Nancy Silverton

The Rcakewalk Guide To "Easy" Bread.

One of the things I like best about reading food blogs is reading the comments. Unlike cookbooks, the author of an online recipe is often graced with comments from readers who not only try the recipe, but include the nuances they add or subtract that make the recipe their own. I actually read through comments regularly, if not posting comments regularly myself. (I sometimes feel redundant in telling a person that a.) their photo(s) is(are) awesome b.) the recipe looks sound and delicious and that I have added it to my never-ending list of things to make or c.) I've attempted to be humorous, my sentence ending with an exclamation point. All three of which are wholeheartedly genuine by the way...)

I have learned a lot about bread from comments, and they reinforce that cooking and baking are living processes, not static and unchanging. They remind me constantly that people are unique, thought processes are different, and there is never just one way to look at something.

I've had to take some time to think before writing about my process for making "beautiful bread". I feel in no way qualified as a baker or as a baking authority, other than that I've baked a LOT and have learned something with virtually every loaf I've shoveled to and from my oven. Baking bread, specifically sourdough bread, is never a static process. Small environmental changes alter fermenting times, little changes in moisture, everything seems to make a huge difference as bread meets heat in the oven. It's a living process that takes patience, tenacity and curiosity to do well. I'll start at the beginning, and clue you in on what works for me at this time in my bread-baking life. As much as I feel I have learned, I still feel as if I have volumes to know.

This is my baby:

I feel like a proud parent to have grown a sourdough starter from scratch. It took a couple of weeks, and when I think back, I was completely uncertain about it the whole time. (I can't help but draw on the similarities I felt of becoming a new parent of a human being.) Before growing a starter, I had never baked a single loaf of sourdough bread- and now that's pretty much the only bread I bake. Starter never fails to amaze me. Feeding on so little, it thrives and really is a living thing - bubbling proof that life, no matter how small, is really precious.

If you are interested in making sourdough bread, but uninterested in growing a starter completely from scratch, there are many sources for purchasing a starter culture. Two of my favorite sellers are King Arthur Flour and Cultures for Health. King Arthur offers a fresh starter, which means you can start feeding your starter the day you get it and be off and running in a day or two with a bread culture that is American since the 1700's. Cultures for Health offers many different varieties of dried sourdough from different locations throughout the world. It will take a bit of time to rehydrate the culture and establish a feeding regimen before beginning to bake.

If you are interested in starting a culture from scratch here are a few favorite links:
One of my biggest mistakes is that I thought I could make bread straight away after making a culture. It actually took me more than a month of steady feedings to get my culture strong enough to raise bread dough. Now that my starter is mature and fed regularly, I can have bread in just under 24 hours. It may seem like work, but really it's not. I like to think of my starter as a draft horse (I like to think of a draft horse as a giant cat): just a little bit of care, and it works hard for you while you are off doing something else.

Feeding a Starter

From what I have read in numerous sources (and now it's firmly cataloged in my mental warehouse, so no specific siting here...) you can approach feeding starter one of two ways. If you are a frequent baker, you can keep it out at room temp and feed it one to three times a day. If you are an infrequent baker, you can feed it once every two or three weeks (or sometimes longer) and store it in the fridge. I haven't yet stored my starter in the fridge, and since I do bake a lot, I do just fine keeping it in a glass quart-sized bowl on my counter. Cold storage is said to make a starter taste more "sour"; breads that have a proofing under refrigeration are said to have a more pronounced tang as well. I have noticed this with doughs that I have refrigerated prior to baking.

I feed my starter every morning around breakfast time, which not only is a good time for me to remember, but also is optimum for when I usually mix up bread. Starter is most active 4-6 hours after feeding, so if I feed at breakfast and mix up dough after lunch ,I can have new bread by the noon the next day (usually). Now, if I was feeding my starter more often, I think it may be a bit more active and work a bit faster - but for now I enjoy waiting on it.

I feed my starter equal portions by weight of plain all-purpose white flour and water. I am a geek, and I do weigh my starter's breakfast. Plenty of people do not have a scale, and do just fine eyeballing it. When a starter is equal parts water and flour by weight, it is considered 100% hydration starter, and it's about the consistency of pancake batter. Many sources will tell you never to touch the starter with metal utensils, but I have always used a stainless steel spoon to stir it up, and I have never contaminated it. (I wouldn't use copper or any other base metals, however.)

