Category Archives: red fife

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 .

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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.

Breaking West Coast Bread

There are few things I like to do more than visit bakeries. Good bakeries, that is. And I knew Victoria, B.C. was going to oblige.

It all started with this faction of folks I know who all either live in Victoria, or wish they did. They are all foodies. And they keep bragging about Victoria’s great coffee and artisanal bread.

IMG_8339Fol Epi (398 Harbour Rd #101,
(250) 477-8882) was on the top of their list. The French name was unforgettable. Fol means “wild” and epi is a classic, long and narrow loaf shaped like a branching wheat stalk.

“Look for the silo,” advised Victoria resident Kent Green when he heard I was coming into town. “They grind their own flour!”

I never found the silo but I did see the huge stone grinder through the window of this unique destination. Fol Epi is located at Dockside Green, a 15-acre sustainable, LEED-certified development in Victoria’s inner harbour and the perfect venue for this organic bakery where baker Cliff Leir has installed not only a flour mill, but a wood-fired oven.IMG_8338

He’s using only two, organic, Canadian-grown grains at his bakery – Red Fife and rye – yet outputting a large variety of breads including the namesake epi, baguette, boule, rye round, whole wheat, and ciabatta. Not only is Leir grinding flour daily but he is also sifting his Red Fife into a more refined flour suitable for the baguette and ciabatta.IMG_8406Not surprisingly, this chef is a member of Slow Food Canada and while “artisanal” is a label many use with abandon – Leir defines the term. His breads are all leavened with wild yeast (aka natural starter) and often take up to 24 hours to ferment. Humidity and temperature affect these breads immensely. Factor in the fluctuating heat of a wood-fired oven and this becomes an ultra-challenging place to bake consistently high-quality loaves.

I’d say Leir revels in it. I spoke to him briefly when visiting Fol Epi this month and when I suggested his bread baking routine presented a few hurdles, there was a knowing twinkle in his eyes. Then he simply smiled and nodded.

He does, however, have a very modern four-deck electric baker’s oven where he produces a variety of high-selling pastries, from croissants, to canel cakes to macaroons.

Then there’s the rich aroma of Caffe Fantastico wafting through his bakery. He shares the building with one of Victoria’s top espresso shops, where they roast their own beans, of course!

IMG_8310Coffee and pastries go hand in hand. And that same special synchronicity happens in “Vic West” at Fry’s Red Wheat Bakery (416 Craigflower Rd; (250) 590-5727 ). Equipped with a cafe latte from The Spiral Coffee Co. next door, I ambled into this quaint little bakery owned by Byron Fry who started his bread-baking career with a mobile oven, visiting farmers’ markets. In 2012, he finally settled and opened this shop only to learn that in 1897 his great grandfather had established a bakery right across the street. In tribute, Fry uses his family’s historical logo and name. And he doesn’t veer too widely from the artisanal methods employed more than a century ago.IMG_8315

Like Fol Epi, he bakes out of a wood-fired oven that he had custom built on the site. He also uses organic grains, heirloom wheat and natural starters to create loaves that are rich in taste, such as IMG_8311Whole Wheat Country, German Rye, Pain Rustique, Cinnamon Raisin Rye, Flax Rye, Sunflower 100% Rye, Focaccia (Olive-Rosemary-Roasted Garlic) and baguettes.

I tasted the pain rustique and was floored. This bread contains 30 per cent whole grains and has a faintly sour, layered flavour with a wide open crumb. The cinnamon raisin rye travelled back to Toronto with me and continued to satisfy for days, with its rich rye flavour and raisin-studded interior. Fry bakes his loaves dark, resulting in a caramelized, crackly crust flecked with deliciously burnt notes.IMG_8340

I wish I had tasted his pain au chocolate. His Tumbler account reads: “You can see the gorgeous layers created by this amazing butter from Jerseyland organic milk produced by 100 Jersey cows in Grandforks B.C .where the farmers know all their cows by name, not number. We are the only bakery in town using this butter and it makes all the difference!”

That’s something to shout about.

And me, I’ll be pouting in despair until my return back to Victoria where I plan to visit five more artisanal bakeries on my list.