Friday, February 24, 2012

Garden - The beginning of the 2012 season

Well it’s that time again, I am so excited, it’s February 11th 2012. That means the first seeds of the season get planted today. 

As background, I live on 8 acres, and have two vegetable gardens. The main garden is for my annual vegetable crops, it’s 3,700 square feet, and its design is loosely based on the English Garden design of blocks of plantings, separated by access paths. I have a three year rotation plan developed for this garden. But to be honest, last year was the 1st year of my gardens. I have a 2nd garden for my perennial crops, i.e. strawberries, horseradish, and asparagus. It’s just over 1,500 square feet. I am especially excited that this, my 2nd year for the strawberries, I will see my 1st strawberries this summer, can’t wait.

Needless to say, the scale of my garden endeavor is ambitious, since I tend it myself without help. Last spring to get the gardens established, for weeks and weeks, I spent at least 4+ hours every workday evening and on Friday and Saturday, 12 hour shifts were the norm. On a few of the initial weekends, to get everything done, numerous 18 hour shifts on the weekends were required and at least one 24 hour stint. But after the initial work to establish the gardens, and after all the seedlings were in, things settled down, those extreme demands of my time were not required.

As for seedlings, I start a large majority of my annual crops from seed indoors. I built a 4 shelf grow station that any illegal plant grower would be envious of. Complete with 4 bulb 48” grow lights and heat mats on every shelf, all on timers. Complete temperature and light control. With it I produced hundreds of healthy vigorous seedlings last year. It works exceptionally well. I just wish I had a second one. I have developed a comprehensive indoor seed planting schedule that starts…oh yea, it starts today with my early crops, reaches a fever pitch around April, where I am wondering where I can find room on the grow shelf under the lights for just one more group of seeds, and ends well into the middle to end of the summer when I am sprouting my fall vegetables. I absolutely love this thing.

The best thing since bagels, my grow station

One this size from the Internet is nearly $1,000 with everything I have. I built it for less than $600

Another thing I love is ©Root Trainers, they rock. ©Root Trainer Tinus 350-4, are the perfect size, tall and deep allowing for and in fact encouraging long root structure (hence the name), but the most special thing about them is that they open like a book. In fact they come in “books” each with 4 cells, each book opens up to allow easier transplanting. The books are held in a frame, that hold ten books, that means each frame holds 40 seedlings. As far as I am concerned, they are one of the secrets to my seedling success. They are very hard to find to purchase, I do not even believe they are available in the States, except the smaller one that I find worthless, I have seen those on the Internet. But I have little to no use for those; I find that the ©Root Trainer Model Tinus 350-4 is the best one for my needs. This is the one whose availability to purchase I spent so much effort finding. I found them on numerous UK web sites, with big notices on their pages stating that they will not ship outside of the UK. That sucks I thought. I eventually found them available for me to purchase on only one web site for a Canadian company. I highly, highly recommend this product, there is nothing like it and I would not use any other seedling starting container while I can get my hands on these;

They are not cheap, they run about $20 per complete set of 40 each cells (one complete frame setup), at the time I bought them, that included the shipping cost. Did I mention that although they are somewhat fragile, as long as you are careful with them they should last a long time. I bought 20 of them!

Now for the bad news, although the salesman I was dealing with never specifically stated it, the impression I got when I purchased my ©Root Trainers from this company was that they were a wholesaler, not a retailer. I had to wait months from my initial contact with this company to receive them. They basically said I would have to wait until the next time they ran the “Tinus” run and they would make a few extra just for me. I think I might have initially contacted them in August, and I finally received them in the mail in January the following year just in time to use. I might be wrong and you may not have any issue whatsoever getting them to sell some to you, but I wanted to relay my experience just in case. If not from these people, I don’t know where you might find them for purchase. Enough said, so good luck if you do try to get these; they are definitely worth the effort.