Technically, I should feed my starter half of it's weight. For example, if I start the morning with 200 g. of starter, I should be feeding it 50 g. each flour and water. I don't do this. (However, I may soon start being a bit more official to see if I have better activity.) I usually feed either 50 g. each or 100 g. each flour and water depending on the volume of the starter in my bowl. Since my starter is well-established, it seems to be active and bubbly on this schedule - and if I ever feel it is a bit sluggish, I slip it some rye flour since that contains a bit more naturally occurring wild yeast. I have also been known to feed it a little before bedtime if I want it to become more active. I always think of Nancy Silverton saying that humans could survive on 1 meal a day, but it's not advisable - neither is it advisable to feed a starter less than three times a day. But since I am not running a production bakery over here, despite what you have heard or may suspect, I have been having good luck so far.

If I was being official and dumping off all but 100 or 200 g. of starter every morning, I would have more starter to play around with, or wash down the drain. This elimination seems wasteful, but really, it's like any living thing... the body absorbs what it can use and discards the rest. And, luckily for experimental kitchen types like myself, discarded starter can be turned into wonderfully delicious things. I haven't actually ditched any starter in quite a while that hasn't been turned into something else - another reason I'm happy with my current feeding regimen.

Other than bread I've made English muffins, chocolate cakes, pretzels, pizza doughs/flatbreads, muffins, banana bread, pancakes, waffles, and probably a few other things I'm forgetting. All of the above I believe are healthier than their non-cultured counterparts, and even if they aren't, they are tastier to be sure. I've re-vamped the "Recipes" tab at the top of the page to include all the sourdough recipes I've posted about in one place. I'm sure that this will be a growing category.

If you are looking to experiment with using sourdough in a baked good recipe, a good proportion to remember is 1 cup of sourdough starter equals 1/4 c. flour and 1/2 c. liquid in the recipe. The cakes I've substituted in this way were amazingly moist, and in the case of chocolate cake, cleverly disguised.

Finally, The Bread Method

I have tried kneading sourdough bread by hand, and by machine. I have tried "folding" the dough at several points during it's first fermentation time to incorporate air. I have added commercial yeast along with starter in bread. Pretty much any source I've looked at, I've tried a little tweak here or there to see what would happen. I'm not sure I've had any bread that was downright inedible - sure some were more of a duty to eat, and some graciously became nothing more than breadcrumbs to make into something else, but by in large, sourdough bread baking is a frugal endeavor garnering little waste.

Since I do bake by weight, I've tried a number of recipes posted by weights, and I have never had as good luck as when I use the Lahey Bread Method. His proportion of 300 g. liquid to 400 g. flour seems to be perfect for what I consider to be the best bread I can produce. Since I bake it in a cast-iron pot, I don't have to fiddle with contraptions to get steam into my non-professional Hotpoint oven. Cast-iron is a marvel, and it produces bread with a crisp crust and perfect custardy interior. I may be limited to size and shape (round, or slightly oblong), but to me it's worth it. I purchased a Lodge 5 quart Dutch oven when I started making Lahey breads, and I'm so glad I did. It's a reasonable price, and I only use it for bread.

Lahey's method calls for a mere 1/4 t. of yeast, for which I substitute 50 g. (about 1/4 c.) sourdough starter. If I make a bread using 100% white bread flour, it rises the best and fastest, but I've also had good luck using part high-protein wheat flour (also called white wheat, or hard winter wheat), and even using up leftover cooked oatmeal or other breakfast porridges. Lahey's method is also considered no-knead, but I knead it in the bowl for several minutes until it's slightly sticky and well formed into a ball. I think it helps that I always use the same earthenware bowl, since I can judge it's rising progress at a quick glance.

I always use metric weights, and approximated the conventional measures below using Convert Me. I use that site frequently for conversions.

Rcakewalk "Easy" Sourdough Bread (via Jim Lahey and Breadtopia)
  • 50 g. sourdough starter (about 1/4 c.)
  • 250 g. room temperature water (filtered or spring - about 1 c.)
  • 400 g. flour (all bread flour or part whole wheat (high-protein preferably) - about 4 c.)
  • 1 1/4 t. salt
Measure starter and water in a large-ish glass or pottery mixing bowl. Mix well. (I use a dough whisk since I like the feel of it, but a wooden spoon works fine.)

