Friday, December 30, 2016

The great sourdough experiment continues

The best way to eat this stuff. Forget slicing, just tear it off the loaf.

After watching an episode of one of Andrew Zimmern's food/travel shows that spent some time inside the Boudin Bakery in San Francisco, I decided I wanted to try their method of baking sourdough bread. As you may know, this is an ongoing experiment and perhaps, obsession, with me.

First, their dough coming out of the mixer/kneader was quite stiff, which is where mine has been headed but I was pleased to see theirs, as it gave me something to aim for. This was what mine looked like this time, right out of the mixer/kneader. Still not quite as stiff as theirs, but nice and stiff and holding its shape.

I was surprised to see on the show that their machines formed the fresh dough right into balls that went into individual pans (on a long production line) that then went into cool/cold fermentation for 24 hours. They, of course, have large rooms environmentally controlled for the exact temp and humidity for this. I have a refrigerator. Initially, I put the balls on their baking sheet, covered with cloth then loose plastic wrap. After awhile, it seemed that they were spreading too much, so I removed them and put them into mixing bowls of the proper size, to stop the spreading and encourage them to grow upward. They were refrigerated for almost 24 hours and I didn't notice much real change in them. But, out of the fridge in the early morning to sit in my cool kitchen for a couple of hours to warm up. While I was moving them from pan to bowls, I kneaded them a touch to be sure the yeasties were well-distributed.

After several bits of indecision and moving the balls from bowls to the baking sheet for proofing, and after a few hours of rising, I slashed them and put them into the hot oven. As deeply as these were slashed, above, they bloomed so quickly that I think I should have slashed even more deeply.

My favorite slashing pattern -- look at all that good webbing in there!

Naturally, I let it cool a bit then sliced one loaf open. The crumb is lovely. Moist and springy and light. But, I'd like to see more and bigger holes here, from the bubbles that happen naturally as the sourdough ferments. Something to figure out for next time. The top of the proofing loaves dried out just a touch, which may have kept them from rising until I slashed them.

Whatever little criticisms I may have, I do think this is my best effort yet. This was utterly delicious and totally devourable. And I did devour it, before the day was over. They are not huge loaves. I think some  past efforts may have had more of a sour flavor, but if they did it was not much more so. I know this is lighter and fluffier and overall, better. I gave the other two loaves to a friend, who'd arranged to stop by with wine last night, possibly drawn by the promise of bread to take home.šŸ˜‰

Monday, December 26, 2016

The old holiday blues

There's something that happens to me this time of year that I can't control, don't want, and often don't even realize is happening until it starts to lift. I can't remember how many decades it's been happening, but it certainly was  happening as far back as Atlanta, which was 1986-96. A long time.

What is it? Hard to find the right words, but I think a funk describes it pretty well. I used to call it the holiday blues at times, too. Whatever word or words might try to describe it, let's just say that I go into some kind of withdrawn, numb holding pattern that miraculously lifts once Christmas is over. I'm sure it's rightly a depression, but since I live on the edge of depression every day of my life, I don't really notice the subtle beginnings or subtle changes as the season progresses.

It's not as bad as it used to be, or maybe it's just more subtle than it used to be. Maybe I just don't notice it as much. Maybe I just accept it as the norm and don't even think about it. There's a reason I hate the holiday season, and this is it. I eat too much, have an almost uncontrollable appetite. Have little interest in doing anything at all, and tend towards grouchiness.

Then comes the day -- and this morning is that day this year -- when my mind and heart start to lift once again and I see a stirring of interest in life, in the future, a lifting of the funk or blues or whatever it is. It's subtle -- doesn't hit with a bang but instead, creeps in slowly and the funk is generally gone by New Year's Day. I don't look for those subtle stirrings, don't even think about them until they arise, but I certainly recognize them for what they are and let me tell you, they are very welcome indeed.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Chasing time -- something we can all learn from

Well, I have officially survived to witness yet another birthday. As of today, I'm officially a year older. Whoopee! These days, it's just a reminder that I've done well to last this long.

