Moravian Sugar Cake

We are only a few days from Easter, and the promise of new life is everywhere—from the blossoming daffodils and buds on the trees, to the cheerful song of so many birds outside my open window. I am nervously awaiting my first dose of COVID vaccine tomorrow and feeling an odd sense of disbelief that we are finally seeing real light at the end of this pandemic tunnel. Easter feels even more special this year, and I cannot stop myself from baking up something delicious and, in these parts, so appropriate for Easter.

Last weekend, my husband and I took our dog for a stroll through one of the oldest parts of our city, where it always feels like Easter to me. Old Salem is a precious gem in the apron pocket of our downtown; amid all the tall, modern buildings—including the old R.J. Reynolds Tobacco headquarters, which was the prototype for New York’s Empire State Building—you’ll find this quaint and humble community, established in the late 1700s by the Moravians, Protestant refugees from what is now the Czech Republic. Only a few steps from the bustling noise of downtown, a visit to Old Salem is like stepping back in time 250 years.

Beyond the cobbled streets, brick-lined sidewalks and meticulously restored houses, shops and tour buildings, you’ll arrive at Home Moravian Church and the gated entrance to God’s Acre, the final resting place of the people who founded this community so long ago.

It is here, in God’s Acre, that thousands of residents of all religions gather on Easter morning for what is believed to be the oldest sunrise service in the U.S. Under non-pandemic circumstances, you’d find yourself among the throng, shuffling along behind the brass choir and witnessing the beauty of the sun rising in the east above this expansive graveyard. This year, as last, the observance is limited to a livestream event, complete with the usual music and liturgy—and all are welcome to join virtually. Rise and shine—this Easter service begins at 6:15 a.m. Eastern. The weather is expected to be chilly, but beautiful.

In non-pandemic times, the faithful would gather here before sunrise for Easter worship.

At Easter, everyone around here is a little bit Moravian, and though there will be no crowd gathered at sunrise, we can still enjoy this delightful sugar cake, a favorite Easter tradition. And I hope this recipe will help you enjoy it as well, wherever you live and whatever you believe.

Moravian sugar cake is a specialty of this local culture—it is sort of a mashup of streusel coffee cake and buttery brioche bread, and thick with the sweetness of brown sugar and warm cinnamon spice. I have enjoyed this treat since my arrival in Winston-Salem 33 years ago, but until recently, had only purchased the mass-produced version of it that is usually so popular at Christmas. Little did I know that it is easy to make at home, and so much better! Mashed potatoes lend a unique softness to this yeasted cake, and the technique of pressing fingers into the dough (as you would when making focaccia) is what coaxes the buttery brown sugar-cinnamon mixture to form deep, pillowy pockets.

The cake is light, airy, sweet and buttery. And that topping, oh my! You can see how deeply the brown sugar melts into the dimpled dough. This is what Easter tastes like to me.

In addition to the generous crust of sweetness on top of the cake, the dough itself is rather heavy on sugar, which gives the yeast a real run for its money—under most conditions, yeast does not thrive in such a sweet dough, but, as you’ll soon see, the potatoes help in that regard as well. Come along, let’s make some!


Adapted from P. Allen Smith’s Moravian Sugar Cake
This recipe makes two 8 x 8″ cakes

Ingredients

2 1/4 tsp. instant dry yeast (one standard envelope)

3/4 cup mashed russet potato, boiled without salt and cooled to room temperature

3/4 cup whole milk, scalded and cooled to room temperature

1 egg, room temperature

2/3 cup cane sugar

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour* + 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour (see notes for tips)

1 tsp. salt

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

Topping

3/4 cup brown sugar, packed

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. pie spice, optional

3 Tbsp. unsalted butter and 3 Tbsp. salted butter, cold*

*Notes

My guide recipe called for 3 to 4 cups of flour, which is a very wide range. If you measure the flour properly; that is, following the “fluff, sprinkle and level” method, you will use almost exactly 4 cups total. I measured out the full amount and added it gradually as suggested, and ended up with about a tablespoon left over. Also, I never, ever use only white flour in a recipe, but if you do not have the whole wheat pastry flour, feel free to use the total amount in all-purpose flour.

As with most baking recipes, a little bit of salt plays up the important flavors of the food, so I used equal parts salted and unsalted butter in the topping.

