A Wee Bit o’ Irish Soda Bread

So, a few days ago, alert blog follower and old friend Jeff Jaquish sent me a PM asking about a good Irish Soda Bread recipe. I was at work at the time, so I dove into my online files, found the first one titled Irish Soda Bread, and sent that off to him, and I posted it here, too.

Then, this morning, with something nagging at my noggin, I dove back into my recipes and found much more thoughts and details in a second, unpublished file. I’ve got ahead and combined those here.

The first recipe is my version with far more in it, frankly, than a truly classic recipe for this stuff, so I wanted to include a good base model too. Somehow, I’d completely forgotten about baking to a higher temp in a Dutch oven, and that’s a crime – I’ve corrected that here, so JJ, here ya go again.

Irish Soda Bread, a Simple slice of heaven.
Irish Soda Bread, a Simple slice of heaven.

Back in the early 1800s, Ireland was poor as poor can be, so stretching food wisely was a necessity. Soda bread, comprised of flour, buttermilk, baking soda, and salt, was perfect answer to the problem, especially when the potato famine hit, mid-Century. And by the way, yes, for genuine, old school Soda Bread, that’s all that needs to be in there – Raisins, nuts, sweeteners, and whatnot are purely American affectations, truth be told.

Early commercial bakers discovered that bicarbonate of soda, (AKA baking soda), when mixed with hydrochloride acid, (Yes, Virginia, they really did that…), made for prodigious production of carbon dioxide – Lo and behold, they got bread much faster than they did by waiting around for yeast, (which wasn’t all that great back then), to do its thing.

Fortunately, home bakers were far more sensible, and got their acid from buttermilk – Much more benign, much less dangerous, and tastier to boot.

Those early cottage bakers, (AKA, Mom), would bake soda bread in a covered dish or skillet, a local version of a Dutch oven. They’d snuggle that dish right into the hearth, with some coals on top and some beneath, just as we do when camping these days. The results were and are a truly delightful bread, and it’s super easy to make.

As with all things house made, ingredient quality and freshness count a lot. You’ll want the freshest All Purpose Flour you can find, and yes, It needs to be AP Flour – the relatively low protein content therein means gluten formation remains relatively low, and that yields a nice, chewy bread that won’t get too tough. Likewise. Check your baking powder before you start – As we’ve discussed here before, that stuff does have an expiration date, so make sure you’re working with fresh powder. Finally, get your buttermilk as fresh and local as you can.

Now, for process, consider and abide by the following – This is a recipe you want to finish mixing and get straight into a hot oven. Unlike yeast, baking soda does its thing in a rapid and fairly short lived manner – Think about mixing Coca Cola and Mentos, and you get the idea. As soon as you pour in that buttermilk, the second hand on the ol’ stopwatch is in motion.

Finally, you’ll see a lot of advice on kneading Soda Bread. I initially advocated around a 3 minute knead, and that’s OK, believe me, but there is wide variance available to you, depending on what you like.

If you prefer things a bit more rustic, you can add enough additional buttermilk such that you’ll end up with a dough that is too sticky to knead, but too stiff to pour – that’ll be perfect – Put that in your Dutch oven and let ‘er rip. If you like a thinner, crunchier crust and a bit smoother crumb, keep the buttermilk percentage as shown and knead for a few minutes.

What I love about this stuff is the fact that it has a crumb and texture that, to me, is quite reminiscent of good sourdough. The beauty is that you can have this out of the oven and ready to eat in under an hour, all told, while good sourdough is dang near an all day adventure.

Give them both a try and let me know what you think. The sheet pan, lower temp version derives, for my mind anyway, a bit of a chewier crust, because it doesn’t take advantage of the steam factor baking in a Dutch oven will impart.

Urban’s Irish Soda Bread

4 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 ¼ Cups Buttermilk
½ Cup Avocado Oil
¼ Cup Unsalted Butter
1 large Egg
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar, (Honey is fine as a sub)
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
½ teaspoon Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 350° F and place a rack in the middle position. Make sure your oven is all the way to temp by the time your ready to slide the dough in there.

In a large, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients and blend thoroughly.

Add avocado oil, 1 cup of buttermilk, agave or honey, and the egg to the dry mix. Combine thoroughly with a kitchen spoon.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for up to 2-3 minutes. You can stop when everything is well incorporated, or go on if you like things a bit more refined.

Form the dough into a round, and place it on a baking sheet – A silicone sheet covering the metal is never a bad idea.

In a sauce pan over medium low heat, melt the butter.

In a small non-reactive mixing bowl, combine melted butter and remaining ¼ cup of buttermilk. Use a pastry brush to coat the outside of the loaf with this mixture.

Bake at 375 for 30 minutes, then test the loaf with a toothpick stuck into the middle – Its should draw out cleanly. Depending on your oven, you may need to bake for as long as 45 minutes, but make sure you test at 30 minutes, and then every 5 minutes thereafter.

Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. Allow to cool completely before cutting, (30 to 60 minutes).

NOTE: This recipe works great in a Dutch oven at 450° F for 40-45 minutes, too!

Classic Irish Soda Bread

3 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 – 2 1/2Cups fresh Buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher Salt
1 1/8 teaspoon Baking Soda

Preheat oven to 450° F and set a rack in the middle slot. Make sure your oven is fully up to heat before you slide the bread in to bake!

