Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sourdough English Muffins

Are you ready to bake delicious english muffins at home? I found a great recipe for doing just that at Recipes For the Future. Join me in making these tasty breakfast treats from scratch with your sourdough starter.

The first step is to make sure that you starter is fed.  (This means adding flour and water and bringing it to room temperature.)  Then mix up the dough as follows:
  • 1/2 cup sourdough starter
  • 1 and 3/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup water (if your water doesn't taste good to drink out of the tap, consider using bottled water)
Stir it up well, cover with cling wrap and let it sit on the counter overnight (about 7 to 10 hours).  In the morning, add
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt (or 1/2 tsp table salt)
  • 2 Tablespoons white sugar
  • Up to 3/4 cup additional AP flour (add gradually as shown below)

Add the flour a couple tablespoons at a time, just until the dough has lost its stickiness.  We still want it to be nice and moist.

After stirring the flour in, you are ready to roll!

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface.  You are aiming for a thickness of about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch thick.

If you don't have a biscuit cutter, don't worry about it.  Just choose a glass from your cupboard and go with it.  I opted for "cute" size this time, but next time will use a glass with a bigger rim (ideally 3 inches in diameter) so they are the right size for the toaster.  Live and learn, eh?  Oh yeah - and dip the rim of the glass in flour before cutting out the circles, so it won't stick.

(My dad asked why I couldn't use a cookie cutter for this step.  And you could.  But don't blame me if your family laughs when you serve breakfast bread in the shape of a gingerbread man or Valentine's heart.)

Keep cutting.  This step is fun, I think.  I've never made biscuits before - so I was really eating this up.  I even made Bryan get up from the computer and come see how much fun I was having.  When you can't cut out anymore, gob the dough together again, roll it out and repeat until there is no more dough left.

In the background you can see that I am placing the cut-outs on cookie trays.  What you can't see is that they have been generously covered in cornmeal.  This is an important step - not only to make sure they don't stick, but so that your muffins turn out looking like the ones you get at the store.  As my husband would say, the cornmeal "is a feature".

Sprinkle the cornmeal on the tops of the little guys, too.  Don't be shy here!  Keep on shaking till you're satisfied.  Then cover them up with a clean, non-terry cloth towel.  You are going to let them nap for about 45 minutes.

Here is a disappointing close-up of the dough after its little nap.  I couldn't really see if anything was happening.  You might not be able to either.  Resist the urge to send me hate-mail.  Continue on to the next step.

Heat up your non-stick skillet (or slap a smidge of butter in there if you are using the sticky kind) and start putting your little rounds in there.  But be careful!  Treat these like they are pancakes at this point.  If they touch (like a few of mine did) they are going to stick and it will be hard to dislodge them from one another.  (See the two in the middle of the pan?  Nuff said.)

Also, when I say you treat 'em like pancakes, that is also how you will know when to flip them.  Cause you're only flippin' these little boogers once.  While cooking the first side, wait till you can see bubbles on the top and then you know it's time to flip them over.  Then the time it takes to cook the second side will be slightly less than what it took for the first side.  Ballpark figure?  Probably  4 or 5 minutes for the first side on medium heat, and then maybe 3 minutes on the second side.  But really, wait for bubbles on the first side and then check the bottom side for when it is nice and brown.

Now transfer these to a cooling rack and let them cool (or the inside will be doughy).  Give them about 10 minutes, maybe.  Cut them open with a serrated knife and rejoice in those big beautiful holes. 

While they are still warm, spread a bit of butter on them - or slather them up with homemade jam.  (Thanks again, Leslie for the strawberry jam!)


Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bake Your First Sourdough Loaf

So, you've made your starter (or have sent away for a complimentary Oregon Trail starter from The Friends of Carl) and you are ready to dive head first into the wonderful world of sourdough baking? Great!

To give you an idea of what is to come, here is the first loaf I made with my new starter:

(Isn't it beautiful?)  I baked this loaf of bread using the great instructions and recipe provided by Northwest Sourdough.  So, with many thanks to the folks there, here comes my step-by-step experience with my first sourdough loaf in over a year.

The first step is to get your starter out of the fridge and refresh it (warm it up and feed it).  Or, if it is already on the counter, bubbling happily away at room temperature, just make sure it is well fed.  Mine had been in the fridge, so I fed it well (extra flour and water than I usually do - about a cup of each in this case) and let it sit on my stove top (as you see below) overnight.  

