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Friday, February 17, 2012

Cheddar Herb Buns

So, Thursdays are often leftover night in our house.  It's a good time of the week to clean out the fridge I think...

This week, however, there wasn't much in there.  I had some romaine which was going to go bad, and a tiny amount of pasta from Valentine's Day... not really enough to make a full meal.

So I decided to whip up a quick batch of cheese n' herb buns.

This follows very closely my previous bread recipes, so feel free to follow those if you're interested in more detailed directions.

The special thing about today's bread-product which makes it a little different from the usual, is the addition of so much extra crap.  Cheese, garlic, onion, and herbs.  Delicious crap, but a whole bunch of extra stuff to add to a delicate chemical balance.

A trick to getting an entire something (read: anything) to taste like something specific, is to diffuse this flavour in some sort of oil-based liquid beforehand.

So, we're going to do some sauteing.  But first, we need to mince the freakin crap out of the garlic and onion:

Once they've been practically liquefied by your dazzling display of masterwork knife skills, they're ready to be added to a pat of butter (unsalted) in a pan on low heat.

This will take a good 10 minutes or so, and gives us time to prepare a few other things... namely the 'dry' ingredients.

The "herbs" for today's herbal concoction are pretty simple.  We've got some thyme, some rosemary, and a touch of parsley.  Basically something which would complement garlic, onion, and cheddar.  I ground these a little in my m&p, just enough so that it didn't feel like chowing down on pine-needles.

Then, I mixed up about 4 cups of flour, a tablespoon of yellow sugar, and about 3 teaspoons of yeast.  I actually ran out of yeast here... in the middle of making my bread... which kinda sucked, but I just trudged through hoping no one would notice (especially the buns).  In all truthfulness, there should have been about 4 teaspoons of yeast, but it all turned out OK.  Not the end of the world.

So, mixing that all by hand, and starting with the sugar (which is inherently very moist and therefore clumpy), I blended all the dry ingredients well, and then added my herbs, and my grated cheese (about a cup).  If you looked closely at my photo of the cheese, you might have noticed a touch of Parmigiano-Reggiano in the mix.  Well... that's just for a bit of sharpness.

Anyway, when all this was mixed up, I made a 'well' in the middle, ready to accept the wet ingredients.

For that... I used some potato water which I like to keep in the freezer or fridge after every time I'll boil potatoes.  The starch is awesome stuff.  As you'll note, after having sat for a time, the denser starch separates from the water, so if you like you can pour off a little bit of the liquid from the top.  Be careful though, as that starch get's re-integrated awfully fast.

So, this is relatively cool (room temperature at the warmest), and is a great medium with which to cool off the incoming sauteed garlic and onion and butter stuff.

Which at this point is nice and ready:

So, pour that puppy right in, and give it a perfunctory whisking.

Then, stick your finger in there to test for two things:
  1. Temperature - this can be warm, but shouldn't be hot.
  2. Salinity - because there can be salt in your mix from either the butter (if you used salted butter) or from the potato water (if you salted it when boiling potatoes).
Now... I'm sorry, but I feel like going off on a chemistry-related tangent.  
Because I can.
Because I am the writer of this post and you're not, so you will listen to every damn word I have to say!!!  <---------- Click on that link.  Do it.  DO it!  Trust me.

But really, let's face it, that's what you've come to love about my blog, isn't it?

In all seriousness, though... if your'e not interested, just skip the next few paragraphs... which I've already conveniently cordoned off for you... aren't you lucky.

