The Scents of Autumn

I love the scents of autumn. When the cool nights start nudging their way into the day, when I wake up to frost on my windshield, I start craving certain smells. October betrayed us this weekend by delivering a few days that demanded shorts and t-shirts, but it was still my first fall weekend as far as my nose is concerned.

Bread Rising

Okay, I know, bread actually rises better when the weather is warmer. I struggled to get my dough to rise enough on Friday because it was chilly in the house. Also, salt inhibits rising, which means the more you put in, the longer it will take. The friend I was baking for has a slightly irksome habit of salting my bread, so I thought I’d cut out the necessity by adding more to the dough. The trouble was that I was baking between shifts, so I only had so much time. The bread was a tad flat, but the extra salt brought out a sweetness in the dough that was worth the compromised loaf height. And our apartment smelled like fresh bread for hours. I primarily am a maker of sourdough (which uses no fat, added sugar, or dairy), so the particular lusciousness of white bread rising as the yeast feed on milk and sugar is something I luxuriate in when I make it.

Cream of Winter Vegetable Soup

For my friend, I made a batch of butternut squash soup, which smells like squash, sage, and apples. It’s a mild scent for a soup that lingered pleasantly behind the bread on Friday. My favorite soup scent is the earthy tones of Parsnapple Soup (1 large tart apple and 1 medium waxy potato per pound of parsnips, an onion, a bunch of garlic, chicken or vegetable stock to cover, with a goodly dash of cumin, cardamom, and coriander, typical soften-cook to mush-blend cream soup method, served with a dollop of whole sour cream). The smell of a parsnip cooking fills me with a visceral sense of well-being that is hard to explain; the notes of those Indian spices make me feel like I could do anything. Parsnapple Soup is the scent of invincibility. Plus, I got two chances to use my szhiszher (known in more normal culinary circles as an immersion blender) this weekend, and that’s just fun.

Apple Spice All the Things

Pumpkin spice is nice, but I don’t get what the big deal is about. Pumpkin is nasty, friends. It smells good, I’ll grant you, and I am enjoying the gift my mother gave me of Yankee Candle pumpkin products. What really flips my lid, floats my boat, and tickles me pink, however, is that winning combination of apples and cinnamon. John and I went apple picking last week, one of my annual autumnal joys, and as always, I insisted on picking the biggest bag of apples. As always, I’ve been staring at the bag for a week thinking, “Good Lord, what am I going to do with all those apples?” Soup (see above), for one. This amazing apple cake, for another. I always need to try something new, too, and this year, my goal was jelly. It’s not nearly as much work as I remember it being when I made it with my mother, but then, I think we made enough apple jelly to feed a regiment for a year. Quantity does increase workload in this instance, my friends. I followed this guide very successfully (although I ignored her recommended apple selections and went with straight up Cortlands because there is no other apple for me) to a jelly that tastes like apple honey.  Two cups of juice with two cups of sugar makes this:

That darker jar in the background is Apple Pie Sauce. My mother informed me that I was a silly goose for “making the gravy from the whole bird” when I told her that I made the jelly first and then salvaged the pulp for apple sauce by picking out the skins, but I don’t see what the difference is. There must be an easier was of getting the skins out though. I left them in firstly because I like the pink color they impart to the sauce and jelly and secondly because peeling apples is sort of a hassle and thirdly because I was hoping that some of their nutritional content would end up in what is essentially my soft apple candy. But picking them out by hand makes me feel like I’m missing some and losing a lot of apple pulp. The pulp was deliciously smooth by the time I got through squeezing jelly out of it–if I were being healthy, I could have eaten it straight. Hand-picked apples, however, are about luxury, not health, so I added a couple tablespoons of brown sugar and a goodly dash of cinnamon to make the sauce dessert-worthy.

Ginger Tonic

One of my most beloved professors and mentors from college introduce me to home-brewed ginger tea. Throw away every tea bag in your cupboard that claims to be “ginger” something or other. Once you taste this snappy stuff, you won’t be able to drink that crap. Ginger Tonic is better than drugs when it comes to head colds–I always make a batch when the first cold of the season hits. It’s like a spa day for your innards. Even the smell makes me feel like I could run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s also super simple to make: Buy a chunk of fresh ginger. Peel it and cube it. Throw it in a big, heavy-bottomed pot full of water and cover. Bring to a boil. Leave at a simmer for a few hours, adding water to keep the level high. Let it sit overnight. *In the morning, bring it back to a boil for at least a minute. Serve with juice from half a lemon and a generous tablespoon of honey (less honey if you have hardy taste buds). Add a water to replace what you took out. Repeat from * until you’re bored of drinking it or the ginger flavor gets too weak. I can usually go through a half dozen lemons before I get bored. I leave the pan covered on the back burner of my stove, but if you’re not heating it every day, beware mold. Do not use that bottled “from concentrate” lemon juice crud. It is wonderfully suitable for making buttermilk and marinades, but the off flavor will be terrible with this tonic. Trust me–the fresh taste is worth the money in this case.

