Alanna’s extra sour country boule

The first sourdough bread I ever baked, four years ago, turned out as hard and dense as a brick. Living in the sourdough capital of the world, I felt like a real loser. I had followed a lengthy recipe, raising my own starter from flour and water, nurturing it for three whole days until it began to bubble and smell tangy. My failure probably had more to do with a weak, newborn starter than anything else, but that was cold comfort. As my starter matured, though, the bread I baked with it came out better and better.

Since then, I’ve raised a few different starters, but I’d always end up killing them out of neglect when the summer months came and it was too hot to fathom cranking the oven up to 500º. Then, last spring, I inherited the most active, robust starter I’ve ever had the pleasure of baking with. I don’t know the origins of this starter, and have suspicions that it may have been started with commercial yeast. But that doesn’t matter to me now. I can ignore my starter in the fridge for weeks, then take it out and feed it with nary a pout or obstinate refusal to rise. Instead, it bubbles up beautifully, like a wagging dog greeting you at the door after you’ve been gone all day, leash in snout, eager for a walk. “No need to make pancakes,” it tells me, “I’m ready for the big guns.” This one’s a keeper.
Over the years I’ve equipped myself with the proper bread baking materials: a baking stone, a coiled willow rising basket, and a lame for slashing the unbaked loaves, as well as the sourdough bible, Nancy Silverton’s Breads From the La Brea Bakery, which includes, aside from dozens and dozens of sourdough loaves, boules and flatbreads, recipes for sourdough pancakes, doughnuts, onion rings, and even a souffle-like sourdough chocolate cake. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone interested in sourdough, novice and pro alike.
Though Nancy has been with me through many a glorious loaf, she also encourages one to strike out on ones own. So I decided to write my own bread recipe.
Most sourdough recipes call for a very little bit of starter, half a cup or so per large loaf, which really bugs me, since I always have such a surplus. I decided to try tripling the amount called for in Nancy’s basic white boule recipe, adjusting the quantities of the other ingredients accordingly. It was the best loaf I’ve baked yet; a bit denser than Acme’s Levain, my naturally leavened holy grail, but every bit as chewy and full flavored, with an open crumb and a nicely caramelized crust.
Any bread you don’t get to can be made into killer croutons. Around these parts, we cube extra bread and store it in the freezer, then fry it in olive oil in a cast-iron skillet, add a sprinkling of salt, and munch them on salads and soups.
Alanna’s Extra Sour Country Boule

