An Old Favorite and a New Obsession

This blog has never been about recipes, but I do like to occasionally pass on some good ones. The first one is my famous-in-my-own-mind brownie recipe. It's based on the One-Bowl Brownie recipe on the Baker's Unsweetened Chocolate box, but I've changed it enough that I consider it my own.


Preheat oven to 350

4 1/4 oz unsweetened chocolate
1 1/2 sticks butter
1 3/4 cups sugar (If you like really sweet brownies, use 2 cups sugar. Any more than that and they'll be gaggingly sweet)
2 good shakes of cayenne pepper
1 tsp. vanilla and 1 tsp. brewed coffee  OR 2 tsp. of vanilla or coffee
3 large eggs
3-finger pinch of salt
1 cup flour

Heat chocolate and butter on low, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Remove from heat before chocolate is completely melted. Stir until it fully melts. Allow to cool long enough so that the eggs won't scramble when you add them.
Add sugar, mix thoroughly with chocolate-butter mixture. (I add one cup, mix that in, then add the rest)
Mix in cayenne and vanilla/coffee.
Test batter to make sure it's cool enough. Add eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly. Add salt.
Add flour, mix until everything is completely incorporated and lumps disappear.

Pour into greased 9"x12" baking pan. Bake 30-35 minutes, or until tester comes out almost clean. Allow to cool on a rack for at least an hour. I usually let them sit for 3 hours. I always leave some batter in the bowl so I can feed my craving and leave the damn brownies alone long enough for them to set up.

I came across the next recipe while looking for info on Scandinavian food. I found it in Mark Bittman's "The Best Recipes in the World". I'm posting the recipe verbatim, although I had to make a couple of adjustments to the cake. I'll explain in footnotes (I aim to be the David Foster Wallace of food bloggers, except for the being dead part). As Bittman says, this is somewhere between bread and cake. If you want it more cake-like,  he recommends doubling the sugar in the dough, and adding a couple more tbls. of butter.

I was expecting this be light and dry, like so many pastries I've come across, and am not fond of. (I don't mind the light part, but a really dry pastry does not appeal to me) It's actually a bit dense, and it stays moist for 3-4 days.

Braided Coffee Cake with Cardamom

3 cups flour, plus more for rolling the dough
1 1/2 tsp. instant active dry yeast*
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tbls. sugar**
1 tsp. ground cardamom***
1 stick butter, plus more as needed
3 egg yolks
 1/2 to 1 cup milk, as needed****
1/2 cup walnut, pecans, or almonds*****
1 tsp. ground cinnamon

Put flour, yeast, salt, 1/2 cup sugar, and cardamom in a food processor. Pulse a few times, just enough to mix. Add egg yolks and 6 tbls. butter. Pulse until all ingredients are combined.

While the food processor runs, slowly add half the milk through feed tube. Process just until a dough ball is formed, adding more milk a few drops at a time, if necessary.

Pour dough onto a lightly floured surface, and knead until smooth. If the dough gets sticky during kneading, add some flour, a bit at a time,. Shape shape into a ball, and place in a buttered bowl. Cover with plastic and a couple of kitchen towels, and allow to rise until it doubles in size, about 2 hours.

When the dough is ready, cut it into 3 pieces. On a very lightly floured surface, roll each piece into a rope, just over a foot long. Braid the pieces of dough, then pinch the ends to seal. Put on a greased cookie sheet, or a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, cover and allow to rise for another hour.******

Preheat oven to 375. Chop the nuts and mix with the remaining 2 tbls. butter, and the cinnamon.******* Sprinkle mixture over the dough.

Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Allow to cool.

* I never have instant yeast in the house, so I've been doubling the yeast to 1 tbls. I also heat the milk for one minute, at medium heat. Then I cover it and let it sit for 5 minutes. That gives the dough a little bump, although it takes closer to 3 hours to double in size. Just make sure the milk's not too hot. Check the temperature with your kitchen thermometer, if you have one. It's best for the milk to be around 100 degrees. If it's much hotter, the dough will rise too fast, and won't have time to develop flavor or a foundation. Also, if it's over 115 degrees, it will kill the yeast. If you don't have a kitchen thermometer, just stick your finger in the milk. It should be lukewarm, at most.

**Notice he never explains what to do with the 2 tbls. sugar. I suspect it's supposed to be added to the nuts and butter to make the streusel topping. (I did add another tabls. of sugar to the dough.

