Winter certainly seems to be a time more for the kitchen than the garden. I spend very little time in the yard, with only a cursory weeding every few days and a check on the growing things and maybe a thought such as 'time to put out beer for the slugs.' Mostly, I find myself trying new things and perfecting processes in the kitchen. I don't mind a hot oven (we can turn down the central heat!) and the early evenings seem to call for indoor projects. I realize that we often write about projects that we begin, but never write again about how it turned out. Let me see if I can update you on a few things.
I'm getting better at bread baking. I've done copious amounts of research where whole grain bread is concerned - to knead or not to knead? Wild yeast or a bought culture for sourdough? Part whole grain versus 100%? Hydration ratios? all that stuff. And I've tried different ways of making bread. We don't really want the soft, square sandwich bread you can buy at any store. We want a nice artisan boule or batard that can be used for fresh eating, crusty sandwiches, or hearty toast. Leftovers of course will be bread crumbs or croutons. We also knew that a good loaf of bread really lasts only two days. I keep a loaf of Orowheat whole wheat bread in the freezer for Kate's lunches - she prefers it for sandwiches. But she loves home baked bread with butter, and the rest of us are content with homemade bread for any use. Here is what I've decided works best for me and my kitchen.
First off, I knew I wanted to bake only whole grain bread (why eat bread that has all the nutrition stripped out of it?) but it presents many interesting difficulties. Whole wheat flour contains all parts of the wheat berry; the endosperm (this is the part that is used to make white flour), the bran, and the germ (for more information on this, see this good definition). Having present all parts of the berry can affect yeast production and the rise of the bread. The bits of bran are somewhat sharp, cutting the strands of gluten as the bread is kneaded and risen. That's why so many whole wheat loaves are dense bricks, not the light and airy loaves we all love. I had to find a way to work around this problem. The recipe I've been using lately (from The Perfect Loaf) calls for sifting the flour so that you take out the large particles of bran. The bran is then soaked in boiling water and added in after the majority of the kneading. This really seems to solve the bran problem. I also think kneading really helps develop the flavor of the bread, and the gluten that helps it rise - so for me, no-knead methods are out (they didn't really work any time I ever tried them). By the way, I've been kneading by hand, not with the Kitchen Aid mixer, and I think it makes a difference.
The second problem is that once the wheat berry is ground, the flour (if kept whole, like I want it) can go rancid very quickly. This is because the germ of the berry contains oil, and oil spoils fast. If you have very fresh flour, you can keep it in the fridge or in the freezer. But there is often no way to know how long commercial flour has been sitting on the shelf at the market. I have solved this problem by grinding my own wheat. A grain mill is a large investment, so for me I could only justify this expense by knowing that I was going to bake bread regularly. I had to make a commitment to doing it and getting better at it. I was lucky enough to receive a mill as a birthday present, but that only increases my desire to make good use of it and not waste this gift. I have found a family-owned company in the state of Washington from whom I buy my bulk wheat berries; but locally-milled grain would be another option (I just haven't found a good source near here). I grind the flour the day before I mix up my bread dough and keep it in the fridge until I'm ready to use it. Extra flour is put in to the freezer.
The third problem is that whole grain dough requires quite a bit of hydration, which results in a heavy, wet, shaggy dough. It seems to me, after all the research that I've done, that 100% hydration is best; but incorporating an autolyse period is the way to do it. So now I give my flour a two-hour autolyse. This allows the flour to absorb quite a bit of the water. Also I add water in at different stages of the bread-making. Something else that has really made a difference to my baking is using non-chlorinated water. You can buy filtered water or use a filter at home; but for me, I just boil the water in my electric kettle, then let it sit with the lid off for an hour or so. That way the chlorine evaporates with the steam. This has really helped to keep my ferments alive. After all, chlorine is added to water precisely to kill the sort of bacteria we are hoping to grow.
The fourth problem is time. Making a decent loaf of bread literally takes days. I know that the longer I do this and the more I practice, the more streamlined the process will be. But it still takes time. I've solved this by doing it on the weekends. On Thursday night, I take the starter out of the fridge and leave it on the counter overnight. Friday morning, afternoon, and late evening, I feed the starter until it is alive and bubbling. Friday afternoon or evening I mill the flour. Saturday morning I make the levain and soak the bran. Late morning I do my autolyse. Saturday afternoon is for kneading and bulk fermentation. Then the bread gets shaped and put in to the fridge Saturday night. Sunday morning I heat up the oven, one loaf gets baked and we have it with dinner that night. The other loaf stays in the fridge and gets baked later in the week (usually Wednesday). The second loaf tastes different and needs a little less time in the oven - and it doesn't rise quite as high.
If we are gone, or busy during a particular weekend, then bread just won't get baked. Right now I generally spend Saturdays doing the house-work that gets neglected during the week (cleaning, laundry, organizing for the week ahead), so I'm home anyway and available to go through all these stages of bread-making.
Anyway, this whole process yields a beautiful, high, airy loaf, with great flavor. The crumb is moist while the crust is crunchy. The sourdough tang is just right.
One last note: collecting the 'wild' yeasts that live in the air and in our houses and on our bodies, to make sourdough, didn't really work for me. I never got to a place where I had a sweet-smelling, bubbly starter. What did work for me was buying a starter culture specifically made for whole wheat bread from Cultures for Health. It was about $12, but I figure I'll never need another one, as long as I keep my starter alive.
Okay, on to other projects.
The olives are doing great. I've had to change the water every morning, and it's very purple as I pour it out! Another week of daily water changes and soakings, and then the toxic and bitter oleuropein will be leached out, and we can start to brine.
Tom's limoncello has been sitting on the counter for many weeks now. I think we have one more week and then he'll make a simple syrup to add to it, along with more vodka, and then it will be bottled.
I made more vanilla extract. I don't know why we haven't been doing this for years, it's so easy. I order vanilla pods from Mountain Rose Herbs and then split them and steep them for six months in vodka.
The hard cider is finished and bottled. Tom is also planning to brew beer tomorrow. He brews about every two months.
I have a new project in mind for the coming weekend. I've written before about our pepper tree, the one I planted when I moved in, which has grown very quickly in the last 10 years and now entirely shades our front yard and porch, which was the goal (it's the west side of our property, so it's quite hot in the summer when the sun is going down, and this has helped tremendously). We planted a woodland garden under it, completely native, and it is doing wonderfully. I once researched the seeds that come from this tree - they look like those pink peppercorns you see for sale in gourmet pepper blends. At the time, I thought our tree was a Brazilian pepper tree; the seeds are quite toxic from that tree and shouldn't be eaten. But I stumbled across a blog recently (Garden Betty) where she explains the difference between the Brazilian pepper tree and the Peruvian pepper tree. After more research, I've decided I have the Peruvian variety. So that means the peppercorns can be harvested, dried, and used in cooking and eating. It's actually not pepper; the tree is a member of the cashew family, but it does have a mild pepper taste. Our son Adam is a pepper fanatic and loves pepper of any kind, fresh or dried or pickled. So I might harvest and cure some of the corns from our tree (of which there are MILLIONS) and grind them for him. And of course, use some in my own cooking and pickling.
I'll let you know how that turns out.
I'd love to know about any projects you've got going in your kitchen!