But onto the subject line. I received an email from the founder of Wisdom 2.0, which is something I look forward to every year. I'm going to copy it here, because I think it's something that everyone can use, regardless of age, family status or philosophical beliefs. Enjoy! And while I like all of it, the last paragraph/sentence may be what resonates most with me, because it is SO, SO, true!

While many people look forward to the holidays, with time off work and the chance to see family, for others it is a very challenging time. Discord that exists in families is felt more acutely, and for others they have few people in which to celebrate. 
Ram Dass used to joke, "If you ever think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your family, then let’s talk." 
Holidays can be times of both great ease and also stress, as we hurry around trying to get everything done. 
My son and I were in Union Square at an Artist's Faire in NYC recently, and an Irish man selling items in one booth said to us, "Look around you here ... everyone is chasing time! They are searching for the past or searching for the future. The beauty of life is to be right here, right now."

He then looked at my son directly,
"Don't chase time, young man. You get to the end of your life, then what? You have no more time to chase!" 
As we go about our lives this holiday season, may we remember to not chase time, to enjoy the moments we have, and know that while gifts can be enjoyable what matters most (and what people remember most) is how they feel in our presence. They remember to the extent they felt seen, heard, and loved.
 Soren Gordhamer

Friday, December 16, 2016

Ice Storm 2016

In our front yard.
Not sure the news has gone country-wide, but Eugene was hit by a nasty ice storm overnight on Wednesday/Thursday. Power went out during the night (tho I had enough to brew coffee around 3:30am Thursday, for awhile) and just came back on late this afternoon (Friday). Damage is area-wide and shocking to see. I got out yesterday a couple of times, and again today (had to hit a Starbucks for my coffee/internet fix!), and the number of big trees/limbs down is impossible to even describe. Much worse even on neighboring properties than ours. Several trees down on our property, but the building wasn't damaged, thankfully. The lack of power hasn't been fun -- no heat, cooking, hot water, elevators, etc -- but other than being a bit irritated by this morning, I got along just fine. Temp inside this apartment didn't drop lower than 61F, which isn't bad, considering. Others, those more fragile or on electricity-produced oxygen, were able to go stay with family, but many were stuck here, like me.

I didn't realize just how 'antsy' I am until I had nothing to do to fill the hours. Walked outside several times each day, when and where it was safe to do so. Drove out twice Thursday, once Friday. Maybe the best part was sitting downstairs in the lobby, or other gathering places, and chatting with/getting to know some of the other residents.

Interesting drone video taken Friday by a local newspaper photog, here.

Backside of our property in the parking lot, at trash collection spot. I went for a walk around the property as soon as it was light enough, staying on grass to avoid the thick ice on the pavement. The ice was beautiful, but dangerous. Interestingly, I made it out to my garden bed Friday and while the white row-cover was frozen solid, I could get my hands under it in a couple of places and the greens I touched (spinach and lettuce) were happy as can be. Not frozen, not dead. Just perky and crisp as they should be. Cool how that stuff works.

Street in front of building, early morning Thursday.

Our front terrace. This is what my apartment overlooks, and I heard the constant swish and crash as countless branches/limbs fell as darkness descended Wednesday night. The rain/freezing rain had been steady all day, though pavement was just wet, not icy, and I went for a couple of walks, in the rain. But by evening, the weight on trees was getting to be too much. It was a little nerve-wracking, though I don't have any large trees near enough to my apartment to hit it. A neighbor called me around 9pm Wednesday and told me of the tree down in the parking lot, said a tree had come down near my car and wondered if I wanted to move it. But, as I told her then, there was really no place to move it where it would be any safer. The parking lot is lined with trees. Big ones. Fortunately, my car stayed safe.

I went for a walk around the ponds Thursday morning, not risking walking that far on pavement, but driving and parking in the gravel lot. Both footbridges along the trail were solid ice, but I got across both, in both directions, with no problems. Slowly and carefully.

It was so overcast and cloudy on Thursday that everything was flat and monochromatic aside from a few small bits of nature.

This guy was in his 'usual' spot near the far end of the trail.

By Friday morning, the sun was shining and things were a bit more interesting.

The wires of the bike bridge were also icy and shiny, which looked great. Nothing escaped the ice!

