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fougasseI began experimenting with French and Italian style bread methods over the years and finally decided to tackle something simple – which as usual, I had long presumed was complicated.  The French Fougasse is, and is not, complex;  actually it is roughly the equivalent of the Italian Focaccia – a famous & delicious leavened bread.

I used an Italian bread-making approach to start this French bread project, which requires a biga – basically a sponge (in French it is an Autolyse).  I mixed 1/2 tsp of dried yeast and 1/4 cup of warm water; and after it proofed, I stirred it into 1-1/3 cups of water and almost 3 cups of unbleached white flour.  This mixture I covered loosely & allowed to stand for 24 hours.  At this point the biga first stood for 24 hours (ideally); and thereafter remember that the longer this simple dough ferments, the more the flavor will develop.   4-6 hours will work in a pinch.This base will make several batches of bread.  You can also use baguette dough, or almost any kind of dough that you like to shape and bake a fougasse.

To begin, I measured a cup of the bubbly, sloppy, shaggy biga (which is how it should be) into a mixing bowl with:

1-1/2 cups warm water

1 cup rye flour

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

unbleached all purpose flour to make a sticky dough

1 generous tsp salt

1 tsp yeast, and

1 tbsp of good olive oil.

Place all the ingredients into a mixing bowl – if you’re using an electric mixer begin at low speed, gradually adding the flours and other ingredients until you have a dough that seems to be too wet – but still pulls away from the side of the bowl.  Allow to mix thoroughly for another 5-8 minutes until the mass becomes elastic and comes together.  At this point I removed the dough hook, removed the mixing bowl from the stand, and covered it with plastic wrap.

After 5 hours I scraped the dough from the rising-bowl and gently patted and encouraged it into a 13 X 9″ rectangle.  This rectangle I cut in half, and placed one half in the fridge in an oiled plastic bag.  You could make another fougasse, grissini (breadsticks), or pizza dough.

Extend your smaller rectangle of dough into an approximately 13 X 9 inch rectangle and make a few roughly symmetrical slashes, and a center top slash – so that it resembles an impressionistic leaf.  Coax the loaf out a little more on a floured peel, baking sheet or other surface.  Cover with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel, allowing it to ferment for another 45 minutes.  At that point briefly tease and play with the loaf until you have an creative, rustic leaf-shape.

In the mean-time heat your oven to 450-500F  – if you’re using a baking stone let the preheating continue for 25 minutes.  Now that your dough has completed the second and final rising, brush a little olive oil over the top, with flavorings if your wish (garlic, herbs, sesame seed, poppy, etc).  Ease the bread quickly into the oven, misting well with water.  You may also humidify the oven with a pan of boiling water – this will ensure a very good crust.

Let the loaf bake for the first 7-8 minutes, in the humidified oven, misting every 2-3 minutes if necessary; rotate the loaf  (or baking platform) front to back and continue baking for another 5-8 minutes.  Watch carefully to avoid scorching.  Dark brown patches are OK and lend character.  Let cool on a baking rack for 10-20 minutes before serving.


I have not yet completely decided whether I love pizza crust yeast or not.  I definitely do love the resulting pizza that comes out of the oven – and I have now experimented with the product 4 times, as of today.  Here is the brand that I used, which is not an endorsement. .  One of the ingredients that distinguishes this yeast product is sorbitan monostearate.

SORBITAN MONOSTEARATE … Emulsifier: Cakes, candy, frozen pudding, icing. Like mono- and diglycerides and polysorbates, this additive keeps oil and water mixed together. In chocolate candy, it prevents the discoloration that normally occurs when the candy is warmed up and then cooled down.

The above citation comes from .  The website appears to err on the side of caution, which I appreciate, but also does not say anything particularly negative about sorbitan monostearate.  I am still suspicious of long chemical names, so that is why I feel undecided.

My phone cam won’t upload a photo today, so please imagine your favorite super crunchy thin-crust pizza.

There is a difference between the preparation on the product-package, and the website listed above.  The product from the super market lists 3 Tbsp of olive oil among the ingredients.  I followed the directions on the packet.

I pre-heated my oven to 500F  for 25 minutes with a baking stone inside.  You can also easily use a metal baking sheet.

1-3/4 to 2-1/4 cups all purpose flour

1 tsp salt (I used a scant teaspoon)

1-1/2 tsp sugar

3 tbsp olive oil (or oil of your choice)

1 packet of pizza crust yeast

2/3 cup quite warm water.  That means between 120-130F.  Yes you read correctly.

