vanillin-based sugar and a bottle of artificial extract!  I’m serious.

Remember when I wrote about the glorious and easy to make vanilla ice cream and how it tasted absolutely amazing because of the fresh cream and the homemade real vanilla extract?  Well, here’s the thing – all it takes to make real, rich and gloriously aromatic vanilla extract at home is a small bottle (blue or brown glass is best as it protects it from sun damage), half a pod (yes, I used the whole pod but that is because I wanted mine extra rich), and about 100ml of vodka or rum.

Cut your pod in half across, and then slice the half of it you plan to use lengthwise to open up one side of it.  Drop it into bottle.  Top up with vodka or rum.  Close and let stand out of direct sunlight for a week.  Your extract is ready to use.

The other half a pod?  Cut it lengthwise too, and stick it into a glass jar and cover with fine caster sugar (I recommend that rather than powdered sugar for this as it is less likely to stick).  Close and store for a week, shaking occasionally.  It will very quickly perfume the entire jar with a very strong vanilla scent!  There, real vanilla sugar, too!

So all right, 100ml of vodka may run you another 1€, and let’s assume jar and bottle are free (I wash jars and bottles for such uses and keep them), and the sugar will run you a few euro-cent (pennies, whatever).  For the price of about 3€ and about a week’s time, you have yourself a better extract than you could easily buy in any shop, and a jar of sugar already.  But, it gets far better!

You see, vanilla pods keep their flavor for a long time.  Simply put, there is a lot of flavor packed into it.  So when you run low on the extract, just top if off with some vodka or rum again, and if you run low on sugar, refill the jar – and keep using it another few months!

With this sort of economy, there is no reason whatsoever to touch the expensive, blah artificial vanilla again.

So please, do yourself a favor.  Go to the shop.  Buy that 1 pod of vanilla.  Make extract or sugar (whatever you think you’ll use more!), or both, and get reacquainted with the rich and wonderful vanilla as it is meant to be.

Trust me.  Whatever else you may think, you will never reach for the artificial extract bottle again.  And I sincerely doubt that you’ll use the word “vanilla” for “boring” either.

I know I’ve said it before, but we are not rich enough to buy “cheap” things – not to mention that you usually get what you pay for, and in this particular case, what you lose is the enjoyment which could (and should!) be yours – and besides, if you want something done right, do it yourself.  In this case, the difference is truly remarkable.

Spring, Moss, and Half-Rye Sourdough Bread

Considering my recent silence, you have undoubtedly wondered if I have been eaten by crocodiles by now.  Or maybe polar bears.  It’s Sweden, and the polar bears must be hungry.  Or some other grisly fate.  The truth is, however, very prosaic – I have simply been busy.

It happens to all of us, and I am entirely unapologetic for having a life outside the blog, much as I love it.

And besides, to quote a recently-seen on the internet and absolutely brilliant photo:

“IT’S SPRING.  WE ARE SO EXCITED, WE WET OUR PLANTS!”

As you can see, the plants are happily blooming – at least some of them, and others look like they are preparing to, and if you are like me and like houseplants, then it’s exciting.  What can I say, I am easily excited.  I think that’s a good thing.  Surely beats sitting there looking bored and feeling blasé about the world.

So um, yes.  I have been busy, it’s spring, which means my plants needed more attention, my studies are kicking back in, and I have not had so much time to cook anything impressive, nor, mostly, to photograph it.

I did bake a half-rye bread on the basis of my two-fifths rye no-knead recipe, and it turned out gorgeous.  I have, again, let it proof entirely too long due to the same reason (I went for a walk and returned later than planned), but it was delicious and lovely nonetheless.  One of those days I will actually bake it in time and see if it can be made taller, but between the high rye content and the high hydration of no-knead method, I am not sure.  On the up side, the narrow slices make fantastically elegant open-faced sandwiches with slices of cheese, salami, dried ham or cured fish.  Anyway, no recipe here – merely a note that the two-fifths rye recipe works exceptionally well with a half and half split between the types of flour.  And, I will try a closer to 65 or 70% split in favor of rye next.

