Post #3200: Autumn Goodness in the Form of Cake

After a frenetic summer of work, followed by a September of work and tons of food prep and canning – I finally have arrived at a couple of weeks off which we are spending partly at our cabin, and partly in the Kootenays since we won a 2-night stay at Fairmont Hotsprings which we plan to use this week. Before heading out yesterday I baked a loaf of sourdough bread to bring along, and since I had some extra big King apples in the fruit bowl decided on this apple cake which I adapted from a recipe at Food.com. After dinner last night we cut into it, and it is definitely a keeper recipe! Not too sweet with streusel topping, and the coriander and ginger gives it a more interesting flavour profile than one often finds in spice cakes.

Apple Sourdough Spice Cake with Pecan Topping

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon each of cinnamon, ginger powder, coriander, and ground cloves
  • 1 cup sourdough starter (discard is fine, doesn’t need feeding)
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 egg, lightly whisked
  • 2/3 cup honey
  • 1 1/2 cups apples, peeled and diced
  • Pecan topping
  • 2 tablespoons of butter
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/3 cup oats
  • 1 teaspoon of cinnamon

Directions

  1. Set oven to 375 F and grease an 8 x 8 baking pan.
  2. Mix flour, salt, soda and spices together evenly.
  3. Make a well in the center and pour sourdough starter, oil, beaten egg and honey. Stir gently to mix all ingredients through.
  4. Add diced apples and stir gently.
  5. Pour batter into prepared baking pan.
  6. Mix all topping ingredients, breaking the butter into pea-sized bits with hands or a fork. Spread topping evenly on the top of the cake batter.
  7. Bake for 50 minutes.

Post #3199: Loom Tales

I bought a new loom this month. You can see her above – she’s a Berga Savonia countermarch, made by a Finnish company called Varpapuu. From what I can tell, the company went out of business long before the Internet existed (instructions kicking around are hand-drawn and typewritten), but this loom hasn’t lost anything to age and the finish remains as new. She is 39 inches of weaving width, set up as an 8-shaft/10-treadle with the capacity to expand to 10 shafts (the jacks are there, I would just need to purchase shaft bars and lamms) – and a sectional beam which is a new feature for me.

This loom came to me through a weaver who lives up the road from me on Gabriola Island. We have been talking about it for over a year. At first I thought I wasn’t interested because for awhile I imagined I wanted a loom with much wider weaving width. While that was going on, I was moving towards getting rid of the first loom I ever acquired (the 45 inch hand-built countermarch I had restored every inch of) and that I did not love weaving with. This was difficult not only because of the amount of time I had invested over several years, but also because big old looms with shaky provenance are difficult to sell. In the end I near-gave it away to a young art student stuck at her parent’s place on-island at the start of the pandemic.

So by April, my loom-space was free and I was ready for whatever loom came next. The weaver up the road with the Berga was not interested in selling then because she wanted to sell the other loom in her space first, so I let it go and thought about maybe trying to save up for a Louet Spring (beautiful looms but outrageously out of my price range). Through the spring and summer, I barely wove at all anyway – I had one project on the Julia for all that time (a sauna towel for my husband that I just finished last week).

But at the start of this month, I got a message asking if I was interested in coming to take a look at the Berga. Before I even got there, I knew it would be the right thing, right now. As much as I have dreamed about wider projects or more complicated weaves, I only have so much time for weaving, and only so much space in my studio I am ready to give to it. The Berga not only is near-identical to my 26-inch Glimakra Julia, seriously reducing the learning curve, but fits perfectly into my studio without reducing the sewing space I need for garment-making and my home office.

Although I don’t have the equipment that makes warping a sectional beam easier, I did get a 3.5 yard warp on last week by winding and chaining two-inch-wide sections and then beaming them individually (crank and yank method). To start out I decided on a plain weave project threaded on all eight shafts – face cloths using a boucle weft – simple to weave, giving me a chance to just feel out the loom.

So far, so good – she weaves beautifully and set up was no worse or more complicated than the Julia. I do want to change the treadle tie up style, and have ordered black and white pony beads to better indicate upper/lower lamms to do that.