Makes one large boule, about 2 pounds
Total time: about 9 hours, not including refreshing starter
Timeline:
refresh starter four hours before beginning recipe
mix, knead and autolyse dough, 1 hour
first rise, 3 – 4 hours (or overnight in fridge)
shape dough, 10 minutes
second rise, 1 1/2 – 2 hours
bake, 45 minutes
cool loaf, 1 – 2 hours
A few notes: Nancy Silverton’s book is an amazing resource for learning about sourdough. This is a nice looking site if you want to learn how to raise your own starter; I haven’t tried his exact method, and I’ve always started mine with white flour, though he calls for whole wheat. (If you live near me, I’m happy to give you some of mine!)
In order to raise bread, your starter has to be refreshed, full of bubbles and vigor. If your starter isn’t doubling within four or five hours when you feed it, it will not be strong enough to raise bread. “If baking is all about patience, sourdough baking is all about more patience.” I read that somewhere. So make sure your starter is active and full of bubbles; if it isn’t, don’t despair; bake some sourdough crackers and give the starter another feeding or two til it’s ready. I keep my starter rather thick and almost gloppy, the consistency of a very thick pancake batter. Thinner starters will make a wetter dough.
I like to weigh my starter, as it is extremely sticky to put it in a measuring cup and then try to scrape out. You also get a much more accurate amount, since the bubbles will drastically effect the volume, by a factor of two or three even. Plus, there are fewer dishes to wash if you weigh everything into one bowl, rather than dicking around with various measuring cups and spoons.
This recipe assumes you have the following accoutrements:
plastic dough scraper
rising basket
wooden pizza peel (you can use a large, smooth cutting board)
baking stone
dough slasher or sharp knife
large plastic bag, such as a trash bag, and something to close it with
sacrificial metal pan to put ice in to steam the oven
The bread:
12 oz. liquid sourdough starter, active, bubbly and ready to go (about 1 1/2 cups stirred down, or 3+ cups at full froth)
8 oz. (1 cup) room temperature or lukewarm water
1 oz. (1/4 cup) wheat germ
5 oz. (1 cup) whole wheat bread flour
8 – 10 oz. (1 2/3 – 2 cups) white bread flour
1/4 oz. (2 1/4 teaspoons) sea salt
Stir together the ingredients in a large bowl in this order until a rough dough forms. Add more bread flour if your dough is very wet. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface (a stiff, plastic scraper, which cost about a dollar, is perfect for this), invert the empty bowl over the dough, and let it rest for 20 minutes. (This is called autolyse and allows the flour to absorb some of the water and the gluten strands to begin straightening out; it makes for less kneading in the end, and will prevent you from adding too much flour right off the bat.) After 20 minutes, remove the bowl and knead the dough vigorously for about 10 minutes, adding as little flour as possible to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands and the surface, until it feels smooth, springy and elastic.
Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled ceramic bowl or a large plastic container at least twice the size of the dough. You can mark the outside of the vessel with a piece of masking tape where the dough will be when it doubles, if you like. Cover the vessel tightly with plastic wrap or the lid, and allow it to rise until doubled, three to four hours. The warmer the spot you choose, the faster it will rise, the ideal temperature being 75-85º. You can also let the dough rise in the fridge or a cool place overnight. Let the dough come to room temperature before shaping it, and be sure that it has doubled in bulk to properly develop the glutens.
Gently turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, pressing out the air bubbles. Shape into a boule by tucking the edges under itself, then gently rotating the dough on the surface to form a taught outer layer of dough. Here’s a quick video of how to shape a boule. If you have a rising basket, sift a light layer of flour onto the inside, and place the boule in it upside-down, pinching the seam shut. (If you don’t have a rising basket, place the boule directly on a peel or board dusted with cornmeal or flour.) Place the whole deal in a large plastic bag, such as a trash can liner. Inflate the bag and close it with a twist tie or clip. Let the bread rise a second time until doubled, about 1 1/2 – 2 hours. When the bread is ready to bake, it will hold an indentation of your finger when you press it lightly, rather than springing back.
While the bread is rising, about an hour before you’re ready to bake, remove all but the bottom rack of your oven. Place a baking stone on the rack (or a heavy duty baking sheet), and place a metal pan that you don’t care about sacrificing (it will get rusty) on the floor of the oven. Crank the oven up to 500º.
When the bread has doubled, gently turn it out onto a wooden peel dusted with flour or cornmeal. Holding a lame or sharp knife at a 45º angle to the loaf, draw the blade, about 1″ deep, across the top of the loaf, beginning and ending 2″ from the bottoms of the boule. (Just look at the darn picture, ok?) Fill a 1 cup measure with ice cubes. Quickly slip the boule off the peel and onto the stone, and toss the cubes into the hot pan on the floor of the oven. This will steam the outside of the loaf, allowing it to expand as it bakes. Bake 20 minutes, then turn the oven down to 450º and bake another 20 minutes or so, until the bread is a deep, burnished golden-brown. An instant read thermometer inserted into the middle should read 210º, the temperature at which the dough is set.
Let cool completely on a wire rack, one to two hours, before enjoying. At this point, the bread is still “baking” from the residual heat and steam inside the loaf. The best way to store this type of bread is in a paper bag at room temperature for a couple days. After that, I put the whole thing, paper bag and all, into a plastic bag and continue to store at room temp. After a couple of days like that, it there’s any left over, we make croutons.

