Displaying items by tag: solutions

    Friday, 24 September 2021 09:24

    Bread baking improvisation.

    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!


    Published in Bread making

    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!





    Published in Cheese Making
    Tagged under
    Wednesday, 06 March 2019 12:22

    When things go wrong in wood working.

    It's inevitable. You're going to make mistakes. Regardless of whether you're doing wood working, or sometimes (if you're like me) get up in the morning using only the most uncoordinated and painful of manners. There's the temptation to give up, and perhaps go back to bed.

    I once read somewhere, that "courage is not the absence of fear, but the strength to carry on regardless". However, in a surprisingly similar statement, that a great wood worker isn't defined by the absence of mistakes, but the quality of their solutions to fix them. I wonder how many similar sayings are out there for other interests and topics?

    I've spent the last few days between job interviews, re-purposing my old planing jig, several planks of wood, and more than a few 90x45mm boards to build.... a trolley. Not just any trolley, but a lumber storage trolley. So admittedly, it's not going to be a piece of fine furniture, but it is shaping up to be very, very sturdy. The base is an old 1800mm x 600mm x 18mm sheet of pine, reinforced with over 12 metres of thick struts of wood. Every piece is glued with maximum coverage, and reinforced with screws as long as 125mm. Then I really went to work, and added three full sheets of 18mm plywood to reinforce the base with a fancy torsion box which also doubles as shelving and storage bins for my timber.

    While I've made a lot of progress, I've been much slower than I'd have originally thought possible. I've made many mistakes. Some of them as simple as not accounting for imperfections in my wood. Some of them as complex as putting parts in the wrong place and leaving it until the glue has well and truly dried. The worst is one that is both utterly avoidable, and yet... not. My worst mistake, was going into this with an idea, but not a plan. Needless to say, I've had a few lessons learned (or perhaps "earned" ) along the way. That's life isn't it? You get punished first, then it's up to you to learn from your mistakes.

    My goals were simple. Copy a well-thought-out design for a lumber trolley, and make it smaller to fit in my workspace.... using as much stuff laying around as I could. This not only fixes my "lumber seems to be everywhere" problem by using up the aforementioned lumber in the construction itself, but also creates a place to put all of the remainder using a smaller footprint that what it does now. Hello to some much needed shop space!

    The first mistake, measure twice, cut once.

    Ok, strictly speaking, I actually did that. I measured the pine sheet used in my planing jig twice. When they didn't correspond between measurements, I thought I'd merely done the first attempt wrongly. It turns out, that the rivet holding the clip at the end of my tape measure failed between attempts, resulting in a shift of nearly 10mm. Having also worked with pallet wood so much of late, I just assumed upon checking the second measurement, that the board was indeed less wide at one end compared to another. So I cut my support struts accordingly.... and wrongly. Repairing this involved shimming the short end, then reinforcing with a dance I call the "glue and screw two-step".

    The second mistake: Flat does not necessarily apply to all faces.

    I built the base, upside down on my work bench. While I freely admit that my bench isn't precision-ground to within 1/1000th of a millimetre, it's more than flat enough to ensure a decent level of accuracy of properly thicknessed and jointed wood. (For example, wood that indeed has gone through a thickness planer and jointer). However, as I mentioned, I've been re-purposing the vast bulk of the wood in my trolley, with previous stresses and abuse from previous roles all too often evident. Despite picking the best parts, there's every wood-bourne problem present (outside of rot and liquid exposure makes). Cupping, warping, crooking, bowing, non-parallel faces, splits, not to mention the holes left by nails and screws.

    It turned out that after I attached four industrial-grade castors to the base (I splurged here because wood gets heavy very fast), that despite the top of my base being flat, it was not flat when rolling on the wheels. So some creative planing and building up of certain wheels needed to be done.

    The third mistake: context is important!

    Hindsight may be perfect, but you can only work with the best information that you have at the time. As I have mentioned, I was using pocket holes to put this together quickly. The speed of construction allowed me to start construction even before I had finalized the plan, and because of that, I changed the design mid-way through construction. This resulted in severe delays while dismantling occurred, and even some deprecated construction choices that ultimately ended with less-than-ideal aesthetics, and even some minor weakening in the joints. My solution to this was to fix up what I can on the aesthetics, and reinforce the joints where needed. Alas, even more time was lost. Speed of method, is not necessarily speed of result.

    But are all mistakes, actually mistakes? Or are they merely trade-offs for the choices we make. Find the way that's right for you. To do that, you have to stray from your known path.

    Making something is a journey. Even if you do make irretrievable mistakes, you'll hopefully know what not to do next time. Assuming you don't do any damage to yourself, at the very worst, you can always start again, or replace a part, or cut out a broken piece, shape and attach a replacement. Your creativity and careful execution is all important here, and while I'd love to say you are limited by your imagination, those of us working in the real world are limited in time, access to certain tools, perhaps knowledge of better methods, or simply money. Those who are constrained in one way or another, are forced to come up with more creative solutions.

    Assembly order also has an impact on your end result. It certainly had some on mine! In construction, pieces often need to be assembled in a particular order if you do things logically. However, delaying some assembly steps can make your life a lot easier in some ways, and not in others. I chose to build to trolley from base up, and the front bins toward the back (without the front panel). This meant I could use the sides of the bins to reinforce the back of the bins (which is also the vertical side of my A frame in the middle. Then using pocket hole joinery and spacers cut from scrap, add the shelves to the vertical on the other side, and reinforce them with support rods. Then once that was all dry and lined up, glue and screw the final sloped part of my A frame. (The side to hold the sheeting) to the base and each shelf. Then all that remained was attaching the front and rear-most panels.

    Some may have made the entire A frame shelving first as it's located in the middle. I'd highly recommend it if you knew your wood was reliably straight, even and true. However, I would never have been able to deal with the warp caused by the base so easily if there was a giant torsion box attached.

    Doing it my way kept my options open. By not attaching the wood at the very front and back, I could access many of the areas I might have needed to. Adding the sides and back of the bins perpendicular to one another immediately started to straighten each other out which made lining everything else up much easier. Working from the base up ensured that I could make the most of the strength already built into the base and use it stabilize everything else.

    However, it was very difficult to design and build each shelf to the right dimension and required a surprising number of clamps to hold it into position. The sides of the bins made attaching some shelves quite a bit more cumbersome, and the spacing of the shelves limited the type and size of clamps I could use. So there's no ideal way after all.


    A lot of my fellow self-taught and beginner wood workers have pieces that didn't go to plan. However, you're doing really well to finish a project. Even if it doesn't work out as well as you hoped, you will definitely improve as you continue to practice.

    Published in Wood Working
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