Milk Buns

Breakfast sandwiches are a regular feature of our morning meal, usually made with our homemade focaccia style buns. While the basic recipe is great, I like to mix things up to keep it interesting. The standard buns I make these days are a mix of four ingredients:

  • 250 g 00 flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 180 mL water

The ingredients are mixed, the dough rises overnight at room temperature, then gets shaped into buns, rests again for an hour or two. I’ll usually give the buns a  brushing of olive oil and bake for 15 minutes at 375 F for 15 minutes (with convection on) on my Baking Steel.

Sometimes I’ll omit the olive oil on the surface and dust with flour instead, or add teaspoon or two of olive oil and/or sugar into the dough itself.

For my latest adventure, I decided to replace the water with the 2% milk we use. I increased the amount of liquid from 180 to 190 grams (since milk is only partly water), but I probably didn’t compensate enough. The dough ended up easy to work with, but a bit denser and not as wet as I’m used to. I had scalded the milk to 190 F and let it cool before using, as this is supposed to omit the troublesome glutathine that can interfere with gluten formation. I let it rise overnight, the stored it in the fridge for a few days.


The cold dough was even denser but quite easy to work with. I shaped it into buns (divide dough into quarters, then fold four corners into a ball, place seam side down, and cup your hand over the surface while rolling the ball in a circle for about 30 seconds) and then compressed the rounds so they weren’t too tall and narrow.

Before baking I brushed the surface with what I call my omelette glaze: one egg beaten with a tablespoon of milk (you can use the leftover mix to make an omelette). Given the sugar content of the milk and the egg glaze, I figured it might be ready a bit sooner than the water-based dough, and I was right. After 12 minutes, the buns and reached over 200 F and had a dark brown crust.


The buns worked out well – they were smoother in taste and had a nice creamy texture. They were chewier and denser, almost bagel like, likely because I had less liquid than I might otherwise have wanted. There was a bit of an off-taste though and, given it’s cheese-like character, I wonder if milk dough’s are really suited to long rests.   A higher yeast dough with a shorter rest period may be better for milk doughs.


Lye vs. Baking Soda Bagels

Many home bagel recipes rely on a boiling baking soda bath prior to baking, but some argue that “authentic” bagels must instead take a dip in a much stronger alkali, lye.

I tried the lye and baking soda versions using the same dough, and while I initially noticed a clear difference in flavor and texture with lye, I wasn’t sure it was actually better. The bagels were considerably darker, but seemed too chewy and the crust was a bit difficult to bite through.

With some tweaks, I have become a lye convert. The key is to not overboil the bagels. One minute in the lye (with a flip halfway through) is plenty. The flavor with lye has a bit more depth, toppings stick better, and there seems to be a better contrast between crispy crust and soft, chewy interior.

Soft Pretzels

I have never been a fan of hard pretzels, particularly those dry, flavorless, twig-like snacks handed out on airplanes and the like. Soft preztels, conversely, are a completely different beast. Warm and roll like, these breads have a distinctive crust and flavor. Since you’ve now purchased a large amount of food-grade lye for making bagels (right?), why not find another use for this non-traditional pantry ingredient. I’ve adapted this recipe from one on Fine Cooking.

Add to a stand mixer equipped with a dough hook:

  • 550g bread flour
  • 1.5 tsp instant yeast
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Mix the dry ingredients and then add:

  • 360 ml lukewarm water
  • 1 tablespoon oil

Mix the dough until smooth (3-5 minutes) and transfer to oiled bowl to rise until slightly less than doubled, 60-90 minutes.

Divide the dough into 8 pieces and form a ball. Cover with plastic wrap for 30 minutes, then shape the pretzel by rolling it into a rope curved into a U, wrapping the ends , and flipping the end over the curve. It’s easiest to watch a video to see how to do this.

Transfer pretzels to a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze for at least 2 hours (the uncooked pretzels can last for weeks in the freezer).