To help avoid sticking, line the bottom of a Dutch oven with parchment paper. We use a 10” oven, by the way, so that’s what this recipe is scaled for. Do the parchment thing even if your oven is well seasoned, because this stuff will stick.

In a large, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients and whisk to incorporate fully.

Add the buttermilk and use a spatula to incorporate. When the dough just comes together, you can stop mixing if you like. Again, you can add more buttermilk here to get that too sticky to handle, but too hefty to pour consistency if needed. If you like your crust a bit thinner, continue to mix for another minute or so.

Use the spatula to transfer the dough to your lined Dutch oven, and then to form a basic round loaf shape. Use a sharp paring knife to score the top of the loaf – You can do quarters, or straight lines, whatever you like.

Bake covered for 45 minutes, then remove from oven and carefully transfer the loaf to a wire rack to cool.

Allow the bread to cool thoroughly before you cut it – It’ll need that time, believe me – Anywhere from a half hour to an hour or more.

Cornbread, Old & New

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Recipes aren’t really meant to be repeated exactly, time and time again – Even when you’re the one who wrote them. They’re a springboard to further exploration, and nothing more. A guitar making parable comes to mind – I’ve seen a bunch of builders, including me, make ‘identical’ guitars, from the same wood, built to the same specs, as close to each other as we can make them, and ya know what? They never sound, feel, or play the same. Same goes for recipes and cooking – For something iconic like cornbread, for instance.

Let us pause to consider from whence this stuff came. Cornbread is largely seen as a southern culinary thing, but its roots go far beyond those boundaries. Our modern versions harken back in the 1600’s, when European interlopers adapted some bread making techniques to the new cereal the natives had introduced them to, (and had been cultivating, starting down in Mexico, for something around 10,000 years).

Nowadays there are regional variances in style, and it’s interesting that those are almost diametrically opposed to what we see with biscuits – The farther south you go, the cornbread gets more rustic and less cakey, often with little or no added sugar and very little flour, (in fact, sometimes none at all). Meanwhile, while up north and out west, while not exactly flaky, you find a sweeter, more floury version. White cornmeal, closely akin to masa, is more popular in the south, yellow up north. Those southern differences may have to do with the prevalence of Mexican regional cooking, and the proximity to the origin point of the cereal itself, while up north, European influences speak loudest. That jibes with my personal experience as well – Growing up in Massachusetts, I remember cornbread as overly sweet and therefore, not much to my liking. When M and I moved to Texas, I found what I was looking for – Something that’s a bit more savory, and highlights the natural sweetness of corn without adding sugar or other sweeteners to the mix.

In any event, cornbread isn’t something we make super often, so when we do, it can fairly be considered a treat. In that light, one should consider what it is you most want out of the stuff. For me, that means as moist as I can get it, while still being firm and grainy with genuine cornmeal flavor.

For a good few years now, I’d landed on a cheddar version that we like a lot. I’ve taken to soaking the corn meal in milk or cream as a critical step, and in fact, doing that does make notably moister bread. Grinding my own cornmeal fresh, from local, organic corn was even better.

Then, as fate would have it, a measuring malfunction lead to a new twist, or at least, new to me – I’d put too much cornmeal in the mix. Once I realized it, I balanced everything back out, but found I was out of the heavy cream I’d used for the dairy, so I thought – what the hell, why not throw in some sour cream?

The second part of this tiny epiphany had to do with the chosen fat for the batch. I’ve used, and advocated here, leaf lard and/or butter, but all of a sudden, I thought about biscuits, and realized that what has really made my current version sing is avocado oil. If you haven’t tried that yet, it’s not really avocado-y in taste at all, just very subtle and buttery – Perfect for cornbread. Since I’d putzed around so long, I didn’t bother with the dairy rest for the cornmeal, (and it turns out that, with this version, I didn’t need it.) And as fate would have it, what resulted was what M happily anointed as ‘far and away, the best cornbread you’ve every made’ – High praise, that, believe you me.

So I made a second batch, to make sure the recipe worked, then made one the old way, for comparison. What that does is give y’all a couple of options. In the picture below, the old recipe is the batch to the left, the new one to the right. First off, I assure you, both are fully cooked, and neither has had anything done to it other than being sliced. You can see how dense, moist, and almost muffinish the new recipe is, while the old one is lighter and airier. I like them both a lot, but M was right – The new stuff is heavenly.

Old style to the left, New to the right
Old style to the left, New to the right

Urban’s Old Standby Cheddar Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Corn Meal, (yellow or white)
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup grated Sharp Cheddar Cheese
1 Cup Whole Milk
4 Tablespoons Leaf Lard (or Unsalted Butter)
1 Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Optional: 1-2 seeded and cored Jalapeño chiles

Preheat oven to 400° F

Pour cornmeal into a bowl and add the milk; mix well and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

Mix remaining dry ingredients, (Including the cheese), in a large bowl.

Melt shortening, then combine all ingredients and mix by hand to a nice, even batter consistency.

Place the pan(s) you’ll do the bread in into a 400 F oven, with a small dot of shortening in each pan, (Or a tablespoon full if using a single pan).

When the shortening is melted and sizzling, remove the pan, pour in the batter and return to the oven.

Bake at 400° F for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made
What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made

Urban’s New Deal Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Cornmeal
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Heavy Cream
1/2 Cup Sour Cream
1/2 Cup shredded Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
4 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 large Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 400° F and set a rack in the middle position, with the pan your going to bake in thereupon.