I have ordered an AVL warping wheel which will get delivered sometime in October. This will facilitate direct-warping onto the sectional beam and reduce some of the warping time and stress. But before then I plan to weave off these cloths and start a bathmat – another short-warp that I believe I can manage through the more labour intensive process I’ve devised for now.

I’m really happy I allowed myself to get rid of the loom that was no longer serving me to make room for this one. That first loom was a big teacher for me – having to take apart and put back together a countermarch loom taught me a lot about the equipment I would have never learned another way. It wasn’t wasted effort, and recognizing that it wasn’t a loom I wanted to weave on very much helped me appreciate what features I did want in a loom. The Berga, has all of those features – easily removable beams, ratchet and pawl brakes, lamms on two different levels, and “doorways” in the back that make it easy to access the insides (and wind on the sectional alone). I am really in love with this loom, and can’t wait to experiment with its full range of possibility.

Post #3198: Pickling Beets

A friend up the hill says to me, “feel free to come and harvest my garden anytime, I’m not eating enough of it.” And so after the gym last Friday we go over there, crack a beer and get to work pulling carrots and beets out of the ground, picking blackberries and beans. Some of those beets were monsters and I brought home enough for a double batch of my favourite recipe for doing beets which comes from Bernardin. Two nights ago the same friend shows up and helps with make eleven jars of beet pickles (doubling the recipe below). Heart to heart conversation while we worked, a light rain started up but never drowned us out as we finished in the fading light of late summer.

Beet & Onion Pickles
Yield: Makes about 5 pint jars
Processing Time: 30 Minutes

INGREDIENTS:
8 cups (2000 ml) prepared beets, about 4 lb (1.8 kg)
5 cups (750 ml) sliced onions, about 3 medium
2 -1/2 cups (625 ml) cider vinegar
2 cups (500 ml) granulated sugar
1 -1/2 cups (375 ml) water
1 tbsp (15 ml) mustard seed
1 tsp (5 ml) Each: salt, whole allspice and whole cloves
6 inch (15 cm) cinnamon stick

DIRECTIONS:

  • Scrub beets and trim all but 2 inches (5 cm) off stems; do not cut off roots. Cook beets in boiling water, until tender, about 35 to 45 minutes. Remove from water and allow to cool slightly. Remove skins by easily slipping off beets. Slice into rounds or cut into chunks – however you like them.
  • Combine onions, vinegar, sugar, water, mustard seed, salt, allspice, cloves and cinnamon sticks in a large stainless steel saucepan. Bring to a boil; boil gently 5 minutes. Add beets and return to a full boil. Remove from heat. Discard cinnamon sticks.
  • Pack beets into a hot jar to within 3/4 inch (2 cm) of top of jar. Add hot liquid to cover beets to within 1/2 inch (1 cm) of top of jar (headspace). Using nonmetallic utensil, remove air bubbles and adjust headspace, if required, by adding more beets and hot liquid. Wipe jar rim removing any food residue. Centre hot sealing disc on clean jar rim. Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip tight. Return filled jar to rack in canner. Repeat for remaining beets and hot liquid.
  • When canner is filled, ensure that all jars are covered by at least one inch (2.5 cm) of water. Cover canner and bring water to full rolling boil before starting to count processing time. At altitudes up to 1000 ft (305 m), process –boil filled jars – 30 minutes.
  • After cooling check jar seals. Sealed discs curve downward and do not move when pressed. Remove screw bands; wipe and dry bands and jars. Store screw bands separately or replace loosely on jars, as desired. Label and store jars in a cool, dark place.

Post #3197: Bodies are weird experiments

I’ve been wanting to write a post about weight lifting and yoga for awhile now – but everytime I start working on it I think “who am I to write about fitness?”. It’s not like I have any expertise in this field. But what I do have is a body, and at 47 I now have a long off-and-on-relationship with different types of exercise. Whether or not I always use it, I have had a gym membership for most of the last twenty years. I have taken classes of all kinds, used cardio machines, been a regular bicycle commuter riding 12-20 km per day, done a lot of long-distance backpacking and hiking, and am a pretty regular walker – but I have also gone through fallow periods where I do very little at all which means that rebuilding my fitness is also a regular occurrence in my life. Each time I refashion my fitness regime, and as my body ages, I learn new things about how I *work*, what my physical and mental being responds to, what fits into my life at a given time and is sustainable and so on. It’s from the perspective of my own journey I have expertise, which might square with yours or might not.

