Bake Some Bread, Dammit!

January 18, 2011

Photo courtesy of Carri Thurman by way of Michael Ruhlman

Michael Ruhlman is running a series on bread baking over on his blog, trying to get folks to bake bread.  Of course, I’m a sucker for bread, having baked for nearly 20 years (including my mad scientist days when I was in law school and had multiple types of sourdough starter sitting in my kitchen).  When I saw one guest blogger post a story and recipe about ciabatta, I knew I had to make it.  First, I love ciabatta, with its rustic shape and straight-forward flavors.  Second, this recipe  comes from a bakery — Two Sisters —  in one of my favorite places in the world, Homer, Alaska (also home to the best pizza in Alaska, Finn’s).  This recipe is of the “no knead” variety, which I typically like because of its simplicity, but which I usually don’t love, because the full flavors you desire aren’t usually completely developed.  This recipe was a bit different — it was a two-stage process, where a dense starter with a minimal amount of yeast sits on the counter for at least 12 hours.  Then warm water is added, and you break up the starter into small clumps before adding more flour and yeast.  It’s a very wet dough, but it’s perfect for the rectangular “slipper” shape of a ciabatta.

And, quite frankly, it was the best bread I’ve ever made.  I’m already craving this bread and hope to make it again very soon.  Thanks to Carri Thurman of Two Sisters Bakery and to Michael Ruhlman for publishing her recipe (and allowing me to reprint it).  I’ve made a couple of minor changes, based on what I had in the house on Saturday.

CIABATTA
Recipe by Carri Thurman

To make the starter:

  • 1 tablespoon whole wheat flour
  • 1 tablespoon rye flour
  • 3 cups/14 ounces/400 grams bread flour (I used King Arthur, but unbleached all purpose flour is OK)
  • 1 cup/8 ounces/240 grams tepid water
  • ¼ teaspoon/1 gram active dry yeast dissolved in 1 cup warm water (set aside)
  1. Combine the flours and tepid water in a medium sized mixing bowl.
  2. Add 1 teaspoon of the yeasted water (that’s correct, just 1 teaspoon — discard the rest)
  3. Mix it into a firm ball, kneading it  just a bit.
  4. Cover the bowl and let it rest at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours

To make the dough:

  • 1 teaspoon/4 grams active dry yeast
  • 3 1/4 cups/15.5 ounces/430 bread flour (or unbleached all purpose flour)
  • 1 tablespoon/.4 ounces/11 grams salt
  1. Cut the dense starter dough into 6 or 8 pieces and put them in a large mixing bowl. Pour 2 cups/450 grams warm water over it and let sit a few minutes to soften. Break it up more with your hands.  Don’t worry about small-sized chunks.
  2. Add the additional flour, salt and yeast,  and using a wooden spoon, beat the mixture together well. It will resemble a stiff pancake batter and appear quite rough, but still don’t worry about those chunks of  starter dough. Let the dough sit, covered lightly, in a warm spot.
  3. Come back to it every 20 minutes or so and pull the dough away from the sides of the bowl and into the center using a rubber spatula or dough scraper. Do this four times. After the last turn you will be able to see that the dough has become smoother and more uniform, now cover and let it finish rising for another hour and a half. Total rising time for this period should be 2 ½ to 3 hours.
  4. Scrape the dough out onto a well floured surface and fold together lightly. It will be fairly wet. Divide into two equal loaves and either pull apart into a flat focaccia style or fold the two ends into the center, like folding a letter, to form rectangular mound.
  5. Place loaves on parchment paper lined sheet pan side by side for final rise, 30 to 45 minutes.
  6. Prep your oven by preheating to 450 degrees F/230 degree C and putting a baking stone or a cast iron griddle on the middle rack.  If no stones/griddles, just back on the sheet pan.
  7. When ready to bake, lightly flour the tips of your fingers and deflate some of the bubbles; don’t worry, it’ll bounce back in the oven.
  8. Cut the parchment paper between the loaves to separate, and slide each loaf right onto to the stone or griddle. Or keep it on the pan.  Whatever.  Spray the loaves and oven with some water from a spray bottle to create some steam.  Bake until dark-ish golden brown and internal temp reaches 200 degrees F, approximately 25 minutes.

Makes two 1-3/4 pound ciabattas



Catching Your Alaskan Dinner

September 8, 2008

I still have a few Alaska stories for you, but with the nomination of Alaska’s governor as the Republican VP candidate, an avid sportswoman, I thought I’d share one story of the glories of our 49th state: fishing.  You see, pretty much anyone can catch fish in Alaska.  If folks go out and don’t catch several specimens in a few hours, well, you either have really horrific karma or you forgot to use a hook.

