Thursday, 21 October 2021 21:05

    Knotted Cinnamon Rolls

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    Knotted cinnamon scrolls in muffin tray, about to be cooked.
    A delightful recipe that I'll be making again. Here are the shaped, proofed, layered, plaited, and rolled dough that looks as awesome as it tastes. Fair warning, once you make it, you'll want to keep making and eating it.


    It all started with some shameless YouTube surfing, a wayward Ham, and his baking obsession...

    Now you might think that after hours of researching wiring schematics, component manuals, online forums, and you guessed it, YouTube videos on how to do everything from calibrate micro controllers, FPGAs (fancy programmable computer chips) and precision welding, that I'd use my sleep deprivation to justify a nap. Oh contraire.. I just powered through and came across this "how to" recipe by a suitably French guy with an almost stereotypical clichéd predilection for fancy baking. In the first 15 seconds, there's an "outtake" where Richard (the chef) has a (bleeped) out description for how bad he is at DIY stuff and gardening.

    I have set the player to start 15 seconds in to skip that bit.

     Now there are many other YouTube videos to describe this recipe.. however, I found this to be one of the best. However, if you find yourself printing out the recipe, you'll find that the written recipe deviates, or doesn't explain everything in the video clearly.


    Ham's clarifications for those running off the printed recipe:

    Firstly, this is not a muffin or a cake, it's effectively a cinnamon-infused bread roll with a lot of butter and sugary cinnamon filling... in the shape of a plaited muffin. I'm not sure it's at all healthier, but it is delicious. When they say strong bread flour, it means white gluten rich bread flour, so if you have a gluten intolerance (or know those who do), then this is not the best recipe....

    Before you begin, liberally coat your muffin tins with butter, make sure you coat this thoroughly. If you don't, you won't be able to remove them without destroying your hard work.

    Step two (speed matters):

    Ok, this is actually a bread dough, not a cake batter. You have to use a dough hook in the mixer.. the usual mixing "paddles" (commonly used when mixing cake batter) are NOT best used here.

    Slow speed means exactly that. On our Kitchen Aid mixer, KSM7581 that's first or second speed (out of 10). I wouldn't go faster than this initially.

    It then said states to use "medium". In the video, he said to use the third speed.. but... I found this to be too slow for our stand mixer, I had to use setting 5 or 6 (of 10.. which think is still in the mid range) to get to the mixed point in the specified time.

    You really have to have faith in this setting. By the time I got to 10 minutes (out of 12) it was still sticking to the edges, it will start cleaning itself up after 11 mins or so. Resist the temptation to scrape the sides of the bowl during this time. Although, no harm will come to it if you decide to do so.

    Step six, (the printed recipe suggests folding the rectangular flattened dough halfway is not what the video did)

    With a long edge of cinnamon coated dough facing you, do not fold the bottom half upward as described. Fold the bottom third up. Then fold the top third down over the folded bit so that the top edge lines up with the bottom of the folded section. Somewhat like a formal letter in an envelope. 

    Now that you have a 1/3rd high, but still wide rectangle of folded, cinnamon filled dough, without turning the dough, (you still want it laid out horizontally in front of you) cut the dough into vertical strips 3.5cm wide. Then, once you have all of your strips, get the sharpest knife you have... and...

    Leaving the top 1cm or so of each strip uncut, cut the strips with two vertical cuts all the way to the bottom, so you have three even threads to plait.

    Plait the three partially cut "strands" as you would normally, join the threads at the bottom by squeezing them together. Then just cut the "ugly bits" off at the end if you want it to be immaculate... some people do, some don't. Repeat for all the vertical strips you cut earlier.

    Step seven, knots are more like rolled plaits.... the dough expansion makes it look "knotty"

    Now you do not have to tie anything to make these "knots". All you have to do is roll the plaits up (like a roll of tape), tucking the end underneath, then place in a pre-buttered muffin tin. The yeast will make the dough expand to take the shape of a muffin tin at the bottom, and the "knot" will expand outwards and make a really-impressive looking knotted muffin-like roll on the top. It's important that you let the dough "rise" (well... expand would be a better term) before you place it in the oven.


    Step eight onwards... (choose one of two paths)

    Please note that you can use either:

    1. Egg glaze
    2. Sugar glaze

    Step 8: The comment about the egg glaze is unnecessary if you prefer to use the sugar glaze.

    Step 9 and 10 is completely unnecessary if you choose to use an egg glaze. That said... the bit about letting it cool before consumption is very wise.

    I used the egg glaze, then dusted some icing sugar on top just to make it look even fancier.

    Cinnamon roll in muffin tray, just out of the oven
    Here's the tray, just out of the oven.


    Here's my rolls, removed from muffin tray
    Here are my rolls, removed from the muffin tray and placed on a cooling rack.
    Cinnamon roll, served with blueberries.
    Cinnamon roll, served with blueberries. Not bad for a sleep deprived, first attempt, even if I do say so myself!

    Anyway that's it... I hope you give it a try! These are the photos from my first attempt. I'm sure I can refine it for improvements. I'm also thinking about incorporating jam instead of cinnamon/sugar/butter mixture.

    Good luck,


    Friday, 15 October 2021 21:55

    A tale of three loaves

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    Bread making has been a bit of an obsession for me during this period of Covid-induced lock down. I've gone from baking one loaf at a time, to two, and now three. While I quite enjoy the fruits (and fruit loaves) of my labour, I'm often surprised how subtle shifts in process work out.

    I thought I had finished the supply of old flour we had, and since my favourite flour shop is located interstate... and is only really cost-effective when they're having a sale on, I had been buying my 10Kg bags of "White crusty baguette" flour from our local supermarket.

    It was about this time that I found a "stash" of rye flour and even rye meal hidden in the depths of the cellar (what we call the room under our stairs, where we store our produce, tea, and preserves in). So I thought we'd give that a "go" in the next bake.

    So I made three individual poolish (preferments) with a 1:1 150g of flour/water ratio, added a pinch of yeast, then left it for a day or so.

    Deviation one: Fruit toast (A Welsh-styled bread called "Bara Brith")

    I placed a ridiculous amount of dried fruit, mostly comprised of raisins, currants, cranberries, dates, sultanas, and diced dried apple pieces into a container filled with strong black tea overnight to soak. I then made my usual "Poolish" preferment (150g flour, 150g water, pinch of yeast, all combined and left overnight) for each of the three loaves.

    The next day, to each preferment, I added 280ml of warm water, and stirred it into a slurry to make mixing easier. I then added 50g of the rye, then an additional 400g of the baguette flour, added 4g of yeast, and 10g of salt to make the dough Combining it with spoons, I then "got my hands dirty" and mixed it with wet hands using a squeezing, rotating motion for 60-90 seconds.

    Side note: I added the full complement of fruit into one of the doughs at this time.

    I then left it covered for 30 mins.

    Then did a "stretch, fold, rotate 90 degrees" process about 7-10 times, and left it for another 30 mins.

    Side note: The fruit made stretching and folding such huge amounts of fruit very challenging. More often than not, the dough was not stretched the same way, usually a shorter stretch, done more often.

    I repeated the stretch and fold for each dough as necessary. I then left it for an hour.

    On a heavily floured surface (still the baguette mix) I stretched and shaped the loaves for their respective baking containers.

    Diverging paths:

    1. Dough one: cooked in a 4L cast iron pot, also known as "Dutch Oven". Also given some sesame seeds on top for a little variation.
    2. Dough two: (fruit dough): Originally intended for the Dutch oven, but was placed in the loaf pan instead, since it was ready to go.
    3. Dough three: A large baking paper lined loaf pan.

    Dough 1: Cast iron pot...

    Now it should be noted that the pot was preheated to 260oC, baked with the lid on for 30 minutes at 230oC, then baked with the lid off for 18 minutes, then cooked for another 20 minutes at 220oC completely out of the pot for even browning. Please note that I like a dark crust, so if you prefer a lighter colour, obviously you should cut that time short.

    Dough 2: Fruit dough in loaf pan.

