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Monthly Archives: April 2010

The Triumph of the Sourdough Starter

When I moved out of my parents’ house I was no stranger to yeast. My mom is an excellent baker and has taught me the ways of leavening quite well. When I lived with the girls at the Yellow Cottage I would usually bake bread a couple of times a month. I settled on my favorite multigrain honey bread, a recipe which required that I make at least two loaves, because the first one would usually be gone within 10 minutes of my roommates getting their hands on it.

When I married Jer, I figured I would continue making my sweet bread of yeasty goodness. But Jer has other ideas. Confident in my baking powers, he not-so-subtly suggested that perhaps I should switch to sourdough bread. Now, I have always loved sourdough bread, but I have never worked with it, and my perception was that it was a lot of hassle and I would never actually get it to work. However, in the fog of romantic love and conjugal bliss I agreed to start the experiment.

So I did some reading and researching and found that starting a starter wouldn’t actually be that hard. In theory. According to the recipes, you just mix together some flour and water and watch the magic happen.

Heh.

Let’s just say it took a lot longer than I thought. And a lot more recipes than I thought. I feed our starter (we call him Odo, since he sleeps in a bucket) every day, building up his taste and leavening power, and then when baking day comes I take the chance that all my work will not go to waste. I’ve made no-knead bread and super-kneaded bread. Recipes that took 24 hours and ones that took 4. Dutch ovens, baking stones, preheated ovens, cold ovens, wood-fire grills. I’ve made the worst baked goods of my life struggling with that starter. Flat, hard bread, only useful for breadcrumbs (which I rarely need) or bread pudding (which I am not really a huge fan of). Through fail after fail, Jer encouraged me and ate the rejects.

There have been a few successes in the story, but overall I have not been satisfied. I had dreams of the soft, tasty sourdough bread I used to eat growing up, bread which I am sure was full of dough conditioners and other such chemical additives but nevertheless made me happy. A slight sourdough tang, a chewy crust, a soft interior. Such bliss.

BUT. It was this weekend that we finally reached the pinnacle of the sourdough bread. I have been reading a lot about sprouted flour and soaked grains and how proper preparation makes grains healthier for you and more easily digestable. Hopping from blog to blog I stumbled upon the recipe that would be the gamechanger. I read the title-Honey Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread-and I was filled with hope that perhaps here was the recipe that would marry my love for honey-sweetened multigrain bread with Jer’s visions of sourdough loaves.

It was easy. It worked better than it said it would. And it was, categorically, the best bread I have ever made in my life. And so my friends, I share it with you. Let me know if you want a little bit of my sourdough starter to get you, well, started.

Honey Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread
from Kitchen Stewardship

This requires some planning ahead because of the overnight proof, but it actually is one of the easier sourdough recipes I have tried. Your starter should be fed a 1:1 ratio of filtered water and flour, and to keep it most active, you should feed it every 8-12 hours and keep it at room temperature for a couple of days prior to use (I usually feed Odo every 24 hours). I’ve heard some recipes say that a sourdough starter can’t handle a dough with eggs and butter, but my starter loved it, and the loaves rose like nobody’s business. I think having an active starter helps a lot.

1 1/2 cups whole wheat sourdough starter
2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup mild honey
2 large eggs
6 cups (divided) whole wheat flour, plus extra for kneading
2 teaspoons sea salt
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

The night before you want to bake, combine the starter, milk, and 3 cups of flour, creating a shaggy dough (much like a no-knead recipe). I used a mix of whole wheat flour and bread flour (the extra gluten makes a difference) but feel free to use whatever you like. Cover and keep in a warm place overnight. The best idea is to turn on your oven and preheat to 350 while you make your dough, then immediately turn it off and place the covered bowl in the oven. Leave the door open slightly so the light stays on.

In the morning, your dough will have puffed up and be covered in air bubbles. Stir gently with a wooden spoon and add in the honey and eggs one at a time. Mix until completely incorporated. Add the remaining flour, salt, and butter. If you have a mixer with a dough hook, use this and knead for 5-7 minutes. I didn’t find that I needed a whole lot of extra flour this way. If you don’t have a mixer, knead by hand on a lightly floured surface for 10 minutes, then let rest 10 minutes, then knead again for another 10 minutes. Dough will be moist but not sticky, with good elasticity.