And then there is my newly-found fascination with moss.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of conflicting and downright bad information about how to grow it on the internet.  And doubly unfortunately, I managed to spray the two original moss-homes I made with the wrong water spray bottle.  What’s so wrong about the wrong spray bottle?  Well, it used to contain agricultural soap-and-oil mix for treating bugs on one of my orchids last summer.  As a result, I think one or two applications of that instead of water are killing the moss slowly, which made me very sad.  It is still alive and struggling to stay so (and I am helping), but I am not sure it will win the battle, and it is entirely my fault.

So, I did a lot more reading, and gathered more moss.

And then I followed several other new instructions which changed or negated the things I originally found.  For example, I did not use any potting soil on this round.  Instead, I made a base out of aquarium-filter activated carbon, and piled sterilized gravel bits, re-sterilized bark chips (from my orchid potting bark bag), and pieces of terracotta (broken flowerpot that did not survive the winter freeze) on top of that.  Added aged tap water with some activated carbon swirled in it via my new, clean spray bottle, and arranged the moss on top, above the water level.

Note: to sterilize rocks and bark chips, soak in boiling water, let stand, pour water off and repeat.  This won’t sterilize them for purposes of neural surgery, but it should kill most mold spores and random microfauna present on and in them.  If you want to be more sure about it, boil a pot of water and toss them in there for a while.  Do not salt.  ;)

The second thing I found important is having a lid for your moss-growing dish.  A more reputable moss-growing website owner mentioned in his blog that he covers his moss dishes overnight and leaves them to air out during the day – so, upside-down flat candle plates were found to cover the little terraria, to maintain good humidity with periods of drying-out and fresh air.  Since, unless your moss is swamp moss (mine isn’t, it came off rocks and tree stumps), it doesn’t want to sit in a swamp.  (Deep wisdom right there, for various houseplants other than moss as well!)

And a third thing was washing the moss when I had initially brought it home, removing all debris and clinging dirt under running water, and then quarantining it in sandwich boxes with partially-shut lids for several days before using it in the arrangement – to make sure no pests or molds surface in the meantime.

The new terraria are now a few days old, and are so far doing well.  I’ll just avoid spraying them with insecticidal solution by accident and see what happens.

So, there it is.  Coming soon(tm) – posts about vanilla, and about the two entirely new to me white whole wheat flours (That is not a typo – they are whole wheat flours made from white, not red wheat!) that I have just received in the mail and all excited about – but obviously, first I need to bake something from them and see how that works out!

Moss Dish Garden Experiment – Day 3

UPDATE:  Please see this post for more and more correct information regarding moss dishes!

For those of you curious about how the moss is doing – well, so far, it appears to be doing fine.  In fact, it does not appear all that different from how it looked about 4 hours after watering – see for yourself!

Day 1 on the left, Day 3 (today) on the right. (Click to enlarge)

The light is a bit different (today’s photos are taken a bit earlier in the afternoon but on a cloudy day), but the pot has not changed a whole lot.  It is not at all surprising as mosses are incredibly slow growers and I don’t expect sprouting like you’d see on higher plants.  I think I may keep taking a benchmark photo every few days – it would make seeing progress a lot easier.

Throughout yesterday and today, I have misted the containers a few times, and I have added water into the reservoirs as the moss was slurping it all up at a surprising rate – in the glass container, it nearly emptied the reservoir!  I heard that some mosses can hold up to 4x their weight in water but I did not actually see it before!  From what I can tell, it is happy.  It’s still too early to tell whether it’s going to survive, so I am serious about giving this a couple of weeks before pronouncing it any sort of success.

There is also something I’ve noticed about it after a closer observation, and perhaps a day or so indoors and moistened:

The moss is not just a single carpet of Hypnum.  It appears to have in it a few leaves of a larger, curlier species which is a little lighter in color (not pictured in this clip as they did not come out in focus at high magnification), and also tiny star-shaped deep green growths with reddish stems.  I had noticed the cup lichen (Cladonia) earlier, but it bears mention all the same for sheer cuteness – the largest cup is about 1.5mm across.  I really hope it survives as well!

I have a very mild concern that the water we have here, however pure it is, may be a little too harsh for the moss that is a non-vascular plant, so I have put 2 small buckets to gather rain outside should it fall, and will also age some tap water and check supermarket bottled waters for pH and mineral content listing and maybe buy a bottle of that till the spring rains come.

Also, I am really getting rather attached to the cute tiny green things!  T even teased me this morning about staring at the moss meditatively while we were having coffee, to which I replied that he should not disturb my “moss appreciation time”.