    Without the even and embodied heating of cast iron. Heating the dough up had to be done at a slower pace. But to ensure a nice crust and some oven spring (rising) I added hot water to the baking tray as soon as the loaf was in to create steam. From there, I basically kept the whole cook at 220oC. 30 minutes with a baking tray acting as a lid on the pan. Another 10 minutes with the "lid" off. (more water added for steam) Then another full 25-30 minutes out of the pan for even browning.

    Dough 3: Loaf pan redux (or brought back),

    This was cooked pretty much identically to the fruit loaf, only that I raised the temperature slightly to 225-230oC


    The results in reverse order (the order we tried it):

    Two loaves shown
    Loaf three (foreground) had less rise and smaller holes in the crumb than expected, but it wasn't dense like many other loaves... it was... springy and quite flavourful. A surprisingly pleasant loaf just perfect for Vegemite, but Ren loved it with honey and jam. The loaf pan was a little bigger than it should have been for this amount of dough, but I couldn't find out smaller ones.



    Bara Brith, after being baked in a loaf pan
    The fruit loaf... while good, probably had too much fruit. I'll dial it back. It was an attempt to make a Welsh bread called "Barra Brith", but honestly, the tea soaked fruit was not noticeably different in flavour than if we had simply added normal dried fruit. The extra moisture from the soaked fruit made the dough a little sloppier, requiring a longer bake at a lower temperature to get the inside cooked without burning the crust. My current theory is that if I use the tea that the fruit soaked in as a replacement for some of the dough water, I might get a stronger result.


    Round boule of rustic bread
    Loaf one, the cast iron pot.. had better spring and larger holes in the crumb than loaf three... and was very pleasant, but wasn't quite as memorable as the third loaf. Perhaps because we didn't start eating it until days after baking it... but it's still better than most bread you can find in a supermarket.

    So what have I learned?

    Each of these breads were effectively based from the same fundamental dough recipe. Admittedly, some had fruit, and others had seeds added to them, two were cooked in an over-sized loaf pan, while another was cooked in a cast iron pot. Each needed the cooking process to be adjusted somewhat, and so each of these were different in flavour, structure, and feel as a result.

    Making three loaves side by side brings numerous advantages, like comparing the differences, what works, what didn't, and having a backup in the event of a charred mess, or uncooperative dough (although I've never had one that completely failed). Of course, it also helps to cater to differing tastes or situational bread requirements in the household too. :~)

    I think some of the best bakers are not necessarily commercial bakers in some patisserie or boulangerie (french for bakery). The people who take the time to get a feel for it, and do it as part of their daily routine, are... at least in some ways, just as skilled in their craft. Some of the best bread I've ever eaten were by grandmothers who couldn't ever give you a recipe, but merely do it by long-earned practice and feeling how it goes as they knead the dough. I don't think I'm anywhere near there, but I'm really enjoying what I learn from each style of bread and I think it's empowering to make your own food from scratch.

    As the old saying goes, "practice make perfect". Take care and happy baking!


    Friday, 24 September 2021 09:24

    Bread baking improvisation.

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    Imagine, if you will... that you got up really early to bake some bread. By some... I mean three different types, in three very large loaves. You mix, you tweak, knead, proof, and shape your doughs. Everything is going to plan. You heat up the oven until it's ripping hot. The cast iron pot (or "Dutch oven" if you prefer) is fully hot and ready for the first dough to go in.

    As you place the dough in the hot pot, you hear the click of the oven heating element ramping up the temperature again. You think nothing of it, after all, you've basically cranked the oven all the way up, and it has to work hard to reach that elusive 270oC (Or 518oF... if you're so inclined).

    You hit your dough with your slashing weapon of choice... lame, knife, etc, give the dough a light flouring, and place it in the oven. You lower the temperature a little, and set the timer for about 25-30 minutes. After several plaintive spates of feline mewling, and a round of feeding to appease the feline overlords, the timer hits zero and the call to action is sounded.

    No worries, you just have to remove the lid on the pot to brown the crust, for another 20-30 minutes. You remove the lid, and it's risen... only there's a problem. That heating light has never gone off. The set temperature hasn't been reached in quite some time, and the temperature in the oven is less than half what it should be.

    Yes, dear reader, the oven was no longer heating, and I had one half-cooked loaf, and two more ready to go on the bench. Not good!

    Using what little heat remained in the iron pot, and oven, I slow cooked the bread into a mostly-baked but disturbingly pale loaf... while I thought of some options.

    I could have:

    1. Fired up my charcoal barbecue... time to get it ready, heated, and going.. probably about 2 hours. The problem with this, is that it is spring here, so this is the windiest time of the year. Regulating heat with winds over 40Km/h (25 Mph) would be challenging at best.
    2. Take it to a neighbour's place.. but we're in Covid-induced "lockdown" here. Not exactly going to win me any favours.
    3. Stove + Iron pot = hot... but this won't brown the crust properly, and regulating the heat will be a little troublesome. So....
    4. DIY Ham solution....  keep it hot in the pot on the stove, but brown the top with.... a DeWalt heat gun. That's right, if it strips paint with hot air, and it can belt out 430oC+ (800oF) air, I can brown some crust. :-)

    So needless to say I went with option 4.

    The results?

    Firstly, the hot pot worked very well. In fact, if I wasn't so distracted trying to hair-dry my bread into the most luscious brown I've ever seen in a bread, I might have noticed that the bottom of my loaf was indeed... burning. Using a smaller burner on the stove in 5 minute bursts would have been able avoid this issue. However, the top was gorgeous. Which isn't really surprising as I was literally painting my crust with hot air wherever it looked a little pale with heat.

    Unfortunately, since the bottom burned to a charred-fruit-toast tar, I had to cut the entire bottom off, and this crushed the top of my loaf that I had browned to perfection. A sign that the bread wasn't actually fully cooked inside, so the crumb was still very soft.

    So it's not as pretty as it might have been. I wish I took a photo before it was messed up.

    So was it tasty?

    Yes, yet it was, and it will keep the matriarch happy for few days... maybe... if I'm lucky.

    A real solution...

    With lock down continuing for another few weeks at least, and our heavy reliance on our oven for many cooking tasks, appeasing the matriarch would likely involve... fixing the oven. Now I could have adapted what I'd learned about option 4 in "improvised bread baking" for large loaves 2 and 3. I'd probably have gotten a nice result, but it would have taken me ages. That's not ideal when the dough is over-proofing.

    Diagnosing the oven fault:

    Every oven is a little bit different. Our nearly 20 year old electric "Chef" branded oven might finally have "given up the ghost". I'd replaced the heating element a few times before (it seems to be a roughly annual event) but it wasn't like the other times. Ok, so in my experience, when the oven element blows... it's quite spectacular. A bright flash, and the oven's circuit breaker trips and the oven turns off... as it's supposed to. This time, the fans, the clock, and the heating lights still continued in their happily powered roles... only no heat was to be had. So I wasn't sure that I'd be able to fix the oven this time.

    Testing the heating element:

    So I turned off the power (as it was still trying to run afterall), turned it off at the breaker too for safety, and removed the element. In previous element deaths, it was split or burst (and burned) at some point along the element. This time, no visible damage was to be seen.Uh oh... she might be really dead now! So for confirmation, I grabbed my multimeter, and tested the element for electrical resistance. Since power has to flow through the unit to work, connecting the probes to each terminal of the element will tell me if power can flow through it. I ran the test, and found, "Max resistance" in short, power couldn't flow through it, this the element was dead.Sort of a relief... but I was somewhat sad too because I can't justify a new oven. Our bread baking takes the oven right to it's limit, and I bake bread twice a week at a minimum. Some extra good news: A little-known fact is that when you get a replacement oven element (at least from reputable sources in Australia), you get a 12 month warranty. I had bought mine in November last year, and since we're only at September... say hello to a free replacement. If I still had the receipt. Which was still stuck to our fridge (next to the oven) with a magnet.. That was surprisingly convenient!

    But.... aren't I forgetting that pesky "lock down" thing. Will the spare parts shop still be open?

    That I had to call about. Also, while many shops offer "Click and collect"... this was a warranty claim, so it wasn't as though I was going to buy another one online, only to ask if they'd give it to me for free. I needed to talk to an actual human. I eventually got through, and they said "as long as you bring the old element in, with the receipt, we can swap that for you".