Anyhow, as some of you may know, we took this family vacation in part to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday.  She was an army brat, growing up in Oklahoma, spending her formative years in Nuremburg, Germany, and living in Raleigh for pretty much the past half century.  She loved to fish when she was a child, but she told us that she hadn’t caught a fish since she was a teenager.  And she REALLY wanted to catch a fish on this trip. Read the rest of this entry »


Most Important Food Story of the Year

August 13, 2008

Andrea Weigl and Shawn Rocco of the News & Observer have put together an article and multi-media presentation that should be required reading for everyone over the age of ten. This is the story of a pig, a cute Ossabaw hog that has made its way to the abbatoir. A pig that will be dinner in a week’s time. The article itself is graphic and gut wrenching, but is as well-written and objective as anything you’ll find. This isn’t a story that you usually see in the food section of a newspaper, with inherent space limitations and over-editing. This is a well-rounded, detailed journalistic piece and includes a side story comparing the small operation of the packing plant used for the Ossabaw with the large, industrial plant of the Smithfield Packing plant in Tar Heel, NC. This is top notch writing and photojournalism, pure and simple. Rocco’s pictures juxtapose sweet shots of piglets with a scene of “dead pig walking” and a somewhat eery photo of a small plastic pig in the cup holder of the truck taking the pig to the slaughterhouse. Frankly, I have not seen a story as compelling as this in any paper or magazine this year.

As a father of four children, I believe it’s my duty to ensure that my children understand how we get our food. Whether it’s the heirloom tomatoes, the Frosted Mini-Wheat or the barbecue, my kids should know that food production and processing isn’t always pretty. Sometimes, it really hurts.

This story was the second reminder I’ve had of this in the past month. The first time was when we were in Alaska, on a small boat in Resurrection Bay near Kenai Fjords National Park. The primary purpose of the boat trip was to see wildlife and scenery, and boy, did we ever see some sights! However, we also stopped two times to fish, once for silver (coho) salmon and the second for halibut. My 12-year old daughter, who doesn’t eat much meat at all (and absolutely no fish), was looking forward to catching a fish or two. She got really excited when her younger brother hooked a feisty salmon, even though we couldn’t net it. When her 70 year old grandmother brought the first fish into the boat, she was ecstatic. But that was all to change. The crew brought out a small club and brutally and quickly ended the salmon’s life. I hadn’t prepared my daughter or any of my children for that reality. And she couldn’t handle it, starting to bawl from witnessing the cruelty of meat. Just as Morrissey and the Smiths said, “Meat is Murder,” and my daughter just witnessed a killing.

And a small part of me is glad she did.

Many of you are thinking that I’m an awful father for thinking it’s a good thing for your child to hurt, but that’s not the case. I suspect my daughter already had issues with eating meat because of humane reasons, and this incident may make it worse. I know it bothered her later that day when that salmon was on our dinner table, but she saw first hand how the fish gave its life for our nourishment. She knows that the world of food, including fish and other meat, is not pretty. She knows that her chicken drumstick really came from an animal, an animal that was killed to satisfy her hunger. I don’t think she’ll need to go into therapy, thank god, but she’s forever changed. A little less innocent, perhaps. And after many of us read Weigl’s articles, we might be, too.

Edit: Please also read Weigl’s first piece about this particular pig that came out in Sunday’s paper.  Great, great writing.


Best Pizza in Alaska

August 6, 2008

OK, OK, I know you’ve read the title and are saying, “The guy takes a 2-week trip to Alaska — the largest state in the nation — and he has the balls to declare a restaurant as having the best pizza in the land of the midnight sun???”

Yes I do. Read the rest of this entry »


Kayak Soup

July 31, 2008

(Click on any picture for a high resolution version)


Today’s entry is about our great sea kayaking trip with Seaside Adventure Eco-Tours, a small mom and pop outfit in Little Tutka Bay, just across Kachemak Bay from the lovely town of Homer, Alaska.  You need to take a water taxi to get here, but the trip, and the entire experience, are worth the logistical difficulties.  You quickly learn in Alaska that getting from point A to point B often entails travel by means other than an automobile. Read the rest of this entry »


Ginormous Portions in Alaska

July 29, 2008

There’s a t-shirt that you can find in most Alaskan gift shops that says, “Size Does Matter”, showing an outline of the state of Alaska and well within those boundaries, Texas.  It’s a pretty funny t-shirt, particularly if you want to rib one of your Texas friends, but the notion of “bigger is better” is alive and well in Alaskan diners.

We stopped at Rose’s Cafe in Healy, several miles north of the entrance to Denali National Park.  Rose’s is a fairly typical diner, but they really like serving large portions of food.  The entrance area is filled with pictures of individuals who have eaten the one-pound burger (or burgers consisting of several of the one-pound patties — one guy ate a 5 pounder!).  OK, that’s for the crazy people, but Rose’s also has normal sizes, thank god.

My son decides to order pancakes.  The waitress informed him that one would be enough.  One pancake?  For a hungry 9-year old?  She must be crazy.  Well, the picture above shows you that the waitress gave us great advice.

Another example of ridiculous portions comes from the less-than-average, well-past-its-prime, tourist-trap Gwennie’s in Anchorage.  This is really a lousy restaurant, the worst one we visited in Alaska, but the place didn’t disappoint when it came to quantity of food.  My father-in-law decided to eat breakfast for dinner, and he ordered a waffle and a side of reindeer sausage.  We had first had reindeer sausage at our Anchorage B&B, the wonderful Alaska House of Jade, and my father-in-law wanted some more.  Well, he got a lot more.  The amount of sausage he received was so great that it turned his stomach (mine, too).  We hardly touched the stuff.

Not every place in Alaska serves humungous portions, but we didn’t find a place that skimped on quantity.  Maybe size does matter — at least when eating in Alaska.