Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A piece of the Gold Rush, fresh from the oven

Photo of Boudin Bakery by aresauburn on Flickr
[Corrected Below, June 5, 2010]

When you bite into a piece of bread from San Francisco's Boudin Bakery, you're biting a piece of the Gold Rush. Founded in 1849 at the beginning of the Gold Rush, the San Francisco bakery has been baking bread since then using essentially the same sourdough starter (or "mother dough") that was first created in 1849. Through regular feedings, they have kept the mother dough alive. The starter almost perished in the 1906 earthquake and fire when the bakery at 815 Broadway caught on fire. But a heroic effort by Louise Boudin, who ran into the burning building to retrieve a piece of the original mother dough, maintained the starter's continuity.

I learned these bits of history and many others at a talk by Boudin's Master Baker Fernando Padilla, a 31 year veteran of the bakery, and docent Terry Hamburg at San Francisco's Old Mint as part of the Earth to 5-Star exhibition.

Along with gifts of bread for the audience, the presenters brought a tub of the "mother dough," the mixture that provides the leavening (yeast) and famous sour flavor (bacteria)*. Boudin's mother dough has been in continual use since 1849. [corrected 6/5/10] The mother dough is refreshed on a regular schedule by mixing a piece of the dough with water and flour. After a suitable waiting period to allow the yeast in the mother dough to activate, a portion of the refreshed mother dough is mixed with flour, salt and water to make bread dough. When Boudin makes a batch of bread, they add some of the mother dough along with flour, water and salt. Then, at sometime in the process, they save part of the dough — about 25 percent — to use as the mother dough in the next batch of bread.** During a visit to the Boudin Musuem and Bakery on Monday, I got a clarification from the docent, who explained that the mother dough and the bread dough follow parallel paths. The mother dough is refreshed on its own schedule, fed with water and flour periodically. Part the mother is mixed with flour, salt and water to make bread dough. Once mixed, none of the bread dough goes back into the mother dough. And thus, the mother dough stays alive, maintains is connection to the past. Padilla believes that the age of the mother dough is important for Boudin's flavor — when he has made new starters at one of the Boudin bakeries, the resulting bread isn't quite the same as bread made from the 1849 mother. The bread's classic "San Francisco flavor" is a result of yeast and bacteria that live in the mother dough and a long fermentation and proofing — from start to finish it takes 72 hours for Boudin to make a loaf of bread.

photo of Boudin mother dough and bread creatures

The Boudin family didn't come to San Francisco in 1849 to strike it rich in the gold fields. They came to bake bread, to "mine the miners", so to speak. And they were successful, building a baking company that is the only one that survives from the Gold Rush era. These days, the company bakes approximately 20,000 loaves a day in San Francisco; has about 150 restaurant clients; operates a complex at Fisherman's Wharf that houses a museum, demonstration bakery, restaurant and retail shop (a place I need to visit someday soon); and run several bakeries throughout the City and the state of California.

The cool and damp climate of San Francisco has a strong influence on the mother dough and hence on the flavor of the finished loaf. The microorganisms that live in San Francisco's air and can colonize a mother dough naturally give bread a distinctive sourness (Padilla was very empathic about the difference between naturally sour bread like Boudin's and bread made sour through use of vinegar or other agents). The flavor profile is highly dependent on location: even going across a bridge to Marin or the East Bay, or down the Peninsula you'll have a different blend of microorganisms and a different flavor. Indeed, a few years ago a microbiologist identified one of specific bacteria that give San Francisco sourdough its flavor and named it lactobacillus sanfranciscensis.

Because of the effect of local conditions on the starter, Padilla said, if you bring the Boudin mother dough to another place, it would start to change as the local yeast and bacteria begin to colonize the mother dough and take over from the original inhabitants. After about four weeks, the transition would be complete and you will have lost the San Francisco sourdough character of the starter. So, to supply their satellite bakeries, Boudin ships new batches of mother dough every few weeks.

There was a lot more that I can't cover here. It was a superb event, one of the more interesting talks I've been to in a while — and in an amazing setting, the Old Mint, constructed in 1874, survived the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. I also came away from the talk with much more appreciation for the Boudin Bakery and its workers. Because of their attraction to tourists, their outpost at Fisherman's Wharf, the stores in the airport, I looked on the bread as a curiosity of sorts. But hearing Padilla and Hamburg tell the story of the company, I gained a new appreciation for the dedication to excellence and loyalty to the company's history at the Boudin Bakery. And the's quite good – a crisp blistered crust, excellent crumb, a sharp but pleasant tangy flavor.

