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Posts Tagged ‘sourdough starter’

I bought the Tartine Bread cookbook. I had been eyeing it for months. Every time I saw it in a store, I’d pick it up, run my hand over the slightly puffy and spot varnished cover, flip through a few pages, sigh, and put it back. If I bought every hard cover, photo-filled cookbook that I wanted, I’d have to build a house out of them because I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent. But I broke down.

I have been experimenting with bread baking quite a bit lately:

First, I grew my own sourdough starter that is still alive (and I suspect drinking all my wine when I leave the apartment).

Then I made a travesty of a loaf of bread with said starter.

Yet, from the same starter, I managed my favorite pizza dough to date.

Following these escapades, I made some bread Jim Lahey style, using purchased yeast and a slow rise, and it was very successful.

But I wanted to get back to my starter. Tartine waxes poetic about cultivating yeast, starters, levains, leavens, etc. The book made me feel that by cultivating my own starter I would be in touch with the tides of the ocean or phases of the moon. REAL old school. Like before they had schools. This is the bread I wanted to make.

So I kicked my starter back to life, bought a turquoise kitchen scale, pastry scrapper, and clear container (for dough rising), and was very excited this weekend to put it all together.

Getting excited about stuff like this makes people question my sanity.

The night before I was going to bake, I prepared my leaven:

To prepare the leaven, in a bowl mix:

1 tablespoon of sourdough starter
200g water
200g mixture of all-purpose and whole wheat flour

Cover this with a kitchen towel and let it hang out over night to froth and bubble to its yeasty hearts content.

* Note: I performed this task after returning from The Mulberry Project and imbibing some very creative gin-based beverages…review forthcoming.

In the morning (after I rehydrate myself):

Gather the following ingredients:


1. Pour the 700g water into a large mixing bowl and add 200g of leaven. Stir it up!
Note: Tartine suggests that your leaven is ready for baking when a spoonful of it will float in water. Unfortunately, I forgot about this test…

2. Add the 900g of white flour and 100g of whole wheat flour and mix well.

3. Now let the dough have a nap for 25-40 minutes. DON’T skip the dough nap. Have one yourself.

After the dough nap, add the 20g salt and 50g water. Mix the dough by squeeeeeeezing it with your hands and folding it on top of itself. Transfer the squeezed and salted dough to a clear container for the (read with echo): BULK FERMENTATION RISE at 78-82 degrees for about 3-4 hours.

During the Bulk Fermentation rise, you need to “turn” the dough every half hour. This turning involves you plunging your hand in the plastic container, scooping the bottom part of the dough and folding it onto the top part. Do this 2-3 time for one “turn.”

It was during this Bulk Fermentation that I realized my dough wasn’t rising quickly enough. You can extend the rise for as long as necessary, and dough will rise more slowly in colder temperatures.

I suspected that my cold and drafty apartment was the reason for the slow rise. Being on the first floor, I have the distinct pleasure of heating the apartments above me in the winter time. This causes me to jack up the thermostat and receive love notes from our local gas/electric provider, PSE&G. I reasoned that if I moved the dough to a warmer, less drafty spot, it would rise faster. So I put it in the warmest room in my apartment: the bathroom.

Now, don’t freak out: I haven’t fed anyone other than myself this bathroom bread. And it just sat on the sink counter, not on the toilet or anything. And it was in a container. I needed to protect the dough, people!

Anyway, after this Bulk Fermentation is finished (keep in mind I wasn’t sure if mine had risen appropriately), remove it from the container (a plastic pastry scraper helps with this), and divide the dough in half.

Once it’s divided, fold each dough portion onto itself to create a nice, round loafy-shape. Use as little flour (for dusting or non-stick purposes) as possible as you don’t want your bread to be dry. Let the dough rest for about 20 minutes. You can cover it was plastic wrap if your kitchen (or bathroom) is drafty.

At this point, they are ready for the final rise. Prepare two large bowls lined with kitchen towels (not terry cloth). Dust the towels with rice flour. Tartine does not explain why they use rice flour for this purpose, and I certainly have no clue. But I bought some like a good instruction-follower and used it.

This is the FINAL RISE. You can let these dough balls hang out at room temperature for about 3-4 hours OR you can put them somewhere cooler (like the refrigerator) for up to 12 hours. The choice is yours. I chose the fridge, as I had stuff to do.

