Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sourdough Bread Baking

I love baking bread. It is therapy for my mind. I get strong urges to make bread. I look forward to it. I am sad when I have baked so much that I have no excuse to make it for a few days. When I have a bad baking experience, and I take a few days off of it, I miss it and day dream about it.

It is a beautiful process, making bread: taking three ingredients and skill and time and care and forming something that nourishes and sustains my family and gives them joy. After making bread for several years, I have delved into the world of sourdough and, after a few false starts, love it. To make good sourdough bread, you need a healthy sourdough starter and some good instruction.

In search for fresh yeast one day, I spoke with the baker Nick at Atwater's Bakery in Belvedere Square. He had no fresh yeast (they use active dry yeast), but he did offer me some of their sourdough starter. At that point I was no longer feeling the burn from my past poor attempts at sourdough, so I happily accepted, and he gave me a quart of the gooey pungent stuff FREE! I was delighted and immediately went home to figure out what to do with it. The Towson Library has several excellent books on artisan baking that got me on the right path. (See the resource list at the bottom of this post). Then Adam's parents gave me my favorite of all, Crust and Crumb: Master Formulas for Serious Bread Bakers by Peter Reinhart. Just that title makes me stand up a little taller.

So, I have settled into a rhythm with this starter. It is still alive and well after six months of baking with it. I feed it regularly with 3 oz. water and 3 oz. organic, unbleached all purpose flour.

If you want to give sourdough a try and don't yet have a good basic recipe yet, here's what I recommend. Go to Crust and Crumb on Google Books and look for the Basic and Country Levain on pages 81 - 83. You can go through the recipe there. But here are the basics.

Basic Sourdough Loaves

Firm starter:
5 ounces unbleached bread flour
3 ounces room-temperature water
3 ounces sourdough starter (assuming it is built 50/50 water/flour by weight)
(This is slightly different than the formula on pg 82, but that is because of the difference between my mother starter has a different hydration than his "mild starter").

5 1/4 cups (24 ounces) unbleached bread flour
2 cups cool water (65 - 70 degrees)
Firm starter from above - use all of it
2 1/2 teaspoons (0.66 ounces) salt

1 - Make the firm starter the night before. Stir it up, let it double, cover and refrigerate.
2 - The next morning, pull the starter out of the fridge, let it warm up to room temperature. Break it up into small pieces, and dissolve it in the cool water.
3 - Add all the other ingredients, mix and knead for 10 - 15 minutes or until it passes the windowpane test.
4 - Let it rise for 3 hours.
5 - Divide it into two equal pieces and shape them as you wish. Spritz with oil and cover with plastic or a damp towel.
6 - Let it proof for about 4 hours.
7 - Bake it now or refrigerate to bake the next day for a more sour flavor.
8 - Bake it at 450 F for about 30 minutes on a well-preheated baking stone. Add moisture to the oven while baking for a better crust by placing a pan in the oven before preheating and pouring 2 cups of water in when you put the bread in. Also, you can spritz the oven walls a few times during the first 5 minutes of baking.

I have found baking books and YouTube videos about baking to be essential to developing the quality of my bread and my skills in learning what well-kneaded dough looks like, how to handle the dough during shaping, and some techniques for baking it with a thinner, chewier, crispier crust.
Using an accurate kitchen scale has been essential to me in properly hydrating dough. I've learned that it is a common mistake among novice bread bakers to add too much flour to the dough when kneading. This leads to a very dense, un-fluffy bread crumb.

Bread baking books that have helped me:
Artisan Baking by Maggie Glezer - (Thank you to Artisan Books for sending me a free copy of In the Sweet Kitchen for free when I wrote them about missing pages from my copy of Artisan Baking - in addition to copies of the missing pages.)
Crust and Crumb by Peter Reinhart -- My favorite so far. I hope to acquire a copy of his Whole Grain book -- perhaps that will become my favorite. We shall see.
The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart
Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads

Where to buy flour:
Union Mills - a historical mill, now in operation again -- great freshly milled whole wheat bread flour for a buck a pound. They also mill a variety of other grains (buckwheat, corn, oats, and more). THE closest working mill to Baltimore. The website says nothing about the mill selling flour, but call ahead of coming if you want more than 2# bags and the miller will have it ready for you.
Whole Foods and Safeway have organic house brands of flour.
Shoppers on Joppa near Home Depot has a ton of Bob's Red Mill flours.
The Heath Concern in Towson has bulk organic whole wheat, but in my experience it isn't always very fresh. Perhaps your experience will be better. I love that store for a variety of other products.
Fowler's Mill in Ohio -- my generous mother-in-law has given me flour from there several times, and it makes the best bread I've ever made

And if you have your own mill: Rick Hood of Summercreek Farm will sell you organic whole grain wheat berries (uncleaned -- you have to sift off the chaff and whatnot yourself) for a very decent price.
Mail Address: 15209 Mud College Road, Thurmont, Maryland 21788
Phone: (301) 271 9399

Cooperation makes things happen:
This is the only local organic source I have found. If you find others, let me know. Those who I talked with say that wheat and oats are hard to do on a small scale because they require the costly combine to harvest them. We should start up a Baltimore grain co-op or CSA to support local farmers who desire to have a go at small time grain farming.
There are local organic sources for vegetables, dairy, meat, some fruits, but grains and legumes are much harder to come by unless you are willing to drive over an hour for them. Again, maybe setting up a co-op would help with that problem. Any interest?
And while I'm at it, anyone have a mill they'd be willing to let me use on a barter/trade basis?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Hanging to Dry