Combine all dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Add the cheese, egg, dairy, and oil, and whisk into a uniform batter.

Carefully remove the hot baking pan and rub a little avocado oil around the inside, without burning yourself.

Pour the batter into the baking pan and return it to the hot oven.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown.

Biscuits To Die For

Greg Atkinson is a great guy, and he makes fantastic biscuits – He also happens to be a real deal big time Chef. From the Friday Harbor House on San Juan island, to Canlis in Seattle, and now Restaurant Marché on Bainbridge, (his current masterpiece), Greg has been seminal to the development of Pacific Northwest cuisine as a genuine force to be reckoned with. He’s won a James Beard M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing award, and authored a handful of excellent northwest cookbooks. And, he posts pictures of those lovely little things pretty much every week, which instantly makes you crave biscuits – Biscuits to die for.

The incomparable Greg Atkinson
The incomparable Greg Atkinson

When we say ‘Biscuit,’ we really do have to define what we’re talking about, because it’s a broad definition indeed – Pilot bread is a biscuit, as is a saltine cracker, actually – And those are a far cry from the golden, flaky little gems that just got pulled outta my oven. The version I make owe their origin story to tthe American south, (as do rolled or beaten biscuits). These days, you can find them everywhere, as it should be.

This form of biscuit is essentially a quick bread, a combination of flour, leavening, milk, fat, and a little salt. Of course, every cook has their preferences for most of those constituents – Milk or buttermilk, butter or lard, soft southern flour, or harder northern varieties – Fact is, they’ll all make great biscuits if you handle things right.

So, what is it we’re after then, if we’re looking to make a great southern style biscuit? The terms that get bandied about most are tender and flaky, but the fact is, those two words really mean quite different things. Down South, folks prefer their biscuits tender, and that means they’re made from a fairly wet dough, what’s often called a drop biscuit – That produces a fairly dense crumb, quite like a muffin. Flaky, on the other hand, implies defined layers in the finished product, and while they’re still quite light when done right, they’re definitely a bit chewier than their southern cousins – And generally, that’s how northern folks, (where I’m from), like ’em – This is the dough Greg uses, and gave me the insight into, and is what I make now – One day last spring, he posted a bare bones recipe, which is just what I like. I’ve been working on this for about 6 months, getting the process and ingredients just right – I can reproduce this pretty much anywhere, which means you can too.

Now, I’ve no illusions that what I’m about to share is totally unique, ’cause it’s not. For one thing, it’s Greg’s recipe, tweaked a little, which is pretty much how all recipes are passed along. It’s the process steps he shared and I’ve adopted that are the real trick to the game. Greg’s offering was, in fact, slightly cryptic. He mentions shortening and butter in the very brief narrative, but then doesn’t list shortening in the ingredients. He said that the dough is ‘never really mixed or kneaded in the conventional sense,’ and nothing else about working it. He baked in a ‘very hot oven,’ – Now, I don’t think he was being purposefully difficult – It was literally a couple of pictures and a paragraph he’d posted in response to somebody who’d pestered him for a recipe. While it took a few months to figure things out, it was enough for me to work with.

This version of biscuit dough isn’t a short dough, though many folks think that it is – Short, in the baking context, refers to a high ratio of fat to flour, as well as the presence of sugar. While biscuits are rich, they’re not particularly fatty, and there’s no sugar at all in the mix, (at least not in my recipe) – The recipe I’ll share has 12 ounces of fat to 5 cups of flour, or slightly under a 1:4 ratio – Compare that to shortbread, where the fat to flour ratio is 1:2, and you get the picture.

So, what is the magic then? The best way I can describe the overarching principle is this – It’s like pie crust, which means that, the more you fuck with the dough, the less you succeed. Now, that’s a simple enough statement, but it doesn’t really do much towards explaining the details of what you should and shouldn’t do. There is a series of seemingly minor but vital steps to take, and as with all doughs, batters, etc, how you handle them is absolutely as critical to success as the stuff they’re made of.

What we’ve got is fat, (butter and oil), suspended in flour and liquid, (milk). The first challenge a biscuit maker faces is how to get the butter well distributed through the flour-milk paste. The primary enemy here is heat, and what do most cooks do to distribute butter? Cut it into cubes and then work it by hand into the infamous ‘Pea sized’ thing we read in all the cook books – Trouble is, our hands melt the butter and warm the flour, and that’s pretty much counter-productive. The way to counteract this is to have everything except the oil as cold as possible, and to keep your paws, for the most part, out of the mix. More on that shortly.

Another old saw about the formation of doughs worth visiting is the supposition that what we’re forming is tiny pockets of flour, coated with fat, but the fact is that has it absolutely ass backwards – What really happens is that is that the flour/liquid slurry coats tiny little pockets of fat – Now, think about that for a sec, and when you do, a light comes on, ’cause that makes a hell of a lot more sense. While the degree of mixing will always vary, the fact that the flour/liquid mix encapsulates the fat helps us understand why that whole business with the butter is a great idea – That and the fact that it just plain works.