The recipe mentions 166% hydration (I almost closed the window right there and went looking for a more beginner-friendly article!) but all this means is that the ratio of water and flour in your stater is equal.  No sweat, if you have been feeding your starter according to my instructions, then it will already be at that ratio, because each time we feed it we've been adding equal parts flour and water.

The next morning I got up and assembled a few simple ingredients:
  • 4 cups Unbleached flour (I didn't have any bread flour on hand, but if you do, by all means - use it!)
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil (use whatever oil you want)
  • 3 teaspoons sea salt (or you can use 1.5 teaspoons table salt)
  • 1 cup warm water (not pictured)
  • 1 cup "vigorous" starter (is anyone else hearing Catherine Zeta-Jones saying that?)

As you see in the bowl below, I've dumped the flour in and added my cup of starter (you could technically call it "proofed sponge" if you like, I suppose).  Now in goes the oil...

Then we stir it up the old-fashioned way - with a spoon.  (I used to have a reminder here about not using metal utensils with your sourdough - but I just learned at Sourdough Home that stainless steel has no effect on sourdough - so if that's your fancy - stir away!)

Now we let the dough rest for ten minutes.  I learned that this is called "autolyse," for those of you trying to beef up your bread baking vocabulary.  Next, add the salt and stir if for about 3 minutes.  Then let it rise for 5 hours.

Afterward, it may look something like the picture below.  After all, mine did.  (But go ahead and take a second look at the pictures in the original recipe because they are good and the text is very descriptive about what is happening to the gluten at each step and how we can tell by looking at our dough.)

Next is the fun part!  We get to put our hands on the dough and knead it just a tiny bit into shape.  Plop the dough out of the bowl and on to a lightly floured surface.  Use your hands to fold the edges over until it is shaped like a ball.

My husband was kind enough to snap this pic of me at that point:

A tip at this point (which I gleaned from a great food blog: Steamy Kitchen) is to wet your hands rather than flour them to keep the dough from sticking.  This way you will not add too much flour at this point, which could make your bread overly dense or dry. 

Oh, and Bryan got a shot of my little helper, Dioji, too. 

When you are happy with your little ball of dough, place it on a portion of the surface that is not floured.  Give it ten minutes to relax and stick a little to the surface.  Now you can use both hands to twist the ball into a higher shape.

Ooh... I like the looks of that better, don't you?  While it is resting, you can grease and cornmeal the oven-safe bowl (probably Pyrex like mine) you will be using to bake the bread in.

Place the ball (or "boule" if you're feeling fancy) into the bowl and sprinkle more cornmeal on top.

Now we cover it with a damp towel (not terry cloth) and give it another 2.5 hours to rise (or "proof" as it is called in sourdough baking).  Sometime during the last hour, remove the cloth so that the dough can form a bit of a skin.  And preheat your oven to 450 degrees.  

Oh - but let's talk about winter sourdough baking for a moment.  If you keep your house cool in the winter (below 70 degrees) for reasons of economy - you may want to help your dough out a little by creating a slightly warmer place for it to rise.  A trick I learned from S. John Ross' article on Basic Bread is to turn the oven on to the lowest setting, let it heat up, turn it off, and then stick the dough in there to rise.  This is what I was doing in the picture below.  (By the way, he suggests as a rule of thumb, if you can not comfortably place your hand on the inside of the oven door, it is too hot in there.  We don't want to be baking - just making a comfy place for those yeasties to rise.)

Here is what my dough looked like after it had risen.  While I was taking this picture, I was preheating my oven.

Next comes the one step in this process that I do not look back on with satisfaction.  I feel like my slits that I cut caused the dough to fall a bit.  The original article suggests cutting them like flaps.  Umm... I don't know if I used the wrong knife or what.  But don't sweat it, right?  Even if your slices look as lame as mine the bread will still be good.  Proceed onward!

Put the bowl of dough in the oven.  During the first five minutes of baking, open the oven door once a minute and spray water on the sides of the oven wall.  This helps create that nice crust we want, and keeps it moist in the oven during that final proofing - or "oven spring."  There are no pics because this needs to happen quickly so that you don't lose all the heat out the open oven door.  But this is another one of the fun parts.  You will feel like a real pro as the water bursts into steam.

Turn the oven down to 425 after the first five minutes are up.  Continue baking for another 25 minutes.  If it looks like it is getting brown too fast, turn the oven down to 400.

Then take the bread out of the oven.  Carefully remove your loaf of bread from the (hot!) bowl and put the loaf back in the oven to crisp up the bottom of the loaf.  Give it 5 minutes in there to get it looking its best.

