Category Archives: Baking

Outdone

Oh when I impress myself, I really do impress myself. I think I might have finally conquered my sourdough.

I had my doubts when I put this little loaf into my La Cloche and began baking it…its second rise didn’t look great, and it seemed a bit off when I scored the top, but I had come that far not to give up now!

So into the 500•F oven it went, baking in its little brick enclosure. And the smell of fresh bread pervaded my home.

But it wasn’t until I removed the lid for the last 15 minutes that I fell in love. Head over heels in love. Because who has ever seen such a loaf?

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And, yes, it tasted as good as it looks.

As my husband said, “Nailed it.”

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Cold Snap & Sourdough

It happens every year. Every year by this time, we get a cold snap. Usually, the first one happens in November or December. This year it waited until late January.

Today temperatures reached the -40s. Yep. That’s our cold snaps here in Fairbanks. Minus thirty is chilly, but it’s when the minus forties are reached that Fairbanksians start acting like it’s actually cold. Residents idle their cars in the parking lots, wear hats, gloves, snow pants, snow boots, just for the short walk from the car to the grocery store. The gas pumps are full, since no one wants to run out of gas on a day like today.

The windowsills freeze over, reminding you of the temperature outside despite the warmth inside. But get too close to a door or window, and a cold draft betrays the penetrating chill.

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Looking ahead, the forecast doesn’t warm up for awhile. In fact, Thursday will be our highlight with highs of minus fifteen.

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I guess there will be a lot of playing by the fire and baking in the kitchen this week.

Speaking of which, I think I finally got my sourdough starter to work. After months of nurturing it, feeding it countless cups of flour and water, lovingly mixing it and putting it in my proofing box to keep it at optimal temperatures, it would appear that I have a lively starter! In fact, I am proofing a loaf overnight in the fridge because I didn’t have time to finish & bake it tonight. I’m excited to take it out tomorrow morning, let it warm up, finish rising, and then bake it! I am hoping that this will (finally) be a successful sourdough excursion for me!

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Regardless of the frigid air that burns your lungs and freezes your fingers within seconds, it’s still beautiful. Somehow, it almost seems more beautiful in its danger.

So stay warm, and stay prepared. Winter has arrived.

Homemade Yogurt

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I like yogurt. But not any kind of yogurt. I love rich, thick, creamy Greek yogurt–the more expensive, the better. For the last couple of years, I’ve made my own yogurt, and it can turn out great–or fail absolutely.

This past week, I made some of the best yogurt ever.

In theory, yogurt is quite simple to make. Take 1/2 gallon of milk, and heat to 180*F, then allow to cool to 105-115*F, then add 1/2 cup of plain yogurt and mix well. Put in a water bath at a temperature of 115*F until it thickens, about 8 hours. Now, to thicken, sweeten, and flavor the yogurt, things get a bit more complicated–but not by much.

Combine with the cold milk 1/2 cup nonfat milk powder (thickener), 1/2 packet of unflavored gelatin (thickener), 2 tbsp vanilla extract (flavor), and 2 tbsp maple syrup (sweetener & flavor).

That’s one of the most basic recipes, and I add both gelatin and nonfat milk powder because I like thick yogurt. If I don’t add the gelatin, I use cheesecloth to strain the yogurt and reach a Greek-like consistency, but then my yield is less.

This time, I had some half and half that was about to expire. So I made yogurt out of it.

I’d never used half and half for yogurt making before (and have never used cream, although I’m sure that would be an absolute delicacy). For the sake of my health, I don’t plan on repeating this half and half experiment, but it had been awhile since I’d used gelatin in my yogurt, and I’d forgotten how nicely it sets up with it. So I need to keep gelatin on hand again, and buy it in “bulk,” not those little boxes of tiny packets.

Also, since I now have a proofing box, I can use it to make yogurt (supposedly), so I need to experiment with that. Obviously, the heat is the most important thing in incubating the yogurt cultures, which should stay around 115*F. But I’ve only made yogurt with a water bath before, never dry heat. So it’ll be interesting to see if it makes a difference or if the results are the same.

Regardless, the yogurt making was a success. I love it when things work out according to my desires…

Bagels and Mixing Woes

Well I have been continuing my journey through The Bread Baker’s Apprentice cookbook, and yesterday began to make the third recipe in the book: Bagels.

Beautiful Bagels!

Beautiful Bagels!

Now, I’ve not specifically made bagel dough before (I have made bagels out of a regular dough though). And I had a few….challenges. Bagel dough is apparently one of the stiffest doughs out there (I did not know this prior to reading it in this book).

a) my son was fussy and awake during the mixing portion of this process

b) the dough was so stiff, that I fear I might have burned out my beloved, professional series Kitchen Aid mixer *sniff*

c) as a result, I had to finish kneading by hand, and my dough might have been a bit under mixed, as it had a tendency to tear as I kneaded it and shaped it into balls

d) I had an unintended additional resting period for my dough because of smoke emerging from my mixer… and I was getting frustrated, so I took my son and we played with the dog instead

e) then, to top it off, my oven this morning decided not to preheat properly for the final two bagels to bake.

