Author: Pao Alfonso

My First Sourdough Baby

Today, I baked my first sourdough bread. There will be other sourdough babies in the future, but this one will always be special because it’s my first. The crust may be butt-ugly, but the crumb was alright. The flavor is there. Overall, it wasn’t bad at all.

I have an idea of the things that I can improve on next time. I need to really plan out my baking schedule, I need to be more gentle but confident in handling the dough, I need to be more decisive with the lame, and I have some ideas of things to change about how I cook it in the oven. Most of all, I need to loosen up and enjoy the process. I’ve always been intimidated with baking, and I considered bread-making to be way out of my reach. I need to relax and not be so afraid to make mistakes. I need to enjoy the learning process and just take whatever I can from the experience. The whole process is simple enough but takes a lot of time. It doesn’t take all of your time, though. Mostly, after all the stretching and pulling, it’s a lot of waiting. The fermentation process actually does all the heavy lifting for me.

I wasn’t sure about using whole wheat flour at first because I’ve had whole wheat bread before and I don’t really like it. Then again, I realized that I only ate store-bought whole wheat anything. I knew why it was the healthier option, and to eat healthier is the main reason why I wanted to learn how to make bread in the first place.

I made a rookie mistake and cut into the bread way too soon, making the texture a bit gummier than it should be. I made a mental note to really wait next time. Even if the bread is not perfect at all, the flavor was good. It was complex and the more you chew on it, the more the flavor develops in your mouth. I tasted a bit of sour notes, some salt, some of the yeast-y flavor that reminded me of beer, and wheat. Surprisingly, whole wheat did not taste  bad at all. It tasted nothing like store-bought wheat bread.

I made some veggie omelette us at home, and toasted the bread in butter. I had mine with coffee. My husband finished most of the loaf off, happily tearing away at it and mopping up some balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

There was a time when bread was considered bread only if it was made with three ingredients: flour, water, salt. The industrialization of farming and, by extension, food manufacturing meant that all the good stuff was removed from wheat to make it more white. Then vitamins and minerals are added back chemically. Bread isn’t really bread anymore, in the same way that many of the food we eat today are so over-processed, they aren’t really food anymore.

Today I baked my own bread, and it was fun. I look forward to doing it more regularly and learning more things along the way.

Sourdough Whole Wheat Crackers

Yesterday’s journal entry. Last Sunday, Grimer (my sourdough starter) had what I can only describe as a growth spurt. All this time he had been lazily bubbling by, just rising a little bit at a time before I feed it again. Then on Sunday when I woke up to feed it, it had doubled in size and was already on its way to being deflated because it was nearly time to feed it. I had been waiting for that to happen for a week but all of a sudden it did happen and it was so fascinating to watch. I fed it and it expanded again, this time to over three times its size. The texture is very similar to melted marshmallow.

All of a sudden, I had so much discard that I felt bad throwing them away. A friend of mine suggested I try making crackers and so I did. All I needed (aside from the starter discard) was whole wheat flour, butter, and salt. All of which I already had in our kitchen. The first batch was a little too thick and salty for my taste, but the succeeding two batches were successful.

The crackers were delicious, especially the second batch because I added some parmesan cheese on top before I popped the  batch in the oven. I snipped a bit of chives from our herb garden, mixed that up with cream cheese and ate the crackers with it, that was pretty awesome. To conjure something delicious out of just a few ingredients was pretty awesome. It was also quite fulfilling to be able to go out, harvest a few leaves from the herb garden, and know that the plant will grow new leaves for your future needs as long as you take care of them.

My husband said that I managed to make something with “whole wheat” delicious, and I get what he meant, but I’m realizing now that the only “whole wheat” bread or crackers that we really ate were mass-produced products and the taste was off-putting. I read from home bakers that whole wheat baked from home tastes a lot better. I can’t wait to find out for sure. Depending on how Grimer performs this week (I’ve increased his feeding to 100g flour and 100g water), if it continues to rise predictably, then I might be ready to bake our first loaf this weekend. I’m a little anxious because I’ve never been successful in baking and I never really baked a lot of things before, but one has to start somewhere, right? Friends who bake their own bread warned me to prepare myself for the ups and downs, but I must see my mistakes and learn from them. I plan to do exactly that.

Sourdough Starter Struggles

Today’s journal entry is about the progress of my sourdough starter. I’ve discarded two batches and started a new one last Monday in a smaller mason jar. I was having a hard time managing the large jars that I initially used. I think I’m able to manage Grimer better with the smaller jar.

I’m not gonna lie, it’s been an emotional roller coaster, but I think I’m forgetting that the most important ingredient here is time. I get impatient and either overfeed or underfeed my starter. If I don’t see any activity right away, I get impatient. Now I think I’m getting the rhythm of feeding the starter right, and the bubbles are increasing. Grimer is becoming more “active”, and I’m just going to take my time and make him stronger.

This little foray of mine into bread making is very educational not just because I learned a lot about what actually happens when you make a sourdough starter, or when you bake  bread, but also because I’m reminded that when you do things by hand, they take time. I’m not just talking about the cooking/baking process itself but the learning process. All good things take time. Grimer is sure taking his sweet time.