 BEWARE - Potential Learning Beyond This Point 

Yeast can be finicky... but understanding its chemistry, and a little bit about aerobic respiration can help.  Our own cells respire aerobically (our muscle tissue sometimes respires anaerobically, but we won't get into that) and essentially this process takes oxygen and carbohydrates, and converts them into water and carbon dioxide (and a form of usable energy).  It's actually a really cool equation, I'm certain you'll agree:
Aerobic Respiration:
C6H12O6 + 6 O2 = 6 CO2 + 6 H2O + ATP (energy)
Translation: 1 Sugar (carbohydate) molecule + 6 Oxygen molecules are consumed in order to create 6 Carbon Dioxide molecules, 6 Water molecules and some usable (cellular) energy.  
Now, if you're all buff on your redox reactions, you'll be super keen and note that the same exact number of atoms enter as do leave.  Which is a perfect example of how matter can neither be created nor destroyed (see Dalton's Atomic Theory) and just plain superduper cool.
I also LOVE how this formula is the exact mirror image of Photosynthesis.  I think it amazingly humbling; there can not be any clearer evidence of just how dependent we are on plants. 
6 CO2 + 6 H2O + SUNLIGHT (energy) = C6H12O6 + 6 O2 
This is really just an interesting aside, in my already tangential aside, but damn if it isn't super cool, right?
So anyway, back to the yeast thing, you'll see that like most eukaryotic cells, yeast breathes aerobically, and takes in sugar and oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, and water.  So, in baking, this involves using the sugar in the flour, and oxygen in the atmosphere in order to "breathe out" carbon dioxide, the active leavening (or raising) agent involved in bread 'rising'.  
So, thinking of yeast as tiny little dudes puffing up their cheeks and blowing up your bread dough like a balloon is actually not too inaccurate an analogy! 

 OK: It's Safe, Your Brain Can Come Out of Hiding Now 

The bottom line is that salinity and warmth can play a part in how your dough rises.

Warmth is not really needed, but can speed up this process.  Adding salt, on the other hand, will actually hinder aerobic respiration.  

But, seeing as how bread without even a little bit of salt can taste like butt, you pretty much need just a little bit.  Normally the sugars existing within the flour itself is enough to get the yeast breathing, but if I'm going to add more than the tiniest pinches of salt - as I have in this recipe - I'll try and counterbalance that a little with some added sugar.

Like I say, I added a bit more salt than usual in this, only because it is a "savoury" style bread.

So, if you've tested your wet ingredients for excessive salinity or warmth, feel free to add it to your dry ingredient 'well'.

Then all that's left is to get in there and get your hands dirty (literally).

After a minute or so you should start to get some cohesion to your dough.  To coin a phrase from one of my favourite celebrity chefs, Nigella Lawson, it should be a right "shaggy mess" at this point.  

If you've still got some dry bits on the bottom of your bowl which you can't get to stick for the life of you, just add a tiny bit of water.  Very slowly (incrementally).  It doesn't take much.  If, on the other hand, your dough is still a little sticky, just spread some more flour out on your counter top before kneading.

Anyway, you are ready to begin the important but laborious stage of kneading once it looks like this: 

Spend at least 5 minutes kneading.  And unless you're giving it your all during those 5 minutes, then expect closer to 10 minutes.  Be honest with yourself... it's like working out... you're not going to reap any benefits by cutting corners here.

I try and do 10 minutes of kneading every time.  It can be exhausting.  I'm not really THAT out of shape, but damn if after this time I'm not panting and/or wheezing, sweating from most places, and wanting to crawl into a small and dark cubby just to catch my breath.

Anyway, after about 10 minutes, the dough should look much more smooth and elastic:

At this point, you can just stick the whole thing in a bread tin, and have (you guessed it) bread.  Or you can do what I did, and chop it into a dozen small bits for a muffin tin.

Once these are reasonably uniformly-sized, just roll em up into a ball and pat them into your muffin pan, and then cover them tightly with cling film.  As tightly as you can manage.  

I've found  that taking a wet cloth and wiping the sides and bottom of a container beforehand can help the plastic cling more effectively.  I'm guessing that has to do with water tension, or hydrogen bonding (I feel another tangent coming on!!!!)  Nah, I'll save that one for another time.  Besides, I think most people understand that one.

So... these rose a bit (again, should have had more yeast... D'oh well) over the span of about 6 hours, at which point I put them in the oven at 375° for about 20 minutes.  Buns take less time than bread, which would have needed almost double that.

They were delicious.

My wife and I ate about 8 of them with our paltry leftover pasta and caesar salad.  I whipped up some mildly-flavoured butter, and together they were just plain awesome.