Add flour and salt and mix with dough whisk or spoon until it it combined and too hard to move around. Then, with one hand (keep one hand free to "pet the dog or answer the telephone" as Silverton says, or in my case take pictures...), knead the dough into a cohesive ball. I lazily knead this way for 3-4 minutes.

Cover the bowl with a lid (I use a large lid from my stock pot) or plate, and set in a warmish room-temperature place to rise. The dough should more than double in size, and it usually takes about 18 hours or longer. It will take longer in cooler weather.

Find a lint-free kitchen towel (linen or cotton are best, and it's better if you never need to wash it since it will become seasoned as you use it repeatedly), and rub ample amounts of flour into it so that the sticky dough will not stick when you try to remove it. You can put the shaped loaf of bread right onto the cloth, carefully fold the edges around it and let it rise, or you can find a colander or brotform (something that lets the air circulate a little, and is roundish to keep the loaf from spreading out). I put the floured towel into a brotform, and sprinkle a little wheat bran and/or oat bran as additional insurance against sticking.

To form the loaf, first dust a work surface lightly with flour. Using a dough scraper or spatula, scrape all of the risen dough in one mass out of the bowl. Quickly and assuredly, fold each of four imaginary sides of the dough into the center, forming a rough ball shape. Place the formed loaf into the floured towel, seam side down. When you go to bake it, the seam side will face upward, causing natural and rustic breaks in the bread - I think it eliminates the need for slashing which is difficult when you are dropping a mass of dough into a super hot pot. Let the dough rise for about 2 1/2 - 3 hours depending on the room temperature. When the bread appears risen and you can poke a finger into the bread (gently) and the indent remains rather than coming back quickly, you are ready to bake it.

Towards the end of the 2nd rise, place a cast iron pot with it's lid on into a cold, empty oven on a rack placed at the lower middle position. Preheat the oven to 475. I like to let the oven heat for at least 30-40 minutes to be sure that it is consistently hot.

When ready to bake, carefully unwrap the risen dough. Carefully roll it over, using the towel to help you, to make sure it isn't sticking. Then return it to it's original position in the towel. Take the super hot pot out of the oven, take off the lid, and carefully flip the bread into the pot. Try not to be nervous that you'll burn yourself. You probably won't, and being nervous makes it harder to not drop the dough from a half-foot above the pot to safeguard against said burns.

(For what it's worth, since January of this year, I've burned myself 3 times, and all were related to using my oven inappropriately as a dehydrator and not blazing hot cast iron. I have never burnt myself on a bread pot - though now I probably will since I'm bragging...)

Put the lid on the pot, and return it to the oven. Set the timer for 30 minutes. When the timer goes off, take off the lid. Let the bread bake for another 10-15 minutes, until the crust is a deep golden brown. When the bread is done, take the pot out of the oven and remove the bread from the pot to a cooling rack and then wait patiently until it is fully cool before you slice it - usually at least 2 hours.

Storing Your Delicious Labors

When first I thought about baking breads that required my love and attention, I thought about Jeffrey Steingarten. I admire him for his amazing mastery of the English language, and for his explorative spirit that I feel I share to some extent. When I read his book The Man Who Ate Everything, he described his pursuits in the perfection of homemade sourdough. He also detailed how he stored bread, cut side down, open to the air. I remember catching an interview on Food Network once where (due to the wonders of DVR) I rewound over and over examining his kitchen. He had a half dozen loaves of different breads in there - all stored on end, open to the elements. I daydreamed about why in the world this man had all these different breads standing at attention - I was even more curious about where he gets his appetite.

Of course, I tried this right away when I had proper bread that I wouldn't dream of sliding into a plastic bag. I asked my friend E's French, bread-loving husband (who grew up on a dairy farm in rural France) about it. He said that they left bread out to the air or stored in cotton bags, and it just got harder as the week progressed, but they ate it that way. I tried it. It got hard. Really hard. I wanted badly to be European, but it just didn't work for me. What did work is storing my bread cut side down the day it is made, and then before bedtime, I tuck it underneath some glass.