And Lastly, Lilies

John has bought me flowers exactly twice since we met each other: a red rose on our second date and a bouquet of roses on my 25th birthday, which almost made up for the fact that I had to bake my own birthday cake that year. I’m happy with this paucity of purchased flowers because the cut flower industry is responsible for transporting a ridiculous amount of water out of Africa, among other things. Not to say that all cut flowers ever are taking water away from people who need it more than window decorations that I’ll throw away in a few days, but I don’t know which ones are locally and responsibly produced, so I’m happy to avoid them. Since John started doing photography for a grocery store ad, however, we’ve never been lacking fresh flowers around the house. When the ad needs flowers, the flowers come home to be enjoyed before they go in the trash. This week, John brought home the most amazing lilies which have been filling the house with that wonderful lily scent.

In short…my nose has been happy and my hands have been busy this weekend.


The Sweetness of Sourdough: The Loaf

Now that you’ve got your starter…wait, do you all have your starters? Since you are all devoted fans who read my blog diligently and follow my every wise word, I can assume everyone’s read my last post and has a nice little starter sitting on their counter ready to be baked up, right? No? Oh well. For anyone who missed it, this is a continuation of my last post on making sourdough. Go do the reading and the homework and see me during office hours for a make-up session.

Those of you who are still with me, grab your starters, and here we go. Making sourdough, especially if you’re braving the process without the insurance of a little commercial yeast, takes time. It usually takes me about eighteen hours from start to finish, but don’t run away! Most of that time the work is on the shoulder of the little yeasties. Your part is quite small, to be fair to them. There are four important stages in the baking process: the sponge, the knead, the rise, and the bake.

The Sponge

The point of the sponge is to wake your starter up again and give it a good meal to get its metabolism going. Presumably it’s either been in the fridge for a while or sitting on your counter longer enough to have consumed most of the tasty fuel you gave it. Stir the starter well (especially if it has separated) and split it between two bowls. I usually equally feed them equal amounts of flour and warm water, e.g., each bowl gets a cup of flour and a cup of water. N.B. The same rule about water temp applies here as well—warm like a baby’s bottle, not hot.

How much flour and water you will add depends on how much bread you want to make and how much starter you want on hand. I usually do a generous cup to get a loaf that would fit in a standard bread pan, if you’re a pan sort of person. Two generous cups would get you two slightly smaller loaves, and so on. If you want a little insurance, this is a good place to sprinkle in maybe a teaspoon of commercial yeast to ensure a good rise. It’s not usually necessary, but it also doesn’t hurt. Give everything a good stir; put the bowls in a warm, draft-free place; cover them with warm, damp towels; and leave them alone overnight.

The Knead

This is the most labor-intense step, but it’s also going to be the most familiar to any veteran baker of bread. When you wake up tomorrow morning and bound into your kitchen of joyful anticipation of the loaf to come, start by boiling water to get your starter storage container super clean. Once it’s been sanitized and dried, pour the starter back into it and put it away. It’s important to get the container quite clean—leaving it with dry, crusty bits of starter overnight invites bacteria that might have a chance to get a foothold and grow before the acidic environment of the full starter can kill them. In large enough quantity, such nasties can ruin a starter. If your starter is ever full of white, black, or green fuzzies, throw it away. It’s dead.

Moving onto your sponge for the loaf, it’s time to add flour and salt. I add a bit less than a tablespoon of salt for a single loaf, and while I would add more for more loaves, I wouldn’t quite double that amount. Don’t skip the salt, whatever you do. For one thing, salt retards the growth of yeast, which will help the development of a good flavor during the rising process. For another, salt-less bread is vile to the point of being barely edible.