I made this easy on myself & used a food processor to mix the dough.  Everything goes into the Cuisinart at once, and pulse the dough into a firm, soft, silky dough ball.  Hardly takes a minute or so.  It is now ready to use!  I have divided the dough in half & put some in the fridge for later use, simply popping it into a plastic sandwich bag.  You now have enough dough for a personal pizza, or an appetizer pizza for two.

Rub your hands with a little olive oil and begin flattening the dough into a rough disc.  Don’t worry about making a perfect circle, because that isn’t the point.  I you actually get a circle, good for you.  If you get a lop-sided oval or a trapezoid, all the better.  You can’t buy that in the freezer case, and it will show that this is homemade.  The dough will be surprisingly supple and yielding.  Drape the disc over the top of one fist and gently stretch, tugging lightly with your other hand and giving a quarter turn.  This will begin to shape the base as you repeat several times.  You can also hold one edge with one hand, and allow the weight of the dough to stretch itself, as you manage the stretch with your other hand.  Don’t worry if it tears or gets little thick areas.  Play with it, practice with it.  Start over and enjoy this new toy, if you’re a first timer.  Toss it in the air if you’re unafraid.  You can also use a rolling pin, or the tips of your fingers and tease it out on a flat surface if you don’t feel especially daring.

Gradually make an approximately 12″ diameter more-or-less flat bread and lay it down on your oven peel, sprinkled with semolina or flour – or on your baking sheet, sprinkled with semolina/flour.  Make sure that it can slide around and doesn’t stick to the surface.  If you follow my suggestions, your finished crust will be about 1/4″ , a little thicker at the edges.


I kept it very simple

2/3 cup very well drained tomato (I used home-canned plain tomatoes, crushed – you can also use fresh)

salt & pepper to taste

big pinch each of oregano and basil, fresh or dry

big pinch dried hot pepper flakes

small clove garlic grated or sliced paper thin

scant cup of your favorite cheese(s) – I used gruyer or mozzarella, or both

a couple Tbsp of grated, shaved or slivered Parmesan or Romano cheese

Add some shaved scallions or shallots, chopped parsley, chopped olives, a handful of arugula or anything else that you have, if you wish.  Today I also crumbled 1/2 an Italian style turkey sausage over the pie. I think the only rule is not to overload the crust, which will tend to make it soggy.  You want the crust to co-star with the flavors you top it with.  Crush the first five ingredients gently together & spread around the dough, to within 1/2″ of the edge, adding sausage or other protein if you have it on hand, and top over all with your cheese.  Some people like to brush a little oil around the edge of the crust, but you don’t have to.

Place your pizza into the screamingly hot oven and you will be surprised at how quickly it is ready. Maybe 10 minutes or less.  Give it a 180 degree turn after 5 minutes, and then start watching it like a hawk.  When you get some nice browning or charring on the crust remove from the oven and place immediately on a cooling rack to let the crust develop.  It is actually ready to serve, but it is also volcanically hot, so I let it cool slightly before slicing & serving.  You might never buy or order a pizza again in your life.

100_1682In the past few weeks I  somehow located a couple of indispensable   ingredients to emulate  a fantastic batch of Corona de Pane Siciliana, yesterday:  ‘The Crown’, a typical Sicilian bread.  The ingredients in question?   A finely milled Semolina flour, officially designated  with ‘Tipo 00′, which is a hard wheat (high gluten) popular in Italian kitchens- including pasta production- but most especially for bread-making in Sicily.  Sometimes referred to as ‘Double Zero’ in English – governed under state agricultural standards – similar to an appellation.  And then- unbleached bread flour?- there are always happy surprises in this world.  This is one of them.

I finally found my 2.2# bag of Double Zero at Cossetta’s in St. Paul for $4.36.  The price is a bit steep for the weight, but I estimated that I can make eight loaves of excellent bread, saving about $40-45 at the cash register.  A commercial loaf of Semolina bread in Minneapolis last week was $4.99-5.99.  Mine cost about $1 of ingredients

The second ingredient I discovered was Gold Medal’s UNBLEACHED bread flour ($3.89 at Rainbow Foods, Uptown).  I have used and have loved bread flour over the years, because it does makes a discernible difference in raised breads.  But I tended not to use it because it is hard to find organic, or at the very least unbleached.   I will be going back to this product often, because I have tended to make a lot of my own bread for the past 35 years- plus, this unbleached flour gave a richer color -and I believe superior flavor- to the final loaf.  Together, these two ingredients alone contributed to a baking of Italian style bread that I could not  have imagined coming out of my oven.

