Books Beneath You

So there’s this guy who is embarrassed that his wife reads a lot of YA literature. “I feel mildly embarrassed that she can talk (in detail!) to my nieces about these books at holiday gatherings.”

The idea that literature written for youngsters is automatically simplistic stuff is moronic. We all know the story about A Wrinkle in Time being marketed as a YA because the ideas in it were too complex to be marketed as adult literature, yes? But YA often has more compelling storytelling than the adult stuff, so why not read it? I like compelling storytelling. There’s a reason I was a big fan of that Nickelodeon show Avatar: The Last Airbender, and why I loved the Harry Potter series.

On the other hand, why must everything you read be “Great Literature?”

Since books have been cheap enough for the masses to afford, there’s always been some peabrain who goes on about “bad literature” rotting the brain. Sometimes the peabrain is a celebrated author! Louisa May Alcott has several fine rants in Little Women, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom about the dangers of trashy literature. Never mind that she wrote a fair share of it herself!

I do admit that I read with about the same forethought and discrimination most people apply to their television watching. That’s mostly because I rarely like television shows (yes, Avatar was an exception) and go to reading for my entertainment on the same level as someone getting into reality TV. I mean, at present, I am reading T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and a more sentimental early twentieth century dime novel you’d be unlikely to find. It pulls on the emotions more or less like reality TV is meant to.

Do I ever read “Great Literature?” I guess, but I don’t really think about it that way. Whenever I look at a list of 100 or so books that are listed as “classics,” it’s a pretty sure bet I’ve read at least 50 of them, sometimes more, depending on the list. But the fact that I have read them has considerably more to do with sheer volume at which I read than any real serious selection on my part. *grin* That, and the fact that you can read many classics for free by downloading them from The Gutenberg Project.

Maybe I’m a low-brow. I dunno. But one thing I am sure of, any guy who is embarrassed at his wife reading The Hunger Games is a dork.

Making it Too Complex

This morning when I got up, my husband announced to me that Horace the Sourdough Starter had grown so much that it had reached the top of the jar. Since he really isn’t into baking, it was a source of some amusement to me that he even noticed. On the other hand, I suppose sourdough starters seem awfully mystical and complex – almost magic. Never mind that’s how all leavened bread was made for centuries!

I’ve been reading a lot about sourdough starters – how to start them, how to maintain them, everyone’s super-secret foolproof method for making one. I gotta say, I think people are making this way too complex. Some people swear by pineapple juice to start it (never bothered, myself) and others insist that fake mashed potato flakes are the key. I’ve seen reports of tossing in a grape or two. The reason grapes turn into wine is that they collect yeast on their skins. What, did you think early winemakers went to the brewing supply store?

When I started Horace, I started him in the springtime, so yes, I did have the advantage of warmth. I also started him in a kitchen that sees several loaves of bread baked in it every week, so the air was full of wild yeast. And I did use a glass jar. I didn’t worry about stirring him with a wooden or plastic spoon, but just used my usual stainless steel.* I did cheat and use a miliscrunch of yeast to get him going, but from then on, I was just feeding him with a 1:1 volume mix of flour and water. Since I bake a lot, I keep him on my kitchen counter. He’s good and strong, so skipping a day or two of feeding really has no negative effect on his activity. I’ll pop him in the fridge when it gets too hot to bake. This is a far cry from the twice a day feeding and careful weighing of the water and flour feeding that you’ll see some sites recommend. Seriously, people, do you think medieval bakers treated it like alchemy?

What I think is missing when people get complex about the starter is that they don’t pay attention to the real basics—clean utensils and containers, unbleached flour with a fairly high gluten content and water that isn’t too chlorinated. If your tap water tastes good, you’re probably fine. Otherwise, you might want to filter it. In the town I lived my first thirty-odd years, yeah, filtered or bottled water would be better. Where I live now? Tap water is fine.

