Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Cracking the code for perfect multi-grain bread

Fulfilling my desire for fresh, moist, chewy, multigrain bread with a good crust has not been easy these past 6 years. My efforts have been thwarted by multiple limitations in our local reality. Even though Niterói is a pretty big city (about 500,000 people) and we sit just across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, the variety of fresh breads found in local bakeries is pretty limited. None of the bakeries near me are making anything like what I have in mind.

The typical Brazilian so-called French style “pãozinho” (little bread) and its cousin the longer baguette are wonderful if you like pure white flour, super light and airy interiors with a thin, delicate outer crust. Many bakeries do an outstanding job of making these little, delicately crusted, bread clouds – and they are very popular.  Forgive me if I prefer a heartier, whole wheat chew in my bread. And when I desire white flour bread I prefer it more Italian-style with a firm texture and a thick, almost burnt crust.

Finding satisfying bread has been a bit of a conundrum.

Back in the early 1980s I lived in a hip(py) vegetarian housing co-op in Lansing, Michigan. We made all our own bread (and yogurt, and tempeh, and granola). So I am no stranger to making bread. I understand that bread dough is alive and must be kept that way, treated with kindness, until placed in the oven. Unlike the precise chemistry in cake baking, I know there is some room to play with the proportions of ingredients in breads, and that gluten is generally your friend (apologies to those who are intolerant).

Just after college, during that year of wondering what came next, I worked the night shift in a family-owned Italian bakery. We made hundreds of dozens of dinner rolls, baguettes, various loaves and various specialty breads nightly.

These are the experiences, both personal and professional, that I have brought to my task of unlocking the secrets of successfully making bread in my home here in Brazil.

Bread making with locally available ingredients and in my little Easy-Bake Oven, however, has been a journey.

In my experience, the obstacles to success pretty much come down to two things: the flour here has a low protein count (which means it is low in gluten) and a typical, basic, household oven cannot muster up the necessary heat to get a good crusty crust. But I have finally overcome these obstacles and am sharing my “solutions” in this post.

A note on my oven: we have your basic stove appliance found all over the country in typical homes. It heats with gas and sells for about R$600. It is a four burner, so some would see it as an “apartment” size stove and strive for a 5 or 6 burner model for larger families. But in reality, most families are stone broke, so this is about as much stove as they can afford.

Here's my oven, with some dough put to rise. Note I use a hang-on thermometer. The oven dial does not include temperature markings (not that I would trust them anyway).

As is true with so many things here, while it may not be fancy, it does the job. Well, in this case, the job of boiling or frying on the stovetop. But it just doesn't get hot enough in the oven to make things like a toasted, blistered pizza crust or a crispy bread loaf. There are definitely more robust options on the market, but they tend to be much larger in size (thus not fitting in our kitchen) and have larger price tags (thus not fitting in our budget). As it stands, I am set on developing strategies for making our oven work rather than living beyond our means.

Join me down here in regular people Brazil-land for some tips on getting a decent sandwich loaf of multi-grain wheat bread from your run of the mill oven. I think I have worked it out.

So the two things I want in my breads (correlated to the above mentioned obstacles) is a good texture/shape and a crispy crust.

The way I have worked out the crispy crust thing is to (wait for it) just let it go. It’s not gonna happen. I can force a hard baked crust, but only by over cooking the loaf. I've tried splashing water into an iron pan pre-heated on the bottom of the oven when putting the bread in. But the steam it creates that is supposed to moisten and then crisp the crust just manages to extinguish the oven flame and cut the heat altogether. Spritzing water onto the surface of the loaf to coax a crust just produces a soggy mess that eventually cooks, but never crusts. The oven is never hot enough. Ah well – I’m just letting go… no homemade crispy crust bread out of my oven. Sigh. Moving on…

I have figured out the whole texture and “structural integrity” thing; the gluten problem. The texture of my multi-grain bread rocks!

After some serious searching, plus the repeated education of a local natural foods store manager encouraging him to sell gluten, I can now buy “farinha de gluten” (gluten flour, or ‘vital gluten’) to then add to my locally available flours to increase the gluten content sufficient to create the texture I need. I have never seen so-called “bread flour” on the shelves here at grocery stores.