Some other elements helped to make this successful:  Malt powder, fresh (compressed) yeast, a wooden bread peel and baking stone.  Also, this bread only has a first and second rising; no third rising!  However, if you administer a redundant 2nd rising, this bread turns out to be very forgiving. 🙂  In jazz there are no mistakes, there are only opportunities.

Here’s the basic recipe, which I adjusted only merely from The Italian Baker, by Carol Field ( 1985, Harper & Row)

2-1/2 tsp active dry yeast or 2/3 oz (18 grams) fresh yeast

1/4 cup warm water

1 Tbsp olive oil

1-1/2 tsp malt powder (I used Carnation Instant Malted Milk), plus 1/2 tsp sugar

1 cup water, room temperature

about 2-1/2 cups fine semolina flour (tipo 00, or double zero)

1 cup plus 1 Tbsp unbleached bread flour

2 tsp salt

1/3 cup sesame seed (use raw white sesame seed)

I used a counter-top mixer (Kitchen Aid) with a kneading hook attachment, and it worked beautifully.  In the mixing bowl, crumble the fresh  (or dried) yeast into the warm water and add the malt powder & sugar.  Add the remaining cup of room temperature water, and let sit for 10 minutes until the yeast has proofed.  Add olive oil to the yeast & water.

After you know the yeast has started working, combine your flours, and slowly begin to incorporate at medium low speed in your mixer.  When all the flour is in, increase speed to medium and slowly add salt, and knead with the dough hook until it yields an admirable, satiny, soft, sturdy dough.  This took only about 5 minutes with my machine.  Remove dough to a lightly oiled bowl, and allow to rise for approximately 1-1/2 hours.

Punch down and knead the dough very slightly and allow to rest, covered, for 5 minutes.  Now it is time to shape your loaves.  Now you can form Mafalda, Corona, or Occhi di Santa Lucia.  Here is how to make the Corona.  Divide the dough in half, and pat out each roughly into the shape of a rectangle- I think mine were about 4″ X 8″.  Now take your bench knife (or a regular knife) and tri-sect the rectangle, cutting the dough about 1/3 of the way toward the center.  Spread slightly apart, so that it resembles a three-toed bear claw pastry.  making Sicilian Bread again :)

I sprinkled my work-surface with a scattering of sesame seeds and placed the loaves on them.  Then lightly mist the top of the loaves with water and cover well with the remaining 1/4 cup of sesame.  I used a baking peel, sprinkled with a good dusting of regular semolina flour (or cornmeal) – so I put my loaves on the peel, covered it with plastic wrap, and covered that with a light kitchen towel.  If you are baking them on a baking sheet, instead of a baking stone, then place your bread directly on the baking sheet, which has been sprinkled with semolina (or cornmeal).  Allow to rise for 1-1/2 hours, or until double.

Preheat your oven to 425F for 20 minutes, with or without a baking stone, mist your bread with water & place  in the oven, misting them with water every 3 minutes thereafter, for the first 10 minutes.  Lower heat to 400F and continue baking for another 25-30 minutes.  Cool on baking rack, and wait until the bread is completely cool before slicing.


click on any photo to enlarge.

N.B.  The original recipe calls for malt syrup, which I didn’t possess for this baking… so I punted.  I will shop soon at a home-brewers shop to source this uncommon ingredient.  I think of malt syrup as a softer, rich, complex ingredient, as opposed to the plain, hard sweetness of cane sucrose.

I have a favorite bread recipe that I’ve used for decades – and I don’t usually follow recipes when I bake bread – which can be once a week.  This requires a 1-hour first proofing before shaping into loaves, so it’s quick.  It keeps well, but disappears quickly, it’s so delicious.  This Wholegrain Wheat Bread recipe comes from Mildred Ellen Orton’s “Cooking with WHOLEGRAINS, THE Basic WHOLEGRAIN COOKBOOK, NEW REVISED EDITION WITH NEW RECIPES $1.95“, originally published in 1951.  Quite a trailblazer.

1-1/2 c warm water

2-1/4 tsp (1 pkg) dry yeast

2 tsp brown sugar

1/2 c powdered milk

4+ c whole wheat flour

1/4 c brown sugar

1 tsp salt

1/4 liquid shortening

I have halved the original recipe, so this will make 1 loaf pan, or 2 round loaves.

Dissolve yeast in the water, along with 2 tsp brown sugar, and allow to stand while mixing dry ingredients.  Combine 4 cups flour, with powdered milk, 1/4 c brown sugar and salt.

