Ever since I took up bread baking early this year, I’ve been trying to “rise” above the flurry of terms used by bread experts and enthusiasts. When I joined a discussion forum, I had to learn how to differentiate the French poolish from the Italian Biga, and swim through sourdough mania. For the most part, I focused on sweet breads, rolls and loaves. I’m not ready to go into starters and monitor them with a watchful eye and to start counting bubbles, or spraying mist, or making sure my oven stone is hot enough. In fact I bought an oven stone but it’s still in the box. I understand that it comes in handy when making breads where the crumb is # 1 priority. I may go into more sophisticated bread baking when I get tired of my rolls, loaves and sweet breads, but I’m enjoying this “lower-level” baking and still a little intimidated by all the theories that go into making the perfect crumb.
I kept reading about the sponge method and have tried a few recipes using it. The end product has always been a pleaser, both to the eyes and to the taste buds. I once made Chinese steamed buns that called for a sponge method and had doubts I could pull it off. To my delight, they came out of my Asian steamer with the best texture and taste comparable to store-bought steamed buns.
Then I saw this milk loaf recipe from George Greenstein’s Secrets of a Jewish Baker (his book was the subject of an earlier blog: https://sotsil.wordpress.com/2009/06/22/george-greenstein-do-you-give-classes/). When the loaves were done, I could not get over the tremendous rise and the texture. As for taste, it rated a 9!
I decided it was time to know more about the sponge method. The recipes I made with it were all winners so it was only fitting I learn a thing or two. A little bit of knowledge is NOT a dangerous thing; next time I get into a bread conversation, at least I can sound like I did my homework:
the sponge method is similar to the sourdough method (don’t ask me anything about sourdough because I haven’t graduated into that level) except that the fermentation period is shorter (anywhere between 45 minutes to 2 hours)
it is made by combining yeast, part of the flour and part of the liquid
the bowl has to be covered and placed in a warm environment to allow the fermentation to take place
advantages of the sponge method include: better taste, softer texture and a larger volume bread
it helps stabilize the hydration of the dough
I have a confession to make: Greenstein’s recipe called for skim milk powder which I didn’t have at the time so I was afraid I’d come out with an inferior loaf. The result? My milk loaf was well above average in terms of taste or texture.
Some bakers have a preference for milk powder. Others insist on it. I wanted to do the recipe again, this time with skim milk powder to see if there was a marked difference. I bought the no-name store brand. Maybe it was the type of skim milk powder, but I must say, I liked the fresh milk version better!
Another valuable piece of bread wisdom I learned: instead of the usual egg wash to brush over the breads before they go into the oven, Greenstein recommended a cornstarch wash which, as you can see from the color above, produces a rich tinge of golden-yellow. The loaves were brushed with the cornstarch wash twice: once after the final rising and before slashing and then allowed to air dry; the second time when they’re about to go into the oven.
If anyone wants the recipe for Greenstein’s milk loaf, you can email me at email@example.com.