Sunday, October 08, 2006

Ask Breadchick: Your Questions Answered

When I announced a few posts ago that I was taking The Sour Dough to an all food format, a suggestion came from Jill over at "Writing or Typing" that I write an "Ask Breadchick" post every once in a while to answer vexing questions about bread, baking bread and whatever else food related my readers thought I might be able to offer advice about and/or have answers for. While I loved the idea of offering advice on bread baking and anything you, my readers, think I might know, I wasn't so sure I was exactly qualified. Afterall, I'm simply a fairly good home cook who, for whatever reason, seems to have a symbiotic relationship with yeast, flour, water, and salt and the chemical reaction that happens when you combine these ingredients together to form a wad of dough, pound the wad of dough on a hard surface for a bit, leave it alone for a bit longer, and then throw it into an oven to bake for about 40 minutes. But after much discussion about whether I would be any good at offering advice, MBH reminded me that I love to give advice even when I'm not asked. I was still not convinced until today when through a fluke of fate (and my bizarre love of mid-20th century cookbooks) I discovered I had the answer or at least the resources to find the answer to a problem a fellow foodblogger, Jo over at Amuse Bouche was having locating a recipe. Since both Jill and Jo were, without knowing it when they commented on two posts, instrumental in pushing me over the should I or shouldn't I threshold I'll use their two queries as the inaugural "Ask Breadchick" post.

Jill wanted to know why sometimes when she made a biga that it was perfect and other times there was what appeared to be a watery mess under a layer of frothy foam. First, for those of you who don't bake yeast breads a biga is what Italian breadmakers use as a 'pre-ferment' (starter like). The biga can be made two ways: with a bit of dough from a previous batch of bread mixed with water to form a batter-like mixture or by mixing some of the flour, water, and yeast from the recipe together and then letting the biga sit for anywhere from a few hours up to three days. The idea is that through "feeding" the biga for a bit, the flavour of the bread is developed and in the case of good hearty loaves like ciabatta and rustic Italian Rosemary, it helps develop those large holes in the bread. That "watery mess" Jill reports happening underneath her fluffy biga top is the same stuff that is on top of a sourdough starter after a feeding, hooch. When yeast starters like biga and sourdough feed and then digest the flour (remember, yeast is a living organism), they leave behind a mildly alcoholic watery liquid waste. The Goldrushers of '49 called the layer of liquid "hooch" and would drink it when they ran out of whiskey thus the now common name for bad whiskey of "hooch". It is a sign of what I call hyperactive yeast beasts. They fed fast and furious and then when the time to use them came they were exhausted. Using a starter or biga in this state will result in flat bread that doesn't rise or doesn't produce those big holes that are signatures of starter breads. How do you fix this or can you fix this? Yes, usually. When this happens to me, I stir it all back together again, do a power feed (basically two quick feeds, one right after the other within 2 hour of each other) and keep a close eye on the mixture, when it is at it foamiest, I make my bread. This method normally puts my starters and bigas back to rights. Another cause can be weather related. If it is humid when I feed my bigas/starters, I cut back on the liquid part of the feeding by about 2 Tablespoons as the humidity in the air will add that back. Vis-versa when it is really dry (like in the winter), I add 2 Tablespoons of liquid during a feed. Let us know if this helps, Jill.

Jo wrote to me after seeing my post about my recent purchases of older cookbooks and noticed that some of the purchases where volumes of Woman's Day "Encyclopedia of Cooking" from the 1960s. Jo is teaching a class on food fads and was trying to locate a recipe her mother used to make for Sweet and Sour Pork. Her mother was sure the recipe was from the wonderful series by Time-Life called "Foods of the World" (that came out around the same time as the WD "Encyclopedia of Cooking") and Jo now has in her possession. Jo looked in the volume about Chinese cooking and it wasn't there but between her mother and her, they came up with a pretty good facsimile of the recipe. Then Jo saw my posting about my new cookbooks (well new to me anyways) and it all came back to her and she was sure the recipe was really in WD "Encyclopedia of Cooking". Jo wanted to know if I would be so kind as to take a look and see if her memory was right. Well Jo, I'm happy to write that it is INDEED from The WD Encyclopedia of Cooking V. 3, under Chinese Cooking that your recipe for "Sweet and Sour Pork" (T'ang Ts'u Chu Jo) can be found. Here's the recipe for your class (and for your recipe box). Let us know how the Sweet and Sour Pork turns out and if the students enjoy the recipe. It does look pretty yummy and quaint in that late 50s/early 60s kind of Donna Reed way!

T'ang Ts'u Chu Jo
(Sweet and Sour Pork Honan School)

Oil for deep frying
1lb pork shoulder, cut into 3/4 inch cubes

1 egg
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup water

1 cup pineapple cubes
1 green pepper, cut into squares
1/2 cup vinegar
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon molasses

2 tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 cup water

Heat oil in a deep frying pan. Mix the batter. Dip pork cubes into batter and drop into the boiling oil. When cubes brown, remove them and drain on absorbent paper. Mix ingredients for the sauce in a pan and bring slowly to a boil, stirring constantly. Pour thickening into the sauce; when the sauce becomes thick and smooth, add meat and mix well. When very hot, serve at once. Makes 4 servings.