Sourdough Soft Pretzels

I think it took me a little longer to fall into the sourdough-everything craze than it did some people, but that could be because I’ve been nurturing a little starter for some time now. Left with a bit of discard, though, from a (semi)weekly bake of my standard sourdough loaves, I decided to branch out from pancakes, and revisited the humble-but-stellar pretzel. Thus although I don’t have a clever or nostalgia-laced story to offer today, in an effort to get myself back into this blog-thing I supposedly have and considering that we mowed through the first batch of these in about twenty minutes and were already planning a second, they certainly seemed worth sharing!

I’m adapting two recipes here: one from King Arthur Baking Company (have you seen they’ve updated their name?!), and one from Smitten Kitchen, which she in turn adapted from Martha Stewart. The KAF (or, I guess, KABC?) recipe doesn’t include the traditional boiling step, moving their shaped dough straight into the oven after a single rise. I wanted the extra browning and chewy texture the baking soda boil offers (I have neither the materials nor the courage to use food grade lye… at least not yet…), so I used SK’s procedure for that part.

We had our half dozen chewy, slightly tangy results dunked in a beer cheese sauce – a simple, roux-thickened mix of stout, milk, mustard, and cheddar whisked into a smooth, thick cheese gravy,* and, in an attempt to be slightly virtuous, a side of sautéed cabbage.

Enjoy the sequence of pretzel-shaping shots below, featuring N. as my arm-and-hand model (he was also very keen to perfect his technique, so even though I told him he only needed to shape one pretzel while I photographed, he did three of the half dozen we made that night before I pushed him aside – I wanted to play with dough ropes too!).

* cheese gravy sounds weird, I know. But this had more body than just a sauce; it clung thickly to the pretzels and could have made a great macaroni and cheese base. It didn’t have the right ingredients or flavors to be a queso (Tex-Mex) or a fondue (Swiss), so I’m going to embrace the weirdness. Cheese gravy it is.

 

Sourdough Soft Pretzels
Adapted from King Arthur Baking Company and Smitten Kitchen
Makes 12 (but easily halved; I’ve included quantities for both below)
2-3 hours (it will take longer to twist and boil 12 pretzels than it does for 6)

 

For 12:
¾ cup + 2 TB water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 TB honey
1 cup sourdough starter, unfed / discard
3-3½ cups bread flour
¼ cup milk
1 TB butter
1½ teaspoons salt

 

For 6:
⅜ cup + 1 TB warm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
½ TB honey
½ cup sourdough starter, unfed / discard
1½-1¾ cups bread flour
2 TB milk
½ TB butter
¾ teaspoons salt

 

For the boil:
water to fill a 12-inch skillet
¼ cup baking soda
2 TB brown sugar

 

To bake:
Coarse salt or pretzel salt

 

  • Combine the yeast, warm water, and honey in a medium bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer). Let them sit for 5-10 minutes, until the mixture is bubbly and smells like bread. Add 1½ cups of the flour, and all of the sourdough starter, milk, butter, and salt.
  • Using the dough hook, knead into a smooth but slightly sticky dough; for me this took about 5 minutes on medium speed. If it really seems like it is too wet (too sticky), add the remaining ¼ cup of flour and knead at least 2 minutes longer.
  • Cover the dough and leave it to rest for 45 minutes, ideally in a warm place. It will only rise a little bit, so don’t be alarmed.
  • Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, then dump and pull your risen dough out onto a lightly floured board. Using a knife or a bench scraper, divide the dough into 12 even lumps (or 6 if you are making a half recipe).
  • Now the part that can seem intimidating: shaping the pretzels. Working with one piece of dough at a time, use your fingers and the palms of your hands to roll the lump or ball of dough into a long, even rope about 18 inches long. Above you can see N. measuring the one he’s working on. Note: too much flour on your board here is not a good thing. You don’t want the rope to stick (as you can see some of ours did), but you do need some friction or the dough will just slide around on the board instead of rolling and elongating.
  • Drape the 18-inch rope into a U shape on your board. Holding each end between your thumb and forefinger, but leaving the bottom of the U on the board, gently cross the left side over the right side about 2 inches from each end. Repeat, again crossing the (new) left side over the (new) right side so you have two twists in your pretzel. Now, again holding one end in each thumb and forefinger, flip the ends down to the bottom of the U shape to form a pretzel. Pinch the points where they intersect with the U a little bit to keep them in place. Gently but quickly, relocate your shaped pretzel to one of the lined baking sheets. Repeat with the remaining dough.
  • When you have twisted all 12 (or all 6) pretzels into shape, stow them in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This is a pretty soft dough, so plunging them right into the boil might result in disintegration.
  • While the pretzels chill, fill a 12-inch skillet about ¾ of the way with water and bring it to a boil. This is also a good time to preheat the oven to 350F, and to line an additional baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • After at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator, remove the tray(s) of pretzels and set them near the stovetop. Carefully, (carefully!), add the baking soda and brown sugar to the boiling water. There will be a lot of abrupt bubbling and fizzing! Stir gently to disperse and dissolve, then carefully add the pretzels 2 or 3 at a time. I find this should be done gently but with speed, to prevent the dough from stretching out of shape.
  • Let the pretzels boil in the bath for about 30 seconds, then use a strainer or spatula to flip. Boil another 30 seconds on the second side, then carefully, again using the strainer or spatula, remove the pretzels from the water and arrange them with space in between on the empty parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pretzels, letting the water come back to a boil between each batch. They won’t grow too much in the oven, but you don’t want to overcrowd them; I would suggest no more than 4 on each baking sheet unless they are very compact.
  • While the pretzels are still wet from the baking soda bath, sprinkle on some coarse salt or pretzel salt, then slide into the preheated oven and bake 25-30 minutes, until they are deeply golden and have a slightly crisp crust.
  • Remove from the oven and consume, with glee, as soon as they are cool enough to handle (or, if you’re me, a few minutes before that…).

