Category Archives: baking and other miracles

The saga of a starter

I recently gave some of my sourdough starter to a dinner party guest. I had known Donna only a few hours when I passed her the salad and piped up, “Want some of my starter?”

She just seemed like the kind of lady who I could trust with a living piece of ­­my baking.

Donna had made a splash of an entrance earlier in the evening, ambling up the pathway with an armful of gifts: a two-pound bag of daffodil bulbs she’d arduously dug out of her garden; a spray of wild daisies and sea mist from her fields; and a large fistful of dill that she urged me to dry and re-seed.

The twain had met and I couldn’t stifle the urge to give back.

IMG_7883But that night, after the guests departed and a very full dishwasher rumbled in the kitchen below, I lay sleepless, fearing Donna had left my precious offspring in the trunk of her car, or indoors in a smelly closet, or amid cobwebs in an attic storage room.

I emailed Donna the next morning, very early, nagging with the bossy subject heading, “Feed your sourdough starter”.

I’d barely pushed “send” when my phone rang.

“I fed it,” she reported instantly. “I gave it 3.5 ounces of distilled water and 3.5 ounces of organic white flour. It has some bubbles. What next?”

IMG_8618What Donna should do next is enough to fill a book. I’ve been kneading and mixing and pulling lovely mounds of dough for almost two decades and am still transfixed by the mystery of it all.

Is the starter active and vibrant enough to use? Am I using the right flour? How’s the temperature: Should we rise at room temperature or refrigerate? Does an overnight rise mean 8 or 12 hours? Did I stretch and fold the dough enough?  Am I shaping properly?  Will we get a better rise if I bake in a combo caste-iron cooker or a steamed oven, outfitted with unglazed quarry tiles? Does it matter if I wash my KitchenAid mixer bowl with soap or should I just clean and scrub with hot water? Should the bulk ferment take one and a half hours or three? Is it better if my starter has been kept alive for a decade, or a month?

Baking draws me in like a puzzle and rewards every time.

However, everything, I mean everything, predicates on a live starter. And Donna had to promise me she wouldn’t kill it.

After the first feed, I recommended she wait 24 hours then remove 3.5 ounces of starter, throw out the remainder and feed it with 3.5 ounces each of water and flour in a glass bowl that is big enough to let it grow three to four times in size. Mix it with a fork until smooth and fully dissolved, then cover with plastic wrap. If desired, mark the surface line with a piece of masking tape on the outside of the bowl so that rising progress can be  clearly gauged.

IMG_1093After each feed, Donna will get to know her starter better and better.  She’ll know how many surface bubbles appear, how high it can rise and that critical moment just before it drops and deflates.  After one to three days of consecutive feeding, she will watch her starter grow to its fullest potential within 8 hours. Now it’s ready to use.

I can’t tell Donna exactly when that will happen because temperature, flour and water all affect the outcome. As will the energy she gives – for the baking gods are always about us.

But once it’s ready, she can make a levain. If Donna bakes bread every day, she won’t need a starter because she’ll remove and set aside 1.5 ounces of her levain and use it in the next day’s levain. But that’s unlikely.  Donna has told me she wants to bake only once a week.  That’s why she needs a starter and this recipe.

The rest is all up to the magic of baking .

fullsizeoutput_1a0

50% Red Fife Levain

  • Servings: 2-3 loaves
  • Print

This levain highlights the richness of whole wheat without letting it overtake. Toast it for  breakfast with almond butter and blueberry preserves – bliss!

LEVAIN

8 oz               organic unbleached white

5.2. oz           water (spring is best)

1.3 oz                starter

Mix in a medium glass bowl until a stiff dough forms. Cover with plastic wrap. Ferment at room temp 12 -16 hours.

FINAL DOUGH

1 lb                 red fife or organic whole wheat

8 oz                organic unbleached white

1lb .6 oz         water

2 tbsp             honey

.6 oz                sea salt

Levain minus 1.3 oz (reserve in a small bowl in the fridge).

Put all the ingredients of the final dough in the bowl of a spiral mixer, mix for 3 minutes at first speed, then 3 minutes at second speed. Transfer to a lightly oiled large bowl covering with plastic wrap, or in a plastic tub with a lid.

Bulk fermentation at room temperature 2.5 hours, stretching and folding twice at 50 min intervals. (To stretch and fold, run your hand under cold water and use your wet hand to pull up the dough to as high as it will stretch, then fold over surface, pushing down firmly.  Turn the dough a quarter turn and repeat three times).

Preshape into 2-3 pieces for free form or sandwich loaves. Bench rest 5 min. Place into floured banneton or oiled loaf pans. Put in large plastic bags and close with twist ties.

Refrigerate 5-6 hours.

Preheat oven loaded with dutch ovens (if making banneton loaves) on second from the bottom rack at 500 F for 30 min. Invert bannetons loaves on to parchment-lined baking sheet. Score. VERY carefully place inside hot lidded dutch ovens, bake 20 min, remove lids, reduce to 460 F, bake another 20 min. or until golden brown. For sandwich pans, preheat oven at 460 F for 20 minutes and bake for 35- 40 min. spraying loaves with mister before closing oven door to provide steam.

