Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sourdough Bread

I make a lot of homemade bread. For a number of reasons, I make the time for it.

1. It's super stress relieving to knead dough. Can we all say 'ahhhhhhmmmm'.....?
2. The house smells like... well, baking bread. There is nothing like the fragrance, to get up to, to come home to, or go to bed with the aroma wafting on the breeze.
3. Many recipes are far more healthy for you. No preservatives, use the grains you want and that your family likes and you can alter things to suit your fancy.
4. There's that decidedly 'connected' to your food factor when you spend a bit of time with your hands in it. It's a nurturing thing, at the very least.

We could go on all day.

I recently made a new sourdough starter. You use a jar and wash it well and add equal parts water and flour. I add a pinch of sugar to help move things along. Left with an open top on the counter for a day or two, it 'captures' wild yeast from the environment. Winter starters are a bit harder for me to get up and running. I also can use my tap water, as I have a well. If you try to do this with chlorinated water, it prevents the 'yeasties' from getting up and having a party.

About two days out, you have a bubbly concoction that should smell like a yeasty beer. It will have a piquant type odor but shouldn't be foul or unpleasant. It's not pretty, but it's a work in progress. That's it you see in the first photo!

To keep a starter alive, you have to 'feed it'. Every other day or so, I toss in 1/2 cup of warm water, a 1/2 cup of flour (sometimes I use different types) and give it a stir. The next morning, I use what I need to start my bread.

I mix up my recipe, in this case Italian Sourdough bread, which includes some Parmesan cheese and a nice bit of large grind black pepper.

You end up with a pretty sponge, like this:
and after allowing this to sit a bit ( during this time it sets up a nice sourdough flavor) you add the remaining ingredients and knead your bread and set it aside to rise.

During all of this time, you're not spending hours on this project, but you're coming and going, spending a few minutes here and there. You actually spend about 6 to 7 minutes kneading.

The fun part comes next.

You shape your dough into whatever you want. I've made this particular dough into hamburger buns and loaves mainly.

The dough shaping process scares some folk, but is a lot like when you were little and liked to play with playdough. I mean, come on, it's an experiment and it's fun. You can usually still eat the end results even if they're not magnificent and you can always feed the rejects to the chickens... that is, if you have chickens...

This shows the progression from dough to shaped bread. If you ever played with playdough, this is the 'big girl' or 'big boy' version with edible results. With this particular recipe, I love the look of the braided loaf, but find it particularly more challenging to slice for sandwiches or toast. It certainly makes an impression as a gift as folks think that you've gone to some sort of amazing trouble or that you're a genius of some sort. Little do they know...
what a simple, easy thing it is to do.

Shaped loaves need to sit and rise until they're doubled. The recipe calls for an hour, but it all depends upon the temperature in your kitchen and other random factors. When I first made this recipe, I walked through the kitchen 30 minutes after shaping and lo and behold! the loaves were already solidly 2 inches above the loaf pans.

Now for the magic part: Forty minutes later you pull these from the oven.

You need some butter and maybe some jam, but plain butter works well, a knife and
a loved one or two...

This recipe keeps well for me. I never have to worry about it getting too old to use. If I'm lucky and can keep some for the next day or two, it makes an excellent sandwich or toast . With the pepper and the cheese in the flavor mix, it is a nice complement to any Italian inspired dish.

If you can't use two loaves, you can freeze one or do what I do and wrap one and head out to visit neighbors, relatives or friends. I've never had a single one not smile when they see the bread coming.

This bread is also simply amazing with a little Extra Virgin Olive oil and some spices for dipping.
And if you take if for lunch in a sandwich, you'd better not put it down and leave it alone.

* I use bread flour. Sometimes I throw in a cup or so of whole wheat, either regular or white whole wheat. It has also worked well when I only had plain flour.

Sourdough Italian Bread

1 1/4 cup starter
1 t salt
1 cup lukewarm water
1 1/2 cups flour *

4 1/2 teaspoons yeast
1 1/3 cup lukewarm water
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 t salt
1 t course ground pepper (I sometimes double this amount)
4 to 5 cups of flour

Early in the day, mix the first 4 ingredients. Combine them thoroughly. This is the 'sponge' and this step adds much flavor. Cover it with a clean towel and set it aside for 4 to 5 hours.
To get the recipe to work for me and be ready for oh, say, dinner, I count backwards in the time frame. If I need to cut off some time, to have the bread ready on time, this is where I do that. If I need to run errands and it means the time will run over, I likewise, don't get upset. Left 6 hours, it still works well. You're gonna want to put this in a large glass or plastic (non-reactive) bowl as it's gonna grow!

Stir the sponge down. Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water and add to the sponge. Stir in the next 4 ingredients, using 4 cups of flour, until you see if you need the other. I usually like the feel of the dough with just 4 cups added at this point. I use a generous amount during kneading and shaping without worrying about it getting too stiff. When a workable ball has formed, turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead it for between 5 and 10 minutes (depending on how tense you are!). You will feel it become elastic and smooth. Return the dough to an oiled or buttered bowl, cover it again and set it aside to rise until doubled, or about an hour.

When it has doubled, punch the dough down and let is sit covered for another 1/2 hour. (I have skipped this step in the interest of starving teenage boys standing in the doorway saying "I'm starving". You sacrifice a small amount of sourdough 'flavor' but not much).

Turn the dough out again and shape. If you wish to braid two loaves, divide into 6 equal pieces of dough.. Roll and stretch the dough pieces into long ropes. Braid three pieces together. You will tuck the ends underneath and place each braid into a glass loaf pan that's been buttered. I lightly brush the tops with some melted butter as well. Cover and set them aside until they have doubled, about an hour. They should rise an inch or more above the side of the loaf pan. I brush them again, lightly, with butter before popping them into a preheated 375 degree oven for 40 to 45 minutes.

They can cool in the pan, or you can place them on a rack on their sides to cool.
Hide them or camouflage them if you really need them at a later time.
Otherwise, stand out of the way of the teenagers or spouses with knives.

Here's a printable version of the recipe:  Sourdough Italian Bread

And if you accidentally devour the better part of an entire loaf before dinner, blame it on the dog.


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