***That's a lot of ground cardamon, yo. I love me some cardamom, but a tsp. gave it a floral flavor. If I wanted to eat flowers... well, I don't want to eat flowers, so the second time I made this, I cut the cardamom to 1/2 tsp. It's up to you, though.

****I used almost a cup.

*****You can, of course, use a mixture of nuts. I've tried just almonds, and a mix of almonds and walnuts. I prefer the almonds by themselves.

******You're probably going to end up with some extra dough, because this rolls out to about 18". If you have a pan big enough to accommodate an 18" pastry, go ahead and use it all. I cut off the extra dough, cut that in 2 pieces, and rolled them out until them were 1/8" thick. The first time I made this, I filled each piece of dough with the nut/butter mixture, and rolled them into crescents. The second time, I filled one with the nut/butter mixture, and one with semi-sweet chocolate chips. They can be baked along with the coffee cake. Place them seam side down on the cookie sheet, and seal the ends. Be careful with the filling, no matter what you use. I put the filling pretty much straight down the middle, and left a good-sized border on all sides, and both of them broke open while baking. I didn't lose much of anything, but if you're making this for a special occasion, you probably want them to look as pretty as possible. Or not. The taste is what matters, and these are damn fantastic.

*******I added 2 tbls. of brown sugar to the nut/butter mixture. Also, I added a scant tsp. of cinnamon, and it was still a bit strong for me. A little cinnamon goes a long way.

The Mysteries of Bread

It's been said innumerable times that bread is very forgiving. I've said it myself. What's left out is how unpredictable bread can be.

I've been baking bread for over 30 years, consistently for the past 8 years. I've used different recipes over that time, and have encountered few problems. I tried various techniques, and spent some time messing around with sourdough. That wasn't exactly a blazing success, and I gave up on it after about 6 months. Like a whole lot of other people who read Mark Bittman's NY Times article about Jim Lahey's no-knead bread recipe, I eventually settled on that. I followed the directions to the T for a few months; ultimately, though, I was neither satisfied with the results nor enamored of the technique. It seemed wrong, and ridiculously lazy, to not knead the dough at least a little bit. I started kneading just enough to get rid of the air pockets and redistribute the gluten. We're talking about 5-7 minutes throughout the entire process.

Like all good, patriotic Americans, I had always measured the ingredients by volume, but everyone from Michael Ruhlman to Alton Brown to Julia Child* has said that weighing baking ingredients is imperative for good, consistent results. I already had a kitchen scale, so I started weighing everything - flour, water, yeast, salt - using the weight of the flour as the jumping off point.

The first loaf came out fine. It had a nice texture (also known as the crumb), the right amount of little holes, and a nice crackly crust. The second loaf gave me my first discovery. I used the same amount of flour, salt and yeast, but I needed a different amount of water to get the consistency I wanted. I knew the humidity in the kitchen and outside can affect flour and dough so, while it hadn't occurred to me that this would happen, I didn't worry about it. But I realized that anyone who says weighing ingredients is faster than using volume measurements is wrong. This is particularly true with bread, because even a 1/4 teaspoon of water can take the bread from too dry to too wet. That means adding the water a few drops at a time, stirring after each addition. Also, the dough gets really sticky, which makes it harder to work with.

Things went well for a few months. Then one day, I made a loaf that came out full of holes. Not those nice little holes that are a sign of good, artisan bread. I'm talking caverns; huge holes that ran the entire length of the loaf. Where one stopped, another started with little interruption. I could have driven a Mini-cooper through those buggers. My immediate reaction was "What the hell". I knew dough can collapse if it rises for too long but, as far as I can recall, the dough sat for its normal amount of time. I just wrote it off as a fluke.

But it kept happening. After about a month (I make bread 2-3 times a week, so we're looking at between 8 and 12 loaves of bread) I was ready to lose my mind. I could not figure out what I was doing wrong. Research didn't help. Every book I checked and every website I went to said the same thing - the bread had risen for too long. I tried everything I could think of to fix it. I reduced the time for each of the three rises. I increased the rise time. I stopped using aerated tap water and started using bottled water. I used less water, then more water. I changed flour. I kneaded it more. I kneaded it less. I let it rise overnight in the refrigerator. After an oven check indicated the oven was running hot, I reduced the baking temperature by 25 degrees. I used every baking vessel I could think of, from a standard loaf pan to a cookie sheet. I baked it for an additional 5 minutes. I baked it for 5 fewer minutes. I stopped pre-heating the oven to 500. Our washer and dryer are in the kitchen, and I thought maybe  the vibrations from the spin cycle were causing the dough to collapse. I was wrong about that too.