There is a nearby Italian bakery/sandwich/dessert shop that sells imported “type 00” flour, which is essentially bread flour with a higher protein content – perfect for pizza dough – but it is a bit expensive. If you can find this imported “type 00” flour in your area, it is a solution in and of itself if you are just using it (with little to no whole wheat or other flours added).

So to make that perfect loaf here’s what you do. First, get your hands on farinha de gluten (not “farinha com gluten” that is just regular flour with a kick of gluten added - not the same). You will be adding about 5 – 6 teaspoons of gluten to the flour of each loaf (4 teaspoons if you’re just using white flour). Second, and just as important, is to add an “autolyse” step into your mixing process.

An autolyse (in bread making) refers to a resting period just after the initial mixing of water and flour (and in our case the added gluten) that gives the mixture time to hydrate. This step ramps up the development of gluten (which depends on water) as well as allows time for the flours to “self-digest” (break down a bit), making the whole-grain dough less tacky to work with and ultimately light and chewy rather than tough.

The solution is in the biology and chemistry. Yay science!

Enough already – here is the recipe.

Multi-grain Sandwich Bread
This recipe is a modified version of one perfected by the cooks/food scientists over at Cooks Illustrated. It was by reading their materials that I learned about the value of an autolyse process, for which I am grateful.

Makes one large loaf. Feel free to double the recipe – I cut the original recipe in half because Luiz and I rarely have use for two large loaves at any one time.

¾ cup (150 g) multi-grain mix (explained below)
1 cup (200 ml) warm water
1 ½ cups (225 g) white flour
¾ cup (100 g) whole wheat flour
5 teaspoons gluten (vital gluten or trigo de gluten)
3 Tablespoons molasses (melaço or “melado”) or honey (mel)
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (or you can use canola or soy oil)
2 teaspoons (5 g) active dry yeast (fermento biológico seco instantâneo)
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup seeds, like sunflower or sesame (optional)


To make the multi-grain mix I use a couple of tablespoons each: pearled barley (cevada, or “cevadinha”), wheat berries (trigo em grão), whole oats (aveia) and bulgur/cracked wheat (trigo para kibe). You can use whatever grains you like. (If I could find them I would use soy grits and buckwheat groats rather than the barley and cracked wheat. But I have not seen these here.) Boil the wheat berries and barley for about 35 minutes, or until tender. Then add the oats for a couple minutes, then the cracked wheat. Remove from heat and let it sit a few minutes. It should be a cooked but chewy mix. Measure out your ¾ cup portion. Eat the rest with yogurt and a banana for breakfast. J

Place the prepared grain mix, water, sweetener and oil in the mixing bowl of your Kitchen Aid [I hope you have one. Or any strong stand mixer. Luckily I brought my 25 year old workhorse from the States. Without a machine to help you, prepare to knead by hand a good 15 minutes or longer. Longer kneading is also part of the success.]. Be sure it is not too hot. Then stir in the yeast and let sit for 5 – 8 minutes until the awakened yeast is foamy.

Meanwhile, sift together your flours and gluten. Feel free to experiment with other tasty flours you have been missing since you moved here. Do NOT add the salt just yet. It retards the yeast, so we will add it later.

When the wet mixture is nice an foamy, using the dough hook, slowly mix in the flour mixture. Mix it up until well combined, about 2 minutes, but don’t lean in to the kneading process. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap (I just wrap a tea towel around the stand mixer) and let it sit for 20 minutes. This is the autolyse step I described earlier. Don’t rush this. Let it do its magic.

Now add the salt and knead on medium speed until the still-wet dough clears the sides of the bowl, about 4 minutes. You will surely need to add more flour to help stiffen the dough, but don’t go crazy. I like to keep the dough a little more sticky than seems intuitive. But you may find yourself adding a bunch of flour (a little at a time). Just go for it and try not to overdo it.

When the dough seems about right (still sticky looking) continue to knead for 5 more minutes. Depending on the random turning motion of your dough ball in the mixer you may want to stop and rearrange the dough a couple of times just to be sure you are getting a thorough kneading. Add a bit more flour as needed (so to speak).