The most decadent eggs you will ever eat


A few years ago, I got an exciting phone call. I had won a recipe contest from Cook’s Country, the sister magazine to Cook’s Illustrated. The subject was “interesting sandwiches,” and my entry consisted of french style, slow-cooked eggs on multi-grain toast with goat cheese and arugula. I was to receive $100, and a one-year subscription to their magazine. I was elated.

An entire month passed and I received neither. I began to wonder whether they had changed their minds about the winners. Then one day at pastry school, my classmate came up to me and said, “I saw you in a magazine! Your sandwich with salmon looks really good!” Doubly perplexed, I waited several more weeks to have my questions answered. The check and magazine arrived one day, bearing my photo, next to a heading which read “Elegant eggs on toast: scrambled eggs on pumpernickel with arugula, goat cheese and smoked salmon.” Now, I’m sure that sandwich is delicious too, but from then on I was left to wonder what recipes the contestants had actually entered, as I flipped through my year’s supply of Cook’s Countrys.
So here it is in all its glory – the o.g. elegant eggs on toast. Only I call them “decadent eggs,” and when you read the recipe, you’ll see why. The eggs are cooked with butter and cream in a skillet set over the lowest possible heat, stirred constantly with a rubber spatula. When they set up, after fifteen minutes or so, they are the consistency of a luscious custard, with some ricotta-like curds for body. Soft, meltingly creamy and oozy, they set off the crunch of the toast and the pungency of the herbs.
I made these on a whim the other day, using Acme’s glorious levain, sliced thin and toasted with a brushing of fruity olive oil, and some herbs I had on hand from the chilled beet and buttermilk soup I’d made a few days prior. Feel free to go crazy, though. Toast any bread you love: brioche, olive bread or, yes, even pumpernickel would be lovely. Other nice additions could be:
sliced avocado or tomatoes
arugula or watercress
basil, chervil, or tarragon
a smear of pesto or romesco
truffle oil or fresh truffles, if you should be so lucky
Speaking of lucky, I’m lucky enough to get awesome eggs in my bi-weekly box from Eatwell Farm; the striking orange-yellow of the eggs in the photos are all thanks to their crazy bright and happy yolks.
Decadent eggs on toast, with herbs and goat cheese
Makes 1 – 2 servings
3-4 eggs
1/4 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 1/2 tablespoons butter, divided
two slices of bread, such as levain brushed with olive oil
1 ounce or so of soft goat cheese
a couple teaspoons minced fresh herbs, such as chives, dill or tarragon
pepper
Beat the eggs in a bowl with the salt and heavy cream until they are homogenous and slightly foamy. Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter in a heavy skillet over low heat. Add the eggs. Keeping the heat as low as possible, stir constantly with a heat-proof rubber spatula, for about 15 minutes, until the eggs are set up to your liking. They should be the texture of a soft ricotta cheese – creamy, yet firm enough to mound, with some curds. Stir in the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of butter.
When the eggs are almost done, toast the bread. Spread or crumble on the goat cheese, top with eggs, herbs and a turn of pepper.

Huckle-Pear Galette with Sourdough Pate Brisee Crust


Jay and I have been in huckle heaven. Huckle heaven is not the place where pious huckleberries go after being sacrificed to a bojon gourmet’s belly, but rather the euphoric state in which one finds oneself after a successful huckle hunt. Jay and I stumbled on a ginormous (I can’t believe my spell check is ok with that word) patch of huckleberry bushes in Marin. A few trips resulted in quarts and quarts of the sweet, woodsy little berries.