Now, for the final bit of science, with an apology to all of you who aren’t food science geeks, (but it’s actually important). Harken back to where we discussed the two primary types of American biscuits, the tender and the flaky – Turns out that the key to these is predominantly determined by… (Wait for it…), how we handle the dough. The former, the southern biscuit, requires enough manipulation to construct layers of the flour/liquid slurry and fat, AKA, working that dough enough for gluten to develop to a significant degree, while the latter, the flaky northern version, absolutely demands minimal handling in order to keep gluten from developing at all – And that’s saying a mouthful. In other words, to build these biscuits we’re talking about here, you really cannot do anything more than reasonably combine the ingredients, period – And fact is, that is exactly what Greg was talking about when he wrote that these biscuits are, ‘never really mixed or kneaded in the conventional sense,’ AKA, full circle, eh?

So on to the finale – marching orders. As always, you reap what you sew, so use ingredients as fresh and local as you can – In something this simple, ingredient quality is everything, and subpar or old stuff truly won’t taste very good – One more word to the wise, as we’ve covered here before, leaving agents like yeast, baking soda or powder do have expiration dates, and old stuff will not work well, if at all, so check yours and get fresh before you get started.

Biscuits to die for - Its all in the proper prep
Biscuits to die for – Its all in the proper prep

Genuinely Flaky Biscuits

5 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Cups Whole Milk
6 Ounces Butter
6 Ounces Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

At least a day before you build, pop a pound of butter into the freezer and leave it there – It can be your go-to stash for baking.

Add flour, baking powder, and salt to a mixing bowl and whisk to incorporate thoroughly.

Put the bowl and contents into the freezer for at least an hour prior to mixing, and longer if you like – Overnight is fine.

When you’re ready to mix, pull a stick of frozen butter and use the medium shred on a box grater to process 6 ounces. Toss the butter into the mixing bowl with your dry ingredients and return it to the freezer for 15 minutes after grating.

Preheat your oven to 450° F.

Grab something nice and thick and heavy to bake in or on – I use a pizza stone, but a cast iron pan works just fine too.

Pre-measure 6 ounces of avocado oil and set aside at your prep area.

Pull your chilled bowl, and add the milk and oil to the other ingredients.

Now, when it’s mixing time, that means, in this instance, absolutely minimal – Think of something like Belgian waffles, where you need to fold beaten egg whites into the rest of the batter – You work carefully, delicately, so that you don’t smoosh all the air out of those whites you’ve just worked so hard to beat – That’s the concept here – Carefully and slowly fold everything with a wooden spoon or the side of a spatula, just enough to reasonably incorporate all the ingredients, and no more.

Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a cutting board, and gently pat it into a round, about 1″ thick.

Use a glass, can, whatever works for you that will let you cut biscuit rounds out of the block.

Place biscuits on your stone/pan – Ideally, you’d like about a half inch or so between each.

When you get to the scraps of your dough, just gently hand form the last biscuit or two.

Bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Devour with abandon.

Sourdough

Sourdough. Yes, that. It’s funny that sourdough gets called things like ‘rustic’ or ‘rough’ as often as it does. Rustic is fine – if it’s not used in the pejorative sense – Rustic, as in, of the countryside, and of simple roots. The latter term, rough – Not so much. Great sourdough is anything but rough. And making great sourdough is far, far harder than many other breads. At work, we bake it every day, and it’s good sourdough, but it is, after all, production bread. Production is only half the reason that it’s good and not great sourdough – The other half of the equation is magic – The starter, because the real beauty of sourdough is fact that there’s arguably no food more tied to terroir – What you get is, eventually, exactly where you’re from – And that’s what makes great sourdough as much science as it is art. Interested? If you’ve ever wanted to do sourdough, but never dove in, now’s your time.

There are a lot of myths about sourdough, concerning everything from where and how we get it from, to how to properly make it. What we’ll endeavor to do here is to spell out some truths, deflate some of those myths, and offer a launching pad for future discovery, should you be so inclined. Even if you don’t decide to take the plunge, hopefully, you’ll have a better feel for what sourdough is, and the truly amazing amount of work that goes into making it. Believe that last statement, by the way – While making some form of sourdough is as easy as any other bread, doing it right is quite labor intensive. The parable that comes to mind is making farmhouse cheddar versus making real cheddar – The former is easy and fast – The latter takes literally all day, and requires such to be worth the effort. Sourdough done the traditional way is the cheddar of bread making.

Back in 1989, a pathologist named Ed Wood wrote a book, titled World Sourdoughs From Antiquity. Prior to that, Wood was working in Saudi Arabia. He did some traveling throughout the Middle East, and as a long time fan of sourdough, came upon myriad evidence of the long run sourdough has enjoyed in that part of the world. Wood noted that evidence of sourdough cultures that existed as far back as 10,000 B.C., and he’s right. He began collecting cultures, a thing a pathologist would naturally be quite good at. Eventually, he expanded his discovery and collection into the wider world, and ended up writing the book. He also maintained and cultivated all those various cultures, and to this very day, is more than happy to sell them to you. The book is, more than anything, a vehicle to do just that. This illustrates one of the most popular myths and challenges about sourdough – More on that in a bit.

Symbiosis at work...
Symbiosis at work…

First off, what exactly is it that powers sourdough – How does it really work? The root is indeed wild yeast, and that differs distinctly from the pure cultured yeasts used by the vast majority of bread makers. Back before Louis Pasteur figured out the fermentation process in 1857, bread yeast was largely sourced from yeast leftover from beer and wine making. The big problem with that lies in the fact that these yeasts were really chosen for their ability to make alcohol, not to generate the CO2 that bread makers needed.