    So I did so. But the shop is a half-hour drive each way... my dough was now over-proofing by an hour.. by the time I did the return trip, installed the new element, heated the oven right up to the limit (that takes a while) we're talking at least another 2 hours. The dough was supposed to be baked and cooled by then. But it was in large bowls covered by plates... and we're early spring in Canberra... we might hit 20oC (58oF) if we're very lucky. That'll buy me some time... maybe.

    Wow had the dough risen when it was time to bake!... To the point that the plates were well and truly attached to the lids covering it. Getting the dough into the hot pot deflated it considerably. So I didn't get the amount of rising I hoped. However, the long and the short of it is:

    • A little creativity can overcome unexpected problems. Although in true life lessons, those improvisations bring issues of their own.
    • I'm actually tempted to bake my breads at slightly lower temperatures for longer to cook the crumb, and then use the heat gun to brown crusts to perfection.
    • Fruit bread really can handle large amounts of dried fruit. I'm now putting 50% of the flour weight worth of fruit... and more... (I think I put nearly 70% fruit ) and it just get sweeter and tastier. I like mixing the fruits up. Diced dates, dried cranberries, raisins, sultanas, and even dried apricots work well. Crispy-baked, shredded beetroot is also delicious, and adds interesting colour.
    • Sometimes, over-proofing can create massive holes in your breads, but if you pop larger bubbles when you see them before baking, the crumb doesn't suffer much at all.
    • Having fixed an oven... for next-to-free (aside from travel costs) justified my record-keeping OCD. Also, it's one of the ways that supporting local businesses can actually reward you. Ordering online has numerous avoidable down-sides that I think people aren't fully aware of (or are resigned to) while so many stores are closed.
    • Bread, even when things go pretty horribly wrong.. is still more delicious than most commercial offerings... and what else was I going to do while stuck at home? Build a CNC router? Oh wait.. yes I am... ironically.. whenever my parts arrive... but I don't have the luxury of local stores for that stuff. That I am resigned to.

    Hope you're all well out there. "Keep calm and try baking more bread... even with a heat gun". I bet you never saw that slogan!


    Monday, 02 August 2021 13:51

    Brie Rind Macro Photography

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    I don't know if this is of interest to anyone, but have you ever looked at the white mould on a Brie? Ok, maybe you have. But have you looked at it through a microscope?


    I've been making cheese lately, and this is a particularly good coat of Penicillium Candidum (white mould) on a nearly-ready batch of Brie. I apologise, but my extreme macro setup wasn't exactly perfect this afternoon. But here's a 20x macro shot of my mould, looking 35o downward at the top of a wheel...


    Saturday, 24 July 2021 21:52

    The benefits of "Taking it slow" when bread making.

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    Here is a little (well, 0.5Kg) loaf of bread that I decided to make, (wait for it), completely by hand with common kitchen items. Using nothing but a mixing bowl, a cast iron cook pot, a sturdy spoon, a kitchen scale, baking paper, a drinking glass, and the requisite oven of course. Just to see whether I could do it without all the fancy gear. I think it looks great, and it tasted great. Certainly better than even some of the "artisan" breads in the local bakery... because everything is amazing straight out of the oven (and cooled a little).... "straight out of the shops..." well... isn't an actual "saying" for good reason :-)


    A lot of people make great bread at home. Many also love to share their knowledge and make beautifully produced YouTube videos. I find it amusing that these videos are frequently recorded in absolutely spotless kitchens/sets/studios with any number of fancy and specialist tools like stand mixers (sometimes in triplicate, all in differing colours and sizes), proofing baskets, loaf tins, dough hooks, dough whisks, dough scrapers, couche (bread baking fabric), and a lame or two (that's pronounced like "lahm") which is french for a razor blade specially-designed for cutting dough. With all this stuff being recommended over and over. It's easy to feel intimidated and think bread making is "out of reach".

    I have to laugh (partly with, partly at) these videos, especially when a woman has clearly "Dolled herself up" with makeup, (sometimes even pearls like some upper-middle class 50s TV show housewife), and struts her bread making stuff. Phrases like "It's so easy" (usually implying "with all this gear"), to be a domestic goddess....and while I'm sure the women are beautiful, kindly sharing their knowledge. You really can do a lot of amazing work without all that stuff.

    To the women in these videos, or any "sisters" of the female solidarity network, who now intend to correct my politically incorrect ways. Please note that I do not belittle anyone, I just think that I'm lucky to be out of my pajamas when I'm baking bread, so perhaps my whole approach to bread making and attire is fundamentally "less fancy".

    If you're wondering which bits I laugh with....

    Now, some might be thinking, "OOOOOH Ham is digging himself into trouble.... dig up Ham! But it's the Aussie way to laugh at mistakes, get in trouble, and then help to make up for it... because it's fun, right? In Australia, mockery is a form of affection, and comfort with another person..... but I digress...

    The bits I laugh with are the many bread making videos where jokes being are being made, bloopers (that are actually so much more relatable to my bread making experience, and teach me what not to do), and the usual anecdotes, banter, and playfulness that occurs every now and then.

    My answer is kinda boring, huh!

    Going back to basics...

    There are plenty of people who use mechanical mixers and fancy gear to great effect. Some bread types are indeed better made this way. However, it's also very easy to overwork your dough in a mixer and destroy the gluten network that you need to trap the air bubbles in. If you do this (as I have) you will probably get a flat, less flashy (albeit tasty) bread. In fact, it's often better to work the dough less.... sometimes a bread recipe needs a lot less than many would expect or even recommend. How many times have you been told that hand kneading dough could or should take a long time? It doesn't always have to.


    Ham's tested recipe (to get the depicted bread loaf).

    DAY 1:

    I weighed, then mixed a preferment (150g each of non-chlorinated water and plain bread flour) with a small pinch of dehydrated yeast in a large drinking glass (but you could use a bowl). Stirred it up, then left it on the counter, covered, but not air tight, overnight. Total effort.. about 2-4 minutes.

    This is not a sour dough bread. However, the preferment will give the final bread some extra flavour, nicer crust, and better behaved dough overall. If you're in a hurry, you can get away with leaving it for 4 hours, but longer is better, and a day or so, is ideal.

    DAY 2:

    Today will be more involved, but it'll be done at a sedate pace. There are lots of breaks, so don't worry too much.