However, despite all the above challenges, I was able to finish shaping the bagels yesterday afternoon, and boiled and baked them this morning.

This recipe called for boiling the bagels for 1-2 minutes each side in a water bath with a tablespoon of baking soda added.

This recipe called for boiling the bagels for 1-2 minutes each side in a water bath with a tablespoon of baking soda added.

To my surprise, the bagels actually turned out well. Very well. I may or may not have eaten four of them yesterday. I will neither confirm nor deny that.

And I may or may not have eaten two of them today.

But overall, it’s been a fun experiment to go through this bread baking book. So far, everything has turned out well, especially after getting new yeast!

Great plain or with classic cream cheese.

Great plain or with classic cream cheese.

Greek Celebration Bread

Oh, it’s been a busy few weeks.

As the baby becomes more proficient at crawling, he becomes more exploratory and harder to entertain with toys. Sitting down and playing with him on the floor is more an activity of crawling around after him, attempting to keep him from pulling a lamp over on himself, or removing the dog’s toy from his mouth, or removing him from the fireplace hearth. Life with a toddler.

Whoa, did I just say “toddler?” Seems like he’s not that old yet, but…almost eight months. I guess he could qualify.

Regardless, he’s kept me pretty busy. And I’ve been baking. Finally.

My challenge to bake my way through The Bread Baker’s Apprentice book is under way. I’ve completed two recipes now, and this second one turned out very well, I must say. After realizing my yeast was not lively enough to do the job, a new jar has done a fantastic job on my second recipe out of the book: Greek Celebration Bread.

It rose spectacularly, and the tension during my shaping of the loaf made it rise tall and proud. It’s one of the biggest boules I’ve ever made, I must say. My only regret is not slicing the top a bit deeper. It would have made the loaf really pop as it finished rising in the oven and looked much better. Oh well.

My sourdough starter, on the other hand, still refuses to double between feedings. I’ve resorted to feeding every 12 hours as I should, but it’s far from doubled. It gets to perhaps 150% of its beginning size, and no more. I’ll just keep at it, I guess, until I get tired of it and decide our relationship is over.

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Sourdough Starter

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So I’m crazy, but I’m trying to start a sourdough starter from scratch (again). I think most remember my ever-so-memorable sourdough bread fail I blogged for posterity here. Yikes, that’s embarrassing. For the record, I tossed that starter and have decided to start over. (Partly helped by the fact that I had it in the oven with only the oven lights on for warmth and it started baking. Yeah. Ultimate baking fail.)

I’ve dabbled with starters a few separate times before, but never managed to get my subsequent dough to rise properly. I don’t know why I think starting my own starter (by that I mean with no added yeast but depending on the natural yeast in the environment) is a good idea when I haven’t had starter yeast work for me.

King Arthur’s Flour is a great baking website, one I like to stalk when I need inspiration. I haven’t made a lot of recipes from their blog, but every once in awhile they throw something up there I can’t resist. Since I had to toss my sourdough starter when we moved across state (I suppose, if I had felt so inclined, I could have dried or frozen some), I determined to begin anew. Anyway, here is the “recipe” for sourdough starter that I am following.

Days 1 & 2:

Hour 28: The 4 oz whole wheat flour and 4 oz filtered water had incubated in the bread proofer at 70˚F until now.

Hour 28: The 4 oz whole wheat flour and 4 oz filtered water had incubated in the bread proofer at 70˚F until now. Not much has happened.

I began my starter Tuesday morning and fed it for the first time early Wednesday afternoon. If anyone has messed with sourdough starter before, you’ll know that it is a commitment to take care of it. Feedings should occur about every 12 hours, unless refrigerated, and then probably weekly.

If you intend to use a refrigerated starter, you first have to take it out a day or two before and feed it to wake it up.

 

Weigh out 4 ounces of water (about 1/2 cup), and 4 ounces of all purpose flour (about 1 cup).

Weigh out 4 ounces of water (about 1/2 cup), and 4 ounces of all purpose flour (about 1 cup).

 

Add the water (cool if your proofing location is warm, and warm if your proofing location is cool) and flour to the original starter.

Add the water (cool if your proofing location is warm, and warm if your proofing location is cool) and flour to the original starter.

Stir the flour and water into the original starter until no dry flour is left. Then recover with the plastic wrap.

Stir the flour and water into the original starter until no dry flour is left. Then recover with the plastic wrap.

Put covered starter into your proofing location (here shown is my new proofing box!)

Put covered starter into your proofing location (here shown is my new proofing box!)

Your sourdough should be fermenting at about 68-70˚F.

Your sourdough should be fermenting at about 68-70˚F. This proofing box only goes down to 70˚F, but that’s perfect since we keep a cool house!