Take your loaf of bread around the house, photographing it to share with all your email and blogging buddies. Show each member of the household, including pets, what a wonderful baker you are.  Sing; dance; exult!

And here is the hardest part of the recipe: Put it on the cooling rack and LET IT COOL COMPLETELY before you eat it. If you do, the crumb (the texture inside and all those glorious holes) will be better. But if you don't, I won't tell.


Friday, December 28, 2007

Making Your Own Sourdough Starter

Repeat after me:

"Making sourdough starter is VERY EASY.
It just takes TIME."

In fact, according to S. John Ross at Gourmand Bleu, if you can mix flour and water together, you can make starter. And you can. It is just that easy. As John states in his article on the topic, "People who didn't believe the Earth was round did this for millenia." A couple years ago when I first tried cooking with sourdough I successfully made my starter according to the instructions he provides.

However, this time around I found a great article on The Fresh Loaf that tells step-by-step what to do, includes some pictures, and also explains why it works. It suggests things to overcome problems that different people have had when making their starter. It may be solving problems you're not going to have - but better to be safe than sorry, right?

Click here to see the post submitted by SourdoLady that I used to make my starter.

The biggest difference is that it starts out using pineapple juice instead of water. Evidently, this lowers the PH and makes the conditions favorable for wild yeast to activate and grow. We are also using a whole grain flour, such as wheat or rye. The wild yeast is present on the grains. It suggests milling the grains yourself - but let's not go crazy! I pulled my rye flour out of the cupboard (where it had been sitting for over a year, I'm absolutely certain) and had no trouble at all.

First day I mixed these in a small glass jar:
2 Tablespoons of rye flour
2 Tablespoons pineapple juice from a can
and I let it sit for 24 hours at room temperature. (Oh- and let's just be honest here too, sometimes it would be more like 36 hours if I got busy or forgot. It won't kill it - so long as it is getting fed fairly regularly.)

Below is a "feeding" such as happens on the second and third days. I added:
2 Tablespoons of juice &
2 Tablespoons rye flour

You may notice I am using a plastic thingy (left-over from my bachelorette party, as a matter of fact - thanks, ladies) to stir. Follow my example and use a plastic or wooden spoon. Sourdough starter doesn't like metal.  (Oops!  Guess that was an old wives tale.  For the real scoop on sourdough and metal check out this page about sourdough myths.)

Stir it up.
It is ready to sit again in my kitchen.
Day four (and the days following) you have to get rid of some of that starter, because the jar will be filling up from all those feedings. So you stir it down, measure out 1/4 cup, and discard the rest. (Sorry for the picture quality - this feeding happened at night.)

At this point you can use whatever kind of flour you want. I went with all purpose, because it was what I had on hand. But unbleached would be good if you have it. Whatever you choose, add 1/4 a cup to your starter.

Now here we are adding 1/4 cup lukewarm filtered (or spring) water. Let's get real here. If you have a Brita, you can filter it through that and use that. Or you can set the water out for a few days on your counter to remove the chlorine from it - but worse comes to worse - just use tap water. I did - and all is well.

Mix it back up.

You are going to continue this process once a day until you see bubbles on the side of the jar like this:

And on the top, like this:
To improve the flavor that your starter will produce in the bread you bake, go ahead and leave it at room temperature for a few more weeks, feeding it like this. You may begin to bake with it at this point. When you are happy with the flavor (or more likely, when you are tired of feeding everyday and throwing so much out) stick it in the fridge. It will slow down the fermentation process (how quickly your wild yeasts "eats") and you should only have to feed it once a week or so.

When you are storing it in the fridge, you will need to "revive" or feed you start and leave it at room temperature a bit before using the starter to bake. Most recipes will include this as the first step.

Congratulations! You have now created a healthy sourdough starter. Just think of the things you can begin to bake: sourdough bread, english muffins, pancakes, pizza crusts...

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In Search of Sourdough

As some of you may remember from my very first post, soon after I got married I began to bake my own bread. Not for everyday, but more for the confidence it gave me in the kitchen. So many people are intimidated by bread, I figured I would set out and accomplish the hard stuff first. And it was fun!

What you won't read there, because I didn't share it at the time, was that my excitement about homemade bread fizzled after a few attempts at sourdough bread which I considered failures at the time. The first loaf was decent bread, but had no sour flavor. I was dissapointed. The next time I let the starter proof extra long to make sure and have that sour flavor. I overdid it. We remember that loaf as, "the bread of fermentation." It was awful! I tossed my starter and moved on to sprouting.