©Root Trainer Tinus 350-4

I cover with plastic wrap to hold in humidity

I can fit 4 per shelf, that;s 160 each seedlings, times 4 shelves, I can grow 640 seedlings simultaneously

So now on to the growing medium, it is a given, to grow seedling indoors, a soil-less medium is what you need to use. Do not even think about regular soil. That won’t work. Even potting soil is undesirable. You need a quality soil-less medium specifically designed to grow seedling from seed. I have only ever used Pro-Mix BX, 3.8CF Compressed Item Number: SO-PMBX, and like all the materials I want to use, this is also hard to come by. Luckily for me, my local ACE Hardware store special orders it for me. It comes in big 3 cubic foot bales, and I went through 3 of them last year. This stuff is great and again, I highly recommend it if you can find it. But unlike the ©Root Trainers there are many other quality soil-less options available.

But I digress, I planted my 1st seeds of the season this weekend, I planted 60 cells worth of Celery, and 56 cells worth of Leeks. Both start out on the same shelf, on this shelf my heat mat is set to 72°, and does a good job of keeping the soil in any ©Root Trainer set on it at about 68° - 70° depending on the ambient room temp. The warmer I keep the room the less work the mat needs to do to maintain that soil temperate. FYI- the heat mat is only capable of raising the temperature of the soil-less medium 20° above the ambient room temperature.

The following are my notes for starting both these seeds:

Celery –

Stratifying helps these temperamental seeds. To stratify, put in the freezer for several weeks at least. Then soak the seeds overnight in room temperature water to break their dormant stage. Some say to soak them in water that has just been brought to boiling, if you do this you are an idiot. How would you like boiling water to be pored over you. Water that is at or near 212°, cannot be good for the embryo of a seed. They are best started indoors, as the seeds need a consistent temperature at or above 59 degrees (germination temperature - no less than 55°, no greater than 70°). Celery seeds are very small and need light to germinate. Sow them by scattering them on the top of the soil. At most gently pat the seeds to ensure good soil contact, but I do not even do that, I simply mist the seeds gently with an atomizer. This works well for me. Do not allow the seeds to be covered by the growing medium, Put plastic wrap over the top to keep the humidity up. Keep the seeds moist and they should germinate within about three weeks. Last year mine germinated in 7 days. Once they are 2"-3" tall, they love to be fed a weak dilution of fish emulsion every week or two. Celery seedlings should have five or six leaves before they are ready to be planted out. I start mine a full 12 weeks before I plan to transplant. Transplant them to the garden when ambient temperatures are reliably above 55 degrees F. Steady and plentiful supply of moisture, more than most vegetables, heavy feeder, add a little compost with transplant, provide liquid feedings every two weeks.

90% Celery seed germination, considering that most literature states 14-21 days to germinate celery seeds, which can be quite finicky, I say 90% germination after only 7 days is "success". Now granted, I had to use a magnifying glass to see that I have germination, each one I saw, was a seed just sending out an initial tendril into the soil-less mix, but nonetheless, germination it is. In 7 days! 

Initial germination. You have to look close to see the seedlings

All seeds germinated, great success. Simply a matter of maintenance now.

Two weeks later

One month after planting celery....
Growing Celery from seed is not hard, you just have to do it right

This was done right

 Leeks –

For best germination, seeds should be sown under cover. What this means is simply; after doing everything like normal, i.e. plants seeds in ©Root Trainer cells and covering with plastic wrap to hold in humidity, lay something over the top of the ©Root Trainers to keep the light from the seed. I did this last year; I also simple planted the seed deep enough (1/4”) that I did not need to cover with anything, as the soil medium itself shielded the seed from the grow light. Once they are 2"-3" tall, they love to be fed a weak dilution of fish emulsion every week or two. Once the seedlings are four inches tall, keep the tops trimmed to three inches, this will help the plants to be stockier and sturdier at transplant time. Use sharp, clean scissors for this once-a-week "haircut". At seven weeks, the seedlings should be about the diameter of a knitting needle. Harden them off during their eighth week, before transplanting them to the garden. As a note, last spring was very, very wet and I couldn't get my transplants out on time. Just speaking for the leek seedlings, they held up in the Root Trainers well into the 12th week without any negative results. 

