My apartment is a hot Christmas mess at the moment. There are shopping bags, lights strands, and tape covering just about every surface. Tape gets everywhere, it’s incredible. I don’t even know where it comes from, I’m pretty sure I haven’t wrapped a single present yet. To make matters worse, I bought my cats this adorable little stuffed fish, which they both love and have destroyed. This tiny fish continues to spew an infinite amount of white, spun, synthetic fluff. It looks like Betty White has just been wandering around my living room, scratching her head, marking her territory.
Given that this disarray has been making me feel a little Howard Hughes-y, I wanted a project that could basically take care of itself while I dug myself out of the holiday rubble. Making bread probably didn’t seem like the most logical choice, but hear me out. A while back I came up with a pretty excellent recipe for what I deemed to be Lemonade Bread. These are round, fluffy rolls with a zesty kick, rolled in sugar. Sounds gross, right? The recipe calls for the inclusion of yeast starter, and this is the part that is stupid simple. Not only that, using a yeast starter instead of just throwing a little yeast right in the dough is almost a guarantee for a perfect rise, texture, and enhanced flavor.
On an unrelated note, you know those words that just never look like words? Those words that, regardless of how frequently you use them, you will be forever Googling them in disbelief? “Guarantee” is one of them.
There are all kinds of yeast starters, but there are two in particular you’d want to know about. Certain doughs, the kind that produce your chewier breads with substantial crusts (e.g. baguettes, focaccia) are much looser in nature, having a higher water content than other doughs. The starter for this dough, should you choose to use one, also has a high water content, and is referred to as a Poolish starter. However, we’re not using that one, so just forget I even mentioned it. What we’re making is a nice, soft roll with a delicate crust. Our water to flour ratio is going to be pretty even, so we need a starter that also uses a 1:1 ratio of water to flour. This kind of starter is called a Biga. It is a really stupid sounding word. It sounds like a parasite.
10 oz Water, room temperature
½ tsp Active Dry Yeast
8 oz Bread Flour (though all-purpose will work fine)
In a small cup or dish, combine water and yeast and stir to dissolve. Combine with flour in a large container, and mix thoroughly. Cover the container, leave in a cozy, warm place in your kitchen and let it do its thing for 24 hours.
When you come back the next day, your Biga will have morphed into a living, breathing amorphous blob, festering with a new yeasty colony. The biga is thick, sticky, and structurally sound. It should be warm and have that earthy and tart smell of yeast activity. You don’t want to leave it too long, however, or it will basically smell like moonshine. In fact, if your Biga smells like panhandling and regret, that’s a good indication you’ve let it go a little too long. That applies to a lot of things in this life.
Now that your Biga is good to go, I hope you’ve taken the time to straighten up your life and your kitchen, because we’re about to make some bread, ya’ll! These rolls are perfect for brunch, maybe served up with a little crème fraiche (Would you like that recipe too?) or even in place of dessert if you’re part of more of an after-dinner coffee crowd.
Bear in mind two things. One, this is a fairly large recipe (makes around 2 dozen rolls), and you shouldn’t hesitate to cut it in half if that’s more appropriate for your needs. The amounts are very easily divisible. Second, I want to make the case for using weight measures instead of volume measures, particularly for bread. When measuring in volume, so many factors can actually alter the amounts of what you are really taking out. One day, a cup of flour at your house could weigh 5 ounces, the next it may be 7. If you’re measuring in weight, the amount will not vary. Digital scales these days are super compact and super affordable (mine was $20 and I use it every time I bake). You will not regret the investment.
3 lbs Bread Flour
12 oz Biga
½ Active Dry yeast, dissolved in a small amount of water
1 oz Salt
6 oz Sugar
17 oz Buttermilk
3 oz Lemon juice
3 oz Butter, softened
2 Tbsp White or black pepper (I prefer white)
Zest of 4 lemons
1 Stick of butter, melted
A big bowl of sugar
In the bowl of a standing mixer with a hook attachment, place your flour and your biga right in the middle. Around the sides of the bowl, add your yeast, sugar, and salt so that the yeast is NOT touching them. This is very important! Salt, and sometimes sugar, can burn yeast if they come into direct contact without being mixed up with other ingredients first. Fortunately for you, my artistic skills are boundless and I have provided a little diagram to demonstrate this point.