Enter Charles Fleischmann eleven years later, in 1868. The Hungarian son of a distiller and yeast maker, when he emigrated to the U.S. and moved to Cincinnati, he was sorely disappointed in the quality of the bread he found there. He and his brothers developed a stable, reliable cake yeast for bakers, and the rest is history – And yes, those little bright yellow and red packages in your fridge are his work. That innovation was a major factor that lead to the mighty monolith that is industrial baking today, (over 75% of the bread sold worldwide is industrially produced). Sourdough plays some role in that, from big makers to small, it’s never died out. Yet real sourdough is very different from that tame, pet yeast the big guys are using.

What makes sourdough work is a critical symbiotic relationship between yeast and a couple of bacteria, namely Lactobacillus and Acetobacillus. Those little dudes work with the wild yeasts, breaking down and fermenting the sugars they find in dough. What’s unique about this arrangement is that, unlike most bread doughs, sourdough is acidic, and it’s that acidity that is largely responsible for the unique taste profile. Often enough, these bacteria are some of the same strains that turn milk into yoghurt and buttermilk. That’s not all – Sourdough bacteria have the distinct ability to resist other microbes that cause bread to go bad, and that’s why sourdough keeps better than most other breads.

Let it breath - Wild yeasts at work
Let it breath – Wild yeasts at work

So, here’s that first myth – That when in the comfort of your own home, you make a fresh sourdough starter, the wild yeast that becomes active is derived from the air around you. For the most part, at least starting out, it turns out that’s not true. The yeasts that’ll fuel your home starter comes predominantly from the flour you use – And if ever there was a fact warranting a wise flour buying choice, I’d say that’d be it. If and when you decide to make a starter of your own, (and you absolutely should), the flour you use should be the freshest, best quality, most local stuff you can find – When I made a batch for the writing of this piece, I spent over eight bucks for five pounds of local, organic, fresh flour from the town just south of ours, and believe me, were you able to stick your nose in my starter jar, you’d instantly know that it was worth every penny.

The other reason for local is this – Since the yeast that’ll power your starter comes off the flour, (and assuming you like the results), there’s a much greater chance that what you start out with is what you’ll get in the long haul, and therein lies the second myth we need to bust.

The Leaven - Sourdough Rocket Fuel.
The Leaven – Sourdough Rocket Fuel.

So, back to our buddy Ed Wood. He’s not a bad guy, and he obviously digs sourdough – He’s turned it into a successful business with a decades long track record. If you buy from a reputable place like Ed’s, you’ll get workable starters from where he says they came from. Yet, there’s one big problem with this whole concept of having your own San Francisco sourdough starter, if you don’t actually live there – and it’s not something that folks who sell this stuff necessarily want to talk about a whole bunch. Here’s the deal – Let’s say you make a starter with one of these legendary cultures, or even flour from some place well away from where you live – While any starter you make will rely on the culture you bought, (or again, from yeast in the flour you use), over time, the native wild yeasts in the air around you will indeed make their presence known. Eventually, your naive yeasts will prevail, and in the end run, that’s what will power your sourdough.

I did a pretty extensive review of foodie sites that had a lot of input and exchange from folks who have bought or been gifted starters from other places, and there’s a glaringly common thread therein – In essence, folks say that over time, all their various starters either started to taste a like, and/or less Iike they did when they first got it – A sure sign of native wild yeasts are stepping in and taking control. You can’t escape your local terroir, no matter how hard you try. I stopped making starters when we lived in Fort Worth, Texas, because to me, they just didn’t taste good. They worked fine, but tasted funky. Here, living right on the shore of the Pacific Ocean in the northwest corner of Washington State, I love what I get in my starter – It has a wonderful, briny nose to it that seems perfectly apropos. You get what you get.

So, you want to dive in – What to do? Well, rather than do my own step by step, I’m simply going to refer you to the best version I’ve seen in the subject anywhere, from the incredibly creative gang over at The Kitchn. You’ll find extensive text and pics for making and maintaining a starter, as well as several varieties of sourdough bread. While there are many ways to make sourdough, I find their primer the best out there – It’s as right as rain. That said, a few more thoughts on the process.

Weighing is always best, for everything you bake.
Weighing is always best, for everything you bake.

1. Pay heed to the caveats about how long sourdough takes to make. You really cannot successfully speed up the process. Wild yeasts are slower than their domesticated cousins, and you just have to be patient working with them. With sourdough, those friendly bacteria grow at a much faster rate than their symbiotic yeast partners – That ratio of growth eventually inhibits the yeasts ability to generate CO2, which is what gives us the lift for the rise. Additionally, those protein guzzling bacteria weaken the gluten in the flour, which mean your dough is less elastic – This also impacts the rise, but coincidentally contributes to the denser crumb sourdough is known for.

2. If you bake a lot, keep your starter at room temperature, and refresh them regularly with flour and water. When your starter is well established, you’ll want to toss half of it daily, and then refresh with 4 ounces each of flour and water. You can keep doing that, as long as you’re using it regularly. Whisking your starter a couple of times a day adds the oxygen your yeast needs to grow and multiply. Keep them relatively cool – under 74° F is ideal.

3. If you’re not going to use the starter for longer than 5 days or so, refrigerate it in an airtight glass jar. Once a week, pull your starter out before you go to bed, let it get up to room temperature overnight, and then feed it before refrigerating again.