Whatever you say for it, it’s certainly incredibly relaxing, and soothing to look at – a tiny piece of forest of your own within arm’s reach.

Moss Dish Garden Experiment – Day 1

UPDATE:  Please see this post for more and more correct information regarding moss dishes!

Today’s post is not at all about food, but about spring, and green growing things.  I love greenery, I’ve mentioned that before, but when the days turn sunny and the chill in the air is no longer a biting cold but a refreshing breeze, my fascination with the green stuff goes into overdrive.

I literally cannot have enough green things around the apartment, and preferably new and interesting ones at that.  Yes, I did say apartment – had I had a house, and a garden, there’d be a lot more green things around.  As it is, I have to fit my desire to see things grow into a city apartment.  Which means, windowsills and tabletops and maybe balcony… actually definitely balcony, as my lavender bushes not only survived the winter outside unprotected except by what snow fell on them, but are alive and sprouting happily.  I’ve trimmed them down and fertilized them and can now look forward to an abundance of purple and white flowers and a heavenly fragrance… but I digress.

Yesterday, a friend of mine informed me that if I do not yet have a moss dish garden, I need one.  Need.  And she showed me some photos, and I realized that yes, she is right and I do indeed need one, right now.  Right then it was too late in the day to go gravel-gathering, or moss-hunting, but that is precisely what I did this morning.

Why?  Because it’s green, it’s alive and because it is incredibly beautiful, at least to those like me who think just about anything in the forest short of animal poop is beautiful.  And a moss dish garden is very far from that end of the spectrum indeed – it is as small as you want to make it, elegant and stylish, and has the certain quiet beauty much admired by Japanese gardeners (who have encouraged moss to grow in their gardens for centuries before we have gotten the idea to do this – probably from them).  And it’s supposed (supposed does not = works out that way) to be pretty low-maintenance.  This latter part, we’ll see about.  Once it establishes, that is.

Important: before you rush out and strip the moss off the nearest boulder, first make sure that it is not protected or endangered wherever it is you live.  If it is, then you may be better off buying some from a nursery or get some (legally sourced) spores online.  Of course, collecting it in your own garden or in a garden of people you know works too.  Just – make sure you aren’t breaking the law and ruining the environment by gathering an endangered species – after all, the point of this (at least to me) is to grow something beautiful because you love green things, not to destroy what is possibly irreplaceable!  For reference, in Sweden, some lichens and mosses are protected, but it is legal to gather a little bit of other varieties for personal (non-commercial) use in public forests.  The variety pictured above is a species of Hypnum genus of mosses, a very common forest and bog moss.

After the ethical and legal concerns are out of the way, putting together a moss garden is apparently very easy – you just need a ceramic or glass dish, some gravel and pebbles, a bit of non-alkaline potting soil, and the moss.  However, and that’s a big however, I imagine it will take more than just putting it together to get it to establish and thrive.  So, this is my moss dish garden experiment – day 1.  I will update over the next several weeks on how the mosses are doing before I pronounce this a success *knocks on wood*.

So, what does one need to make a moss garden?

Apparently, not that much.  Mosses don’t like alkaline environment (at least most of the common ones don’t), and they dislike direct sunlight but like a bit of light all the same.  They also do not develop true roots the way higher plants do, and so must be kept moist but not waterlogged (except bog mosses that sometimes just float in bogs).  Most websites recommend watering with filtered or rainwater.  I agree in theory, but in practice, the tap water in Stockholm is clean and soft enough that it should not be a problem.  I did put a bucket outside to collect a bit of rainwater should it fall, but in the meantime, the moss will get the same water as my orchids do.

The basic idea is a layer of pebbles in the bottom of a shallow dish, then a bit of gravel (this is to provide a place for excess water to drain into, and also a reservoir for keeping the soil moist), then a little bit of soil on top of it, and then the moss itself.

After I have put everything together around lunchtime today, it looked like this:

It hasn’t rained for over a week before I went out today to collect it, so the moss was looking a little dry but not dead – we have a beautiful patch of untouched forest behind our apartment building, a landscape feature I love about Stockholm.  It’s very common here to build around old boulders and between them, leaving the actual forest biome intact between the houses.  It makes for a beautiful view out the windows as well.

