Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

It's Alive!

Relatives in town this weekend.

Friday, before arrival of said relatives, I guiltily took my jar of sourdough starter from the fridge. Guilty, because I had been a bad caretaker, forgetting to feed it for two weeks. The spongy mess inside the jar had darkened on top, and looked rather malevolent.

I dumped the dark yuck into the garbage, leaving about a tablespoon's worth of tan sludge from the bottom of the jar. I put that into a bowl with a cup of fresh flour and nice cool water. I apologized for my neglect. The stuff in the bowl was unresponsive.

I got my starter from Bay Area chef Jessica Prentice when I took a weekend-intensive bread baking class from her last December. This starter had been passed on to her from the French baker she apprenticed with. It's at least twenty years old.

A quick plug--if you live in the Bay Area, Jessica offers cooking classes and recently began a community kitchen called Three Stone Hearth with some like-minded pros. These are good people who make wonderful food. Also check out Jessica's book: Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection.

(Links provided later. My technical assistant is asleep.)

A little about sourdough starter: the basic idea is allowing flour and water to ferment, either from wild yeasts in the air or via a starter like grape skins (Acme Baking's Steve Sullivan started his with grape skins.) You then allow this mess to sit at room temp for some time, until it begins fermenting. That is, it begins to smells sour--nicely so--and bubbles. You have to continue feeding it flour and adding water, or it will die off. You now have the basis for artisanal fancy bread.

Starters can be divided and given to others. When Jessica gave me mine, it was a tablespoon of hers with flour and water. I have nursed it along from there. Rather than go into detail about feeding amounts, times, etc, I suggest you check out Paul Bertolli's Chez Panisse Cooking, which has an excellent section on sourdough starters, or Elizabeth David's peerless Bread and Yeast Cookery. Their explanations are much clearer than mine.

The truth is baking from starters is a world unto itself, far more complex that buying a nice little packet of yeast and mixing it up with some flour. The other truth, the one I discovered when I attempted to bake sourdough bread with starter, is you need the right equipment. A wood-fired oven is helpful. So is a baker's peel. Barring these, a gas oven and baking tiles. Oh, and a cloche. Also those cute little baskets lined with muslin the French use to proof loaves. I forget what they're called.

I have my tiny Sears electric apartment "drop-in" style oven. No peel. No cloche. No cute baskets. I tried anyway, using flooring tiles the previous owner left behind in a box. (He retiled the bathrooms and kitchen himself.) My bread had a lot of hard, dark crust and was flat. After a day it hardened into a useful weapon. Even worse, the recipe was large, and I had two weapons masquerading as artisanal loaves.

Fortunately, Jessica provided the class with a few recipes designed to use up sourdough starter without baking loaves of weapon-like bread. One of these is for sourdough scones:

Jessica Prentice's Sourdough Cheese Herb Scones
Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection
Chelsea Green Press, 2005 p.300-01

1 cup sourdough starter
1/4 cup flour (you may need a little more) She calls for sprouted spelt or wheat flour, or a combination unbleached white. I use King Arthur unbleached white flour only.
1/4 tsp salt (I have another version of this recipe from her galley copy and use 1/2 tsp to no ill effect)
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 C lard or butter (I use butter)
1 tbsp arrowroot powder (I never use this)
1 tsp dried herbs such as sage, oregano, thyme, and marjoram, or one tbsp minced fresh herbs (I use fresh thyme and basil)
1/4 C packed grated cheddar cheese, preferaby sharp (I use all sort of cheeses--parmesano reggiano, cheddar, white cheddar)

--Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
--Grease a cast iron skillet with lard or butter and put in the oven to heat.
(repeat the following mantra: oven mitt, oven mitt, oven mitt)
--Put the butter or lard into a bowl with the starter and cut together with two knives, a fork, or a pastry cutter.
--In a second bowl, mix the remaining ingredients. If using dried herbs, rub them between your palms to release their oils.
--Add the dry mixture to the sourdough. Mix thoroughly. I usually start with a spoon and then use my hands. If the mixture seems too wet, add a bit of flour. It should be malleable but not sticky.
--Remove skilet from oven (Oven mitt mantra!)
--Jessica calls for mounding the dough in a 1/4 c measure and adding it to the skillet. I use my hands to form fist-sized balls of dough.
--Bake 25-30 minutes.

You should have 4 to 7 scones, depending on how much dough you began with and how large your scones are.

Jesscia eats these with eggs. I tend to serve them either as breakfast--they are wonderful with smoked salmon--or with savory dishes like stews. However you serve them, they are fast, easy, and delicious.

My starter was sullen all morning. I was sure I'd killed it. Periodically I added more flour and water. I kept apologizing. I promised it lots of King Arthur Wheat flour and days sitting out on the stove in the heat instead of confinement in the cold, microbe-retarding fridge. Finally it relented and began bubbling. I was forgiven.


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