This went on for 6 months. After going over everything I had tried, I came up with one common denominator. All the ingredients had been weighed. It seemed impossible that this could be the reason, but to be sure, I switched back to volume measurements. The loaf came out fine. I did a few more that way, and there were no problems. Then I went back to measuring by weight, and I ended up with another cavern-filled loaf of bread. I went back and forth a few more times, and the results were always the same; measuring by weight produced bread with holes big enough to house the Geico cavemen and their families. Measuring by volume gave me a loaf of bread with a nice crumb and a great crust.

It makes no sense to me, but I stopped measuring my ingredients anyway. Well, I still weigh the salt because too much salt can ruin a loaf of bread. But the only time I end up with caverns is when the final rise is more than 3 hours.

*I kind of made that up. In her book "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", our beloved Saint Julia provides both weight and volume measurements. She made a lot of concessions to her American audience.

Where I've Been

It's been two years almost to the day since my last post. I was in the middle (probably closer to the end, as it turned out) of my grand sourdough experiment. I'd done pretty much everything I could do with and to the starter, and eventually there were a couple of mason jars, filled with starter, languishing in the refrigerator; there were also a half dozen bags of it in the freezer. Then I just stopped. I stopped using the sourdough and I stopped writing posts on this blog. In fact, other than e-mails, comments on a couple message boards, and the occasional Facebook posting, I've written exactly nothing.

It's not that I got bored with either thing. I just realized I didn't like sourdough*. As for the blog, I ran out of things to say. But I haven't stopped cooking. Dinner club is in its fourth year. I've both surprised and impressed myself with some of the food I've made for that monthly party. I cooked a pretty mean cassoulet, I grilled lamb for the first time, and with invaluable help from my husband, I tackled timpano, which you should be familiar with if you've seen Big Night (if you haven't seen it, you need to track it down and watch it immediately). Timpano is hard work, and it's time-consuming. It took us three days to do it, and it was worth every second we put into it.

I still try to cook dinner a few nights a week, "try" being the operative word. My arthritis and my degenerating spine have had a huge, not-in-any-way- good, impact on every part of my life. I'm not even kidding when I say that, from one hour to the next, I don't know what I'll be able to do. I used to cook dinner six nights a week. I can't do that anymore; I've reluctantly passed on some of the cooking responsibilities to my husband. Good thing he's a natural.

I've also improved my baking skills, but I'll get to that in a later post.

I don't set goals, make deadlines or give myself ultimatums, so I can't make any promises about how often I'll be posting here. I can only go with my inspiration and my energy level. If I'm lucky, I won't throw my laptop out the window.

*However, it took me until this past fall to get rid of the sourdough. Hope - it does spring eternal.

Feeding the Bitch Part VI: The Feedening

I'm a little over four months into my sourdough experiment. I've frozen the starter, left it on the counter and fed it every day, left it on the counter and ignored it for up to a week at a time, refrigerated it, damn near killed it, cursed it, and revived it by throwing most of it out and building it up again. The most important thing I've learned about sourdough bread is.... I don't like it all that much.

Put it on the list of things I'm probably supposed to like because I love food so much, along with duck, tiramisu, and sundried tomatoes. (Wait. Are those in or out these days?) It's just too sour. I know. It's supposed to be sour, what with it being sourdough and all. But, to my taste buds, it seems like a good way to ruin a great loaf of bread.

Unless it's frozen, you do have to pay attention to it. Depending on where it's store - in or out of the refrigerator - it needs to be fed regularly. If it's in the fridge, it should be at least weekly. If it's out, it should be fed daily. It's a good idea to give a sniff when you feed it to make sure it's not going bad. If it's pungent and earthy smelling, it's OK. If it develops an old, musty odor, it's best to throw it out.

Considering the required attention, I was unsure about whether it was worth it to keep the starter going. As an experiment it had been successful. Even though it almost died, I managed to get it healthy again. On a practical level, though, it was kind of a bust. I wasn't using it as often as I had expected, and it had become a pain in the ass to maintain. Also, I didn't like it, so that was something of a problem. The Queen of the Obvious finally realized she didn't have to use an entire cup of starter in one loaf of bread. Just a couple tablespoons would give it a hint of flavor, which I do like. I couldn't use the starter alone as a leavener, but God made packaged yeast for a reason.

