bread · Cake

Christmas Baking, Part 2

If you thought I was making a big deal out of nothing in Part 1 because all my struggles were pretty insignificant, well, here is Part 2.
**Warning: this post is long and tedious because this was a long and tedious experience.

One or two weeks before my designated Christmas baking weekend, a really nice lady at work shared with us one of those boxed panettones from our local Italian grocery store. If you’ve never had it, panettone is a sweet enriched bread, that is technically a bread, but enjoyed like a cake. Filled with candied fruits and/or chocolate pieces, it is light, fluffy, and sweet… and it sounded like a cool challenge. I think all these recent non-fail bread makings had inflated me with a sense of “I am so good at bread,” and I believed that this would be a challenge I could rise up to and score 150%. So naturally, I decided this is what I would do.

I scoured the internet for recipes. I knew I wanted to make mini ones, so I concentrated my search for recipes that made little ones. I mean, I am not so naive in thinking that I can bake panettone for the first time, do my own conversion of a large dough to little ones, and expect to know how each stage should look and how long to bake them. Eventually, I found this recipe on The Wild Yeast Blog for 20 little panettones that utilize natural yeast that I could convert from a sourdough starter. It’d be a Bubbly Bob Adventure!

Now. Have a look at the length of that recipe and tell me why I thought this was a good idea. “You are out of your mind. Who do you think you are? You only have a 70% chance of success on a basic recipe! This is advanced shit!”, you’d say to me silently. Past Me didn’t hear you, because you know, space and time. There is no doubt about it though: Past Me was an idiot and thought it could be done the first time. Past Me thought I would have been lucky. Past Me was dreaming of glory.

To Past Me’s credit, I planned. I really did. I looked at the recipe carefully, made plans to see how many blocks of time it would take, and how I would fit all of it plus the cookies into a single weekend. It looked close, but very doable. I still thought it was a good idea on the Tuesday of that week, therefore I thought I’d give myself a good head start by converting Bubbly Bob into the starter needed in the recipe.

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I will spare you the details and give you a quick run down of what needed to happen. I needed to take a bit of Bubbly Bob, which is a liquid starter, and convert it into a stiff starter by giving it at least 2 days feeding. Then, from the stiff starter, convert it to a sweet Italian starter by feeding it every 4 hours in the span of 12 hours. Meaning the building of the sweet starter is going to have to happen on a day I don’t work so I can tend to it like a baby. By my calculation this should all work: I will build the stiff starter Tuesday night, then I will convert it to the sweet starter on Saturday whilst I do the cookies. Mix the first dough and let sit overnight. Then do the rest of the mixing on Sunday morning, proof it in the afternoon, and bake in the evening, letting it cool overnight. Ready on Monday! By Friday the stiff starter was looking well and I started to text my friends to come by on the following Monday to make sure they get the fresh panettones. But a lingering sliver of doubt prevented me from telling my friends to expect panettones… just in case. We will play it very, very safe.

Day 1
As I started to feed the starter, I realized I have absolutely no idea what the Italian starter looks like. What is the consistency? How should it smell? I gathered it’d be quite stiff because it is a 2 part flour, 1 part water formula. But how stiff? By the end of my 12 hour feeding schedule, I had a lump of dough that was so stiff I could barely move it from one bowl to another. The only hint I got that maybe it was alright was that it smelled sweet with a hint of almond. The internet said this starter is much milder than your regular sourdough, so your panettone won’t taste, well, sour. That was encouraging so I decided to go ahead and mix it into the first dough.

First dough fermented overnight looking nice and bubbly. I punched it down, added the additional flour, sugar, and egg yolk in the order it was supposed to be. The recipe clearly indicated:

Panettone requires a very disciplined mixing technique. If you’re not willing to be patient with the mixing, don’t bother.

I wasn’t about to argue. Mix the butter in AFTER all the other stuff is mixed well and gluten is developed. It MUST be able to pass through the windowpane test for a strong gluten structure to suppose all the butter and sugar and fruits. I knew I had to hand-knead this dough the moment I saw how it resembled a loose cake dough. It was almost liquid.

It took some time. It took quite a bit of time and it was very, very messy. But I got it to windowpane. It was quite fun, I felt very accomplished. The rest was easy. I left it to the machine to mix in the extra butter, water and the dried fruits.

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This was beautiful. Also. No, apparently that wasn’t the correct way to test it, you were supposed to take a small lump of dough to stretch, not the whole bloody thing.

I had set up the little paper molds like the recipe suggested. Dividing up the sticky dough to plop into the little paper molds was a pain in the ass. But the dough smelled fantastic, I put both trays of the little doughs into the oven with the light on and a bowl of hot water. I was confident this would be great. I left home to get some lunch around 2. I was a bit behind on my original schedule, but even if it needed the full 6 hours to rise, I’d still have time to bake it. I was not worried at all.

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I came back after 4 hours and found that the dough exactly as I left it. I didn’t understand what was happening. Inside of the oven is a nice warm temperature. They should have risen. Many internet sources says the yeast is in shock because of all the butter and sugar. Just give it time and it will rise. … whew. Ok. If I go to bed at 10, that means they have to be in the oven baking by 9.15. It is doable. I still have 3 more hours for them to proof in the warm oven. Don’t panic, it’d still work out. At this point, I texted my friends again to cancel Monday pickup. I was still hoping that would maybe just mean a Tuesday pickup.

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Tiny bubbles. I call them false hope.

By 9, I could see there was still no visible difference in the dough. I would have just baked them right then and there if I didn’t see little bubbles in a few of the dough balls. The optimist in me said, “Maybe proof it overnight. Maybe it just really needs the extra time.”

So I went to bed thinking about them.