Add half of the flour mixture to the water – and I use an electric stand-mixer – mix thoroughly.  Add liquid shortening (I use ordinary vegetable oil) and remaining flour mixture.  For some reason I have found that sometimes I need at least another cup of flour to make a workable dough – it will be quite soft, but that’s ok.  I usually let the dough-hook knead for about 10 minutes when all the flour has been added.

Allow this to rise for an hour, punch down & separate into 2 equal parts.  Fit the two small loaves into a 9 x 5 buttered bread pan and allow to rise for another 1/2 hour.  The loaves may be separated after they have baked.  Or you can bake them as free-standing round loaves.

Bring oven to 400F and bake the bread for 15 minutes, reducing the heat to 350F.  Continue baking for 25-30 minutes.  Remove bread from pans immediately and place on wire cooling racks.  Brush tops with butter.

This bread makes unbelievably magnificent toast!

I don’t know what else to call them.  When I bake bread, usually once a week, I take part of the dough, add an egg, extra sweetening & more butter.  This is what’s known as a rich egg- or sweet- yeast dough.  Make a kuchen, a stollen, Parkerhouse rolls.  You could even treat it something like croissants.

After a second rising and deflating, let the dough rest for a few minutes.  Then ease it out into a solid rectangle, about 10 x 16.  Brush 2 T of soft butter across 1/2, and fold it like a book.  Carefully roll out again, like a long rectangle, give a 1/4 turn and fold both edges into the middle, and close it like a book once more ; wrap with plastic, refrigerate and forget about it all for a while.  The gluten will relax, and in another 1/2 hr you’ll be ready to repeat the process one more time, which produces a couple dozen layers.

I finished with a 14 x 8 rectangle and divided it longways with a very sharp knife.  Then I cut each length by six = 12 portions.  I place them in a greased muffin tin, so they fan out on top.  After a 1/2 hr rising I gave them a spray of water and poppy seed and put them in a 375F oven for about 20 min.

Cool on a wire rack, and they are very good, even after they have cooled completely.

Here are a few recipes that visitors online have requested at one time or another –  My favorite Shoofly, Hoppin John, and Moravian Love Feast Buns.  I don’t have photos for any of these at the moment.

There are 2 types of Shoofly Pie- one is generally referred to as ‘wet’, the other ‘dry’. This is the wet variety (that just means it’s not dry like cake- it should come out very moist, almost like a bread pudding.) Some people only put the crumbs on the bottom of the pie shell, others put the molasses mixture on the bottom. I put most of the crumbs on the bottom, and scatter the reserve over the top.

unbaked 9″ pie pastry
3/4 c flour
1/2 c br sugar
1/2 t cinnamon (generous)
dash salt
2 T butter
1/2 c molasses (I use dark)
3/4 c very hot water
1 egg yolk, beaten
1/2 t baking soda

Cut the dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl mix molasses, soda & hot water- beat in the egg yolk quickly so it doesn’t scramble and get hard. Put most of the crumbs in the bottom of the pie shell so it is roughly even- it doesn’t have to look perfect- no one’s going to see it because you’re going to pour the molasses mixture all over it anyway.  Sprinkle w remaining crumbs over all & bake in 375 oven for about 40-45 min

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My Hoppin John  (a special New Year’s dish)

* sort, soak overnight, and drain one dry # of black eyed peas (drown them in water)
* a  ham hock or meaty ham bone (sometimes I substitute smoked turkey)
– or today, I used an Andouille sausage in place of all of the above
* 2 medium onions, divided
* 3 large cloves garlic, halved
* a bay leaf
* 1 cup rice
* 1 can (10 to 14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes with chile peppers, juices reserved
* 1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
* 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
* 3 stalks celery, chopped
* 1 jalapeno or Serrano pepper, minced
* 2 teaspoons Cajun or Creole seasoning
* 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
* 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
* 3/4 teaspoon salt
* 4 green onions, sliced

In a large Dutch oven or kettle, combine the drained black-eyed peas, ham bone or ham hocks, and 6 cups water. Cut 1 of the onions in half and add it to the pot along with the garlic and bay leaf. Bring to a boil NO SALT added, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer gently until the beans are tender but not mushy (probably a couple of hours). Remove the ham bone or hocks- or turkey-, cut off the meat; dice and set aside. Drain the peas and set aside. Remove and discard the bay leaf, onion pieces, and garlic.  If salt is introduced as the beans cook, they will become tough & unpleasant.  Season them after they have completed cooking.