As mentioned in the previous post, I made this to go with my Mugolio ice cream. Actually, it started out in my head as a huckleberry-fig galette, as we had just scored 10 plus pounds of brown turkey figs from our friends, Michael and Sarah. But the days passed, and the figs got eaten for breakfast with yogurt, granola and huckleberries, and zealously turned into a huge vat of Deborah Madison’s savory-sweet fig and ginger jam, and the remainder sliced and frozen to be used later on.

I suddenly realized that the pears from Jay’s mom’s tree were just about ripe. Pears are sneaky that way, as Eddie Izzard so adroitly pointed out. They sit there, rock hard, until you leave the room and suddenly they’re perfect for about two seconds, until you come back into the room to find them rotted from the inside out. I worried that our pears would meet the same fate in the tremendous heat wave of last week, and decided that action was needed. I sliced the pears, sauteed them in vanilla brown butter, tossed them with some sugar, lemon juice and huckles, and laid them in a sourdough pate brisee crust.

As for this crazy crust to which I keep alluding, I got the idea here, as I am always looking for ways to use up more starter. But I didn’t like the baking soda and shortening in the original recipe, so I decided to make up my own. I usually use Martha’s pate brisee recipe, which is buttery-tender and flaky. I based my recipe upon hers, substituting sourdough starter for the water, and reducing the amount of flour. The results were surprisingly fabulous. The acidity of the starter has the effect of tenderizing the glutens in the dough, as would lemon juice or vinegar called for in some pie dough recipes, resulting in an even more tender, flaky dough than usual. It also enhances the flavor, tasting not sour but just more full, the way a preferment does in a bread recipe.

The gallette is excellent served warm, with a scoop of Mugolio ice cream melting alongside.

Huckle-Pear Galette with Sourdough Pate Brisee Crust

Makes one 9″ galette, or 8 servings

Sourdough pate brisee

Makes enough for a 9″ pie, tart or galette

1 cup flour (I use whole spelt, but all purpose or whole wheat are fine, too)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1/2″ cubes
about 1/2 cup (4 oz.) liquid sourdough starter (mine was at room temperature, but chilled starter would probably be even better)

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, salt and sugar. Add the butter and work with your fingertips or a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal with some larger, pea-sized chunks remaining. Gradually add the starter tossing the mixture with a rubber spatula or your hands, pressing it against the sides of the bowl, until the dough barely holds together when squeezed. You may not need all the starter, or you may need to add more. Gather the dough into a ball, put it in a plastic bag, and squash it into a 6″ disc. Chill at least 1 hour, or up to a couple days, or freeze for up to two months.

Huckle-pear galette

My pastry teacher at Tante Marie’s, Claire Legas, taught us a handy technique to make a galette perfectly round and a bit less flat using a cake ring or springform pan with the bottom removed. Lacking one of those, you can make the galette free-form. It will still kick ass.

If you are lucky enough to have perfectly ripe pears, skip the sauteing step and just toss the pears with the vanilla brown butter and so forth. If you are without huckles, try this combination with all pears, or use apples and blackberries.

1 1/4 lbs. firm-ripe pears, cored, in 1/4 slices (ok to leave the skin on)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 vanilla bean, split and scraped
2 – 4 tablespoons sugar (depending on sweetness of fruit)
1/4 teaspoon salt
juice of half a lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
2 cups fresh or frozen huckleberries
1 tablespoon coarse turbinado sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 400º, with only the bottom rack in place. If you have a baking stone, place it on the rack to heat. Line a sheet pan with parchment, and (optionally) set a 9″ cake ring or springform pan, with the bottom removed, on top. Set aside.

In a 10″ skillet over medium heat, cook the butter with the vanilla bean until it browns and smells nutty, about 5 minutes. Add the pears and saute until firm-tender, a few minutes. Remove from the heat and toss in the sugar, salt and lemon juice to your taste. Set aside.

