Saskatoon Berries Bonanza

According to thecanadianencyclopedia.caSaskatoon takes its name from a Cree word for the sweet, fleshy fruits, which were of prime importance to Aboriginal people and early settlers. On the prairies, saskatoons were a major ingredient in pemmican.

In my small suburban yard, I have four saskatoon bushes, bushes that thrive as native shrubbery is wont to do, and bushes that each year fill our summers with weeks of fresh fruit literally off our doorstep.

We are in the heart of those few short weeks right now.

Out both my front and back door, these ten-foot tall berry trees are draped abundantly with blueberry-sized purple orbs of sweet, nutty, berry goodness.

We gather as many as we can, even as they slowly ripen through late July and early August, dropping them into our breakfasts, harvesting a handful as a snack, overflowing baking bowls for muffins and pies, and generally eating as much as we can for the too-short season.

If you ever find yourself visiting the prairies of Canada and looking to sample a food that many Canadians feel is a food that defines us locally, go ahead and try the poutine, enjoy fried handful of dough that we like to call “beaver tails” and don’t let anyone tell you that maple syrup is the one true Canuck cuisine.

Instead, set your heart on a slice of saskatoon berry pie, sample a bit of saskatoon preserve on your morning sourdough toast, or just go for a walk in the woods and pick a handful of these local sweet treats from the mid-forest foliage of trees that grow wild everywhere.

I’d save you some, but I don’t think they’ll last.

Heat Proofed

While the baker in me is disappointed by the negative impact the heat has had on my sourdough, the science nerd side of my brain has been giddy at watching how this blast of summer temperatures spun the dial on one of the variables in the delicate process.

My fellow Western-North-Americans know this all too well right now, but if you’re not from around here you may have not heard that we’re in the early half of what is turning into a week-long, record-breaking heat wave.

Many of us (and our winter-ready homes) are ill-equipped to handle such heat. My house is designed to contain heat, reduce air circulation, and stay warm through eight months of sub-zero temperatures.

I don’t own either an air conditioner or a personal swimming pool.

I personally prefer the weather to be about ten degrees Celsius and I am far more comfortable in a wool toque and ski gloves than a sun hat and sandals.

In other words: It’s hot. I’m uncomfortably warm. And it’s going to be scorching for at least a week more.

In the midst of this blast of irregular heat, I ran out of bread (a regular occurrence) and went about my regular routine of making dough and getting a couple of loaves of sourdough ready to bake.

Now let me back up one step: regular readers know that I have been making bread two or three times per week for the last sixteen months of this pandemic. I have a recipe and a process that I follow with rote precision, step-by-step, to produce a consistent loaf.

For comparison, a pair of loaves that I baked with a blend of local rye flour a few weeks ago turned out great, rising on the counter for about twelve hours pre-bake after an overnight proof in the fridge.

Great rise. Consistent crumb. Pleasant overall result:

Compare the successful loaves from the second photo to the less-than-stellar loaves from first photo in this post.

I cut into one of those squared-off loaves this morning and found a dense, poorly-risen, heavy bread that more resembled a dense bagel then a fluffy sandwich bread.

For comparison, those first two loaves proofed and rose on my counter for only about eight hours before I had to turn the oven on mid-day (in the hottest part of the afternoon to boot) because they were obviously starting to over-proof, losing cohesion and loosening up.

To be clear, both pictures are loaves from the exact same flour blend, from the exact same bags of flour, from the exact same process… save for that the average outside temperature is about twenty-five degrees warmer this week than two weeks ago.

This means also that my kitchen is currently at least five to ten degrees warmer than normal, despite my best efforts to keep it cool.

The heat has completely revved my yeast into high gear causing what seems to be an accelerated, runaway proofing that I have no great experience (yet) working with. If I bake anymore loaves this week I’m going to need to rely less on watching the clock and more on watching the pans.

And to sum up…

Baker me: sad.
Science-nerd me: neat!

Local Flours Sours: Peace Country Rye (Part One)

All this experimenting with food is getting expensive. I was at the grocery store again this morning buying some varieties of vegetables to grill over the fire this evening, and a big hunk of meat to slice up for a batch of beef jerky, so of course I stumbled by the baking aisle and found another locally milled flour to scratch my local flour sourdough dabblers itch.