So I'm still using it, and I've discovered a few things about starters in the process.

1. If you're going to use it as the only leavener, you have to use a lot - 1 to 2 cups - to get the bread to rise, and it takes longer to rise than if you use just yeast.

2. The starter will work best if it's fed 8 to 12 hours before you start your bread dough. You can stretch that time a little, but I wouldn't let it go past 16 hours.

3. If you're only using it to flavor the bread, it's usable for 24 to 36 hours after its last feeding. Just make sure to stir it well before you add it to the dough.

4. If you suspect it's going bad, but it hasn't gotten to the point where it's smell awful, you can revive it by throwing most of it out and adding some healthy starter to it. (This is a good reason to keep some in the freezer.) Pour the starter into a new jar, mix all the starter together, and give it a good healthy feeding, which is anywhere from 2 tablespoons to a cup of flour, depending on how much starter you have. Add water if it's too thick. Leave it on the counter and continue to feed it daily for 3 to 5 days. A small feeding will do. You can just throw a handful of flour in, and add water if necessary. The amount of water you use is up to you. I like to keep mine on the thin side because it's easier to work with.

5. If you want to revive a starter but don't have extra, the only way to do it is to start almost from scratch. Throw out most of the starter, pour what you've saved into a good sized bowl (big enough to give it some room to grow), and add some grapes to it. Cover it loosely with plastic wrap. You want it loose enough that the starter can get some air, but covered well enough to keep out any contaminants. (I'm convinced that my starter began to go south because it wasn't properly covered.) Then cover it with a couple kitchen towels. If your kitchen is cold, put another towel underneath the bowl. You need to keep it as warm as possible. Feed it every day for 5 days. That should be enough to revive it, but give a couple more days of feeding if you want. If it's not healthy again within a week, dump it and start over or give it up.

6. Sourdough enhances the flavor of salt, so reduce the amount of salt you use. I've always used a scant tablespoon. Now it's a bit scanter (more scant?).

The basics of getting a starter going are pretty standard: mix flour and water together, and add a fermenting agent to it. I've seen grapes suggested more than any other agent, so that's what I start with. There are probably a gazillion different theories for maintaining a starter, although there are a few standard practices for that too. Don't leave it out if you're not going to use it every 2 to 3 days. Keep it fed. Keep it covered.That's it. Everything else is going to depend on where you live, how warm your kitchen is, what kind of water you use, and some other variables I can't predict. You'll eventually figure out what works for you, even if what works for you is to buy your sourdough bread from the local bakery.

Feeding the Bitch: The Never Ending Story

I started this experiment five weeks ago. Other than practically killing the starter within 72 hours, it's been going well. Instead of doing any more day by day rundowns (which would be boring as hell. Also impossible at this point), I'll just pass on what I've been doing.

I mentioned in my first post that I had tried creating and working with a starter twice before -  30 years ago, and 7 years ago - with no success. The first time I had no idea what I was doing, and the second time I had no idea what I was doing, and I made the mistake of following Nancy Silverton's method. I say "mistake" not because I think she has her head up her ass. She's made a name for herself and her bakery by producing what's considered the best sourdough to be found. I say "mistake" because she assumes the reader already knows something about baking bread. That's not a bad thing. I'm a firm believer in knowing the basics before going into something more complicated. It's not impossible to create and successfully work with a sourdough starter when you don't know much about making bread, but a starter can be tricky at the beginning. In 2003, I encountered a lot of problems while I was trying to get the starter going, and had no idea how to fix it them. I probably threw out more than one starter that could have been saved. I should have been working from a source aimed at beginners, but I thought Silverton was the first and last word on sourdough.

This time I was able to follow my instincts. After a few days of trial and error, I settled on a routine that's working for me. I keep the starter on the counter instead of in the refrigerator. I make bread every 2-3 days, and there's not much sense in taking it in and out that often. Plus, it's in a gallon jar, which takes up too much room in the fridge.  I feed it once a day, almost every day, with about 1/4 cup flour and a little water, enough to keep it on the thin side. I also give it a stir sometime throughout the day.

