November License Plate Report (Etc.)

Nothing to report. Nothing nothing nothing. Rather than piss, moan, whine, and make excuses, I’m gonna blog about bread. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If life doesn’t give you lemons, make something else.

Besides — license plates, right? Bread goes on plates. There is a connection.

I made bread yesterday. This is what it looked like this morning:

The loaf on the left is now frozen. The crust in front is history.

The loaf on the left is now frozen. The crust in front is history.

I’ve been using sourdough almost exclusively since my 25-year-old starter died in March 2009. I got a new one going and I give it plenty of exercise. If you don’t have a starter, this recipe — such as it is — can be converted for active dry yeast. Instructions at the bottom.

All measurements are approx. The only time I’ll give is for kneading. Everything else depends on the peppiness of your starter and the temperature of your dwelling. In summer loaves often rise to baking size (“double in bulk,” as the saying goes) in a little over two hours. These guys took about six and a half. Active dry yeast is faster, but temperature still makes a difference.

The night before you want to bake, whisk and/or stir together the following:

1 cup sourdough starter
1 3/4 cups chicken stock (my usual liquid is fruit juice, but I had some left over)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons honey (i.e., 2 long squirts from a teddy bear squeeze bottle)
3+ cups flour (I use half whole wheat, half unbleached white)

Add the flour gradually. What you want is a stirrable batter, what bread people call a sponge — not a dough ball.

Leave it out all night, at least 10 hours. Longer in cool weather. In warm weather the rising will be obvious. In cool weather, not so much, but it should look more bubbly than it did the night before.

Stir it down, then add:

8 ounces grated Parmesan (fresh, please)
1/2 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
scant 1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Now start adding flour, a cup at a time. First you’ll be stirring, but after 2 or 3 cups it’ll be stiff enough to knead. I start kneading in the bowl, then turn it out on a floured bread board and go to it. Add flour as needed to keep it from sticking. Knead for at least 10 minutes, longer if you want. (If you’re kneading by hand, you can’t overknead.) You want a cohesive, resilient dough ball that’s smooth on the surface.

Loaf it however you want. I usually use two good-size loaf pans. Small pans and round loaves also work. Grease the pans before you put the loaves in. Let the loaves rise until “doubled in bulk,” then bake for about 40 minutes (less for small loaves) at 375 degrees F.

Active dry yeast method:

Instead of sourdough starter, use 2 packets active dry yeast. That’s 2 very scant tablespoons (approx.). Combine 2 or 3 cups of flour with yeast and other dry ingredients in a big bowl. Skip the baking soda: that’s mainly to temper the sourdough if it gets too pungent. Add liquid (and cheese and onion if you haven’t already). Add flour a cup at a time until you have a kneadable dough. Knead as above.

Grease the big bowl and put the dough ball in it, rolling it around so it’s greasy enough to not stick to the bowl. Let rise till doubled in bulk. Punch down, knead out the bubbles, then loaf. Let rise in the loaf pans till doubled in bulk. Then bake as above.

P.S. If you see anything glaringly wrong in these instructions, let me know soonest. I make bread on automatic pilot. Trying to describe it step by step is like trying to give step-by-step instructions for tying a shoe.


About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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3 Responses to November License Plate Report (Etc.)

  1. Anda Divine says:

    I think your loaves look wonderful for sandwich-type bread. I’m impressed that you can get a 1/2 whole wheat-1/2 white flour mix to rise this high; I usually have to use a much smaller proportion of whole wheat flour. I bake most of my own bread year-round….

    I have a recipe for a no-knead, sticky dough that you start the night before (12-18 hours first rising time). Because it’s baked with initial steam (from ice cubes) at a very high temp (450 F) in a preheated clay or cast iron vessel, it produces a holey, artisan-type loaf with a very crunchy crust–great for a cheese plate. Or you can add fresh grated Parmesan and/or onions.

    I also have an easy, fast-rising (3.5 hours total) recipe for soft buttermilk bread made with milled flax seeds or another comparable grain–its slight tang is wonderful for sandwiches or dinner rolls with unsalted organic butter.

    If you want either or both of them, write to me.


    • I’ve never had a problem with mixed whole-wheat/white breads rising, even when I use up to 3/4 whole wheat. Not sure why. i use off-the-shelf flour (usually King Arthur). I do like to knead, however. Do send both recipes! (My neighbor gave me some flax seeds. They’re very pretty but I have no idea what to do with them.) I’ve got a no-knead that I love. it’s just flour, salt, yeast, and water. It rises overnight then I pour/scrape it into a covered cast-iron casserole and bake at 500 F, then take the cover off for about 10 minutes. Covering the casserole traps the steam and it’s crusty and wonderful. I’ve thought of putting cheese in it. Should stop procrastinating.


  2. Susanna, the main error I see home bakers make is to add too much flour (and I think you probably added too much to the bread you’ve pictured, judging from the crumb). I suspect a novice reading your recipe would tend to go further in the direction of a dry dough than you did. I know Americans are devoted to their cups and spoons, but people would get better results if they would learn how to use baker’s percentage and would measure *at least* the flour by weight rather than volume. (Other ingredients can be measured more consistently by volume, but once you have the scale out and you’ve gone to the trouble of converting recipes, you may as well weigh everything.)

    Your sponge is, um, highly unconventional (usually it’s just starter, flour, and water; and everything else gets added the next day), but I’ll trust that your method works for you. Anyway, given the amount of liquid in your formula, I’d guess (without experimenting to confirm) that you don’t want to have more than 1 lb. 10 oz. of flour, and the bread would have a better texture and shelf life if you used less, maybe 1 lb. 7 oz. as a first guess, with further adjustment in subsequent batches. (The math is easier if you start with a fixed amount of flour and calculate the liquid amount as a percentage; but I’m working backwards from the formula you’ve posted.)

    It’s hard to get used to working with soft, sticky doughs after years of working with smooth, non-sticky doughs, but the result is worth it. It takes a little different handling technique (more bench scraper, less hands; gentle stretch and fold rather than stiff-armed kneading; more time between turns, etc.). You end up with better gluten development, a more open, more translucent crumb, and much better volume. Even if the goal is to have a sandwich bread that won’t leak grape jelly, a softer, more developed crumb is desirable.


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