Happy New Year, 2011

Happy New Year! May what lies in store for 2011 delight, surprise, comfort, challenge, and fulfill you.

Baking bread does all of those things for me. These are some of my favorite breads from the past year:

Baguettes with Poolish
Soft Semolina Sourdough
Orange Pecan Sticky Buns with Dates and Cranberries
Rosemary-Cornmeal Grissini
Semolina Sourdough with Fennel, Currants, and Pine Nuts
Seeded Multigrain Sourdough
Grape Schiacciata
Sourdough Corn Bread
Bread Crumb Sourdough

Going Wild

One of the questions I get asked most often is how to take a bread recipe and substitute sourdough starter for baker’s yeast.

The short answer, in my humble opinion, is: you can’t. Do I hear gasps? Can Ms. Wild Yeast be advising against using wild yeast?

No, she isn’t. But let’s think about this a minute. You have a recipe you like, and it uses baker’s yeast. (You do like the recipe, don’t you? Otherwise why would you want to keep it around?) Now you want to simply take out the the baker’s yeast and replace it with wild yeast. Simple, right?

But with sourdough starter, you’re not only adding yeast, your’re adding flour, water, bacteria and the acids they produce (these are what make sourdough sour), alcohol, and other compounds that are products of fermentation. And in so doing, you’re potentially going to be changing (for better or worse) some things: dough consistency and strength, fermentation time, keeping quality, and, of course, flavor and texture of the bread, to name a few.

So, what was it you liked about that original recipe, anyway? If you care to, you can read more of my thoughts on tweaking recipes. It pretty much boils down to this: if you do things differently, you may well wind up with a different result.

That said, I don’t want to make it sound like you can’t or shouldn’t use a baker’s yeast recipe as a starting place to develop a different, sourdough-leavened, bread. What I can tell you is where I would start If I were going to do this (and I have, plenty of times). What I can’t give you is a pat formula — and that would be boring anyway, wouldn’t it?

[Read more...]

Saving a Drowning Dough

Just to be clear, this is not what is referred to as a water bagel.

This is what happened when I added approximately 50% more water than I should have to the final dough of some sourdough bagels. Unlike another bread I made in the same week, where the overwatering was deliberate if misguided, this was pure accident.

What to do? Add 50% more of all the other ingredients to preserve the dough’s bagel identity? Not an option, since I had neither more sourdough starter nor high-gluten flour on hand. Toss the dough? Perish the thought!

There was only one option left that I could see: process and bake the dough as if it were ciabatta. That is, I folded it several times during the bulk fermentation to get the strength that is difficult to achieve in a mixer when the dough is so wet. (Of course I was helped here by the high-gluten flour and the sourdough as well.) Then I used my usual ciabatta technique to cut the dough into roll-sized rectangles and proof it in a very-liberally-floured couche.

[Read more...]

Cranberry Bread (Still)

The original edition of this post appeared on Wild Yeast on November 19, 2007, and again in 2008. This year, our family is in transition, but we’re still family, and still thankful, and we have the cranberry bread to prove it. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving With (As Always) Cranberry Bread

This is the bread I will be serving at Thanksgiving dinner this year. It is the same bread I made last year, and just about every year since I learned how to turn on the oven. It is the same bread you will see here next year if this blog is still around. It’s cranberry-nut bread, the recipe clipped from the back of a long-ago Ocean Spray bag.

The rest of the menu will be similarly well-worn: roast turkey with chestnut stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potatoes, squash, creamed onions, apple pie, pumpkin pie.

I may vary the sweet potato treatment a bit from year to year. I add a brussels sprout or two if the urge strikes me. I like to try new pumpkin pie recipes from time to time. But by and large, the menu is eminently simple and predictable.

This is not because I’m not an adventurous cook (although I’m the first to admit I’m not). It is because Thanksgiving dinner is not about the Cuisine, it’s about the Food. It’s about the familiar, abundant dishes you know will always be on your plate, year after year, dishes that come together to create what Tim calls “the perfect mouthful.” These are things that would be sorely missed if they weren’t on the table. This is food that tastes good without having to fuss with it. It’s food you know you can count on.

Now that I think about it, Thanksgiving dinner is a feast that’s a lot like the family I’ll be sharing it (whether physically or in spirit) with.

So no recipes today. The bread recipe is still on the back of the cranberry bag if you need it, but I suspect you don’t. Just make what you made last year.

Have a beautiful Thanksgiving, everyone!

When Life Gives You Overhydration

I made baguettes Fromartz a few weeks ago, and they were great. I’m not sure if I mentioned, though, that the first time I tried them, I made a mistake in reading the formula.

It wasn’t a hard mistake to make (I’m very good at rationalizing these things) — don’t you think that when 420 grams of water is sandwiched between 90 grams of starter and 590 grams of flour in the ingredients list, it would be very easy to turn that 420 grams of water into 490 grams? Of course it would be.

[Read more...]

What It’s Still About

Today is the second anniversary of my first post on this blog. Since it’s my party and I’ll indulge myself if I want to, I thought I’d take a look at my very first post, which was about why I love to bake and why I wanted to start a blog, and see how things have changed, or not, over the past two years.

This is the entirety of that first post, with today’s annotations:

What It’s About

Let’s be clear up front: I really have no credentials, no business writing a blog, much less one that has anything to do with food. I’m not young, hip, witty, artistic, or visionary. I’m not a foodie, a chef, a writer, a critic, or a photographer. I can’t cook, although I sometimes try, but I don’t eat out much either. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the concept of a “trackback.” [At least I've pretty much got the trackback thing down by now.]

Yes, the sad truth is that I possess a solitary qualification: I bake a lot of bread. [Still true enough.]

That’s all about the bread, of course: perhaps the most universal of foods, a thing virtually synonymous with food itself. Infinitely versatile and varied, everyone likes it, every cuisine includes it, and no meal is complete without it. [I dare anyone to argue with that.]

But I’m a stone’s throw from San Francisco, and great bread of all kinds is in no short supply here; you don’t have to bake your own to eat very well indeed.

So, as it turns out, it’s equally about the baking.

It’s about a process that engages and satisfies every single one of my senses. Really, how many activities do that and don’t scandalize your mother when you let it slip that you gave some to your husband, your boss, and the guy next door, all in one day? [Ooh, talk gluten to me, baby! And let's not forget the tutor, the carpet cleaner, and the window washer.]

[Read more...]