Lemon ginger scones

I avoided scones for most of my life.  They were high-fat. Bland. Boring.

But scones magically changed when I savoured my first one with David.  They were our courting food.

We used to walk down to the Mercury Coffee Shop in Leslieville hand-in-hand, Kobe in tow. David would ask if I’d like a “bakery item” and I’d laugh and giggle like a star-struck teenager. We both had our hearts set on a certain scone that always sold out first: Lemon Ginger.

Little knobs of spicy-sweet ginger interspersed with lemon zest made for rich mouthfuls, melting our hungry hearts. These scones had just the right amount of heft. They weren’t one of those feather-light imposters that kept you guessing where the flavour was – but a divine elixir of butter, cream and flour.

We were in love.

Kobe, our elderly dog, was not.  He hated waiting outside the coffee shop tied to a pole and made sure we knew  his misery well with ceaseless barking.

That didn’t bother Sexy Santa one iota. Our favourite barista, his bushy long beard hiding his neck and cascading over his sternum, mindfully worked the espresso machine while we watched and waited, clutching the crinkly, white paper bag containing the last Lemon Ginger scone of the day.

Of course, they carried our favourite scone only three days of the week. It always sold out, leaving us wanting. Its rarity made every bite, every crumb, remarkable.

Like all good things, it didn’t last. Our barista packed up and moved to the west coast. A dreamy look used to cloud his face whenever he said “Vancouver” and “coffee beans” in the same sentence — then he left.

Kobe stopped barking and was laid to rest one cold March evening in our kitchen, his favourite room of the house, near his bowl and on his dog bed, tears streaming down our cheeks and the palliative vet’s as she inserted the needle into his thigh.

Without a Sexy Santa, the lattes just didn’t taste the same. Without Kobe, a leash-less, bark-less walk was unimaginable. The lemon ginger scone was forgotten.

Until one winter morning when I awoke with a craving and started to bake even before coffee. My B.C. kitchen was still new and awkward, the drawers and cupboards still confounding. I searched for oats and flour, smiling when I thought of their providence and mine. The butter and cream was locally produced, too. I figured everything but the dried ginger, lemons and sugar had been tilled, or milked, or churned on Vancouver Island and I was ready to recreate the scone we’d found in downtown Toronto.

Without a food processor, I used a pastry cutter to fragment the butter into tiny, pea size morsels. I didn’t sweat the fat content and poured on the whipping cream. I cribbed a scone recipe from Fanny Farmer and marveled at its low sugar content. I mixed and played and baked, making indelible marks on my nascent kitchen’s unfamiliarity and came out with a bakery item that is almost as good as our courting one.

 

Lemon Ginger Scones

So simple and easy, you can make these first thing in the morning for a decadent and maybe romantic breakfast.

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup rolled oats

¼ cup sugar

2 tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

Zest of one lemon

4 tbsp cold butter, unsalted, diced

½ cup dried ginger, chopped

2 eggs, beaten

1/3 cup cream

2 tbsp lemon juice

Preheat oven 450 F

In a medium bowl or food processor, mix flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, salt and lemon zest.

Cut butter into the flour mixture with a pastry cutter  or pulse in food processor until the size of small peas. Add ginger.

In a small bowl beat eggs with cream. Mix in lemon juice.

Fold egg mixture into dry mixture until just combined.

Mound dough in the middle of a baking sheet lined with parchment. Pat into an 8-inch diameter circle. With a large knife, cut the dough into half, quarters and eighths, wedging the knife down to the parchment paper and creating a decorative ¼-inch space between scones slices.

Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden brown on top.  Transfer baked scone mound on parchment to a wire rack and allow to cool 5-10 min before serving. 

Buttery Banana Bread

IMG_6129Oh, the trials and tribulations of banana storage! Buy a big bunch and they all reach the right eating ripeness at the same time. There’s that two-day “perfect banana” window, then black dots start to hit those yummy yellow specimens like a rash. Before you know it, you’ve got some sorry, black and withered bananas languishing in the fruit bowl. Continue reading

No more silver balls

IMG_5845We take three, basic dough flavours – gingerbread, chocolate and vanilla – cut them into little shapes, layer them on bigger shapes and before long, we’ve got tri-coloured cookies made into stars, Christmas trees and circles. Some have silver balls. Others have squiggles of royal icing.

The sugary conclusion is brilliant. These cookies are beyond adorable. And nothing shocks us two cookie makers more because, well, David and I are not always compatible in the kitchen.

Continue reading

Red pucker power

It’s hard not to think of cranberries this time of year. Little red orbs that they are, cranberries are synonymous with the festive season. Rare is the turkey that’s served without glistening, ruby pools of cranberry sauce.

But there’s a little problem with these berries – they are pucker-up tart and not easy to eat straight. Yes, they mellow with a little cooking and indeed, become more palatable once sweetened, yet it’s the raw, nude cranberry that delivers the most health benefits.

