Bake Along 2013 – English Muffins

Week 2 of Bake Off and this time the technical challenge was English Muffins. As the recipe didn’t go up before the show, I couldn’t really pit my skills against theirs as I’d already watched their efforts and of course, learned from their mistakes. So, this time I made them using all the tips I picked up (and avoiding their mistakes, I hope!) to see how well I could make them. Next time if I can hold off watching it, I’ll try to make the Floating Islands without seeing them do it first. The recipe is here at BBC Recipes.

I started out measuring everything out, as per my now standard ‘don’t screw things up by measuring when panicked’ approach. Now here are my tips gleaned from the episode, the recesses of my brain and McGee.

Tip 1: Scald the milk

So Ruby mentioned scalding the milk before using it in her Peacock Decorative Loaf, and this reminded me I’d read that too and so off I trotted to McGee and sure enough, he explained it all:

Both fresh and powdered milk … can weaken the gluten of bread dough and produce a dense loaf. The culprit seems appears to be a whey protein, which can be inactivated by scalding the milk—bringing it just to the boil—before use. The milk must be cooled before mixing, to avoid pre-cooking the flour and damaging the yeast. (McGee on Food and Cooking, p. 546).

Milk duly scalded, then allowed to cool down before adding to the dry ingredients, egg and butter.

Tip 2: Use the right method for kneading enriched doughs

Some of them had understandable trouble kneading the soft, sticky dough. When you’re not used to it, you feel like you’re doing something hideously wrong, as it sticks to you hands, the bench, the walls as you fling it around. Partly, it’s about confidence and believing it will be fine eventually. Don’t keep adding flour. It won’t help much, but it will mess up the ratios of liquid to dry ingredients, and of course you won’t achieve the soft, wet dough you’re aiming for.

I love this video of Richard Bertinet, where he says ‘the only dough only stick if you want it to stick’ (at 3.10). I haven’t found that to be entirely true, but relaxing about the stickiness and knowing it will sort itself out if you keep working it helps. Anyway, here’s the man himself showing you how to knead a sweet dough, lifting it up with both hands, stretching it upwards, then folding it over itself. I find this works really well. Have a scraper handy to pull it all back together (good for mixing the dough in the first place too).

I ended up making two batches of dough because I didn’t have strong bread flour; I only had Wessex Mill French Bread Flour (protein: 9.8%) and Marriage’s Very Strong Canadian Bread Flour (protein: 13.8%). So I had one very high protein flour, and one quite low. I thought the Canadian might be too strong so I used half and half with Wessex in the first. After kneading for a while, I felt this might have been a mistake, plus an opportunity for comparison, so I made a second batch using 230g Canadian, 70g Wessex. The difference wasn’t huge, but it was noticeable: batch two was much easier to get to a developed, satiny point and was bouncier and stronger at the end of kneading. You can see both below.

When you start, it will be a shaggy, sticky mess. You can just leave it stuck to the bench and pull it back and forth with your hands. Eventually, you need to do the Bertinet lift, stretch and fold. What you’re trying to do is build a network of gluten strands. By folding and stretching, you unravel these strands and they form bonds between the long strands lying side by side, as well as end to end, making a network. Fats in the dough make this more difficult (they weaken gluten bonding) so this will be more difficult in a dough like this with butter, milk and egg in it, and therefore you’ll have to knead for longer. Kneading also get air into the dough, so it’s better to lift it up, stretch it, then fold it over as every time you do this, you trap more air in the dough by making more bubbles, and each time these are compressed, they become smaller and smaller, giving the finished dough a finer texture as it will be full of tiny bubbles (this is why some bread isn’t kneaded very much as sometimes one wants big, coarse holes).

If you make these, don’t lose heart if kneading seems to take a long long time. For me, Batch 1 took at least 10 minutes. For Batch 2, kneading took a bit less than 10 minutes but not by much.