I remove some of the starter every few days. I do that to keep it fresh, not because it's gotten out of control and is spilling all over the kitchen. I've managed to strike a balance between a healthy, growing starter and The Great Flood of 2010. (I mean, Durham has enough problems. There's no point in making it harder to fix the streets. Although now that I think of it, dried sourdough starter is like concrete. Maybe they could use it to build some damn sidewalks.) I seldom throw it out. I either put it in the freezer or pour some into a mason jar and put it in the refrigerator.

I usually start my bread dough at night, so that morning I'll throw a cup of flour and some water into the starter. After I mix the bread dough in the evening, I give the starter another full feeding of 1 cup of flour and some water. In the morning I go back to the small feeding.

Although it's considered best to use starter 8-12 hours after a full feeding, I've made bread with starter that hadn't been fed for over a day, and there was little, if any, difference. I sometimes forget to give it a small feeding on the in-between days, and it hasn't suffered. Sourdough starters are like roses. Everyone thinks they need non-stop, meticulous care, when you just need to give them a little care on a regular basis. That doesn't mean it's not a pain in the ass sometimes. Starter is sticky and it dries fast. Putting a dough together takes longer, because even at its thinnest, starter makes the dough denser and harder to mix. I wash everything immediately after making dough or feeding the starter; otherwise, as I said before, you'll have concrete.

After I ended up with a dough that was so wet I could barely handle it, it occurred to me that I should use less water in the dough when I add starter to it. Of course that makes sense now, what with the starter being a liquid and all, but sometimes the brain - it is slow. The problem is it only takes about a tablespoon of water to send bread dough over the edge into too-wet territory. At that point you have to add a lot more flour (at least a cup) or deal with a sticky mess later on. I usually go with the sticky mess and, while kneading it the next day, add just enough flour to make it relatively manageable. It stays a sticky mess, but it also creates a great loaf of bread.

Here are some basics:

Bread rises more slowly when made with just starter. You can add yeast or a lot of starter, e.g. 2 - 2 1/2 cups of starter to 3 cups flour. Really, you can add as much starter as you want. Just keep in mind that, with a high ration of starter to flour,  the bread will have a strong sourdough flavor . You'll figure out your tolerance fast enough. I prefer just a hint of sour flavor, so I add about 1 1/4 cups of starter to 3 cups of flour.

You can also heat the water a bit if you want to give the dough a little push.

Add water a little at a time. You can start with 1/2 cup and go from there.

Sourdough starter produces a different texture than a regular dough does. I've been getting the elusive crackly crust the no-knead bread recipe promised and never fully delivered. It practically shatters when I first cut into it. By the next day, it loses the crackle, but the crust and the crumb are chewy and delicious.

Other than adjusting the amount of water you use, you shouldn't have to make any changes to the bread recipes you're using now.

That's it for now. Since this is The Never Ending Story, I'll be posting updates on my progress and any new info I stumble across.

Feeding the Bitch: Days 6-8

"Feeding the Bitch" is more fitting than "Starting Again", or whatever the hell I've been calling these posts.

When last we spoke of our bubbly slavemaster (some time on Monday, Day 6), she was barely recovering from near death. Here's how she's doing, and how she got there.

Day 6, late evening. The starter was looking a little better, but not enough for me to feel confident it was going to come back. I took drastic measures. I removed 2 cups (about half) of the starter, and replaced it with 2 cups of bread flour, and 1 1/2 cups of water. I say drastic because I'd been conservative with the feedings so far. I gave it a good stir, let it sit for a couple hours, and gave it a look. It was looking OK, considering the state its been in, with some nice bubbles starting to form. I covered it and went to bed.

Day 7, first thing in the morning. It had doubled in size and was bubbling away. It didn't smell like dirt anymore, but it wasn't smelling like sourdough either. I wasn't worried, since most of the original starter had been replaced by this time. I covered it and left it alone for another 4 hours. It smelled like regular bread dough, and looked nice and healthy. I decided not to remove any of the starter, and added 50 grams each of bread flour and water, gave it a good stir, and left it alone until late afternoon.

Yes! Still growing, still bubbling, and still smelling like bread dough. Periodic checks throughout the evening showed the same results. Before I went to bed, I just gave it a good stir.

Day 8 (today). It's grown so much that it's reached the top of the container; it's frothy and bubbling, and it smells like whole wheat bread. I've  stirred it down, removed half of it (which I put in the freezer), and fed it with 1 cup of bread flour and 3/4 cup of water.