Instructions

  1. Combine mashed potatoes (they should be somewhat wet) and yeast in a small bowl. Cover and let stand at room temperature for about 2 hours. The sugar in the dough will make the yeast work extra hard for moisture, so the mingling with the potatoes gives it a leg up before that part of the recipe begins.
  2. Transfer potato-yeast mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add milk, sugar and egg, stirring to blend completely.
  3. Measure out the total amount of flour, and scoop about 1/2 cup, leaving 3 1/2 cups in the bowl. Add salt to the larger bowl. You may not need the full amount of reserve flour, but you want to have the total of salt in the recipe.
  4. Add flour to mixing bowl, 1/2 cup at a time, blending thoroughly after each addition. The ideal dough will be even consistency and tacky, but not too sticky. Dough should pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl while kneading.
  5. Add softened butter, a tablespoon at a time, kneading to fully incorporate each addition before adding more.
  6. With lightly oiled hands, divide total dough between two buttered, 8 x 8” baking dishes, such as Pyrex or metal cake pan. Spread dough evenly to the edges of each pan. Cover loosely with plastic and rest cakes at least 90 minutes, until cakes are nice and puffy.
  7. Preheat oven to 350° F. Combine brown sugar, cinnamon and pie spice. Cut in cold butter to evenly distribute through the sugar mixture. You can use a pastry blender, a fork or a few pulses in the food processor.
  8. With lightly oiled hands, gently press your knuckles into the cake dough. Follow a random pattern, with plenty of indentations, but also plenty of high spots. The goal is to create deep pockets for the butter-sugar mixture to sink into, without deflating the entire cake surface.
  9. Scatter the butter-brown sugar mixture evenly over the cakes. The sugar mixture does not need to be pressed into the indentations; it will find its own way during baking.
  10. Bake cakes for about 30 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through for even baking. Cool cakes in the pan several minutes before cutting. Enjoy warm or at room temperature.

Want to make this recipe?


Banana Bread with Dark Chocolate and Ginger

When Meghan Markle sits down with Oprah this weekend for a “tell-all” interview about what it was like joining—and then separating from—the royal life, I doubt she will be spilling the tea in a way that the British tabloids (and several American news outlets) would have us believe. Frankly, I doubt the interview will be scandalous at all, given that she and Prince Harry (whom I’ve adored since the day he was born) have plenty of reasons to remain close with the rest of the royal family, not the least of which are their adorable son and the new baby that’s on the way. Honestly, can a girl please just have her fairy tale for a minute?

Mark my word, when this interview with Oprah is over, the only things Meghan and Harry will have disclosed is that they love and respect the Queen, and that they have no hard feelings for anyone in the family, and that they have aspirations in life that cannot be fulfilled while living in a royal fishbowl. Oh, and that the British tabloid media is awful—but we already knew that because we all remember the gut-wrenching evening that Princess Diana died while being chased through Paris by the paparazzi. God bless Harry for wanting to protect his wife and family from all that crap.

Here’s another thing Meghan probably won’t spill the tea about: her recipe for banana bread. I clicked on a headline in my news feed recently, intrigued about the idea that Meghan had a “secret surprise” in a banana bread she had shared while on Royal Tour in Australia a couple of years ago. In addition to her previous career as an actress, Meghan had a lifestyle blog before she became engaged to Harry (just one of many things she had to give up), so I knew that she was a maven in the kitchen, and who doesn’t love a fun twist on banana bread? My hopes were dashed, however, when I read that the two “secret” ingredients she uses are chocolate chips and crystallized ginger. Well, I thought, what’s so secret about that?

Look at these two lovebirds! Dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants and ginger is good for digestion. Good for me AND tastes delicious…yes, please!

First of all, this is not Meghan’s recipe—it’s been around a long time, and I’ve actually been making it this way myself since around 2010, when I had picked up a copy of Molly Wizenberg’s bestseller, A Homemade Life. Molly is also a former blogger and past contributor to Bon Appetit magazine (among other things), and she described this recipe in her book as one that she had adapted from the recipe of a friend of a friend. And that’s how recipes go—we hear about or taste something we like, we ask for the recipe, perhaps we tweak it and send it forward to someone else, and then they share it however they choose. Not much is original in the world of food anymore, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t delicious. And this bread is definitely delicious.