The Earth to 5-Star event concludes this weekend, May 28-31, and includes presentations on Friday, Saturday and Sunday on such diverse topics as coffee roasting, backyard chickens, chocolate desserts and growing food. In addition, there will be tours of the Old Mint.

Photo of Portsmouth Square in San Francisco in 1851 from Wikimedia Commons

Portsmouth Square in 1851

Other Notes on Old Food and Sourdough Bread

Beyond the ability to have long rising times, a sourdough starter has other benefits. According to the sourdough bread entry in the "Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition," the acids produced by the bacteria in the starter affect the proteins in the flour, giving the dough better elasticity and extensibility. (This is one reason why many breads made from rye — a grain with relatively low protein content — use sourdough starters.) The lactic and acetic acids produced by the starter might act as antimicrobial agents and inhibit the growth of mold. There is also the possibility that it takes longer for a sourdough loaf to go stale. A few years ago, I wrote a two-part series on sourdough baking over at the Ethicurean. Part 1 is about the starter and Part 2 is about the bread.

There are plenty of foods that have involved components that have been continuously refreshed or fed for decades. Two that I can think of off the top of my head are a Limburger cheese made in Wisconsin and a kettle of oden (a type of stew) in Osaka, Japan. The Limburger was the subject of an interview on the May 1 episode of the Splendid Table. Cheesemaker Myron Olson — one of the few Limburger makers left in the U.S. — gave credit to his cheese's excellent flavor to the culture that has been used for over 100 years. The oden was described in The Art of Japanese Vegetarian Cooking, by Max Jacobson:
In Osaka, there is a famous oden restaurant called Tako-Ume ("the octopus and the plum" would be a colorful translation). There, the water in the restaurant's enormous wooden kettle constantly steams off boiling stock that is replaced by wooden buckets filled with fresh water. At night, when the restaurant closes, the flame is turned down as low as it will go, but never off, so that the contents cook continuously. No one has emptied, or cleaned, the kettle since 1897, the year Tako-Ume opened.

* The mother dough in the tub pictured here is enough to leaven 300 loaves of bread (after addition of appropriate quantities of flour, water and salt).

** Correction (June 5, 2010): At the Old Mint talk, I thought I heard that Boudin saves a piece of mixed dough to use as leavening for the next batch of bread. Based on my experience with sourdough baking, that seemed unusual to me, but they were the experts, right? Well, it turns out that I heard wrong (the acoustics in the Old Mint are horrible). During a visit to the Boudin Musuem and Bakery on Monday, I got a clarification from the docent, who explained that the mother dough and the bread dough follow parallel paths. The mother dough is refreshed on its own schedule, fed with water and flour. To make a batch of bread, part the mother is mixed with flour, salt and water. Once the dough is mixed, none of the bread dough goes back into the mother dough.

Photo credits: Photo of Boudin bakery from aresauburn's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License, photo of bread and container by the author, photo of Portsmouth Square in 1851 from Wikimedia Commons.

Random link from the archive: The Modern Burrito, a 'Fusion Food'

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A visit to Berkeley's Edible Schoolyard

The Edible Schoolyard, an educational garden and kitchen at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, has been my path, so to speak, twice recently. The first time was a cover story in the East Bay Express. The second was an actual visit to the garden, my first visit ever.

I wrote a commentary on the article over at the Ethicurean that covers how the garden works and what the teachers and principal think about the project. Basically, once a week, the students spend 1 ½ hours in the garden or the kitchen. A garden class usually starts with a lesson — like the life history of the mushroom — finish with the children doing some hands-on projects — like grafting branches onto fruit trees or replanting seedlings. In the kitchen classes, they learn about nutrition and cooking and prepare their own lunch. The time for this edible education is taken from science instruction, not from classes that are directly connected to the state assessment tests.

A few weeks later, I visited the garden during their annual plant sale (which was a big success, earning $18,000). I contributed in a small way through a purchase of Genovese basil and a dwarf lavender that will supposedly be excellent for cooking and baking (e.g., lavender tuiles from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert). Below I have a few of my favorite photos from the afternoon.

