Caged Flame

It was Saturday afternoon and for the first time in a week there was nary a spot of snow in my backyard.

We had some pork loin marinating in the refrigerator and my wife was all “I was just going to cook it in the oven but if it’s nice enough out there you could barbecue.”

“Or I could try it over a fire.” I offered.

“You could.” She was skeptical. “But you’re the one who has to sit out there and tend to it.”

Despite the snow there have been a number of fire restrictions in place across the prairies.

No open fires. No fireworks. But carefully tended pits are fine… provided certain rules are followed.

Rules, such as using a fire screen cover atop your fire pit.

Caging your flames.

I cracked open a beer as the fire burned to a good base of hot coals. I’ve been working my way through a Grizzly Paw sampler pack since we visited the mountains last month and I picked up the beer right there at the microbrewery in Canmore.

This afternoon’s selection was called the Three Sisters Pale Ale, named for the triple peak mountain range that stands guard over the townsite below, down where the beer is brewed.

It was a fitting spring drink to complement the first burn of the new batch of firewood and a reward for hauling a cubic meter of logs from my driveway to the storage space behind the shed earlier this week.

Let’s also call it the small makeup drink from the alcohol-free hangover I endured on Thursday, the morning after joining club AstraZenenca and priming up my immune system against a future COVID invasion. No regrets, but that vaccine wasn’t giving free rides to many.

My caged flames burned down to a smoky bed of embers and I cautiously added a bit more wood and some charcoal to maintain the heat level.

My low-smoke firepit and the so-called clean burning cedar is belching smoke into the neighbourhood and likely annoying my neighbours.

I should really focus. Tend those wild flames and pay a little less attention to my can of cold, crisp pale ale brewed in the mountains.

I should. It’s fine though.

“The smoke smells kinda nice.” My wife says as she comes outside to check on the progress of the cook and his fire. “Better than that pine we had before.”

“I guess.” I say, but smoke is smoke even if it smells less bad than other smoke.

I would just invite the neighbours over for a beer. No one minds smoke as much with a beer in their hand. But that vaccine doesn’t really kick in for a couple more weeks and even more restrictive than the local fire rules are the pandemic ones.

The pork loin hits the hot cast iron grates and the sizzling, spicy sounds fill the backyard and for a few minutes as I turn and prod and manage the heat against raw flesh I forget. Forget it all.

The smoke.

The neighbourhood.

The disease ravaging the world.

The cage is off, the flame unleashed, so that I can just cook.

Guinness Sourdough (Part Two)

Guinness stout has a very distinctive flavour. You either like it or you don’t. I do. My wife could go the rest of her days without another pint and not miss it.

This past Saturday I tried to borrow some of that distinctive flavour for a loaf of sourdough. How? Simply by replacing the tap water in my base sourdough recipe with the contents of a can of Guinness stout.

The first note of that process was simply that the dough was a lot stiffer than my regular recipe. As a bit of lucky timing, I was also short on breakfast bread, and not knowing for sure how if the taste of Guinness sourdough would accompany my morning peanut butter I simultaneously started a batch of white sandwich loafs. I have a pretty good feel for the textures, scents, and proof times of my bread recipe these days, but having an experimental loaf literally side-by-side with a control loaf was an interesting comparison.

In addition to a stiffer dough, the rise time was much longer for the Guinness loaf. Both batches spent the better part of Saturday in the fridge, and overnighted there. On Sunday morning I pulled both out at about 6 am, put the beer bread into a proofing basket and covered, and split my sandwich batch into my two loaf pans. By 5 pm as we were finishing off making our evening meal the sandwich loafs were clearly ready for the oven — almost too ready — and actually starting to creep over the edges of the pans. The beer loaf, on the other hand, needed more time, and I pushed the bake back to almost 9 pm (because I eventually needed to go to bed!) and I think it still could have used another hour of rise.

What is not entirely clear from the photo was that (just like the dough) the baked Guinness bread was darker and richer in colour than the white bread loaves.

And when I sampled this morning my take was actually… meh.

The bread is okay. It’s definitely edible, but my first impression of the taste was that it was a little bitter or even carrying an undertone of burnt coffee.

The crust definitely has an after-taste that lingers. And to be clear, the bread was not burned. In fact, other than only hitting about 80% of what I’d call a good rise, it was perfectly baked and timed out of the oven. The crust was crackly, and the besides cutting through an unfortunate air bubble for my glamour shot, the crumb was not too bad either.

But there was definitely a burnt aftertaste in the crust, and (to a lesser extent) in the softer parts of the bread.

My takeaway from this was to ask myself the simple question: Given that I pay about four bucks for a can of Guinness locally, was it worth the substitution over my basically free tap-water? And sadly, even though I was very excited to try this beer bread this morning, I would have to say …no.

I think I’ll stick to this stout in liquid form for a while longer.

Guinness Sourdough (Part One)

Six months before the pandemic lockdown began, we took one of our last major family vacations. The details of that trip are best left for another day, and another post, but the point is that on a rainy afternoon in August 2019 I found myself touring the Guinness Storehouse brewery tour in Dublin, Ireland.

I’ve got a bit of Irish blood in me, so the trip was one part heritage trip and one part explore Dublin like a tourist trip. The tourist part of me drank a lot of Guinness.

I drank a pint alongside a rich Irish stew and some bread the night before my half marathon and ran one of my best times of the season.