For flour, make sure you’re using something that’s good for making bread, and there are many so-called all-purpose flours that aren’t. You don’t have to go overboard with this and buy specialty bread flour. Something like King Arthur flour (which I do use) works just fine and isn’t really pricey.

The last problem I see is patience. Most starter recipes will say to wait for 24-48 hours to see the initial bubbling get started. That’s a good average, but don’t sweat it if it takes more like 72 hours. Even then, you’ve only got a beginner starter. It won’t be strong and stable for another week. A lot of people don’t want to wait that long, but really, you want to.

And after that, you’ll have a starter that will last pretty well as long as you’re interested in baking with it.

* Some people think metal will kill a starter or that the acidity of the starter will react with a metal container. That’s true if you’re using tin from the 1800s. Not so much so from modern stainless steel.

Horace the Reluctant Sourdough Starter

Just like stranded colorwork and being able to do cables is the apex of knitting competence in my mind, being able to make a good, crusty loaf of sourdough bread with no added yeast (cheating!) is the apex of bread making for me.

I didn’t think sourdough really was all that difficult when I first heard of it. Laura Ingalls Wilder described it in On the Shores of Silver Lake as being simple enough.

“When you haven’t milk enough to have sour milk, however do you make such delicious biscuits, Laura?” she asked.

“Why, you just use sour dough,” Laura said.

Mrs. Boast had never made sour-dough biscuits! It was fun to show her. Laura measured out the cups of sour dough, put in the soda and salt and flour, and rolled out the biscuits on the board.

“But how do you make the sour dough?” Mrs. Boast asked.

“You start it,” said Ma, “by putting some flour and warm water in a jar and letting it stand till it sours.”

“Then when you use it, always leave a little,” said Laura. “And put in the scraps of biscuit dough, like this, and more warm water,” Laura put in the warm water, “and cover it,” she put the clean cloth and the plate on the jar, “and just set it in a warm place,” she set it in its place on the shelf by the stove. “And it’s always ready to use, whenever you want it.”

“I never tasted better biscuits,” said Mrs. Boast.

Now, this is accurate as far as it goes. You do combine flour and water somewhere warm and wait for it to start smelling sour. But the process is a bit more involved than that. She leaves out the feeding process. You see, to get a good sourdough really bubbling, you do need to feed it frequently as you’re moving along. Once it starts to bubble, you really should discard about a cup of the starter every day and then feed it with a fresh 1:1 flour and water mixture. It seems to work best for me at a cup each. You’ll know that it’s good and strong because it will start to grow and be a bit thick – like a really hearty pancake batter.

Now, throwing away all that flour offends me. If I had local friends who liked to bake a lot, I could give some of it away to let them get their own starter going.* However, I did something a little different.

At first, I thought that the starter was done after starting to bubble a few days and getting that sour, yeasty smell. I made a loaf of bread from it. But the dough hadn’t risen nearly enough even after 15 hours, and the resultant loaf was a bit too dense and chewy. Because I use a method where I bake it in a Dutch Oven inside my oven, I did get some steam proofing, but it wasn’t up to the standard I like for bread.

Not wanting to give up, I “cheated” and used the starter in making my bread, while adding a little yeast to the dough. Even though the starter wasn’t as strong as it could be, it still added some texture and character to the bread, and allowed me to feed the starter without having to discard a cup of the stuff every day. You have to discard some after you feed it to keep the growth balance right. Don’t just get bigger container. It weakens the strain.

Yesterday, Horace (yes, I named my starter) decided to start partying. He grew so much he bubbled up over the top and soaked into the cloth I had covering him.

So I decided to take a little risk and try making “real” sourdough break without any added baker’s yeast. I mixed up the dough late at night and when I came down the next morning, I saw that Horace had really been flexing his muscles. That’s a better rise than I usually get out of the dough I make this way with baker’s yeast.

Because I make a very slow-rise artisan type bread, it’s really ideal for sourdough. I poured this out on a floured surface, sprinkled it with some flour and set it up to rise for another couple of hours on my pastry board.

