Let the wild (sourdough) rumpus begin!

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but you can easily substitute the word  “leftovers” or “skepticism” for the word “necessity” and get the same result. I had an abundance of leftovers and skepticism so I was well poised for some inventing. I had to nourish my neglected sourdough starter last night, which left me, as usual, with about 8 oz. of uncertainty. I also had quite a bit of rapidly browning rosemary, half of a forgotten onion in the nether regions of my fridge, and some nice plump tomatoes. So, after a pleasant romp through some new and exciting bread books, I was back to haphazard experimentation with discarded sourdough bits.

A few weeks ago I began my sourdough starter according to the instructions in Bread Alone, but somewhere along the way I’m pretty sure that I flubbed up my proportions and no longer feel comfortable following the book’s sourdough formulas, as the hydration of my starter is likely a far cry from its intended state. This has left me with sourdough avoidance and guilt. When I removed 8 oz. of the starter last night, I replenished the remaining goo with more flour and water and put it back in the fridge with much lingering doubt. I threw 4 oz. flour and 1 oz. water into the starter that I had removed until it resembled something a bit stiffer but not too stiff (as Bread Alone instructs), and I left this on the counter to bubble, hoping that some disaster might befall it so that I could avoid using it altogether.

By the time I got around to thinking about using this intimidating mass of dough, I quite simply didn’t want to, and I put it in time-out in the fridge overnight. Then, the next day, with renewed Yankee thriftiness bolstered by guilt-inspired confidence, I decided I should man up and make an experimental loaf of sourdough something.

Here was my mind set behind the decision to make a sourdough focaccia: focaccia is flat and is supposed to look all knobby. It is also supposed to have tasty things scattered on top of it. If the dough is a failure and it comes out all flat and knobby, that is just superb. Even better, it has toppings behind which it can hide.

So, armed with a plethora of leftovers and a generous portion of skepticism, I began mixing up a dough. Since focaccia is typically a stickier dough with a higher water to flour ratio than, say, French bread, I was careful not to overdo the flour. I took my starter and mushed it up in 8 oz. water. I added 1 tsp. yeast because I wasn’t sure how potent my starter would be after all that neglect. Then I added 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. sugar, and 2 TB olive oil–the key to a nice soft focaccia. I ended up adding in just a little over 12 oz. flour, putting the dough at around 65% hydration–just where a focaccia should be, according to Mr. Reinhart.

Since the dough was pretty sticky, I kneaded for a brief time, and then tried ye olde stretch and fold technique again. I stretched and folded, waited ten minutes, and repeated the procedure a few times until the dough had firmed up a little.

It was still sticky, but now manageable. I coated the dough in olive oil, and let it rise until it had doubled, which took almost two hours. Then I chopped the dough ball in half and began stretching each piece into an amoeba-esque form. The dough very gladly stretched in every direction the second I picked it up, and probably would have stretched to the floor if I hadn’t stopped it. I didn’t want to over handle the dough, though, because some nice big bubbles had formed that would puff up beautifully in the oven. I then busted out my leftovers and covered each piece of dough with a security mask, in case of impending disaster. Each one received a coating of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, and one got rosemary while the other got tomatoes and onions.

After a brief proofing of maybe half an hour, I awkwardly transferred the elastic dough onto the 400 degree oven stone, making mutant amoeba shapes even more absurd than before. The loaves cooked quickly because of their thin nature, and after very little time, my ugly duckling dough had turned into beautiful swan focaccia. The air bubbles that I had carefully avoided deflating made a nice little landscape on the surface of the golden bread, and the bottom had crisped up to just the right degree–not nearly enough to break your teeth, but enough to support the loaf and prevent it from buckling.

I ripped off a corner of the steaming loaf and was very pleased to see and hear a really nice crust and crumb. It tore easily and was filled with lofty air pockets. The bread was somehow simultaneously delicate and crispy–a hybrid soft-crunch that was very toothsome and satisfying.

