I’ve been struggling with bread stencils lately. My designs end up not as sharp as I hoped them to be, lack of contrast after baking, all sorts of annoying little disappointments. I finally figured out what I was doing wrong, after watching videos from bread guru Morgi. I will share a couple of tips today, in case you’d like to use this method to decorate your bread.

(from the Bewitching Kitchen)

470g bread flour
20g spelt flour
10g peanut flour
7g charcoal powder
10g salt
370g water
100g sourdough starter at 100% hydration

Make the levain mixture about 6 hours before you plan to mix the dough. It should be very bubbly and active.

When you are ready to make the final dough, place the water in the bowl of a KitchenAid type mixer and dissolve the starter in it, mixing with a spatula briefly, then add the three types of flour, charcoal and salt. Turn the mixer on with the hook attachment and knead the dough for 4 minutes at low-speed all the time. You will notice the dough will gain quite a bit of structure even with just 4 minutes in the mixer. If the dough seems too soft, add a bit more bread flour. Remove from the machine, and transfer to a container lightly coated with oil, cover lightly with plastic wrap and allow it to ferment for 4 hours, folding every 45 minutes or so. Because the dough is already a bit developed from the initial time in the mixer, you should get very good structure after 3 and a half hours, or even sooner than that.

After four hours bulk fermentation, shape the dough as a ball, and place, seam side up, in a lightly floured banetton. Leave at room temperature one hour, and then place in the fridge overnight, from 8 to 12 hours.

Next morning, heat the oven to 450F. Invert the dough over parchment paper, if the surface seems moist you can place the stencil right away on top of it. If it seems dry, spray lightly with water and position the stencil. Shower some white rice flour on the stencil and rub gently with the fingers of your right hand as you steady the stencil with your left hand (do the opposite if you are left-handed). The idea is to rub the flour on the surface through the openings of the stencil, so that you get a good pattern formed. Carefully lift the stencil and slash the bread around it, so that the bread will not open and compromise the image.

Bake at 450F for 45 minutes, preferably covered for the first 30 minutes to retain steam. Cool completely over a rack before slicing.


to print the recipe, click here

Comments: If you use a banneton for the final rise of your shaped loaf and it glues to it when you try to invert it to bake, you know that can be VERY frustrating. Sometimes it even distorts the beautiful shape achieved slowly overnight in the fridge. I normally add quite a bit of flour to the banneton before the dough goes in, but when I want to do the stencil decoration, I prefer not to have too much flour on the surface to start with. My tip is simple: place a plastic wrap (like Saran-wrap or other brands) inside the banneton and THEN add your bread – it does not prevent the ridges from making that cute impression on the surface (although it will be slightly less evident) and you will have NO issues inverting the dough to bake.

For the image to be sharp and evident, the trick is to have a little moisture on the dough, and rub the flour, gently but firmly. Hold the stencil in place with one hand, and rub the flour with the other. Lift the stencil as delicately as humanly possible. Finally, whatever design you choose, slash the bread in ways that coach the opening away from the design. You can cut four deep slashes in a square shape with the design in the center, or do what I did, a circular series of small, deep cuts all around.

Peanut flour has no fat, but transfers the taste of peanuts quite well to the bread. It has a softer crumb than a straight sourdough with just bread and whole-wheat flours. And the charcoal contributes no taste. When we freeze slices after a couple of days, we like to cut one or two into croutons, because they look pretty amazing in that shocking black color.

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Lately a dramatic, marbled sourdough keeps popping everywhere in the blogosphere and Instagram world. I find marbling pretty cool in cakes, cookies, icings. So, why not take it into bread territory?  Most bakers opt for laminating the two doughs together. I have tried the lamination process and found it a bit too convoluted. To make matters worse,  I never get as much structure and gluten development as I like, so I just took my normal default recipe and used it as a starting point. Read the comments after the recipe, if you are interested in the details. Without further ado, here is my first bi-color sourdough.

(from The Bewitching Kitchen, inspired by many sources)

475g bread flour
25 g whole-wheat flour
100 g sourdough starter at 100%
10 g salt
2 g activated charcoal
375 g water

Mix everything (except the charcoal)  with a KitchenAid in low speed with dough hook for about 3 minutes. Adjust consistency with additional bread flour if the mixture seems too loose. Divide the two in two parts, add the charcoal to half of it, knead until fully incorporated (you can do it by hand or place it back in the KitchenAid for a minute or so).

