Sunday, March 7, 2010

Dumbo the Accidental Baker - #5: The Eventual Successes

I'm still not 100% sure how I suddenly crossed over from the previous failures to the first success, but suffice to say, it happened. :-)


The recipe I have been using since the very beginning, which I am still using now, is a very simple one, which I adapted from a recipe for Simple English Muffins. You can find the recipe at the end of this post. But the dough for the following series of photos in this post were made with a proportionately reduced amount of ingredients, that is, only two-third cup of water, two cups of flour, and so on.

First, it started as a small, unimpressive lump of dough.

About twenty or twenty-five minutes later:

Punched down and added with slightly toasted chunks of walnuts (love them). Knead in the walnuts to evenly distribute them.

I used (and am still using) 4-inch-by-8-inch loaf pan(s). I wish I could find stainless steel ones, but the only ones available are either aluminum (suspected of causing Alzheimer's disease) or non-stick Teflon (when heated above 245°C - around there; my memory is not very precise - it emits chemical fumes that are carcinogenic). So, between the risks of Alzheimer's and cancers, I decided it is worse to lose one's faculty than health. :-)

Those blackish things are poppy seeds... there was no particular reason (neither from the standpoint of taste nor aesthetics) to add them except that I happened to have some, and I do not know how else to use them. Though I have heard it said that they have very mild tranquilizing property.

Let it rise for about half an hour to at least double the original size (while waiting, preheat the oven to 180°C to 185°C):

Bake at 180°C to 185°C for 15 to 18 minutes, and immediately remove from oven to cool:

Preferably on a rack or whatever that allows good ventilation (but do not blow with fan; it will dry up the bread):

The result? Soft (not the kind of fluffy-soft that has no substance; but firmly soft, if you know what I mean) and moist and absolutely delicious bread!


With one success under my belt, it was before long that I made a second attempt, this time, with slightly different addition: pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, with black and white sesames as the decorative topping.

For some mysterious reasons (one of which I think I finally understood some time later), this second time around, the dough did not rise quite as much as the first success; nevertheless, it rose enough to give me another loaf of soft, moist, delicious multi-seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, and two types of sesame) bread:



After the first two successes, I actually failed another couple of times, and at that time, I was totally clueless as to why I couldn't not succeed every time. One of the reasons might be moisture control: how much additional flour to add if you find your dough too sticky? Another might be how much gluten you want to induce in your dough by kneading (that is, how long do you knead)?

Anyhow, success was not totally elusive after than, and I managed another near-perfect loaf several attempts later:

And now, I think I have discovered the most important reason for the inconsistency of my success: yeast.

I had bought a large pack of dry instant yeast, because I couldn't find those individually sachet-packed varieties. And for a time, I did not know that I need to store the yeast in the refrigerator. The result? The yeast loses its "potency" over time, and that affects how well my doughs can rise.

Then I discovered a way to ensure that I do not waste my flour on weak yeast: let it sit in warm sugared water for a quarter of an hour first to see if it rise. :-)


If you are interested in making your own bread, try the following recipe and instructions:

Water - 1 cup --> warm (test with finger: should be good for bathing on a slightly cold day)
Flour - 3 cups --> I usually use 2 1/2 cups of high-protein flour plus 1/2 cup wholemeal flour
Yeast - 1 tablespoonful or 1 sachet (11g)
Sugar - 3 tablespoonful
Salt - 1 teaspoonful
Oil - 2 tablespoonful --> I usually use extra-virgin olive oil, but any vegetable oil would do

1) Prepare some warm water. Make it just nice for a bath on a slightly cold day.
2) Pour 1 cup of the said warm water into a large mixing bowl (I used an 8 1/2-inch earthen pot with rounded bottom edge)
3) Add yeast and sugar and salt. Stir to mix well. Let the mixture sit for about 15 minutes. If a thick layer of foam forms on top of the mixture, proceed to the next step; if not, start all over.
4) Stir in one cup of high-protein flour. Mix well, but there's no need to make the batter really smooth. Tiny lumps are acceptable. Let the mixture sit for about 15 minutes. If it becomes all foamy and bubbly, then proceed to the next step; if not, start all over or just give up for the day. :-)
5) Stir in the rest of the flour (including the wholemeal flour, if you use any) and knead it into a soft, pliable dough. I usually knead it with a fold-and-flatten action, using only one hand (because I knead it inside the said earthen pot, which doesn't have room for both my hands to work inside). Knead it until the texture is consistent (well-mixed) and soft (like your earlobe), and in terms of stickiness, like the adhesive on Post-It notes. :-) If it is totally "non-stick", it might be too dry.
6) Roll the dough into a ball, slightly oil it and the container (I use back the same earthen pot) you want it to sit in (while proofing), and let it proof for about twenty to twenty-five minutes. It should enlarge to at least twice the original size. If not, something is wrong with it; you may go ahead with it, but success is much less assured. :-) While you are proofing the dough, slightly oil the baking pan(s) you are going to use.
7) Punch down the "inflated" dough, knead it a bit more if you want, then form it into whatever shape you need it to be (I use 4-by-8 baking pans, so I need to make it longish).
8) Place your properly-shaped dough(s) into the properly-oiled pan(s), and let sit for about half an hour, or until the dough(s) doubled in size. While waiting, pre-heat the oven to 180°C to 185°C.
9) Put the properly-proofed dough(s) into the pre-heated oven and bake for 15 to 18 minutes. If your oven comes with top heating element and bottom heating element, start with both heating elements on; after about 8 to 10 minutes, when you perceive that the top of your bread is starting to brown, switch off the top heating element to avoid charring the top of your bread.
10) After the preset amount of baking time, remove the bread immediately from the oven to cool on a rack (leaving it in the oven, which is still hot, will over-bake the bread). Only store it in a container after it has completely cooled down. Or, enjoy it while it is fresh and hot from the oven. :-)