*Five Bean Rule:   give the pot a good stir, pick out 5 random beans and pinch them.  If they all squish and yield between your fingers, they are perfect.

Add 2 1/2 cups of water to the pot and bring to a boil. Add the rice, cover, and simmer until the rice is almost tender, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Chop the remaining onion then add to everything else. Cook until the rice is tender. Stir in the sliced green onions and the reserved diced ham.

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Moravian Love Feast Buns
(recipe from the Moravian Music Journal– this is from about 30 years ago).  This communal act of  worship has been described as an Agape Feast, where collective resolve is strengthened among the community,  and goodwill is affirmed.  The two key food components are Lovefeast coffee, which is like a mild sweet cafe au lait; and a soft, sweet raised bun, which goes perfectly with coffee or cocoa- or in many locations on many occasions,  orange juice, tea or Kool-aid.
oven 350 degrees

1 c mashed potatoes
1 c sugar
½ t salt
½ c warm water
1 T grated orange rind
1 t. grated lemon rind
½ t nutmeg
5-6 c flour
½ c scalded milk
½ c butter
3 pkg dry yeast
2 eggs, beaten
1 T orange juice
1 t. lemon juice
½ t. mace

Cool potatoes to lukewarm. Scald milk, adding sugar, butter, and salt.
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Into sugar mixture stir the lukewarm milk, potatoes, yeast, eggs, lemon/orange rinds & juices, nutmeg/mace.

Stir in 2 ½ c flour until smooth
Add enough additional flour to make soft dough and knead till satiny. Let rise till double, punch down cover & rest for 5-10 min.

Shape into approx. 2” balls, and place on greased pans, not touching; let rise till doubled.
Bake 15-20 min. Brush with milk and sprinkle with sugar when fresh from oven

Last year I went on an expedition with Citty Katt to an estate sale in Minneapolis, at a grand old brownstone house near the Art Institute.  It was there I found a book entitled, The Italian Baker, by Carol Field- and it’s a really great guide.

Here is a good recipe for a typical bread from Sicily, and it makes a very enjoyable  loaf, which is made with durum or very fine semolina flour.  You can shape the bread one of 3 standard ways – the Mafalda (like a curled snake with a baton laid across the top); a scaletta (ladder); or a Corona (crown).

I made a couple of substitutions to make this today – using part milk as liquid, as well as butter instead of olive oil – and I reduced the salt by half, which I think is still plenty salty.

But here are the ingredients as they appear in Ms. Field’s book (makes 2 loaves):

2-1/2 tsp dry yeast

1/4 cup warm water

1 T olive oil

1 tsp malt syrup

1 cup water, room temperature

~ 2-1/2 cups (350 grams) durum flour or very fine semolina for pasta

1 cup plus 1 T (150 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour

2-3 tsp salt

1/4 cup sesame seeds.

Proof the yeast in the warm water for 10 minutes before whisking in oil, sweetening and 1 cup water.  (For reference, the author said to pulverize the semolina flour in a food processor until it is silky, if you use American semolina, which is coarser than its Italian counterpart – I did that and it worked just fine).  Mix the flours together and add 1 cup at a time along with the salt, beating vigorously, and when it is ready to knead, put your heart into it.  Semolina is a hard wheat with a very high gluten content, which makes it ideal for breadmaking.

Allow to rise for about 1-1/2 hours before punching down and shaping into loaves.  For my Mafalda, I shaped the dough into a long rope, probably 2+ feet long, and formed it directly on the baking pan, which was lined with parchment and sprinkled with cornmeal.   I misted some water over the top, followed by sesame seeds- which are very characteristic in Sicilian breads.

This will be one more rising of 1 to 1-1/2 hours.   In a 425F oven mist some water when you place the loaves in the center rack.  In the first 10 minutes, spray additional water in a total of 3 times, before reducing the heat to 400.  Continue baking for another 25 minutes or so before cooling on racks.

When we lived in the upper peninsula of Michigan, an energetic Moravian preacher’s wife introduced our family to Ebelskivers.  I have one of those heritage, cast iron cooking vessels in my kitchen to this very day.  The Danish word means apple pancakes, or something close to that.  We spent entire Sundays stuffing our faces with these spherical pancakes, until nearly comatose.  We ate them, but we were also expected to spend time at the stove.

Recently I made a batch and asked my friend Debbie to taste the recipe.   She was already familiar with them, and happy to help out.  They’re small apple pancakes, either baked on the stovet0p with a slice of apple in the batter- or filled with applesauce in the middle, as they’re cooling.  We ate them with jam in the middle, dusted with confectioners sugar.