Since moving to Gabriola four years ago, my activity has been up and down. When I first came here I had been cycle-commuting in the city every day and in pretty good shape. I told myself that I didn’t need to join the gym even though I was transitioning to working from home almost-full-time, because I would get a lot of outdoor activity now that I lived in a rural area.

Ha! Nope. After a few months of very little activity, I had an incident where my bad shoulder was so creaky that I could barely do up my bra one morning. Hie thee to a regular yoga class!

I had always loathed yoga (being naturally unbendy) but the class fit into my work schedule and as someone with perpetual joint stiffness I knew I needed to work on joint mobility as I moved through middle age. Fortunately I encountered an excellent teacher this time around and since then, yoga has been a constant part of my fitness journey. I’ve done as little as one class per week, and as much as yoga every day stretches of several months at a time.

Yoga has really helped me repair my joint mobility, improve my posture, though my flexibility still leaves a lot to be desired (I still can’t get my heels down in Downward Dog). But even when I am practicing daily, I am not able to get enough time in to develop the strength needed for inverted poses or arm balances. My yoga teacher is a woman of incredible physicality and she claims that all we need is yoga to develop in this way, but from what I can tell, to get as buff (and agile) as her, it would require hours per day of dedicated practice.

I joined the gym on Gabriola just over two years ago now, dipping my toe in regular gym workouts for the first eight months of that and then falling off again until last fall when I signed up for a dedicated group training session once a week. In that class the trainer introduced me to power lifting and that has been a game changer! For close to a year now I’ve been at the gym three or more times per week, rarely missing a heavy lifting session. My husband started lifting in January and has been equally dedicated since then. During the time of quarantine, we made a gym in our garage and kept meeting with a trainer (physically distanced) to get coaching on our form and progress – which was a nice distraction for us and the trainer!

Even though I have strength-trained before – free weights/machines/body weight – power lifting has been quite possibly the single most physically transformative thing I have done in my life. In the very first weeks of deadlifts, weighted squats, and bench presses – I noticed a new alignment in my body, even as I was struggling to put any additional weight on the 45-pound bar. Although my deadlifts progressed quickly at the outset (I went from from the 45 pound bar to 115 pounds in the first month as I figured out my maximum load at the time), my bench presses stayed at the low end for weeks, my weighted squats were not much better. But even so, it seemed to me that I was standing taller, seeing muscles develop more rapidly than I expected, and had more power in all the other exercise I was doing.

At the same time, I noticed that my yoga practice started to accelerate. While training at the gym did little to improve my flexibility, my mobility and strength were supercharged with the addition of heavy lifting into my weeks. Improvements to leg and shoulder strength have given me more ability to attempt poses (that are still) challenging to me like crow and upward bow and improved my abilities in all other poses. Suddenly I could do several salutations with full chaturanga in a row!

It’s not only that weight lifting improved my yoga, either! I am convinced after slowing down to one class per week of yoga in July (from 4+ times per week in the spring), that yoga improves my weight lifting. When I slacked off on the yoga I noticed several things within about three weeks:

  • my joints were stiffer all the time, especially my hips and lower back, so everytime I went to the gym the warm-up seemed more arduous
  • looking in the mirror I started to believe that my muscles were looking bulky, especially in the upper arms, which I was not keen on at all – whether they looked that way, or just felt more contracted and I internalized that, it wasn’t what I wanted to feel about my upper body development
  • I felt shorter and more squat throughout my body – again, this must be a perceptual difference but I started to feel unhappy about how I looked even though my weight and physique stayed basically the same.

