As regular readers will recall from previous dissertations on the ultimate baguette, I love to bake bread but tend to limit this hot-oven hobby to cold winter days. As spring nears, I generally get into a bread-making frenzy when I see the end of the season coming on.
But wait ... why not apply my hard-earned continental bread-making techniques to the modest bun, fashioning by hand an artisanal container suitable for an extraordinary burger? Or something like that.
Intrigued by the challenge, I pondered the similarities - and the differences - between a baguette and a burger bun. Other than the obvious - one's long, one round - the main differences I could think of had to do with lightness and texture. The chewy, crackly crust and light, holey interior of a baguette would be less desirable in a hamburger bun, where you want enough body to hold up a hefty burger, and an appealing golden but gently tender crust that won't force you to mangle the burger as you tear off a bite of bun.
But the delicate, complex wheat flavors in a baguette seemed to me to be just as attractive in a bun (or any other white bread) as they are in the French loaf.
I reviewed a number of recipes for buns, rolls and small breads and came up with a plan: Just as with French bread, start with a relatively small amount of yeast and a relatively high proportion of water to flour to make a wet dough that would rise slowly, allowing plenty of time for wheat and fermentation flavors to develop. Break away from the French-bread tradition of using only flour, salt, yeast and water, adding a little sugar for sweetness and some fat - olive oil and egg, specifically - to create a softer, richer dough with the muscles needed to bear a burger in style. Set a somewhat lower baking temperature and take the baking stone out of the oven to facilitate a softer crust, and dab the buns with a little melted butter as soon as they come out of the oven.
The results were exceptional. The finished product was all I had hoped for, tender but firm enough to serve as a sandwich base, but with flavor and texture that you just can't get unless you have a mighty fine bakery handy ... or make your own. The leftover buns kept well because of their fat content, and they made spectacular breakfast toast; they should also freeze well for later use. I made a smallish batch of just eight buns as an experiment (and, frankly, because I find repetitive tasks like shaping buns one of the least enjoyable of kitchen chores), but you could easily expand the recipe, keeping everything in proportion except perhaps the yeast, which wouldn't need to be doubled.
INGREDIENTS: (Makes eight buns)
2 cups all-purpose white flour
1. This procedure uses the Kitchenaid mixer with paddle and dough hook, but you can certainly replicate the process, with a little more manual labor, by hand. Put one cup of the flour in the mixer bowl and add the yeast, sugar and salt. Put in the water, olive oil and egg and beat with the paddle attachment for two or three minutes at medium-high speed, until the dough forms a rough, shaggy mass. Beat in the rest of the flour, then switch over to the dough hook and continue mixing at medium speed for another 5 minutes. (NOTE: Because I wanted a softer-textured bread, I used all-purpose flour instead of the bread flour I usually use for baguettes.)
2. The dough should be somewhat sticky. Put it on a floured bread board or counter top and knead it just a bit until it's soft and smooth. Put it in a bowl that you've greased with a little olive oil, cover with a dish towel, and leave it in a cool place to rise. It should take two or three hours to double in size; don't rush this stage, take care that it fully doubles its original mass or even a little more.
3. Gently turn the dough out on your floured surface. Don't punch it down, as the less you can "de-gas" the dough, the better crumb structure you'll achieve in the finished bread. Using a sharp knife or pastry scraper, cut the dough into eight roughly equal portions. Cover with your dish towel and let them rest for 5 or 10 minutes while you lightly grease a cookie sheet.
4. Continuing to handle the dough with reasonable care, roll each of the eight pieces into a ball. Don't worry, it's not fragile, but you'll get the best results of you don't beat up on it or roll it out flat. Try to bring all the rough edges around to what will be the bottom of the roll and pinch them in, so the part of the roll on top is smooth and doesn't show cracks or seams. Put them on the cookie sheet, well separated so they won't touch as they rise, and gently flatten them to approximate a burger-bun shape. Cover with the towel and leave in a warm place to rise for an hour or so; they should roughly double, but this isn't as critical as the previous rising stage, and you can cut it short if it's getting too close to dinner time.
5. Preheat the oven to 375F (190C) and bake the buns for 10 minutes. Umm ... you did remove the dish towel, didn't you? The tops should turn light golden brown; it's okay to let them bake for a minute or two longer and turn heat up to 400F if they seem too pale.
6. Remove buns from the oven, place them on a rack to cool, and brush the tops with a little melted butter while they're still hot. When they cool to room temperature, slice for use as sandwich buns.
WINE MATCH: I wouldn't attempt to match a wine specifically to a sandwich bun, no matter how delicious. For the fancy burgers I made to fill these buns, though, we enjoyed a first-rate Sausal 2002 Alexander Valley Private Reserve Zinfandel from California Wine Club's Connoisseurs' Series.
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Thursday, March 9, 2006
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