Remove the dough from the fridge, and let soften at room temp for about 10 minutes. On a lightly floured surface, roll out into a 12″ round; it will be fairly thin. Lay it in the cake ring, lifting to settle the dough into the corners, letting the edges drape over the sides. Place the pears and their juices on top of the pastry and add the berries. Gently toss with your hands to distribute evenly. Fold the edges of the dough loosely over the galette. Sprinkle the whole galette with the coarse sugar. Place in the oven, on the baking stone, and bake until the crust browns and the juices bubble thickly. Remove the ring and let cool slightly. Slice and serve warm, with ice cream or creme fraiche.

Mugolio (pine cone bud extract) Ice Cream

I purchased a tiny bottle of Mugolio, or pine cone bud extract, over a year ago at Avedano’s meat market in Bernal Heights. Imagine licking fresh maple syrup while standing in the middle of a fragrant pine forest, and you have a vague notion of what Mugolio tastes like. But trying to describe Mugolio’s ambrosial flavor is like trying to dance about a huckleberry-pear gallette. The curious can order it through Amazon, but I got my bottle for a lower price at Avedano’s, plus they let me taste it first, and gave me a sample of house-made beef stew to boot. Suck on that, Amazon.

Mugolio is heavenly with fresh goat cheese and ripe figs or pears, or drizzled sparingly over buckwheat crepes or huckleberry sourdough pancakes. But the Mugolio wanted to get more out of life.

Mugolio: Make me into ice cream.
Me: No way, you’re too expensive. What am I, made of money?
Mugolio (sweetly): Come on, I’m so strong. You wouldn’t need much of me.
Me: I don’t know. I’ll think about it.
Mugolio (accusatory): You said that last year. I’m not getting any fresher. Besides, it would go perfectly with all those huckleberry desserts you’ve been dreaming about.
Me: Agh, get out of my head, Mugolio!
Mugolio (wheedling): If you really loved me…

So I caved. I made a plain ice cream base and added the mugolio teaspoonful by teaspoonful until it tasted assertive, but not overly strong, four teaspoons in total. Then I made a huckleberry-pear gallette to eat it with, using my recipe for sourdough pate brisée. I’m happy, Jay’s happy, and the Mugolio is happy, for now. We’ll see what it askes me to do next, like standing on my head, or making a goat’s milk and Mugolio panna cotta, or some such nonsense. Here’s the ice cream recipe.

Mugolio Ice Cream

Makes about three cups, or 6-8 servings

Notes: Serve Mugolio ice cream plain, drizzled with more Mugolio, or with warm, fruited desserts, such as apple, pear, quince, fig, huckleberry or blackberry, or any combination thereof.

This makes a deliciously dense, rich ice cream, my favorite base recipe for any flavor. For vanilla, omit the Mugolio, and add 1/2 a vanilla bean to the milk while you heat it. Let it steep 20 minutes or more, then proceed with the recipe, leaving the bean in the mixture while it chills.

1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup milk
4 or 5 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 Tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Mugolio (pine cone bud extract; see above)

Place the cold cream in a quart sized container and place a fine mesh strainer over it. In a small saucepan, heat the milk over medium heat until small it is hot and gently steaming. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the yolks, sugar and salt. Secure the bowl with a damp towel, and gradually temper in the hot milk. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium low heat, stirring constantly with a heatproof rubber spatula, until the mixture just starts to coat the bottom of the pan with a thin film, 170º. Immediately pour the mixture through the strainer into the cream. Whisk in the Mugolio until thoroughly combined. Chill the mixture at least four hours, or up to a couple of days. Churn in an ice cream maker.