Project Cook: Garden Focaccia

A garden path sentence is one in which the reader is misled, usually by a word or two that function(s) as a different part of speech than the reader expects, making the rest of the sentence seem incomplete or nonsensical when it is in fact grammatically correct. It takes its name from the idiom “to lead [someone] down the garden path”: essentially, to mislead or deceive them.

Here’s an example: “the old man the boat.” We initially see the phrase “the old man” and think that’s the subject of the sentence. Therefore, the ending “the boat” makes the sentence feel incomplete. But when we realize “man” is actually the verb and the subject is “the old,” suddenly it makes sense: this ship is being sailed by retirees.

Here’s another: “the horse raced past the barn fell.” Here, everything makes sense up until the last word if we’re reading the sentence with “the horse raced” as an active phrase. But it’s not, and it’s not the barn that fell either: the sense of the sentence only emerges if we understand what’s really being said is “the horse [that was] raced past the barn fell.”

Garden path sentences were introduced to me by one of my students a few years ago, and they blew my mind a little, but they shouldn’t have. Not only do I know full well as a student (and teacher) of words that sentences haven’t truly completed their meaning until their final punctuation mark is reached, but as a lover of food, I know that an expected direction, or perhaps being “led down the garden path” with an illusion or a twist, sometimes makes the dish that much more enjoyable.

It seems a bit cruel, perhaps, in a world in which the baking aisle of so many grocery stores has been ransacked, to show you a loaf of bread, but I was so taken with the images of decorated focaccias my Pinterest page was suddenly showing me, as taken as I was with the idea of garden path sentences, that here we are: a loaf literally studded with deceptive visuals, turning carefully placed herbs and vegetables into an edible flower garden.

I started with Anne Burrell’s recipe, making only the smallest of adjustments: she uses AP flour; I went with bread flour, reduced the olive oil a touch, and subbed in honey for the sugar used to start up the yeast. As for process, I added a step I’ve always done with my mom’s challah, letting the mixture – more batter than dough at that point – rest for 15-20 minutes after adding about half the flour. I think this gives a truer sense of how much flour is really needed, since the initial addition has a chance to start hydrating. It’s not 100% necessary, but I notice it means I wind up using a bit less flour overall, and that’s not a bad thing these days.

The real magic here – where we verge into complexity and deception – is during the rising: while the first rise is standard, letting the dough swell and double in a bowl, the second requires more unusual methods. You spread the risen dough out on an oil-drenched baking sheet (be sure yours has sides!), coaxing it with your fingers to spread reluctantly all the way into the corners. You press and stab your fingers all the way – all the way! – through the dough, making dozens of small holes straight down to the baking sheet below, to create that characteristic bubbled texture of a focaccia, before allowing it to rise again.