Saw my first leek seeds germinate today (2-15-2012), that's germination in 5 days. Pretty good!
2-17-2012 Update: 7 days now since seeding, have about 70% germination. Failed to take a picture of these, would have been very hard to see anyway.


After two weeks of growth

One month after planting leeks. Now one thing to note, I do not let my leek seedlings grow unchecked, as they will get too tall too fast. So I cut them with siccors, keeping them no more than 4-6 inches until they are transplanted. This makes them easier to manage under the grow lights as well as promoting a stockier leek in the end.

One months growth

Vichyssoise to be! Yea, I know you don't know what that is, look it up.

So as I said, I am excited and anxious for spring. There is much to do between now and then, and I hope that since I now have established the perennial garden so do not have to do that piece this year, that I will not have so grueling of a schedule to get everything up and “growing”.  But I know that is a relative statement or rather a naive hope, since no matter what, having a garden on the scale that I do, without help, is without a doubt, a lot or work. But also a tremendous point of satisfaction. Not to mention, a crap load of harvest…

Some pictures from last years garden;

August 2011 Main Garden

August 2011 corn crop

August 2011 strawberry patch

September 2011 strawberry patch

September 2011 watermelon patch

2011 biggest Black Diamond Watermelon

Laugenbrezel - German Soft Pretzels

Laugenbrezel - German Soft Pretzels Dipped in Lye

This same dough makes great pretzel sandwich rolls

The following posts document my efforts to perfect Laugenbrezel. These are not your ordinary soft pretzels; the lye dip imparts a unique tangy flavor, not obtainable any other way. I started out wanting to make these because I thought it was kind of cool to work with the lye bath. But after the first batch, oh my god they are good. They are so good their addictive. The recipe is fairly straight forward and the technique is not quite as demanding as making bagels. As with most bread baking, much the same technique is used as was with bagels, and since my opinions on those techniques are already expounded on in my bagel segments, my Laugenbrezel posts will follow a more standard recipe format.  So let’s get started...

Oh yea, be careful with the lye dip, it's caustic

Laugenbrezel the Recipe:

*All ingredient Baker Percents listed in recipe are based on Total Weight of Flour 

Note: Hydration is just a general guideline and or baseline. Don’t get too caught up on trying to get it to be absolute in the end dough. It's just a baseline to start with. In reality when you make any kind of bread, the actual fluid to flour ratio (i.e. hydration) varies based on many influences. You will never use the exact same amount of flour from one batch to the next. So these percentages are just baselines that you can use to discover patterns between different classes of dough. What you should be focusing on is the consistency of the final dough, which is what needs to be the same from batch to batch.

TWF = 1327 grams
Hydration = 53% - 55.3%

Makes about 15ish each 4 oz. pretzels 

Note: My experience has shown that 53.4% is too dry and 58% is too wet, strive for something in between. But this still must be dictated by the dough.

Do yourself a favor, weigh out all ingredients before you start to mix anything

Note: Neither a true sponge, poolish or biga, this is what works for me
Dry Active Yeast - 7 grams - .5%
Bread Flour – 630 grams – 48%
Rye Flour – 78 grams – 6%
Bottled Water –  100° - 708 grams - 53%
Pinch of sugar to feed the yeast
*Proof the yeast in 123 grams of the water listed above - 100° - 10 minutes or so until it's frothy

Dry Active Yeast – 7 grams - .5%
Bread Flour - 618 grams - 46%
Diastic Malt Powder – 8.4 grams - .6%
Non-Diastic Malt Powder – 45 grams - 3.4%
Butter – Non Salted – room temperature – 70.8 grams - 5.3%
Salt – 11.4 grams - .8%
Water - 30 grams (for tweaking the dough) - 2.3% (reserve)

Lye Dip:
Water – Tap – Room Temperature – 1 liter
Food Grade Lye – 30 grams

CAUTION: The lye bath solution will burn your skin if you get it on you, it will do worse things to your eyes if you splash it up into them, BE CAREFUL with it.