Transfer the two doughs to individual oiled bowls and bulk ferment for 4 to 4.5 hours at room temperature, folding the dough at every 45 minutes to 1 hour. On folding cycle number 3, incorporate the two doughs together, and continue with the bulk proofing. Fold one last time, shape the bread as a round ball, place in a banetton heavily floured, sticking it in the fridge overnight.

Next morning, heat the oven to 450F. Invert the bread straight from the fridge on parchment paper, dust the surface with a small amount of flour, and slash it with a brand new razor  blade.

Bake inside a covered Dutch oven for 30 minutes, remove the lid, leave it in the oven for additional 15 to 20 minutes, if necessary lower the temp a bit in the final 5 minutes. Cool completely before slicing.


to print the recipe, click here

Comments: As I mentioned, bakers often use a lamination process to marble different colors of dough, or even to add components such as herbs or nuts. One of my issues with the lamination is that the process tends to be quite a bit longer. When I do my initial mixing in the KitchenAid for 3 to 4 minutes, the dough starts with a solid kneading that not only advances the process of gluten formation, but makes the whole thing quite a bit “cleaner.” The dough, once out of the KitchenAid, already handles quite smoothly for the subsequent folding by hand. And I can tell right away if I need any adjustment, just by the way it behaves during this initial step of mixing.

Most recipes that use lamination rely on a long (3 hours or more) autolyse step,  in which you just mix water and flour, then another pretty long proofing after the starter is incorporated. The hydration level of the dough is often higher (you need to add more water to be able to stretch the dough nicely and laminate it), and that forces you to go through more cycles of folding. I sometimes had to do 5 cycles and still felt the dough a bit weak at the end, but by then it was getting so late I had to call it a day and shape it. If you like to try, search youtube, there are countless videos showing the process.

To achieve this level of mixing between the two types of dough, I joined them at cycle 3 out of 4 total foldings. If you prefer both colors to be more uniformly mixed, join them at folding cycle number 2 instead of 3, and be more aggressive with the way you handle it. I can see a Halloween version with pumpkin and charcoal on my horizon…

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I suppose I’ve resisted long enough. Charcoal baking was a big thing a while ago, I kept seeing all sorts of breads, desserts, drinks using this shocking, funky ingredient. I decided to give it a try and loved playing with it. There is no real taste of charcoal, it is more a visual experience. Charcoal can interfere with the absorption of some drugs, but the amount used in baking is very small, so I would not be worried about it.  If you are into trivia, a French chemist, Mr. Bertrand, first found out the power of activated charcoal to absorb toxins and prevent them from causing harm in animals. Then, in 1813 he went on to do a sort of “chemical performance” live, consuming an amount of arsenic that could kill a horse, but previously mixed with charcoal. He survived to tell the tale and proved the power of charcoal as an antidote. A few years later, another French scientist, Mr. Touery, swallowed a huge amount of strychnine in front of the French Academy of Medicine, and survived it. Gotta love the French!  I hope you try charcoal in your baking, but please, leave the arsenic and strychnine out of it…

(from the Bewitching Kitchen)

475g bread flour
25 g rye flour
120 g sourdough starter at 100%
10 g salt
2.5 g activated charcoal
380g water

Mix everything with a KitchenAid in low speed with dough hook for about 4 minutes. Adjust consistency with additional bread flour if the mixture seems too loose.

Transfer to oiled bowl and bulk ferment for 4 hours at room temperature, folding the dough at every hour. At the end of four hours shape as a round ball, and place in a banetton heavily floured, sticking it in the fridge overnight.

Invert on parchment paper, moisten the surface with a little water, place a stencil on top. Dust with flour over the stencil, and lift it very carefully. Score the bread in a way that will not interfere with your design.

Bake inside a Dutch oven at 450F for 30 minutes, removed the lid, leave it in the oven for additional 15 to 20 minutes, if necessary lower the temp a bit in the final 5 minutes. Cool completely before slicing.


to print the recipe, click here

Comments: The charcoal powder I got is this one. Beware it is a very fine powder, so when you open the bottle and remove that little inner protection glued to the top, use caution. It flies everywhere. I mean everywhere. You catch my drift. Charcoal drift.  So far, I’ve only used it in bread and crackers (sourdough and regular), and really love the look, although I admit not everyone is fond of it. Some people are just turned off by breads with “unusual” color. As you probably figured it out, I am not part of that crowd.

Charcoal bread next to a cheese platter would look very nice, and of course, what could be better in a Halloween party?  Keep that in mind… I am actually planning my next sourdough charcoal adventure, and it will involve kalamatas. Taking black to the limit!

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