Friday Yeast Fail

I banked my evening post on some cast iron skillet focaccia bread. The plan was to bake a zesty round of generously seasoned pan bread, a twelve inch disc of leavened goodness, baked to perfection in the oven and sliced up for some Friday night snacking.

I followed a simple recipe: some flour, yeast, olive oil, spices, salt, water… you know how this goes.

Mixed, I set it all aside to rise.

I waited.

I watched.

I put it into the proofing drawer of my oven.

I waited some more.

I think my failing was relying on store bought yeast. I would have gone the sourdough starter route, but I dreamed up this plan in the afternoon and was hoping for a Friday treat.

The darned thing never rose.

I turned into a cold, wet, oily ball of dough with so little going for it that six hours later I’m pretty much resigned to cooking it up and seeing what happens.

And whatever happens will definitely not be focaccia.

The Artful Joy of Splitting Sourdough

A friend of mine killed her starter.

Dead.

I didn’t ask how. Vacations. Life. A summer heat wave.

It happens.

So a few days later I just split mine and delivered one half it to her in a plastic pouch.

Problem solved, and she could go back to baking loaves.

This marks the third time I’ve split my mother dough into some giftable offspring.

Sharing starter starter seems to me to be almost a core tradition embedded deep in the subculture and shared process of breadmaking.

Starting a new starter from scratch is not difficult, of course, but neither is it a quick process.

Even if your newly gathered and grown starter is ready to use in a couple of weeks, there are countless feedings of wasted flour during that span and even then I’ve found that a good, productive starter takes many more weeks (or months) to mature and hit peak efficiency.

So instead we share. Half for me. Half for a friend.

I did this by scooping half of my starter from its home with a spatula from the little plastic tub where it has lived for the better part of two and a half years. That half went to my friend. Shared, the travelling half got a new home, a fresh feed of its own and a chance to bake bread for another family.

The remainder got a feeding and returned to its corner to enjoy the fresh dosing of flour.

Such a simple act…. but at the same time a clever and marvelous way to spread a bit of sourdough joy with friends and neighbours.

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!