In a small bowl (big enough to fit a prezel but not much larger), mix:

  • 500 mL water
  • 40g lye microbeads

Wearing latex or nitrile gloves and ideally some sort of eye protection, use stainless steel tongs to dip each pretzel in the lye bath. It only needs to sit in the bath for about 5 seconds (or 5 seconds per side if the pretzel doesn’t submerge completely). Allow the lye to drip back into the bowl when you remove the pretzel, since this liquid is fairly concentrated and caustic. The pretzels should be transferred back to the baking sheet and given 1.5 to 2 hours to thaw and rise. They should appear puffy.

Sprinkle some coarse salt on the pretzels (e.g. kosher) and stack the baking sheet on a second sheet to limit scorching. Cook at 400 degrees for 20-22 minutes, rotating half way through, then cool on a rack for 15 or more minutes.

Some like their pretzels with mustard or dipped in cinnamon sugar. I liked them with a cheese dip. I sometimes enjoy them bagel style, sliced and adorned with cream cheese and salmon.

Lye Bagels

After becoming comfortable making bagels using a baking soda bath, I noticed several comments online that “real” bagels are made with lye. Of course I had to try this. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, a reasonable alkali that serves to help give bagels their characteristic crust and chewy texture. Lye is sodium hydroxide, a much stronger alkali, and a bit harder to find in food grade quality (though not that hard: Amazon has it).

The key is that you have to be a bit more careful. Lye can be quite caustic when concentrated, and most online resources recommend using protective equipment (at least gloves and some sort of eye protection). While the concentrations used for bagels are not as high as those used for pretzels, it’s best to play it safe.

So decked out in latex gloves and my largest pair of glasses, there I stood with an 0.8% lye solution boiling in a stainless steel pot on my stove (that’s 8g, or about one teaspoon, per liter of water). Following my usual recipe, I added the bagels for a minute, flipping them after 30 seconds. It probably ended up being a bit longer because of my efforts to be extra safe. The bagels developed a yellowish hue that they didn’t have after being boiled in baking soda.

I baked my usual 5 minutes at 500° F followed by 6 minutes at 450° F. As expected, the crust was considerably browner, due to the facilitation of the Maillard reaction by the lye. However, the bagels were also softer and end ended up quite chewy. I’m not sure how much was the lye vs a slightly higher dough hydration this time around. At this point, I’d say I prefer the baking soda version, but I plan to try the lye again in the future with a shorter boil and a longer cooking time.

No kneed bagels

I’ve become a big fan of no kneed dough, not because I have anything against needing, but because of the practicality of the approach for casual bread making. The emphasis on lack of kneeding is a bit misguided. The basic idea is that you prepare a relatively high hydration (ratio of water to flour) dough, use a small amount of yeast, and let the dough rest for an extended period of time to autolyse and let gluten develop.

My approach is to prep the dough the night before I need it and let it sit overnight at room temperature. My basic dough is:

250 g flour
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
175 mL water

The next day I shape the dough (I make 4 servings from this amount), let it rise 30-60 minutes, then bake.

I have used this approach for baguettes, pizza, and breakfast buns, but I wondered if the same approach would work for bagels. The answer is: sort of. I shaped the dough as best I could into a bagel shape (rolling it into a snake shape, then joining the ends), let it rest for 30 minutes, boiled for 1 minute per side, then baked at 500 degrees for 5 minutes and 450 for 6 minutes. The result was an ugly but passable bagel.

It lacked the chew and density of a regular bagel, likely because of the lower gluten content and higher hydration. However, it was certainly fresher and tastier than most bagel chains. I plan to stick with my conventional approach most of the time; but it is good to have this as a backup option.

Homemade bagels

For years, I assumed it would be next to impossible to make bagels at home. They seem like a specialized bread, and surely require some unusual equipment or extraordinary effort. It’s not like bagels are particularly expensive or hard to find. Why not just head over to the local shop and be done with it?

The problem is that bagel quality is variable. I don’t mind the local Bruegger’s when their bagels are really fresh, but it’s easy to end up with baker’s dozen that tastes like they were made the previous day. If, like me, you buy a dozen and freeze what you don’t eat, you’ll be stuck with mediocre bagels for a while.

It turns out making great bagels at home is not difficult, and a bit of effort guarantees high quality, fresh bagels. I adapted my current recipe from Peter Reinhart, who I have found fairly reliable for bread making.

This recipe makes 14 bagels.