Day 3
Woke up around 2 am hoping for a miracle. Nope. The dough was as flat as they were before I went to bed. There wasn’t anything I could have done at that point, so I went back to bed and tried to go back to sleep. Except I then spent the next two hours thinking about what could have gone wrong… until I drifted into sleep out of sheer exhaustion… with a nightmare! I dreamt that I heard some noise, and found two men just outside of our bedroom with weapons. They were threatening us with needles and various sharp things and demanding we help out at this house party they were throwing at our house for their friends. Those friends were noisy and trashed our place like there is no tomorrow. But when I peeked into the oven, hey! My panettone dough had risen! In fact, they might have risen too much but that is okay!

…You know something is wrong when you wake up from a dream where you were being burglared and you think, “Oh hey, good, no one broke in. But… oh no. The rising dough was just a dream,” and then you feel bummed.

Ya. The rising dough was a dream.
I decided it was time to just bake the damn things and see if they rise at all in the oven. They didn’t.

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The blue lines indicate the mathematical phenomenon known as “the height of sadness”

The dough tasted great. They were sort of like fruit scones except with more moisture.

I thought about my failure constantly that day and came to the conclusion that it had to be the yeast. Perhaps the starter culture was just not active enough to support a second rise, even though the first rise was big and bubbly. I decided to challenge it again, because I was annoyed that it didn’t work. More than anything, I felt defeated and less of a person because I was defeated by yeast. I found a second recipe from the Real Deal – that uses commercial yeast with a how-to video. Maybe there is a flavour difference between Bubbly Bob and commercial yeast, but if they don’t rise, then there is no point.

Time was a big stresser this time around because I would only be able to do this in the evening after work. Luckily, there are points in this recipe that allows for refrigeration to help keep everything going but not too quickly.

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This was the start after 3 hours. LOOK AT THOSE BUBBLES.

Day 4
This was a non-productive day because I had to go to a work Christmas party. I checked the starter when I came home. It looked as it should be.

Day 5

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12 egg yolk in this dough. That is a dozen of eggs wasted if this doesn’t turn out, no pressure.

Ideally I should be able to mix up the dough. Proof and bake if I move quickly.
Well. This dough was quite stiff once the yolk and milk are mixed in. I wasn’t gonna mix it by hand—I was way past the “try to impress” stage, and just at the point of the “let’s get this done” stage. I guess the dough was too big and too stiff because the mixer heated up so quickly I could smell the fragrance of “turn it off right now or there might be fire.” I had no choice but to hand-knead it again. At least it’d be quick.

It wasn’t quick. It was an incredibly stiff dough. I kneaded and kneaded and kneaded and I couldn’t get the dough to even stretch, not to mention windowpane. I was kneading it to the point I was actually huffing and puffing because of all the effort. I tried putting it into the mixer but the same thing happened again: threat of breakage, or fire, or both. I ended up having to hand knead all the rest of the way. Kneading butter into a dough is one of the most tedious things to do. When kneading the dried fruits, it kept wanting to fly off the counter. There were raisins everywhere.

I spent two hours kneading the damn thing. By the end of it, I was so tired and sleepy, my arms hurt, my back hurt, and so did my legs. I was so tired I was near tears. … and it was 10. I couldn’t proof the dough. Luckily it did say you can fridge it and just proof it after, so I just put everything into the fridge and went to bed.

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Compare it to the previous dough. This one is really firm. Definitely non sticky.

Day 6
I had to do it all in the morning. At least that made dividing the dough up easier. I was going to put the divided dough back into the fridge and maybe proof it when I come home but I decided against it. The recipe says chilled dough will take 10 hours to proof, they probably meant proofing in a warm place or at least room temp. So I decided to leave them on the counter. My house is cold, it’d be fine. They won’t be over proofed.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t think about them overflowing from the container constantly.

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They were holding a firm shape of “not sitting properly on the bottom”.
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These are them after 10 hours. With scoring on top, butter tucked into the scoring and some nib sugar sprinkled on top.

I came home to no spillage. Also no significant growth. All the dough did was soften up and sat more comfortably in the papermold. I was gutted. I decided to hell with it and just to bake the damn thing.

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Is it… a bit fluffy?

….Did they…. turn out? I think they did! They had risen a fair bit in the oven. They were definitely fluffier and even had a bit of that long strand texture you are supposed to get in panettone. They tasted alright!

Encouraged by this I decided to proof the second batch in the warm oven for a bit extra time.

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Look at them. The fruits of my tears!

They also came out alright!!!!

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They went on my hanging apparatus and.. I have to say I have never been as happy. That was it, it was done! I could stop stressing about time and worrying! I just need to let them cool down and put them in little gift bags and THIS IS ALL DONE.

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Because I made extra, there is some for me too! 😀

So. Will I do this again?
Maybe. If I ever do this again I will:
1. Budget 2 weeks for it.
2. Not make little ones anymore. Maybe medium size ones, or just one big one. These little ones are pain in the ass to do and they also tends to dry out quicker.

Was it everything I ever dreamed of?
Well. I felt pretty accomplished when it was finally done, and semi-successfully. I think they could have risen higher, but that’s just nitpicking. I think the Wild Yeast recipe dough smelled better before baking but I don’t have the finished dough in proper texture to compare. The Real Deal recipe is definitely more user-friendly. If you don’t do the full amount, say cut the dough down to 1/3, I think the stand mixer would be able to handle the kneading. One thing to note though, the Wild Yeast recipe called for 1.3g yeast + 85g starter, the Real Deal one is 20g yeast + 200g starter (scaled to the same amount of dough). How strong does the yeast have to be to make the same dough rise as much? Yeast science is so tricky.

… You know what though, I would probably do it again. With more time and better planning, I think it can be done.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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