I reintroduced just thirty minutes of daily yoga practice in early August and within five days of that, all the above feelings dissipated. I believe that yoga supports my weight lifting through helping keep my muscles lean and long, creating space in my joints, and loosening up the lower back with regular spinal twisting. This gives me a greater range of motion to bring to the lifting. Yoga also supports the use of the muscular development through a range of motion. Lifting introduces a limited motion to the muscle – mostly up down, sometimes across the body – whereas yoga flows into and through movements which utilizes the large muscles but also supports the development of the stabilizing smaller muscles in addition to stretching everything out. Core development in both strength training and yoga are mutually reinforced through both types of activity which I also notice.

Right now my ideal workout week is structured this way:

  • yoga 6 x per week (30 minutes 5 days, 2 hours on Saturday)
  • weight training 3-4 x per week split into sessions focused on
    • upper body push
    • upper body pull
    • core and agility
    • lower body
  • walking (8-10 km) or another outdoor activity like kayaking 2 x per week

I’m not sure I have ever gotten all that into a single week since other things (like work) get in the way – but it’s my aspirational schedule I do manage to fit most of it in. I would like to get more cardio in during my strength days but that is hit and miss depending on how I feel. I do throw some treadmill, elliptical, or rowing machine into my gym days, but feel like I should get a HIIT class or two in as well.

But – whatever! Ten months after coming to powerlifting, four years after coming to yoga, I can see fundamental shifts in the way my body looks and operates and I’m at the point where I notice each time I tweak something. It continues to motivate me, and even on days when I really don’t feel like exerting myself I am rewarded during a workout by noticing something new about myself. This week it was the fact that I suddenly noticed forearm definition, coupled by accidentally loading the barbell up twenty pounds heavier than I meant to and going from 197 to 217 on my dead lift! (That just goes to show how much lifting is in the head, not the arms/back/legs).

At this middle age I didn’t think I would be writing about a transforming body except to lament the loss of skin elasticity, but instead I’ve used the stats for women in peri-menopause as a kind of spur to nudge myself with. During the quarantine and pandemic weirdness it went from feeling like a good thing to do, to downright essential in order to keep my equilibrium. It’s my hope now to keep it up and keep experimenting with my body to keep it healthy and limber.

Post 3196: Lazy Sourdough Advice

I am breaking my long silence here with a post about sourdough. The lazy person’s guide to sourdough, that is. I know I’m not the only one with a low fuss approach to breadbaking, but lately I’ve been asked by a few people for resources and I don’t know that I have one place I would send people to, so I’m going to post all my advice here, with links to additional resources I’m aware of.

Getting started

By now, there has been so much press on sourdough that I’m sure you are aware that to make sourdough you need some sourdough starter to begin. Starter is simply flour and water, fermented over time in the right conditions. You can get starter from someone you know, or you can make your own. I highly recommend getting some from someone you know, but if you can’t do that then this Sourdough Bootcamp by the Boreal Gourmet is an excellent resource for both developing a new starter and using up the discard in the process.

The big thing with developing the starter, and sourdough fermentation in general is that it takes time and there is no getting around that. A recipe may tell you that in two days your starter should be doing x, but in your particular kitchen at a certain time of year it may only take one day, or it might take three. It’s way more important to learn about your starter and what it should look like when it’s ready to bake with, then to pay attention to the timing other people tell you.

Starter maintenance

Once you get some starter happening, you shouldn’t have anymore discard going forward and it’s really easy to maintain in the refrigerator. If you bake everyday, keep it on the counter, but in my house once or twice a week is more normal. Maintaining starter requires that you have a couple of clean quart-sized mason jars (preferably with the wide mouth opening), and a kitchen scale.

I tend to mix up about 300-600 grams of starter whenever I start to get low. To do this, I weigh the starter in my jar out into a clean jar, and then to that jar I add an equal amount of water and flour. So if there is 100 grams of starter in my jar, I add 100 grams of water and 100 grams of flour. I use all-purpose flour for my starter, but any flour should work with varying results. (This ratio of 1:1:1 makes a 100% hydration starter, just in case you get into fancier recipes that call for specified hydration ratios.)