Stir the salt in with the flour. I probably end up using between four and six cups of flour in total, but that’s a rough guess. Start by stirring in as much as you can with the spoon to get a loose dough forming around your spoon. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead the dough for a few minutes until you have a soft dough. Most cookbooks say to go for 8-10 minutes, but it’s useful to pause once you have a fairly coherent dough and walk away for 10-15 minutes. This rest period gives the flour and water a chance to get to know each other, so to speak, and it will help with the formation of gluten. I usually use the time to wash my bowl and grease it, and maybe deal with getting my starter put away if I haven’t done that yet.

When you’re ready to continue kneading, just knead and add flour like you would for any regular loaf of bread. The 8-10 minute rule is a pretty good rule of thumb, but as time varies based on the size of the loaf and the strength of the baker, use the windowpane test periodically to check the formation of gluten. It’s simple—just gently pinch a bit of the dough and spread it out carefully, seeing how thin it can go before it breaks. If you can get the dough to be translucent, you’re done.

A note about gluten: while this is the stuff of horror for people with celiac disease, it is absolutely essential to getting a rise out of yeast bread made with wheat flour. All-purpose, bread, and cake flours, by the way, are all wheat. The more protein in the flour, the better gluten formation you’ll get, which is why bread flour has a little more protein. In my experience, all-purpose works pretty darn well, but using the higher protein flour will be one more piece of insurance. Now that you’ve got a nice windowpane of gluten chains, it’s time for…

The Rise

Form the nicely kneaded loaf into a ball, plop it into your greased bowl, turn it once to grease it, and cover it with a warm, damp towel. Leave it in a warm, draft-free place, and go do something fun. You want the dough to double in volume, which will take an hour or two.

Part two of the rising phase is punching down. Slide the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and DO NOT PUNCH IT. In spite of the name, this step is more of a firm folding. What allows bread to rise is the gluten structure formed during kneading, trapping in the gas produced by the yeast as they belch their way along like the fun guys they are. The point of punching down the dough is to take that trapped gas and distribute it evenly throughout the dough. Fold and flatten the dough several times, and return it to the bowl to repeat the rise.

You may be scratching your head if you are a baker of bread. Isn’t this the time to shape the loaf? You might well ask. And yes, for many breads you would shape the loaf after the first rise and set it in the pan for the second rise. With sourdough, however, I have found both flavor and texture to be well-served by using three rises. For rise number two, just form the bread back into a ball and let it double again.

Part three involves the shaping of the loaf. Punch the dough down as before, gently, and shape the load as you desire. If you’re using a pan, grease it lightly. I use a pizza stone, myself, so I always shape the loaf as either a ball or a torpedo of varying thickness. The trick to using a stone, I’ve discovered, is parchment paper. I set the formed loaf on the parchment paper for the last rise so I can transfer the dough directly to my pre-heated stone. I usually turn the oven on towards the end of the last rise so that when my loaf is doubled again, I am ready to pop it in.

The Bake

I’m going to assume you’re using a stone (or terracotta pavers, which are cheaper and work just as well), because half the fun of sourdough is a good crust. I like a nice crispy crust, but not too thick. A thick crust can get in the way of the bread rising the way it’s supposed to, creating some very peculiar looking loaves, which is why you see bakery bread with the cuts across the top. Use either a very sharp knife or scissors to put three cuts across the top of the loaf before you stick it in the oven.

I think my oven temp is usually about 350 degrees, but as I have had horrible ovens with questionable ability to self-regulate, that’s a pretty approximate guess. Pick up the formed, slashed loaf by firmly grasping the edges of the parchment paper and holding the sheet tight to put it down on the stone. To keep the crust from forming to quickly, thoroughly spritz the sides and floor of the oven with water to create steam. If you have glass bulbs in your oven for light, be careful not to spray them with cold water. Shattered glass does not a delicious loaf make.

Leave it in there for a bout half an hour, until it’s golden brown and sounds hollow when thumped on the bottom. I don’t always get this right yet, so I can only give you limited advice. If you have a probe thermometer, you can stick it in the bottom of the bread. The target is just below the boiling point of water—205-210 degrees Fahrenheit. I highly recommend letting the bread cool before you eat it because the flavor is better on a cool loaf, but there you have it, your lovely loaf of sourdough!

To wrap up, I want to point out that I’ve spent a lot of time with certain resources that have helped me figure out how to come up with a decent loaf. Some of them you can purchase, others just deserve the credit for teaching me some of the stuff I’m passing along. For working with starters: my former roommate SK and the Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book. For bread science, rising, and baking advice: Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread and Alton Brown’s Good Eats episode “Dr. Strangeloaf.” For kneading and my bread-baking apprenticeship: of course, my mom.

Have fun with those strangely sour doughs!