It’s a ridiculously rich, yeast raised batter, spiced primarily with cardamom and lemon peel, and therefore recognizably Scandinavian.  You spoon the batter into a special skillet with deep indentations.

They cook fairly quickly, but if you only have one pan and a crowd of people, someone, or a small team will have to be a martyr and simply do nothing but make the ebelskivers, but in the end your sacrifice will earn you unfailing appreciation.

If you haven’t made them before, the only real trick you have to master is actually flipping the little cakes in the pan neatly.  It takes practice, sometimes quite a bit of practice- so you have to be patient with yourself at the beginning.  I use a little spatula and a dessert fork- that method works well for me; you could probably also use a nice long wooden skewer to just catch the edge in order to make the process a little easier.

Sprinkle with a dusting of confectioners sugar, and at the table, split them open with a spoon and fill them with a little preserves or applesauce- anything that you like as a sweet filling actually.  But be careful- you can easily lose count how many of them you eat!

Danish Aebleskivers- I’ve been using this recipe for 35 years

3-1/2 c flour

5 large eggs, separated

1/4 cup sugar

2 c milked, scalded and cooled

1/2 c butter, melted

1 cake of yeast (or 2-1/4 tsp dry, proofed in 1/4 c of the milk, with a pinch of sugar)

grated rind of 1 lemon, or 1 tsp vanilla (I always use the lemon)

optional crushed cardamom

Put flour in a large bowl and make a well in the center, and place the egg yolks, sugar, 1-3/4 cup milk and melted butter.  Work together well with spoon.   Add proofed yeast, flavoring and salt.  Beat everything until smooth.  Now beat the egg whites till stiff and fold into mixture.  Set aside until doubled.  Heat the well seasoned and greased ebelskiver pan over medium heat until hot  and put a spoonful of the batter in each well and carefully check to see if they are browning after about 2 minutes or so.  They actually bake fairly quickly, so when you turn them, try to do that quickly as well.  They will  be done in another 2-3 minutes.  Regulate the heat carefully on the pan, because sometimes it will get too hot.  Between batches brush a little more oil or melted butter in the pan to prevent sticking.

Put a little powdered sugar on top, fill with your favorite filling and enjoy!

I didn’t mention it last month but I started some starter- sourdough starter!

…and I had found a butternut squash on the last day of the Minneapolis farmers market -for 50 cents!

Well, if you’ve ever loved a sourdough bread and mistakenly believed that it is beyond your abilities to make your own, then it’s time to think about it again.  If the only thing standing in the way between you and homemade sourdough is the notion that it’s too complicated, get you a cup of water and a cup of flour.  Mix them and leave it alone for a few days.  You are now officially on your way.  Some people say to let it sit outside in nice weather.  I’ve never done that, but it probably works beautifully.

It really is that easy- you don’t need packets of commercial sourdough starter- everything you need is in the air, literally!  I grew up reading The Mother Earth News, Carla Emery’s Old Fashioned Recipe Book, and other vintage hippie self-sufficiency propaganda when I was in my teens in the 1970s.  That’s why I make so much of my own stuff- not only because I believe in the principles of locally produced food with the least amount of chemical and processing intervention (it’s better for you, gives you, your loved ones and friends a genuine relationship with food based on familiarity and ownership).  It also saves you money and saves the earth.

If I buy my flour (I usually buy a 50 pound sack at a time) and make my own yeast, I can make a rustic loaf of sourdough bread for about 50 cents of ingredients, and another couple of bucks of oven heat, rather than the eye-popping, mind-blowing $5-6 bucks you pay at the store for a loaf of organic sourdough.  I mean there’s nothing wrong with that bread at all–except for FIVE OR SIX BUCKS???  If you can afford that, Go with God.  I will make my own bread.

When you start your starter, use a clean, preferably sterilized glass jar, a small ceramic bowl, or one of non-reactive metal (i.e. not aluminum) and pour a cup of boiled water into it.  When it is room temperature, stir or whisk in a cup of All-Purpose flour.  I suppose there’s no reason why you can’t use whole grain flour, or one of the new white and wheat blends.  But to keep things simple, I just use AP flour.  Oh, and some recipes call for adding commercial yeast at this point– even if it is as small an amount as 1/2 teaspoon.  Resist the temptation to do this!   Just use the flour and water, and cover your chosen vessel with cheesecloth or a clean dishtowel and just forget about it for a few days.  Pretend it doesn’t exist.  After a few days, a darkish water/liquid layer may develop on top.  Nothing to worry about.  Stir it back in, check on it after that, and you may notice bubbles and a faint sour odor.  That’s how it should be.  Let it work a little more (when it’s bubbling, we refer to the starter as ‘working’).