Until this morning I had not ever heard of Peace Country Milling & Grains but anyone who lives in this area knows that the “Peace Country” is a huge swath of land up in the North West of the province named for the Peace River that runs roughly transversely eastbound through that area. The largest city in the area is named Grand Prairie and is familiar to us because a my wife traces some of her paternal ancestry to a couple generations of relatives who immigrated to, settled in and farmed upon that area. Many a five-hour drives did we used to make for visits while there was still enough of her kin there to justify the multi-day trip.

This particular mill seems to be hunkered just fifty kilometers outside of Grand Prairie in an area even those of us who live pretty much in the middle of nowhere would consider remote and pretty much the middle of nowhere.

I bought a bag of their rye flour. Rye is a variety of wheat that tends to have a darker colour, nuttier taste, and a lower gluten content resulting in a bread that is darker, more substantially flavoured, and denser from a weaker rise.

I’d been experimenting with a more commercial variety of rye flour over the winter months and pushing my sourdough percentages past more than about 25% rye flour turned the final product into a bit of a poundcake.

So, with this local flour I started with a generous, but still cautious, twenty percent rye to eighty percent white blend and then otherwise followed my standard go-to sourdough process.

The dough is hydrated and resting for an overnight rise in the fridge even as I write this.

Rye bread has always had a bit a special space in my heart, though. I’d be the first in line for a good Reuben sandwhich if we lived near a good deli, and in fact the day after I ran the New York Marathon in 2016 we hiked over to Katz’s Deli in Manhattan, not an insignificant distance from our hotel the day after running forty-two kilometers (and much, much farther from Grand Prairie where my bag of rye flour originated) and ordered a thick pastrami sandwhich piled high on a couple slices of rye bread.

What a connection!

And maybe I’ll hunt down that photo and continue the story in part two, after my own rye is baked and tasted.

Local Flours Sours: Stoneground Whole Wheat (Part Two)

On the weekend I was delighted to have the chance to stretch my shopping muscles and visit the local grocery store, spending some time more carefully peruse the aisles for interesting ingredients.

The result was a few small bags of flour that promised to step me out of my sourdough comfort zone and deeper into the world of local ingredients. Specifically, in part one I cracked open a small bag of whole wheat flour from Strathcona Stoneground Organics and used it mix up a batch of 20% whole wheat sourdough.

Shortly after posting part one, I also discovered that this small local flour milling business has an Instagram account where (just two days prior) the proprietor had excitedly posted about now selling her flour at the very grocery store where I’d gone grocery shopping and found it profiled on an “eat local” display.

Neat.

My dough spent Saturday night in the fridge, proofed as loaves on the counter for most of Sunday, and made its way into a 450F oven late into the evening of last night. It was just enough time to let it cool on the counter, and then wait overnight before I could slice in and give it a taste.

Behold! Monday morning fresh bread and a crumb shot as I sliced up the first of the loaves for my morning breakfast toast:

Light and airy, the small addition of some freshly milled whole wheat added a very nice colour and glow to the final product. Overall these loaves each had a rich, crispy crust that cut evenly.

Sometimes I find, particularly when using 100% white flour, that the bread is light and airy but has a weak structure that collapses under the pressure of a bread knife, flattening against the board as I slice it. I imagine it has something to do with strong gluten and balanced bubbles that give a loaf a bit more heft against this pressure. I also imagine that links back strongly to the quality of the flour used.

I tried a bite of this bread plain (prior to toasting it and slathering the rest of the slice with strawberry jam!) and the wheat and the sour flavours paired nicely into a bread I could easily consider snacking on, just plain or with a bit of butter… and I probably will sneak back to the kitchen later this morning for a slice.

What’s the takeaway?

My goal was to make more effort to dabble in flour blends with my sourdough, and in particular find some local ingredients. I wrote a few weeks ago about the Gift of Bread and how sourdough is one of those near-perfect things to prepare and give to someone. I can only think that one steps a bit closer to perfection to give a loaf baked from ingredients sourced locally. And knowing that the taste and quality is made even better for the effort helps.

I’ve got a lot more sourcing of flours to do. I have a couple nearby farmer’s markets, a healthy collection of well-stocked grocery stores and small fresh markets, and who knows where else I may track down some interesting ingredients.

Now go bake some bread.