Long before I became a pastry chef, I was fascinated by the mysterious properties of yeast–the way it came to life when mixed with warm water, full of foamy bubbles, how it made something so simple as flour, salt and water grow into a pillowy mass…or how, when misused, can turn into a scary attack blob like the one Katherine Hepburn (Tess) accidentally creates when she tries to make Spencer Tracy (Sam) waffles for breakfast in Woman of the Year (1942). It’s an image that plays in my head as a cautionary tale whenever I work with yeast.
A few weeks ago my friend, Karen, who is my partner in crime in all things related to food–both making and eating that is–decided to try her hand at making bread from a homemade sourdough starter. She christened her starter “Fred” (apparently you’re supposed to give your starter a name) and embarked on a bread-making adventure…one that she decided I needed to go on as well. After she’d baked her first rustic loaf, Karen handed me a container of starter and told me to “feed it” and so began the life of “Barney” my starter…and my latest obsession.
Now I’ve worked with starters before–I spent several weeks helping out a friend at her bakery making levain a few years back–but I had never really made my own at home. Starters are sort of like house plants. You have to remember to feed and take care of it. Unfortunately, I suck at keeping house plants alive, so I was pretty sure I’d probably kill Barney within the first two weeks. I did what Karen instructed me to do–add half water and half flour (I used a 50/50 mix of whole wheat and bread flours) equivalent to the weight of Barney–in other words 200 grams of water, 100 grams of whole wheat flour and 100 grams of bread flour to “feed” 400 grams of Barney.
Once the starter was fed, I left it out at room temperature overnight to ferment and develop more yeasty goodness. I’ve managed to not kill Barney so far (hallelujah!). More importantly, I’ve realized that the best way to keep my starter alive is to keep using it on a regular basis, which is what Karen has been doing with Fred–making everything from rustic loaves to waffles to pizza dough.
Since I only really have time to play with Barney on the weekends, I’ve been limiting myself to a handful of baking projects. One of which is baking the perfect rustic loaf–something I’ve discovered, through my research on YouTube, that requires far more patience than I thought I ever possessed. No, seriously, you have to be willing to commit the time and effort because it’s basically a two-day project–make the dough one day, then let it slowly proof overnight in the refrigerator, then bake it the next day. Sure you can probably do it in one day…if you had a good ten hours to devote to it. But the slower the fermentation, the better the bread. Think of it as the polar opposite of that fluffy white stuff made with a lot of yeast…the stuff that can proof like crazy if you use too much. Contrary to Laura’s fantasies about baking a ginormous “I Love Lucy” loaf of bread, it wouldn’t taste very good…and certainly not worth scraping the burnt dough off the roof, floor and door off the oven!
Adapting the base recipe I found on YouTube, I tinkered with the portions, adding more starter, a bit more salt, and changing the ratio of whole wheat to bread flour. Once I nailed the “plain” loaf, I got fancy and started mixing in fresh rosemary and dried figs, Kalamata olives, and caramelized shallots/garlic and Asiago cheese. Unlike other bread doughs which require quite a bit of kneading to work and stretch the glutens, this dough does not. In fact, because it relies solely on the starter for a more gentle fermentation, you actually handle it less so as not to deflate the lovely bubbles. Consequently, I decided to mix in the additional ingredients before I began the three stages of stretching and folding dough by hand (yes, you read it right, it’s all done by hand).
I would be lying if I said you didn’t need any special equipment to make this bread. Okay, you can probably get away with not having the rattan proofing baskets (although being the obsessive culinary geek that I am, I ordered two from Amazon) or a laver to score the dough (a very sharp knife or razor blade will do), but you do need to have at least a cast iron Dutch oven or a large deep cast iron skillet and something oven-proof that can be fashioned into a dome lid to fit over the skillet (like a large pot). So far for me the Dutch oven has yielded the best results. Oh, and a digital scale would be very useful, as the recipe is in grams and the ingredients must be scaled out. Now if you’ve got the time and patience, the pay off is well worth it–beautifully crusty exterior, chewy flavorful interior that will have you Oprah-shouting “I LOVE BREAD!!” And you won’t be sweating it out in front of the wood-burning oven to bake it…like Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck.