    1. In a large mixing bowl, add:
      • 280g of warm water,
      • 2g of yeast,
      • and all the preferment mix from day 1.
    2. Mix the ingredients to combine, to make a slurry. This is really wet white, slightly lump liquid at this stage, this will make the later mixing easier.
    3. Add the following ingredients to the bowl:
      • 350g bread flour (400g if you don't have whole wheat flour)
      • 50g whole wheat flour (skip if you added 400g of normal bread flour).
      • 10g salt (fine grains, preferably non-iodised, but table salt will work)
    4. With a sturdy spoon, mix the ingredients, scraping any mix from the walls as best you can until it's well combined.
    5. With extremely wet (dripping) dominant (left or right) hand, reach in, scrape the mix from the side of the bowl with your hand into the centre of the bowl, and pinch the dough between thumb and forefinger. You don't need to pinch it off, just narrow considerably. Then let go. Turn the bowl with your dry hand about 15-20 degrees, and repeat pinching motion with the wet hand, going around at least one full rotation. Keep doing this for 60-90 seconds. If your hand starts to stick, wet it again.
    6. Cover and leave for 30 mins.
    7. Now it's time for dough "strength training". At the moment, your dough will be a slack, somewhat "shaggy" mess. That's to be expected.
    8. Wet your hands (probably both this time) so they're really wet and won't stick to the dough.
      1. Using your hand, scoop up the dough from the edge until you have a handful. Leave the rest still attached to the bowl, and pull and stretch the dough until it's ready to break. You're going to break things the first time, that's ok, but try to go a little easier next time if you do. Once stretched, fold the raised (stretched) bit over the top of the dough still in the bowl.
      2. Turn the bowl 45 degrees,
      3. Repeat steps 8.1 and 8.2 (immediately above)  8-10 times.
    9. Wet your hands again, and gently shape the entire dough ball by tucking any rough edges of the dough underneath. You want something that looks like a smooth ball of dough at the end. It's ok if it's still very "slack". Even if it's not a "ball", a smooth top with a minimum of rough edges will still work.
    10. Cover and leave for another 30 mins.
    11. Repeat step 8 (and sub steps 1-3), you can add step 9 too if you want. The dough should be getting firmer, and developing some bubbles. From here on out, try not to squash it too much.
    12. Cover and leave for 1 hour.
    13. This dough will stick to a lot of stuff. So flour the top of the dough well, and lightly rub the flour over the top so that any sticky parts are floured. Sometimes it helps to flour your hands first for this step.
    14. Flour your bench or work surface, then slowly and gently turn the dough out onto it.
    15. Pull dough out sideways, stretch it, then fold that stretched but over to the opposite side of the dough, and lightly press it down to stick. Then turn the whole dough ball 90 degrees. Repeat this 4 times (one full 360 degree revolution).
    16. Flip the dough over, and tuck any rough edges under with a 2 handed cupping motion. You want a ball-like dough now.
    17. Put the ball of dough (seam side up) into a proofing basket. Alternatively, clean your mixing bowl out, line it with a tightly woven tea towl, and flour the entire surface heavily. You need to ensure the dough does NOT stick to the cloth. You still need to put the dough in so the rough seam side is up (we'll be flipping it soon)
    18. Preheat your oven to 260 Celsius... put your dutch oven in the oven to heat up too. However, if your lid has a plastic handle, you might want to use an alternative pot, or remove the handle, temporarily. Look up the specs on your dutch oven BEFORE cooking to ensure it can handle these higher temperatures.
    19. Cover and leave your dough on the counter for another 30-50 mins. When the dough has risen, and the dough springs back slowly to original shape (after a gentle poke), it's ready to bake.
    20. Liberally flour the top of your dough (soon to be bottom).
    21. Gently flip whole dough upside down (gently) onto a sheet of baking paper.
    22. Slash the top of your dough, about 1cm deep and at at 45 degree angle. Or you can repeatedly "snip" the top with a pair of kitchen scissors...
    23. Pull your hot dutch oven out, lower dough on baking sheet into it. Put the lid on.
    24. Turn your oven down to 250, and bake covered (lid on) for 18 minutes.
    25. Take the lid off the dutch oven and bake for another 25-35 minutes. You really want to bake until the crust is dark, as this will enhance the flavour of the bread.
    26. Once it's baked, take it out, remove the loaf from the dutch oven, and put it on some sort of cooling rack. If you don't have a cooling rack, I just sat mine on my (cold and unused) gas hob stove, some people use bamboo sushi rolling mats on a plate.. whatever you have.
    27. Leave the bread to cool down before cutting into it, impatience here will undo some of the effort you've gone to so far.


    After all this, what are the advantages of a slow make bread?

    Now it might seem, that with 27 steps, that's way too involved for many to even contemplate. However, the time spent actually doing anything, was maybe 40 mins on my first attempt, and you get faster, reducing time to somewhere around 30 mins of actual involvement with practice.

    I like this recipe as it draws on the enhanced flavouring technniques of sourdough recipes, but without the usual sourdough flavours that some find less pleasant. In fact, it just draws out the best in the flour.

    After eating many breads over the years, this one was in no way inferior to fancy commercial artisinal breads. Does it leave the supermarket stuff for dead? Well of course it does. This bread loaf cost me about $1.25 in ingredients, about 5 cents in consumables, and 20c in power to make. This is still a vast reduction on the $7-$10 I've seen in bakeries.

    I've been cooking with this flour for years and I have never noticed such a yellow tinge in the crumb. Gentle mixing and using a preferment really brings out the best in the flour.

    Are you getting a yellow crumb?

    Sliced bread showing yellow crumb
    Here you can see a distinct yellow tinge to the crumb in these un-buttered bread slices. This is apparently a common result of a gentler dough making process, where some of the chemicals/oils of the wheat haven't oxidised into something "whiter". Wheat afterall, is not actually white, but a pale golden hue. Some say this is a sign of truly great bread, and yes it's very tasty, but I've also had many great white breads too. Try it and decide for yourself.

    In summary, I'll just finish with the facts I've learned here.

    Good bread does not need expensive gear. If you don't already have a dutch oven, a cast iron camp stove will work just as well. Sometimes, I've seen people work with a turkey roasting pan placed upside-down over a bread in the oven... so there are ways to make this work without one. I've also done this in a stainless steel stock pot... and while it works.... it seems that the steel just doesn't have the ability to store heat... and this leads to paler, less developed crust in the first half of the bake. I've then baked uncovered as instructed... then taken the bread out of the pot and baked for an additional 5-10 minutes to get that deep brown crust.

    I know people are time poor, but with a little planning, you can get a great result with slow bread making. It also gives beginners a chance to really get to know the process and feel it for themselves. They'll learn far more so than those simply throwing it into a bread maker or mixer. The lessons learned here can apply to mixer/faster breads. So it'll make you a better baker (and dough maker/shaper) than you might otherwise have been.

    Sometimes using cheaper gear teaches leads to better results than blowing it all on fancy tech. Just some food for thought.

    Stay safe and happy baking!


    Wednesday, 14 July 2021 04:00

    Brie-cotta cheese.... a misadventure in cheese making.

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    It might seem weird. Ricotta is typically a soft, salty, cheese that's made in a few days. So you might be asking: "Where does the Brie come into it?". Well, this was meant to be a few wheels of Brie. Obviously... things didn't go to plan. <Insert sheepish grin here>. When your curds don't firm up like a Brie, you could just ditch the batch, or try to salvage it as a "fresh" cheese. Like most fresh cheeses, the "firmness" of the cheese is often determined by the amount of time the cheese is allowed to drain. This is the cheese after two days. However, it will start to develop the white mould as it continues to age, and that will soften up a cheese that is already pretty soft.

    Oh how I wish that I could tell you that my cheese making is perfect.... but it's not. Stuff happens. Frankly, I haven't been doing well, as the last three makes have had increasing levels of problems.


    First erroneous make - Parmesan make 16 - June 2021 - Wrong Salt:

    Even cheeses that I've made many times before can go wrong. I accidentally rubbed the wrong salt onto my cheese. You see I recycled an old table salt container for a convenient cheese salting experience. So I had two containers, one had cheese salt, and the other, regular iodised salt. Which is not good, since iodine is a pretty effective antiseptic.... and will probably kill, or at least slow down the ageing process. The down side? It's Parmesan.... I won't know what the effect will be until 2022, perhaps even 2023! Good or bad.


    Second erroneous make - Parmesan make 17- "Das Über Vat" Test Run - July 2021 - Alarming Over-Salting:

    This time, I was excited to try my newly acquired 58L stainless steel pot for making larger quantities of really hard cheeses like Parmesan and Pecorino. Their yields are notoriously low, so making three times the usual amount of cheese per make, using all four burners on the stove and constant stirring (to avoid burning milk on the bottom) whenever heating was required (curd setting did not need heat to be on, as the heat retention of this much milk meant I only lost 0.4oC with the burners off.  The larger pot actually reduced the actual make time considerably, despite the large milk volume. I have dubbed my large pot as "Das Über Vat", as it sounds better (and often efficient) in pseudo German.

    I made three large wheels of Parmesan (fearing the worst from make one). Ok, so the salt is the right type.... but.... one of my wheels was considerably smaller than my other two. I set my alarm to pull the small wheel out of the brine solution at the right time... but... I forgot to check whether that was set to am/pm. So the time went way over... and the salt drew too much moisture from the curds. Those curds not only cracked, but effectively crumbled apart into a Chunky Parmesan Brine Soup. (The two other wheels are fine, but I now have a "wheel's worth of pre-grated cheese"). So what do you do with barely started, immature, over salted Parmesan curds? Well I decided to drown them in olive oil, marinading them like Fetta, and despite the tiny parts, I'm going to give it a couple of months to age (hopefully the salt will only slow the ageing process, and then I'll throw some onto pasta dishes or pizza).

    Which brings me to my Briecotta....