Tip 3: Do the windowpane test

How do you know when dough has been kneaded enough? There is of course the school of thought that says you don’t really need to knead, but in the recipe Paul wants it kneaded, so kneaded it shall be. Also, that results in larger, coarser texture, and that’s not what you want in a sweet enriched dough used for something like muffins.

Kimberley used what you could call the ‘windowpane test’ (on the episode at 8 minute mark). She took a small piece of dough and stretched it between her fingers. She was trying to determine if the gluten network was sufficiently developed. If you can stretch the dough thinly between fully extended fingers to make a thin, translucent ‘window’ of dough, it’s done. If it breaks, it needs more work. It needs to be thin and quite fine, so a thick chunky window is better than nothing, but you want a nice, satiny, thin window. There are some good pictures and a bit of explanation here.

By the time you get a windowpane, the dough will be satiny and bouncy. I promise. It may not seem like it will ever happen, but it will. I find it helps to watch something on iPlayer to distract me (a book would be good, but that gets messy). Here are the stages of kneading for Batch 1:

and Batch 2:

Now we get to the first proving stage. How long should you prove a sweet enriched dough before the shaping stage? This first rise is often called ‘bulk fermentation’, in contrast to the second ‘proving’ that is done once the bread has been shaped (which you could also call ‘final fermentation’). Longer than a plain dough, is the answer, because the sugar (according to McGee) slows the growth of the yeast by dehydrating the cells. I suspect the weight of a really buttery dough doesn’t help, but I’m just guessing. This dough isn’t very buttery so it’s a moot point here, and I’ll obsess about it another day.

Having kneaded my doughs put them through the first fermentation, I rolled them out. The recipe says to roll to 1.5cm thickness, rest for 15 minutes, and then cut 8 x 9cm muffins. Rolling to this thickness and cutting that many muffins of that size seemed mutually exclusive goals for the first batch as you can see.

Batch 1: being conservative and not wanting to roll too thin…

As you can see I compromised and cut 7 using an 8cm cutter, had some leftover dough, so I rolled it back up (not a great thing to do) and cut one more.

Batch 2 was more amenable to being rolled out, but I got carried away with rolling with enough to cut out 8 muffins, so went a bit thin (closer to 1cm), then as you can see ended up getting 8 out of it easily! Argh, most annoying as then I had lots of leftover dough, but once it’s all cut you can’t roll it up and start again as all the air will be squashed out. And this was with the instructions; would have been far more difficult to decide, as they had to, without any guidance.

I set them all to rise on a bed of semolina to prevent sticking. Here they are after 30 minutes proving. As you can see, they rose a lot and I should have spaced them out more.

Now to cook them. I don’t have a griddle, so I used my beloved De Buyer cast iron pan. My love for this pan is deep and abiding. Even though we’ve only been together a few short months, I suspect our relationship will span many years, even decades.

It wasn’t too hard to cook them, but it took some getting used to. Here is Tip 5: Sweet, enriched doughs need to be cooked at fairly low temperatures. They brown easily, so to avoid getting too dark on the outside while leaving them doughy on the inside, cook at low temps. I did these over gas on just about the lowest heat and it was still almost too hot. You can see the experiments with temperature below as here are the finished batches. You can see I’ved used Kimberly’s clever approach of putting in spare dough to check when they’re done.

Here’s Batch 1…

…and Batch 2

On balance, Batch 1 was nicer, probably because they were a bit thicker and also the second batch was a bit over-proved by the time I cooked them (due in part to making too many at once, lack of a large griddle and my husband forgetting his key which caused a mad dash out to meet him with it in my apron). Batch 1 might have been nicer also because French Bread Flour seems to give a nice tender crumb (works well in Paul Hollywood’s scones recipe too).

They were lovely toasted with jam or honey. Ollie (my son) at two, with raspberry and apricot jam smeared on them (and later him). I have no idea how many Mark (my husband) ate, I lost count. It was a lot.

These are definitely worth making, but they are a bit tricky and it was hard to get them all the same, perfectly cooked and even heights.