In the Living Kitchen

Musings, memories, meals in the making.


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Beginner’s Bread

I am currently on day 5 of a 21 day detox.  Can you guess one of the foods I have chosen not to eat for three+ weeks?  Bread, lovely bread.  (I haven’t given up carbohydrates though!  Make no mistake about that!)  So, while I am in the midst of detoxing my entire life, I thought I could unload this post, which I started weeks ago after I got my hands on a much much appreciated sourdough starter from a friend.

I love reading cookbooks, so I know that sourdough bread is not seen in the real world as the easiest bread ever.  There are actual, conflicting schools of thought on the subject of making the “perfect loaf” of sourdough bread.  Not to mention the insanely precise bread baking books, that insist everyone weigh every ingredient and follow their instructions TO THE LETTER.

Well, let me just say that the first wild yeast bread was probably an accident, so how hard can it be?  Besides, precision is meaningless to the inexperienced baker who has never felt a good dough in their hands, or seen what nicely risen dough looks like.  Just so you know, all those inexperienced bakers out there, sourdough bread is much easier to make than commercial yeast bread.  Yes I said it!  Much easier, and much tastier.

Sourdough cultures are natural yeast and bacterial colonies that thrive in a wet flour mixture.  As long as they are treated right these colonies can live hundreds of years.  Every starter has its own unique characteristics that show themselves in the flavor, texture and crumb of the bread.

So why doesn’t everyone make sourdough bread?   Despite the ease of making bread with a sourdough culture, the time factor is a major issue.  For example, when I make sourdough bread, I schedule my life around the dough’s needs for three days.  It’s like tending to children, pets, or any other living organism.  Bad things could happen if the dough is left unattended.  Well, one bad thing, over-proofing.

I have a very simple method for making a very splendid bread.  This method is not scientific, it’s not really detailed, and it doesn’t even explain all the know-how that I actually do know-how.  (Because in reality, I think that there is real value in precision.  Weighing ingredients in bread making is actually extremely important, but we all have to start somewhere, right?)

I use a liquid starter.  A liquid starter has a pretty much equal ratio of flour to water.  Some people prefer a stiff starter, which is more like bread dough in consistency.

Here is my beginner’s method for sourdough bread.  This is my version of pecan raisin bread.  There’s nothing in it but flour, water, salt, starter, pecans and raisins.  The water that is used to soak the raisins is also used as the water in the dough.  This gives the bread a wonderful tan color and also adds a sweet tang that compliments the sourdough flavor.

It has taken me a while to truly appreciate simple recipes, but this one makes it easy.  A truly decadent, simple bread.

Tools:

A standing mixer (always optional when making bread); baking stone; baking sheet; parchment paper; spray bottle; cloth, or banneton or colander lined with a floured cloth

Ingredients:

1 scant cup “proofed” liquid starter (see below)

3 1/2 cups flour (2 1/2 cups bread flour, 1 cup whole wheat)

1-1 1/3 cups water

2 tsp sea salt

1 cup raisins

1 cup chopped, toasted pecans

Begin “proofing” the starter 6-8 hour before mixing the dough:

Start with the sourdough culture.  Take it from the refrigerator, or where ever it is, and “proof” it.  Mix 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water into about 1 cup of starter.  When the starter has risen and is bubbly and foamy on top, about 6-8 hours later, it is ready to be mixed into the dough.  Remove one cup for the dough and set aside.  Place the remainder in a clean container and refrigerate.  This is the starter for future use.

6-8 hour prior to mixing the dough soak the raisins in hot water.  The soaking water will be used as the liquid in the dough as well.

Mix the dough:

Drain the raisins, reserving the liquid.  Place the liquid in a measuring cup.  If it measures less than 1 cup, add a sufficient amount of water to equal 1 cup.

In the bowl of a standing mixer (or a food processor fitted with a dough blade) measure the flour.  Add the salt, starter and most of the 1 cup of water.  Stir with a wooden spoon.  If it is dry or has lots of flour that cannot mix in, gradually add more water, 1 or 2 tablespoons at a time until the dough is hydrated.  Turn the mixer on low for about 1 minute, then increase the speed to medium for five to ten minutes.  The dough should come together, be wet but not too sticky, and mix quite easily.  It should stick to the sides of the bowl a bit at first, yet hold together and come off the sides of the bowl as the mixer turns. (Side note: You can see the strands of gluten forming too.  They are visible as the dough is moving through the mixer, as it sticks and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.)

When the dough has been adequately mixed, it should be soft and smooth and not too sticky.  You should be able to handle it easily with a light dusting of flour.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface.  Form it into a rectangle.  Sprinkle the raisins and pecans on top.

Fold the edges on one side to a point and fold the dough over onto itself, taking care not to lose many raisins or pecans.  Continue to work the dough until it begins to stick to itself.  (The moist raisins will make keep the dough from sticking to itself, just work with it and it will come together.)  Once the dough has come together, shape it into a ball and place it into an oiled bowl to rise.  Cover with a damp cloth and set in a warm spot.