After kneading, put your dough in a greased bowl and cover. Go ahead and do the same thing with the oven: preheat, turn off, put in dough, leave door open slightly. Allow to rise until doubled; the recipe said 2-4 hours, but mine took about an hour and a half. That’s one benefit of having an active sourdough starter!

When dough has doubled, remove, divide in half, and shape into two loaves. 9×5 loaf pans are recommended, although I suppose you could try making boules and placing them on a cookie sheet. Repeat your oven proofing technique, allowing the loaves to rise to just above the edge of the pan, about an hour.

Take the pans out of the oven and preheat it for reals this time, to 375. Place a sheet pan in the bottom of your oven and get 2-3 cups of water ready. Slash the tops of your loaves. As soon as you place your loaves in the preheated oven, pour the water into the sheet pan and then quickly shut the door. This creates a steamy environment for your loaves, so they can develop a nice crust, as well as the series of romance novels that will fund your retirement.

Bake for 35 minutes. The loaves should get golden brown on top, and sound hollow when you tap them. Remove from oven and cool on wire racks. It will be tempting to cut into them immediately, but you need to let them cool down a bit before you slice. If any of the bread makes it past the first tasting, allow it to completely cool before wrapping it up and storing it in a cool place. The recipe states it keeps for a week, but I doubt it will last that long. You can also freeze the extra loaf, wrapping it in foil before sealing it in a freezer bag.

There you have it folks: the grand triumph. This bread is awesome with just a little butter, or toasted with honey or jam, or as a sandwich. I made Jer a PB&J with this and I swear he ate it in less than a minute. He then apparently ate four more slices while I was at worship practice! I’ll be lucky if the two loaves last the week. But hey, anything for my man.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2010 in Things Edible

 

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Bean and Bacon Soup: Eat Your Heart Out Campbell’s!

Soup really is the easiest of foods. And no, I am not talking about how easy it is to open a can of Campbell’s (which, by the way, is full of chemicals and formerly good food that has been stripped of its nutrients by overprocessing. Just saying).  I’m talking about starting from a cup of dried beans and random ingredients and making something tasty and nutritious. It’s a great way to clear out a fridge filled with bits and pieces: a handful of mushrooms, two celery stalks, a bunch of almost wilted kale and a couple slices of bacon and suddenly you have transformed the hopeless into the delicious. 
 
Beans are inexpensive and super easy-they just seem intimidating because they take time. But the time is not active work-you cook while you live the rest of your life. If you have a crockpot, beans are a no-brainer: put them in a big bowl of water the night before to soak, then in the morning drain and add to the slow cooker with whatever seasonings and vegetables you want. Put it on low for 8 hours and come home to a big pot of soup that will not only feed you for dinner but also freezes well and can be used for several lunches.
 
(My former roommate, who insists that she cannot cook, makes soup in her crockpot every week using a couple of cookbooks and her ingenuity. So really, soup is the easiest thing out there.)
 
Here is what I made a couple of days ago, mostly to use up the last of the bacon in the fridge. This soup didn’t make too many lunches because it was so good that Jer polished it off very quickly. If you don’t have a crockpot, this can of course be made on the stove-it just might be a later dinner, or something you will want to make on the weekend. You can use fresh or canned tomatoes-I used a can of fire roasted tomatoes I had gotten on sale, and they added a great depth of flavor. And just so you know, thick-cut peppered bacon is to die for in soups.
 
 
Bean and Bacon Soup
 
2 cups dry mixed beans
3-4 slices thick cut bacon
6 cups water, stock, or any combination of the two
1 can diced tomatoes or 3-4 diced roma tomatoes
1/2 onion diced
minced garlic, if desired
1 tsp each: salt, pepper, chili powder, thyme
 

Crockpot directions:
 
Saute bacon and onions about 7-10 minutes, until bacon begins to crisp and onions are translucent (if using garlic, add in after 5 minutes). Transfer to bowl or storage container and keep covered in fridge. Place beans in a large bowl and cover with 4-5 cups cold water. Soak overnight. In the morning, drain beans and add to slow cooker along with the all other ingredients. Cook at low for 10 hours.
 

