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So Sue and I purchased a new oven and the oven and I are getting to know one another.
My first bakes turned out a lot of breads that didn’t brown very well. This everything bagel (sesame, poppy, salt, and toasted garlic) tasted great. They were very chewy and were really authentic, but alas, a little flat and pale.
This fancy recipe pumpkin sourdough looked fine enough, but there was a problem. My longtime Cripple Creek sourdough (1893) had caught an infection. Don’t ask: little filamentous things growing on top and cheesy smell. I tossed it and in reviving a dried sample I had in storage I failed to wait a sufficient number of days before trying to bake with it. The result was a pumpkin bread that looked good, but didn’t rise.
And these two loaves which also looked good but never cooked in the middle. The same insufficiently mature sourdough meant the bread didn’t really spring in the oven. I was getting closer, however, to figuring out how to get the breads to brown in the new oven.
In the interim, Isaac and Delaney made sauerkraut (left) and kimchi (right), both natural fermentations, and both very tasty.
I got one bread to cook well in a cast iron pot. Here you see it with a naturally cracked surface and a beautiful open crumb (those are all the holes you see inside the bread.)
And finally, the oven and I have begun coming to agreement. Check out the ears on the cuts of this spelt-rye baguette. When professional bakers score their breads they aim for a cut that peels back in the oven and toasts just a bit as it rises above the loaf. My first success.
One of the best souvenirs I brought back from the United Kingdom was a rye sourdough starter. I got it from Andrew Whitley in Scotland who back in 1960 obtained a sample when he was studying production of rye bread in the former Soviet Union. The factory he took it from was enormous: more than a million loaves of baked sourdough rye emerged every day. In 1960 America we were changing food to fit into our machinery. American doughs were doped with extensibility agents so they could withstand the spinning arms of huge kneading machines. In contrast, Russian factories — just as vast as America’s — were comprised of hundreds of small bakeries. Women in babushkas made rye breads in small ovens and placed them by the thousands on conveyor belts. The Soviets distributed more than were needed. Thousands of uneaten breads returned to the factory where they were soaked and boiled and returned to the production line. Soaked rye breads were joined by fresh rye flour and rye sourdough to produce new loaves.
Making rye bread is difficult because rye does not have much gluten. That means its dough is terribly slippery and very sticky. It does not rise much, but I learned some rye techniques in Scotland and have been practicing for months. The rectangular loaf in front is 95% rye flour with just a few oats and a little molasses added. It baked in a covered square-sided pan for well over an hour to begin removing some of the moisture. After coming out of the oven a nearly 100 percent rye must sit uneaten for at least a day while additional moisture is released from its interior. The result is a tangy, almost zesty, rye bread that can be sliced more thinly than the piece of cheese you put on top. Moreover, the bread stays fresh for more than a week.
The round loaf with the concentric imprint of the boule where it sat just before baking (it is behind the rye) was made with a white flour starter, rather than the rye starter. It was supplemented with half a dozen mashed, baby potatoes and enough wholemeal rye flour to give the loaf some meatiness.
These baguettes (there were four) also began with the Russian rye starter. I added a cup of buttermilk and then adjusted the ratio of white flour to rye until it was approximately a 50:50 mix. The rye gave it color and taste, the white flour enough gluten for a beautiful rise, and the buttermilk mellowed the crumb to the softness of a ripe peach.
After taking a couple of weeks off from baking to travel back from England it has taken me a while to regain my bread touch. (I am happy to report all my starters, including my newly acquired Russian Rye, ca. 1960, arrived home healthy and vigorous.) This was one of my first successes: A Semolina Ring. The semolina flour gave it an Italian bread taste and the sesame seeds, once they toasted in the oven, permeated the loaf with flavor.
Sourdough crust. Feta. Freshly picked rosemary. Meaty green olives. Olive oil from a farm in Greece that was handed to us by a friend. The olive oil was velvety, mild, and filled with overlapping flavors of spring and vanilla.
One of the amazing things about sourdough is that you can begin with the same starter, add the same ingredients and just by altering the method of kneading, raising, and baking you can produce such different products. Same batch of starter made the boule on the left and the pizza crust on the right.