First, the sign outside of the northern entrance that features a lovely image of greens underneath the letters (most likely by Patricia Curtan, who illustrated several of the Chez Panisse cookbooks). Oddly, it is surrounded by non-edible plants.

photo of edible schoolyard sign in Berkeley
The garden has a dozen of so resident chickens that I was unable to successfully photograph. But I did get a good shot of what they call the "Chicken Tractor." Based on its design, I assume that they move the tractor to a recently harvested or tilled spot, put a chicken or two inside the cage, and let the chickens eat the insects, plant debris and whatever else they can find. The chickens will then leave droppings that will enrich the soil. Much larger systems like this are used at many farms, including Eatwell Farm near Davis, California (here is something I wrote for Eat Local Challenge about Eatwell's chicken operation).

photo of chicken tractor at Edible SchoolyardPart of the eastern border of the garden has a "wall" of apple espaliers, a compact, almost two-dimensional way to grow some kinds of fruit.

apple trees at Edible Schoolyard
The garden has some less popular vegetables, like cardoons. Unlike an artichoke, one doesn't eat the immature flower, but instead eats the lower stalks (after much preparatory work). I tried cardoons once a while ago and didn't like them very much.

photo of cardoon at Edible Schoolyard
Near the kitchen I ran across a display case that contained several drawings of prospective garden superheroes. There was Lemon Lady ("squirts lemon juice in villain's eyes"), Red Raspberry ("waves her magic dust and the raspberry goes back to ripeness"), and my favorite, Mulch Man, perhaps the invention of a student who just did some work in on the compost pile.

photo of Mulch Man drawing at Edible Schoolyard
For a satellite view of the garden, go to Google Maps (or Google Earth, I suppose) and type 37.882486, -122.276075 into the search box and click the "Search Maps" button. It should bring up a map that is centered on the garden (or perhaps on the nearest address).

The Edible Schoolyard website also has plenty of information about their program, including resources for teachers and those hoping to start their own school garden. There is also a book by Alice Waters about the garden, Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea.

More photos are in a set at Flickr (and are available in higher resolution there).

Random link from the archive: Mexican Tlacoyos

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Spicing red beans the Georgian way

Adding ginger, cinnamon and cloves to certain cookie doughs or cake batter can create culinary magic, as anyone who has tasted a good gingersnap knows. The combination can also do good things for savory dishes, as a simple bean and cheese dish from Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean illustrates. Wolfert's book, one of a handful of volumes she has written about cooking near the Mediterranean, was a revelation for me, showing me the food of parts of the Mediterranean that don't get much attention: Syria, Georgia, Macedonia, southeastern Turkey, to name a few. Like other books by Wolfert, it is much more than a collection of recipes — it is an exploration of culinary culture. of my favorite recipes in the book comes from Georgia, a place where they know how to make beans interesting with additions like walnuts, leeks and coriander; raisins, honey and almonds; or eggs and butter, to name a few. Wolfert writes that "Georgians know more about blending spices and herbs than any other eastern Mediterranean people, and nowhere do they show off their knowledge to more glorious proof than with a pot of small red beans." And the recipe below that I have adapted from the book is a great example of Georgian skill. Although it appears to be simple — red beans and sliced cheese — it gives several layers of flavors in earthy beans, sweet and sharp spices, pungent feta cheese, and refreshing (or soapy) cilantro.

Red Beans, Spices, Pomegranate and Cheese
Adapted from The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean by Paula Wolfert

1 cup uncooked small red beans or 2 cups cooked beans
2 T. mild vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 t. ground dry ginger
1/4 t. ground cinnamon
1/4 t. ground cloves
1/2 t. salt, plus more to taste
Black pepper
Cayenne pepper to taste
1-2 T. pomegranate juice or pomegranate molasses
4 T. chopped cilantro
1/4 lb. sliced feta cheese

If using uncooked beans, cook the beans until tender using your favorite technique (here's how they do it at Rancho Gordo), then drain and save the cooking liquid (to be used later in the recipe). If using canned beans, drain and rinse them.

Heat a skillet over medium-low heat, then cook the onion in the oil, covered, stirring every few minutes. When the onion is tender (5 minutes or so), add the cooked beans. Cook uncovered for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then mix in the spices, salt, and any reserved liquid (if using canned beans, add about 1/2 cup of water). Cook until the pan is almost dry, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and mix in the pomegranate juice or molasses and half of the chopped cilantro.

Ideally, the beans should go into the refrigerator to mellow for about 8 hours and brought back to room temperature before serving, but if you can't wait, you can eat them warm or after they have cooled to room temperature. If you are going to refrigerate the beans before serving, put them in a glass storage bowl. If serving immediately or soon, transfer the beans to a serving bowl.

Serve topped with the remaining chopped cilantro and the slices of feta cheese.

Map of Georgia from the CIA World Factbook, photo of spices by the author.

Random link from the archive: Tofu Squares with Miso

Technorati tags: Georgia : vegetarian : Food