4. If you’re taking a long break from baking, thicken your starter by adding 6 ounces of flour instead of 4 – Thick, doughy starters retard bacterial growth, which means less fussing with it for you. If you’re really gonna not be baking for a month or more, consider drying your starter out by spreading it thinly on parchment, waxed paper, or silicone baking sheets. When it’s fully dry, break up the starter into flakes and seal it in a clean, airtight glass jar. Dried, your cultures will last for months, just like Ed’s. 1/4 Cup of the flaked starter with 4 ounces each of water and flour will kick things back into gear for you.

Real deal sourdough
Real deal sourdough

So dive into those Kitchn posts and give them a spin – Your bread loving self and loved ones will thank you for it.

Chocolate & Toasted Almond Tart

I went down to my Sis’s place this weekend. I always try to cook when I’m down there, and this time around, I was determined to make up for the failed tart fiasco from my last visit. I was going to do something savory, but then Annie said, “if you want to do some fantastic dessert, you sure can – I’ve got chocolate, and cream, and nuts…” A chocolate tart was the natural answer. I did this one up on the fly, and it turned out so good, I’ve been flooded with recipe requests, so here it is – It’s actually quite easy, so do give it a try.

Chocolate & Toasted Almond Tart

For the Tart
1 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Powdered Sugar
1/4 Cup Cocoa Powder
4 Ounces Unsalted Butter
1 Egg

1/2 Cup whole Almonds for topping.

Have all ingredients at room temperature.
In a large mixing bowl, combine sugar and butter, cream together with a fork until smoothly blended.
Add the egg and whisk it into the sugar-butter blend.
Add flour and cocoa powder and work by hand until fully incorporated.
Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate for 45 minutes to an hour.

Preheat oven to 350° F.
Remove dough from fridge, flatten it into a roughly 6″ disk, and sandwich between sheets of waxed paper or parchment.
Gently roll dough out to about 1/4″ thick.
Carefully transfer dough to a tart pan, and gently press into shape.
Prick bottom of tart with a fork, across the entire bottom.
Bake on a middle rack for about 15 minutes, until tart looks dry and has started to pull away from the pan edges.
Remove and allow to cool.

Place almonds on a clean, dry baking sheet and roast for about 15 minutes at 350° F, until nuts start to brown slightly, and you can smell a nice, roasted nut smell.
Remove from oven and allow to cool.
When cool enough to handle, carefully rough chop nuts and set aside for topping.

For the Ganache
1 1/2 Cups Heavy Cream
8 Ounces Dark Chocolate.
4 Ounces Unsalted Butter
2 Tablespoons dark Karo Syrup.
Pinch Sea Salt

In a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, scald the cream – when small bubbles form at the edge of the cream, remove from heat.
Shave or grate chocolate, then transfer to the inner pan of a double boiler.
Carefully pour hot cream over the chocolate, and allow it to steep for 5 minutes.
Prepare bottom half of double boiler with a few inches of water and place over medium heat.
Place pan with cream and chocolate blend atop heated double boiler bottom, and gently whisk cream and chocolate together – take your time and let the chocolate determine the rate of incorporation – If you try to push things, your chocolate can seize, which is no fun…
When the cream and chocolate are fully incorporated, add the Karo syrup and a pinch of sea salt, and whisk them in.
Cut butter into 1/4″ cubes, then add a few cubes at a time to the ganache, and gently whisk them in until they’re melted and incorporated. Repeat until all the butter is worked in and the ganache is nice and glossy.
Carefully pour ganache into the tart.
Top ganache with chopped, toasted almonds.

Chocolate & Toasted Almond Tart

Allow to set at room temperature for two to four hours prior to serving.

Chocolate & Toasted Almond Tart

Cheese Rice Soufflé

Cheese rice soufflé

 

Had quite a few requests for the recipe behind this Instagram pic, so here it is. It's a simple cheese rice souffle, (and they really are simple.) Here's my spin on this classic.

The soufflé is generally attributed to Marie-Antoine Carême, a founding father of French grande cuisine. Carême's first iterations were made in the early 19th century, in stiff, straight sided pastry casings that are the inspiration for the modern soufflé dish.

Technically, a soufflé is a cake consisting of a cream sauce or pastry cream combined with beaten egg whites. Soufflé is actually a tense of the French verb 'souffler', to blow or puff,; an apt description of the cooking process involved. The base cream may be sweet or savory. The beaten egg whites, incorporating a lot of tiny air bubbles, provides the classic rise that defines this delicious dish.

Soufflés can be made in containers of all shapes and sizes, but the traditional vessel is a straight sided, white glazed porcelain soufflé pan, round with a glazed or unglazed bottom and fluted sides. The porcelain transmits heat quickly and well, the unglazed bottom anchors the dish, and the straight, glazed sides allow an unfettered rise in the oven.

The keys to a grey soufflé are;

a pre-heated oven,

Eggs at room temperature,

Very gentle folding of the beaten egg whites.

You want as much energy as possible to go toward the rise of the soufflé, as opposed to heating ingredients, so the preheated oven is a big help, as are eggs at room temp. Very gentle folding of the egg whites ensures that all that air trapped in the egg white matrix is available to the soufflé – again, that's the fuel behind the rise, and rough handling kills it quickly.

I've made this with all kinds of rice; I get the best results with long grain or wild. It's easily the most elegant use of leftover rice I can think of.

