Wednesday, January 09, 2008

"He ain't dead..."

"...he's gonna wake up in thirty minutes, hungry enough to eat up everything in your house!" (Ok, you know the game by now. Name the reference if you can! We'll return to the quote later once you ponder it for a little bit.)

So...I was thinking to myself, it's a new year. I should turn over a new leaf and be more prompt about household drudgeries. You know, stuff like changing the sheets more often and cleaning out the fridge. (I knew the latter was getting to be a problem because we had run out of Tupperware-type containers...that's always the tip-off.) I set about my task with great purpose, and I actually enjoyed doing it. I think I'm just generally in a good mood because the days are getting longer (I was out cleaning the chicken coop until 4:30 the other day before losing the light...whoo-hoo!) and global warming has brought us from 12 below around New Year's to 50-some-odd degrees less than a week later! Yesterday, my neighbor and I cruised up to the butcher in Hemmingford, QC and along the way, we actually saw a woman in shorts washing her front windows! Spring cleaning in Canada on January 8th! SO BIZARRE!

Anyhoo, as I cleaned out the fridge, I came across my beloved sourdough crock, and I'm ashamed to tell you that it had been pushed to the back and forgotten for I don't even know how many months. I took it out and inspected it. It had as much "hooch" on top as batter below (if you could call the solid lump of dried-out starter a "batter"), and it smelled VERY, VERY, VERY SOUR. I bought this starter from King Arthur some 7-8 years ago, and though they recommend that you feed it at least every two weeks, I often push it to monthly feedings without a problem. But this had been a few-to-several months by now, and it looked and smelled funnnnn-ky. Still, my experience is that sourdough is darn near impossible to kill, unless you overheat it, so I thought I'd try to perform a resuscitatation before performing the last rites.

First, I poured off the powerful hooch, and sort of washed the chunk-o-batter with running water. Once I had diluted it to a consistency between heavy cream and a thick pancake batter, I scooped out a cup, poured it into a ceramic bowl, added another cup of flour and some water, and a pinch of sugar to give a quick meal to my languishing yeasties. It still smelled horribly strong, but I stuck it in my homemade proof box and went about my business. After about 12 hours, it still didn't look like much, maybe a freckling of teeny bubbles only, but I soldiered on in good faith. I reserved a cup, tossed the rest, added more flour and water to make a batter along with a pinch of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) to make my well water more acidic and therefore hospitable to sourdough, then put it back in the proofer. The next day, it looked perhaps a wee bit frothier, so I fed it again. And lo and behold, LOOK what happened after that! IT...IS....ALIVE!! (Or to paraphrase my new favorite comedian, Katt Williams: He's not dead. He's just asleep right now but he's going to wake up hungry.)

So I kept feeding it for another day or two, then decided to take it for a test drive and bake bread. I found a recipe for oatmeal loaves that some helpful wag had converted to make with sourdough starter. It sounded delicious, so I went ahead and mixed the dough. The recipe said that the initial rise time would probably be about four hours (sourdough takes much longer to ferment than commercial yeast, as I'm sure you know), but at four hours, mine looked pretty much the same as when I started. I almost threw the dough away at that point, but then I decided that no harm would come from waiting it out, and I also remembered that sourdough can take 12 hours or more to rise. So I chucked it back in the proofer and waited. And waited. And waited some more. And I'll be danged if, at EIGHT hours, that dough didn't look (and smell) gorgeous! The dough was billowy and filled my whole big bread bowl to the top. Success! I punched it down (gently), formed two loaves, and stuck the pans back in the proofer. I wasn't sure if the starter would have enough "oomph" left in it for the final rise, but FOUR hours later, the loaves were beautifully doubled, so in the oven they went. 40 minutes later, I had some of the most delicious bread that I have ever made! (That long, slow rise really develops flavor.) The texture was nice and soft, largely thanks to the oatmeal, and it wasn't too sour-tasting as I had feared it might be from the neglected starter. Moreover, it made the most remarkable toast! :-)

Since the bread took that long to rise, I figured that the starter still needed to be strengthened. So I fed it for another couple of days before returning it to the fridge where I vow (as so many abusers do) not to treat it so terribly again! However, as insurance, it's always a good idea to have a couple of emergency back-up starters in case you really do manage to kill off your main one. You can separate them in different containers and keep them all in the fridge if you bake often, but for longer, safer storage, here's what you should do. Instead of chucking out that cup of starter when you feed it, pour it out in a very thin layer on waxed paper spread out on a large baking sheet. Then set the pan aside for a couple/few days until the starter is completely dry and brittle. (If it gets moldy, throw it out and try again--you didn't spread it thinly enough.) Then take it off the wax paper, crumble it up into little plastic storage bags, and then stick the baggies of starter in the freezer for safe keeping. If you need some, take one baggie out, grind the starter until powdery in the food processor, and then rehydrate it. You may need to feed it for a few days until it comes back to full strength, but it will absolutely come back. Also, dried starter is convenient to share with friends and family who live far from you; it's lightweight and easily sent through the mails. Isn't that a handy tip? I thought so.