And Horace was still as active as ever. I got a nice second rise out of the dough.

 

As you can see, Horace really did his job on this loaf. That’s as fine a sourdough loaf as ever I did see. I just took this out of the oven and haven’t tasted it yet (other than breaking off a bit of crust), but this looks like the real thing. Well-risen, crusty and delicious.

I’ve included the recipes for the sourdough starter and the bread I make. They’re really pretty easy. Hope you enjoy.

 

 

 

 

Sourdough Starter

(Horace is pictured on the right. He was fed last night and transferred to a clean jar this morning.)

1c. warm water (Baby bath warm, not Japanese bath hot)

1c. unbleached flour. (I use King Arthur flour as my basic go-to flour and have for years. It’s cheaper than specialty flours and works great for bread. No, it’s not because I live near the local headquarters. I started using it years before I moved up here.)

(optional)1/8 tsp dry baker’s yeast

Combine the water and the flour in a glass or ceramic container that is at least four cups in volume. I use a quart Mason jar. Stir until smooth and let sit. You can, if you are impatient, put in a bit of baker’s yeast. If you’ve been doing a fair amount of bread baking in your kitchen, or it is in the fall, you really don’t need to bother. The wild yeast is enough.

Cover with a clean cloth and let sit. When you pass by or think about it, give the mixture a stir. When the mixture starts to bubble and get a kind of yeasty smell (this may take anywhere from 24-72 hours, depending on how warm your kitchen is and how much wild yeast you have) discard a cup of the mixture and add a cup of water and a cup of flour. If you can’t stand to throw the mixture away, you can use it in pancakes, waffles, muffins or even “normal” bread.

You’ll know your starter is a good and strong with a robust yeast colony when it grows 50-100% in size when you feed it. Then, it’s ready for baking bread.

I bake a loaf just about every day, so I do not bother to refrigerate my starter. When it gets too hot to use the oven, yes, Horace is going into the fridge to be fed once a week and revived in the fall for serious baking. If you bake less often, you can put this in the fridge, too. Just take it out to come to room temperature and feed it about 12 hours before you’re going to bake.

Artisan Sourdough Bread

3 c flour

1 ½ t salt

¼ t yeast (if you’re in the “cheating” phase. Don’t bother if you have a really strong starter)

1 ½ c. warm water

1c. sourdough starter

 

Mix in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise 12-16 hours. Turn out on generously floured board. Sprinkle top with flour, cover with plastic wrap and towel and let sit for two hours.

Put dutch oven in oven for ½ hour at 450. Gather up dough, add (carefully!) to dutch oven, cover and cook for ½ hour. Remove top, and cook for another 15 minutes.

Let rest. Enjoy!

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* And if you’re local and want some, gimme a mason jar and I’ll be delighted to give you a cup of starter.

Outside Office

One of the drawbacks to the house I live in is that we have almost no yard, and none of it is really flat. What? None? What about this area?

This was an area we used for extra parking. Then we used it for parking a car we were going to get rid of. But we got rid of the car and the area was kind of a junk area.

I commented back at the end of the winter that what we really needed was a patio, and why didn’t we turn that former parking area into one? We only have one car, after all, and we park that in the garage.

My husband agreed, and we talked about it for a while, and decided that we really couldn’t afford to brick in an area and give our landlord a present. (He’s a nice guy, but that would be an expensive present and we really couldn’t afford to do that.) Then my mother, when was talking to her about the idea, suggested using mulch for the patio area.

Brilliant! We could afford to mulch a 12×12 area with no real problem.

So we got some plastic garden edging, some peat moss to mix with potting soil, and some petunias.*

After much travail on the part of my husband – mostly involving digging a shallow trench and putting in the edging, we had ourselves a patio. I like to work outside, and this will be a wonderful Outside Office.

It took about a day’s work and has been totally worth it. I shall be drinking my coffee and reading my email out there tomorrow.

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* I suspect I will come to regret the petunia decision when it comes time to squat down and deadhead the little monsters.