 

Cheese Rice Soufflé

2 Cups cooked Rice

1 1/2 Cups Extra Sharp Cheddar

3 large Eggs

1 1/2 Cups whole Milk

2 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour

2 Tablespoons unsalted Butter

1 Tablespoon minced Shallot

1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1/2 teaspoon ground Grains of Paradise

1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Dash of Tabasco Sauce

 

Have eggs at room temperature before starting.

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Crack and carefully separate eggs whites and yolks into two mixing bowls.

In a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, melt butter. Add flour and whisk to combine.

Allow roux to cook for 2-3 minutes until lightly browned.

Slowly add milk in small amounts, whisking each into the roux.

Incorporate all the milk without breaking the roux; in other words, it should start out as thick as mashed potatoes and end up as a fairly thick cream sauce, never being allowed to separate into liquids and solids. Slow and steady incorporation is the key.

Add rice, shallot, lemon thyme, salt, grains of paradise, (pepper is Ok), and Tabasco. Whisk to combine.

Remove from heat and transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Whisk egg yolks with a teaspoon of water, until they've thickened slightly and are nice and uniform.

Add yolks to cream and rice mixture and blend thoroughly.

By hand or with a whisk attachment for an immersion blender, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form; you want to be able to flip a bit of the whites it's your whisk and see them stand pretty much straight up and stay there.

Check the temperature of your cream and rice mix. You want it warm, but not hot enough to start cooking the eggs prior to baking.

Working in thirds, gently fold the beaten egg whites into the cream and rice blend. Use the side of a spatula and take your time. The batter should look and feel quite light when fully blended.

Chose a pan sized such that the batter will fill it about 2/3 way up the sides.

Carefully pour the batter into an ungreased soufflé pan.

Bake uncovered for 45 to 55 minutes. Don't open the oven – Let it work!

Soufflé top should be nicely risen and golden brown.

Serve immediately with a nice, crisp salad. Sparkling dry cider is a great accompaniment.

 

 

Perfect Popovers

It’s currently 48° F, with the wind south by southwest off the sea, blowing steadily at 20 knots with gusts strong enough to shake the cabin. In other words, it’s a great time for soup or stew. As an accompaniment to that, you’d be hard pressed to beat a nice, hot popover. 

There are plausible claims that popovers are a U.S. dish. The oldest recipe reference to popovers I’m aware of is American, within M. N. Henderson’s Practical Cooking, which dates to the Centennial year of 1876. 

It’s thought that the popover is naught but younger kin to Yorkshire Pudding, which certainly makes sense. Perhaps it’s good old yankee ingenuity that is evident in their making; much smaller, they don’t require the lengthy beat/chill/beat sequence that a Yorkshire does to rise successfully. They can be enjoyed in less than 45 minutes, as opposed to several hours.

While the batter for popovers is simplicity itself, the successful baking thereof is not. The tricks to great popovers are as follows;

1. Have all ingredients at room temperature before you incorporate them; this allows faster heating, which is critical to a good rise.

2. Scalding the milk; heating the milk helps integrate it with the other batter constituents, and promote a faster rise and lighter final product.

3. Very through blending of the batter; as with a quiche or frittata, well blended ingredients, with a wealth of minute air bubbles worked into the batter, make for a lighter popover. An immersion blender does the best job of this, especially one that has a beater head.

4. Heat the tin and the fat, (butter); again, having everything as hot as possible when introduced to baking heat allows that energy to be used for generating steam, the engine behind a well-risen popover, rather than it being needed to simply heat the pan and the batter.

5. Don’t open the oven door while they’re cooking, period.

Here’s our go to version. They’ll take you about 10 minutes to make.

 

1 Cup All Purpose Flour

1 Cup Whole Milk

2 Large Eggs

3 Tablespoons unsalted Butter

1 teaspoon SeaSalt

1 teaspoon kosher salt

 

Have all ingredients at room temperature, (Butter doesn’t matter, since you’ll melt it shortly).

Preheat the oven to 400° F.

Pour milk into a small saucepan over medium heat. Remove the milk when it scalds, (small bubbles formed along the edge of the pan), and set aside to cool.

Melt butter, and lightly brush 6 to 8 cups of a muffin tin with same.

Slide the muffin tin into the hot oven for about 5-7 minutes.

Crack eggs into a large mixing bowl; whisk until well blended, about 1-2 minutes.

Add milk, flour, remaining melted butter, and salt; with an immersion blender, whisk briskly until the batter is smooth and even, about 2-3 minutes.

Remove tin from oven and fill each roughly half way with batter.

Bake until fully inflated and golden brown, about 30 to 35 minutes

 

Serve immediately, piping hot.

Potato Crusted Quiche

Breakfast is the meal we love best here, and that’s where I do some of my best work.

Here's a recipe for a signature dish that I literally worked on for years before offering here. It is incredibly good, fun to make, very impressive visually and unbelievably delicious. Ladies and gents, I give you the potato crusted quiche.

Quiche is a member of the custard family, of course, which encompasses everything from crème brûlée to the savory breakfast variants, like frittatas and tortas and quiche. Eggs are a perfect food, and quiche is the best possible savory application utilizing them that I can think of.

As with all things custard, there are a few little touches that will make the difference between good and great;

1. Bring your eggs and cheese out with enough lead time to have them pretty close to room temperature before you mix and cook.