I like to store my bread on a wooden (bamboo) cutting board, covered by a cloche of some sort. If I don't have a cake going, I use my cake dome, but if that's in use, I just use an overturned glass bowl. If I'm being honest, I only eat my bread non-toasted the day it is made. The texture is so perfect, I usually plan a meal around a few slices of cheese and a hunk of newly baked bliss. But as the days wear on, the texture (and flavor) change, and I just prefer it a bit on the toasty side. As of this writing, I have yet to have a loaf of sourdough go moldy, even after a week under the dome. Sourdough culture is an amazing preservative, and I suspect it also preserves me.

When I want a loaf of bread to turn out no matter what, this is the method I use. When I just have to satisfy myself, I certainly play around with ratios and methods, constantly trying to figure out how to make beautiful breads that could maybe be in shapes other than round. I love to knead by hand, and so far, have a problem with getting too much flour into loaves that are hand kneaded. There are so many sites that I love to check for bread, and lately, Wild Yeast tops the list. Every time I go over there, I learn so much and find tons of great recipes. Through the Yeastspotting weekly round-up, you can check in with bakers from all over. As I was writing this, I also found that GNOWFGLINS was releasing a comprehensive sourdough ebook! I have not purchased it yet, but I'm sure that it is filled with valuable information, and many great recipes. They also include information on gluten-free sourdough starters, of which I know nothing about.

It seems there are always a few topics I wish I knew more about - the Costanza Civil War Buff Syndrome as I like to call it. I wish I knew about wine, about chocolate, about cheese and about coffee and tea. I still feel like I wish I knew about bread, and that is the one area that I know the most about. It's a facet of my baking life that continues to grow with each loaf of bread made. I contemplate finding some courses I can take where I can learn hands-on and more in depth what is happening with wild yeasts as they mingle to form breads. I hope I can find something in my area that won't require me to keep baker's hours since I do have a family to attend to...

I wish I could remember where it was I read about a person who toured some bakeries in Europe, and specifically the Wonderbread factory in the US. In the European country, the man showing him around gently scooped up a loaf of just baked bread to illustrate a point, then returned it carefully to it's spot. At the Wonderbread factory, the man took the loaf of bread, illustrated his point, and tossed the whole thing into the trash. I actually think about that a lot. Bread is never something I take lightly, and that's probably why I absorb as much information about it's cultivation as I can. What a miracle that something so nourishing can be made with so little, and it is something that everyone should demand a better standard for.

Good bread, beautiful bread, easy bread can be attained at home for anyone curious enough. It's really a lifestyle choice, to choose to share your life with a culture. When well taken care of, it returns the favor, and feeds you well. It's a life that suits me well right now. I have no idea what the future will bring, and if my days will become more harried, but I hope they never become too harried to bake bread.

Sourdough Experiment: Pretzels (or In Which My Confidence Grows Exponentially)

Here it is: the first truly edible (Non-Waffle) thing I've made with my wild yeast starter.

I feel like I've been struggling in my kitchen lately. A full blown skirmish, if not an all out war. I have a family of picky eaters, except for myself, and then I had this new baby of a starter I was trying desperately to conjure up out of the wildness of Wisconsin. I was patient, feeding my struggling starter 3 times daily. After 2 weeks of fairly consistent results (bubbly starter culture with no rising capabilities), I decided to punctuate my white flour starter with rye.

Rye starter on the left, AP flour starter on the right.

Rye flour naturally contains more yeast than white, so I figured it couldn't hurt. But since I didn't want to lose any of my stalwart white starter progress, I portioned the white starter into two one morning, and then began feeding half of it 50 grams each of rye flour and water at every feeding. I also knocked back my feeding to twice daily, since I am usually always home between 7 and 9 both a.m. and p.m. (Every morning, I begin anew with 100 grams of starter, leaving plenty of excess to make delicious waffles with!) Within two days of my new schedule, rye starter (left above - makes THE best waffles, by the way) was more than doubling between feedings. When I stirred it, it actually deflated - signs that it isn't just my wishful thinking, it is indeed up to the task of reproducing! So straight away yesterday morning, I began my first experiment: sourdough pretzels.

The dough is impossibly dry by design. My KitchenAid actually had a hard time keeping up - but since I followed Nancy Silverton's direction, I let it knead only until it hit the proper temperature: 75-76 degrees f. On my Professional 600 model, that was about 3 minutes.