So, as per instructions, I constructed the base, watered it thoroughly, and then gently pushed the moss patches onto the soft and wet soil.  For a while, nothing visible happened.  I took the above photo, then sprayed the moss thoroughly with a spray bottle and wandered off to do other stuff.

Then, after a few hours, I came back and looked at my dish garden – and the somewhat-unexpected (but not unwelcome!) has happened:

On left, photo taken at half past noon. On right, photo at half past four in the afternoon.

The moss has soaked up water, plumping up visibly – and turned a beautiful lush green!  And while I know it’s too early to be happily assuming that the moss will survive, it certainly does look happier already, which means I am happier too – how can you not be, looking at something turn beautifully alive nearly before your eyes?

All that remains now is an exercise in patience.  Check moss daily for drying out, mist and admire.  Water weekly (or as soon as the glass container looks dry on the side) by pouring water in.  Wait to see what happens.  I’m sitting on the edge of my seat here with impatience – I have never been the patient sort, ever.  I’ve always been told that patience is a virtue.  I suppose at least where growing moss is concerned, that has got to be true.

Wish me – and the moss! – luck.

Two-Ingredient, Five-Minute Ice Cream

WARNING:  This post contains information that will come perilously close to ruining your relationship with your jeans.  And/or the mirror.  Read at your own risk!

Anyone who knows me, knows that of all sweets, ice cream is the one I have least resistance for.  Which, as it happens, does not at all mean that I’ll eat any sort of bad ice cream whenever.  Oh no.  The above only applies to exceptionally good, ice-cream-shop ice cream, or at the very least something like Häagen-Dazs. Or, preferably, the homemade stuff.

Like this.

Because really, if we could make ice cream at home without an ice-cream maker (some of us who have tiny kitchens can’t own every kitchen gadget we want because of space issues if nothing else!), of course we’d make it as amazing as we want it to be, and without anything questionable of remotely icky on the horizon.

I have made no-churn ice creams with fresh or frozen fruit before, and they turned out amazing – but when I came across this recipe, I simply had to try it.  Because it was promised that it would deliver (and boy, did it!) an even creamier version without any, any iciness at all!  And don’t color me boring, but I love vanilla ice cream.  By that, I don’t mean the plain oversugared white stuff you can find in any supermarket, no – I mean the heavily vanilla-perfumed rich and creamy vanilla ice cream that vanilla fanatics (like me) seek like the holy grail.

Personally, I think it’s sad that the word “vanilla” has come to signify in common slang something boring and uninventive.  I blame the aforementioned tasteless concoctions labeled “vanilla” that line the supermarket shelves, and the cheapening of this queen of flavors that inevitably followed – but I digress as usual, and this is a story for another time (yes, that other time is being planned… just need to take photos!).

Back to ice cream.  This ice cream is by no conceivable definition boring, unless you hate vanilla and/or ice cream with a passion (in which case I am not sure why you are reading this post).  It is lush, it is incredibly creamy and full of that rich, perfumey goodness that we expect of vanilla ice cream.  And best of all, it is very, very easy to make!

Now, like the original writer of the recipe, I cheat.  I use more than 2 ingredients, because while I imagine this ice cream would taste wonderful even without it, I have added real vanilla extract to it.  Why?  Because of all the above and how I adore vanilla.  And because I have real vanilla extract at home, made by yours truly (like I said, vanilla talk another day), and so I could.

So, what do you need for this?  (Makes just under 2L of ice cream.)

  • 2 plastic buckets or freezer-safe boxes that will hold a bit over 1L each.
  • Freezer that goes to -12C or below (Two-star or preferably more rated).  I am serious here.  Mine goes to -24C and that is how high I crank it, but those little (one-star) iceboxes in some fridges that don’t really freeze food solid won’t work.
  • Mixer.  I would not try this with a hand whisk although I have a friend who is scary with that thing and can whip cream or egg whites or whatever you want by hand.  I am not so gifted or exercised!
  • Bowl
  • 0.5L (5dl) heavy whipping cream (I used 36% one because that is what I had in the fridge, but I imagine 40% will work even better.)
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk (397g one which is apparently standard … who the heck came up with that amount?!)
  • 1 tablespoon real vanilla extract (and some seeds out of the vanilla pod if you want those black specks in your ice cream)

Method:  (This takes approximately 5 minutes.  After which there is a freezing period but really, you can just go to sleep like I did and wake up to ice cream!)