Once I’ve added the flour and water to the old starter, I stir it up into a paste, put a lid back on the jar and keep it in the fridge. It will slowly activate in the cold temperatures, but whenever I want to bake I have to get it more activated on the counter. Starter kept in the fridge like this will last a long time, but should be fed once a month or so if you are not actively baking with it. If you let your starter go for say — 2 years — without touching it, it will require a lot of work to reactivate it (ask me how I know). A healthy, active starter has lots of big bubbles and a slight curvature at the top. A non-active starter looks a lot like white glue and after time it will separate and liquid rises to the top. At any point you can reactivate your starter by stirring the liquid back down and feeding it a few times.

Baking with your starter

Baking sourdough takes more planning than other kinds of bread might, but not too much effort overall. My baking tends to take two days, but there is not too much fussing in those two days.

In short form these steps are:

  1. mix starter (6 am)
  2. mix dough/knead dough (2 pm)
  3. dough rise 1 (rest of the day)
  4. shape (9 pm)
  5. dough rise 2 (overnight)
  6. bake (am next day or day after that!)

With more info (also, the full recipe below contains this info in slightly different form so you have it all in one place):

  1. First thing in the morning (6 am), take 60 grams of starter out of jar, mix with 60 g of water and 60 g of flour. Mix into a paste, cover, and leave on counter for 6-8 hours.
  2. Mid-afternoon (2 or 3 pm): Mix starter with other bread dough ingredients (recipe below) until everything is moistened. Cover and leave for thirty minutes. After the thirty minutes is up I “knead” my dough in the Kitchen Aid mixer with the dough hook for five minutes until it forms a recognizable, malleable ball.
  3. Put the dough ball into a lightly-oiled bowl, cover with beeswax wrap or plastic wrap and let rise. I usually let this rise go until 9 pm/bedtime. You want that ball to have doubled and be bubbly inside. If it’s not, then leave it out on the counter overnight.
  4. Before bed I stretch and fold the loaf a couple of times and then form it into a loaf and put it in the boule or whatever form I want to use. If you don’t have a lined boule, you can use a bowl dusted with rice flour.
  5. Once the loaf is shaped, I cover it with plastic and put it in the fridge overnight. The loaf can stay in the fridge until an hour before you want to bake. Sometimes I just leave it overnight, sometimes I leave it a whole additional 24 hours until the day after – the longer you leave it, the more sour flavour you get.
  6. When I am ready to bake, I take the shaped loaf out and preheat the oven to 500 degrees with the lidded baking vessel inside (you can use a lidded casserole dish, a cast iron dutch oven, a terracotta romertopf (my favourite) – anything that will get hot and has a lid). Leave the vessel in the oven for one hour as everything gets nice and hot.
  7. Once the hour is up, pop the loaf onto a piece of parchment, score it and transfer to the baking vessel and put the lid on. Turn the oven heat down to 450, bake with the lid on for twenty minutes, remove the lid and bake for another twenty minutes, then turn the oven off and open the door a crack and leave the loaf in a final 20 minutes.
  8. An hour after the loaf comes out of the oven it is ready to eat.

My (current) favourite lazy sourdough recipe

There are a million sourdough recipes on the Internet and some fancy-schmancy books out there – and I am sure many of these professional bakers have recipes far better than mine – but I am after a tasty loaf with minimal effort and mess – and this is what have found works for me (the steps above are the same as the ones described in this recipe). The first time you make this, you might want to just use all all-purpose flour to see the process without getting too fussy – but branching out with different flours makes for a much more satisfying flavour profile. I’m sharing here my favourite so far:

