My three year anniversary for The Perfect Loaf just passed and I felt like it was only fitting for me to (sort of) revisit an old idea, an old recipe of mine for a seeded sourdough I posted a long, long time ago. I make this whole wheat version intermittently and I do enjoy it, but I wanted to explore some new flavors, textures and techniques. I mean, after baking hundreds of loaves since the beginning days of this site my process has changed and evolved quite a bit, perhaps it was time to take a new look at this old favorite.
Of course there are endless combinations of seeds and spices one can bake into a loaf of bread, but finding just the right balance of flavors and textures can prove to be a challenging task. Personally, I find a lot of the seeded sourdough I try to be a little heavy with seeds; conceivably I’m just more sensitive to the deep umami flavors of sesame, the spicy nature of flax or the anise-like flavor of fennel, but I like to keep it light. Of course there is a time and place for hearty bread, but I like my seeded sourdough a little more like a gentle peck and less like a heavy, flapping punch.
I wanted to start my pictured recount of Japan with a short story, a story about how I was parted from my wallet in a bustling city of over 13 million inhabitants. If you’ve never been to Tokyo imagine a city that resembles an ever-moving, oozing anthill of people streaming through subway tubes, tight ticket turnstiles, streets, constricted alleys and huge blocks of people waiting to cross streets like large armies lined up for battle. It seemed this way at any time of the day, the same flow of people bound for their destination — well except for rush hour where that flow probably increased twofold. Even with the sheer number of people traversing the city each day there’s no bumping, pushing or yelling. It’s ordered, calm, and polite.
We arrived at our subway stop, Suidobashi Station, late in the night. We stepped off the subway car and into the flow of people up and out to the top floor, out the turnstiles and behold! Even at the ungodly hour we were returning home the station was just as packed, but I spotted a humble man in a rickety food cart serving hot soup to those returning home too late to enjoy dinner at the table. I saw this man and immediately had the impulse to take his photo as he worked his craft. I wanted to seize the rare opportunity to take his photo without anyone else in the frame, and quickly yanked out my phone to capture the moment.
Growing up I never really liked polenta. My grandmother would frequently cook the gritty yellow mash and I’d just kind of eat it with this muted disdain, asking for something else after I was done. I remember her customarily cooking it in water and then serving a warm bowl fresh from the stove but I’ve had it a number of ways: boiled in water, boiled in chicken stock, cooled and then pan-fried and of course cooled and simply topped with parmesan. Nowadays I’ve somehow developed a deeper appreciation for the yellow stuff and I actually find myself craving that deep, luxurious corn flavor which can readily be summed up as comforting.
Polenta is a typical Northern Italian dish that we’d have in some form or another just about every time we visited family. Maybe this is what slowly developed my admiration for the meal over the years, or maybe it was just my ever-developing palette when growing up (something I know all to well now with my young son — one week he loves chicken the next week he’s moved on to something better), either way you’re sure to find a bag of polenta in my pantry at all times.
As a kid I recall more often than not eating baguettes brought home from my Dad’s restaurant, usually procured through a late night call asking for “some bread for tomorrow”. On the weekends my Mom and Grandmother would slice these baguettes at a super slanted angle and make French toast, probably one of the perfect breads for such a thing, but aside from these baguettes we also had a sack of pre-sliced whole wheat bread — which coincidentally also makes great French toast in a different sort of way. It was always whole wheat (even before that was the in thing to buy) and it was mostly just a vehicle for peanut butter & jelly, cinnamon & sugar, straight butter, or whatever other clever things kids can dream up. I always preferred the baguette with its wonderfully crunchy crust, but there’s a special place for a PB & J sandwich that has so much peanut butter when dropped it would always land on the peanut butter side (imagine a cat always landing on its feet).
“Why don’t we ever have good ol’ sandwich bread?”, I heard my wife recently whisper to herself in the kitchen. This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard such a statement and scattered comments like these got me thinking back about that sliced bread1 I had as a kid. Nostalgia turned to motivation as I felt urged to develop a pan loaf with many of the same characteristics but 100% sourdough, and with somewhere around 98% fewer ingredients — you know, just flour, water, salt and yeast. Continue reading →
And baguettes too, but we’ll save that for later…↩
Having just recently devoured every episode of the inspirational Michael Pollan series Cooked on Netflix1, I came away with a sudden urge to drop everything and get some fresh dough between my fingers. Throughout the entire series he was on screen rallying behind slow food, especially so in the “Air” episode where Pollan points out that humanity really lost something when we transitioned from quality, slow food to abundant, fast food — most significantly when it comes to bread. There’s truth to the old saying that all good things take time, right? I agree.
With this amped up baking gusto I’ve been baking more and more this past month, not only baking my staple weekly bread but also milling fresh spelt flour and testing a spelt sourdough formula. Chances are you’ve heard of spelt, a very old species of wheat that has been used since long ago and as Pollan alluded to, you feel a sort of connection with ancient bakers when baking bread this way, and especially for me with this ancient grain.