This dough is actually very similar to bagel dough. While Silverton states that you could actually knead it by hand, I don't know if it would be so advisable. I actually felt like I was doing aerobic exercise just rolling out my "snakes" of dough to about 20 inches. The elasticity of the dough scared me, and in spite of my intrepidity with my starter, I wasn't even sure that my project was going to work despite it's handsome first appearance:

Like the bagels, these pretzels hang out in the refrigerator for 18-24 hours prior to actual baking. Plenty of time for me to obsess over whether or not my pretzels were going to be worthy of my expectations of them. Nancy has high expectations... I love that she is so specific in her pretzel love, that she needs fat and thin parts to prevent boredom. She includes direction about making a "belly" 3 inches in the center of the snakes when you roll them, so that there are noticeable fat and thin parts. She also dips them in lye, an experiment that I opted to leave for another time. I could just see myself at Walgreen's asking for food grade lye... they'd probably make me sign a waver.

Brushing the tops with egg wash was just fine for me. I sprinkled with Kosher salt, and slid them into the oven immediately, as directed, so that it wouldn't melt. It stayed pleasantly crunchy, and the pretzels themselves are chewy yet cake-like and certainly reminiscent of the sourness of the starter.

These are infinitely better than mall-staple pretzels (that I only know the taste of since my Husband has to eat them whenever the rare occasion that we actually frequent a Mall...). The Boy-O ate a whole one after school, too - and immediately wanted a second. So, happily, they have the picky eater seal of approval even at room temperature.

Sourdough Pretzels (adapted from Nancy Silverton)
  • 6 oz. (about 1/4 c.) cool water - 70 degrees f.
  • 9 oz. (about 1 c.) starter (I used half rye starter and half white)
  • 1 lb. 4 oz. (about 5 c.) AP flour
  • 1 T. barley malt syrup (don't omit this)
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
Place all the above ingredients in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix on low speed for 1-2 minutes to combine. Turn up mixer to medium, and mix until the dough is smooth, elastic and firm, and reaches the 75-76 degree mark on an instant read thermometer.

Turn the dough out onto an unfloured work surface, and cut dough to divide it into 3 oz. portions. (Nancy's recipe states it yields 18, but I got exactly 12 3 oz. pretzels.) Tuck the ends of the dough under (form rough balls), cover with a cloth and let rest for 45 minutes.

Working with one piece of dough at a time and keeping the rest covered, roll a snake (or a rope if you prefer) about 10 inches long. (I'm going to quote Nancy here, since she is succinct: "Avoid using flour. If there is not enough friction between the dough and the work surface, spritz the work surface lightly with water from a spray bottle. As the rope begins to stretch, uncross your hands and continue rolling with light, even pressure, moving your hands slowly to the ends of the rope without tapering the ends. leaving a center belly 3 inches long, place the palms of your hands on each side of the belly, and roll and stretch again to elongate the cylinder to about 20 inches. Lay your hands on top of each end and taper the ends by alternately rolling each one toward and away from you (think of the arm motions of a cross-country skier).")

Form into pretzel shape, leaving a 1/4 inch overhang with the tapered tails. Transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet, cover with a cloth, and let sit at room temp " just until they show signs of movement", about 1 hour.

Place each baking sheet into a plastic trash can liner and refrigerate for 12-24 hours.

One hour before baking, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove the trays of pretzels from the fridge, and brush with an egg yolk mixed with a splash of water. Sprinkle them with salt, and immediately transfer to oven. Bake 20-25 (or a little longer) until they are a deep golden brown, rotating the sheets if necessary. (I suspect the mahogany brown she calls for comes from the lye dip prior to baking.)

These pretzels are not for those who prefer not to chew. They have resistance and good flavor; they would be equally good with cream cheese and honey or cinnamon or with cheese or mustard.

Meanwhile, my excitement is limited, since I'm intrepid to begin another loaf of bread - one that relies on the lifting power of natural yeast and not on dense chewiness to satisfy me. I feel like I have gained some confidence, and I do have some emails in to King Arthur Flour and another Chef source to see if I can glean any one-on-one knowledge.