But now I am back to bread baking. The reason being, over the past two trips to the grocery store we have purchased no less than five loaves of sourdough bread, and a couple packages of sourdough sandwich rolls. This began to seem like excess. (There are only the two of us, afterall! Dioji isn't eating sourdough.) I thought to myself for the hundredth time, "Wouldn't it be nice if I could bake this at home for us instead of spending money on it being baked and packaged?" Indeed.

I got back online and started researching. In addition to some recipes I can hardly wait to try out, I found some good articles listing the health benefits of eating naturally leavened bread (without commercial yeast).

In case this sparks your interest too, I will be posting on how to make your own starter next. ("Starter" is the batter that the wild yeast lives in [pictured above]. It is the key ingredient in sourdough baking.)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

I hope this Christmas is filled with love and joy for you, and that you have time to remember the Giver of all good gifts.

Now here is a little gift I'd like to pass on to my fellow bento lovers. If you haven't stopped by French Bento lately, you should. Take a look at the collection of beautiful photographs of Christmas bentos she has gathered and posted for all of us to enjoy! (There is a translation link on the right-hand side, but really, the pictures speak for themselves.)

Once again... Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

'Twas the week before Christmas...

...and all through Mer's blog, not a bento was posted!

Sorry for that. Here comes a couple. The first one is bento #49, brought to you in part by the color green. It includes apples, cucumber slices, and avocado wraps.

Bento #50 shows just what type of foods you'll find in my house before the holidays: junk! There is a rice Christmas tree, some almonds and kiwi. Then the sweets are more than covered with the red vines, marshmallows, and sugar cookie.

At this point I should have gone grocery shopping. Instead, I just stopped packing bentos and went back to a sandwich in a sack alternated with homemade lentil soup.

Hope you are all having a very merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Stray Bento

This bento was what I took to work on Tuesday, actually. Yesterday I took potato soup (delish!) and today I am taking spaghetti.

Bento #48:

  • Cat onigiri with clove eyes
  • ham slices
  • almonds
  • kiwi
  • lemon sections
I ended up using some of the lemon to squeeze on my rice, to give it some flavor.

The cat was mistaken by one of my co-workers for a snowman, and she congratulated me on being so seasonal. That would have been a good idea, hmm? Another co-worker chimed in and said it would look more like a cat if it had whiskers. A month ago they would have been really impressed by my little lunch. A few months later, everyone's a critic.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Gluehwein (Hot Spiced Wine)

This time of year, whatever tiny bit of German blood my husband may have in him urges him to reach for a steaming hot glass of Gluehwien and enjoy this festive season. This is the first year that we have attempted making it from scratch at home, and I am here to share with you the results as well as the recipe (because we enjoyed it immensly).

We found a recipe on (where else?) All Recipes. This recipe, submitted by Else, was a great starting point. We made a double batch, and used some of the comments to modify the ingredients. Here's what we did...


  • 3/4 cup water
  • 3/4 cup orange juice
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 lemons (1 cut in half, and 1 sliced)
  • 1 orange (cut in half, one half sliced)
  • 20 whole cloves
  • 1.5 liter bottle of red wine (cheap merlot)
In a saucepan we combined the water, OJ, sugar and cinnamon sticks. We brought it to a boil, reduced the heat, and let it simmer. We squeezed the 2 lemon halves and 1 orange half, adding their juice to the simmering mixture and then putting the peels in as well.

We borrowed a tip from the Plain ‘Ol Gluhwein Recipe at Gluhwein.Net Blog. It suggested placing the cloves in a tea ball, so they would be easy to remove later.

Here it is, simmering away, just before we added the orange. We allowed it to simmer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, we cut up the other lemon and the unused half of the orange for use later in the crockpot and as a garnish.

When the 30 minutes was up, besides smelling delicious, the mixture on the stovetop had also become pretty syrupy. At this point, we poured it into a mason jar for transport, because we were taking this over to our friends' house. We also took this bottle of wine that we bought very cheaply at Winco:

When we got to our friends', we plugged in our crockpot, emptied the mason jar and wine bottle into the crockpot, floated some fruit slices in there for further flavor and to look pretty, and turned it all on high. When it was steaming, we served it in a glass mug over a cinnamon stick.

It was completely delicious. Sorry that the picture up top is fuzzy. I took it very quickly at their house - explaining to my hosts that I was "blogging."