Introduction: Brotchen (Crusty German-style Rolls)

I love bread. Sinking my teeth into a warm buttered slice of fresh bread is one of my greatest joys in life.  Most weeks I devote 3 hours to baking fresh bread so that I don't have to shell out almost $5 for a barely passable loaf.  Most people are not so passionate, but every good cook should have a special occasion recipe.  This is mine.  When I found this recipe I was looking for Brotchen for a German themed dinner, and while this is certainly reminiscent of the crusty on the outside, fluffy on the inside rolls I enjoyed when I was in Europe, I do not vouch for its authenticity.  It has several important qualities as a special occasion bread.  It is fairly straight forward, which can be important when putting together a large meal.  It also freezes well so you can take out just what you need for dinner.  Oh, and it makes great bread-bowls.  To make it you will need:

    2 tablespoons active dry yeast
    1 tablespoon white sugar
    2 1/2 cups warm water (110 degrees F)
    3 egg whites, stiffly beaten
    2 tablespoons shortening or oil
    2 teaspoons salt
    7 cups all-purpose flour
    1 egg white (for egg wash)
    2 tablespoons cold milk or water

I use a stand mixer for this and you will definitely want to something to beat the eggs, even if you opt to knead the dough by hand.

Step 1: Proof Your Yeast

Take your yeast, water and sugar and combine them in a large bowl.  Let the mixture sit for 10 minutes, until the yeast has risen to the surface and gotten frothy.

While this step is not strictly necessary, it does give the yeast a head start which makes creating fluffy goodness much easier.

Step 2: Beat Eggs

While your yeast is proofing.  Put your egg whites into your stand mixer or mixing bowl and beat until stiff peaks form.  This step is the secret to the light springiness of this bread.

Step 3: Make a Soft Dough

When your yeast is done well proofed, add the oil/shortening, salt and three cups of the flour.  Mix for two minutes.  At this point I change out the whisk on my stand mixer for the dough hook and add the dough directly to the whipped egg whites.

Step 4: Mix the Dough

Mix the egg whites and the dough until combined.  Gradually add flour 1/4 cup at a time, until dough forms a mass and begins to pull away from bowl. Turn onto a floured surface (This step is optional.  You can do all the kneading in the mixer if you want to). Knead, adding more flour as necessary, for 8 to 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic with bubbles.  It is really important to go the full time on this.  You want to get the gluten good and activated so that it will stretch and not break when the dough rises.  The images below show you the stages it goes through.

Step 5: First Rise

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat with oil. I use a Pyrex bowl with volume marking on it so that I can keep track of how much it has risen.  Cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.

This batch was particularly active.

Punch down the dough and divide into equal sized rolls.  The size is up to you.  I have made anywhere from 10 to 30 rolls with this recipe depending on what I needed.

Step 6: Roll the Dough

This is a little trick that I picked up when I worked for a bakery in college.  It works wonderfully on bagels too.  Take you piece of dough and clear a bit of counter of most of the flour.  The key here is for the roll to be just the tiniest bit sticky.  Make a cage of your hand around the dough and apply gentle pressure as you roll the dough in a circle.  The net result is a beautifully smooth skin and a tight crumb.

Step 7: Seal the Deal

If you don't want to make all the rolls at once, this is when you move them to the freezer.  Lay them out on a tray until they are frozen solid and them move them to a freezer bag.  To cook them from frozen, remove them from the freezer and continue.  (Freezing does have a slight negative impact on the texture of the crust.  It can also cause some cracking if you don't let them fully defrost before baking).  To continue from frozen: remove from freezer and leave at room temperature for an hour to an hour and a half.

To continue from fresh: Place on lightly greased baking sheets, cover and let rise until doubled in volume, about 40 minutes.

For both: Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C).  Beat together final egg white and milk or water.  Brush the mixture liberally over the tops of the rolls.

The secret to really crusty rolls is humidity in the oven.  The egg wash mixture will give a beautiful shine and help to promote the crust, but to seal the deal, add ice cubes to the bottom of your oven (if you are nervous about this, and I always am, you can pre-heat a cast iron skillet or heavy pan in the oven and toss some water and ice onto that) just before you add the rolls to the oven.

Step 8: Enjoy Your Crusty Rolls

Bake at 425 degrees F (220 degrees C) for about 20 minutes or until the tops are golden brown. Remove to a wire rack and cool.  Enjoy!

These rolls last about a day at maximum freshness, but even after that they make excellent bread crumbs and bread bowls.

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