Five Random Thoughts

May 4, 2011 § 3 Comments


A recent visit to the family homestead has wiped me out. Psychologically, that is. Physically, too, as the trip was mainly to help my parents with some of their spring gardening. But my parents, especially my Mom, are difficult and heavy on the soul. It takes a few days to rebound.

So, while I’m rebounding, I think I’ll share a few random thoughts with y’all.

1. I had the good fortune this week to go to both Symphony Hall (my first time, can you believe it?) and Fenway Park. Both buildings are about 100 years old. Has anyone noticed how much wider the seats are at Symphony Hall? I mean, substantially wider. You need a shoe horn to squeeze most Sox fans into the old grandstand seats. And the reasoning has always been, “Oh, people were smaller back then.” Then why the ample room for the music lovers?
2. Speaking of Fenway, I had a Fenway Martini last night. As good as ever. We introduced the guy next to us to the fabled drink. He got to the end of it, ate a peanut, shell and all as is the custom, then complained that the shells were too crunchy. Here’s the thing: He drank his beer too fast. The shells need to soak a bit. Drink slower, dude.
3. I’ve been making rye salt starter and liquid levain to make a tangy sourdough. The recipes are from the Amy’s Bread book. It kills me when it says to let the starter rise at room temperature – 75F-80F – for X number of hours. 75F-80F? Come on now, that’s not room temp – that’s a bakery’s room temp.
4. I haven’t been doing much gardening yet this spring. My mother’s gardening, yes. A garden project I’m working on for a local human services agency, yes, putting a lot of brain power into that one. But our own garden, not so much. I’ve planted a bunch of seeds, indoors and out. Some are up, some aren’t. Nothing seems to be growing in my “carrot bed” and I can’t figure out why. I hope my luck turns around.
5. Who are you, Tracey Hawkins? You took the time to hunt down my professional email address and write, “Are you the Ellen of the Dainty Dot? Kind regards, Tracey Hawkins.” And then nothing. Did you have a question? Can I help you with something? I’ve come up with lots of scenarios of who you are and why you wanted to contact me. You are a hipster and you love my recipe for trout. You’re a scout for Martha and want Dainty to be a regular on the show. You’re a book agent and think I have a compelling style and are going to offer me a contract. You’re an attorney and want to sue me for … I dunno, something. You rep a line of cookware and want to offer me some products to test. You, Tracey, are many people. Let me know which one I’m addressing.

That’s it, my five random thoughts. Please feel free to share your random thoughts, too. Especially you, Tracey.

Bread Cracking in the Oven—Solved!

March 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last summer I discovered the joys of bread baking. I guess you’d call it my hobby now. And I say hobby because … well, unlike putting a Pop Tart in the toaster and waiting for the ding, there are levels of complexity at every step. There’s practice and skill and problem-solving and continual learning from mistakes. Described that way, it seems more like a sport. And, considering  I currently have three different sourdough ferments tucked snuggly in the warm and draft-free microwave, perhaps I’m also a collector.

Yesterday, I had one of those “Aha!” learning experiences. I made a batch of Country Sourdough from the Amy’s Bread cookbook. It was my first time making this recipe and considering my firm levain wasn’t so firm and I substituted in my sourdough starter, I wasn’t so sure the recipe would work properly.

I made the dough, let it autolyze, formed it into a ball, let it rise, punched it down, let it rise again, separated into two doughs, formed boules and let them rise again – seam side down – in floured baskets. The dough looked and felt great. So far, so good.

Now, in Amy’s instructions, typically once you get to this point in the recipe it’s almost as if they copied and pasted the remainder of the instructions for each and every recipe. At least for the handful of recipes I’ve tackled so far. BUT, this time she had a slightly different twist in the instructions. She said to tip the boule out of the basket onto the prepared parchment paper so the seam was now on top. Hmmm … I had not encountered that in previous recipes. All others were seam side down. Why would you put the seam up?

I had two boules – I thought, “Let’s try one seam side up, one seam side down, and see what happens. I scored both loaves on top, put them in the oven, and let them go.

Here’s what came out of the oven. Can you guess which one was which?

sourdough boule

Seam side up on the left, seam side down on the right.

The one on the right was the seam-side down. Even though I scored the top, the steam escaping the loaf escaped through the seam on the bottom, causing it to tear.