Rustic Country Loaf (aka “Barney Bread”)
Yields 2 loafs
- 700 grams tepid filtered water
- 275 grams starter
- 350 grams whole wheat flour
- 650 grams bread flour
- 24 grams sea salt
- 50 grams tepid filtered water
In a very large mixing bowl whisk together water and starter with a fork. Stir in the flours until a shaggy dough begins to form, then work the dough with your hands until you’ve got a nice soft, pliable mass. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, cover with a kitchen towel and let the dough rest for about 30 mins. Sprinkle the salt and water over the top of the dough and, using a bowl scraper, work the salt and water into the dough until fully incorporated. Scrape down the bowl and cover again, letting the dough rest for another 30 mins. *At this point you can mix in any additional flavorings (e.g. fresh herbs, chopped olives, caramelized shallots, etc.). Every 40 mins. or so, stretch and fold the dough over itself in quadrants, covering it after each turn around the bowl. Do this 3 times. After the last rest, scrape the dough onto a floured surface and divide the dough in half and gently shape into mounds. Cover again and let the dough rest for another 30 mins. Gently stretch and fold each dough into thirds, rotate and repeat to form a loaf. Place each loaf, seam side up into well-floured proofing bowls. Lightly spritz the surface with non-stick spray and wrap the bowls loosely in plastic wrap. Let the doughs rest overnight in the refrigerator. Take the baskets out about 30 mins. before you are ready to bake. *If you only have one dutch oven, just bake them one at a time. Crank up the oven to 500°F and place the dutch ovens inside. When the oven reaches the appropriate temperature, gently unmold the doughs onto large parchment rounds, score the tops with a sharp knife or razor blade, and carefully lower them into the hot dutch ovens and cover with the lids. *I highly recommend using heat-resistant Kevlar gloves. Lower the oven temperature to 425°F and bake with the lids on for 25 mins., then remove the lids and continue baking for another 30-35 mins. The breads should sound hollow when tapped from the bottom. Let the breads cool completely before slicing. Then break out the salted butter and cheese!
So if you’re not keen on investing quite so much time and energy on making the perfect rustic loaf, I’ve got two other “starter” projects that are fairly easy…and certainly worth the effort. My Crispy Chewy Garlic Herb Breadsticks should come with a warning–these are highly addictive! I inhaled five in under 10 mins. and had to force myself to wrap them up and put them away. Unlike the rustic country loaf, you can whip up the dough quickly in a mixer or in a food processor (my preferred method). You do, however, need to plan ahead and make it the day before and let it rest in the refrigerator at least overnight (up to 5 days)…then all you have to do is portion out the dough and roll out the breadsticks.
Crispy Chewy Garlic Herb Breadsticks
Yield: 16-18 breadsticks
- 425 grams bread flour
- 1 Tbsp. sea salt
- 225 grams warm water
- 40 grams starter
- 1/4 tsp. dry active yeast
In food processor (fitted with a dough blade), pulse together the flour and salt to combine. Whisk together the water, starter and yeast. Pour the mixture through the feeding tube while pulsing the machine to incorporate into the flour. Continue pulsing at 5 second intervals until you get a smooth, elastic dough. Transfer the dough into a lightly greased zip loc bag and let it rest overnight in the refrigerator.
I let the formed dough rest for about 30 mins., lightly spritzed them with olive oil, sprinkled on a little parmesan cheese, then baked them at 450°F for about 8-10 mins. (longer if you roll fatter breadsticks). While the breadsticks were baking, I heated up some butter and extra virgin olive oil with some crushed garlic and fresh rosemary, then slathered the breadsticks with the mixture hot out of the oven.
The second easy recipe is kind of a retro, comfort twist on the raised classic, Fluffer Nutter Raised Donuts. I initially wanted to make waffles with Barney, but discovered that I’d have to, once again, let the batter rest overnight in the refrigerator. I was jonesing for something sweet, so I looked around for another recipe to play with. I came across one for raised donuts that used both starter and instant yeast. There wasn’t really much to it, so I adjusted the flavorings, adding vanilla extract, a pinch of nutmeg and a little more salt. I realized after the dough balls proofed that I probably should’ve made them a bit smaller–because when I went to fry them, they got huge! Oh well…all the more room to fill with peanut/cookie butter and marshmallow fluff (which I conveniently found in the pantry). Sweet tooth satisfied!
Fluffer Nutter Raised Donuts
Yield: 12 large, 16 small
- 250 grams bread flour
- 7 grams instant yeast
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 tsp. sea salt
- pinch of nutmeg
- 50 grams butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 large egg
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 100 ml whole milk, lukewarm
- 40 grams starter
- Cookie Butter, Peanut Butter, and Marshmallow Fluff for filling
Place the flour, instant yeast, sugar, salt, and nutmeg in a food processor (fitted with a dough blade) and pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse at intervals to work it into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Whisk together the remaining ingredients and pulse into the dry mix until dough comes together in a smooth, elastic mass. Sprinkle in a little more flour if the dough is too sticky. Transfer the dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover with a kitchen towel and let it proof until doubled in a warm space. Portion out the dough into 12-16 pieces, then form into balls.