Halfway through this second rise comes the fun part – or the fiddly part, depending on who you are. Assorted herbs, thinly sliced vegetables and citrus zest, get pressed gently but firmly into the partially risen dough to form whatever patterns you desire. I used chives, parsley, and dill for “stems” and leaves, and then slender segments of olives and cherry tomatoes for “flowers,” and some curls of lemon zest for extra flair. I tried to roll a few tomato roses, but for me at least, cherry tomato skins provided not quite enough material to work with.

The finished loaf is quite the spectacle – the brightness of your “garden” fades a bit in the baking (there’s a metaphor here for spring into summer, perhaps), but the bake isn’t quite long enough for the delicate herb stems and leaves to burn – instead they crisp and frizz as residual oil soaks into the bread. You have to saw carefully with a bread knife to keep everything in place as you carve off big slices perfect with a salad, or a bowl of soup, or the base of a sandwich, or just straight out of hand. There’s a joke here about a garden variety of options, but I’ll leave you only with this: as he baked the bread disappeared.

It must have been delicious.

Project Cook: Garden focaccia
Adapted from Anne Burrell
Makes 1 large 9×13 inch loaf
1¾ cups warm water
2 teaspoons yeast
1 TB honey
4 ½ – 5 cups bread flour
½ + ⅓ cup olive oil
1 TB kosher salt + more for sprinkling
Assortment of herbs, vegetables, and/or edible flowers to decorate
  • Mix yeast, water, and honey in the bowl of a stand mixer and let sit 10-15 min, until the yeast is foamy and puffed. Add 3 cups of the bread flour and ½ cup of the olive oil, beat on slow speed with the paddle attachment just until the mixture comes together, then loosely drape with a clean kitchen towel and let sit 15-20 min. This allows the flour to begin hydrating and the yeast to start working.
  • Add 1 cup more flour and 1TB salt, then knead at medium speed with the dough hook 5-7 min until smooth and elastic. Sprinkle in remaining flour ¼ cup at a time if dough seems very sticky while kneading. I ended up using the full 5 cups of flour.
  • Cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour in a warm spot. “Punch down” the risen dough by gently depressing your fist into the middle.
  • Pour the remaining ⅓ cup olive oil onto a 9×13 inch cookie sheet with sides and tilt the sheet back and forth until the bottom and sides are well oiled. Flop the risen, punched down dough onto the oiled sheet, then use your fingertips to coax it toward the sides. As you stretch the dough, create focaccia’s characteristic dimples by pressing and stabbing all the way through the dough all over its surface. You have to create actual holes, not just depressions, to retain the texture. Some of the olive oil from the baking sheet will lap up over the surface of the dough – that’s okay.
  • Cover the dough with your towel again and let it rise for another hour.
  • 30 minutes into the second rise, preheat the oven to 425F and add your decorations to the loaf: press in herbs, vegetables, and/or flowers in a pleasing pattern. Finish the rise, sprinkle on some kosher or coarse salt, then bake in the preheated 425F oven for 25-30 minutes until bronzed and crusty. Mine was quite well browned after 25 minutes.
  • Remove to a wire rack to cool before slicing carefully and devouring.

Contrarian Chewy Not-Chocolate-Chip Cookies

As I’ve noted here before, I can be a bit contrarian about food. I like my risotto with anything but rice, somehow I always find myself frying food in the most disgusting heat of summer, and I’m that person who, instead of making something practiced and reliable for a dinner party, always somehow ends up trying something untested.

But perhaps my most blasphemous contrarian food tendency is this: sometimes I don’t want chocolate chips in chocolate chip cookies. I love the cookie part – the depth of the brown sugar, the butter, the just-crisp edges – and then that chocolate gets in the way. Don’t get me wrong: I do like chocolate. I’m not a total monster. But in a cookie, especially after it cools and the chunks or chips or boulders of chocolate solidify again, I could do without. I sometimes find myself looking forward to the cookie that comes from the very last scrapings of batter from the bowl, since it probably won’t have much chocolate in it.

Last month N. ran a half marathon and I, following what is becoming a tradition, decided to have cookies waiting for him when he came home. Not so contrarian as me, N. loves a good chocolate chip cookie (and a mediocre chocolate chip cookie too – in fact, let’s be honest: he’ll take just about any chocolate chip cookie). Inspired by a recent trip to Le Grande Orange Café in Pasadena, I decided I wanted to do a batch of thin, crisp-but-chewy cookies with a sprinkling of salt on top. Good for helping my runner rehydrate a little. I started with a Bon Appetit recipe, but played a little: almond meal replaced some of the flour, I was out of chocolate chips, so I chopped up some dark chocolate covered pretzels and, just for fun, couldn’t resist a little instant espresso powder to the dough as well. A little buzz of extra caffeine wouldn’t hurt N. as he unwound from a thirteen mile morning.