2. Scald your milk before you mix – In a sauce pan over medium high heat, until tiny bubbles form right around the very edges of the milk, then take it off the heat and let it cool a bit; this helps things made with it to cook quicker and more evenly in the oven.

3. Blend your egg-milk mixture well. the more it is blended, the smoother your custard will be – Use an immersion blender if you’ve got one, a stand mixer or blender if you don’t.

 

For the crust

1-2 potatoes

1/2 Cup shredded Swiss Cheese

2 Eggs

Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper

 

Preheat oven to 400° F.

Grate about 2 cups of your favorite hash brown potato; Russets are most traditional, but any high-starch potato will do fine. Transfer the grated potato to a mixing bowl, and cover the potatoes completely with ice cold water. Let them stand for about 5 minutes, then strain out the water, and refill the bowl with ice water again, and allow a second 5 minute soak.

Drain the potatoes into a single mesh strainer, then grab handfuls of the shredded spud and wring the water out of them. Transfer the potatoes to a dry bowl.

Add the grated Swiss and crack the eggs into the mix as well, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Combine everything thoroughly by hand or with a wooden spoon.

Lightly coat a pie pan with olive oil, then spread the crust into the pan by hand and form a nice, even layer on bottom and sides. Form the sides of the crust over the height of the pie pan, as they'll shrink a bit during blind baking.

Bake the crust for 15 minutes at 400° F, until the eggs have set and the cheese has melted slightly; this is important, as it forms an impermeable layer for the egg mixture to come.

Remove from heat and reduce baking temp to 350° F.

 

For the Filling:

3 large Eggs

1/2 Cup Swiss Cheese

1 Cup Whole Milk

1/2 Cup Sour Cream

1 Tablespoon fresh Chives

1/4 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1/4 teaspoon granulated Onion

Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper

 

Scald the milk and set aside to cool a bit.

Cut the cheese into roughly 1/2″ cubes. Chiffenade the chives.

Whisk eggs briskly, then add sour cream. Add the milk slowly, to temper the mixture and avoid cooking the eggs prematurely. Blend all very well with an immersion blender.

Add seasoning and mix well.

A classic quiche is simply eggs, cheese, and some seasoning, but you can certainly add more as you desire. Avoid ingredients that hold a lot of water, like tomatoes, as they'll tend to make your final product runny. If you wish to add things like ham or onion, it's best to lightly sauté them first, which will concentrate flavors and drive off excess moisture prior to baking.

Bake for 45 minutes at 350° F, until the quiche has risen nicely and is golden brown on top.

 

Remove from heat and allow a 10 minute rest, then cut, serve and enjoy.

 

 

 

Almond Biscotti

 

Almond Biscotti are a delight, but as with all things baked, best when they're fresh. That said, they're meant to be crunchy; if you ever thought that their consistency was somewhat akin to hardtack, you'd be right on the mark. Biscotti have their origins in the same vein as that staple of old time sailors. Initially, biscotti was a twice baked, fatless ration carried by the Roman Legions, meant to last for months if not years. The almond flavoring we use here harkens back to that original version. Nowadays, we often add a little fat to make them more toothsome, at the expense of longevity.

Make this recipe fresh at home and you'll never go back to store bought.

 

2 Cups Whole Wheat Pastry Flour

3/4 Cup local Honey or Agave Nectar

1/2 Cup slivered Almonds

2 whole Eggs

1 Egg White

1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter

3/4 teaspoon Baking Soda

1 Vanilla Bean, (or 1/2 teaspoon pure extract)

1/4 teaspoon Almond Extract

1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt

 

Preheat oven to 350° F and set a rack in the middle spot.

Line a heavy gauge baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Cut or process almonds to a rough chop.

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and sauté the almonds until slightly browned, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Carefully slice the vanilla bean lengthwise. Scrape the seeds into a smaller mixing bowl. Put the pod into your sugar bowl to add a lovely vanilla note; you can also save the pod for a recipe that calls for a liquid and soak it therein.

In a large mixing bowl, thoroughly combine the flour, almonds, baking soda, and salt.

In a separate bowl, blend the vanilla, almond extract, eggs, egg white, and honey or agave.

Add the wet mix to the dry and combine thoroughly. This will be a rather dry dough. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 15 seconds. Like a good pie dough, you just want to incorporate the ingredients and activate the gluten a bit; take care to not overwork the dough – 15 seconds kneading, max.

Divide the dough in two and roll each half out by hand to roughly 12″ length.

Place loaves on your prepped baking sheet and gently flatten them down to about 3/4″ thickness.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the loaves are firm and slightly springy to the touch.

Remove loaves from the oven, reduce oven heat to 325° F.

Place loaves onto a wire rack and allow to cool for 10 minutes.

Slide loaves onto a cutting board and slice each at a 45° angle and 1/2″ thick.

Place slices on an unlined baking sheet, then bake for 10 minutes.

Flip each biscotti over and bake another 10 minutes.

Remove from oven, place biscotti on the wire rack, allow them to cool completely.

Store biscotti in an airtight glass container. They'll last quite a while, but they're best if eaten within a few days of baking.

 

VARIATIONS:

Dip biscotti about half their length in the chocolate of your choice. Set them on a wire rack until the chocolate has hardened completely.

Add 1/2 Cup of dried cranberries, raisins, dates, apricots, or other dried fruit to the wet mix.