For the boule on the left, the scores through the seam on top let the steam escape. Not having a weak spot—a seam on the bottom—prevented the bottom from bursting.

I tried to seal that seam as tightly as possible, but apparently not enough. This doesn’t happen with all of the breads I’ve made, but I have had this happen before. And now I know why. Problem solved.

Apple Sourdough: Updates

February 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

No, I’m not obsessing over this apple-based sourdough. Not in the least.

But … I did keep an eye on it throughout the day on Tuesday. Good stuff was going on inside that quart container. Liquid pockets continued to build up around the apple chunks. I could see bubbling going on in there – they’d form lines from the base of the pocket going upward. Occasionally some bubbles would burst forth from that area, not unlike some undersea activity where bottom feeders send up the intermittent belch. The surface of the starter was covered with tiny bubbles, too. And, it smelled nicely fermenty. All good signs.

Wednesday, 5:57 a.m.: The layers have separated completely. No bubbles. Flour looks settled. Hmm … this happened to the grape starter, too. So, I move on to the next step, which calls for me to remove the apple chunks and add 36 grams flour. Stir well.

8:06 a.m.: I took a peek—bubbles seem to be appearing again. Bigger bubbles on the surface this time. But fewer. So far. A quick temperature reading says it is 75F. The starter pulls a bit as I bring up the thermometer. Fingers crossed.

Friday, 6:30 a.m. So, I just poured the starter down the drain. Again. Calling it starter is not correct—it was a mass of watery flour, that’s all. No bubbles. No yeasty activity. Nothing.

I don’t understand where I’m going wrong. I look online and I see all sorts of success with wild sourdough starters. Lots of bubbling! Lots of yeasty stuff going on! And me? The starters just … stops.

I will try again! I will. I just won’t blog about it—I’m getting sick of it.

BUT, if anyone out there (is anyone out there? anyone?) has some advice or a wild sourdough recipe or some suggestions of where to look for success, please let me know. Help a girl out, yo.

Obsessing with Sourdough Starter

February 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

There’s a fine line between baker and mad scientist. And I’m walkin’ that line.

I hate to fail. Hate it. And when the sourdough starter recipe from the Amy’s Bread cookbook failed miserably—TWICE—I was a volcano inside. Watch out, sourdough … I’ll get you yet.

The Amy’s Bread sourdough is, as I envision it, the sourdough the pioneers relied upon. They didn’t have a packet of Fleischmann’s Active Dry tucked into their bonnets. They used yeast, baby … real yeast just floating around in the air or found on … things. Like grapes. This is where I stop envisioning – I don’t want to know what else they used as yeast sources.

The Amy’s Bread sourdough used grapes as the yeast source. Organic grapes. Well … Okay. This is where I admit I went wrong with the recipe. I used conventionally grown grapes, not organic. I went to two or three different Whole Foods! Even the HUGE one in Legacy Place – nada! According to one produce manager, organic grapes are sparse this time of year. Conventional grapes didn’t have that yeasty bloom. What else could explain my lack of bubbling?

What to do …

This is where Dainty the Mad Scientist makes her appearance. Jennifer had related to me a scene from one of Anthony Bourdain’s books. Apparently he had a mad scientist of a baker who worked under him at one point. He was a drug-addled guy, but a baking genius. All sorts of funky smells emerged from his underground yeast lab. He had to be using all sorts of … things … to source his yeast. So, in the middle of the Whole Foods produce department I thought, “What would a drug-addled baker use?”

I didn’t go too crazy in my problem solving. I just looked around and picked what I thought would harbor the most yeast. I chose an organic apple. I figured that, while the smooth part of the apple would have been wiped or polished in some way, the indentations on both ends of the apple would have something native still hangin’ out in there. Now that I think about it, I bet an organic fig would be a good bet, too.

I added 113 grams of 75F-78F water, 72 grams all-purpose flour to a quart container. I chopped the apple into about a 16 pieces and added mostly the end sections to the other ingredients. Stirred vigorously. Put the cover on. Heated some water in the microwave to create a warm environment. Put the container inside at around 3pm on Sunday.

Monday: I checked on the dough periodically throughout the day. Small bubbles started to appear around the apple chunks. Pockets of liquid appeared later on. Lines of bubbles and flour appeared through those pockets. I heated the water about three times during the day to maintain a warmish environment. Hmm … could this possibly be working?