Stovetop directions:
 
In the morning, place beans in large bowl and cover with 4-5 cups cold water to soak. 8 hours or so later (basically whenever you get home from work) drain the beans. Saute bacon and onions in a large stock pot for 7-10 minutes, adding minced garlic after 5 mins if desired. Add all other ingredients and bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until beans are tender, about an hour.

Simple, right? Soak, drain, saute, boil, simmer. Not too many ingredients, not too much actual work. Soup gets better over time, so it’s always better reheated the second day. And the possible combinations are endless. You can add other vegetables if you want. You can substitute cremini mushrooms for the bacon and make it vegan. You can use one or two types of beans, or a 15-bean supermix. And if you are really pressed for time, you can even use canned beans: just add 2-3 cans of beans with the tomatoes and stock after sauteing the bacon and onions and then simmer for however long you want.  That’s yet another benefit of making soup: you can feel free to experiment with whatever you have. So get creative!

Oh, and if you are looking for another great crockpot recipe, try Macheesmo’s Mushroom Barley Stew. It made so much, and it was so good, Jer ate it almost every day for a week!

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2010 in Things Edible

 

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How I Learned To Eat Avocado

I have friends who look at me in horror when I tell them I don’t like avocado.

“What?” they exclaim. “How can you not like avocado? It’s amazing! Guacamole! Favorite thing ever!”

Sadly I cannot find it in my heart or tastebuds to enjoy a fresh ripe raw avocado. I have an aversion to certain textures which I can only describe as ‘gushy’: ripe bananas, raw tomatoes, and avocados are good examples of such. My husband adores all of these things, so I order my guacamole on the side so he gets extra, and the tomatoes on my burger also go to him, along with most of the bananas in our weekly produce box.

However, I am finding that I love to cook and bake with those gushy substances. Banana bread? I make a to-die-for loaf, and bananas make a great addition to muffin recipes (just substitute for the oil and/or part of the butter). Tomato sauce? Marinara is a favorite, and I can make anything from a veggie-stuffed balsamic-flavored extravaganza or a simple buttery sauce like you can find on smitten kitchen.  However, it was only recently that avocado made it onto my baking ingredient list.

I was reading Joy the Baker’s blog and came across her recipe for Vegan Chocolate Cake. Now, I’m not vegan and have no plans to move that way, I like my omnivorous status, thank you very much. However, I love a challenge, and with her assertion that these cupcakes were amazing, and the slightly overripe avocado sitting on my table begging to be used, I decided to give it a go. Surprisingly, the cupcakes had good texture and flavor, and you couldn’t taste the avocado at all. Since then I’ve substituted avocado for butter in several muffin and banana bread recipes for good results.

Still, I stayed away from the raw avocado as much as possible. Until Saturday morning. Jer saw the avocado in the fruit bowl and asked me for a recipe. I put avocado into the google reader search box and what came up but an avocado smoothie. Well, this sounded completely disgusting to me, but of course Jer had to try it. So out came the can of evaporated milk and the ice cubes and he went to town. He made me try a sip of the smoothie, and I have to say I was less than impressed. But then, in a stroke of smoothie-making genius, Jer pulled out the magic ingredient: Nutella. A couple spoonfuls later and we had smoothies that tasted nothing like avocado yet possessed the smoothest, creamiest texture and the fantastic chocolate hazelnut flavor we know and love. And so my friends, I share this with you, as a testament to the power of Nutella to get even me to eat avocado.

Avocado-Nutella Smoothie

 

1 ripe avocado

2 tsp sugar

½ can evaporated milk

8 ice cubes

2 Tbsp Nutella

 

All of these ingredients are to taste. The original recipe called for sweetened condensed milk mixed with a little regular milk, but the evaporated was all we had, and I think it turned out better this way.

 

Blend the avocado, sugar, and half the ice and milk until fairly smooth. Add remaining ice/milk and Nutella. Adjust with additional milk or Nutella to suit your tastes.

 

Serves 2, or one hungry person.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2010 in Things Edible

 

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