At this point you can do a couple of things.  You can make it directly into bread, or you can divide the starter, save some for later – or make other things.  Let’s do two things:  Divide the starter AND make bread.  Your first bread from a new starter is often like the first waffle or pancake or doughnut to come off the line.  It may be a a little balky, stunted, slow- er, not exactly the floating vision of sourdough nirvana you anticipated.  This is also OK.  For the very first batch of bread, go ahead and add a little commercial yeast if you must- you’ll probably still get all the flavor of the sourdough.  If you go that route, add a teaspoon of dry yeast to a little water, proof it (make sure it bubbles and is alive) and add it to the dough.  The only thing to keep in mind is that the wild yeast and the domesticated yeast might duke it out, and the wild yeast may lose the battle.  Nevermind- it’s not a big deal.  Also keep in mind that if you add milk, even pasteurized milk from the store, you really must scald it and let it come to body temperature before enriching your yeast dough with it.  To scald milk bring it almost to the boiling point.  If you accidentally boil it, the world won’t come to an end, and it’s still perfectly useable.  I used to freak out about so many of these things, and I just don’t anymore, because it will be just fine.

You knew that the gold-miners in 1800s Alaska used to be called Sourdoughs, right?  That’s because they kept their sourdough starter in a little leather bag around worn around their neck and beneath their shirt, to keep the starter  from freezing and to keep it vital.  Just don’t give the guy a bear hug or anything, and everyone will probably be happier.  But that’s how they made bread while they were taking gold that belonged to-, and continues to belong to Native people.

Different regions around the earth have distinct and different strains of wild yeast.  What you find in Egypt is different from what you find in Paris or San Francisco.  Wherever it is you happen to live- you have your own strain of wild yeast there. Lure it out of the air and into your oven and stomach, and you will have accomplished something that humans have been doing for thousands of years all over the earth.  If you do yeast baking on a regular or even on an occasional  basis, you probably have leg up on kitchens that are used mostly as a location to zap food in a microwave or switch on an electric coffee maker.  You will have ambient yeast in the air, and that’s an advantage, because when your yeast dough is rising in your kitchen, it naturally releases some of the little plants into the air.

So, back to dividing and making bread.  A couple days before you want to use your starter to bake raised sourdough bread, add another cup each of flour and water.  Save a cup of the stuff and put it into a jar or plastic container, cover with a little cheesecloth and secure with a rubber band.  Just let it sit in your refrigerator and if you don’t use it for a while, only remember to feed the starter with a tablespoon of flour and water about once a week and stir it in- this is quite important.  If it does separate with a liquid layer on top, again- don’t freak out- that’s what it does.  You do want to use it though, to keep it in good condition.  Every time you use the starter, you basically strengthen it and make it better.  You can keep it alive for years- and there are accurate and true stories about sourdough cultures that have been kept alive for a century- and it’s true!

There are other types of home-cultured yeast leavenings- the rarely seen old-fashion Salt Rising Bread (a very distinctive American frontier classic) relies on a combination of raw potatoes and cornmeal as the starter.  It makes a bread that is supposed to be mildly flavored like cheese, which comes from the particular yeast/microorganisms encouraged by potatoes and cornmeal.  Of course the cornmeal a hundred years ago wasn’t de-germinated and irradiated either, so it easily provided a great launch-pad for wild yeast.  I still want to try and make this bread sometime- if you’ve ever read The Little House on the Prairie books, you read about Ma making salt-risin’ bread.

So, you have divided your yeast, put some in the fridge for another baking, and you have more flour paste probably sitting in a bowl on your counter and you’re wondering what to do with it right about now.  Mix in about 1-1/2 cups of flour and  another 1/2 cup of water and let it sit overnight all over again- this presumes that your room temperature is somewhere in the vicinity of 65-75 degrees.  Now you’re going to extend the dough…and if all goes well, it will look sort of like a sponge.  There will be bubbles and should have a definite tangy, sour odor to it.  If it smells really truly ‘off’ try starting over with a whole new starter.  Sometimes you do get microorganisms that are not desirable – it’s a risk, and a small one, but again, not a big deal.

