It’s no secret that I love carbs. A couple months ago, I wrote an entire entry dedicated to carbs, and of course, Amy’s Bread, a metropolitan haven for carboholics. I mentioned my desire to own Amy’s cookbooks. I’m here today to tell you that I recently did purchase one of the books, the revised and updated version of the original Amy’s Bread cookbook. I was so enthusiastic to try my hand at baking bread, just like they do at Amy’s! Their breads are highly respected through all of New York, and are featured on many menus throughout the city, not to mention delicious!
The book is well organized and has a fairly extensive introduction with in depth information on ingredients, equipment, and of course techniques. First of all, I must point out that Amy’s creates artisan bread, which, according to the cookbook, uses a lot more water than most other bread recipes. The book states that a drier dough yields a dense bread with a tough texture and very small holes in the crumb, whereas a wetter dough yields a chewy bread with a glossy crumb, longer shelf life, an appealing texture with open holes, and a much more complex flavor.
The trouble is that a wet dough is much harder to work with, trust me. Some recipes in the book (for the really wet doughs) use an electric mixer, but the ladies of Amy’s Bread prefer to mix most of their doughs by hand, and this is what is suggested in the cookbook. Personally, I love getting my hands dirty in the kitchen. I didn’t mind the mess, and although my hands and work space were covered in wet, super-sticky dough (which I referred to as a dough monster!), I felt like I was really making bread, not a cake or cookies, bread.
The dough was so wet and sticky, in fact, that my mom had to hold down the large wooden cutting board I was kneading the dough on, because it kept lifting up and down and moving around as I was pushing and pulling the dough. I’d highly recommend working with your dough on a large counter or directly on a heavy table you don’t mind getting dirty instead of a cutting board, which is not going to stay in place, I promise. If you can get past the sticky dough all over your hands and board, you can definitely make these doughs! My bench scraper became my best friend during this process 🙂
I was also a bit worried at first because most of the recipes in this book require the use of a starter. Which means you have to plan ahead. Fortunately, less than a dozen use a derivative of a sourdough starter, which requires several days to refresh until it is active and ready to use. Otherwise, most of the recipes that use a starter use either a poolish or biga starter, which can easily be made the night before the bread is to be made. Both are very simple to make and require minimal effort. Phew! I decided to start with one of these.
Maybe I’m a sissy, but with Thanksgiving last week, I just didn’t have the time to start a sourdough starter amidst all the other things I had to do. And trust me, even with the “faster” starters, all the breads in this cookbook require a serious time commitment. They all have several resting periods, which are fine for taking showers, vacuuming, cleaning out your inbox, painting your toenails (if you’re a girl… or a guy who’s into that, no judging!) and anything else that needs to get done during the several hours total you may need to wait for your dough to rise, intermittently, of course. During one of the rises for my dough, I went to brunch while my mom dough-sat for me 🙂 She’s awesome!
I like the way this book is set up, the pictures are mouthwatering, and the recipes are clearly explained, with photos in the intro of how to knead the wet doughs, mix in special ingredients, and shape and score the different loaves. I do have a few criticisms, however. First of all, each recipe lists a yield and special equipment required before the ingredients are even listed. I think it would be very useful if they had included active and inactive times or at least time ranges in this section.
These recipes are very time intensive, and including these times up front could be useful in selecting which recipes might be more accessible, rather than reading through each recipe and doing addition to see how long they will take from beginning to end. Each recipe also points out right beneath the title if the recipe uses a starter, and if so, which one. This is very useful when narrowing down a recipe to try! Unfortunately I must point out an error on the Brioche Pan Loaf recipe, which states that it does not use a starter and then goes on to include the poolish starter in the ingredients. An oversight, but I wish the editor would have caught that 🙁 This is the revised and updated version of the book after all.
Two more things, and I promise I will be done with my criticisms (and you will thank me for pointing these out!). In the introduction, the book states that the recipes were all tested on “old New York City gas ovens,” and that with more modern ovens and electric ovens, the temperatures given may be too hot, and if so the temperatures should be lowered by 10 degrees F on all recipes.