Although I was sort of winging it on the salt, sugar and olive oil proportions, their flavors seemed well balanced, and were out-shined anyway by a slowly developing sourdough flavor that kicked you in the pants after a few moments of munching. I think because I neglected my starter for so long and made it spend the night in the fridge, the sour flavor really developed some strength. I personally enjoy a strong sour flavor on occasion if it is nestled in a nicely textured crumb, but if your taste buds are timid, you’ll definitely want to pay more attention to your starter than I did.

Regardless of your sourdough sensibilities, try experimenting! I’ve been following recipes and formulas pretty closely the last few days and it felt great to mess around and be foolish. Although I didn’t feel comfortable following any prescribed formulas because of my starter’s uncertain hydration levels, any dough that has been fermenting for a while is bound to add flavor and excitement to an otherwise straightforward bread, and should be added to the mix with zeal.

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My “workin’ 9 to 5” rustic loaf

It’s difficult to plan a good loaf of bread around your work day. Quick breads are all well and good, but lack the depth of flavor and complexity of texture that a loaf gets when given ample fermentation time. Since most folks only have a couple of hours between the time they arrive home and the time their tummies start grumbling, ample fermentation time is not exactly an option unless the bread is intended as a midnight snack.

Enter alarm clock and refrigerator.

If your morning self is willing to rise an extra half hour early, your evening self will be most pleased. The basic premise is as follows: you summon all of your energy to knead a few ingredients together in the wee hours of the morning, stick the resulting doughy mass in the fridge, proceed to work, do your work, return home, pull the dough out of the fridge where it has been fermenting at a slow-ish rate for a long-ish time, let the dough enjoy some balmier temperatures for an hour or two, and bake said dough into a fragrant loaf just in time for dinner.

Since my “9 to 5” is more like a “6 to 2,” I found that my brain was a bit more muddled than I would have liked it to be when I rose extra early this morning. In my delirium I threw ingredients into my bowl willy-nilly and ended up with the following mixture:

5 oz. water (I was hoping to make a very small loaf, as I have ample bread stores at the moment)

1/2 tsp. yeast

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. sugar

2-ish tsp. chopped rosemary

a dash of olive oil

a couple small spoonfuls of my sourdough starter for good measure (added not for its leavening abilities, but because I figured a tiny dose of this potent concoction would help boost my loaf’s flavor)

2 oz. whole wheat flour

9-10 oz. white wheat flour

After kneading the dough much like I imagine a zombie would knead–eye’s glazed over, arms stretched out, mouth agape–I popped the whole thing in the fridge and headed to work.

Ideally, my dough would have experienced a little more action by the time I had returned home, but as I remembered upon opening my refrigerator door, this fridge loves to go into deep freeze mode no matter how much you fiddle with the little dial. This meant that I had to let the dough spend a bit more time frolicking in warmer temperatures before I baked it, which would have thrown off my estimated dinner time, had I been a true 9-5-er. In a perfect world, my dough would have approximately doubled over an 8 hour period in a not-too-cold fridge (according to the authors of Bread Alone, a 50 degree environment would be ideal–somewhere between a fridge and a frugally kept house temperature). As it was, I let the dough come up to temperature for nearly 2 hours before shaping it and letting it proof for another half hour to an hour. I then brushed it with olive oil and baked it at around 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes.

Although my time-table was a bit altered due to my enthusiastic fridge, a lovely and very fragrant rustic rosemary loaf popped out just in time for dinner.

The crust was thick and crunchy, and in high proportion to the moist, rosemary-infused interior.

A rustic herbed loaf with a high crust to crumb ratio just begged to be eaten with a hearty stew. Having been sent home last night with a big tub of delicious lentil veggie soup (thanks Mom!), I was able to provide the bread with its perfect complement.

Although this recipe/time formula could definitely use some tweaking, I was able to bake a well-fermented loaf on a work day without bringing my bowl of dough to work with me, as tempting as that might have been. Perhaps a national bring-your-bread-to-work day is in order.