So that's it. Twenty-four hours of life in an ice storm in Eugene, Oregon. Not much has changed since this morning, either. Some ice melted, but things are still basically very white and it's dropping into the teens tonight. I'm glad to know my neighbors in this building all have heat and hopefully, hot food to eat.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Rising Waters and Cat TV

I have created a monster. She sits in my lap often when I'm at desk/computer, but hasn't paid much attention to it. A little while ago I noticed her watching the cursor move, so I decided to pull up some live bird feeders and make them full screen. She was fascinated! All of them have flown in this pic, but there were lots of them and she swatted at them, even tried to bite one on another site.

Can't really tell it, but she was trying hard to bite that bird! Now, of course, she wants to be on the desk and looking for birds all the time. I can leave one up for her when I'm not using it, but don't think that'll be enough. But -- it made me laugh enough that it just might be worth encouraging.

Went for a walk in the rain this morning (a lovely 'Oregon' morning). Opted against the ponds trail and for the river trail, since I haven't been along that one for a few weeks. It was a nice change and, being Eugene, there were plenty of other walkers/runners/cyclists out. Folks here don't let a little rain get in their way!

I've been noticing water pouring into the ponds in the weeks I've been walking over there, and can clearly see that water is rising everywhere. The ponds are great overflow for rainy winters and help lessen the dangers of flooding downriver.

This culvert leads from the river side of the road to the ponds where I've been walking, on the other side of the road. Water was pouring through.

The gated culvert that runs under the river bike path is protected from debris by a nice log dam. One of these two culverts has some hydraulic pumps that can move water in either direction, but I can't remember which one that is. I'd guess it's this one, but who knows!

Same culvert, showing gates. Pretty fancy stuff.

River is rising, too, though still well within its banks. In all the time I've been here, it has never flooded and I think it's a pretty rare event. Certain portions of the bike path can flood, usually ones that go down and under a road.

Nothing like the docile river of summer, certainly.

Headed back to below-freezing weather for the next week or so. Don't love it, but can't change it. Snow predicted, so I hope to get some photos of the ponds in the snow. Stay tuned!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Cat with a Blankie

My cat has a blankie of her very own, and she loves it. The little blanket came with her from the shelter, in the bottom of her carrying container. In the past few days she's developed a real love affair with it, playing with it, carrying it around the house. Often stepping on it and coming to an abrupt halt. This morning, I was determined to get a few photos of this because it is oh, so funny to watch. And oh, so hard to get a photo that isn't blurred from speed.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


Went for a walk this morning at 32F. Brrrrrr! But I had to get out of the house. Been cooped up inside for too many days. And I was well-dressed for it.

Not a lot of activity out there. Beautiful egret, above. A few herons. Lots of Canadian geese. The usuals. Took a couple of shots of a heron in a tree but somehow they didn't make the memory card.

This guy was on the bank just below me, and didn't seem concerned that I was walking around so nearby. Looks intent upon breakfast, at the moment.

Same guy, just a different viewpoint.

So that's what's happening today. Cold. Due for a dusting of snow tonight and maybe tomorrow. Would like to walk back out there tomorrow, if that happens. Haven't seen the place with snow.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Easy, delicious sourdough baguettes

I've tried a number of sourdough bread recipes over the past year or so since I got my starter started. Country loaves, baguettes, other things. Most were either too time-consuming or too much of a pain in the neck, without offering up the delicious, robust breads I had in mind.

In recent weeks I tried a couple of new recipes for baguettes, but neither of those really delivered the results I wanted, either. What to do?

I put my thinking cap on, looked carefully at both recipes and techniques, and thought I could combine what I liked about each of them and discard the parts I didn't like.

Made my first effort last week, with small round loaves, and while I didn't bake them long enough for some weird reason, they had a good sourdough flavor and were easy to do. So I tried again this week.

Last week's under-baked round loaves.

One of the recipes was super-simple. The dough was sticky, had to be mixed and kneaded by hand, but used a small proportion of sourdough and a short fermentation period. But there were no tricks to the baking process. Just put it in the oven and bake.