In the final chapter of Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked, he wrote about what he learned from a Korean woman regarding “hand taste”. Food can come from factories or fast food chains and they can be edible as they are uniform, but they don’t have “hand taste”, which is like the human signature. When you cook something, especially if you do it for someone, you share a bit of yourself in the process.

“Hand taste, however, involves something greater than mere flavor. It is the infinitely more complex experience of a food that bears the unmistakable signature of the individual who made it—the care and thought and idiosyncrasy that that person has put into the work of preparing it. Hand taste cannot be faked, Hyeon Hee insisted, and hand taste is the reason we go to all this trouble, massaging the individual leaves of each cabbage and then folding them and packing them in the urn just so. What hand taste is, I understood all at once, is the taste of love.”

― Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

I just love that. Sure, I can buy bread in a store and it would probably be easier, but I still want to learn how to make it myself. Not just because it’s healthier but also because I want to make it with my own  hands and impart my own hand taste to it.

Sourdough Starter Baby

I’m only on my third feeding of my little sourdough baby and it’s already showing a lot of activity. It’s quite fascinating to see it swell up like a billowy, sour-smelling lump of melted marshmallow, and then deflate when it gets hungry. I made a second jar, this time using whole wheat flour, just to see if there’s any difference between that and bread flour. It’s like keeping a baby Grimer in a jar, so fascinating. I’m taking my time strengthening the starter, which some people say could take anywhere between 1 week to 1 month. For now, I’m just enjoying the process and looking at photos of other people’s sourdough bread as inspiration.

The Sourdough Project

Yesterday’s food journal entry was about starting to learn  how to make sourdough bread. It has always  been a secret dream of mine to learn how to bake bread. Not cakes or brownies or pies…bread. I’ve just always been so intimidated by the thought of it that I always found a reason to put it off. Reading Michael Pollan’s books encouraged me to dream again. It would be a shame to not learn something new just because I felt intimidated by the process. At the very least, it would be an educational experience. So yeah, that’s my birthday gift to myself, since September is my birth month. I made a list of things I would need to get started and bought them all.

I bought a nice 5qt dutch oven through a seller I met at a cast iron enthusiasts group on Facebook and it was delivered last Monday. Really heavy piece of cookware but I can already see that it’s a great investment. Besides, I got it for a great price. The kitchen scale I ordered was delivered yesterday. Everything else will be delivered in the next few days. I didn’t want to go out to  buy supplies so I bought everything from local sellers online.

I guess learning how to bake bread is part of my commitment to my household that I will be more circumspect about what we eat. Bread from grocery stores are cheap and readily available but they’re also hardly bread anymore. All the good stuff from the flour had been removed mechanically or chemically and some nutrients individually added  back chemically. They’re over-processed and already has a lot of ingredients that traditionally aren’t used to make bread. That’s the major reason why I want to learn how to make bread. The other reason is because I hope that I can learn to make something with my hands that connects me to real food culture. Not something we outsourced to large corporations but something actually done by hands, lovingly and with great effort.

Before I decided to try my hand at making bread, I’ve already stopped buying commercialized loaves. This whole quarantine period, the bread we’ve been eating at home came from friends who make them. Homemade bread may  be more expensive but they’re more delicious and a lot healthier than the factory-made ones.

I hope the whole wheat I ordered gets delivered today, I see that it’s already out for delivery. I’m eager to try and get my starter going.

Swabbity-Swab-Swab

My husband was sick earlier this week and I was already researching RT-PCR tests that can be administered at home when I read the announcement by our HOA that there will be free swab tests in our village. All we had to do was pre-register for it. So I signed us up, filled out the forms and submitted them that Monday and by Thursday, the people from our barangay and Red Cross were there in full hazmat, armed with test kits for residents who pre-registered for the test. The venue was in our village’s open court. Our HOA set everything up so that there were no walk-ins, the small crowd was easily managed. Everyone registered at the entrance, everyone was required to wear masks and face shields, and seats were spaced about a meter apart. It went pretty quickly. If anyone was worried about whether the swab would be painful, let me put your mind at ease…it wasn’t. My nose felt ticklish for a  bit and I had the urge to sneeze afterwards but it really wasn’t too big a deal. We were in and out in a few minutes. From encoding to specimen sample collection to transporting the specimen, until the results were released two days later, everything was easily tracked through Red Cross’ online tracking system. I’m happy to say that our household tested negative for COVID 19. It felt like a great weight lifted of my chest. I was worried because my husband and I had possible exposures a couple of weeks back and so when he got sick, that really made me lose a lot of sleep.

I must say that our household’s experience of this pandemic has been relatively easier because of many factors. My husband and I were already working from home for a little over a decade, so there was practically no transition for us in that area. The company that I work for was able to quickly transition to 100% remote work in a matter of days, which was no small feat. Since we’ve been working from home for a while, we already have our home set up for it (two fiber internet connections, backup internet, comfortable work spaces, etc). My brother-in-law was able to easily transition to a work from home setup too by using my study. We have enough rooms in the house so that we can spend these past days together without being in each other’s way. There had  been very little interruption to our daily routine.