Sometimes the Internet is overwhelming. Sometimes people on the Internet say or state things that aren't quite the truth, or better, want you to pay to get information from them. Not that I'm calling sourdough cultivators thieves or anything, lest you think I have become embittered of the Brave New World of Internet relationships... But sometimes, I wish the World Book encyclopedia salesman would still be hawking door to door, and that outside of my library, I'd need to go talk to a baker somewhere to get the answers I need to be content. Outside of attending a Baking and Patisserie school, which I don't feel is in the cards for me right now, I'm not sure what else to do. If you have ever grown, baked or obsessed about a sourdough culture, and feel like talking about your experiences, please let me know!

Nancy Silverton and the Wildness of Bread

The beginning of bread.

I confess that I have probably read the book Nancy Silverton's Breads from the LaBrea Bakery at least ten times. I have habitually rented it from the library several times a year, long before I ever baked any bread on a regular basis. I feel like I actually know this book like I would know a person, like it has become part of my general knowledge. I even feel like I know Nancy, like I can hear her voice on the page, working through her processes in an authoritative conversational way. Thanks to a woman I met at Annie's class who was paring down her cooking library, I received a copy of my very own, and busily re-read most of it yet again in July.

I actually know whole passages by heart, including the foreword written by Ruth Reichl. In it, she describes Silverton one Thanksgiving as she arrived as her guest with an ice cream maker to accompany the pie she brought. She set it up on the floor, the only surface not being used, and nearly tripped hostess Reichl as she carried the turkey into the dining room. Why? Because ice cream tastes so much better when it's fresh, and apparently she didn't dream of making it anywhere but on the spot of it's imminent consumption.

Obviously, then, I knew that if I were to attempt catching my own wild yeast and making it into something palatable, I would follow Silverton and in all of her exacting madness. Obsessed people usually make the best teachers and the writings that follow them tend to be as detailed and true as instructions can be. I collected my grapes from my Parents Farm, not only because I wanted to have organic fruit that I didn't need to worry about washing, but also because I wanted a deep Wisconsiness to my bread... a bread that has yet to be baked.

Silverton's method of starting a starter from wild roots is a 14 day process beginning with immersion of a pound of grapes in a bit more than a pound of bread flour and 2 pounds of water. I followed the weight instructions to a tee, including the temperature of the water she suggested. I didn't panic when the Concord grapes turned my contents suspiciously purple, and I did note the changes in its scent as the days progressed. Grapey-ness turned to a slightly alcoholic sour smell within several days, until by day 14 a fairly mild and uniform bread-like aroma ensued.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4 (sorry for the blurriness on this one...)

The grapes actually stay in the mixture a whole 10 days. I didn't have any mold appear, but it is normal if it would have. After day 10, I carefully began to feed my baby 3 times a day. According to Silverton, we humans can survive on one meal a day, but really it's not advisable, so if 3 meals is better for us and our metabolisms, it is also better for our living breads. Again, I followed her methods exactly, feeding about 6 hours apart, and with increasing amounts of flour and water on each successive feeding in the day. Every new morning, I dutifully poured off all but a pound and 2 oz. of starter and started the process over again until on day 15, this past Monday, I tried to bake.

Around day 10...

It is completely obvious to me that my sourdough starter is active and alive. After each feeding, it takes awhile to bubble up, it smells sweet and good, and towards the time of the next feeding, it begins to separate - a layer of clearish yellow liquid on the top that is easily mixed in to what reminds me of a sticky crepe batter consistency. Every time I feed it, the same thing happens all over again.

But, when I tried Monday morning to make actual bread, it did not work. It felt like bread as I worked with with the dough, but it lacked any strength to leaven the dough during the first rise. After about 8 hours, and still no change in bulk, I figured I'd just pat it out onto an olive oiled baking sheet and bake it into a "focaccia" after emailing with Lo. It still didn't rise in the oven, not that I expected it to - a leaden thing that tasted surprisingly delicious with sour tang and well complemented with generously sprinkled rosemary and Parmesan cheese...

Late yesterday afternoon, I began my research elsewhere. I have no idea how to bake with my starter - especially when all seems well and living and tasty, if not proper. Meanwhile, I've decided to take my starter down to 100 grams and add 50 grams each of flour and water at each feeding for the next few days (after preliminary research here). I also need to talk to someone who has baked with sourdough I think, since no matter how much I think I know Nancy Silverton, I can not channel the wealth of knowledge that could otherwise be learned firsthand or hands on by a non-book dwelling human being. If anyone in my area (or any not-so-close reader) has any tips for me, please let me know!! Lo has already been a really great resource, but her starter is probably at least 100 years old, or even 250 - if it came from King Arthur Flour. She got it from a friend, and it always seems to work for her.