    Third erroneous make - Brie make 11 - July 2021:

    So I attempted to make a smallish batch of Brie, only 9L of milk with 600ml of cream. I calculated the amount of cultures, rennet, and calcium chloride. Heated up my milk and added the cultures as described. At least, I think I did. The milk cultured for a while, no probs. I added the rennet at the appointed time, and the recalcitrant thing wouldn't set. At 40 minutes, it was still milk. At 120 mins is was a very soft curd indeed. I did my calculations again, and 1.3mL of 200 IMCU rennet seemed fine for 10L or so.... and I was confused.

    What should have been a 2 hour, 20 minute make (max) was much, much longer. The milk smelled and tasted ok before the make, the rennet I used without issue only days ago.... but this was not happy.

    So I reached a point where the curds were scoop-able, but they just weren't right. I moulded the curds and left them to drain as normal. Hours passed, and there was very little improvement. Any attempt to flip the curds resulted in a cream cheese like splat.

    My two current theories are:

    1. When I cleaned the pot in the dishwasher, it left some sort of anti-microbial residue that hindered the curdling. When I checked the pH, it was a modest 6.2 after hours, so the acidification wasn't where it needed to be, causing the excessively soft curd. Now, please note that I usually re-boil the pots and drain prior to starting a make... but perhaps it required a better "scrubbing" than I gave it.
    2. My rennet has been out of date for a long time, it's possible (although not likely) that the rennet has finally given up the ghost. More likely, I may have accidentally contaminated the container with the syringe I was using. This would explain the sudden failure. Considering that I am down to the dregs anyway, it's time I got some more.

    So what's happening with the Brie-cotta? Well since I can't unmould the wheels as I intended, I've placed the curd in a cheese cloth and drained it like I would a fresh cheese. After two days, I've been adding salt, and putting it on my toast. However, I don't expect the white mould to develop before I eat much of the cheese....

    As an experiment, I've put some cheese into the "cheese cave" to see if it will grow the white mould, but I don't expect that it'll work very well.


    Brie-cotta update. Day 3.

    Well the cheese in my ageing fridge (set to 10 degrees Celsius) hasn't shown any signs of growing mould. Meanwhile, the cheese in the cloth and my proofing fridge (set to 25oC) has shown strong while mould growth. This is odd, as I've been taught that it's too warm for a mouldy rind to develop. Clearly that's not entirely true.


    I had no idea that the mould would grow so quickly in the warmer space. The mould has grown into the fabric and attached itself. This is not good, as it has clearly ripped a chunk of the cheese away from the main body as I unwrapped the cheese from the fabric.
    Here is the main body of "Briecotta", note the non-mouldy (furry) bits that have been torn away from the ball of curds. I have since removed as much cheese from the fabric, washed the cloth out (that took a while) and am now re-growing the torn areas. Interestingly, some of the curds that were stuck to the fabric were already tasting a lot like a young Brie (I guess that is to be expected) but other parts were really pungent. At this point, I've been eating the undeveloped curds as a fresh cheese (always better with salt) and we'll see how this experiment goes.

    What can I draw from these lessons?

    Well, a lot of it comes down to simple mistakes, that... in fairness have happened due to a lack of attention to small, but important details. Using identical containers for non-iodised and iodised salt, not checking the alarm, and imperfect cleaning strategies/out of date cultures can have a huge impact, even if they're seemingly small issues by themselves.

    Now, I am starting to conclude that there are definitely times that you should not be making cheese. If you're busy, or stressed, or tired, or just can't give the cheese the attention it needs, then perhaps postponing a day is a significant advantage. That said, if you suddenly have a huge delivery of milk descend on you, and you can't store the milk.. then you don't really have much choice. In that situation, choosing an easier, less involved recipe like Quark to use up some cheese, then going to the other extreme of hard cheeses, that use a lot of milk and relatively simple affinage process (at least compared to Brie/Camembert) and wide use window (depending on how long you age it for)

    Steps taken to avoid these issues:

    I've since changed the container for my cheese salts to avoid confusion. I'm ordering new cultures for the rennet issues. I've switched to using a countdown timer for brining instead of alarms, and I've given my pots another hand wash with less persistent detergents. I'll rinse them again, then boil just prior to the next make.


    Anyway, it's always the little things that get me. I hope this help fellow cheese makers to learn from my mistakes!

    Stay safe, and have fun!





    Friday, 09 April 2021 14:31

    A Cheesey Easter. Brie Pancakes & other Faux Pas

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    About four weeks ago, a friend of mine dropped by to learn how to make cheese. So for that lesson, I chose to make Brie from 18L of store bought milk and some cream.

    It sounds simple enough, but I learned that in cheese making (aside from sanitation), there really aren't any real rules that can't be bent, perhaps, even broken. Let me explain.

    So Brie is famous for the white bloomy rind that grows on the surface. This is usually a combination of Penicillium Candidum (a mould) and Geotrichium Candidum (a yeast). It's this surface that makes aging Brie difficult, not the make itself. The make is actually at the easier end of the scale. It's just the conditions have to be right for it to grow.

    Most home cheese makers put their "Candidums" (Penicillium/Geotrichium) in the milk during the make and this is called the "inoculation" method. However, it is also possible to add it after the make using the "spray on" method. This method is popular in industrial cheese making because you can get away with using less culture for similar results. Running from the Brie recipe supplied from my course, I started up the make as I do every time, and got to the point of adding the cultures. Only to discover that I had used up my Penicillium Candidum. <cue panic stations here>.

    So I did the only thing I could do, and that was adjust my Geotrichium Candidum to replace the Penicillium Candidum culture and carry on about my business. Continuing on unabated until the wheels were drying for 24 hours, and my friend had well and truly gone home for the day.

    However, in the division of attention between teaching and actually doing, I had scooped curds into a variety of cheese moulds/baskets, then ran out of curds. Some wheels drained more whey than I anticipated, so I had a 250mm wide, 10mm high wheel of Brie that I called "the pancake". The two small 10cm wheels and one 160mm wheel were fine, but the 250mm ones were a little short... so I shamelessly stacked thin ones onto others to build up the height. 

    During that relatively quiet time of drying wheels, I was flipping through the instructions and the supplementary materials. In it, the recipe clearly stated:

    "Keep the Geotrichium Candidum to an absolute minimum...."

    It was at this point, I actually stated "Oh poop". I said it again, when I found an unused container of the Penicillium Candidum, right after dry rubbing salt onto my cheeses.

    Bring on the spray solution!

    So using one of my other cheese making books, I made a solution of distilled water and Penicillium Candidum culture, put it in a "spritzing" bottle, and started spraying it onto the wheels so that they were damp, but not wet.

    Keeping the wheels on mats inside tupperware containers, inside the wine fridge at 10 degrees actually worked quite well, although the mould development was a little slow at 14 days, flipping once every day.

    Normally, this is where people would wrap the wheels in "cheese paper" and then put the wheels in a regular fridge for the second stage of ageing. However, I didn't have paper that big, so I just continued to flip them in the container, once a day, and kept the wheels at 10 or so degrees.

    This is a dangerous thing... for thicker wheels. However, the "pancake" was ready in just two weeks.... and it was amazing.

    Larger wheels take longer to age, and Brie ages from the outside of the wheel and slowly softens the internal paste into a ripened "goo" called the "Cream line". However, you can't make a wheel too big since there's a point where the cheese starts to disintegrate on the outside before the inside is done. For this reason, you'll find most Brie and Camembert styled cheeses in wheels only 1-1.5 inches high.

    As the larger wheels became ripe, the mid sized wheels were ready in 4 weeks or so, and the largest was ready in 5. Unfortunately, I was all "Bried out" by that time, and none of my friends wanted any more either.

    Here's my "Brie Pacman". This wheel was finished earlier than the other big ones (but after the pancake) due to the thin 2cm height. This wheel was probably about 20cm wide. This cheese is fully ripened, as the cream line has replaced any paste that was in the middle. This cheese was almost a Brie soup, delicious and ran everywhere.

     So this is probably going to be our new "Easter Tradition" (at least, that's what I want). If Easter is about new beginnings and a new lease on on life, surely cheese is a better metaphor than chocolate?