We both loved the cookies. But again, I found myself thinking how good they would be if they just… didn’t have chocolate in them. So I did another batch here, retaining the almond meal, but eliminating all hints of chocolate. These are designed to be crisp at the edges and chewy at the middle, and several elements of the recipe contribute to that: the almond meal is always going to add some pleasant texture, as is brown sugar. The powdered sugar allows for a denser final result, which contributes to chew in that not as much air is trapped in the dough. And using egg yolks instead of just whole eggs seems to help too, though opinions seem divided on this.

My contrarian cookies were simple. As I was mixing them up, I found myself thinking, “could I add anything? What about dried cherries? What about lemon zest? Could I put in some cardamom or cinnamon, or maybe chopped nuts?” And of course the answer is yes. I could. You could too. Toss in a teaspoon or so of some warm spice. Toast and chop and fold in about a cup of nuts or dried fruit. If you’re feeling particularly contrary with me, you could even reverse hack all the way into putting the chocolate back in; you’ll want about 8 ounces.

But when I chewed my way through the first, and then the second, of these simple, too-spread-out, just bendable,* still warm offerings, I wanted none of that. The texture was right: crisp around the edge, a chew similar to a good snickerdoodle in the middle, and the occasional delightful crunch from the sea salt. And nothing, nothing at all, disrupting that deep, lovely, buttery brown sugar taste.

 

* because these cookies spread so much while they bake, and because they are so soft when they first come out of the oven, I’d wager you could successfully cool them over the back of a muffin tin or ramekin for little cookie bowls to fill with ice cream or custard or fruit, or maybe even a deep, rich mousse to get the chocolate back in there…

 

Contrarian Chewy Not Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Makes about 18 cookies
½ cup (1 stick, or 4 ounces) room temperature unsalted butter
¾ cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup powdered sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1½ tsp vanilla
1 cup all purpose flour
½ cup almond meal
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp kosher salt + more for sprinkling

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or nonstick spray
  • In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter with the paddle attachment or with an electric mixer until it is soft and the big pieces have broken down. Add all three varieties of sugar and continue mixing until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg yolks, the whole egg, and the vanilla. Beat again, stopping once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl, until the whole mixture is pale and fluffy, about 4 minutes. This seems like a long time, but it does make a difference. It will look like buttercream frosting when it’s ready, and really, it basically is.
  • If you want to, whisk the dry ingredients (flour, almond meal, baking powder, baking soda, salt) together in a smaller bowl, then slowly add to the wet mix in three additions, mixing just to blend in between. If you don’t want to bother with the whisking, just add in stages: ½ cup flour, mix to blend, ½ cup almond meal, mix to blend, then remaining ½ cup flour with leavening and salt, mix just to blend.
  • Spoon tablespoonfuls of dough onto your prepared cookie sheets, spacing them at least 1 inch apart. They will spread. I wouldn’t do more than about 6 dough blobs on each sheet. Sprinkle the tops sparingly with kosher salt or flaky sea salt.
  • Bake in the preheated 375F oven, rotating the sheets halfway through, until golden around the edges, 12-13 minutes. The middles will seem very soft, but will firm as they cool. Let sit on baking sheets 3-5 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely (unless you want to mold them – see * above).

Project Cook: Seeded Pumpkin Biscotti

A few weeks ago, Irvin from Eat the Love posted on his instagram feed that he wasn’t seeing many pumpkin recipes from the bloggers he follows, and both politely and in fun, essentially told everyone to step it up! Instantly (although I’m definitely not one of his favorites – I doubt he knows I exist!) I knew I wanted to make pumpkin biscotti, using one of his tricks (more on that later). I would stud them generously with pumpkin seeds since I’d had that bag of pepitas in the pantry forever,* and maybe some other nuts, and top them with coarse, crunchy sugar or a criss-crossed shiny glaze, and I’d be right on trend.

And then, of course, I didn’t. Instead we had friends over, and I graded papers, and the kitchen was too warm, and I lost track of my biscotti for a while, but this past weekend, in between setting out Halloween decorations (and, of course, more grading), I finally got down to it. Supplies bought, I went looking for the rest of the ingredients, and after tearing through my pantry shelves, realized the wellspring inspiration for the whole recipes – the pumpkin seeds – were nowhere to be found.