Start by making a sponge. In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix:
500 g bread flour
12 g vital wheat gluten
1 teaspoon instant yeast

Add to this 560 g of lukewarm water and stir until all the flour is absorbed. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for about 2 hours. The mixture should appear to slowly bubble.

Mix about a tablespoon of non-diastatic malt powder in a tablespoon or two of boiling water to make a syrup and add this to the mixer bowl (if your powder hasn’t clumped, you can add this to the dry ingredients below, but I find this technique is easier).

In another large bowl mix:
1/2 teaspoon yeast
470 g bread flour
12 g vital wheat gluten
1 tablespoon salt

With the mixer running at the lowest speed using the dough hook attachment, slowly add in the flour mixture. Continue to mix until all the flour is absorbed then crank it up to kneeling speed (2 on my Kitchen Aid) and let it work for about 6 minutes. The dough will be a bit tough and smooth, and a bit tacky but not sticky or wet.

Take out the dough mass and form 14 balls of about 112g each. I like to stretch the outer surface to the bottom and roll the ball a bit on the counter so it’s smooth. Cover with a damp towel for 20 minutes or so.

To form the bagel shape, roll the ball into a snake shape about 8 inches long, trying to keep the thickness even throughout. Take the ends and loop the dough into a circle, overlapping the ends by about 2 inches. Pinch the ends together so the seams are closed, then stick 2-3 fingers in the middle of the bagel and roll the outer edge of the bagel against the counter to smoothen the exterior. Rotate the bagel as you go so the thickness is as even as possible.

Transfer the bagels to two baking sheets lined with parchment. I usually spray my parchment with cooking spray so the bagels don’t stick. Cover the bagels with plastic wrap. Let the bagels rest at room temperature for about 20 minutes then stick them in your refrigerator overnight.

The next morning, preheat the oven to 500° F and boil 3 L of water in a large pot. Add 1 tablespoon of baking soda to the pot.

Add the bagels to the pot for about two minutes each, flipping then halfway through. Don’t crowd them too much: in my large Dutch oven, I can fit four at a time. While the bagels are boiling, scatter some cornmeal on their spot on the parchment so they don’t stick when you put them back. I find a skimmer a useful tool to transfer the bagels from the water back to the parchment without traumatizing them too much.

If you want to top the bagels with, say, sesame seeds, the best time is soon after they have come out of the water. Scatter some seeds on a plate and put the bagel upside down onto the plate to pick up the seeds (just scattering these on top tends to make them not stick very well).

Bake the bagels for 5 minutes. Rotate and swap the trays then turn down the heat to 450° F and cook at least 5 minutes more until the bagels are as dark as you like. Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 10 minutes.

Speaking of Apple Pie

Better than Apple Pie Oatmeal is the real thing. Or so I thought until I tried this slight twist on the original. Cooks’ Illustrated Apple Cranberry Pie is a typical double crusted apple pie with a thin layer of cranberry jam beneath the apples. This provides a tartness that pairs particularly well with sweet, crisp apples like Honeycrisp. The pie itself is pretty easy as pies go. How easy? Why, it’s as easy as…never mind.

The key thing is planning. The biggest mistake I make with pie is starting too late. Unlike many foods, these are not best fresh out of the oven, but really should be allowed to cook to room temperature. This can take several hours. Fortunately, the pie dough, cranberry jam, and apple filling can all be prepared a day or two in advance and kept in the refrigerator until needed.

The combination that works best is the Cooks’ Illustrated Cranberry Apple Pie with their Foolproof Pie Dough. I suggest using only butter in the crust (instead of butter and shortening; yes, that means 20 tablespoons of butter) and using this rolling pin to ensure an even thickness.

A few pointers: I find I only have to microwave the apples for nine minutes, but judge based on how your apples look. Make sure not to slice the apples too thin: 1/4 inch is more generous than you might think. Err on the thicker side to avoid making an applesauce pie. Using a bit more sugar than suggested on top of the pie may also help to add a nice crunch (consider sanding sugar). Cinnamon sugar (e.g. A 1:4 ratio of cinnamon to sugar by volume) works well also.