    Good luck with your Easter and cheese making endeavours, whether you are a person of faith or not.


    Thursday, 26 November 2020 04:28

    Foodie Frenzy - Month of smoked goods and chocolate.

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    Spring time is an insanely busy time, and I'm sorry I haven't had a chance to write much lately. Wren has been making fancy higher-end hand made chocolates, (see Ren's kitchen gallery in my photography section) amongst the home made marshmallows, turkish delights, and rocky road that all seems to mysteriously vanish without a trace..... I conveniently blame the cats, but I am by no means convincing. That's when Wren isn't gardening, or making fancy "up cycled" clothing, home made soap, or other beauty products.... or just helping me with my foodie insanity.

    Foodie present "one-upping" insanity.

    Honestly, it's good to see Wren using all the chocolate making gear that I gave as her birthday present. Naturally in the cheeky Wren style, she "one upped" me and got me the pH meter I've been wanting for my cheese making. I do feel guilty that she spent so much, but it's going to be a huge help... so I better step up my gifting game this Christmas. Now please note that you don't need a pH meter to make cheese if you're ok with some variability in your final cheeses. It's fun in a "lucky dip" kind of way. As soon as you want consistency between one batch and another.. then that's when the pH meter will come in handy. Subtle differences in pH, can be the difference between two very different cheeses... and you just can't manage it without accurate measurement.

    Back to the current activities.

    Meanwhile, before you think I've been "slackin' off", I've been going nuts on cheese making, bread baking, mixing up oil infusions, making black garlic, drying onions, and making fancy salts/rubs for barbecue season. Wow have I missed my barbecue! With all the bushfires last year and the completely understandable total fire bans in place, I didn't really use my barbecue at all last summer. Then I was overseas for a before Covid made that impossible, when I got back just before the border closures, I had a contract job after that ended just in time for the Canberra winter. So the workshop/garage was filled with barbecue fuel I never got around to using, and I'm making up for it now.

    Did I mention that our cherry tree is nearly ready for harvest? Strawberries are everywhere, we've got apricots in the pipeline, nectarines practically ripe....We're merely days away from a major harvest inundation... so I have to finish off my current activities to make room in the kitchen. So let's talk about what I've been doing for the past month or so...

    It all started with a phone call.....

    Wren and I tend to give/sell our surplus plants, produce, and home-made "stuff" when we find that we have no more room to store it. Occasionally, we'll put our wayward seedlings on Gumtree at practically negligible cost to give the plants a good home, Wren sells soap online, (look up "TheSoapyWren" on Etsy if you're interested... apparently her store name can't have spaces, so you have to type it without them to find her shop.. not the best system from an IT guy's perspective, but hey it's not my system to fix).

    Interestingly, there aren't a great deal of craft shops in Canberra, but there are in numerous towns around Canberra. One of them is in my home town, roughly 2 hours away the Wren/Ham estate... if we can call our humble townhouse an "estate". :-)

    A lovely woman/volunteer/over worked feudal serf from the craft shop called me quite unexpectedly. It was unexpected for two reasons:

    1. The shop had been closed due to Covid... given that most of the volunteers were of a more elderly persuasion... and most at risk from the virus.
    2. Given that the shop had been closed, I thought there would be plenty of our stuff still "in stock".

    So I was expecting some bad news like there'd been a problem, or someone I knew might have died... but it was not that dire at all.

    Apparently some big burly guys had "picked up" some of my smoked salts/rubs before the closure, and had brought their friends to get more when the shop re-opened only to be disappointed when it ran out.

    So the lovely volunteer asked me if I could supply some more "product" (if I can say that without it sounding like I'm involved in something illicit) so I stumbled out to the shed and did a stock take of my smoking situation.

    The stock take... a journey of a thousand leagues... begins with... stepping around my wood working to find everything.

    My workshop is a "work in progress". Translation: "A mess". So when I'm trying to tidy up, I found all sorts of things when I'm looking for that pesky tool box, or which tool box has all the spare linen in it. (Apparently I'm a linen hoarder.. which I'm sure there's worse things to be). However after some creative re-structuring of the shed, I found I had a lot of smoking woods. Some of the ones I found were:

    • An entire garbage bin full of cherry wood from our pruning of the tree two years ago.
    • Some peach wood chips - works on a lot of things.
    • Some apple wood chips - great for pork, chicken, and some sausages.
    • Entire bag of pear wood chips - haven't tried this in an actual meal yet, but I'll give it a go.
    • Some Tasmanian Oak chips - great for red meats, but adds some sort of "something else" which I find quite pleasant. It's also shockingly expensive... which is why I only have a little.
    • Old whisky barrel chunks - great for pretty much any meat I've tried.. but better on red meats.
    • Mesquite chunks - the stronger flavour is great for red meats, more potent spices like pepper, chilli, or garlic.
    • Hickory chunks - this smoking "classic" works in the same situations of Mesquite.
    • Maple... adds a slight sweetness to the "tang" but it's subtle. The temptation to use it too much to emphasize the sweetness will lead to a smoky, but bitter and acrid taste. A light touch and milder flavoured meat like chicken breast goes really well.

    Couple this with my barbecue, some sieves, a cold smoker attachment, aquarium pump (to oxygenate the cold smoker and pump the smoke into the barbecue), and a blow torch... it was time to decide on my smoking method....

    Cold Vs. Hot Smoking:

    When most people think of smoking, particularly on a barbecue, they're thinking of "hot smoking". Add a few bits of wood, or smoking wood "dust" to your hot coals, gas burner, etc, and you get some extra "smokiness" to your meal. This is great for adding fancy smoked flavours to cooked meats and vegetables, but many more delicate foods, such as herbs, spices, and cheeses would burn, melt or otherwise decay if "hot smoked". Cold smoking may seem like an oxymoron (you need fire to make smoke, and fire is hot). However, if you burn the wood in a slow, controlled way, you don't create much heat. If you then pipe the smoke from the "hot box" to a separate "food box", the smoke is often barely warmer than ambient temperatures when it gets to the food. Sometimes smoke is piped into refrigerated rooms/containers so both cold temperatures and smoke are present.

    In short, by putting distance between the fire, and where the smoke hits the food, you get the "cold" smoking process... although remember that "cold" is relative to the cooking temperatures found in hot smoking, and offers no "cooling" capability.

    Many people know that to bring the most flavour from their spices, a "light toasting" in a dry frypan immediately before use, will significantly improve and/or amplify the flavour. However, when you're smoking spices for future use, you're not planning to roast it "just yet", as the aroma and flavour will be severely reduced if days, weeks, or months go by between the toasting and actual use. So cold smoking seems a better choice in my case. Salt can go either way, but in order to have the most flexibility in my food smoking binge, I chose the cold approach.

    The metal cylinder on the left that looks like a semi truck exhaust, is the cold smoker attachment, connected to the air intake of the Kamado.

    Selecting the salts, woods, and burn times...

    Smoked salts are one of the easiest things to make. However, salts come in many varieties.

    The salt matters, but not as much as you might think:

    Ignoring for a moment, the rise of Himalayan or Murray River "pink salts" over traditional white table salt, and the differing chemical compositions found in other locations like the Dead Sea, or salt mines under Germany vs somewhere in Africa... at the end of day, most edible salt will be sodium chloride (NaCl) with some impurities/trace elements (depending on whether it's marketed as a flaw or a benefit). The taste will be pretty similar, all else being equal. Things do change when the particle size changes, and of course, what you mix with your salt, or what you put your salt on. But don't worry about it too much. Just don't confuse sodium chloride (table salt) with sodium nitrate.  Sodium nitrate varieties are used in food, but in extremely small quantities. Normal salt quantities of the nitrate varieties would be toxic to even large men.

    Particle size and flavour:

    Salt comes in fine grains (typical with table salt), coarse grains (typical with cooking salts), flakes, and rock salt (which I feel should be called "gravelly salt", or "pebbly salt" at best). Now when you have smaller grain sizes, you'll get more surface area to attach smoke to, but you'll probably have to stir it around when smoking more often as the airflow between the grains is reduced. Since smoke attaches itself to the surface of each grain, it will have a stronger smoky flavour, than if you use a coarser salt. Conversely, rock salt tends to have better airflow between grains (less stirring when smoking) but will have a milder flavour to begin with. Since rock salt is often used in a grinder prior to eating, it will then have an even milder smoke flavour as the grains are "cracked" which makes is a "partially smoke covered" salt.