My recipe is a take on Molly’s, which is a take on somebody else’s. 🙂

I’ve been craving the combination of dark chocolate and ginger ever since my new foodie friend Dorothy posted a dark chocolate and ginger tart on her own blog at Valentine’s Day. I haven’t made the tart yet, but I cannot find enough words to describe how much I love these two flavors together. The rich but slightly bitter flavor of dark chocolate holds its own against the spicy bite of crystallized ginger, and the two swirl around each other in an exquisite tango across the taste buds. The friendly and familiar background of an otherwise classic banana bread is a great venue for these two flavors to strut their stuff.

My recipe, of course, is slightly altered from Molly’s, which is slightly altered from somebody else’s, and I have no idea how it may be different from Meghan Markle’s because—as with every other single thing in her life since she met Harry—she has not personally shared her recipe. Somebody else spilled her tea. We only know that Meghan’s banana bread includes some form of chocolate and ginger, and that is enough to convince me that she has excellent taste. But we already knew as much, didn’t we?

You can see the generous bits of ginger peeking out of the banana bread. And all that dark chocolate! Mmm.

Ingredients

1 cup all-purpose flour* (see notes for measuring tips)

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour*

2/3 cup organic cane sugar (reserve 1 Tbsp. to sprinkle on top)

3/4 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled (plus extra butter for greasing pan)

2 large eggs (room temperature)

1 1/2 cups mashed ripe banana* (about 3 large bananas)

1/3 cup Greek yogurt

1 tsp. vanilla extract

3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks

1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger


*Notes

For proper measuring, follow the “fluff, sprinkle, level” method. Scooping directly into the flour bag or container can result in a dense batter.

Whole wheat pastry flour is softer than regular whole wheat or even white whole wheat. It’s perfect for pie crust, cookies and quick breads, such as this one. If you don’t have it, or if you prefer all white flour, combine for a total of 2 cups all-purpose flour.

When I say “ripe” bananas, I don’t mean a few spots on a golden banana. They get sweeter as they age, and if you prefer, you can peel and mash them in a bowl and leave them to brown and sweeten a couple weeks in the fridge. But please, use ripe bananas.

The older the bananas, the sweeter the flavor. This is how my grandmother taught me (as long as there’s no mold)!

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F, and position rack in center of oven. Grease a 9 x 5” (or equivalent volume) loaf pan generously with butter.
  2. Combine dry ingredients and whisk together in a large bowl.
  3. In a second bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a fork. Add mashed bananas, yogurt, melted butter and vanilla; stir with fork or whisk to fully combine.
  4. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and gently fold with a rubber spatula to combine. Easy does it here, just be sure that all flour is incorporated.
  5. Fold in chocolate chunks and ginger bits, being careful not to overmix.
  6. Transfer the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the top with reserved sugar.
  7. Bake about 55 minutes (give or take a few) until the loaf is nicely browned and a toothpick comes out clean. The toothpick test may be tricky because of all the chocolate, so you may need to poke in more than one spot.
  8. Cool the loaf in the pan about 5 minutes, then turn out onto cooling rack and cool completely.
The sugar I sprinkled on top of the batter created a delicate, crispy crust on the banana bread.

Want to make this yummy bread?


Happy Birthday Sourdough Chocolate Cake

We celebrated a birthday in our home this week for the newest member of our happy family. Little Pete turned 5 years old on Wednesday, and the occasion nearly escaped my memory, had it not been for the convenient date and time stamp my iPhone put on this photo.

February 24, 2016; 4:49 p.m.

Yes, my sourdough starter has been with me now for just over five years, and I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finally given it a name. “Pete” the sourdough starter is the namesake of Peter Reinhart, the James Beard Award-winning master baker whose instruction inspired me to begin this lively journey. Many years ago at a local festival of authors and books, I purchased The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Reinhart’s comprehensive collection of bread rules, formulas, tips and recipes—it’s a 300-page hardcover guide for mastering the art of extraordinary bread. And it was positively overwhelming.