The other recipe, the one from Paris, was a good bit more complex, which was fine. The nice part was it used a large stand mixer to knead the dough, which I really liked. Did a great job, no work on my part. But after that the recipe was much more complex, more like some earlier country loaves I'd tried. Much larger percentage of starter was used in the dough, and it fermented overnight in the refrigerator, then had a rather complex baking procedure involving a baking stone and a pan for adding water to create steam. I found that this one didn't rise as well as I expected, though it tasted good. Much better flavor.

One thing I didn't like about either dough was they they were both soft, spread out on cooking rather than rising into nice loaves. So I used my own proportions and ended up with a thicker, more workable dough that gives super results.

Please check out the Paris instructions and compare my recipe to her recipe. She has great step-by-step photos and I followed them up until the fermentation/baking point.

Here's my recipe:

8 ounces very ripe starter
22 ounces white flour (I use Bob's Red Mill, unbleached all-purpose)
13-14 ounces bottled water (chlorine keeps the natural sourdough yeasts from multiplying)
2 tsp salt

I let my starter get riper than she seemed to suggest, timed it so it would be ready to mix into dough in the evening, so it could sit overnight and be ready to bake in the morning. I like the flavor this gives.

These steps are essentially the ones she shows: Combine the flour, water and starter in your mixer bowl. You can mix by hand or 20 seconds or so with the dough hook on the mixer. Mix until all the flour is incorporated. I've not used the full 14 ounces of water yet, but close to it. Sorry -- best direction I can give here. I suspect that using the full 14 ounces would work fine, keeping the dough the way I want it.

Then, let it sit for 20-40 minutes in the bowl. This is the autolyse step, which lets the flour absorb all the water. At the end of this period, add the salt, knead with the mixer on low speed for 5 minutes. Cover bowl with a towel and let it sit for an hour.

At the end of the hour, fold the dough from the bottom over itself on the top, about 12 times. Re-cover with the cloth and let sit another hour. Repeat the folding process. Here's where I diverge from the Paris methods. Rather than putting the dough into the refrigerator, I put it into a lightly-oiled glass bowl, cover tightly with press & seal plastic wrap to keep air out, and leave it on the counter overnight. In my cool kitchen this takes at least 10 hours, could probably go longer. Clearly, the olive oil is not traditional with french loaves, but it's common with other yeasted breads and theoretically makes it easier for the dough to expand up the slippery sides of the bowl. If you want to be a purist, don't use it.

This is what it looks like in the morning. Not a lot of sourdough-looking bubbles on top and while those might increase with time, I tend to use it this way so it doesn't overferment, while it still has lots of spring to it. It has more than doubled in size.

Doesn't show too well here, but there are lots of bubbles on the side of the bowl and on the bottom. It's well-fermented.

Form into loaves -- either baguette or round, as you prefer. If you don't have a good method for forming baguettes that works for you, I recommend viewing the video on the Paris blog. While today's loaves were on the sloppy side for me, the methodology he shows is terrific and easy. And to be totally correct, they were more batards than baguettes. Partly because I was too lazy to keep them long and skinny, and partly because I actually like larger slices of bread. Make any shape you like.

I put the loaves directly onto the sheet pan they'll bake on. Let them sit for 25-30 minutes while the oven heats to 425F.

When ready, use the tool of your choice (a single-edge razor blade works for me) and slash the loaves in a way that works for you. As I've been trying these recipes, I've finally learned that when they say 'slash', they mean deep slashes. Much deeper than the timid efforts I made the first time around. The deeper you slash the more the bread can expand and puff up. As you can see, the dough was already expanding here, moments after I slashed the last loaf. Note: the two loaves on the right were not formed well and were too close together, so during baking time I had to separate them. Be more careful than I was.

After about 20 minutes of baking, I removed the loaves from the pan and put them directly on the oven rack. This seems to give them stronger, better heat. Then I left them until they were well-browned, a total of just over 30 minutes.

Beautiful! Nice crumb, well-risen. Exterior is crisp, interior is moist and chewy and very reminiscent of San Francisco sourdough. Strong flavors, great texture.  This is a winner and a keeper. I ate the loaf I cut, put the others in the freezer. Now I need to find somebody to give them to!