    I really like rock salt though, as it's a gateway "smoked salt". It may not taste of smoke, but the smell will be part of the flavour profile.

    Remember: Smell + taste = flavour. Both the aroma, and the taste buds work together to form a sense of "flavour". This is why wine tasters often sniff, then taste the wine before judging it as good, bad or indifferent. However, please note that studies have shown that the same wine can be served to the same professional wine judge on separate occasions, and it's likely that they'll give it three different values. Just a thought.. and something from my Perceptual Psychology class.

    Wood choices:

    Salt is quite forgiving, as it doesn't have the pungency of some spices, nor does it have much aroma, it's a very robust spice that you can't overcook easily, so you can smoke it using either the hot or cold smoking methods. However, if you mix it with more delicate ingredients, then things become less simple. If you're just doing salt, you can choose almost any wood and it'll work pretty well. If you like a particular wood smoke on a milder flavoured meal... then make a dedicated smoked salt batch for that particular meal will help with the flavour "pairing". If you use a lot of salt in curries, then you'll need to choose a more potent smoking wood type in order to compete with the potent flavours and aromas going on in that type of meal. However, see what you can get locally, or work with whatever (non toxic) woods you have on hand. Experimentation is key... also, don't limit yourself to just one wood type. I often mix two or even three types on one meal/spice batch.

    If you're smoking stronger spices (or planning to use smoked salts for particular meals that use more flavoursome ingredients) it makes sense to tailor the smoking woods to something stronger in those situations.

    Smoking times:

    Smoking spices is easy to start, but hard to master. However, if you like a lightly smoked flavour, then smoking foods for less time is an important strategy. If you want to add that noticeable smoke experience to your food, then you'll be best served smoking it for longer.

    Here's my general guidelines:

      Typical Time Smoked Practical Uses
    Lightly smoked  2 hours or less Milder flavoured/delicate foods, cheeses, background "complexity" in sauces (Note: smoke attaches to "wetter" foods very well)
    Moderately smoked 2 - 18 hours Most barbecued goods fall in this category, people who want "some" smokiness but don't want to smell like a bush fire. Also good to get the flavour/aroma with "a little less" salt in the diet
    Heavily smoked >18 hours Stronger spices, more flavoursome ingredients, and for situations where smokiness is a strong benefit. Also good for using sparing amounts of smoked "product" to get the "smokiness" you want... so it can help in reducing salt intake significantly.

    In short, start light and work your way up until it's noticeable, then keep going until you've gone too far. Then you know where your tolerances lie, and can smoke future batches accordingly.

    Here is the same salt, smoked with different woods for differing amounts of time that I've done previously. Note how peach wood imbues a brown, whereas apple and oak go more grey. Also, as the smoking time goes up, so does the darkness of the finished product.

    Kick the tyres, and light the fires....

    The small smoke trails coming out of the chimney in the first photo belies the smokiness inside.You can see the coriander seeds in the sieves, but you probably can't see the garlic bulbs on the left... unless you squint really hard and... imagine.

    Wheeling out my barbecue, cleaning it out, attaching the cold smoker, filling it with wood, running power cord to the air pump, and firing up the cold smoking setup, happens exactly as you might imagine. Naturally, I had the expectation that it'll chug along based on how much air the pump gives the smouldering fire.... While that's true, I found that the smoker blows out at the "drop of a hat" in ideal conditions, but keeps burning strong through rain downpours and storms. This is just one of the many ironies that define my insane hobby activities.

    Fitting it in around one's life....

    If I'm home, I start my day by cleaning out the cold smoker, burning any debris out, accumulated from the previous day's smoking. Using my steel brush welded to a 1m metal rod to scrape out the ash that remains in all the "nooks and crannies" while using a welding glove to hold the smoker. Letting that cool, I go inside and put salt into sieves so that the smoke can attach on all sides. I stack as many sieves into the barbecue as I can, (see above) and close the lid. Then I mix my smoke woods, put it into the smoker, start the burn, and keep an eye on it throughout the day, re-lighting it as needed. When night rolls around, I'll periodically check that the smoker is still going, but if it dies at around 9-10pm I'll shut it down so we can open up some windows to let some cool air in without the fear of triggering smoke alarms or choking on smoke in our sleep.

    Rinse lather repeat....

    This has been my last month. I have smoked salts to differing degrees, with differing woods, I've smoked coriander seeds, onion flakes, garlic granules, whole garlic bulbs, made my own smoked Hungarian paprika, smoked mustard seeds, cheeses, and even honey. (Smoked honey, with mustard and mint goes really well on lamb). I've had so much smoke in my eyes and hair, creosote on my hands, and ash in embarrassing smears across my arms, and paprika on my face... I guess I looked like some sort of backyard tribesman in ceremonial paints, grunting and wildly flailing limbs around the fire praying to the pagan smoke gods... or simply in feeble attempts to get the various forms of stuff off me.

    So I've got somewhere between 20-30Kg of "product". Some single ingredient offerings, others mixed with two or more other ingredients.... all sitting in about two dozen tupperware containers.... all in quantities too large for anyone to find practical.

    All smoked up and nowhere to go.... small jars for the "jar poor?".

    Ok, so I've smoked my spices, cheeses, garlic, herbs, and whatever else I got my hands on. I temporarily put them in tupperware, because I didn't have enough jars to put them in. I asked friends, family, even put an ad on Gumtree asking for free jars. Most people want huge jars for storing larger items. I was the "weirdo" wanting empty spice shakers, anchovette/baby food jars. If it got to jam jar sizes, it was getting too big for my needs. It seems most people toss the small jars out, thinking they're "useless". So I haven't gotten many responses.

    One nice lady who lived "not far" responded to my Gumtree ad and had a rather impressive food forest, and collection of jars she wanted to be rid of. Several reusable shopping bags full of empty jars later, I was off and packing like the smoke-smelling madman I had become. Now most people boil their jars to sterilize them. I prefer to use the oven set to 100oC with jars on one shelf, and correspondingly placed lids on another. This works well... until the oven element "blows up" and fries the plastic in the lids in a blaze of over-heated glory... as happened when I'd placed the maximum amount of jars inside.

    <cue groaning here>

    Several hours later, after scraping all the burned plastic out of the oven and giving it a good clean...<cue more groaning here> I dismantled the oven and replaced the heating element. Yes, cleaning and fixing the oven is exactly as fun as it sounds. However, when it was back up and running, I sterilized jars, filled them with smoked product goodness while the jars were still hot, sealed them up, then re-sanitized them in the oven for good measure. I do this to avoid poisoning the folks I care about... and those whose efforts I appreciate with a thank you gift.. or those who simply buy my excess produce and fund my next batch of insanity.

    Jars of modestly smoked rock salts of a mere 12 hours with Peach and Apple wood came out a middling grey. Jars of 28 hour smoked table salt came out a dark charcoal, almost black colour, and whoever opens the jar will probably set off their smoke alarm, or think it should. However, it works surprisingly well in pumpkin soup. Smoked pepper is fun, because if it starts black, everyone is wondering where the smoke is coming from, but still works well in a pumpkin soup, mashed potatoes, or casseroles. Home made, freshly smoked paprika is going to be orders of magnitude more flavoursome than the store bought varieties. Like many powdered spices, toasting it just before use, really brings out the flavour and smell of both the spice and the smokiness. Works really well on steaks, or in any meat rub you care to mix yourself.

    Smoker's going, and slowly working on the latest batch of salt, but meanwhile back in the kitchen...

    I diced up a lot of onions, set up the dehydrator, and let it run for a day or so to ensure the onion bits had as little water as possible. Since onions (like most plants) have a high moisture content that 500g onion you diced is going to much smaller and lighter when it's done. Nine re-lightings of the smoker later, and your onions look like this:

    Onions still on the dehydrator trays
    Some close up dehydrated onion flakes.