Day 3:

To my great surprise, my starter bubbled up over the past day! I left it in the proofing box the entire time, filling the water tray only at the start of Day 1. I forgot to feed it last night before I went to bed, which should have been the second feeding. Instead, I fed it about 20 hours after its first feeding. But I needn’t have worried, for it grew!

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Look how much this grew in 24 hours!

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Those air bubbles mean yeast and bacteria are active! (And for sourdough starter, that’s a good thing! That’s what creates the sour flavor.)

I’m always encouraged by the air bubbles in my starter, and it’s wonderful that the starter doubled over the past day. I think my last starter suffered by having an inconsistent temperature and couldn’t grow well in our cool house, where we turn off the heat at night and when we aren’t home. (Hey, heating oil is expensive!)

Last time, I tried to compensate for the cool house by using both the “proofing” setting on our oven (which is a 100˚F setting, significantly hotter than the 68-70˚F suggested by King Arthur’s Flour), and by simply putting the starter in the oven with the oven light on. Apparently, our oven lights are HOT, as the starter began bubbling–but when I took it out hours later, the top had begun to bake. What?! How hot do those lights get?!

This half of the starter looks a lot different from Day 2!

This half of the starter looks a lot different from Day 2!

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So I once again feed my starter with 4 oz of all purpose flour and 4 oz of cold, filtered water.

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Stir to combine well.

There is something satisfying about feeding a culture and seeing it grow. When I TAed for a microbiology lab, it involved prepping a lot of cultures for class. You get pretty good at it, and you also realize just how hardy bacteria and yeast are. The biggest concern in the lab, of course, is contamination. Here, I’m actually encouraging the natural yeasts and bacteria in the Alaskan environment to grow. I, of course, use clean utensils and bowls, fresh water and measuring scoops, I don’t want to poison myself, but the nature of flour encourages certain types of growth, and that’s how sourdough starts.

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And back in the proofing box!

The incubation time is where the magic happens. If you don’t have the right growth conditions, you can feed the starter all you want. Temperatures on either extreme can kill or inhibit the growth of yeast and bacteria (each species has a “sweet spot” where it will grow best. For sourdough microorganisms, that’s around 68-70˚F).

Now, if you don’t have a proofing box, it’s not the end of the world. A heating pad with a towel on top, a warm spot in your house, or if you keep your house warm, or (usually) in the oven with the door closed and the oven light on will do the trick. But make sure and keep an eye on your starter–if the temperatures are too cold, growth will be slower. If the temperatures are too hot, you’ll most likely kill your starter and have to start over.

 

Days…. Indefinite.

I’ve been feeding my starter every 12-24 hours. Some days I just can’t manage to deal with it before bed, so it waits until morning. Bacteria and yeast are hardy. Like a cockroach.

So far, at one week, the starter is lively, but never doubles in size. I increased the temperature of the proofing box to 73˚F, after rereading the instructions, it sounded okay. I haven’t killed it, but not have I seen a huge increase in production. So I am continuing with my feedings and seeing where it goes. Eventually, I should have a lively starter.

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My son, “helping” in the kitchen.

Update:

It’s been over a week now, and I’m still feeding my starter daily. It doesn’t quite double in size, which is where I want to get it before I refrigerate it. I need a healthy starter that can double before I allow it to go dormant in the fridge.

Sleepless Nights, Yet No Aurora

One of the nice things about sleepless nights in a Fairbanks’ winter is that you can often look up to the sky and find the Aurora Borealis dancing its way to the earth.

Well, I was up all night last night, and nothing was visible. *Sigh* A sick baby who had to sit upright or else wouldn’t sleep was my “excuse” for not sleeping last night. Trust me, I wanted to sleep. Even more so since the Aurora was not visible. Not one little bit. Granted, I had a great view of the city of Fairbanks (no pictures, because I was holding a fussy baby).

It’s been one of those days where I simply want to throw in the towel. I’m not quite as exhausted as I could be since the baby slept until a quarter to five the night before last and I was able to catch up on a little bit of sleep, but the day after a night with maybe four hours’ sleep still has its challenges.

Ambitiously, I started my own Sourdough Starter this past week. That’s right, no added yeast or anything. I followed the King Arthur’s blog instructions, and my starter seemed to be alive and raring to go. So, naturally, I wished to bake some bread to accompany dinner tonight. Since my recipe required an overnight (8-12 hour) proof, I started it last night, deciding to use up all my extra Starter and make a double recipe.

Should I mention now that I’ve had rotten luck working with sourdough in the past?

Just for kicks, in case someone needs a laugh, here’s a picture of my best loaf.

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This looks like a huge cookie!!!

I have to laugh looking at that. Bread? Artisan? Certainly not me!

The whole day was like this. So now as I head off to bed, I’m praying for a night of rest tonight–for all of us–and speedy cold fighting for my baby.