Banana bread with a twist

I’ve been slowly accumulating overripe bananas in the freezer, waiting for an adequate supply (3) for banana bread. I have tried a bunch of recipes in the past, but none have been particularly memorable.

This weekend, I took this recipe (originally from Mark Bittman) for a spin, and it worked out great. The key is the addition of shredded coconut, which adds both flavor and texture. I also added 1/4 tsp of cinnamon for a bit more flavor.

Highly recommended if you’re looking for a new take on banana bread.

It’s always hard to be sure when these kind of breads are done. I cook to an internal temperature of about 200 °F.

Peach galette

Summer fruits are great for transforming into desserts. One of my favorite new discoveries is galette, which is essentially a simple rustic tart. They are easy to make, and go great with a range of fruits. Peaches seem bountiful these days, so I whipped up a peach galette.

Start by making your favorite pie dough. I like the Cooks Illustrated foolproof pie dough.  When ready to roll out, preheat the oven to 350°F and grab a mixing bowl and combine:

  • about a pound (450g) of sliced peaches
  • 1 tablespoon starch (cornstarch or tapioca)
  • 50g of sugar

Roll the pie dough out to 12 inches and move to a parchment-covered baking sheet. Spread out the peaches in the center, mounding slightly in the middle. Leave a 2-3 inch rim of crust around the perimeter. Fold up the perimeter and make securely patch any breaks in the crust. Brush with a beaten egg and sprinkle sugar over the exposed crust.

It will be done in after about an hour in the oven. Let it cool completely (ideally 2+ hours) before digging in, since the filling needs to set.

Overnight No-Kneed Breakfast Rolls

There’s a local bakery chain in Boston called Flour. One of my favorite items is their breakfast sandwiches. Going out for breakfast, however, is a challenge when you don’t live close to said bakery and you have two young children.

I’ve long sought to replicate the experience at home. Fortunately, my recent experiences with pizza dough have made it much easier to reproduce these treats. I’ll go through the fillings in a subsequent post, but the rolls are dead simple to make. You’ll need a pizza peel (or the back of a baking sheet), parchment paper, and a baking stone in your oven. If you don’t have a baking stone, you can probably get away with just cook these on a baking sheet, but you may have to cook them a bit longer.

This recipe makes 4 rolls, but feel free to scale up or down as needed.

The night before you intend to eat these, mix the following ingredients in a bowl (choose one big enough to allow room for more than doubling):

  • 280g bread flour (I like Caputo 00, but you can use whatever is convenient; even AP will do in a pinch)
  • 1/4 tsp instant yeast
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 196g room temperature water

Mix the dry ingredients together then add in the water. With a spoon, stir the mixture until all the flour is absorbed, but you don’t have to kneed the dough. The gluten will develop on its own. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature overnight.

Preparing for tomorrow's breakfast with @asciirun

The next morning, place a piece of parchment paper on a pizza peel (the back of an overturned baking sheet will do if you don’t have one). Brush the surface with a thin coating of olive oil. Preheat your oven to 375 °F, turning on convection if you have it. If you have a baking stone or baking steel (I use the latter), make sure you give your oven adequate time to warm up (at least 30 minutes).

Turn out the dough onto a floured countertop and divide into four equal portions. The dough will be wet, so leave some extra flour around to dust the dough as needed. Fold each piece down while rotating it in your hands so the dough forms a ball with the folds connecting at the bottom. You should be able to accomplish this with about four quarter-turns of the dough. The idea is you want the out surface of the dough to be stretched to help the dough ball keep its shape.

As you finish each roll, place it on the parchment paper. When you are done, brush each lightly with olive oil. For a sweet version (my son loves these), you can then take some of these rolls and toss them gently in a bowl with cinnamon sugar (e.g. 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 4 teaspoons sugar, mixed well) before returning to the parchment.

Breakfast buns before...

Use the peel to shuttle the parchment paper onto the baking stone/steel and cook for 15 minutes. The internal temperature should be above 200° F. Let the rolls cool on a baking rack, ideally for around 30 minutes, though I’ve been known to be impatient.

Cut the rolls in half horizontally and make a sandwich of your choosing (e.g. egg, tomato, bacon). The cinnamon sugar version is great with cream cheese.