Turn mixer on low-medium speed. Combine your buttermilk and lemon juice, and add them slowly to the flour, running the liquid down the sides of the bowl. Once the liquid has absorbed, add eggs one at a time. Allow dough to mix for 5 minutes. If there is still a significant amount of flour at the bottom of your bowl, drizzle a little extra buttermilk down the side to pick it up, but try not to add more than necessary. Once dough has been worked a bit, gradually add butter in small chunks. Continue mixing another minute, then turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead dough by hand for at least ten minutes. Get comfortable here. Turn on the Real Housewives of Kansas City or something and let yourself become enraptured in the repetitive motion.
Create a divet in the middle of your dough, and add your pepper and lemon zest. Continue to knead for another 5-10 minutes, or until pepper and zest are well distributed throughout the dough. The reason we add the pepper and zest at this point is because some spices and add ins, pepper and nuts in particular, inhibit gluten development, literally cutting through the strands. We want to add them later in the process after the gluten has had a little time to strengthen.
Return your dough to your bowl, lightly dusted with flour, and cover with a dampened towel. Place in a warm part of your kitchen (maybe on top of your oven if you have it on low heat) and allow to ferment for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, you want to “punch down” your dough to release some of the gasses. Literally make a fist and press down on your dough a few times. Cover again, and allow to ferment for another 30-40 minutes. You can let it go longer, but you essentially want your dough to double in size. Depending on the temperature of your house, the time may vary.
After the second round of fermenting, it’s time to portion out your dough. Pick a size that you like (I did about half the size of my fist, about 4 or 5 oz) and use that as the model. Measure your pieces in weight for superb symmetry. Also remember that once measured out, your dough will go through another round of proofing and will double in size again. Try to keep your dough covered by a cloth throughout the process, you don’t want the surface to dry out.
After you have your pieces, you now want to round your dough! This is really hard to describe in words, so you should absolutely check out this great little video demo I hunted down.
My first day of bread class, trying to master this made tears well up large and violent in the back of my throat. Once you get it, however, it’s easy-peasy.
Place yours dough balls on top of parchment paper, spaced with at least two inches in between eachother. Parchment paper is going to make a world of difference. Keep the rolls covered (a trash bag works well) and allow to proof for 15-30 minutes, or doubled in size.
Transfer entire sheets of dough covered parchment to your sheet pan(s). Bake rolls in a 375°F oven. Bake about 15 minutes before rotating your sheets in the oven. Bake another 15-20 minutes. Don’t be Draconian about baking times. Every oven is unique. Some run hot, some run just right. The rolls are done when they are golden brown and feel significantly lightened when picked up. Check the bottoms. Are the bottoms nice and golden too? That’s good. If you find the tops are browning too much and too soon, turn your oven down a bit. Throw a little water down in the bottom of your oven too to create a little steam. That sounds strange, but it’s good.
Once baked, allow rolls to cool slightly. Next, brush rolls with butter and roll them in a big bowl of sugar. The result is a sparkling pillow, a shimmering and scrumptious poof. If you are planning on serving them the next day, I would wait to butter and sugar them later rather than sooner.
I know this recipe was a little intense, but I feel like we grew a lot together in a short amount of time. Trust me, these are delicious and they look gorgeous.
Oh, and I mentioned a recipe for crème fraiche didn’t I?
8 oz Heavy Cream
2 oz Buttermilk
Heat cream on the stove to about 105°F (it will steam, not necessarily simmer). Pour into container or jar. Stir in buttermilk, and cover very loosely with plastic wrap. Allow to sit out at room temperature for 24-36 hours. Stir thickened mixture, and chill in refrigerator for at least 8 hours before serving.