Once everything is perfect, transfer the dough to a floured surface and carefully knead in the seeds. Remember the dough is still alive and relying on you to treat it with care until you place it into the oven. Do not force yourself on it, tearing up the dough. Be gentle, but firm.

Form the dough into a taut ball and place it into a large slightly oiled bowl. Cover lightly and allow to rise, away from any drafts, until doubled in size; about an hour.

Go do other stuff: make the bed, check your Facebook, do the laundry, lay in a hammock and listen to Yo-Yo Ma on your iPod, whatever… Good bread takes time.

Adjust your oven rack to the middle position. Heat oven to 375 degrees F (180 C). If you are using a bread pan, grease it slightly. If you are going for the country-style big round loaf I suggest you put a pizza stone or a super large clay pot into the oven and preheat it along with the oven itself. The stone/clay helpers MUST be preheated. Do not pre-soak the clay pot as you might have read in regards to other recipes. That’s a different thing. Here we are using the pot to not just help create a dry crisp bottom on the loaf, but also to help preserve the heat in the oven when you open it to put the loaf in. Every degree counts!

If you are going with the big clay pot, prepare a large sheet of parchment (papel manteiga) on a cooking tray, dusted with cornmeal (fuba). Set aside. No need for the parchment if you are using a flat pizza stone. Just dust a pan to rest the dough on to rise.

Transfer your risen dough to a lightly floured surface and punch it down (gently). If you are going with the loaf pan, fold it over itself (in thirds) and pat it into a rectangle suitable in size to fit into the pan.  (At this point you can also roll the dough in oats for that all-over oats look. But I find the oats I get are too tough.) Gently place it into the pan, cover lightly and let it rise again until almost doubled, maybe 30+ minutes.

For the round loaf gently fold the dough over and then shape it into a ball, tucking the sides under and pressing up into the center. Pull into a firm ball but take care not to rip the dough. Place the ball onto the center of the prepared, dusted parchment paper. Cover and let rise until almost doubled.

This second rising is critical, but you also do not want to “over proof” the dough, so even though you may get hypnotized by the magic of your rising loaf, don’t let it rise for an hour or longer. It will reach for the sky, but also probably over reach and then collapse when you handle it or when it gets placed into the oven. You want height AND firm structural integrity. It should be big, but not squishy - puffy - fragile.

Now either place your pan into the oven or carefully transfer your dough onto the pizza stone, or gently lift your parchment carpet with even tension and place it into the preheated clay pot – quickly placing it in the oven. Keep that Easy-Bake Oven door closed as much as possible so as not to lose valuable heat.

Bake until internal temperature registers 200 degrees F (about 95 C), about 30 - 40 minutes. You should have a nice brown crust. Do not over bake. Longer might get you a darker crust, but it will also get you a thicker crust and a dryer loaf. Remove from pan/pot and cool on a wire rack before slicing.

This bread has such terrific texture you can slice really thin slices and it holds together nicely.

It works for me. Let me know how it goes for you. Your advice and tips are appreciated.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Trindade - the way it was before

The secret to traveling in Brazil is to get to these bars before they put in a floor, walls and air conditioning!

Brazil is changing year after year. Some say for the better; some say otherwise. As travelers throughout Brazil, Luiz and I have seen a lot of “evolution” at the natural places we love to visit. What I have witnessed over the past 15 years, in terms of the development of previously rural or sparsely populated coastal areas, is a fraction of the changes Luiz has seen since his early adventures as a teenager. He and his friends were frequent campers on beaches and in tiny towns long before comfortable pousadas appeared on the scene.

Sorry Cabo Frio. Not my favorite beachfront view.

Sometimes the “progress” is stark and ugly. I think it is safe to say that Cabo Frio is a fail, having lurched blindly into the fast lane of tourism development. While the beach has stayed clean and the water remains spectacularly clear and crystal blue, you need only look behind you to the burgeoning little city and its wincingly soulless, crowded and chaotic beach-town tourist lowest-common-denominator “development.” Hint: if you want to visit the beautiful sea near Cabo Frio (without doing the whole European upscale thing of Buzios) set your sights on neighboring Arraial do Cabo.