Good luck trying. :-)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

My New Toy and Her Wedding Anniversary Present

For my birthday last year, my wife bought me an easel, and I painted her a picture of how I envision us growing old together.

This year, my new toy is a Schmincke watercolor box set (the cake type - which I have been thinking of getting for sometime - not the tube type).

It costs RM 180 (12 colors, graded as "finest artist's watercolor"), which is quite expensive; but if you think about it, it would actually be a saving in the long run, because with tubes, you are more likely to squeeze out more paint than you would actually need, whereas with watercolor cakes, you only lift off as much as you need with your brush. Although this is quite a bother if you are making a large pool of paint for background painting, but I still have my tubes for that purpose, so, for painting small areas, this is more effective in preventing wastage.

This "new toy" actually sat on my desk for quite a while before I actually started using it. I decided to use it - for the first time - to paint another picture as this year's anniversary gift to my wife (although it was already six days past our anniversary - I was too busy with work the week before to sit down for a few hours to paint a picture).

I decided to do her portrait this time. The inspiration came from a sketch I did of her during an outdoor sketching trip we took with a friend who was visiting us in Penang at that time. My friend (one of my "artsy" friends) and I were the ones doing the sketching, while she (not interested in sketching or painting) was just accompanying us. She was reading a book (I forgot what book; perhaps "Le Petit Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) when we were sketching some plants growing along a small creek. I turned to see her looking very serene as she immerse herself in her reading, and I was touched by what I saw, so I quickly made a sketch of her.

Her hair has grown long since, so I modified her look as below, and I added a verse from Songs of Solomon, chapter 6, verse 9: "My dove, my undefiled is but one; she is the only one of her mother, she is the choice one of her that bare her. The daughters saw her, and blessed her; yea, the queens and the concubines, and they praised her." (note: my wife is the only daughter of her parents, the only "flower" among the other FIVE "thorns", that is, sons.)

I was quite happy with the sketch, but alas, I spoiled it when I was painting the background. For one thing, I should have used the Series D cadmium yellow (the best grade among those of the same brand, tube-type) instead of the Series B yellow, and for another, I should not have added in the green, which failed to blend in with the yellow as I intended (perhaps the paper was not wet enough). I had to discard this (and I used it later to try out color mixtures).

My second attempt was not as good in terms of the sketching, and now in retrospect I am glad that I spoiled that one too. What happened was that while trying to wet the face for a wet-on-wet effect, I had accidentally used the brush that I had used earlier in the first attempt for the green in the background (and I had failed to wash it thoroughly after that). It gave the face an eerie green undertone, and I had to discard this second attempt as well (I also used it later to test my color mixtures, as you can clearly see below).

Having learned painful lessons from the previous two attempts, the third attempt went without much glitch. Praise the LORD.

Of the entire picture, only the face was done with wet-on-wet technique. The rest was wet-on-dry. In this updated version of "the serene reader", I depicted her as reading the Bible.

The picture below shows all the tools used in producing this painting:

- Watercolor block (can't remember the grade, but definitely more than 135 g/m2)
- a 2B pencil and a small chunk of eraser (how stingy I'm getting)
- Rowney's Series D Cadmium Yellow (for the background)
- Schmincke watercolor cakes (I used "cadmium red light", "permanent carmine", "yellow ochre", and "ivory black" - plus surplus yellow from the background - in various mixtures to produce the skin tones, the lip color (which is later darkened and used on the blouse, and then further darkened and used to write the bigger text and my signature), the hair color (also used on the cover of the Bible and for writing the smaller text and the date)
- two nylon brushes of different sizes (too lazy to get up now to go find out the actual sizes; let's just call them "small" and "medium") for the smaller areas and for writing
- one broad nylon brush for the background and the hair and the blouse and the Bible cover
- masking liquid (applied with a fine brush) for the words "圣经" (Holy Bible) on the cover and for the white edge of the Bible pages

Strictly speaking, you don't need many things for painting a picture.

Oh, I almost forgot: I also used two containers (the bottom halves of two 1.5L mineral water bottles) of filtered tap water. These I forgot to include in the picture below.

Having claimed how simple painting can be, I must confess that I have not painted anything between this and the last painting I painted as last year's anniversary gift to my wife...
Sometimes, busyness can be such a good excuse even for procrastinating doing things that you love to do. :-)