As I promised in my last post, today I want to share some of my recent experiences baking bread in my new Breadtopia clay baker. I’ve baked several loaves so far, and I have to say I have quickly become a fan of using the closed clay pot for bread baking. I’ve already mentioned the no-knead recipe from Breadtopia called Cranberry-Pecan Extraordinaire, with dried cranberries and pecan pieces mixed into the unsweetened dough before baking. That was my first loaf using the new baker, and that experience just made me want to bake more. Bread lover that I am, it doesn’t take much of an excuse though!
In the past I have baked most of my hearth-style breads on a pizza stone. For that method, the stone is preheated and the dough is placed on the hot pizza stone, usually using a pizza peel to transfer the dough. For a crispy crust, a steam treatment is useful and I have tried various methods including spritzing the sides of the oven with water, and pouring hot water into a cast iron skillet placed in the bottom of the oven. In the online sourdough class I am taking (Bake Artisan Sourdough Bread Like a Professional by Teresa L Greenway), the instructor puts the dough on the pizza stone then spritzes the dough itself with water before covering it with the top of a turkey roaster. The pan traps the steam given off by the bread as it bakes, and it does make for a crispy crust and good oven spring as you can see in the above photo.
With the clay baker, no spritzing or pizza stone is necessary. The pottery serves as a mini clay oven, trapping the steam given off by the bread as it bakes. This not only gives the bread a crackly crust but also helps give it a good oven spring. Another plus is that it gives the dough support while it bakes, which helps keep wet dough from spreading out and flattening. The Breadtopia baker does not require soaking before use, and can be preheated in the oven before adding the dough. The bottom half is also glazed on the inside, which helps keep the bread from sticking.
In my initial experiences, I found that getting the dough in the pre-heated baker can be a bit tricky. One way is to make a sort of sling using parchment paper. For my second loaf I made a batch of 40% Caraway Rye which I proofed in an oval wicker banneton. Before baking I turned the dough out onto the parchment paper, then placed the dough and the paper in the bottom of the hot baker. This method worked fine, and is an easy way to transfer the dough. I did this for both the 40% Caraway Rye and the Cranberry-Pecan Extraordinaire loaves.
Next I tried another no-knead Breadtopia recipe for Artisan Sourdough Rye. This one has 50% rye flour, and is flavored with molasses plus seeds of fennel, anise and caraway. The recipe also calls for orange peel but I left that out for this loaf. I had a little trouble shaping this dough into a loaf however. Rye flour is notoriously sticky anyway, and with 50% rye and 82% hydration it was a very sticky dough indeed! I finally managed to get it into the oval brotform, which I had lined with a cloth liner I got from Breadtopia. I sprinkled a little rice flour into the liner first before I put the dough in, to help keep it from sticking. In the below photo I have the oval brotform sitting in the clay baker before it was preheated. If you’ve never used a brotform before I wanted to make clear you don’t actually bake the bread in the basket.
For this recipe I preheated the oven and clay baker for about a half hour at 475°F. When it was time to bake the bread, I supported the risen dough with my hand then turned the brotform upside down and plopped the dough into the hot baker. The dough pretty much spread out sideways on the bottom, which I took as a bad sign. But I put the top on, closed the oven door, and hoped for the best. I let it bake for 30 minutes with the top on, then it was time to take the top off for the last 10 minutes or so of baking to let the crust brown up.
What a surprise when I saw the dough got a tremendous oven spring, and was going to make a beautiful loaf of bread! I had just discovered one of the big benefits of using the baker, in that the wet and slack dough had been supported by the sides of the baker and went up instead of out. Of course the proof is in the pudding so to speak, or in the tasting when it comes to bread. Both my wife and I loved this bread, and the combination of fennel, anise and caraways seeds gave it an interesting but not overpowering flavor. The seeds could also be omitted to let the taste of the rye itself come through. You can see in the below photo I got a little grigne (aka bread ears) showing up along my slash marks.
I used it to make sprout sandwiches one day for lunch. I brushed the slices of bread with a bit of ghee to help them brown, then added slices of Colby-Jack cheese and a generous heap of mixed sprouts (alfalfa, clover, fenugreek, etc). It made a tasty sandwich, and the bread recipe is a keeper too.
My latest experiment with the clay baker is a bread from the online class I’m taking called March Madness Sourdough Bread. This bread has rye and whole wheat flours, and is sweetened a bit with barley malt syrup and molasses. This one has about 70% hydration, and was relatively easy to shape and work with, especially compared to the previous loaf with the sticky wet rye dough. I used the same cloth lined brotform for proofing, and I worked a bit of rye flour into the fabric this time before putting in the dough.
Once again I plopped the risen dough into the hot baker, then slashed the loaf quickly before putting the top on and closing the oven. This one got 20 minutes in a 450°F oven covered, and 15 minutes uncovered in a 440°F oven. Once again, the loaf got a great oven spring and came out with a crackly, crisp and nicely browned crust. This bread was tasty, and the clay baker did a great job with the baking. It will make a nice accompaniment to a pot of Minestra Maritata (Italian Wedding Soup) I have cooking up right about now. The recipe was a bit involved though, and I think if I make it in the future I would try and simplify a bit.
So, all in all I am quite pleased with the Breadtopia clay baker. It can be used to bake meats and stews, but I will devote this one to bread baking only. And I do want to experiment with more of the no-knead recipes Breadtopia has, including their No Knead Sourdough Bread and the just-published Sourdough Cinnamon Raisin Bread. They have some good videos on their site that illustrate making the breads and using the various clay bakers they sell. I’m not getting any kickbacks from the company for reviewing the baker either. I paid retail price for mine, along with the 10% discount, and I would say it’s a pretty good bargain. Winter is prime bread baking season here at Happy Acres, and since we still have a lot of winter to go I can see me using this baker a lot!