Our HOA has been very good with listening to what residents need. They are quick to coordinate requests for support from our local government whether it’s for personnel or provisions. Our HOA organized community markets, and were quick to adjust and implement a working system when they saw that there were a lot of people who need to buy things from the market. They were quick to learn from mistakes and implemented changes on the fly. Efforts for contact tracing, managing crowds, disinfecting the area used for the market, all those were put in place as soon as they saw the need for it. When the residents complain about barangay policies that do not work, our HOA immediately advocate for us and are able to negotiate for safer, more practical policies. They went door-to-door to distribute quarantine passes. They made it easy to do contact tracing for workers who need to do home repairs during the quarantine. They requested frequent disinfections of our streets. They made sure we received regular food packs and announced distribution schedules in advance during ECQ. We didn’t need to be at the mercy of inflexible rules by the local government because our HOA actively worked on our behalf to make our village as safe for residents as possible.

I recognize that these things are layer upon layer of privilege and that other people are experiencing a drastically different kind of quarantine right now. All we can really do is continue advocating for each other and to look at whatever opportunity we have to really help one another, and there’s always somebody who could use our help. We just need to be sensitive to their needs instead of completely retreating into our bubble of safety. This is the time to go beyond “positive thoughts and prayers” and to truly open our hands and help our neighbors. There are people struggling to put food on their table, who are at a loss about mounting medical  bills, or are trying their best to scrape together some money to buy phones/tablets/laptops so that their children can attend online classes. No, we can’t help everyone, but we can at least help someone.

To Hobo or Not to Hobo? That is the Question.

Scribe opened preorders for Hobonichi this week. I wanted to buy the Hobo cousin again (just the  book) but I have conflicting feelings about it. Maybe it’s this darned pandemic season that is making me hesitate. Things can seem the same for many weeks and then they can drastically change. I’m having a hard time committing to a 2021 planner, and it’s the strangest feeling. I think I’ll just buy one towards the end of the year, may be from the Hobonichi site itself or from a local reseller.

Plantita

My recent journal entries are about little choices that help us eat healthier at home. Because of the pandemic, my family and I haven’t eaten out since late February, which translates to more home cooked meals. It’s definitely more labor intensive and takes a lot of planning, plus buying more groceries or having them delivered. I’ve never cooked so much in my entire life. I think that’s great, though. We do still support our favorite restaurants, but it’s easier to avoid eating outside when you’re rarely outside. People have a lot of time to cook these days and learn new things. The effort we give with thinking about what to cook inevitably results to giving our food more careful thought.

I bought several plants a few weeks ago because I’ve always wanted to have my own herb garden. Not all of them are flourishing, though. The curly parsley’s so hard to raise, the leaves are so delicate. As usual, the basil plants are the easiest to raise. I’ve propagated new plants a couple of times already. I’ll have a lot of them soon enough. I have a new plant that came in the mail today, a pot of chives. Yum. I already trimmed the leaves to prevent transplant shock. My favorite is my dill plant, though. It’s so lush and it’s getting quite big. Also, wow that plant is delicious. I put it in omelette and pasta sauce, etc., it’s so yummy. Having more herbs to use in cooking just makes everything more flavorful. I’m enjoying it a lot.

The Magic of Fermentation

I finished reading Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked several days ago. This journal entry was written over a week ago. It’s about the section of the book devoted to fermentation and how this little magic of nature does wonders to our body. I particularly enjoyed the section about cheese. Of course I had to order kimchi right away (good thing one of my friends is selling it an had some in stock) and I thought I’d start with something basic…kimchi fried rice. Now my husband doesn’t want to eat spam any other way. The kimchi was delicious, and knowing that it introduced friendly bacteria in my stomach’s ecosystem is a lovely bonus.

Maiale al Latte

Today’s journal entry is about a dish I cooked yesterday called Maiale al Latte, pork  braised in milk. I read about this in Michael Pollan’s book, “Cooked”, in the chapter that talks about braising and what actually happens during this cooking process. Honestly, I was a bit skeptical at first because the traditional  bolognese style of this dish only has three ingredients, and pork isn’t exactly my favorite meat. I followed Marcella Hazan’s recipe because I wanted to see what the least amount of ingredients would taste like. I like how Michael Pollan broke down the different steps of  braising meat in his book and described how this affects the taste. Browning the meat in a bit of butter starts the Maillard reaction or caramelizing the proteins and fats. Gently braising the meat, with only the bottom part submerged in milk coaxes out the flavors from the pork and infuses it into the slowly forming curds while the top part continues to caramelize slowly. The fats are rendered further and incorporated into the meat and broth and the meat becomes very tender over the next few hours. So tender that they’re falling off the bone.

It was so easy to make, but it takes a long time to cook. In fact, time is the fourth ingredient that one can’t afford to scrimp on. The resulting dish was really amazing. I’d love to cook this again soon.