It took me several years to gain enough gumption to actually make my first loaf of real bread and, once I took the greater plunge into building a sourdough culture, I never looked back. Pete began in the tiny kitchen of my former apartment, in a small bowl containing a mixture of whole rye flour and fresh pineapple juice (this was Peter Reinhart’s idea). There were plenty of midnight feedings and nervous watchful moments along the way, and at least once, I feared Pete would not survive my mistakes. Thankfully, the hotline experts at King Arthur Baking talked me off the ledge and helped me correct my feeding rituals. Pete has been thriving ever since. On one occasion, I shared a little bit of Pete with a friend whose daughter wanted to make sourdough, and when the daughter headed west, she took Pete’s offspring with her, and is now making beautiful artisan loaves somewhere in Montana (I’m so proud). I have already shared a few of my simple sourdough recipes here on Comfort du Jour, including English muffins and our beloved N.Y.-style Pizza Dough. If you’re a bread lover, you might also appreciate a glimpse of some of the incredible loaves Pete and I have made together since this adventure began.


It’s exciting for me to see and remember all those loaves. But for this occasion, I wanted to let Pete really show off, and so here’s the exciting news—Pete made his own birthday cake! I’ve mentioned several times that sourdough isn’t merely a flavor of bread, but a method of leavening, and in this richly dark chocolate cake, sourdough discard is the star.

The salted caramel flavor is a perfect match for the ultra dark chocolate cake.

I found the recipe for this cake on one of my favorite sites, King Arthur Baking Company, and I will proclaim out loud that, ingredient-wise, it is the oddest cake I’ve ever made. I will also tell you that it tastes nothing at all like sourdough. It’s a bouncy, spongy very chocolaty cake, and though the KA recipe is for a rectangle cake, I changed it up and did 9-inch layers. I also swapped the coffee-infused icing for one of our most-loved flavors to pair with chocolate, salted caramel. It may strike you odd that I am not sharing a recipe for either, but here’s why—King Arthur already published the cake recipe, and you can find it here (I followed it pretty much to the letter). I’m not sharing the salted caramel frosting recipe because, frankly, I was flying by the seat of my pants when I made it, so I don’t know exactly how much of what went into it. Besides, the texture was a mess. I wanted something akin to buttercream, but I didn’t get the ratios right and my frosting, though delicious and perfectly salted, wasn’t very stable. I will, however, share the photos, purely for comedic value. Those Great British Baking Show contestants have nothing to fear in me! Next year, when Pete turns 6, I’ll probably make challah. 😊


Sourdough Potato Bread with Onion & Dill

The joy of baking homemade bread, for me, is second only to the bliss of eating it. Or is it the other way around? When I established my sourdough culture in early 2016, I wasn’t sure how successful the adventure would be or if I would tire of eating “only” sourdough. As I’ve declared here several times, though, sourdough is not exclusively a flavor of bread, but a method of giving rise to the dough, and I rarely use commercial yeast in any form of bread anymore—whether it’s pizza dough, English muffins, waffles, soft pita breads, challah or focaccia. For me, there’s no turning back, and I cannot imagine tiring of it. Sourdough rules!

The potato bread I’m sharing today is my adaptation of a sandwich bread recipe I’ve grown to love by King Arthur Baking Company. KA’s version of this bread uses dry active yeast, but I’ve converted it by conjuring my math skills; I’ve swapped out equal amounts of liquid and flour (by grams, of course) for the appropriate percentage of my ripe-and-ready starter (sourdough nerds understand me). The result is terrific on its own, but I’ve recently taken the recipe a bit further with the addition of minced onions and a dill swirl and—well, wow.

The dill swirl lends a nice touch to your favorite sandwiches. My hubby especially loves it with his tuna salad and a fresh leaf of lettuce.

The recipe itself is unusual, in that the mixed dough does not have an initial rise at room temperature; it moves directly to the refrigerator for cold overnight fermentation. It’s very sticky dough that is not easily kneaded, so I recommend use of a stand mixer if you have one. After chilling overnight, the cold dough is easier to handle and shape into a loaf to proof at warm room temperature until it’s ready to bake. Words don’t adequately describe the aroma that wafts from the oven.

The cooked Yukon gold potato and softened butter lend a soft texture and lovely gold color, and the onion and dill I’ve added make it a great choice for all kinds of sandwiches. My hubby declared a few mornings ago that this sourdough potato bread may be his favorite bread ever for breakfast toast. Of course, he has said that about my soft sourdough rye, too (I’ll share that one soon).