I've been playing around with the amount I feed it because I'm seeing too much conflicting information about how much a starter should be fed. I'm of the opinion that it's better to feed it a little at a time, unless you're in full battle mode the way I was at the end of day 6. It needed a big meal to give it energy and jump start it again. The whole point to a starter is to give it time to grab ambient wild yeast and create more of its own. It's supposed to be a slow process. Removing half of it every time its fed, and replacing it with the same amount of new flour and water is going to dilute the starter by taking away too much that's developed the desired flavor and smell. In my original source, Ken Albala says to wing it. That's exactly what I'm doing. I'm following my instincts and winging it.

By this time, a starter is normally ready to use. But this one had a rocky start, so I'm going to continue feeding it for at least three more days. It's healthy enough to make a loaf of bread, but it's not smelling like sourdough yet.

More to come, later today or tomorrow morning.

Starting Again: Day 5 PM and Day 6 AM

Day 5, post-Mad Men. Mold. I found mold. It was just a small dot on the cheesecloth the grapes were wrapped in. Luckily, the mold was in an area that wasn't submerged in the starter. I examined the starter for more mold, but didn't find any. I'd like to call that a small victory, but it's more like a huge amount of luck It was looking kind of sad though, like beige sludge. I stirred it, threw out the grapes, and added more, wrapping them tightly in new cheesecloth and pressing them to release the natural sugar.

Someone sent me some info on a different method, one that follows many of the rules I've read before about getting a starter going. From that advice, I decided to feed the starter twice a day instead of once. I added 1/3 cup whole wheat flour and between a 1/4 and 1/3 cup of water. (That equals 50 grams of each ingredient) I covered it and left it alone overnight.

Day 6, first thing in the morning. The starter was looking a little better, and smelled more like sourdough than like dirt. There were some healthy looking bubbles. Not many, but enough to satisfy me. There was an almost indistinguishable layer of water on top.

I let it sit for another 3 hours, but checked it a few times during that period. It was looking healthy, but it wasn't exactly bursting with activity. I was smelling better, so that's a good sign. At 11:30 AM, I removed one cup of starter, gave the starter its first feeding of the day, again using 1/3 cup of flour (I used mostly whole wheat flour, but ran out and had to use a little bread flour too), and between 1/4 and 1/3 cup of water. Stirring it created a lot of bubbles, including some large ones, which is a good sign. It's covered up again, and I'll check it throughout. I think it's on its way back.

Instead of throwing out the cup of starter I removed, I put it in a mason jar and stuck in the back of the refrigerator. It's really cold back there, which will allow it go dormant without it freezing. (Although freezing is fine. I just want to see what it does in the refrigerator) If the starter I'm working on gives it up and croaks, I'll have some reserved to get another one going.

Starting Again: Days 2-5

As usual, I'm running a bit behind on my posts. Here's the progress so far:

On Thursday (Day 2), I fed the starter with one cup each of unbleached bread flour and water. I checked it every few hours for progress. There were a few healthy looking bubbles, and the starter still smelled like wet flour.

On Friday, I added 1 1/3 cups each of unbleached bread flour and water. Periodic checking showed a lot of bubbles; also, by evening, the starter was beginning to smell like sourdough. There was a very thin layer of water on the top, but that's normal. It will separate when left alone for several hours.

Before I added more flour and water on Saturday, the sourdough smell was stronger, and the bubbles were looking fine. Most of the thin layer of water had been absorbed overnight. I added 1/ 1/4 cups each of unbleached bread flour and water. As I checked it throughout the day, I noticed that there was a lot of water on the top, and there weren't many bubbles. The sourdough smell had weakened. By the end of the night, the bubbles were gone entirely, there was still a deep layer of water on top, and the starter was musty smelling.  I refuse to panic so soon in the face of a comatose sourdough starter, so I covered it up and went to bed.

When I got up this morning (Day 5), I took a look at the starter, expecting the worst. The good news is there was no mold. The bad news is the starter looked so close to death, it was probably heading towards a bright, shining light as its short life passed before its eyes. And it stilled smelled musty. Feeling pretty crappy myself, and with neither coffee nor my first cigarette in me yet, I still had the presence of mind not to panic. There was plenty of time for that later. It was only 8 AM, and I've been feeding this bitch every day at around 1 PM, so I had time to think about what to do.