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of unbleached, all-purpose flour (plus a bit more)
  • 1 cup of durum flour (this is a key ingredient as it really provides a boost to the rise given its high protein content)
  • 1 cup of dark rye flour
  • 1 ¼ cups lukewarm water
  • 3/4 cup active 100% hydration sourdough starter
  • 1 big tablespoon honey
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • Mix everything together in your stand mixer until just combined, then let sit for 15 minutes.
  • Using the dough hook, knead for 5 minutes.Add more flour if necessary to bring the dough together.
  • Transfer to a bowl with a light coating of oil. Cover with beeswax wrap (or plastic wrap) and let rise for three or four hours on the counter. Turn and fold the dough a couple of times during this phase if you feel like it (I often don’t because I am really lazy about baking and often forget), adding a bit more flour if you want to firm up the dough at all.
  • Sprinkle some flour on your working surface and turn the dough out for shaping. Shape your dough and place seam side down in a cloth-lined bowl or batard. Make sure your cloth is coated in a non-glutinous flour – like rice flour – so your dough doesn’t stick.
  • Cover with beeswax wrap or plastic and put in the fridge for at least 8 hours and up to 18 hours.
  • Remove the loaf from the fridge at least one hour before you want to bake and let it come up to room temperature. 
  • When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 500 degrees. If you are baking with a cast iron dutch oven or a clay romertopf (my go-to for oblong loaves), put the baking vessel in the oven to preheat. 
  • While the oven heats up, place a square of parchment on your working surface and gently tip your load out of the batard or bowl. Slash the top of your loaf with a razor blade or serrated knife.
  • When the oven and baking vessel are heated take the vessel out and, using the parchment paper as a sling, lower the bread loaf into the pot or pan. Put the heated lid back on the baking vessel and put the whole thing back in the oven. 
  • Turn down heat to 450 and bake for 20 minutes with the lid on. Remove the lid and bake another 20 minutes. When the timer goes off, turn the oven heat off entirely and leave the bread in the oven another 20 minutes with the door open a crack.
  • Remove from oven to a cooling rack and do not cut for at least one hour.  

Hydration and crumb

I am not going to get into hydration math here, but just want to say that the loaf above is a low-hydration loaf that produces a tight crumb (by which I mean, the dough is stiffer to work with, and it doesn’t have a ton of holes in it when you cut it open). Low hydration tends to make a tighter crumb, and many sourdough purists are big believers in high-hydration/open crumb. I have worked a bit with high-hydration doughs and found that I just don’t have the time or patience for the mess that can ensue. Also, for everyday eating with eggs or cheese toast, I prefer my bread with less holes in it.

For a good discussion of hydration and how it impacts your bread (and your experience baking bread), I recommend this blog post at True Sourdough

If you get into sourdough in some more intense way – then I would recommend Sarah Owens’ book Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and More which is full of wonderful flour, fruit, vegetable combinations with which you can really go down the bread rabbit-hole. Her book also includes lots of beautiful recipes for discard and starter like cookies and pastry all made with whole grains.

Why Sourdough?

Why make sourdough at all when commercial yeast is so readily available? For me it’s about being able to take two simple ingredients – flour and water – and turning that into something delicious and non-replicable. Every time you make a loaf it is different for one reason or another, every time you feed your starter, the taste can change ever so slightly or it might take longer to double in volume. The taste profile of sourdough is complex and ever changing, and I can honestly say that the best breads I have ever eaten (I’m looking at you Breitenbush Hotsprings and Willows Inn), the ones that have brought me great joy, have all been sourdoughs. With the recipe above, I have figured out the process and the recipe that works best for me, fits into my work days and results in something that brings the great pleasure of high end food into my home.

As I mentioned at the top, sourdough takes time and your kitchen temperature, bacteria, and ingredients are going to influence how much time it takes. I have had so many “failures” with sourdough, and they were all related to paying attention to the recipe rather than my own observed experience.

What really changed things for me is that once I found a recipe that worked for me (around my work schedule and that wasn’t demanding of my time), I made it over and over again. I changed the flours, I add more or less water, tried different timing on the rise and different scoring techniques. This is how you make a recipe yours and also learn how dough works, how different ingredients impact texture and taste, and what flavours you are working to develop in your bread.

I bake once or twice a week (or when guests are here, every day because people devour this bread a loaf at a time), and find the technique above just fits into my life. Perhaps you have more time and inclination towards more nuanced technique and if so – there are a million resources out there! But if not, my lazy advice above stands in for a damned good loaf of bread. Promise!

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