Since I have had nearly a half gallon of starter by the end of each day, until today when I decided to maintain a smaller amount, I had planned to make one of Peef and Lo's recipes: Sourdough Waffles. This morning, after I weighed out my saved starter to feed, I used a cup of what was destined as waste to make a sweet version of their delicious waffles. No bacon or cheese in here, but they were delicious when served with bananas and newly made peach butter. They were substantial, like bread, the telltale tang of sourdough that I know is alive and active beneath my uncertainty of this newborn.

I have to be out of town this weekend, so I hope I can safely tuck my little baby into the fridge where active fermentation can slow into dormancy until I get back and can resume hovering over it like a mother hen. I want to believe that it is just too young to be productive, after all he's only on day 17 of life. I like to remember that I am dealing with a living thing here, and just like my Boy-O, he's not going to do what I ask him to until he's good and ready - or is explained to that good behavior is something that is going to be expected. But maybe good behavior does have something to do with 3 good squares a day, and plenty of "cot" time. Three squares and a cot. That's what I'll try and remember as I feed for a few more weeks before trying to bake bread again...

Oh, Canada: Nanaimo Bars! January 2010 Daring Baker Challenge

The January 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Lauren of Celiac Teen. Lauren chose Gluten-Free Graham Wafers and Nanaimo Bars as the challenge for the month. The sources she based her recipe on are 101 Cookbooks and

I had never heard of Nanaimo bars, or even of Nanaimo, BC Canada. I also was unaware that some people actually detest these bars and even chose to sit this month out. Being from the Midwest, where bar-making is somehow an inherent gene, I was more than excited to make them. I pretended to not be so excited to eat them, since there was well over a half pound of butter in one 9x9 baking dish... but they were delicious, and completely worth the splurge. (It also helps that I was able to give half the pan to Maeckel, and that they freeze like a miracle!)

I actually
did this challenge on the 8th of the month, instead of waiting until the last second - which has sadly become my usual habit. Though Lauren chose to use gluten-free ingredients (her recipe is here), I opted to use my pantry staples. As I grow in experimentation of the gluten-free universe, I may try these graham crackers again using rice flour and the like. But for this challenge, I used the 101 Cookbooks recipe which is actually Nancy Silverton's.

I adore Nancy Silverton, and credit her for my original love of baking bread. Though, I don't follow her rather labor intensive approach, reading all about her method a few years ago was fascinating, and obviously the stuff of passion that is absolutely infectious. You can tell that dough runs in her veins. Ordinarily, I wouldn't even consider altering a proportional baking recipe of hers, such as this one for graham crackers, but I did - since I wanted to use whole wheat flour instead of all-purpose.

I did use the food pro to mix everything up, and since I used the wheat flours, I knew I would need more liquid. Fortunately, there were verbal clues as to how this dough should feel: very soft and sticky. I simply added a splash of half and half and pulsed until the dough looked appropriate enough to me. Then I dutifully stashed it in plastic and placed it under cold storage for 2 hours as recommended. When it came to the rolling, however, I did not refrigerate the cut crackers for 30 minutes prior to baking as recommended. I simply don't have space in my fridge for half-sheet pans unless it is completely empty. Happily, it worked just fine!

Whole Wheat Graham Crackers (by way of 101 Cookbooks, Nancy Silverton and Rebecca Gagnon)
  • 1 c. whole wheat flour (I use King Arthur Flour)
  • 1 1/2 c. white whole wheat flour (KAF)
  • 1 c. dark brown sugar
  • 1 t. baking soda
  • 3/4 t. kosher salt
  • 7 T. butter, cut into 1 inch slices and frozen
  • 1/3 c. honey
  • 5 T. milk (I used the 1% I had on hand)
  • 2 T. vanilla extract (this is the main flavor component, so try not to skimp!)

Combine flour, sugar, soda and salt in a food pro - or a stand mixer with paddle attachment. (If using the stand mixer, I'd probably cut my pieces of butter a bit smaller before freezing them.) Pulse (or mix, if using the stand mixer) to blend, and then add frozen butter. Pulse or mix until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

Mix honey, milk and vanilla and add at once to the dry mixture. Pulse or mix until a dough comes together, using a couple of T.'s more of milk or half and half to make the dough feel soft and somewhat sticky.

