Instructions or improvisations?

Dear bread friends,

I’ve noticed that a couple of food famous men have new cookbooks in the no-recipe vein: Christopher Kimball of Milk Street and Sam Sifton of the New York Times. Glancing at these books I wondered: are these guys copying the success of Samin Nosrat? Her “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking” certainly has recipes, but the bulk of the book breaks down the processes involved in all cooking. Wendy MacNaughton’s illustrations are beautiful flows that expand the understanding readers can get from Nosrat, who really is a wonderful teacher, onscreen and on the page.

As skeptical as I am of any trend, I am actually participating in it (!) and prescribe a a no-recipe approach to baking bread, built by my pal Ellie Markovich. We are teaching another round of BAKING BY TOUCH next week, October 27 at noon on Zoom. This time we will be incorporating baked squash into our doughs, which amplifies the magic about a million percent! The sweetness of the squash makes a velvety dough that can’t compare to much. Here’s a recipe to try, one I made for classes I’ve taught at food coops and farming conferences.

Squash Sourdough English Muffins
·       1 tablespoon sourdough starter
·      60g or ¼ cup milk/water
·  165g or ¾ cup pureed squash
·       230 g or 2 cups whole-wheat or high extraction flour
·       1/2 teaspoon baking soda
·       1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1.        Stir the sourdough starter & milk or water in a large bowl. Break up clumps you’re your fingers and add flour. Cover with a plate, and let rest on the counter for 8 to 12 hours.
2.        Add a teaspoon of water to the baking soda and salt, and add this to the dough. Mix together for 2 minutes in the bowl, or knead for a couple of minutes on a lightly floured cloth or board.
3.        Transfer the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Using a rolling pin, flatten the dough to ½ - ¾ inch thick. Cut out rounds with a 3-inch biscuit cutter or glass. Keep re-forming and cutting the dough until you've got 8 muffins. The last one might be a tiny ball you roll in your palm.
4.        Place these rounds on a flour or cornmeal-dusted baking sheet. Cover with a towel and let rest for 30 to 45 minutes.
5.        Heat a griddle or a cast iron pan slowly, over low heat. Wait until the surface is thoroughly warm, and put the muffin onto the pan — no fat necessary. Add the muffins and cook 4 to 5 minutes. Flip the muffins, then tent the griddle with a baking sheet to create a type of oven and help dry the muffins out. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes more.
6.        Turn off the heat and let the muffins sit on the griddle under the tent for about 5 to 10 minutes more. This will keep your nooks and crannies from being too gummy. (If using a cast iron pan, put a lid on top but don't make a tight fit. Keep a little part uncovered to let some heat and steam escape.)

Writing the recipe was tough, because I would rather add amounts of things than measure them. This is part of why I don’t write many recipes. Another reason, which I told Ray Graf, the fabulous host of Food Friday on WAMC public radio last week, is that it’s really hard to generalize about the flours from small mills. Each mill produces flour that’s unique, a reflection of the growing season farmers had; the flour also reflects the type of mill and the miller’s style. Five or six years ago, when I was still pitching stories to big publications about the incredibleness of fresh flour, I found resistance from editors – they didn’t want recipes that used uncommon, and non-standardized ingredients.

Publications have to present recipes that readers can reliably reproduce. That is why so few cookbooks focus on regional grains. I LOVE Jennifer Lapidus’ “Southern Ground”, and am about to bake the Salted and Malted Cookies with Ellie remotely for her birthday.

Here is Brennan Bryce’s really delicious recipe for Swedish Gingersnaps from Carolina Ground flour mill’s amazing book — printed with permission of Ten Speed Press. I cannot tell you how easy this is to make! Maybe it will become one of your favorites also.

Swedish Gingersnaps
113 g (one stick) unsalted butter
70 g (1/3 cup) granulated sugar — I use 1/4 cup
70 g (1/4 cup) sorghum syrup — I use molasses
160 g (1 ½ cups) Trinity blend flour — This is a Carolina Ground blend, but I use whole grain rye flour
1 teaspoon ground ginger
half a teaspoon fine sea salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Beat the butter, sugar, and sorghum/molasses together until smooth.
3. Mix together the flour, ginger, salt, and baking soda and add into the butter mixture. Beat again until just combined.
4. Roll dough into a log about 1 inch thick by 1 inch wide, cut in half, and place the two on either side of a baking sheet. These will spread considerably well baking, so make sure to give them a good amount of distance.
5. Preheat the oven to 345°F and place the baking sheet in a refrigerator while the oven is preheating.
6. Bake the logs for about 15 minutes or until the edges are golden brown in the center is a bit paler.
7. Remove from the oven and place the baking sheet on a cooling rack. Let cool partially; while still warm to the touch, cut into long strips and transfer to cooling rack. They should be crisp on the outside and slightly chewy in the center.
8. Once fully cooled, store at room temperature in an airtight container for a week.

Cookies, I realize, are one baking neighborhood I’ve not internalized. I always follow recipes for them. I can’t read a cookie dough the way I can read a cake batter and tell how to adjust it to my liking. Maybe if I set my mind to it, I would, but for now, I’ll bake from this book, and suggest you do too.

So my flour friends, what about you? Do you lean toward ratios and improvisation or recipes and perfection? I'd love to know.

Yours, Amy

PS: Callers to my Flour Hour show asked me to circulate some recipes, and here they are, plus one extra for good measure.

  • Tempura batter — a caller named his recipe but I lost my notes! So here is an interesting one with lots of process info.

  • Grain-free bread — nuts and seeds and eggs make this lovely loaf.

  • Beauty of a recipe for Pan de Muerto with a great story — a guest post on Wordloaf, Andrew Janjigian’s newsletter by Selene Tepatzi & Brian Lance of Atticus Bakery.