Arraial do Cabo: still a small town - with lots of beaches, and just a cab ride from Cabo Frio.

This post, however, is meant to focus on the success story (so far) that is Trindade.

Luiz and I have been to Trindade in the past. You can learn more about our first visit (and see photos of a very fat Jim) here. At that time we enjoyed a small coastal hippie town that was slowly morphing before everyone’s eyes into a burgeoning (on a tiny scale) coastal getaway for the Paulistas escaping their urban zoo for a weekend. We felt lucky to have been there before it was totally overrun.

During our first visit to Trindade we loved the fact that the tiny, winding access road that enters the village literally traverses a stone waterfall/spillway where the forest meets the sea. No bridge, just a shallow stream of water easily driven through. This bit remains exactly the same.

That wonderful lunch from years ago.

It was our birthdays when we first visited (as it was, again, this second time around) and we ate a spectacularly generous and delicious seafood pasta in a clay pot lunch at a beachside restaurant. I remember thinking at the time that the restaurant was clearly a “temporary-turned permanent” type of structure plopped down on the sand just out of reach of the tide. It was convenient and had great views/ambiance, but it was also an eyesore on an otherwise pristine tiny beach in a natural area. There were several such invasive restaurants lining the shore.

This past May we revisited Trindade on a day trip down from a beach house retreat just outside of Angra dos Reis. It was our birthdays and we were spending a long week touching base with some of our favorite local gems: Ilha Grande, Paraty, Angra do Reis and Trindade.

I had my heart set on a return visit to the restaurant for that amazing seafood pasta.

Imagine my surprise (and heartwarming delight) when we hiked out to the little beach and found it totally bare of any built structures. None. Nothing. Just a woman selling cold beverages from a cooler – and a beautiful natural beach!

Could it be? Is it possible? Could IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) actually be enforcing environmental laws? Did IBAMA actually kick squatters (even delicious seafood pasta making ones) off of environmentally sensitive national forest land? According to the itinerant cold drinks saleswoman that is exactly what happened.

No buildings... yay.

I am standing where the restaurant used to be.

Cue swelling music. Yay! Thank you IBAMA. Thank you Brazil. Yay!!
The beach at Trindade (one of them, there are many) the way it was 20 years ago! Go visit. Go see for yourself.

Looking up from the water - Luiz is where the restaurants used to be. There are small traces of cement floors still in the sand.

Now if we could just put a limit on how many Paulistas can override the place on a holiday weekend. But hey… I don’t blame them. It is a beautiful place.

I love this shot of the bus stop at the edge of town.

And speaking of beautiful getaways that remain natural - don't forget the Juatinga Ecological Reserve that is located along the coast between Trindade and Paraty. We have had some great times there too.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Did I miss the memo?

Living abroad means that sometimes you just don’t get the memo. In the beginning I was ever-vigilant about things like what time to actually show up when invited for lunch at 12:30, or how best to befriend your new housekeeper, communicating respect, without totally freaking her out with your openness, or who to kiss hello and goodbye (including your dentist or cardiologist) and with how many slightly audible smacks.

I got the memo in advance about what to take to the beach (i.e. not a big towel, nor nearly anything else for that matter). My husband keeps slipping me the memo about flattery working better than sternness every time I get frustrated with a bank manager. And my mother-in-law has not given up trying to get me to read the memo about the omnipotence of the Brazilian family matriarch.

If you are no longer a teenager... wear the Speedo. [These boys look like they need some sunscreen as well!]

It didn't take long after I starting living here before I had to decide on which futebol team would be “my team.” Or better put, which team “was I?” According to the memo, here in Brazil people are not asking you which team you root for, they want to know which team you are. If you are asked: “What is your favorite futebol team?” the right answer begins with: “I am….” Nowadays my response is “Eu sou Flamengo.” “I am Flamengo.” Got it.

And speaking of futebol, there were a whole bunch of memos that must have gone out just before the World Cup started. Some I got, like the one that said to wear green and yellow on all game days. Everyone (EVERYONE), in any context, seems to have gotten that memo.