Let the dough rise for 6-8 hours, until doubled.

Shape the dough and let it rise. Once the dough has doubled, turn it onto a lightly floured surface and shape it into two loaves.  Split the dough in half.  Working with one piece at a time, form the dough into a rectangle, fold the corners like an envelope, and roll the dough tightly on itself, sealing the seam at the bottom with your fingertips.  Place the shaped loaves in a place to rise* for 3-5 hours.

*Okay, there are some pretty great things you can buy to let your shaped dough rise in. I highly recommend most of them, but don't own any of them (yet). So I improvise with a seriously well floured, heavy cotton cloth, with objects at the ends to allow the dough to hold its nice shape.

Towards the end of the rising period, about one-hour before baking, preheat the oven to 450 degrees, with a baking stone situated on the bottom rack.

Once the it has almost doubled, slash the dough with a sharp knife or razor blade down the center.  Transfer the loaves to a baking sheet lined with a mat or a piece of parchment paper.  Place in the oven, spritz water into the oven several times, and close the door.  Bake at 450 for 5 minutes, then turn the heat down to 400.  Bake for about 25 more minutes, spraying with water one or two times if you feel like it.

When the loaves are brown, crusty and dark all over, they are most likely done.  You can also tap the bottom of the dough (Pick it up with an oven mitt!), if it sounds hollow, it is done.

Now for the hardest part.  Let the bread cool completely before slicing.

Some notes:

The biggest problem area is over-proofing the dough.  That’s when the dough rises for too long or has been placed in a spot that is too warm and thus makes the yeast go crazy.  When dough has over-proofed, it not only has too much air in it but is also very difficult to handle. It will absolutely deflate when placed in the oven, which is not a desirable effect to say the least.  I always just reshape the dough and see if it has enough umph to rise again.

The other issue is getting the dough into the oven.  Even if the dough has not over-proofed, it can still deflate, so take care when placing the finished dough into the oven and wait for my next bread post that will address some of the issues with a more structured approach.


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Heating Things Up

The hot, fresh compost in one of the walls of the greenhouse. Notice the bed in the center of the greenhouse on the right. Up till now, it has had kale, swiss chard and other greens growing all winter long, without any heat except that from the sun.

A couple of weeks ago, we moved piping hot compost into the greenhouse.  The greenhouse at the Four Winds Farm is not heated with electricity or fossil fuels.  In February of each year, two dump truck loads of unfinished compost are moved into one of the brick walls of the greenhouse.  The brick walls are covered with wooden palates and become the benches that the seedlings live on until they are transferred outside in May.  The micro-organisms present in the composting mass produce heat as they digest organic matter.  In the Spring, as the greenhouse fills with temperature sensitive seedlings, the composting process produces enough heat the keep the greenhouse at ideal seed starting and seedling growing temperatures.  In addition, the compost moved in from the previous year is screened into a fine soil and used for all our potting needs, from vegetable starts to seedlings for the annual Four Winds Farm Seedling Sale.

A bin of screened, finished compost.  The screen (leaning, on right) fits on top of the portable bin.  The finished compost is piled on top of the screen, then, by hand, is pushed through by simply rubbing the compost back and forth over the screen.

A bin of screened, finished compost. The compost is screened by hand with the screen (leaning against the wall) when it is fitted on top of the portable bin.

The raw materials for the compost are a mixture of organic matter and animal manure.  The bulk of the compost comes from a nearby horse farm.  Horse farms regularly clean out the stalls for the horses, leaving them with a mass of bedding filled with manure and urine.  The piles of horse bedding are considered a water pollutant, and therefore the the horse farms are required to remove them from the premises.  Instead of shipping them off to a landfill, many farms in our area pick up loads of this waste material and turn it into a valuable resource.  After a year of composting, the horse bedding turns into a rich source of nutrients for plants.  Animal manure lets off ammonia during the compost process, which is actually toxic to plants in an enclosed area.  This issue is easily remedied in the greenhouse by adding a thick layer of year old, finished compost to the surface, which acts as a filter for the sensitive seedlings.

Of course, forgoing fossil fuels to heat the greenhouse takes a lot of man power.  We moved the compost into the greenhouse with pitchforks and wheelbarrows.  For me, this work is like the annual rite of passage into the growing season.  We all put our winter selves into a day of tough work, which inspires us for the work load ahead.


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The Onions Have Sprouted

Glorious sprouted onion seeds.  I think I actually put too many seeds in each row.  Oh well, live and learn.

Here are the tiny celeriac seeds.  So tiny!  2,500 seeds in less than a tablespoon!

We finally moved the manure into the greenhouse, so its time start the temperature sensitive seeds.  More on that later.  For now, here is some more seed starting porn.

They look bare, but there's a lot of life going on in there.

Of course, no greenhouse experience would be complete without some instant gratification.  Soon-to-be-pea-shoots (above) and radish sprouts (below) for fresh eating.