Sourdough Starter

million years ago, before I had a baby and I still had more time than I knew what to do with, I made a sourdough starter. And then I left it in the refrigerator until it turned black and I threw it away. I actually killed a sourdough starter. I have also killed every house plant I have ever tried to grow, including a cactus. The only living things that survive in my house are the ones that can tell me when they need to be fed.

So what is a sourdough starter? Sourdough starter is a way to entice and then grow wild yeast in your refrigerator. There are only two ingredients in the starter: water and flour. The slurry of water and flour (read: easily available carbohydrates) attracts yeast that is naturally present in the environment and then allows it to grow (ferment). The result is a natural rising agent with a slightly tangy flavor.

Maybe it’s the quarantine, but I decided that I would try again to make a sourdough starter. I followed this recipe from Feasting at Home. It takes about a week of feeding the starter and letting it ferment at room temperature before you can put it in the fridge and only feed it once a week. It’s been a week, I remembered to feed it this morning, and so far it’s still alive. In the two weeks I have been fermenting my sourdough starter I have used it to bake: sourdough bread, pancakes, apple cupcakes, sourdough rolls (recipe from King Arthur Flour) and a Lemon Olive Oil Cake.

Let me stop here and ask: do you know about King Arthur Flour’s website? If you don’t, you should. They have a ton of really great recipes and ideas. I went to the site to find a good sourdough bread recipe using starter and found this bit of information: sourdough starter is half flour, half water, and you can use it to replace liquid in most baking recipes. The recipe needs to have sufficient liquid to replace so it works best with recipes that have milk or water as an ingredient already. When I made the Lemon Olive Oil Cake last night the recipe called for a cup of Greek yogurt and 2 1/2 cups of flour. I substituted a cup of sourdough starter in the recipe and removed 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of yogurt from the recipe (because one cup starter = 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water). I have used this formula in several recipes now and it has worked every time. Just don’t substitute the sourdough for anything that provides structural integrity. Like the butter in cookies.

The Patience of Pie Dough

Pie dough is a tricky thing. So are fried eggs. And I’ve realized over the past week that the essential quality that makes each of them turn out right has nothing to do with what I put in them or on them, but comes from me. Patience. I am not patient. I yell at other cars (from inside my own) when I’m stuck in traffic. I always have a multitude of projects going because boredom is a very dangerous place for me. I am the world’s fastest eater. I’m never really still unless I’m asleep. And, unfortunately, all of that impatience and needing to always be moving gets in the way of doing things the right way sometimes. Particularly when it comes to pie dough. 

Pie dough is a contradiction. It must hold together, but still be flakey. It must be rolled out thin, but not too thin. You want the dough to be cold when you roll it out, but warm it up enough so that you can roll it out. So what is the key to making good pie dough? Patience and feel. 

Pie dough is like bread dough in that way. The amount of water and flour necessary will change daily depending on the atmospheric conditions of my kitchen. I live in a place that is very dry most of the year, so usually need to add the maximum amount of water, and sometimes a little more. And I never know exactly how much until I get my hands in the dough and knead it a couple of times. I had an epiphany this week while making the crust for a coconut cream pie: I need to cut the butter in to the flour by hand instead of using a food processor. I get the feel for the dough in a way that I can’t watching it spin around in the bowl of my food processor. It takes a few minutes longer to do it that way but it works much better. 

Allowing the dough to rest is also hard for me. I want to start rolling it out immediately. But, again, like bread, it needs a rest. The flour and water and butter all need time to absorb into one another before you start trying to roll it out. And then there is the rolling out.

This is often where everything, literally, falls apart for me. Most of the time I place the cold dough ball on the butcher block in my kitchen with a thud and start pressing and rolling. Then pulling up and I sticking the dough from the wood of the block, turning it, cursing it as it rips and breaks and sticks. This week though. This week I had another, “why didn’t I think of that before!” Moment. This is the week that I realized that the best, most perfect, way to roll out pie dough would be to roll it out on top of a piece of parchment paper. I’m 37 years old and it took me until now to figure this out. When I did that I was able to roll out the dough thin enough and large enough to have some overhang to crimp and make pretty, and the dough didn’t shrink into the pie plate while it baked. It was a wonderful thing. 

And so this:

Became this:

And then this:

The Magic of Pudding Cake

Pudding cake. It’s a contradiction in terms. Cakes are light. Spongy. Airy. Cakey. Puddings are soft and smooth. So what is a pudding cake? 

It starts out like a cake– with flour, sugar, butter and milk. But the ingredients are out of proportion. You mix together a little bit of flour, sugar and salt. Then you add the egg yolks, buttermilk or milk and flavorings. Mine was made with lemon juice and the zest of 2 whole lemons. But the magic is in the egg whites. You whip them until they are firm but still wet, then fold them into the batter gently

Until incorporated

Then you bake it like a cake, until it’s brown in top

See those browned spots? That’s the top layer– a spongy cake. And on the bottom is the lemony pudding

Lemon Pudding Cake:

  • 1 c sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • 1/4 c flour
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1/3 c fresh lemon juice
  • Zest of the lemon
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 1/2 c buttermilk

Heat oven to 350 and grease a 1 1/2 quart casserole dish or baking dish. Also ready a slightly larger baking dish that you will later fill with hot water.

Mix flour, 3/4 c sugar and salt. Add butter, egg yolks, lemon juice and zest and stir to combine. Stir in buttermilk. In a separate bowl add sugar to egg whites and beat with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form, but whites are still wet. Fold whites into batter. Then pour in prepared dish. 

Put dish in slightly larger dish. Fill that dish with hot water so that the water comes up the sides of the casserole dish 2″. I used my sheet cake pan for this purpose. Slide the whole thing into the oven and bake for 45 minutes, or until top of cake is browned.