It occurred to me that I had used too  much water yesterday, and those wild yeasties were drowning. The method I'm using says "On the third day, add flour and water again, a little more than before. Feed it every day." I read that to mean I should increase the amount of flour and water by a little bit every day, but I could have been wrong about that. I also hadn't yet discarded any of the starter, because it had been developing so well and I wanted to keep it strong.

When it was time for a feeding, I removed the grapes and stirred the starter. It was really musty, and the consistency of pancake batter, which I'm pretty sure isn't good. I removed a cup of starter, stirred the starter again, and added 1 1/2 cups of flour, and just under a half cup of water. It was still a little thin, but it looked better. I replaced the grapes and covered it again.

It's been sitting for just over five hours. I took a look at it a couple minutes ago, and it's looking better. There are a lot of tiny bubbles and a decent amount of larger ones. It hasn't separated, which I think is OK. At this point, it needs to readjust itself. It's still a little musty smelling, but there's also the faint smell of sourdough that says it's healthy.

I think it's on the right track, although I'm really winging it at this point. If you've read the method I'm following, you know Albala'a instructions are vague. I'm working from a book excerpt (The Lost Art of Cooking), and I don't know if some of the information has been edited. But I've done this several times now, and I sort of know what I'm doing. I'm trying to follow my instincts, for what those are worth.

I'll check the starter a few more times this evening, and I'll do an update either tonight after Mad Men (which takes precedence over everything), or tomorrow.

Starting Again: Day 1

I've tried sourdough starters before. Once, about 30 years ago, when I had just begun making bread and didn't have a clue what I was doing. It wasn't long before it was moldy and dead in the refrigerator.

I tried it again about seven years ago. I used a Nancy Silverton recipe that was so precise and detailed it would have made Martha Stewart jump off a bridge. Silverton insisted that every step had to be followed exactly or.... well, hell. I don't know what would have happened. Maybe the Food Gods would rain wet bread dough down on me. After assembling the starter, it had to sit for a week. DON'T TOUCH IT!!11!!! For another ten days, it had to be fed three times a day, the water at exactly 70 degrees, or .... more wet bread dough, I guess. I was in my non-bread-baking stage at that point, and anything I had learned decades before had been lost in the ether of middle-age. So I was still clueless, and totally intimidated. Over a course of eight months, I made, scrapped, and started four starters before I finally decided it was easier to buy sourdough bread if I wanted it.

Since that time, I've gone back to baking bread, and I have a fairly good grasp of how yeast behaves, and what you can and can't do with dough. The most important I've learned is bread dough is highly forgiving. It's actually really hard to fuck it up. As long as the water's not too  hot, you should have something you can work with successfully.

But starters still intimidate me. Just thinking about making one make me anxious. WTF? A starter should not cause anxiety. It's essentially flour and bread left to sit for a while, collecting yeast from the atmosphere. So when I heard this guy on The Splendid Table recently, I decided it was time to face my fear.

I like his attitude.

Here is where baking begins to get really thrilling. Buckle up. After reading some acclaimed sourdough recipes by master bakers, some that took a full two weeks to get started and thrice-daily feedings, I was about to lose heart. Then I recalled my general approach to cooking. Wing it. A few hundred years ago, no one had lengthy recipes like these; they usually learned from elders. Why couldn't I at least give it a shot? It is not a baking gene with which some lucky few are born, but simple knack and guts. Exactly everything that had eluded me thus far in bread making was suddenly right there in front of me. Let me explain.

Wild yeasts, or let's say ambient yeasts, are quite different from commercial bread yeast or Saccharomyces cerevisiae, literally “sugary fungus of beer.” The wild guys are sometimes a different species altogether, for example, in San Francisco it's S. exiguus, which apparently only thrives in the cold fog, just 90 miles from my house, but a completely different climate. Here it is blazing hot, usually still in the 90s in late September. This year, we had a strange summer and the grapes ripened really early, then all at once the weather changed, down in the 70s on October 1, with rain in the forecast. So I thought, time to catch some wild yeast.

This is the simplest thing to do. Put out some food, and the babies find it. They like to eat flour. Simple as that. They're also usually already on the flour you buy. If you have some grapes around, the powdery stuff on the outside is exactly what you're looking for; that's yeast. You can chuck the grapes into a flourand- water slurry and let them go. Whole wheat flour works well, and rye even better. You can use both. Raisins work fine, too. Let the flour, water, and fruit, if using, sit outside or on the counter uncovered for a day. On the second day, cover loosely with a kitchen towel, but never seal with plastic wrap, which prevents the living yeast from breathing.