IMG_4982

Continue reading

Becoming a San Francisco Baker, Part 2

By day two of Artisan Bread Baking Level III, I had a hunch: The cards just weren’t stacked in my team’s favour. Sure, we looked the part.Team 3 wore white chef’s coats buttoned to the collar with crisp, starched aprons secured at the waist. We clutched the same roll of formula-printouts in our hands as we entered the production facility. Just as the others, we plopped down our pens, smartphones and water bottles on our workbench and had access to the same high tech mixers and ovens. But there was no doubt about it: Team 3 lacked a certain, shall I say, je ne sais quoi.

Me and my mixer.

Me and my mixer.

Didier tried to be diplomatic but I know he knew what I knew, even before I knew it.

It was called experience.

The pros in our class knew exactly how to operate the second they stepped into the spotless bakery. But for us rookies, it was our first swing up at the bat in the big leagues.

Worse still, the real bakers knew that time was of the essence. They circled around the large room and took a mental log of where all the important stuff lived, like tubs and cylinders used to scale ingredients or hold fermenting dough. They instantly sourced out the Essential Four (flour, water, yeast and salt) and understood that all the water had to be cycled through a digital cooler then laboriously calibrated with a probe thermometer.IMG_2828_EDIT From the corner of my eye, I saw a flurry of activity, bakers racing by our workbench wielding tall, plastic stacks of containers, pulling bins-on-wheels full of flour and figuring out which scales worked and which didn’t.

But my team was just too busy standing still, staring at each other’s nametags and politely pointing at the pile of formulas and wondering which of us would lead our naïve flock.

It was Chef Jesus, of course.

But how would I possibly address this tall, broad-shouldered teammate who stood by my side, yet towered above me? Should I pronounce the name embroidered on his chef’s coat like Sunday school or offer up a Spanishy “Hey Seuss? When I mangled out the latter, a cringe swept over the Texan’s mug then Jesus Lugo calmly inhaled, looked me straight in the eye and said dead-pan, “That’s right, Madeleine.”

From then on, I knew our team had an inkling of a chance. Not only was Chef Jesus Lugo experienced, but an extremely patient man who just happened to be built like a Mack truck. A community college instructor from El Paso, Texas, Jesus took the bull by the horns and picked up (no, levitated) a 20-kilo pail full of poolish and deftly poured it into the VMI Phebus mixer near our workbench.

IMG_2799_EDIT

L to R: Teammates Claudia Rezende and Gabrielle Thomas

Meanwhile, Claudia Rezende from Sao Paolo was scaling flour, reading glasses perched halfway down her nose, bouncing kid-like on her tiptoes in order to see the digital numbers flashing in front to her. She was giddy with joy to be standing in this facility in South San Francisco. Like I, she’d booked a room at a nearby airport motel and was titillated to be honing professional skills. But after less than a minute at the scale, Claudia stamped her foot angrily and swore something completely unsterile in Portuguese. One huge scoop of flour had just tipped the scale and the digital readout had gone blank.

IMG_3030_EDIT

Scaled yeast in a container on top of scaled flour.

Bread is baked by weight not volume and bakers follow formulas, not recipes. On day two of the course, we would bake four different breads: semolina durIMG_3270_EDITum crowns, rustic filone, spelt bread and 100 % whole grain bread. Every bread formula was designed to produce 25-40 kilos of dough (enough to cover the surface of a bath tub like a big, fluffy pillow) and would bake off into 50-75 loaves.

Everything was weighed.

On average, every one of Didier’s formulas was based on 10 kilos of flour. I’ve watched Toronto bakers slash open humungous 10-kilo-bags of flour mix, dump the entire contents into a mammoth mixer, pour in litres of water by the pitcher-full then turn on the mixers’ timer and walk away.

Not us. At SFBI we were “in production” in a refined, complex, scientific and artisanal way. Thus, the semolina durum crowns we mixed up on Day Two required 10 kilos of hard, white bread flour but our job was to meticulously scale (baker-speak for weigh out) this flour into a large, plastic rectangular bin, haul and dump it into a mixing bowl the size of a jumbo exercise ball, then add two (not one!) pre-ferments: a whole wheat durum sponge and a durum semolina poolish that had been prepared the day before and left to ferment from sundown to sunrise.IMG_3035_EDIT

“The pre-ferment!” shouted out Didier in the classroom the day before, his pitch just shrill enough to wake anyone snoozing in the back. “This is our secret tool. We can add something, something so fantastic to the final dough with a pre-ferment. What do you think that is?” he asked, his tone rising on the last syllable and left hanging in the air. He stared at us expectantly for a long while until he couldn’t stand it anymore and teased up the air above us, pointing and waving his magic marker frantically.

“Uh, uh, more fermentation?” suggested someone as if risen out of a coma.

“Yes, so….?” he prodded and waited, the room growing loud with silence until he sang out “Flavor my friends, flaaaaaavorrrr!!!” he droned with religious fervor.

But of course.

To be continued

IMG_3468_EDIT_Banner