Follow these simple rules when working with the lye bath and you will not have a problem.

DO NOT, EVER ADD WATER TO LYE, a violent reaction will happen, you will be sorry. ALWAYS ADD LYE TO WATER. I cannot stress this enough.

Use a plastic or glass container for the dip; I use a simple plastic mixing bowl.

Add lye to water slowly, use a wooden spoon to dissolve lye into water.

Where plastic gloves that go at least 8” up your arm. 

Where long sleeves.

You should wear eye protection (I do not, I am simply careful not to splash the stuff into my eyes)

Wipe up any spills (just don’t spill) or splatters immediately with paper towel and immediately throw out paper towel.

If working on a wood counter, lay down newspaper as lye will stain wood counters.

Work with the dip slowly and thoughtfully.

Discard remaining lye bath carefully down the toilet when finished. Again wipe up any
splatters immediately when doing this.

Rinse all utensils with plenty of water and white distilled vinegar. The vinegar will help neutralize the residual lye.

Poolish Preferment and Autolyse:

Poolish Preferment just created
After 2 hours at room temperature, it's now ready for the refrigerator

Add the proofed yeast to mixer bowl, (do yourself a favor and make sure the bowl is at least 70°) add water, flour and sugar then mix with a dough hook until combined well. Allow to ferment at room temperature (70° - 75°) until it is frothy, obviously active and has at least doubled in size. This could take considerable time, in the realm of numerous hours.  It will depend on the room temperature and humidity among other things, but generally it will take “awhile”. Alternatively remove to a 40° environment overnight for a long slow ferment. this will result in a "tangier" end product.

*Note: That once the Poolish Preferment has matured sufficiently it is perfectly acceptable to hold for up to 72 hours in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. 

Add to mixer; the Poolish Preferment, and all the dough ingredients except the reserved water, the butter and the salt. Mix until just combined. I try to get all the dry to be incorporated into the Poolish Preferment before I autolyse, but I am not too concerned if some is not. At first the dough will be rough and will not want to come together. That is because it is still at this point too dry. Add only enough of the reserved water as needed 1 Tbl. at a time such that the dough just comes together in a mass. Try to do this quickly, you do not want to mix (knead) the dough too much at this point. You just want to get the dough to come together as soon as possible. 

Autolyse until the dry ingredients are completely hydrated. This will take about 30 minutes.

Autolyse - Poor picture quality but you can still see the hydration

Even better picture of Autolyse

Different batch but great picture of what an Autolyse can do for the dough

Add salt and butter. Knead until all ingredients have completely mixed and you believe that the dough is the proper hydration. Bakers talk about “letting the dough show you what it needs”. I like to start out dry, adding more water little by little until the dough is the proper consistency for that particular recipe. You have to use the first few moments of the kneading process to decide if the dough needs more water to reach the hydration you are after.  So during the first 1/3 of the total kneading time I am adjusting the dough with water 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough is beginning to look AND feel like I want it to. This particular recipe calls for a dough that ends up soft, velvety and yet have a bit of tack. The percent of hydration of this dough recipe as written is almost identical to the percent of hydration of my bagel dough, yet in practice I try to end up with it a little wetter than that. 

Right after mixing I like to temp the dough

Firm, silky, smooth, with a slight tack

Another view, what the heck are those lines in my pictures

I like that way dough looks and smells

The Rise and Second Ferment:

Now that the dough is created, place in a container that has been lightly sprayed with oil, cover with plastic wrap, place in room temperature and allow it to double (depending on many things, one of which is batch size, this can take hours). Again as an alternative, you can place it in the refrigerator to ferment overnight. This is the second opportunity for the flavor of the wheat, and the tang of the dough in general, to be enhanced. 