Therefore, if your New Year's resolution involves attempting to bake with sourdough, I suggest this as an excellent beginning recipe. And if you need some starter to get started, I have another great idea for you. There was a man in my home state of Oregon named Carl Griffith who had been baking sourdough since he was a child (on the Oregon Trail, in a Dutch oven no less!) from a 150-year-old starter that had been in his pioneering family for generations. He was so passionate about sourdough baking and had such a generous spirit, that he used to mail out dried starter for free to anyone who requested it. Carl passed away in 2000, but the Friends of Carl (not to be confused with an AA group) still carry on his legacy to this day. If you send them a self-addressed, stamped ($.90) envelope, they will send you some of Carl's historic 1847 Oregon Trail sourdough for free! You heard me--FREE--well, except for the cost of postage. Or if you prefer, you can send them a dollar, and they will mail the starter to you. Is that great or what? His website is also where I got the oatmeal sourdough recipe that follows. Do try it. You will be so pleased that you did. Oh, and if any of my local readers want some sourdough starter, just ask. I would be more than happy to share. That's what Carl would want me to do! :-)

Oatmeal Sourdough Bread
(Source: Carl's Friends)
Makes two loaves

1 cup quick oats
1/2 cup whole wheat flour (I used graham flour)
1/2 cup brown sugar (I might try swapping this out for Grade B maple syrup next time)
1 tablespoon salt (sounds like a lot, but it isn't)
2 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 cups boiling water
1 cup sourdough starter
5 cups white bread flour (I used AP this time)

Combine in a large bowl the oats, whole wheat flour, brown sugar, salt, and butter. Pour boiling water over mixture. Stir to combine. When batter is cooled to lukewarm, add the starter and stir in the flour. When the dough is stiff enough to handle, turn onto floured board and knead for 5 to 10 minutes (I did this for five minutes in my stand mixer). Place in a greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled (4-8 hours). Punch down and separate into 2 equal balls. Shape into loaves and place in greased 9 X 5 X 3 inch pans. Let rise until doubled again (2-4 hours). Bake for 30 to 40 minutes at 350 F. Cool on rack, brushing loaves with butter for a soft crust.

Notes: This recipe makes beautiful soft dough that bakes into great pan bread or it can be made into very tasty dinner rolls. Take the words "punch down" with a grain of salt. Be gentle with this dough. The more air you work out of the dough when forming the loaves, the longer it will take to recover volume in the second rise.

Be sure to allow enough time for the batter to cool to lukewarm before adding the sourdough starter. It took two hours or more when tested. Taste testers disagreed on the amount of salt, some preferred a little less; others liked the taste with the full tablespoon.

Ovens vary. Baking can take up to 50 minutes. You may also want to remove the bread from the pans for the last ten minutes of baking to brown the bottom half of the loaves. (I didn't, and they browned just fine.)

Treat yourself to real butter in the dough. This bread is worth it. Also butter the pans, you will be rewarded with an amazing butterscotch smell when the butter toasts the brown sugar sweetened dough while baking.


Anonymous said...

Surely you speak the truth. As I emailed earlier this week, the dry starter you sent me months (or was it years?) ago woke up beautifully just last week and produced the best wild yeast sourdough loaves I've ever made. Just thought I'd chime in and let your readers know that you're the real deal and not making this stuff up off the top of your head.

Joy Bugaloo said...

JOHNNY! It's crazy how we always have this culinary kismet, even across the many miles. I was tickled when you wrote and told me that you had been working with my old starter...just as I was trying to revive mine! Weird, huh?

Love you, miss you, mean it! --Gina

Randi said...

I tried Carl's starter twice and it didnt work for me. Nada, nothing, zip, zilch. Care to share some of yours? I do have a MI address you can send it to.

Joy Bugaloo said...

My dearest Randi! OF COURSE I will send you some starter! Just e-mail me the address. I sure hope mine (from King Arthur stock) works out better for you than Carl's did. :-(


Randi said...

I'll email you my address. Btw, have you seen the newest bread craze? Artisan bread in 5 minutes a day? I'd have to say, its dead easy and tastes pretty darn good. I'm going to blog about it later.

Unknown said...

I miss you! I wish I could make bread!! I also took down the tips on inexpensive flea and tick prevention! I'm going to become my dogs' own vet!!