First of all, maybe this should be pointed out in a more prominent location than page 43, in the middle of the techniques section, which some people may never even read. Second of all, I would hope that in testing these recipes they would have thought to attempt them on some newer ovens as well, since I’m guessing many people making these recipes will not have “old New York City gas ovens.” Just saying. That kinda bugs me. Fortunately, our electric oven worked just fine with the recipe I made. But it’s the principle.
My last issue involved the method to create steam in the oven. Again, the techniques section goes in depth to explain that you should put a small pan (such as a mini loaf pan) in the oven with ice cubes to create some initial steam, and preheat a cast iron pan as well, which will be filled last minute with boiling water. It says here (and only here) that the cast iron pan should be an old pan you don’t mind rusting. This warning is never repeated again in the recipes.
The techniques section offers an alternative, where you can mist the oven walls with a plant sprayer several times. I opted to mist my oven walls because I don’t have a cast iron pan, and even if I did, I doubt I’d want to ruin it to bake bread. I revised the recipe below a bit to include both techniques so you can choose for yourself. Next time I may try using an older non-cast iron pan in the oven to create steam and see how that works, but for my purposes of making focaccia, the spritzing technique worked just fine 🙂
Oh yeah, the focaccia. I was getting to that, I swear. Even though I had a few concerns with the cookbook, overall I think it’s a great cookbook if you are aware of these minor issues. I was a bit intimidated at first with making a starter and creating steam in my oven to bake bread, two things I’d never done before. The starter was a piece of cake to put together. My two-year-old nephew could have mixed it up just fine. The steam issue also worked out just fine with the plant sprayer. Next time I may try out the water pan technique, but we’ll see. The focaccia was AMAZING.
The best bread of any kind, I think, I’ve baked both in and out of culinary school. Even though it was sticky and messy and took forever, it was not difficult to make. A bit challenging keeping the board on the table (thanks, mom), but otherwise the hardest part was just waiting during each rest period. My bread baked up perfectly, had a delightful slightly-salted and rosemary-infused crust on top, with beautiful open holes, and a lovely chewy texture that I can’t even begin to describe.
It definitely had a complex flavor (as promised) and I’m so glad I got to use a starter and fully experience that additional flavor and character that it gave my bread. In the end, after making my starter the night before, taking it out of the fridge super early in the morning, and then working on my bread for over 6 hours before I could finally eat it, would I make it, or any of the other time consuming, sticky-doughed recipes from this cookbook, again? Abso-f@$*in-lutely!
*UPDATE 1/8/13* I have since made several recipes from the book. I am still obsessed with my incredible results, but have become aware of MANY editorial problems in the book. I have included a thorough rundown of my recent findings in a recent Amazon review of the book. You can read it here.
Focaccia with Fresh Rosemary
- 1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (15 oz) warm water (85 to 90 degrees F)
- 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1 1/2 cups (12 oz) biga starter (recipe follows)
- 4 1/2 cups (22.5 oz) unbleached bread flour
- 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons (1.48 oz) milk
- 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons (1.27 oz) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 1/4 teaspoons (0.45 oz) kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (0.35 oz) fresh rosemary, about 2 1/2 branches, chopped
- Additional extra-virgin olive oil and kosher salt for topping
- Line a 17 by 12-inch sheet pan with parchment paper and lightly oil with olive oil. Set aside.
- Place the warm water and yeast in a large bowl. Stir with a fork to dissolve the yeast and allow to stand for about 3 minutes. If you are working in a cool kitchen on a cool day, increase the water temperature to 105 degrees F to give the dough a warmer start.
- Add the biga to the yeast mixture and mix with your fingers for 1 to 2 minutes to break it up. The mixture should look milky and foamy. Add the flour and mix in with your hands, lifting the wet mixture over the flour to incorporate it. When the dough becomes a shaggy mass, move to a very lightly floured surface and knead until it becomes smooth and somewhat elastic, about 5 minutes. Place the dough back into the mixing bowl, cover with oiled plastic, and let rest for 20 minutes to smooth out and develop elasticity.
- After the rest period add the milk, oil, and salt to the dough in the mixing bowl and knead it in the bowl until it is all incorporated.