  • Put your cream in a bowl (add vanilla seeds now if using), and whip it to soft peak stage.
  • Add vanilla extract and whip to stiff peak stage.
  • Add condensed milk and whip to combine.  Mixture will be somewhat softer than stiff-peaks but that is ok.
  • Pour into your boxes and freeze overnight.

Serve.  If your freezer is a mean machine like mine, take the ice cream out for a few minutes before scooping, but to be honest, with a bit of arm power, I managed to scoop this even straight from the freezer – it does not go icy and it does not go terribly solid either.  It is creamy and gorgeous and, for all of you vanilla freaks, incredibly vanilla-satisfactory.  So much, in fact, that even I tend to have a little and then feel it is enough.

Like the original author says, this is very versatile.  Next time I will make my salted caramel sauce and swirl it into a semi-frozen mixture.  Or mix in some smashed cookies like she did.  Or… the imagination is the limit, I suspect, and I really do think that adding some chocolate to the whipping cream would work wonders as well.

Now that I have this recipe, the ice cream is always, always within my reach… my jeans may think this is not such a great idea.  I may have to, you know, compromise with them and feed most of the ice cream to skinny Scandinavian friends.  Yesss… ;)

P.S.  While I make none, zero, nada claims regarding the health value of this (it has none except for those who really need to gain weight, and maybe not even then), it does have some virtues which are hard to come by in shop-bought ice cream:  It has zero food additives, stabilizers, colors or artificial flavors.  It contains no eggs at all, and so is suitable for egg allergy sufferers and vegetarians who avoid eggs.  And well… if you count your mental health, it does have a health benefit.  Like, you know, keeping you from throwing objects or crying when you have PMS.  For that, it works wonders, even in small doses.  (Yes, I’ve tried it for that.)  Oh and – for this sort of quality, it’s also really inexpensive to make, so it makes your wallet – and you – happier.  Beat that!

Bad Romance (And Amazing Pizza Crust)

No no, I have not suddenly decided to leave T!  This is so not what this is all about!

Allow me, for just a moment, to wax all Lady-Gagaesque.  Oh all right, maybe I would cook and eat the steak instead of making a dress, but still – over the past year, I have been having what I can only call a love affair with bread.

Which is for someone who really ought to stay away from too many carbs, is notably a case of bad romance.  But rather than set the bed on fire torch the bread, I have dealt with it by feeding most of the bread to T and assorted friends, and only having a little.  Because, really, what sort of life is it if you don’t even try what you bake?  (And what sort of life is it if you don’t bake at all?!)  So in the end, I live within the best of both worlds – I can bake, he can eat, and I don’t overdo bread-eating.  Usually.

In the case of this pizza however, T had to share equally.  Because, you know, some things are just entirely too good not to have – and had I made two, I imagine we would have both finished one each easily.  I need not sing hallelujah for the pear and blue cheese pairing, nor for the addition of red onion and olive oil-and-balsamic-herb wash for this, for they need it not.  These are all classics, and as such, worthy of many repetitions because they never fail.  No, what made this special is the crust – thin, crunchy, light-as-air and crispy on the outside: the very epitome of what I have always loved about good pizza.  Just when I had thought homemade pizza-making could not be improved, there is was, yet another revelation, bringing me into higher reaches of pizza heaven.

It all began with being lazy.  Because I am, you know, and make no secret of it.  So while I wanted to learn to bake real breads, and was willing to put in the effort for the learning curve, if there are better and easier way to make something, I am always very interested in trying them.  Like the adventures with no-knead bread (including the original spectacular failure!).  And, this – this being the other recently popular method for artisan-style bread for home bakers, the so-called bread-in-five (minutes a day), which is another variation of the no-knead method (allowing time and moisture to develop the gluten instead of pounding the dough like a sumo wrestler), but with the added caveat of it being very wet dough, and stored in the refrigerator to make it less sticky and more manageable.

I would not say that five-minutes-a-day is an absolute claim, because really, that excludes the resting of the bread, preheating of oven, and other such things (as many critics have claimed), but it is true that it is five minutes of actual effort a day if all you are making is a loaf of bread from pre-prepared dough.  And well, as such the claim is true enough – after the initial mixing and such, of course – but that is hardly laborous either.

