Sour and sweet

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I haven’t made sourdough in quite a while, so I started re-energising my starter Thursday night and finally baked this boule today. I love returning to sourdough because it’s always quite pleasant, even a bit of a rush, to find that I haven’t lost my touch – or my starter, for that matter.

It’s been about ten years now since my boss – two bosses ago, that is – brought me a pint of live dough from a San Francisco bakery on his return from a California trip. It’s hardy stuff. It survived its initial mistreatment in the cold baggage hold of an airliner, where it burst its plastic container but was held by the first of two layers of freezer bags, and seems to laugh off my periodic neglect, when I’ve forgotten the starter’s in the back of the fridge and didn’t feed it for a month. Or two. Or…well, never you mind how many months it was that one year. As you can see, Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis and Candida humilis have both forgiven me, and that’s all that really matters. We three get along just fine.

Keeping a sourdough starter alive for ten years is pretty good, but it’s just a couple of ticks compared to some. King Arthur Flour sells a sourdough starter of a New England variety with a lineage back to the mid-1700s. I used their starter before I got my San Francisco nugget of gold. The San Francisco variant has a tangier taste and produces a slightly creamy texture that adds another element to the crunchy crust and chewy crumb. I’ve found the San Francisco sourdough is slightly less active than the New England variant, which adds time to the feeding and proofing cycles, but it’s worth the wait. As I am sometimes wont to say when pressed, “I can do it quickly or I can do it right. Which would you prefer?”

Toaster corncakes without the E numbers

I saw these in the store last night and was briefly tempted…for about a millisecond.

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They look appealing enough, but when I’ve given in to laziness and bought them in the past, I’ve regretted it. They’re far too sweet (first ingredient listed: sugar) and have quite an odd taste. They list artificial flavour in the ingredients, so I’m guessing it’s a miserable formula aimed at making soybean oil taste like the butter that ought to be in the recipe in the first place. Chemical trade name Butt•R•Not®, my imagination suggests.

Instead, I remembered a recipe for a homemade version in the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion, online recipe here, and made them this morning. The book version of the recipe suggested splitting, toasting, then applying softened butter and strawberry jam, so I tried them with preserves I had on hand from the good monks out in Spencer, Massachusetts, who also make my favourite blackberry seedless jam.

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I don’t have a corncake pan, so I used a 9×13″ pan instead. You bake these until the bottom has some colour – see the upturned piece in the background – but the top has barely any so they don’t end up burning in the toaster.

I miss her

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Photo: Paul Child

It’s been just over ten years since Julia Child left us here to cope with a planet made considerably poorer by the lack of Julia Child.

I owe a lot to her. She’s responsible for my love of cooking and baking, not to mention at least some of my attitude toward life, more probably a large part. She had such a lively disposition, and a devilish habit of speaking her mind regardless of whether there might be consequences. She wasn’t snarky, she was impish. She was – and is – my hero.

I first started watching her when I was a kid, probably right around the time of this episode of “The French Chef”:

This sort of programme was still pretty revolutionary at the time. She probably presented ten times as much information on lobsters as anyone else on television had up to that point. Her thoroughness and breadth of knowledge fascinated me no end, and I remember thinking, “She is great. I want to be like her.”

The episode that really set itself firmly in my memory was when she made traditional French bread. When kneading, she would slam the dough onto the counter, raising great clouds of flour and clearly having a ball. When I did finally start making food for myself years later, that bread was what I remembered, and my first baking project was baguettes, using her detailed instructions in From Julia Child’s Kitchen, the first cookbook I ever owned. That they came out fantastically well guaranteed that I’d never stop, thank goodness. Had I failed miserably at that first attempt, there would be a more than middling chance that my life would be at least an order of magnitude poorer now. I didn’t fail because that’s how good she was at teaching and encouraging novices.

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

In years past, I saw her more than once just off Harvard Square, at the Church Street car park. Each time, I would wave and give a cheery hello, and she did the same. I never had one of her cookbooks with me, but I later wrote a letter of thanks to her and asked if she would sign my copy of The Way to Cook, which I included along with a postpaid box with which to return it. She did, and it is a treasured volume.

I miss her often. Whenever I do, I watch a few of the hundreds of hours of her shows that I have. She brings a smile every time.

A new rose was bred in 2004 and named after Julia Child. It is, of course, the colour of butter. A really good butter. She would have no less.

“Giving up butter means that in about two years you will be covered in dandruff.”