Before you start baking, place a dutch oven/cast iron pot in your oven and turn up the heat 500 degrees. Let it heat up for 20-30 minutes. Once the pot is nice and hot, remove it from the oven (OVEN MITTS!!) and plop your dough in there.

You then need to score, or cut, the dough in a nice square pattern as seen above so that it can properly ventilate as it cooks. You are supposed to use a razor blade to accomplish this. but I didn’t have one so I used an Exacto Blade. Not very effective. Then, throw the lid back on and pop it back in the oven (reduce the heat to 450 degrees) and bake for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes has transpired, don your mitts again and remove the lid from the cast iron pot. Continue baking without the lid for another 20-30 minutes or until the crust gets a nice dark and golden brown.

Remove your bread from the oven and also from the pot and let it cool…if you can. Jack up the heat of the oven to 500 degrees again and repeat the process for the second loaf.

I cut right into mine, but even before I did I realized my bread was…well, it was FLAT. I just didn’t get the rise out of it that I wanted. Perhaps if I told it some jokes? It’s supposed to be much higher and puffier, etc. This is how tall it is:

The good news is that it’s tasty and somewhat airy (check out those nice holes toward the top). The bad news is that it’s not very pretty and still a bit dense (no comments from the peanut gallery, please).

Some of you may want to blame the bathroom, but I don’t think that’s the problem here. I think I didn’t allow enough time for my leaven to reach peak activity. Remember, I didn’t do the “float test”?  Next time, I will perform this test. And then maybe I can skip the bathroom fermentation altogether…

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Those of you following us on Twitter may have noticed frequent updates on my bread starter. You may have read this post where I detailed my grandiose plan to cultivate my own bread baking yeast for making a superior pizza dough…and for world domination. Pizza dough first, though.

So I began. I found some instructions on the web, including Slice’s Starter-Along blog series, and I commandeered a Tupperware container festooned with candy canes from my friend Stacey. I mixed my flour and water together and I waited.

….and waited…

And then stuff started to happen. Bubbles mostly. And then some foam. And then both! Take a look at the progress in the images below:

By photo #5, thinks looked like they were really cooking. Not only were there bubbles and foam throughout, but the consistency had changed. It was almost like it had been whipped – less cake-batter-like and more foamy throughout. Fascinating, no? Exactly.

Soliciting no professional opinions but my own (non)sense, I decided it was time to make bread. I harvested some of the yeast for pizza dough, and then another batch for some bread. The pizza dough needed to chill in the fridge for a few days and I was keen to see if this whole thing was going to work, so I jumped right into the bread making process.

Also, if you recall, it snowed about a million and two feet on Sunday the 26th of December into Monday the 27th, and I needed something to do between carrying my dog Toby out to the street to pee (he is too short to climb the snow drifts).

So I made the bread. I used this recipe. Let me just say I’ve made bread before. Quite successfully, thank you very much. But this was a miserable failure. I’m not blaming the recipe. I blame John. No, I’m kidding, he wasn’t even there! In hindsight, one of a few things went wrong:

1. My starter really wasn’t ready, even though I thought it was: the bread refused to rise.

2. I didn’t weigh my ingredients because I don’t have a kitchen scale, so the proportions were incorrect.

3. The planet alignment was all off that day, and I should really try this again when Neptune is in a more favorable house.

Even knowing that something was terribly wrong, I decided to put the non-risen bread in the oven anyway. What resulted was the densest, least attractive brick of a loaf of bread that I have ever seen. It was difficult to cut with a serrated knife. I could have hammered nails with it. The loaf was about 2″ high.

I began to laugh. A lot. And then I tasted it, and I stopped laughing because it wasn’t very good. How could it be?

HOWEVER! As I was failing miserably in the regular bread department, there was something happenin’ in the fridge with the pizza dough. Magic, that’s what.

Days later, as instructed by Slice’s recipe here, I removed my pizza dough from the fridge and it’s olive oil coated Ziploc bag. It was surprisingly easy to stretch out. And the cold from the refrigeration made it easier to handle. It even gave me the ability to stretch it a little thinner without breaking the dough.

Needless to say, I was intrigued. With unnecessary amounts of glee, I ran around the kitchen assembling sauce and collecting toppings (mozzarella cheese and basil). I fired up the ol’ oven and pizza stone and made this:

This is, hands down, the crispiest, tastiest crust I have ever managed. In addition to being crispy, the outer crust retained the characteristic chewiness of Neopolitan style pies. And there was flavor! Hot damn and hallelujah!

