Tag Archives: levain

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 bread

True confessions: I’m a little wired up about bread baking.  I do it weekly.  Sometimes daily.  The process never ceases to fascinate me. The day I stop being thrilled about a loaf of bread – before, during and after its creation – is a day not worth living for.

Once a new, gorgeous loaf is out of the oven and cool enough to touch, I have to photograph it.  I’ve been sharing much of this on Instagram and now it’s time to showcase some of my bread progeny here.

Green and black olives with thyme

Green and black olives with thyme

This is one of the first artisanal varieties I attempted back in the 90s when I baked just about every recipe in Amy’s Breads by Amy Scherber and Toy Kim Dupree. Amy owns a bakery in NYC and has come up with a brilliant sponge starter that offers an apt stepping stone to the next level up: the sourdough starter.

Olive bread is always a big hit, especially with my friend Danny who used to come to high school with olive sandwiches painstakingly created by her adoring mother who sliced olives off the pit and wedged them between two slices of buttered bread.  We thought Danny’s sandwiches were pretty weird back then. Little did we know she was a gourmet trendsetter.

Semolina and sesame loaves perched on bannetons

Semolina and sesame loaves perched on bannetons

I wanted to rise my loaves in bannetons like the French master bakers do, but I was too cheap to buy them.  Unavailable for purchase in Toronto, I found my first ones online at King Arthur Flour. All my American cookbooks had King Arthur Flour in their “Where to Shop” section but I choked when I saw the price: US$35 for a single basket! Fortunately, my mother was willing to fork over the big bucks when she found them on my birthday wish list.  I have treasured these light, airy baskets ever since.

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Here is a semolina sesame loaf that has spent the night in the refrigerator tucked inside a banneton, sealed within a large plastic bag. I dust (no, shower)  the banneton with rice flour before I turn a shaped loaf upside down and into it for the long, final rise.  The ridges of the reed basket form the circular pattern on top of the loaf which I flip on to a bread paddle lined with parchment. I simply cannot bake free form loaves without parchment paper. It works like a charm.

Roasted potato levain.

Roasted potato levain.

Photographing loaf after loaf can get a little monotonous.  I found a new backdrop with my living room couch! Ikea never looked so good.

My bread club has been doing communal bakes from the bible: Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman. The first time I made the recipe (pictured below) I used a preferment with a pinch of instant yeast (as the recipe instructs) but a fellow baker suggested I forget the yeast and use a starter instead.  I’ve been toying with roasted Yukon gold potatoes, sage and even spelt in several adaptations for a couple of weeks.

As my sister once observed, “You just can’t leave well enough alone, can you?”

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Roasted potato bread, page 117, Bread by Hamelman.

It’s true, I can’t. This photo above is my first attempt at Roasted Potato Bread  and it looked and tasted amazing. The crust was a deep amber, the residual rice flour from the banneton added artistic flare and flecks of Yukon gold potatoes and sage peaked through the crumb. But I had to mess with it, because my inner bread critic thought that crumb was too tight.

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Mado’s roasted potato levain.

Here above is the glorious result of my second try when I broke from the recipe and used a tablespoon of my trusty starter to make the preferment into a levain. Getting too technical? None of this really matters unless you are a bread nerd. And my friends are willing to listen to me talk bread as long as they get some bread.

Like my friend Randy.

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Cinnamon raisin levain.

He will nod and listen and say, “Uh huh, uh huh,” for hours of a monotonous Mado monologue on bread. He hardly says a word until the end, when he slips in, “Have you ever thought of cinnamon raisin?”

Many loaves go in his direction.  And when there is a dry spell, he’ll text me to say hello, finishing off with, “Some say white bread gets a bad rap…” That’s Randy-speak for “I want.”

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Vermont sourdough (mostly white with a tad of rye).

And in this case, he got.