Food Matters: Creature Comforts | AspenTimes.com

Food Matters: Creature Comforts

by Amanda Rae

RETURNING home from Christmas with my folks on the East Coast, I carried some very precious cargo. Well, I didn't want to get busted for transporting a living, breathing slimeball halfway across the country, so I tucked him cozily into my checked luggage and hoped for the best.

I arrived at ASE to find that my new pet survived the journey just fine, and he's been ensconced in my apartment ever since. If you think all that makes me sounds like a terrible person, get this: I only starting playing with him last week!

I confess: my "pet" is sourdough starter, a gift from my mother, who is a fantastic home baker. She's been cultivating this batch of fermented goo — basically a slurry of water and flour rife with naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria and wild yeast — for years, so when I expressed interest in baking sourdough bread on my own, she was thrilled. She poured a cup of her starter into a clean glass jar, marked the volume on the side with a piece of masking tape, twisted lid on tight, and sent me on my way. Then she followed up with pages of emails detailing the proper feeding schedule, troubleshooting tips, and a few tried-and-true recipes for using the starter as a leavening agent (in place of commercial yeast) in bread, pizza, biscuits, and more.

Wait, feeding schedule?! I'd been under the impression that the sourdough starter would sit in my fridge, ready to use in a recipe when the mood strikes. Not quite. During refrigeration, the starter culture falls into a sort of hibernation state; it will survive weeks, even months, like this, only grow weaker over time as the natural bacteria and yeasts wear themselves out.

If I wanted to bake sourdough bread using this starter, I'd need to reinvigorate it so that it would be able to help the loaf rise. I'd need to "feed" it. This requires planning and patience: allowing the liquid to come to room temperature before adding an equal amount of lukewarm water and a scant double amount of all-purpose flour, then leaving it alone for hours. During that rest, the microorganisms would gobble up sugars in the flour and multiply exponentially.

"The stronger it is, the better," my mom wrote, "and the higher and more reliably the bread will rise." The older the starter, the stronger it is, she added, so I shouldn't have any problems. (No access to heirloom starter? No problem: make your own from scratch using just flour, water, air, and time — thekitchn.com has excellent tutorials.)

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Since almost two months had passed since I hauled that jar of Mom's sourdough starter back to Aspen, I set out to feed it. The ivory glop had shrunk to about a half-cup, with a quarter-inch of dark grey liquid on top (alcohol, a fermentation byproduct). I poured that out, dumped the starter into a 4-cup glass measuring cup, and added the proper amount of water and flour. I let it sit in the warmest spot in my kitchen (on top of a cold stove) for hours…and nothing happened. Maybe it rose slightly, but certainly didn't double in volume.

Did it die? I repeated the process, moving the white sludge to a big glass bowl to allow room for expansion. Fingers crossed, I hit Ajax for the day, and by the time I returned home, it had ballooned beautifully. Sweet, sweet relief — it's alive!

Still I had to mix the bread dough, which requires only a few minutes of hands-on time during each step: combine one cup of the "fed" starter with other ingredients; knead dough with six to 10 folds, then let rise in three increments of 30 minutes; pop bowl into fridge overnight, allowing dough to "slow ferment" and develop flavor and texture.

The following day before baking, I'd remove the dough and let it to come to room temperature (about four hours). Then I'd shape the dough into boules (or baguettes or rolls) and let those rise, covered with a dishtowel, in a warm spot, 60-90 minutes. After 20 minutes of baking on a pizza stone alongside a metal pan of boiling water to create steam, the boules emerged from the oven golden brown and hollow-sounding when tapped from the bottom. All told, I probably spent fewer than 20 minutes of hands-on time spread over 24 hours to enjoy fresh, chewy, crusty bread for days.

Why go to all this trouble? It's cost-effective, for one. A loaf of artisan sourdough bread at a local bakery might run $7 to $12. Flour and water — perhaps a splash of olive oil and a few teaspoons powdered milk powder, in my recipe — cost a fraction of that. Your home will smell divine, and whatever you don't eat right away freezes easily. (If baking sourdough bread from scratch seems a stretch for your schedule, try out home fermentation by whipping up a batch of overnight kefir-soaked honey-oat cakes. See recipe, opposite page.)

Flavorful, tangy sourdough bread boasts health benefits galore. Wild yeast and lactobacillus cultures in sourdough help to "predigest" ingredients, freeing up micronutrients and neutralizing phytic acid, which inhibits digestive enzymes in the gut and creates trouble for sensitive systems. Folks who have difficulty digesting traditional bread (ahem, only about 7 percent of the population qualifies as gluten intolerant, according to Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital) often don't experience those symptoms with sourdough.

Fermented foods — including sourdough, as well as other tangy treats such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and kefir (cultured yogurt) — have become insanely popular in the U.S. in recent years, and trend forecasters predict that this will only increase. Probiotics — friendly bacteria that aid digestion, produce vitamins, and help safeguard the human body from harmful microbes — help preserve food, of course, but chefs and home cooks understand that they are also master flavor-makers. Yogurt, cheese, soy sauce, wine, beer — all are products of fermentation.

I've been making sauerkraut and kimchi for a few years, but those live in my fridge, out of sight. Not so for my other "pet." Whenever new friends visit my apartment for the first time, I know it's only a matter of minutes before they spy the suspicious-looking science project tucked in a dark corner between my refrigerator and stove. What the heck IS that stuff? They can't help but ask, and I don't blame them. It's freaky: translucent-white jellyfish-like blobs (the "scoby," or culture) floating atop murky amber liquid with brown trails that resemble wet dust.

It's kombucha! The fizzy, probiotic beverage du jour is even easier to manage than sourdough: brew a stockpot of black tea, add cane sugar, let cool, pour into a giant glass olive jar, slip in a scoby (the "starter," in this case), and ignore it for 10-30 days, depending on how acidic and effervescent you like it.

Kombucha brewing requires minimal effort for maximum output and it's mostly self-sustaining — call it the lazy girl's introduction to fermentation.

So…anyone want a scoby? amandaraewashere@gmail.com

MAKE IT

Kefir-Soaked Honey Oat Cakes

Fitting fermented foods into your life is easy—with a game plan. I make these hand-sized overnight oatmeal pancakes in a double-batch for easy freezing. Just pop in the toaster, slather with nut butter or jam, and take ’em to go. They’re almost as good as Bonnie’s oatmeal pancakes—not to mention healthier and cheaper, too.

Makes 9 pancakes

2 cups organic old-fashioned rolled oats

2 cups kefir

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

2 eggs, separated

1 tablespoon raw honey

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons coconut oil, melted, plus more for frying

>In a large bowl, combine oats, kefir, and apple cider vinegar. Cover and let stand overnight at room temperature.

>When ready to cook, add egg yolks, honey, vanilla, sea salt, baking soda, and coconut oil to the soaked oats. Mix well.

>In a separate bowl, whisk (or whip with a hand mixer) egg whites until soft peaks form. Gently fold egg whites into oat mixture.

>In a pan or griddle over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon coconut oil. Spoon ½ cup batter onto preheated pan to form oblong, hand-sized cakes. Cook about 2-3 minutes per side until golden brown.

>Serve warm or let cool and freeze up to 6 months.

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