Several of my students slipped me the memo that said all bets are off regarding scheduled appointments or classes on game days for Brazil. Plus in Rio – if there is ANY game happening at Maracanã stadium, chances are businesses are closed (city government offices are certainly closed) or appointments are cancelled to avoid the craziness on the streets.

The one I didn't get (but should have anticipated) is the one that apparently told most workers that even though their boss will call them in for half a day on game days, letting them go a few hours before match time, they really don’t have to actually get any work done. So any attempt by unfamiliar gringos like me to, say, do some banking, or get a phone company issue resolved, or speak with a representative from the health insurance company --- forgeddaboutit.

OK, that’s fine. It's all good. Now I know. I’m not in a hurry anyway… For all intents and purposes, business in Brazil resumes in mid-July, after the World Cup has come to a (hopefully glorious) conclusion. Got the memo.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Finding fresh heart of palm

Hearts of palm. Yum. I love those little babies. I love them in a clean fresh salad. They are super yummy roasted. Pasteis de Palmito are to die for. Palmitos – just plain yum.

When I first moved here I was excited by the idea of moving so close to the source of this delicious harvest. Palm trees. Brazil has a gazillion palm trees. Heart of palm should be a cheap and abundant yummy treat, right? Uh, yeah, not so much.

Turns out that Brazil was one of the biggest “producers” of palm hearts until the 1990s when the “farmers” realized that they had chopped away at most of the wild supply of suitable palm trees and their supply was dropping precipitously. At that point they had to get into the business of actually farming the plant and managing their harvests. So supply dropped for a while.

My purchase. I had the guy machete the edible center out of the outer layers.

Not all of the freelance palm poachers took to farming. Maybe they are out there snatching up wild açai or illegal song birds, or something. But those that did make the switch have seen things get off to a (normal) slow start. So prices are not so low. Plus, they export the really good stuff. So those of us actually living in palm tree heaven wind up paying a little more for a lesser quality product. Ah Brazil. You sure know how to break a guy’s heart. (Real heart, not the palm heart.)

Once cut out the center oxidizes quickly. Gotta get it into water.

At any rate, I saw a vendor at the street market today selling fresh palm hearts, still in the protective outer layers of non-edible palm-ness. Excited to see it so fresh, and reasonably priced, I bought a stalk.
I paid R$10 for what resulted in about 420 grams of yummy edibleness. That compares to a 300g jar sold for R$9. I saved a little more than R$2, relatively speaking. That 300g jar in the States goes for about US$4.25.

Stop. Stop right there. I see you US Americans doing the conversion in your head and saying to yourself: “So, hmmm, R$9 a jar there is just about the same as R$4.25 a jar here. Not bad…”  NOPE. It doesn't work that way. First, I am not a tourist at my grocery store spending my US earned US dollars on a product priced in Brazilian reais. If I earn my $$ in reais, I spend it in reais. So my R$9 is R$9. Then you have to consider that wages here are generally speaking half of what they are in the States for similar work (worse, most often, but let’s not squabble). So in reality that yummy looking little jar of lesser quality domestic brand hearts of palm is costing me, in very real terms (so to speak), a lot more than you in the States are buying it for.  Bummer. So much for moving to Brazil to get a deal on palm hearts.

How it should look after roasting. Yum.

Ah well. Big deal. The point is – it is yummy! And I got a big piece of it for a good deal today at my local street fruit and veggies market. My plan is to chop up half of it for a salad (and to just munch) – and to oil, salt, pepper, wrap in foil and roast the other half and have it with my dinner.

It was a good day at the market – and tangerines are in season too!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Brazil and the double edge sword that is the World Cup

I love this logo.

The Expat Blog Police just sent me a final notice. They are going to take away my membership card if I don’t post about the World Cup coming to Brazil.

Everyone has done it. Some bloggers have posted wicked (good and bad) critiques of FIFA and Brazilian politicians who are milking taxpayers for money they don’t have to line their pockets in the name of futebol. Other bloggers have tried to stay positive and posted videos and news bits about players, teams and home town pride in the lead up to the contest. One big theme has been the massive public response in Brazil against the wasteful spending on soon-to-be white elephant mega stadiums (some built in cities that don’t even have a home futebol team!) at the expense of improvements in healthcare, education, urban development and other proper priorities.