Just wing it. OK then.

I put a starter together in five minutes, using a cup of flour - a half cup each of whole wheat flour and all purpose white flour - approximately 3/4 cup of water, and some grapes.  My kitchen is already cold, which means it might take a bit longer than usual to get a working starter.

 Right now the starter is sitting uncovered on the counter close to the stove (for a little extra warmth), looking around for ambient yeast. Considering I've been baking bread 3 times a week for the last five years or so, there's got to be a load of those little buggers floating around the kitchen. I'll be documenting the progress, if not every day, than every 2-3 days.

The last time I said "this will not defeat me", I was making baklava for 90 people. The baklava won that war, and I ended up ordering it from a Chapel Hill bakery. But bread is in my comfort zone. I might lose a battle or two, but I will win this war.


And that didn't take long. I checked out a version of Silverton's recipe, and she says to wrap the grapes in cheese cloth, and press them a little to release the natural sugars. I pressed on them first, only to discover they have seeds. I fished out the seeds, then pulled the grapes out and wrapped them up. Now they're back in the starter. On a good note, I'm already seeing a few bubbles.

A Couple of My Favorite Foods

A few years ago, I was at my sister's house for  Christmas. We were  making dinner on Christmas Eve, and she handed me a recipe and said "You know how to make polenta, don't you?" I said I knew you had to work very quickly with it or it's useless. She said "Good, make this." It came out perfectly, which is such a rare thing, it's become one of my favorite dishes to make in the fall and winter.

It's a baked polenta, with butter and parmigiana-regiano.

Polenta Baked with Cheese

makes 6-8 servings

2 cups yellow cornmeal
6 cups cold water
2 tsp salt
1 cup grated parmigiana cheese
4 tbls. butter, cut into 1/2" dice

Gradually but vigorously mix water in cornmeal to remove lumps. Add salt. Bring to a simmer. Whisk, then stir with wooden spoon, as mixture thickens into a heavy mush. Continue stirring for about five minutes. (It has a tendency to stick to the  pan, so keep this as low as possible.)
Cover pan and put into larger pan with simmering water. Cook for 45 minutes, stirring often, adding water as necessary. Be careful with the simmering water. You only need a tiny bit; otherwise, it will overflow. Be sure it doesn't boil away.
Pour polenta into pie plate or other dish. Smooth out. Dot with butter and sprinkle with cheese. Let chill at least one hour, until firm and cold. Sprinkle with a little more cheese.
Bake at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes.

It needs 15-20 minutes to set up. I think it's best when it's still warm or just at room temperature, but you can also serve it cold. Reheating is a little tricky, because it can burn. I like to let it come to room temp before putting it in the oven. Reheat at 300-325 degrees, and check it after 10 minutes. Sometimes you just have to poke your finger into it to check the temperature.

I usually makes this for dinner parties, and it tends to disappear while my back is turned.

Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes 40-48 cookies

These are my favorite cookies. The first time I made them, I accidentally used two tablespoons of vanilla instead of two teaspoons.I looked at the recipe a half dozen times, thinking that's a lot of vanilla, but I was sure that's what it called for. Too late, I realized my mistake. I made them anyway, and they're so good I've continued to make them with two tablespoons of vanilla.

My recipe is based on Ina Garten's Chocolate White Chocolate Chunk Cookies. I've made a few changes to it. Here's the original. And here's mine.
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tbls pure vanilla extract; or 2 tbls brewed coffee; or 1 tbls each of vanilla and coffee
  • 2 extra-large eggs at room temperature (large is fine if that's what you have)
  • 2/3 cup good unsweetened cocoa
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 pounds good chocolate, coarsely chopped; or milk or semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • Cayenne pepper to taste (about two shake from the jar)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Cream the butter and both sugars until light and fluffy in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the vanilla, then the eggs, 1 at a time, and mix well. Reduce mixer to lowest speed, add the cocoa and mix again. Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt, and add to the dough with the mixer still on low speed, until just combined. Fold in the chocolate.

Drop the dough on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, using a 1 3/4-inch ice cream scoop or a rounded tablespoon. Dampen your hands and flatten the dough slightly. Bake for 11-14 minutes (the cookies will seem underdone). Remove from the oven and let cool slightly on the pan, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

I tried them once with two teaspoons of vanilla and they weren't as good. Too dry, and they got stale faster. I use real chocolate because I hate white chocolate.