Tuesday, 5:57 a.m. 39 hours later, there’s definitely yeast activity in the container. The bubbles are bigger with the mixture. And there’s small bubbles – like someone took a straw and blew bubbles – on the surface. And, it smells like fermenting apples. Good sign! I stick an instant-read thermometer into the mix and it reads 70.7F. Not bad. Plus, when I pull it out, the substance is a bit gooey and pulls up with it. Yay!!

I move on to the next step – my first refreshment. I add 113 grams of 76F water and 72 grams of flour. Stir vigorously. Close container. Stick in a warmed microwave. Cross fingers.

Sourdough with apples

The sourdough with apples begins to bubble.

Liquid pockets and bubbles appear around the chunks of apple

Rye Bread: Day 3

February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Wednesday 7:37 a.m. Checked on Baby Dough. He’s supposed to be bubbly and active 12-24 hours after the last addition of flour, according to Amy’s Bread recipe. But he’s not so active. In fact, a layer of liquid has formed on top and he’s not gooey anymore. He’s runny. Hmm… Not quite sure what to do. Except put on my boots and shovel.

Wednesday 8:45 a.m. I gave him a good stir with a wooden spoon to see if I could incorporate that liquid. Big bubbles popped up right away then settled down a bit. It smells sourish – I guess that’s a good sign? I put him back in the microwave with some hot water. I’ll check back in around noonish.

Wednesday, 12:32 p.m. Baby Dough began to separate again with a layer of liquid on top. No bubbling means no yeasty activity. Hmmm… so I decided to take a leap of faith here and I went ahead and fed Baby Dough with 113 grams of 80F water and 72 grams of flour. I took Baby Dough’s temp around 11:30 and it was 77F, so that’s good. I don’t think he”s not warm enough. I just think he’s hungry. Or … maybe there’s no yeasty goodness left alive in there? Could that be? Let’s see what happens by evening.

Baby Dough at 68 hours

Baby Dough at 68 hours

Wednesday, 5:58 p.m. I did a little YouTubing. This liquidy layer is normal. I think. It was on YouTube, so it must be right, right? And Baby Dough is supposed to be a bit runny. I think. My thought is I don’t have a whole heckuva lot of yeasties in there so it’s not bubbling tons. But it is bubbling.

So, reading over the recipe just now, I see I was supposed to have discarded half of Baby Dough and add the 113 grams water and 72 grams flour. Hmmm… I think tomorrow morning I’ll do a do-over on this step and do it right this time.

Gave Baby Dough a good stirring. Tucked him back in the microwave with some nice warm water. Sleep tight, Baby. Bubble away.

Tiny bubbles

After a good stirring, Baby Dough's blowing some tiny bubbles.

Rye Bread: Day 2

February 1, 2011 § 5 Comments

My friend Amanda’s comment on my Rye Bread: Day 1 post was this: “Amazing how you make this sound time consuming and gross… yet totally tasty and motivating!”

Little does she know what this mass of flour, water and punctured grapes has turned in to …

Here’s a brief journal of my sourdough starter experience. Consider it a journal of Baby’s First Days. And oh boy, if real babies are as slimy as this, I’m so glad I don’t have one.

(I skipped the first few hours. Perhaps I had a bout of postpartum depression.)


Monday. 11:21 a.m. Sourdough starter roughly 19.5 hours old. Microwave trick and dissipating boiled water have warmed the starter to 74F. The best I’m gonna get at this point.

Monday, 5:12 p.m. 25-ish hours old. Sourdough starter has turned into bubbly goodness! It smells like … grapes. Really. Yeasty. Grapes. Alas, work prevents me from tackling Step 2 at the moment.

Monday, 6:49 p.m. Still bubbly goodness, with a pleasant grapey-yeasty aroma. Added 113 grams room temperature water and 72 grams unbleached all-purpose flour. Stirred. Put back in microwave. Crossed fingers. Needs to bubbey away for another 12 to 24 hours.

Baby Dough at 26 hours

Baby Dough at 26 hours

Tuesday, 6:02 a.m. Baby Dough’s big! Must have almost doubled in size overnight. Lots of big bubbles. Hmm… should I move on to the next step?


Baby Dough at about 38 hours

Baby Dough at about 38 hours. Such a big boy!