My commitment to myself here at Qualidade de Vida has been to keep it positive. Living abroad, living in Brazil, struggling to learn a new language and to adapt to new cultural norms – it’s not an easy road. While there are a ton of really fun and cool things that come your way, there are also some pretty challenging realities that wear on you. The internet machine is full of very vocal people griping about how crappy their life has become since they moved to Brazil and had to turn in their minivan and their dream of a GE Profile PFE29PSDSS refrigerator that automatically fills your water glass without spilling. Truth be told, there are some realities in Brazil worth griping about. But that makes for a lousy blog post, in my opinion.

If you know me you know that I am not a futebol fan. I don’t know the rules of soccer. I have never watched a basket ball game through in its entirety. The gratuitous violence in so many hockey games turns me off. The cultural grip American football has over the social construction of masculinity in the United States makes me sad. Sports have never been my thing. But hey, I get it that others go bonkers over this stuff. It’s all good. Go for it. But please don’t be stupid.

It seemed to me that the World Cup coming to Brazil was potentially a really good thing. Brazilians live and breathe futebol in such an all-consuming way that is difficult (perhaps impossible) to imagine if you don’t live here. This was an opportunity to put that passion on a world stage and really shine. It was an opportunity for Brazilians, the vast majority of whom have relatively little to nothing in terms of daily comforts, to focus on national pride and escape the hardships of their normal waking hours. Somewhere in here was an opportunity to leverage preparation spending to benefit locals in the long run.

But the World Cup is actually a big business venture. Oh yeah, they have international sports heroes play some games and all, but at the end of the day the event – the actual nuts and bolts of the event – is a venture capitalist’s wet dream. And the politicians that get to play with other people’s money? Well they are like pigs in slop. The television networks will make their money. Coca-cola, Budweiser and Visa will reinforce their brand to their followers. And large developers will make a killing on slip shod building projects that shine in the short term and then sit to decay when the cameras shut off.

Are we surprised? Is this unique to Brazil? Sadly no. FIFA has been leaving messes like this in their wake for a generation. The Olympic Committee comes to mind as another culprit of capitalizing on the public’s need to escape our daily drudgery if only for a short while. The Super Bowl folks in the States play this game, selling struggling communities the “privilege” to wave tax policies and local environmental ordinances to build unnecessary stadiums with money they don’t have on the promise of future glory which never comes… blah, blah, blah.

For me the good news is that this kind of corporate greed and political malfeasance is so in your face that the public gets awakened from their sleep and digs in for a chance to speak their mind. The communities displaced by developers making papier mâché facilities stand up and demand to be heard. Tax payers who may typically let a little corruption with public funds go unanswered suddenly say “enough.” A population is reminded who is supposed to be in charge and asserts itself to reestablish that order. Sometimes there is progress. Often times not. But at least people come alive for a short while and new activists are born.

Brazilians all across the country have been speaking up to say “enough.” There is a long political tradition here, like in so many developing countries and elsewhere, of deeply entrenched corruption.  It is endemic in the worst way. The population has largely been beaten into submission and share a feeling of hopelessness when it comes to politicians actually doing anything honest or truly good for the people – without also stealing a boat load of money in the process. But there is also a strong tradition of rebellion. Brazilians are fighters. Don’t forget it was just 30 years ago, in 1984, that widespread, organized, public pressure resulted in the brutal dictatorial government of Brazil surrendering to a popularly installed democratic administration. The taste of people power still lingers in the mouths of many present day citizens.

"Our heroes are teachers, not futebol players."

The current repulsive examples of corrupt politicians, greedy investors, entitled corporations and crony media networks has once again awakened a sleeping giant in Brazil. Students, urban residents, parents, religious leaders, artists, native peoples, labor unions… you name it. Look around – folks are pissed. Some say we are in for another round of people power that will result in real, lasting and proper changes for the better. Others just sigh and try to go back to sleep. We’ll see…

But the World Cup is coming. Billions have been spent. Sports broadcasters from around the globe are settling in for a fun ride. Fans are hoping for the best. And Brazilians still stand among the most enthusiastic fans once their team takes to the field. Politicians be damned – let’s play some futebol!