I decided yesterday, despite having never baked a satisfactory loaf of bread, that I was ready to liberate myself from the confines of a recipe. I suppose I figured that since I have never been able to successfully follow one, I might as well not even try. I loosely adhered to the concept of “baker’s percentages”–every ingredient measured in terms of its percentage weight compared to the amount of flour. Typical sweet breads are 100% flour, 60% hydration, 2% salt, 3% yeast. I used that as my baseline. The following should not really be seen as a recipe (because god forbid anyone actually reproduce this mess) but rather a transcript of what I did.
Sweet Butter Rolls
50 g minus 1 tbsp AP flour
1 tbsp vital wheat gluten (Note: Can probably substitute bread flour for AP flour and skip the gluten)
250 g water
500 g minus 3 tbsp plus as needed AP flour — 100%
3 tbsp vital wheat gluten (Note: Can probably substitute bread flour for AP flour and skip the gluten)
100 g eggs (I used 3 eggs and saved the leftover for the eggwash) — 20%
100 g plus a pinch white sugar — 20%
250 g warm water — 50%
[Recommended: 150 g warm water -- 30%]
15 g yeast — 3%
10 g nonfat milk powder — 2%
10 g salt — 2%
100 g unsalted butter, room temperature and cut into cubes — 20%
1. I first made the tangzhong. You can get instructions and a more detailed overview here, but basically it’s a sort of dough conditioner mixture. Apparently it works by gluten something something chemistry and then magic. I made it badly, so it turned out lumpier than it is supposed to be. Also, I’ve never been able to produce the effect that tangzhong is supposed to create (incredibly soft, fibrous bread that stays fresh for days).
2. While waiting for the tangzhong to cool to room temperature, I did the dishes. I also got the yeast going by throwing it into a bowl with the warm water, along with a pinch of sugar for the critters to munch on.
3. While the yeast was proofing (about 5-10 minutes), I combined the flour, gluten, sugar, and milk powder in a mixing bowl. Be careful to fully disperse the gluten; it likes to bind up instantly when it comes into contact with water and you need that love to be spread evenly around the flour.
3. I gently beat the eggs, set aside what I didn’t use for the egg wash later, then whisked them together with the goopy tangzhong and yeast water. With my Kitchenaid stand mixer at the lowest possible setting and the paddle attached, I slowly added the dry ingredients, about a third of a cup at a time. As soon as they were all incorporated, I switched to the dough hook and added the salt, bumping up to speed “2”. You want to add the salt after the dough has already come together, because the salt inhibits gluten development or something.
4. The next hour or so is sort of a blur. It is typically at this point that every baking project of mine becomes something of a shitshow. This one was no different. I kneaded in the machine for about 20-30 minutes total, stopping every few minutes to panic, yank around the dough, and scrape down the sides of the bowl. At several points I attempted to knead by hand, but decided against it after noticing that large portions of the dough remained stuck to every surface it came into contact with, including my hands. I also randomly dropped in more flour whenever I felt like it–maybe around 1/3-1/2 cup total. I did about 50 “windowpane” tests, none of which passed and all of which probably compromised the structure of my gluten. When the whole song-and-dance was over, however, I had a decently smooth and elastic blob of dough.
5. It was time to put in the butter. Well-kneaded dough, I have found, is remarkably resistant to the introduction of any newcomer to the mix, especially if that newcomer is a slippery fat. I put the butter in one cube at a time, and each piece caused more chaos than the last. My previously soft, happy lump of dough was now confused and falling apart. It slapped miserably against the side of the bowl at every turn of the dough hook, covered in butter but refusing to incorporate any of it. I eventually had to shove the dough into the path of the hook with a spatula to get it all to mix together. After about 15 minutes of this, the dough and butter were finally one.
6. I misted the dough with cooking spray and left it in the stand mixer bowl with saran wrap over the top to rise. Any warm place would do, but I put it in the oven, which I had preheated for 30 seconds. I left it for about an hour, at which point it seemed sufficiently risen. The whole “double in size” thing never made sense to me–Is it double in volume? Because that would hardly take any time at all. Double in diameter? That, to the contrary, would take forever and be gigantic. In any case, when I poked the dough (the only part of baking I seem to be adept at) it stayed dented but did not collapse, the only sure sign of a good rise.
7. Before embarking on the project, I had lofty plans of making fancy shapes and maybe throwing in some raisins or cinnamon, but when it came time to shape the buns, I settled on the lazier option of plopping them into a muffin pan. To get smooth-ish tops, I gently stretched out each blob of dough and then folded it into itself. After shaping, I loosely covered the buns with saran wrap and put them back in the (turned off!) oven to rise for another hour.
8. When the rolls were sufficiently plumped up, I removed the saran wrap, glazed them with the egg wash, and baked them at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes.
Conclusions and Lessons Learned
Despite the fact that the surface of the rolls looked as if they had been stricken with smallpox, I was moderately happy with the flavor of the bread–it was rich without being too sweet, perfect to go along with a pat of butter or jam. Personally, I prefer sweet breads that can be eaten unadulterated, but this had a good basic taste with general appeal. The texture, however, was another story. It was somewhat soft, but it lacked the elasticity and “stringiness” that my favorite baked goods have. It’s hard to explain, but as my roommate put it, it’s kind of like the grain on a piece of meat; it all goes in one direction, and can be pulled apart readily into strands. That’s what I’m constantly striving for, but I can never hit it. Maybe the dough was too hydrated–it was extremely sticky and hard to work with. Perhaps some extra flour would have helped create stronger, longer gluten strands. Or perhaps it was some sort of shaping technique that I was missing.
In any case, it was neither a complete disaster nor a rousing success. I do like the idea of experimenting with my own recipes, so maybe I will continue to do that while refining my technique.