Cut to me, grumbling and grouchy, on an emergency trip to the nearest grocery store, scouring what felt like every aisle until I finally found some, in measly little 2 ounce packages, next to the cocktail peanuts. Project back on track.

For the base dough, I turned to the gurus at King Arthur Flour. While their recipe looks delicious, I knew I wanted to raise the stakes a bit with various sources of crunch, and – here’s where Irvin becomes important for this recipe again – I wanted to use his pumpkin trick of drying the puree out on the stove before integrating it into the recipe. The problem with pumpkin, as I’ve noted previously, is its massive moisture content. The KAF recipe contains only ½ cup pumpkin puree, likely because it’s so wet that adding much more would not allow for crunchy cookies. I figured since I was going to reduce the moisture so much I could increase that quantity by half. This would give me a dryer ingredient with a more intense pumpkin flavor.

But making my mixture less wet entailed potential recipe problems. Biscotti should be crunchy, but reducing moisture content too much could lead to stale-tasting cookies, or a mix that didn’t hold together properly. Time to do some research. My favorite biscotti recipe, from the very first issue of Bon Appétit I ever bought, is flavored with lemon and walnut and has become a family Christmas standard. It differs considerably from the KAF recipe for pumpkin biscotti, with more egg, a good bit more butter, and of course a staggering 3 cups of chopped walnuts I was not planning to come even close to. The recipe creation then became guesswork, which involved a series of texts between me and my sister to try and figure out how to proceed.

I settled on increasing the amount of egg and butter, but not quite as much as my old reliable standby. Since I’d be adding nuts and seeds, I also opted to change up KAF’s procedure a bit to match the one I was used to: rather than putting the shaped, sticky batter straight into the oven, I wrapped mine in plastic wrap (which also helps shape it – more below…), chucked it into the fridge for a few hours, and then unwrapped and baked it once it had firmed up.

My go-to lemon and walnut biscotti recipe advocates cooling the flattened dough logs completely after their first bake, then slicing, lying the cookies down on their cut sides, and baking again at low heat. The KAF recipe I was half-following suggests cutting while still hot, then baking again with the cookies standing up on their flat bottom edges. I was intrigued and tried this new way, and I might never go back. Yes, the slicing requires delicacy, especially because the pumpkin seeds and pistachio pieces are harder than the surrounding dough, but cooking them standing up means first: the coarse sugar you press into the top stays put, and second: they brown evenly on both sides. Even browning, sugar-crunch layer, and you can even fit more on the baking tray at once. Say no more. I’m sold.

But I guess really there is one more thing to say, and that’s our assessment. These are outstandingly delicious. They are spicy and crunchy and not too sweet, and though the pumpkin flavor is mild it’s definitely there. The sparkling coarse sugar on top is perfect against the earthiness of the nuts and pumpkin seeds inside. It’s a good thing I’m taking a batch in to work tomorrow, because by the time I remembered I should count how many cookies this recipe made to report here, we had already eaten… enough of them… that guesswork was required, and when I realized I was eating what might have been my fourth in an hour or so, I sentenced them all to wait in a hard-to-open Tupperware on top of the fridge with the Halloween candy so they would be harder to access. We will certainly make these again, as should you. And I’ve already plotted out a version with amped up ginger and chopped dried apples for Christmas. Move over, lemon and walnut standard. Or at least be ready to share the plate.

* for a clear explanation of the difference between pepitas and plain old pumpkin seeds, see here.

Seeded Pumpkin Biscotti
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes approximately 3 dozen
About 4 hours (including resting time) or overnight
1 cup pumpkin puree
½ cup pepitas
½ cup roughly chopped pistachios
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
⅔ cups granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
scant ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon flax seeds
2-3 tablespoons coarse sugar, such as turbinado or demerara, for sprinkling

 