The method for dough handling outlined on their site (I will go over it in short in a bit) works brilliantly well.  As you can see from the neat and smooth ball of dough on the next photo, the gluten is well-developed and the dough is both, elastic and very relaxed – both very desirable attributes more or less regardless of what you are baking.

Before we go any further, I cannot make any claims as to what quality of loaf the method produces, because I have not tried to make a loaf using this dough yet.  All I have made so far has been a small focaccia on the same day I mixed the dough (post-mandatory-refrigeration), and a pizza this morning for lunch.  Although I can attest that it does hold its shape once shaped into a ball despite very high hydration % (very wet dough), probably due to well-developed gluten after the refrigerated maturing of dough.

Bread experimentation forthcoming, I have to give this method (at its very basic master recipe adjusted to bread flour) two thumbs up for making flatbread that is incredibly crispy and light, with a moist and airy interior.  And the dough is a joy to work with, for someone as clumsy with dough-stretching as me (I make zero claims on my pizza-tossing ability as I imagine it’d end up draped on the overhead lights if I tried – that, or stuck in my hair) – the dough stretches easily, does not resist much, and does not stick nearly as much as you’d think when you initially mix it.  Well… you do need to flour your hands, but that’s it really.

So what does the method for dough-making entail?

The principle is very simple.  You mix a high-hydration dough, you allow it to rise to maximum rise (about 2 hours with regular yeast), and then you place it in the refrigerator and cut off and use as much as you want over the next fourteen days (2 weeks).  All the dough requires before baking is a minimal shaping with floured hands and 30-40 minute rest before going in a hot oven onto a pizza stone or into a cast-iron pan or pot.

The master recipe is listed here, but it is in American measures.  I have converted the recipe to metric and then used bread flour, of which I used proportionally less to same volume of water as advised on the site:

  • 3 cups (710ml) barely-warm water
  • 1.5 tablespoons dry yeast (this came to just under 1 packet (50g) of Swedish yeast)
  • 1.5 tablespoons coarse salt (I used coarse sea salt)
  • 6.5 cups (2lb) = 910g all-purpose flour.  I had adjusted this to ~850g bread flour (which absorbs slightly more water)

Mix, cover, allow to rise for 2 hours, and place in refrigerator covered (but allowing a bit of air to escape so don’t screw a lid on tight) for 3 hours to 14 days.  The site recommends using a plastic bucket with a snap lid and a tiny hole in the top to vent the air.  I used a large stainless-steel bowl and covered it with plastic wrap which gets around the danger of blowing-up from gas pressure very well.

To use, sprinkle the top of the dough with a bit of flour, stretch up the amount of dough you want to use grabbing it by that floured bit, and scizzor it off.  Drop dough onto a floured board, and pre-shape into a boule in the classical manner of tucking ends under.

To make the pizza or focaccia base, in my experience the use of rolling pin only makes the dough too tough.  So, I had allowed the dough ball to rest for about 15-20 minutes, then I placed a piece of baking parchment onto a board, preheated my oven with my trusty huge cast-iron shallow casserole bottom in it to 225C, and stretched the dough gently with well-floured hands.  Then dropped it onto the baking parchment without any flouring.  Why?  Because a tiny bit of sticking to the parchment helps prevent it shrinking (See that stuck bit on the right?  Like that.), and because it comes right unstuck during baking – and keeps your cast iron pan clean as a bonus!

The rest, so to speak, is history.  While the crust is resting a few more minutes, cut up your favorite toppings – or whatever happened to be in the fridge (in my case, a bag of pears, a leftover quarter of a red onion, and a small chunk of blue cheese), brush the pizza crust with a bit of olive oil (or leftover dipping oil mixed with balsamic vinegar and herbs in my case), and top it.

Slide onto a pizza stone, or if you are like me, pull out the hot cast iron casserole, and slide the baking parchment with the pizza into it.  Turn oven to 250C and broiler (top grill) on, and bake for a few minutes until done.  Ovens and distance from the broiler will vary, so watch your pizza – half a minute and it may char beyond what you want it to be!

Take it out and cool on the rack for a few minutes (few = not many here!), before cutting it apart and serving, and regretting that you did not make two or three.

And if you are like me and live with sugar sensitivity – eat, but enjoy in moderation.  Complete deprivation never did anyone any good.

Submitted to the lovely baked-goods showcase at Yeastspotting.