Now you have roughly 2 cups of flour mixed with about one of water in your bowl and it has sat overnight, with the wild yeast feasting on the starch and sugars in the flour and having a significant population increase.  At this point, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil, butter, or whatever your preferred fat is.  Also add 1-3 tsps sugar and some more flour.  You could use semolina (pasta flour, which is a ‘strong’ winter wheat with high gluten content), bread flour (another ‘strong’ flour), whole grain flour or more all purpose flour to make a sturdy dough.  You could probably add up to a tsp of salt with the flour at this point as well.

Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking describes the method for making a traditional yeast dough that’s used for french bread- there’s really no fat or sugar, but there is definitely a bit of yeast and quite a bit of salt.  I made that recipe a couple of times maybe 20 years ago, and it calls for very long periods of rising.  Like 5 hours at a time if I recall correctly.  It makes an authentic and very good bread- and the sourdough method I’m describing to you is distantly related to Julia’s process.  For a few years it was fashionable to say that the French bakeries never used Sourdough- they simply used ‘mother from the brewers (the guys who made the beer) and sort of domesticated the yeast from that point.  Now food historians are more likely to say with one voice that French bakers throughout history actually did use sourdough for their raised bread.        cf: the whole discussion of Searing Meat.  That’s another debate that caused a big Fracas for years.  Now most people admit that searing doesn’t seal in meat juices, but does caramelize natural sugars and raises the flavor profile of meat in a dish.  If cooks didn’t have controversies about sourdough vs not-sourdough, or The Virtues and Outcomes of Searing, what would we all do.  It’s more exciting than soap operas.

So your dough is now recognizably like a real bread dough.  Add more flour, knead it with your hands or a mixer with a dough hook for a minimum of 10 minutes to develop the gluten, which is what hold the dough together and captures the expanding carbon dioxide in big or little bubbles released by the yeast during baking.  We were amazed every time my mom said that Great-Grandma Dickey routinely kneaded her yeast dough by hand for an hour, or even an hour and a half.  I’ve done that, and it makes a yeast bread with a velvety crumb.  With any luck, your dough will rise, but I will tell you that many times, I have let that sour bread-dough rise for hours and hours, and it does not help at all to watch it.  I usually give it one rising, which means when you finish mixing and kneading, the next stop is the oven- just keep that in mind, whether you do a free-form loaf, or use a loaf pan.

I almost always do a free form round loaf for sour dough.  I like baking it in an oven hot as a blast furnace (like 425-450F) on a baking stone (sometimes called ‘pizza stones’- you can find them for $9-12 bucks in a lot of places now, not just kitchen speciality stores).  Just heat the stone for about 20 minutes in the oven.  If you’ve never used one before, this is what I do for all bread baked on stone:

Take the hot stone out of the oven, sprinkle very generously with cornmeal (it will smoke on the stone and smell good, like hot corn-perfume) and slide your bread dough onto the stone.  Sometimes I put it on the back of a cookie sheet also covered with cornmeal, so it has a better chance of actually sliding.

Next take a very sharp blade and very quickly make a bunch of slashes, criss-crosses, or V’s, or something artistic looking.  These slashes are very important because the allow the bread to expand properly as it bakes.  Also, as soon as the dough has been slashed, spray the whole loaf around with water, into the slashes and sides.  Buy a plant-spray bottle (the kind you use to spray mist on your ferns) and only use it for the kitchen.  The steam also helps give the dough lift and a superior crust.  Place the baking stone in the oven, and 3 more times, every 3 minutes, spray that loaf again all over.  You won’t believe the results if you’ve never done this before.  It’s like a professional baker sneaked into your kitchen and made your bread- but you did it!  Let the bread continue baking for another 30 minutes or so- when it gets dark golden brown take it out with hot pads or an oven mitt and thump it on the bottom of the load with the flat of your palm.  If it sounds sort of muffled and hollow, it’s done.  Put it on a cooling rack and let it come to room temperature.  You have bread.

Click on the picture of the greens above-left to see how I make them

The cool weather, she has arrived!  Snow and everything.  I’ve had an unusually busy month, including travel, so there wasn’t much time to update my food blog.  But I have been cooking and photographing some of my kitchen activities.  With the temperature dropping, I made a big pot of greens and pumpkin breads made 3 different ways.  I’m writing this from Washington DC believe it or not, and I can’t wait to get home and make my own food again, after a week of eating not-my-own-food.  I’ll tell you how I learned to cook greens by asking and watching my friends- that’s usually the very best way to do it…for me anyway.  I always learn best by watching and doing