I drank a pint sitting at the bar in Temple Bar Pub, while other tourists stood just outside the door snapping selfies in front of the famous pub.

I drank a pint atop the viewing gallery of the the storehouse tour after learning how to pour, taste, and properly drink a glass of the rich brown stout.

A year and a half later I can confidently claim I don’t go very long without a few cans of the precious brew stocked in my fridge.

So, why not bake a lof of sourdough with it?

As I write this, the following ingredients are hydrating in a bowl on my countertop:

most of 1 can (363g) Guinness Stout
500g white bread flour
12g salt
250g of active sourdough starter

Regular readers will recall that just last weekend I baked an amazing loaf of beer-based sourdough with a can of honey brown lager. The result of this amber ale taking the place of tapwater in my recipe was a rich and flavourful bread that unfortunately seemed to disappear from the counter in less than 24 hours. (I strongly suspect hungry family members.)

A week later, though I’ve only got a regular two-day weekend to work within, I’m repeating my beer bread experimenting with one of my precious cans of Guinness a much darker and richer beer than the honey brown lager from last attempt.

The mixed ingredients are slowly hydrating on the counter as I wait out my gluten-building, hours-long folding efforts, killing the time writing this post.

Compared to the honey brown bread dough last weekend, this batch is considerably darker and smells much more strongly of beer. It gives me hope for a final baked bread that has a more obvious beer flavour.

The next steps will be a long, cool rise in the fridge, a final proof for most of Sunday, and a scruptious bake on Sunday evening … before samples and bedtime.

Tune in Monday for the exciting conclusion!

Honey Brown Sourdough (Part Two)

Yesterday morning I started preparing an experimental loaf of sourdough where I replaced all but a little of the water in the recipe with a honey brown lager.

Today, the loaf has been proofed, baked and sampled.

But let’s back up a step.

I’ve been pondering sourdough mix-ins. In the past year of pandemic lockdown I’ve baked about a hundred and fifty loaves of bread. Ninety-percent of these have been baked purely to answer the “we need bread” call. There are a few reasons I turned to sourdough as a mostly reliable source of food during the pandemic, and some of them are practical. Yet, I’ve long had a curiosity about working towards honing skills in arts and science, and tending a sourdough starter to bake awesome bread checks off a few boxes in that inquisitive mindset approach to life.

Sourdough also overlaps nicely with the Philosophy of the Cast Iron Guy (TM) in that a sourdough starter is simple, down-to-earth, and extremely useful. Flour, water, and cultivated yeasts can be fed and maintained for years (and generations) with some basic care and feeding, and at anytime a little bit of that starter can bring a bit more flour and water to life to create a delicious loaf of bread.

Plus, I cook most of my sourdough in cast iron, so there’s that.

Yet man cannot live on bread alone. Someone said that.

I have often looked for ways to make the bread a bit more interesting. Adding some cheese or herbs makes a delicious loaf. A swirl of cinnamon and sugar in a sweetened bread is amazing if it works out right. And, of course, I’ve collected various varieties of flour to play with the blend that makes up the bread itself.

Yesterday, I tried substituting the water for beer.

Beer is largely water, of course, and the other ingredients in a brew overlap so neatly with sourdough that it has been said that beer making and sourdough baking are cousins in the culinary world.

So, what does beer bring to the blend?

To prepare to answer this question effectively I made sure that before baking with a full can of my beer of choice, a Sleeman’s Honey Brown Lager I had more than one can in the house. Last night, after prepping the dough ball for it’s final rise in the proofing basket, I poured myself one of the other cans and settled into the couch to do some relaxing and a bit of writing.

The honey brown has a sweet and malty taste, and while I’m not a beer expert it would rank somewhere mid-to high on a refreshing scale. It’s not quite one of those gulp down in the heat of summer brews, but it’s closer to that than, say, an IPA which I would usually consider a run-over-your-tongue and savour-it beer. What I was focusing on with the bread, however, was did any of those beer flavours carry over to the final loaf?

First, bread had a lot more air bubbles in it than usual. I’ve made the foundational sourdough recipe so many times now that I’ve got a really good feel for times and temperatures. This can be caused by a lot of things, and usually it’s because too long of a rise, but with the outside temperatures being in the minus thirties it’s been tough keeping the house consistently warm, let alone speedy-bread-rise warm.

Second, the darker colour resembeled a loaf I’d have cooked with a blend that had a lot more full grain flours in it. I cook white bread often, because usually I run out of the smaller bags of multigrain or whole wheat and we always have white bread flour. My white bread has a distinctive shade of pale (though not ever bleached white) and this 100% white flour bread was not it. The amber-hued ale brought a richer colour to the final loaf that I liked.

Finally, the bread did have a stonger flavour than a plain white loaf. I would say that it wasn’t a beer flavour specifically but rather something more nutty or generally richer and deeper. Beer-adjacent, definitely. The best way I can put it is that while normally I eat my bread for breakfast with jams or honey, somehow I would think this loaf would do better with a bit of swiss cheese or as part of a less-sweet sandwhich. The complexity of flavour that the beer gave to the bread was enough that can confidently say dabbing a gob of strawberry jam on this would clash and make it tough to swallow.

Was it worth sacrificing a can of beer (over free tap water) for a richer loaf? Moderate postitive. I’m going to try a stronger, darker stout beer (likely a Guinness) next to see if there is an even richer final result to be had, but while the results with the honey brown lager were subtle I think I would try this again, yes.