The Three Little Loaves: a tale of blind experimentation, mis-matched techniques, and all sorts of other good stuff.
Act I: in which my sourdough starter turns one week old, and I goof up
The other night my gurgling little starter, having sat in the fridge for seven whole days, was ready for its one-week birthday feast. I stirred in the appropriate amounts of flour and water, stuck the little fellow back in the fridge, and went to bed. Yesterday morning, I realized that I had skipped a crucial step: removing a portion of the starter before adding fresh food. I rushed to the fridge to discover a yeasty volcano almost ready to erupt. I popped the top off just in time, and quickly poured out 8oz. of the fragrant goo, approximately the amount that I should have removed earlier.
Act II: in which I can’t bring myself to throw away sourdough starter
The only way I’ve learned (thus far) to use sourdough starter is to convert my entire starter seed into a levain, use a portion of the levain for bread, and convert the remaining levain back into a starter seed. Now I had only 8 oz. of recently fed starter seed, and no perfectly clear notion of what exactly to do next, other than to not throw it away. I decided that I might as well try to make the goo into a levain, and just wing it on the proportions, trying to use Bread Alone‘s sourdough chapter as, at least, a descriptive guideline. The true levain was described as being a rather thick dough, so I added 3 oz. white wheat flour to my 8 oz. starter seed. This made it just a bit too thick, so I added 1 oz. water to even things out. This seemed relatively promising, so I left my converted starter in a 75 degree oven for optimal development and went out to run some errands.
Act III: in which I read too many bread books and internet articles on sourdough, thus muddling my brain
I got stuck in the cookbook section of the book store while waiting for my laundry to be done, and started skimming through Peter Reinhart’s many beautiful books. Techniques, proportions, times, temperatures, tools and ingredients were flooding my brain, and once I got home I couldn’t stop with all the bread reading. I opened up the flood gates of the internet, and became so saturated with various and rather disparate bits of sourdough information that I started to feel overwhelmed. In the end, my sweet tooth directed me. I really felt like eating cinnamon raisin bread and since I had a nice little bread base already bubbling away, I thought it might as well be a cinnamon raisin sourdough.
Act IV: in which my dough is experimented upon
Since cinnamon raisin sourdough sounded odd enough to me to potentially be a disaster, I thought this would be an opportune time to play around with the various recipes and techniques vying for space in my head. I used the sourdough chapter of Bread Alone, along with a simple and concise sourdough website as general references for proportions and timings. I peeked at an actual cinnamon raisin sourdough recipe to inspire my ingredient additions, and, just for giggles, tried out the “stretch and fold” technique that I had briefly skimmed in Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day.
After 5 hours, my starter had doubled and had become all nice and bubbly, ready to be made into dough.
To my starter I added 4.5 oz milk and 3.5 oz. water (I would have used milk for the full 8 oz. but I ran out after 4.5). I melted about 2 TB butter and 1 1/2 TB honey together, and added this to the mix as well, breaking the gooey starter up with my fingers. I next added 1 1/2 tsp. salt, about 14 oz. white wheat flour, and a dash of cinnamon. I thought about adding a little booster of yeast just in case, but I wanted to see if my starter had the strength to raise a loaf as it should.
I kneaded the dough for a couple of minutes until the ingredients were incorporated, and then tried out the “stretch and fold” method. I really didn’t read up on this technique thoroughly enough to understand it completely, or to implement it properly, but I gave it a go anyway. My very simplistic understanding of “stretch and fold” was that if you are dealing with a rather wet dough, as I was, you can avoid a long manual kneading by periodically stretching and folding the dough. Apparently this provides enough stimulation to develop the gluten properly. I thought I remembered Reinhart suggesting three “stretch and fold” episodes, spaced out by ten minute resting periods (although I very well could have remembered this incorrectly) so this is what I did. The dough was definitely still sticky but not unmanageable after all the stretching and folding.
I let the dough ferment for about 2 hours, punched it down, and let it rise again for maybe another 1 1/2 hours. Since everything about this bread was experimental, I got out the miniature loaf pans, because three mini cinnamon raisin loaves were bound to still be cute even if the bread was a disaster. I divided the dough into three parts, flattened each into a rectangle, and doled out a generous coating of melted butter, cinnamon sugar, and raisins.
I rolled the rectangles up, sealed the bottoms, and nestled each roll in a tiny tin, brushing butter over the tops for good measure.
These proofed for about half an hour, and then went straight into a 400 degree oven. When I peeked into the oven to check on the loaves, I was so happy to see that they were growing taller–a sure sign that my sourdough starter had some muscle. Once the little guys were golden brown and hollow sounding, I pulled them out and let them cool
I was most excited to cut into the bread not because there would be a raisin-y swirl to see, but because I really wanted to find out if the bread was tasty. I had played around with so many elements in this bread that I didn’t know quite what to expect.
Finale: in which my taste buds are pleased!
As the authors of Bread Alone had suggested, making a stiffer starter really did reduce the “sour” flavor in the bread, infusing a depth of flavor without the overwhelming bite. Although I love a good and sour sourdough, a gentle richness was more appropriate for a sweeter bread such as this. The crumb was beautiful–light and pleasant and quite unlike my first dense and chewy sourdough. The butter, honey, milk and salt that I added to the dough proved to be just right in proportion–the dough wasn’t competing with the sugar swirl for sweetness, and instead provided a nice soft base upon which the swirl could be enjoyed.
Since I was prepared for an epic sourdough failure, these little loaves provided a nice strife-free experimental opportunity. Although there is still a lot of information out there on sourdough approaches and techniques that I have yet to absorb, I feel a little closer to finding my own way and my own comfort level. The extreme tastiness of my experiment was an excellent bonus, and a most encouraging one at that.