Form into a disk about an inch thick and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350. Divide dough in two halves, and roll out to about 1/8 of an inch, and cut into squares using a pizza roller or fluted pastry wheel. Gather scraps and set aside. Transfer to baking sheet lined with parchment and bake 12-15 minutes until browned. They will continue to harden as they cool. (I actually re-baked some of my first batch when they were not crisp enough after cooling, and it worked fine.) Re-roll any scraps and cut into squares or use cutters to make shapes. If you prefer crackers with a cinnamon sugar topping, sprinkle the mixture on the crackers prior to baking... you may use the proportion 1 t. cinnamon to 3 T. granulated sugar.

I omitted the cinnamon sugar topping, since I knew there would be plenty of sugar in my finished product. The square crackers above were the first rolling, using plenty of AP flour to prevent sticking. Don't be shy with the flour either, since it is extremely sticky, especially since I did the additional liquid by feel. I made a second batch of crackers later in the month, complete with cinnamon sugar dusting, and didn't add quite as much additional milk. Still sticky! Fortunately, the texture is the only thing that changes with additional rollings and additional flour on the board. I like them both ways equally.

The stars were the very last rolling, scraps really, and were probably my favorites since they were nice and crisp. Graham crackers have officially made the list of things I'll never buy again.

No complaints from my taste tester, either. We now have a graham cracker spread with peanut butter nearly every day for a snack. One day, I had some leftover MonkeyShake (bananas, milk, honey and cocoa powder), and happened to eat a graham cracker spread with peanut butter while I was drinking it... I don't even need to tell you how good that was!

The second batch later in the month. I need to invest in a fluted pastry wheel, since I used a fluted french fry cutter, and it wasn't working so well.

So, now on to the actual bars! As if the graham crackers alone aren't worth their weight in gold for this month's challenge, I now knew that bars made with them had to be wonderful. You can, of course, make them using regular store-bought graham cracker crumbs, but what fun would that be? The Nainaimo link above has the recipe.

When I began my melting of a whole stick of butter together with sugar and cocoa powder, I knew that I was going to be in for something special. Everything is heated in the top of a double boiler, and when hot and melted, an egg is added. It's startling to see how thick the hot mixture becomes. It is then added to a mixture of unsweetened coconut, ground almonds and a cup and a half of fresh graham cracker crumbs and pressed into a baking dish.

I chilled it well at this point, before adding my other two layers. After an hour or so, I mixed up the mostly butter "frosting" layer for the middle.

After sitting another hour or so, I melted the now small amount of butter - 2 T. - with 1 oz. of bittersweet chocolate for the ganache top. I had to spread quickly since I had such a firm and cold base, and the chocolate was cooling very fast.

My only mistake was trying to cut the bars too soon out of the fridge. I was eager, after all, to taste these. They were ragged and tasty, though not nearly as professional and texturally pleasing as the ones I cut after sitting at room temperature for 30 minutes. All of the butter in the middle layer became infinitely more palatable, and the whole bar tasted like the most amazing and luxurious candy bar you've ever had. These are rich, and one bar certainly will hold you for a while.

I was secretly glad my Husband knew there was coconut in them and wouldn't even take a bite... he dislikes it except for, strangely enough, in curry. I served them when Maeckel came for dinner, and then sent some along with him. The rest popped into the deep freeze. I have only 2 left, that I'm still saving for some dessertless occasion. One bar on the counter at room temperature thaws in about 3o minutes - not a bad wait for bar perfection!

Thank you to Lauren for this month's challenge! I'm glad to know of Nainamo, BC Canada, and of these bars of legend. This challenge did make me stop and think a bit more about food allergy. I am becoming increasingly perplexed with the amount of food allergy in the world, and secretly wonder if all this genetic modification and chemical application in our agriculture is partially to blame. I am thankful that should food allergy arise, there are inspired people working on ways to make an "eggless" egg so to speak, and the creative abilities of trial and error home cooks out there are astounding. Whatever your allergy or food preference, you can rest assured that a baker somewhere is tirelessly at work so that you can enjoy something sweet on occasion. What a comforting thought that is!