March 24th, 2014

Fresh Starts: Sourdough and Spring

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It is officially Spring, and I feel certain that most of you feel the same as I do—Bring It!

This winter has felt long. Despite the emergence of hyacinths, daffodils, and profuse blooms on my weeping cherry tree, it still threatens brief yet chilling returns. Nonetheless, I am pressing on. Days grow longer, and will grow warmer.

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For me, Spring is a time for ambitious things: cleaning the house, clearing the yard, churning the earth, planting. This opens the way for all fresh starts.

To this (ever-growing) list I have added a baking challenge.

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I have long been curious about sourdough starter: how it works, how it needs to be maintained, what its possibilities are with breads, rolls, cakes and such. However, I’ve resisted baking with it in the past. On numerous occasions, friends have offered me a scoop of their starter, but I’ve said, “No, thanks.” It felt like too much of a commitment–one that I didn’t think I could honor over the long haul. If properly fed, stored, and used, sourdough starters can last for years and years.

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My friends at Bella Nashville make remarkable wood-fired sourdough breads and pizzas using a starter that can be traced back a millennium to Napoli Italy. This one, which I purchased from King Arthur Flour, is the descendant of one that began in pre-Revolutionary War New England.

A couple of thoughts: because the starter relies on your flour, your water, your environment—your bread will taste different than someone’s in New England or Santa Fe New Mexico. It’s personal.

There’s also mounting evidence that bread baked with starter has greatly reduced gluten. It is more digestible than bread quickly made with commercial yeast and flour.

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Since its arrival in my home 3 weeks ago, I’ve baked breads and sweet rolls using the starter four different times. With each batch, I’ve learned something new. And each time, the results have been better than the time before. Practice, practice.

But the upshot is this: Using the sourdough starter is fun and easy. I want to encourage you to not be daunted by the idea of it, as I was for so many years. There is not much actual labor involved in baking the bread.

Time and Forethought: that’s what is really takes.

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Check out the ingredient list for the basic recipe. It is beautifully simple: flour, starter, water, salt. No additional yeast! It makes 2 loaves, (or one loaf and a batch of sweet rolls) and can be readily augmented with different flours, grains, seeds, herbs, dried fruits and the like. Maggie tells me that adding a cup of rolled oats to the dough imparts wonderful flavor—I can’t wait to do this.

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For the first two tries, I used only unbleached bread flour. The following two, I made it with a combination of unbleached and whole wheat flours, and a little bit of sugar. A tablespoon of sugar seemed to balance yet enhance the tangy sour taste. The whole wheat brings more texture, interest, and nutrition to the dough, without being dense. The bread has a nice crisp crust and soft, yet sturdy structured crumb. And the flavor–Incredible!

Let’s just say that I won’t be buying bread for a while. And should I have too much bread in the house, there’s always sourdough croutons to consider, or stratas, bread puddings, and stuffings, like this one from Cooking Light with pears and sausage.

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I also made sweet rolls. I rolled out the dough for one “plain” sourdough loaf into a flat rectangle and spread it with a cup of blueberry preserves.

Luscious.

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Even better was the whole wheat combo dough, rolled out and filled with the much loved mixture of cinnamon, brown sugar, pecans, and golden raisins.

Make a loaf of bread and a breakfast treat at the same time.

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EXTRA TANGY SOURDOUGH BREAD adapted from King Arthur Flour
1 cup “fed” sourdough starter
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
5 cups unbleached bread flour (or in variation of 3 cups unbleached bread and 2 cups whole wheat)

The day before you plan to bake:
Pour 1 cup starter into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the lukewarm water and 3 cups bread flour. Beat vigorously. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rest at cool (68-70 degrees F is best) room temperature for 4 hours. Then refrigerate overnight, or 12 hours.

The morning of the day you plan to bake:
Mix the remaining 2 cups flour (here is where I augment, depending on my desired result. 2 cups whole wheat flour yields luscious results!) in a bowl with the salt and sugar. Remove the spongy overnight-proofed dough from the refrigerator. Combine this with the mixed dry ingredients and knead into a smooth soft dough. If you are using a stand mixer with a dough hook, mix for about 10 minutes. Place into a large lightly buttered (or oiled) bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise for 5 hours. The dough will be almost doubled.

Divide the dough in half and shape into loaves. Place on a baking sheet, cover, and let rise for 2-3 hours. The loaves will double in size.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Slash the tops of the loaves and bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove and cool on a rack.

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EXTRA TANGY SWEET ROLLS

For the Cinnamon-Pecan-Raisin Filling
1 cup pecan pieces
1/2 cup raw or brown sugar (such as Demerara or Turbinado)
1/2 cup raisins (I used golden raisins)
1 tablespoon cinnamon
4 tablespoons melted butter

Place pecans, brown sugar, raisins, and cinnamon into a small mixing bowl. Pour in the melted butter and mix well.

Make the Sweet Rolls

Divide the dough (this is after it has had its 5 hour rise) into two pieces. You may want to use one piece for a loaf of bread–shape it into a loaf, cover, and set aside for its second rise.

I did not flour the work counter first–the dough was pliable not sticky. You are welcome to lightly flour your work surface, if you prefer.Roll out the remaining piece into a rectangle.

Spread the cinnamon-pecan mixture over the rectangle and roll it up into a cylinder, jelly-roll fashion. Cut into rings about 1 inch thick and place into a buttered baking pan or dish. I used a 10 inch tart pan.

Cover and allow the rolls to rise in a warm place for 2-3 hours.

Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown. Cool on a baking rack. Drizzle with glaze (recipe below) and serve.

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For the Blueberry Filling
1 cup blueberry preserves

Liberally spread the filling across the surface of the rolled-out dough. Roll up the dough into a long cylinder. Cut into rings, about 1 inch thick and place into a buttered baking dish. I used a 10 inch tart pan.

Cover with plastic and allow the rolls to rise for 2 hours in a warm place.

Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven until golden brown–about 20 minutes. Place on a rack to cool and glaze, if you like.
Makes 16-18 rolls

Glaze
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
a few tablespoons half-and-half

Place the powdered sugar, lemon juice and vanilla into a small mixing bowl. While stirring, add a few tablespoons of half-and-half until you reach a smooth pourable consistency.

Drizzle over the somewhat cooled rolls and serve.

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WELCOME SPRING

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