Spelty Sourdough Crackers

It was a revelation when I learned that baking crackers takes about the same effort as making sugar cookies. Of the many recipes I tried over the years, my favorite came from William’s Sonoma Baking. The recipe was akin to making pie dough, using the biscuit method of cutting or rubbing butter and shortening into the dry ingredients, then adding enough heavy cream to make a firm dough. When I inherited a gorgeous sourdough starter, I began experimenting with baking sourdough crackers, mainly as a way of using up the constant barrage of starter I had. I tried a few different recipes with lackluster results. Most called for baking soda, which had the dually unpleasant effect of diminishing the delicious sourness of the dough, and creating a dry, brittle texture when reacting with the acidity of the starter. I decided to be brave and try something different. Using the WS recipe as a springboard, I swapped the shortening for all butter, and the heavy cream for sourdough starter. For extra flavor, I brushed the crackers with olive oil and a sprinkle of malden salt before putting them in the oven. They bubbled up beautifully in the oven, emerging as proud, rustic cracker perfection. Jay calls them “crackhead crackers,” referring to their addictive qualities: crisp, flavorful, and an ideal accompaniment to any cheese or spread.

A few notes:

In this recipe, the sourdough starter acts more as a flavor enhancer than as a leavening, but the crackers do bubble up more than the original recipe. The resting dough may rise a bit from the starter, but it’s fine if it doesn’t, as the crackers get most of their leavening from the steam the butter gives off when it hits the heat of the oven. For this reason, the starter can be active and bubbly, or older and flat, just as long as it still smells and tastes pleasant. When I feed my starter in preparation for baking bread, I save what I pour off in a jar in the fridge. After a few feedings, I have enough to make these crackers. Weighing the starter will be more accurate than using a volume measure, since the bubbles will vary.

My starter is the consistency of a thick, pourable pancake batter. The amount of starter needed to bring the dough together will vary with the moisture content of each particular starter, so add it slowly, like adding ice water to pie dough, until the dough just comes together. The starter can be either cold or room temperature.

The dough can be made a couple days in advance and stored in the fridge, or frozen for a month or two. (The acidity from the starter can turn the dough grey if stored in the fridge for too long.) Bring the dough up to room temperature before rolling it out.

The baked crackers will keep for a couple weeks, stored in an airtight container. They can be topped with a variety of lovely things. Suggestions follow.


Spelty Sourdough Crackers

Makes 2-4 half-sheet pans of crackers, or approxamately 4 dozen large, or 6 dozen small

2 cups flour (whole spelt or whole wheat)
2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 Tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 to 1 1/2 cups (8 – 12 oz.) liquid starter*, or enough to make a firm dough
a few tablespoons olive oil for brushing
coarse sea salt (such as maldon) for sprinkling

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles cornmeal, and no large chunks remain. Gradually mix in the starter until the dough begins to clump together, adding more starter directly to the crumbly bits as necessary to make a very firm dough, similar in consistency to pie dough. Gather into a ball, and knead a few times to make sure the dough is homogenous.

Wrap in plastic wrap or a plastic bag, and let rest at room temperature for 20 minutes to and hour, or in the fridge for a day or two.

Preheat the oven to 350º. Line two half sheet pans or cookie sheets with parchment paper. Divide the dough in half, and keep one half covered with plastic while you work with the other. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough as thinly and evenly as you can without tearing it. Brush the crackers all over with a thin layer of olive oil and top with a light sprinkle of salt or any other desired topping (see below). Using a pizza wheel or large knife, cut the crackers into whatever shapes you like, such as rectangles, diamonds, or squares. Transfer crackers to the sheet pans and repeat with the second half of the dough.

Bake the crackers for about 15 minutes, rotating them front to back and top to bottom halfway through, or until they are golden brown. They will still be a bit soft, but will crisp up when they cool. If they are not crisp enough, return them to the oven. Let cool. Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

Other topping suggestions:
nutritional flake yeast and curry powder (pictured)
minced rosemary and black pepper
fresh thyme and lemon zest
grated parmesan and fresh oregano
smoked paprika and grated manchego
or
add a tablespoon of sesame, poppy, mustard or cumin seeds, or a combination to the dough, and top with more seeds

Serving suggestion:
Mix some fresh goat cheese with enough milk or heavy cream to make it spreadable. Add minced basil, lemon zest, salt and pepper to taste.