    These are too big for a pepper grinder or salt shaker, so I've decided to blend these down to more manageable "chunks", or "granules" so I can put the onion and the smoked rock salt into a salt/pepper grinder. If I were to use this with table salt, I'd probably be more inclined to blend it for longer to get closer to a nice "powder" or at least, finer grains. So into the blender it goes...

    The onion flakes before blending...
    Blending the flakes on slow for a short period of time... and we get:

    ... open up the smoker and the salt looks like..

    This salt was smoked on Tasmanian Oak and Pear wood... and has gone brown like the peach wood above rather than grey. If I had gone very heavy on the smoke, it would likely go grey.

    Mixing it with other stuff...

    I generally prefer to keep my mixes relatively simple. That way, people can add "extras" to taste later on. So this particular batch is going to be smoked salt, coriander, and onion. Onion salt is a popular product, the smokiness adds the aroma of barbecue, and the coriander seeds adds a slightly citrus-like flavour that pretty much works with everything.

    Here's a nice close up of the mixed salt, coriander and onion.

    Making it presentable...

    Recycled jars are environmentally friendly and cost effective. However, they aren't the prettiest of packaging. So we typically scrape the labels off during the initial cleaning. But we do the "old lady" thing by placing circles of fabric (fabric "hats" which I sometimes call "bonnets" over the lids, and printing our own labels. If they're just for us, we'll probably just use some masking tape, write the info on the tape, and skip the lid covers altogether. If they're being given/sold, we'll "give them a face lift", using Wrens graphic design skills, proper labels, some scrap fabric, and a pair of pinking shears.

    This is not the same mix, but a couple of jars we filled earlier. The left one is a jar of smoked salt & pepper. The right, a jar of smoked salt.

    Not going backwards.... financially.

    Making stuff for fun is one thing. Making things for sale is another matter entirely. Your standards have to "go up", quality control becomes important, as is sanitation. However, most hobbyists don't document things well. They'll buy ingredients, sometimes over months or even years, and forget to account the full list of expenses. Then suddenly you're putting a lot of effort and effectively giving your money away. Most people can't do that for very long before it all becomes too much. I believe that if you sell something, make it good, and charge a fair price. To do that:

    • Break each product down into the component ingredients.
    • Calculate the amount of each ingredient in each product.
    • Calculate the cost of that amount for every ingredient and add them together.
    • Factor in consumables such as cleaning supplies, wood chips, blow torch gas, and the cost of each amount.
    • Wear and tear on pumps, or other equipment.
    • Your time... most people woefully under charge for this. Cleaning and preparing jars/ingredients is something to account for.
    • Any additional packaging, labels, rubber bands, fabric.
    • Transport costs. If you are taking things "just down the road", that's easy. Sending things in post, or driving hundreds of kilometres is an expensive proposition.
    • Don't expect that you can match commercial, large scale industrial producers in low costs. You're not in their league. Make something better and you'll get customers coming back, even if you are relatively more expensive.
    • Many craft shops have their own rules for labeling, and they won't sell it if the rules aren't followed. Nut warnings, ingredients, and labeling conventions must be followed, here's an example:
    The finished product, almost ready for sale. My membership code is truly "Ham", and that tells the shop that I should get the cash from the sale. Dalmation refers to the black and white of the salt and pepper mix. "Smokey" may seem and outdated spelling compared to "smoky" as an adjective. However, I'm old fashioned in my linguistic tendencies, and I'm trying to appeal to an older demographic. If you think that's wrong, I'm sorry, but the labels are on there now. :-)
    Remember how I needed jars.... this is why. It's not even one third of what I've made.. please ignore the dust and fluff that's accumulated on the tops, that will be removed shortly. I've made this much because shipping it in drips and drabs over the course of a year is expensive, and has a high degree of problems (smashed jars, lost parcels, attempted deliveries outside of business hours, the list goes on). So to increase my profits, or to reduce the chance of going backwards, I have made a lot.

    Ren has been doing the same things with her chocolates, designing little cardboard chocolate boxes, and cutting/folding them up. She's tried a dozen different flavours of fillings, ranging from nuts, pralines, jams, dried fruits, etc, etc. Each time we have to break everything down and really dig into the details.

    We then also have an entire spreadsheet dedicated to every product in every store, how many we supplied, how many have been sold, when the remainder is likely to become out of date, how much they cost to make, how much to charge, how much profit can we expect after tax and commissions are taken out. Truthfully, we use these products to practice and hone our making skills, and fund the basic costs. We're certainly not making enough to retire on, but it makes the hobby a more affordable endeavour.

    I better check the smoker.... again.


    Take care and enjoy your Christmas "maker/baker/barbecue/smoking binges"... whatever that involves.

    Ham, and the snoring cat Clarence.







    Sunday, 24 May 2020 11:01

    Making some Quark

    Written by
    Monday, 18 May 2020 02:49

    Beyond bread: Pretzels

    Written by


    I think I need to create a section called "Rens corner", but she only made some non-committal noises when I asked her if she'd be interested. However, despite the fact that I didn't actually do this, I feel I can add a little bit of wayward experience, and advice.

    Back to the pretzels...

    When most people think of bread, and they think of loaves, or flat breads, or even rolls in one form or another. However, outside of Germany, pretzels often fall somewhere off the "mainstream bread" track.

    I think pretzels in Australia (and perhaps other countries as well) are often mistaken for the ones found in the potato chip aisle at your local supermarket. These are quite a bit different to the true fresh bread-like pretzels that are so popular in Germany.

    If I had to put pretzels in a "bread category", I'd probably be putting them into the same category as the humble bagel as both are boiled, then baked. So if you like the idea of a salty, freshly baked bagel, then real pretzels are probably appealing to you.

    Ren arbitrarily decided to make fresh pretzels yesterday as I was out in the workshop, so there weren't any photos of the process. Sorry.

    Side note: This is actually the first dough to be proofed into our recently emptied, defrosted, and retrofitted freezer that has been (temporarily) converted into a much larger bread proofing box and occasionally, higher temperature cheese cave. So I'm going to guess that testing the setup was part of her motivation... but it is weird to think we proofed our dough, which is usually best done at around 25oC... in a freezer. (Don't worry, I'll add another article about this conversion).

    So I came back in from my workshop to be hit by the smell freshly baked pretzels all cooling on a wire rack. Let's just be clear here, having poor impulse control when it comes to eating freshly made bread, I tried to help myself to a pre-dinner snack.. but was thwarted by the rather unexpected security system....

    Those pretzels had fused to the rack, and were having the kind of issues "letting go", that some Jewish mother friends of mine have. Their words, not mine.

    In fact when slowly prised away from the rack, the non-stick coating was attached to the pretzel, rather than the rack... since I don't think non-stick coatings are healthy to eat, I simply opted to cut the pretzel away from the rack, and leave the base still attached to the rack, ready to be soaked and scrubbed away later.

    I don't know if it was the fact that I was really hungry, or the fact that it's pretzel-based deliciousness, but I was going to have a second one, no matter how hard it was stuck on. I guess I looked weird muttering again to the pretzel/cooling rack, sometimes gentle words of encouragement, and other times, using scarier-than-average knives.

    All in all, the humble pretzel is a delicious alternative in bread making that is great as a treat now and then. However, I strongly recommend that you use baking paper during the cooking and cooling stages to avoid similar problems if you want to try to make some.

    The recipe Ren used...

    Ren used the pretzel recipe found in "Germany" recipe book, part of the "Gourmet Pilgrim" series. Which is one of the few recipe books that comes shipped in a biscuit tin. The book is actually an interesting read, and shows you how to make foods found in various regions of Germany, a bit of history and culture is thrown in there too. In all of this self-isolation, perhaps a book like this is a good gift idea for yourself or people you know.

    More information about the book can be found here:

    Unfortunately, due to copyright, I can't share the recipe with you. However, there are plenty of freely available pretzel recipes out there on the web for you to try.

    So when making breads, don't limit yourself to what you think is "normal". Try the breads and treats made in other countries, and see whether or not you can avoid certain sticking situations I had to deal with.

    Stay safe and happy baking!

    Ham (and Ren by proxy).

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