Logic-free thinking

I just found out that there are a lot of people who believe sourdough is yeast-free, and plenty of organisations and companies that encourage that belief by people who for whatever reason want to follow a yeast-free diet.

True sourdough bread does not contain yeast and instead utilizes a lactobacilli based starter culture.[1]  True sourdough bread is also baked at a lower temperature[2] for a longer period of time which protects the integrity of the cereal grains[3] and preserves the nutritional value[4].

[1] No. It’s lactobacilli and a variety of yeasts living in symbiosis, where the bacteria consume sugars in the flour the yeast cannot and the yeast consumes the fermentation byproducts of the bacteria. Lactic acid produced by the bacteria lends the sour flavour; the yeast produces the carbon dioxide that leavens the bread.
[2] Generally speaking, it’s baked at the same or just slightly lower temperature than other breads but indeed for a longer time because the crust browns more slowly.
[3] Integrity of the grains? Come now, they’ve been powdered.
[4] For any reason other than it sounds appealing?

Yesterday, I found that a local bakery that produces a decent sourdough – I’m partial to their sourdough rye – also fails to understand some basics:

The natural yeast itself also has important health benefits for your digestive tract (the good bacteria[1] survive in the center of the loaves where the internal temperature does not get hot[2]).

[1] Yeast is good, but it’s not a bacteria; it’s a fungus.
[2] The good bacteria do not survive. Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis is killed after just a few minutes at 140°F/60°C, and the centre of a sourdough loaf – most breads, for that matter – should reach around 200°F/95°C for a few minutes before it’s taken out of the oven. Take it out before that and the middle of the loaf will remain unset and gummy. Their loaves are not unset and gummy in the middle.

lactobacillus

Current temperature 140.1F

Edited to correct first link.

A mouldy mouse by any other name…

My massage therapist mentioned a couple weeks ago that she had a craving for those light-as-a-feather round crumbly cookies made with tiny bits of walnuts and dusted with sugar. She asked if I knew where she could buy some, but I’ve not seen them in the few decent bakeries around here – or anywhere else, for that matter. In fact, the only time I’ve seen them is at holiday gatherings, where they’re often right next to the pizzelle cookies. Neither she nor I knew their name, so I googled ‘Italian walnut cookies’ tonight and found all the other variants.

They are variously called…deep breath…Mexican wedding cookies, Mexican teacakes, Mexican wedding cakes, just plain wedding cookies, kourabiedes, Russian teacakes, kiflik, Armenian sugar cookies, Easter cookies, butterballs, bullets, mantecosos, pecan butterballs, nutballs, cocoons, vanillekipferl, mouldy mice, pecan dainties, bizcochitos, snowballs, pecan snowballs, vanilla snowballs, walnut snowballs, and snowdrops. In other words, most cultures have a version of this cookie. However, the one thing I didn’t find was an Italian name for them.

It is perhaps obvious to you that when a friend asks me about a hard-to-find baked product, the eventual outcome is foregone and inevitable, but I wouldn’t accuse mates of taking advantage of that fact. They can’t help it just as I can’t.

P1010997

Click to see a larger version

I can report that my mouldy mice are of a much lighter texture and more delicious than any I’ve ever had at a Christmas party. “Not too shabby” said I on tasting the first one. No, wait…”Holy crap!” was actually my first utterance, followed immediately by my shabbiness estimate. They melt in the mouth and are great with coffee. I’m sure she’ll be delighted with the box I’m bringing over tomorrow.

My version is an adaptation of King Arthur Flour’s recipe. I replaced their almond extract and almond flour with a scant half-teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg and a cup of toasted pecans, cooled completely then chopped very finely in my mini food processor. I also bumped the vanilla extract up to two teaspoons. I inadvertently over-processed the pecans just a tiny bit, so they ended up slightly wet – but well short of pecan butter – and, as I suspected, baking therefore took about four minutes more than the maximum they state.

Distilled, the warm smell of pecans, nutmeg, and vanilla in my house right now would make a fine cologne, I think.

Cooking catchup

Catching up with some recent dishes I’ve made, from last night’s pea soup back to Thanksgiving dinner. Click any picture to view these in a gallery.

The menu (tentative)

  • Gougères with Gruyère for an appetizer – see the Petits Choux au Fromage link on this page
  • Roast turkey – with instant stock for gravy and, later, tetrazzini
  • Cornbread and slow-cooked bacon stuffing
  • Sweet potato “soufflé” (not really a soufflé, but quite light and fluffy…no, there’s no marshmallow)
  • Creamed corn or maybe something lighter, with Trader Joe’s pretty decent frozen corn
  • Something chocolate – maybe mousse, but my daydreaming right now features something I would be most thankful for: a from-scratch devil’s food cake with chocolate buttercream

Sour and sweet

P1010869

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.

Cakes

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.

P1010290w

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

JuliaChild

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.”