Tuesday, 8:27 a.m.: I decided to move on to Step 3 after only 14+ hours. It calls for scooping out the grape remnants and a bit of the starter. It’s snot. It looks like snot. It pulls like snot. It’s baby snot. Of course the grapes all settled on the bottom and I had to scrounge around with an iced tea spoon and pull them up through miles of gooey snot. Good thing was there was a layer of liquid on the bottom through which I could see all the grapes. Finding them all wasn’t so hard through the gooey yeasty snot.

Baby Dough at 40 hours

Baby Dough at about 40 hours

Answer me this: Why would anyone EVER think this would be something yummy to add pulverized wheat to and then put in a container to cook over hot coals? That leap of faith from snot to baked goods—if you think about it, that crazy idea created civilization. Goo. Flour. Water. Heat. The wheel. The combustible engine. The Internet.

Added 36 grams flour. Mixed thoroughly. Put back in the microwave. Waiting another 12-24 hours.

Tuesday, 4:24. Baby Dough is 48 hours old – yay! Threw a little party, invite other doughs from the neighborhood. They are so adorable at that age …

Baby Dough’s looking a tad under the weather, a little runny. I snuggled him in the microwave with another cup of boiling water and will check back in later. For now, I’ll let him rest. Perhaps the party was too much.

Rye Bread Day 1

January 31, 2011 § 3 Comments

Beatrice doesn’t ask much from me. So, when she asks a favor or makes a request, I’m on it.

“Can you make some rye bread?” she texted to me last Wednesday. I was at the airport, headed out of town until Saturday night. I didn’t have my cookbooks nearby to reference. Rye bread? There’s nothing like a good Jewish rye from New York. Thin toasted slices with butter – nothing beats it. You want rye bread, Beatrice? Rye bread is what you’ll get.

First thing Sunday morning I turn to my go-to bread-baking book, Amy’s Bread (2nd edition) and look up rye. Now, keep in mind that in this cookbook, all but, I don’t know, maybe four or five recipes DO NOT call for some sort of starter. And bread starters take at least 24 hours to develop. At least. So, I’m not surprised when I see this Amy’s Rye with Caraway and Mustard Seeds recipe call for a “firm levain.”

I’m new at this starter thing. I’ve made one once before – the one Joanne Chang has in her cookbook – and kept it going for a couple of months. It was super easy. And reading through Amy’s Bread several months earlier, I knew there were several different types of starters. This levain thing was one of them.

Okay, I’m on my way.

Amy’s Bread – that’s a real bread-baker’s cookbook. I should have known there’d be something more to making this “levain” than  … than whatever I had imagined.

So, I turn to the recipe for firm levain. And the recipe for firm levain itself calls for Active White or Rye Sourdough Starter. Hmm…. okay.

So, again, I turn the pages and find Active White Sourdough Starter. I read over the recipe: organic grapes, cool water, organic unbleached all-purpose flour. At least four 24-hour interval steps. And I say to Jennifer, “Text Bea – tell her the bread’ll be done on Saturday. Maybe.”

A levain is a sourdough starter made without yeast. That’s why the recipe calls for grapes. I’m assuming, correct me if I’m wrong, the grapes’ naturally musty-ness – the yeasty beasts that hang out on fruit – will provide the umpf needed to begin the fermentation process. If you add a pinch of yeast to a starter, that will kick your starter off right. And get it going quickly. With grapes, apparently you need to give it more time. Like, three days more.

So, yesterday at 4pm I mixed the grapes, the water and the unbleached flour. “Let it sit at room temperature (75F to 78F) until it starts to bubble. This will take 12 to 24 hours, longer is your room is cool.”

Levain at 4 hours

Okaaay … raise your hand if your room temperature in January is 75-78F?? Anyone? No, didn’t think so. 68F, yes. Not 78F. So, right there I know this levain will take some steady watching; I can’t rely on just watching the clock. This photo shows the levain at 8pm – four hours into the process. The mark on the blue tape records the levain’s original level. You’ll see it’s risen maybe one or two microns …

Oh, you’ll also see that it’s in my microwave. It’s a bit warmer in there. And, as soon as I’m done posting this, I’m going to heat a cup of water to boiling and keep that in there with the levain. The dissipating heat will warm the microwave hopefully 1o degrees or so and keep the levain warmer for a few hours.

If all goes as planned, we’ll have rye bread just in time for the Super Bowl. And a levain to nurture for years to come.


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