- Move the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead until it is very smooth, silky, and elastic, 7 to 10 minutes. The dough will be sticky, but don’t use too much flour for kneading. The finished dough should be wet but supple and springy.
- Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turn it to coat with oil, and cover it tightly with oiled plastic wrap. Let the dough rise at room temperature (75 to 77 degrees F) for 1 hour.
- Turn the dough while it is still in the mixing bowl. Gently deflate the dough in the middle of the bowl with your fingertips, then fold the left side over the middle, and the right side over the middle. Fold the dough in half, gently pat it down, and then turn it over so the seam is underneath. Let it rise again for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until nearly doubled in volume.
- When the dough has risen, loosen it from the bowl and gently pour it onto the center of the oiled baking sheet. Pat it gently with your fingertips to stretch it evenly out to the edges of the pan. Be careful not to tear the dough. If the dough resists stretching, let it rest for 2 to 5 minutes, until it becomes supple enough to stretch again, then continue to press it out to the edges of the pan. (If the dough is dry, you may have to repeat the resting/stretching procedure several times). Brush the top of the dough lightly with olive oil, cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap, and let rise for 1 to 2 hours, until the dough has doubled and fills the pan (a finger pressed into the dough will leave an indentation).
- 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Fill a plastic spray bottle with water and place a small pan (such as a mini loaf pan) on the lowest possible rack of the electric oven. If using a water pan to create steam, also place a cast-iron pan (that you are willing to get rusty) next to the small pan, fill a teakettle with water to be boiled later, and have a metal 1-cup measure with a straight handle available near the kettle.
- 5 to 10 minutes before the focaccia is ready to bake, carefully place 2 or 3 ice cubes in the small pan in the bottom of the oven. This helps to create moisture in the oven prior to baking. If using a water pan, also turn the water on to boil.
- Brush and dot the surface of the dough gently with olive oil, dimple it in several spots with your fingertips to prevent air pockets from developing underneath, and sprinkle the surface lightly with kosher salt. Sprinkle with chopped rosemary all the way to the edges.
- Quickly open the oven, and place the pan of focaccia on the oven rack, then using the plastic spray bottle, quickly mist the focaccia 6 to 8 times. If using a water pan, have the metal 1-cup measure already filled with boiling water and carefully pour it into the cast-iron skillet. If not using a water pan, instead quickly spray the walls of the oven 8 to 10 times. Immediately close the oven door. 2 minutes later, open the oven and quickly spray the walls 8 to 10 times more, closing it immediately afterward. Spray the walls again 2 minutes later, 8 to 10 times (you will have sprayed the oven walls on 3 separate occasions now if not using a water pan).
- Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F and bake for 15 to 20 minutes longer, until golden brown and crusty but still soft inside.
- Remove the focaccia from the oven and immediately brush it lightly with olive oil. Cool in the pan 10 minutes, then carefully slide it onto a cooling rack. Remove the parchment (to prevent steam from softening the bottom crust) and let cool. Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into squares. Focaccia is best served the day it is baked.
Notes & Nutrition
Biga Starter (Small Batch)
- 200 g (7.00 oz/3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) very warm water (105º to 115ºF)
- 1/8 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 227 g (8.00 oz/1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons) unbleached all-purpose flour
- In a medium bowl, mix the warm water and yeast together and stir to dissolve the yeast. Add the flour and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon for 1 to 2 minutes, until a smooth, somewhat elastic batter has formed. The batter will be fairly thick and stretchy; it gets softer and more elastic after it has risen. Scrape the biga into the container, mark the height of the starter and the time on a piece of tape on the side of the container so you can see how much it rises, and cover the container with plastic wrap.
- Let it rise at room temperature (75º to 78ºF) for 6 to 8 hours. Or let it rise for 1 hour at room temperature, then chill it in the refrigerator for 8 hours or overnight. Remove it from the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours to warm up and become active before use. Biga should more than double in volume. If you use the starter while it’s still cold from the refrigerator, be sure to compensate for the cold temperature by using warm water (85ºF to 90ºF) in your dough, instead of the cool water specified in the recipe. Use the starter while it is still bubbling up, but before it starts to deflate.