Why was the pizza dough a success and the sourdough loaf a failure? I have a few educated guesses:

1. Proper planet alignment.

2. The extended rise time of 48 hours (even slowed down due to refrigeration) was actually needed. My starter wasn’t broken, it was just slow! It needed some extra time.

3. The additional fermentation time also added flavor, because the yeast was hanging around for a longer period of time (2 days).

A few things to note:

While cold, oiled pizza dough is MUCH easier to handle and shape, it tends to stick to the pizza peel a bit more. I would recommend dusting the bottom of the dough with a little semolina flour and making sure you can easily slide it on and off the peel before assembling everything and then getting it stuck on there. Not that that happened to me or anything…

The cold dough took a bit longer to cook. This just makes sense, but I’m telling you anyway. You could always take your dough ball out of the fridge a few hours beforehand so you can bring it to room temperature. Either way, keep a sharp eye on things while they’re cooking.

Here are some detail photos:

A few other tips:

I used La Valle cherry tomatoes for the sauce with a splash of red wine vinegar (as instructed by the most recent edition of Cooks Illustrated Magazine). I blended the tomatoes and vinegar in the food processor with garlic, salt, pepper and a dash of cayenne (for fun). The red wine vinegar gave the sauce that kick that I have been trying to achieve for a while.

For cheese, I used mini mozzarella balls. I cut them in half so they melted into little blobs.

And don’t forget the FRESH BASIL!!!

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Bread. I love it. To me, it’s carbohydrate in its most fantastic form. White, wheat, rye, sourdough, walnut-cranberry oat, baguettes, rolls, brioche and, yes, pizza dough.

I love the way it smells when it’s cooking. And even when it’s just rising, sitting there on my kitchen table with some random dish towel thrown over it (bread likes to be tucked in like a little kid in bed).

Recently I’ve been doing some reading up on bread making. You all might have suggestions of other things I could be doing with my time. Anyway, it was from this reading that I first heard the term “levain”. According to Wikipedia, levain is a type of pre-ferment which is made in two fermentation steps from an active sourdough-starter culture, flour and water. It yields a rather dry and porous dough which may be kept refrigerated for up to a week.

Basically, you start growing a yeast naturally, instead of using one of those pre-packaged yeasts, with just flour and water. Then it grows (like a Chia-Pet I imagine) and you use this chia-goop to make bread. The best part is that you can keep it indefinitely as long as you keep it alive by feeding it! It’s like a pet! And even though I already have Toby, I imagine he won’t mind a yeasty addition to our apartment that we can keep in the fridge.

Supposedly, it makes a better tasting bread than using a regular yeast package. A better tasting bread that I could potentially make a superior PIZZA DOUGH with. And annihilate the competition at the next PIZZ-OFF! Did I just say that out loud?

Sometimes I forget to use my inside voice.

So here we go. I am opening up the Laboratorio Semi Moderno for levain! For Science! For pizza dough! And I am going to document the whole thing, and give you updates. For example: Day 15: The yeasty blob has oozed all over the fridge and taken the carrots hostage. It’s now threatening the butter. Please send reinforcements. And pizza toppings.

I also plan on naming the levain. I was thinking of “Ferdinand” but I am open to suggestions.

To begin, the instructions are simple. You will need 1 cup of flour:

Plus, 1 cup of warm water:

Then, you combine them in a container (I used a candy-cane festooned tupperware that I apprehended leftovers in from my friend Stacey):

Mix all that madness up and you will get a goo (like the topmost photo). Cover this magical goo with the lid and let it sit on your counter.

Every 24 hours you need to feed your Chia-Goo. This is very important. To do this, you dump out HALF the goo, and mix in another 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water. Why? I just don’t know, but this is what everyone tells me to do, and I’m just going to do it without question.

After a week of feeding it every 24 hours and keeping it on the counter top (temperatures between 70-80 degrees are best. 100 degrees is too hot for your Chia-Goo), you can move it into the fridge and only feed it once every week.

So that’s what’s going on right now in the Laboratorio. Exciting place, no? I thought so. Updates will follow!

If anyone wants to play along in this levain making madness, please feel free. And send me updates. Or cries of distress. I respond to either.

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