If you have not caramelized an onion yet in this life, the time is now. You need to seize the day. You have this weird, round, papery root. And you peel it, slice it, and throw it in a saute pan with a little heated oil or butter over moderate heat, and 30 minutes later you have a delicious, sweet, saucy topping for pizza, focaccia, pasta, a warm salad, or for these doughy, savory pull-apart rolls. oh yes, it is that simple.
Admittedly, the bread-making process is not quite as simple as the caramelizing, but it’s also not nearly as intimidating as people seem to think it is. So right and here and now I am going to share a few tips with you that may de-mystify bread-making a bit, I hope they are helpful! If you are already comfortable with bread-baking, then just go ahead and skip to the recipe- it’s a good one!
1. Yeast and Water: Most bread recipes call for adding your yeast (usually “dry active”) to your water first (or a small portion of total water in the recipe), sometimes with a little bit of sugar. Dry active yeast likes water to be at about ~100 F (yeast dies at temps above ~130 F)in order for it to become active- i.e. begin eating sugar and producing carbon dioxide. You always want to check the expiration date on your yeast to make sure it is still fresh.(I highly recommend buying an inexpensive kitchen thermometer for bread-making.) Also, Keep yeast in the fridge, especially if you are not using it that frequently. The process of combining your yeast with warm water in order to check to see if it becomes active and will therefore make your dough rise, is called “proofing”.
Note: You can “proof” your yeast with a small amount of warm water, even if your recipe does not tell you to. That way, if you have inactive yeast you will know before you waste all the flour and other ingredients.
2. Adding your flour slowly (and don’t forget the salt!!): Your recipe is going to specify an amount of flour to be used in your dough. However, you do not want to add it all at once because you may not need it and your dough will be too dry. Adding a cup at a time at first, and then half or a quarter cup as your dough thickens will help you determine whether you will need more or less flour than your recipe calls for. On a humid day, your flour will be holding more moisture and you may not need as much, and vice versa for a dry, winter day. (You need to use flour with a protein content of at least 13 percent or so, to develop the gluten you need to give your bread body and make it elastic. All purpose flour and bread flour (not bread-machine flour) are more or less interchangeable, but be careful not to add to much of higher-protein content flours until you get the hang of the proportions. Whole wheat flour can be used in place of all purpose, if your dough has milk, sugar or eggs, but it is best used in combination with all-purpose for leaner doughs, such as french bread, pizza dough and peasant breads. Rye flour has a very high protein content and should be used more as a flavoring.
Note: you cannot make bread without salt. Salt is absolutely crucial not only for bread’s flavor, but from preventing the yeast from rising your bread too much. Over-rising results in flat, flavorless loaves and rolls- quite a disappointment after all your work!
3. Mixing and Kneading: When you begin adding your dry ingredients to your liquids (i.e. flour and salt to yeast/water/milk/egg mixture), you are basically just mixing to incorporate everything. As your dough thickens and begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl, you want to begin kneading. If you are using a mixer with a dough hook attachment, you can knead, on the lowest speed in the mixer bowl. If you are doing it by hand you want to turn your dough onto a lightly-floured surface and fold the dough toward your, knead a coupe times, then turn and fold again, repeating for 5-10 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic– adding more flour as you go.
4. The “Window Pane” Test: If you have been kneading for a while and your are not sure whether or not your dough is ready to rise, take a small piece between your fingers and flatten and stretch it out so it becomes thin like a window pane. If the dough can stretch and become transparent without breaking, your gluten has developed sufficiently and you can shape your dough into a neat ball for rising.
5. Rising: Your dough needs to rise in a well-oiled bowl, turn your dough once to cover it lightly with oil so that you can cover it with plastic wrap and the plastic with not stick and pull at your dough, when removed. Cover the plastic wrap with a kitchen towel and set the dough in a warm (but not hot ~70-75 F) place to rise for the indicated time. When your dough has risen enough, if will be about double the size that it was, and you will be able to leave a large indentation that does not immediately pop out when you poke it with your finger.
What happens after rising, depends on your recipe. Most have a second rise and are some are divided into rolls, loaves etc.
Baking and cooling: Whether your dough is baked in pans or on a sheet, testing for done-ness could not be simpler with the help of a kitchen thermometer. Besides the standard “tap the loves to see if they sound hollow” and “bake unitl loaves are golden brown”, you can simply stick your thermometer into the loaf or roll and make sure it registers are around 190 F.
Cooling is part of the baking process! Once your bread has come out of the oven it is still doing what is called “carry over baking”. Let the bread cool for as long as you can wait (ideally an hour, but half and hour will be okay) before slicing.
Moving on to the Rolls!
Caramelized Onion and Rosemary Buttermilk Pull-Apart Rolls, adapted from Martha Stewart Living, November 2005
Makes about 1 dozen
11 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 3/4 sticks), softened, plus more for bowl, plus 5 tablespoons melted (I used Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks, and it worked swimmingly)
1/4 ounce active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons warm water (105 degrees to 110 degrees)
3/4 cup buttermilk (as always, I use rice or soy milk, with a couple of teaspoons of cider vinegar added to it- let it sit for 10 or 15 minutes)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more for surface and pin (I used about half whole wheat flour with excellent results)
2 teaspoons salt
2 pounds sweet onions, such as Rio (1 1/2 pounds cut into 1/4-inch slices, 1/2 pound finely chopped)
A couple sprigs of fresh rosemary, finely chopped
Grease a 9-inch cake pan using 1 tablespoon softened butter/margarine. Grease a large bowl; set aside. Stir together yeast, sugar, and water in a small bowl; let mixture stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Stir until dissolved. Stir in buttermilk and egg.
Mix 2 3/4 cups flour and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook. Make a well in center. Pour in buttermilk mixture; mix to combine. Add 6 tablespoons softened butter/margarine; mix on medium-high speed until a soft dough forms, about 10 minutes.
Scrape dough onto a lightly floured work surface; sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons flour. Knead dough until smooth, about 5 minutes. Transfer to buttered bowl. Cover dough with a clean kitchen towel; let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
Melt remaining 4 tablespoons softened butter/margarine in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions; raise heat to high, and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium; cook, stirring, until golden brown, about 30 minutes. During the last 5-7 minutes, add the chopped rosemary. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let cool.
Punch down dough, and turn out onto a lightly floured work surface. With a lightly floured rolling pin, roll dough into a 17-by-10-inch rectangle, and brush with 3 tablespoons melted butter. Spread onions evenly over dough. Starting on 1 long side, roll dough into a log. Press seam to seal. Cut into about 12 slices, about 1 1/4 inches thick each. Arrange slices, cut sides up, in buttered pan, and brush with remaining 2 tablespoons melted butter. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 50 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake rolls until golden brown, about 35 minutes. Immediately invert and unmold rolls onto a wire rack. Serve warm.