  • In a small skillet, cook the pumpkin puree over high or medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the color has deepened and the puree has dried and has a texture something like a thick, crusted frosting. It will be reduced by about half. Set aside to cool.
  • While the pumpkin puree is reducing, if desired, toast the pepitas and chopped pistachios in a 300F oven for about 10 minutes. Set these aside to cool as well.
  • In a large bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer, cream together the butter and granulated sugar. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt, and baking powder, and beat with the paddle attachment until smooth and creamy.
  • Beat in the eggs and the cooled pumpkin puree until well combined. The pumpkin will take a minute or two to fully integrate.
  • With the mixer on low speed, add the flour a ½ cup at a time, then the flax seeds and the cooled pepitas and pistachios. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl once or twice to ensure everything is mixed in. The resulting mixture will be very sticky.
  • Cut two pieces of cling wrap and spread them out on a clean counter. With a determined spatula, scrape half the dough mixture onto each. Using the plastic wrap, push and mold the dough into two long rectangles of about 10 x 2½ inches. Wrap them up in the plastic wrap, put them on a cookie sheet or other flat tray, and stow in the fridge for at least two hours, or overnight.
  • When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Retrieve the dough logs from the refrigerator, unwrap them from the plastic wrap, and position them an inch or two apart from one another on a parchment lined baking sheet. Sprinkle the tops with the 2-3 tablespoons coarse sugar, then use your hand to spread the sugar evenly and gently press it in to the top of the dough a bit so it adheres.
  • Bake the dough logs for 25 minutes; they will be just firm. Remove from the oven and let cool 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, reduce the oven temperature to 325F.
  • After 10-15 minutes, use a sharp serrated knife to cut the logs crosswise into ½ inch slices. Use a gentle sawing motion to avoid breaking up the slices, which will still be very delicate at this point. Some of the nuts and seeds will be harder to cut through. Be sure to cut as straight up and down as possible; if the biscotti are thicker on the top than the bottom, they won’t stand up correctly for their second baking.
  • Stand the biscotti on their bottom edges on the same parchment lined baking sheet you used to bake the flattened logs. They can be fairly close together but should not be touching. Carefully return the pan to the 325F oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, until they are getting golden brown around the edges. They will still be soft in the middle.
  • KAF recommends turning off the oven, cracking the door, and allowing the biscotti to cool completely while inside, likely to ensure the finished cookies are crunchy. I did not do this because I had something else I needed to bake; I cooled them in the oven only 5 or 10 minutes, then removed the pan to a counter top and let them cool completely. Mine were still perfectly crisp all the way through.
  • Serve when completely cooled. Perfect with coffee, chai or other tea, or straight off the pan.

Project Cook: Herbed Fougasse (no recipe)

There’s a new season of a certain baking show out on Netflix which, at least in the US, they are releasing only week by week. I’m salivating to watch it, but because I know I can’t control myself, I’m not letting myself start until I have a good backlog of episodes built up. Instead, I’m watching… wait for it… older seasons of the same show. Surprise!

In a recent episode I watched, the bakers were tasked with making two fougasse loaves as their technical challenge. A fougasse is a bread hailing from southern France, usually flavored with herbs, shaped and slashed to resemble a leaf or an ear of wheat, with a chewy interior and a lightly crunchy crust. It is a bit oily, and is best – in my humble opinion, anyway – when it is topped with some coarse, crunchy salt. It’s the bread N. and I gravitate toward whenever we pick up a loaf from Whole Foods’ bread counter.

If the bakers on the show could do it, even not knowing what the final loaf was or how it should look, I determined I could too. I went for that wonderful, reliable text that is Shirley O. Corriher’s Bakewise, and slightly adapted her recipe for Fougasse with Biga. A biga is a pre-fermentation starter, like a poolish, that adds flavor and helps create a light texture. I subbed in some of my sourdough starter.

Corriher’s recipe doesn’t include any flavoring beyond what’s in the bread itself, but I opted for some mixed herbs – chopped rosemary and dill, and some tiny thyme leaves – to amp up the flavoring.

This is a project cook because the bread requires not one, not two, but three rises before baking. Corriher doesn’t knead much, but uses a stretching and folding method in between rises called autolysis. The dough that results is quite soft and sticky, but results in beautifully chewy, tearable cords of finished bread all the way around the leaf (except, as you can see, in a few spots where the dough stretched a bit too thin – these were aggressively crunchy instead, though still delicious).

All told, these were worth a morning of rises and folds and stretches, and despite that the original intention was to have bread with our dinner, since I wound up with two and they were still warm at lunchtime, we had to at least sample the goods… Next time I will add a little bit more salt to the dough itself – sprinkled on top was good, but the interior was a touch bland – and will not follow Corriher’s instruction to sprinkle the tops with cornstarch before their final rise. I’m not sure what it accomplished, and I didn’t love the look on its way out of the oven. I will add the herbs again, and I certainly will repeat the still-oven-hot drizzle of olive oil and coarse salt, as I did in this iteration.