My friend Jen came over for a sticky bun bake off. I went for a sourdough, pecan sticky bun and Jen prepared a sourdough cinnamon bun with cream cheese and butter frosting. Baking these pastries involved two conflicting dramas for me. On the one hand, it meant I had to carefully follow a recipe, not one of my cooking attributes. On the other, I love pecan sticky buns, and ever since having eaten a sourdough sticky bun at Arizmendi Bakery in San Francisco that changed my life, I knew I had to give it a try.
Once the dough had risen, I rolled it flat, painted its surface with melted butter, and covered it in brown sugar and cinnamon. I rolled the dough into a tube, sliced the tube into small cylinders and laid each one on a bed of chopped pecans.Here they are in the pan, but you are looking at the bottom. They have to be flipped and then they look like THIS.
The funny thing is because I followed the recipe and cooked the buns for precisely twenty-two minutes at 400 degrees, they came out undercooked in the middle. The dough was still a little creamy. Next time I bake at 325 degrees (like a challah) for forty-five minutes and leave space between the buns so the outer crust of each one gets crisp.
Here is what Jen’s cinnamon buns looked like. Pure awesomeness.It was an excellent dessert to follow on a vegetable-infused pasta smothered in a tomato sauce that Isaac prepared with seared disks of homemade sausage, halved brussel sprouts roasted in the sausage fat, and red wine. He reduced the sauce until it was thick as a cassoulet and dark as burgundy.
There is nothing like beginning with fresh ingredients and a sourdough crust made from my Saudi Arabia starter. Those crusts always turn out chewy and full of complex flavors that can sometimes add a kind of creaminess and sourness, almost a little yogurt-like to a dough. In the case of Saudi Arabia starter, the yogurt flavors are Middle Eastern so more sour than American yogurt. We did this meal a couple of weeks ago with Isaac, the Grand Vizier of Sandwich, working with arugula pesto, sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, hydroponically grown basil, rings of red onion, organic peppers, black olives, mozzarella, parmesan, and romano. Six pizzas later we were very happy.
These sourdough pancakes received Sue’s highest marks so far. Generally speaking, Sue does not like sour pancakes, nor pancakes that are too heavy and these golden, crepe-like hotcakes were light and delicate. I can’t tell you exactly how I made them because as is my practice I made up the recipe. I had extra starter from another bread I was making and was in the mood for pancakes because it is peach season.
In addition to starter I added a considerable quantity of cornmeal, the remainder of our quart of buttermilk (about a cup), flaxseed meal, the spent mash from my soymilk maker (called okara), a pour of vegetable oil, more nonfat milk when the batter was still two thick, two egg yolks, and two beaten egg whites. The advantage to recipe-free cooking is the freedom to improvise and feel creative, even accomplished when dishes exceed expectations. The disadvantages are obvious. How do you recall for a later date, or pass along to a friend, a recipe that calls for a considerable quantity, about a cup, and unknown amounts of meal and mash? How, for that matter, do you know what went wrong when a combination bombs? And what does my cooking style say about my larger defiance of conformity?
And so with significant difficulty I once again followed the formula for Tartine’s country bread created by Chad Robertson. I measured ingredients to the gram, folded my dough on thirty minute intervals for three hours, refrigerated over night, and produced a loaf so exquisitely professional that another bread-baking friend said, “The bread you made put every other fantastic bread I’ve ever had to shame. Wow!!! Thanks for sharing!!!”
Sourdough Raisin-Walnut Bread
Here’s a slice of raisin – walnut bread. I used golden and Thompson raisins that had plumped overnight in water and nearly two full teaspoons of cinnamon. The walnuts were just the right counterpoint and the loaf was pillowy soft. An egg and some buttermilk in the dough provided a creaminess in the final product that was new for me. I was expecting more sweetness and less sour, but the raisins did their trick. What a combination of flavors: sourdough, spicy cinnamon, fruity raisins, and nuttiness.
Now check out another sourdough just to see how different breads can be.
Inspired by a blog post Sue sent me I made a sourdough variation of David Lebovitz’s scallion flat breads. Using long, fresh scallions recently harvested from the college garden and a whole lot of whole wheat I let this dough rise for a good long time until it was quite sour. I chopped the scallions, kneaded them in, and let the breads rise again. I pressed each small ball of dough flat and fried them until they were just beginning to toast. Salt, sour, earthy wheatiness, scallions, oil.
By themselves they were a complete food, but wrapped around cheddar cheese, thickly sliced tomato, and a couple of leaves of lettuce and they had to be eaten with closed eyes.