We have no clothes dryer. We don't really have a yard to speak of. But we do have this little patio with an overhang under which I strung up some rope. This is where I hang our shirts, pants, sheets and towels. It holds about 20 t-shirts. There is plenty of breeze through there, so the clothes dry very quickly during the spring, summer, and fall. Diapers come out smelling fresh. Some people are disappointed by the crispness of hung-to-dry clothes, but we have come to love it. Adam says (half-jokingly) that soft clothes almost feel dirty. If it's crisp, you know it's clean.
And of course it softens up after wearing for a few minutes.I read at Project Laundry List that the electric clothes dryer accounts for 5 to 10% of residential electricity usage. Dryers also wear out clothes much faster than hanging to dry. Guess where lint comes from? Another reason I hang laundry is the chance to slow down and be outside for a few minutes. I have had many conversations and friendly nods and waves with neighbors and passersby while hanging clothes.

We have a rope strung across a room in the house. That is where I hang socks. Since they are short, they don't cut the view of the room too much and are easy to duck under.Everything else gets hung on our giant wooden drying rack. It holds a big basket-ful of underwear, rags, and kid clothes.

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Homemade Laundry Soap

I have been making my own for a while now and really like it. I just calculated the cost, and it's about $2 or 3 for 160 loads! All our laundry comes out clean and smelling good, including diapers.

The recipe is:

1/2 cup borax
1/2 cup washing soda
1/2 of a big bar of castille (or other all vegetable oil) soap

Grate the soap and dissolve by pouring a quart or two of boiling water over it and stirring for a while.
Add the other two ingredients and stir to dissolve.
Put it altogether in a bucket (at least 5 quarts -- up to 5 gallons) and fill the bucket up with water.
Stir it really well and let it sit for a day. It will gel up. You can either use it gelled up or stir it so it's more like an egg drop soup consistency

I use a 5 quart ice cream bucket, and since I have a smaller than average washer, I use 2 Tbsps per load. If you have a regular sized washer, just figure on 1/80th of the total volume per load -- so, a 1/4 cup for a 5 quart bucket, or if you used a 5 gallon bucket -- a whole cup per load. I'm contemplating moving into a bigger bucket, just so it's more dissolved before I put it in the washer, however, with two active little children, I can just imagine the problems that might arise with having a whole 5 gallon bucket of liquid laundry soap.

I recently found Borax at Shoppers, and I think I've seen Washing Soda at the Giant. You can get a (big) box of both for around $6 total.

Edit: Homemade Laundry Soap Continued

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Share Network

Another fledgling idea:

The Baltimore Share Network is a means toward the goal of connecting with the people we live near by facilitating the sharing of our personal resources with one another. We desire to decrease our duplication of material resources and increase the reach of our non-material resources.

If you have material goods (i.e. appliances, hobby equipment) that you would like to lend to others (or barter / trade for the use of), or if you have special skills or knowledge that you would enjoy sharing or teaching to others, please join us.

This website will be a place to make your resources available to others. The group will grow by word of mouth (or personal emails) only in order to facilitate some necessary level of trust between sharers and sharees.

Our collective resources do a lot of sitting around in literal (or mental) closets. Let's dust them off and share them with our neighbors!

How does it work? (via an internet message board or email group)
* You may post OFFERs (resources you are offering to share) or SEEKINGs (resources you are seeking to make use of).
* Resources may include our skills, knowledge, or material goods.
* Sharing may include giving freely forever, lending for a limited period, or trading for other resources (not money -- this isn't an ordinary classifieds site).
* The discussions of how to arrange the sharing logistics (including determining trust, exchange of goods, skills, or knowledge, and arranging the return of goods) with the other person will be through personal emails, phone conversations, or in person. The more you have to talk to someone, the more you learn about them, the greater the potential for meaningful relationships, the more fulfilling community we might create. You are valuable to our community.

A Kitchen Cooperative

Not for profit, but for enrichment of the community.

I imagine a commercial, inspected kitchen. It has things like huge counters, multiple ovens and canning processors. It is a rented empty restaurant or bakery or a rowhouse with remodeled kitchen, up to state requirements.

Use it for community meals, clubs, classes, bulk cooking sessions for individuals, start up businesses, local farmers or gardeners who need a place to do some basic processing before selling, special holiday cooking for a big family parties, small time caterers, special orders, food coop pickups, with a small retail front to sell what people cook, an area with bench tables for communal meals, has a food book library, has weekly open meals, potlucks, community event bulletins, resources for how to eat locally, nutrition classes, food pantry, soup kitchen, workshops, meetings, food tastings.

It could be primarily to support community enriching events, small and large, but have a few steady tenants who would rent the space for their own business use to provide a reliable income.
A combined educational facility, community center, small business incubator, food co-op.
We could own the facility (or find another organization who has similar goals and has the space already), offer the space for rent/use, publicize, manage scheduling of the space, maintain equipment, meet regulatory requirements, handle bills, build community support.
And we could govern it by some sort of collective, and even own it collectively.