* quality note: all photos this week taken with my iPhone.

Perfect Pizza Crust (no recipe)

I am deep in the final hurricane of grading at present and as such, though I have been cooking and eating (oh, so much eating. And drinking. But mostly eating), I have not been photographing or taking note of quantities. No recipe then, today, but I do have words to offer. That’s the main difference, I think, between food blogging and food writing: the blog has become dependent on artful photography, clever lighting, cunning props and ingredients arranged just so… and a recipe that is easy to follow, doesn’t take too long, and is introduced but not overshadowed by story.

Food writing, though, is about the words. The images, the measurements, the ability to remake the dish in question: that’s not the goal. The aim is to submerge oneself in the language of food. This is, then, a roundabout way of saying there won’t be any pictures on this post. Instead, let me at least plunge you into the shallow end.

We are, it transpires, fond of pizza. Over the years I’ve worked up a dough recipe that offers a flavorful crust with cracker-crisp base and puffy top edges golden with cheese. It rises overnight with the help of just a smidgeon of active dry yeast, and it collects some of its deep flavor and texture from heaping helpings of semolina flour and cornmeal. This is not it.

See, here’s the thing: it’s a good recipe. Really good. Everyone who has tried it has cooed over it. But it’s not the pizza dough of my dreams. It’s too… bready. My dream dough is perfectly crisp outside but chewy and yeasty with a perfect, pulling tear. It’s artisanal pizza dough that bakes up fast and chars perfectly as it faces off against an 800 or 900 degree wood burning oven. It can’t, I must concede, be made at home.

But oh how I’ve tried. I’ve played with Italian double zero flour. I’ve increased kneading time. I’ve added and deleted quantities of olive oil. I’ve played with more and less semolina, bread flour, honey vs. sugar to rouse the yeast; I’ve even tried cautiously tossing the dough (this did not go well). Results (once I cleaned up a bit) were good, but in every case, they weren’t what I wanted.

Until this weekend. In addition to all of the above, as you might expect, I’ve asked the internet. I’ve found all kinds of advice, most of it not useful, but in my most recent explorations two ideas stood out. One was, as I’ve read before, that the oven just has to be hotter. Commercial pizza ovens burn hundreds of degrees above what a standard household gas oven can manage, even if, as Molly Wizenberg describes in her first book, your boyfriend somehow manages to bypass limitations and crank your old machine up to near-restaurant degrees. The other was using sourdough to make the crust. Think about it: breads that use a starter of some kind, whether that’s a sour burbler that gets fed every few days or a biga for ciabatta, tend to produce lovely, chewy interiors with big holes and irregular structures – perhaps just what I was after.

Lucky for me, I was making my regular sourdough loaves this weekend, and determined to feed up a little extra to use in a pizza experiment. Unlucky for all of us, I tinkered and tossed and measured nothing, so my ability to recreate the revelation that happened remains in question. There are too many variables to know for sure what caused it, but this weekend’s pizza was as close to my dream dough as I’ve ever gotten. And it was close. Made with a generous glob of my fed sourdough starter, it rose very little in the refrigerator overnight, but after a few hours to warm up at room temperature, it was puffy and pliable and full of bubbles, and just a little bit sticky. Baked, it had gorgeous oven spring, and though it crisped well and retained crunch on the bottom of the pie, the inside – oh the inside – was everything. Swollen and soft and full of air, and chewy! And because I heeded the other suggestion as well, holding my breath and setting my oven at 500F and consequently cooking the loaded crust for less time than I usually would, I can’t say for sure which variable was most necessary for the miracle that was the pizzas we had Saturday night, easily the best homemade crust I’ve ever made.

So this winds up being a big tease of a post, then, since not only are there no pictures and no recipe, but no way of exactly recreating what I’ve done – even for me! But I can pass along the suggestion that if your homemade pizza dough isn’t doing what you want, and what you want is a chewy interior, use bread flour (or another flour with high protein content), consider raising the baking temperature and consequently cooking for less time, and consider also using some kind of starter and an overnight ferment for both chewier texture and more flavorful crust. And then call me, because I want to come over and help you eat it.

Okay, enough of this words business. There’s leftover pizza sitting made with this amazing crust in my refrigerator, and I’m going to say we’re within safe striking distance of lunch time.