*Note: Again at this point that you could keep the dough up to three days in the refrigerator. It will not harm the dough to do this. If you do, allow the dough to sit in room temperature for an hour or two before continuing to the next step.

Ready to rise

Doubled and ready to ferment

Scaling, Shaping, Proofing and Retardation:

Shaping is the true challenge of this recipe...


Or simply shape into rounds for sandwich rolls

Scale to 3oz for small pretzels or 4oz. for larger. I like to scale to 4oz. Round into balls and place on sheet pan lined with parchment paper. I do not add flour at any point during the shaping process.I also do not want the dough to start rising, so I work quickly until all the rounds are made. And then I rest them, covered to keep them from drying out, for 15 full minutes.

After resting, I remove each round in turn and as quickly as possible shape into the initial "cigar" shape. Again I do not add any flour. Shaping pretzels can be challenge; I will not try and describe it here. You can Google it and find many videos that will show you how it’s done. That’s what I did. Just remember, don’t be too hard on yourself about how the shaped pretzels look when you are done, unless you plan to sell them. They are in fact “homemade” and do not need to be perfect. Again, work quickly, you do not want the dough rising too much at this point in the shaping process. From the scaling stage, work in three subsequent stages, create each roll, allow to rest, turn each into an initial long "cigar" shape about 8" long, allow to rest, turn each into the final 24" long rope and flip into the classic pretzel shape. Then place them on sheet pans lined with parchment paper. You do not have to dust the parchment paper with anything if you freeze them afterwards as directed below. You will flip them over and simply peel off the parchment paper. 

Once they are all shaped allow them to proof in a 80°+ temperature/80% humidity environment until they rise to about 1 1/2 - 2 times their original size. You can use the float test as described in my previous bagel technique posts (they are very fragile at this point, you can if you like omit the float test, and just allow them to proof until they visibly have risen appropriately).

Freeze until firm and easy to handle. Slightly freezing them makes them easier to handle during the Lye dip process. 

Lye Bath, Topping, and Baking:

Getting ready for the lye dip. What's that in the paper bag, could it be the best Italian Sub Rolls ever?

Food Grade Sodium Hydroxide

You want this stuff

30 grams Sodium Hydroxide to 1 liter of cool H2O, 3% solution Lye Dip


Wear Gloves, work slow, don't splash

Clears up when dissolved


Prepare the lye bath, and preheat the oven to 450°. Remove the pretzels from the retardation process, and following all the rules regarding working with lye I stated above, allow each pretzel to be dunked into the lye bath for 30 seconds. Hold them under if you have to, they tend to want to float, if they don't you didn't proof them enough. They should be totally submerged. Remove from lye bath to the sheet pan with parchment paper that now has been dusted with Semolina flour. 

Now replace these Immediately into another 80°+ temperature/80% humidity environment until they start to rise again. You want to "wake" them up. Approximately 15 minutes. 

Sprinkle with salt or any number of toppings just before putting into the oven. Any earlier the salt will melt before going into the oven Pretty much all the same topping options are available to be used on bagels can be used on your pretzels. I stick to traditional salt, and I use French Gray Sea Salt - Light Grey (Coarse) - "Sel Gris De GuĂ©rande" French Sea Salt, it’s absolutely wonderful. If you do try to use this kind of salt, do not worry about it being grey (not white), it turns white from the lye in the oven. Bake at 450° until dark honey brown. This took me about 15ish minutes. Remove to cooling rack. Allow to cool before eating if you can.
I found these to be OH MY GOD good, and they are still good 4-8 hours after coming out of the oven, but not as good beyond that.


Sandwich Rolls, all topped with salt

Top with Salt, Garlic or Onion