My ingredients are measured by weight, because that’s how I bake. I highly recommend a digital scale for consistent results in any kind of baking, but especially for bread. If you’re not ready to get on the sourdough train, you can still enjoy this bread. Follow the original instructions offered by King Arthur, but halve the ingredients, as KA’s recipe makes two loaves. The onion and dill flavors are my own Comfort du Jour twist.


Adapted from King Arthur Baking Company
Makes one loaf

Ingredients

1 large Yukon gold potato, peeled and cut into large chunks (boil and mash the potato, then measure out 100g for use in this recipe)

100g ripe sourdough starter (fed 8 to10 hours earlier; my starter is 100% hydration)

100g lukewarm water* (include the potato cooking water in this total)

40g (about 3 tablespoons) sugar

260g unbleached all-purpose flour*

80g white whole wheat flour*

1 large egg (room temperature)

1 1/4 tsp. fine sea salt

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened to room temperature.

2 Tbsp. dried minced onion, rehydrated 15 minutes in 2 Tbsp. warm water (optional)

2 tsp. dried dill leaves (or 2 Tbsp. fresh dill if you have it)


*Notes

Reserve the water used in cooking the potato, and add more water to total the amount needed for the recipe. The potato starch in the cooking water will add to the fine texture of the bread.

The original KA recipe calls for only all-purpose flour, but I always swap in at least some amount of whole grain flour. Make it as you like, but don’t swap more than 25% of the total flour without also adjusting the ratio of liquid. My swap is within that suggested limit, and it works great.


Instructions – Day One


  1. Combine all ingredients, except butter and dill, in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix on low speed until ingredients come together and form a shaggy ball on the beater blade, and all flour is incorporated. Scrape dough from beater blade. Cover and allow dough to rest 20 minutes.
  2. Switch to the dough hook and knead the dough on low speed for about 2 minutes.
  3. Add the pieces of softened butter, one or two at a time, and mix on speed 2 until each addition of butter is worked into the dough. Continue to knead at this speed for about six more minutes. The dough will be very soft and sticky.
  4. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap or elastic cover and transfer immediately to the refrigerator at least overnight or up to 24 hours.

On Baking Day


  1. Lightly spray a clean countertop (and a 9 x 4” bread pan) with olive oil spray. Remove the refrigerated dough to the counter and use your fingers to spread it out into a rectangle shape, about 6 x 18”. Sprinkle the dough with the dill leaves.
  2. Beginning at one of the short ends, roll the dough up tightly, tucking in the ends as you go to keep the dough in a smooth cylinder shape. Use a bench scraper if needed to release the sticky dough from the counter. When you get to the end, pinch the seam closed. Tuck the ends as needed to fit the dough into the greased bread pan. Cover with plastic wrap or elastic “shower cap” cover and proof at warm room temperature until the dough rises above the top of the pan.  This may take anywhere from 4 to 6 hours, depending on the strength of your starter and the temperature of the room.
  3. Near the end of rising time, preheat oven to 350° F, with baking rack in center position.
  4. Remove plastic wrap from pan and gently transfer the loaf to the oven. At this point, the dough may appear “jiggly;” you don’t want to cause it to collapse, so try not to jostle it too much. Bake at 350 for a total of 45 to 50 minutes, turning halfway through baking time to ensure even browning. At the halfway point, cover the loaf loosely with a foil tent to prevent over-browning. Bread is fully baked when it reaches 190° internal temperature. Cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, then carefully turn it out onto a cooling rack. You may need to run a clean knife or plastic scraper along the edges of the bread for easier release. Cool at least two hours before cutting, and completely (this may mean overnight) before wrapping it up in a plastic bag.  
The dill makes a pretty swirl in this loaf, but you could easily substitute another favorite dried herb.

Want to make this bread?


Sourdough Pumpkin Challah (a bread maker’s journey)

When I set out in 2011 to learn the terrifying skill of bread making, my primary goal was to have the welcoming aroma waft out of my oven and throughout the house. Who doesn’t love the smell of freshly baked bread? My first few attempts were pretty confused, with some downright inedible, but also with a couple of winners that were probably accidental. I finally got good at making the simplest bread of all time, the English muffin loaf, a minimal ingredient recipe which requires no kneading and is really hard to screw up. And then, me being me, I decided to go ahead and up my game without first mastering the basics of real kneaded bread. It’s just what I do, setting the bar very high for myself. Perhaps the result of being raised by a perfectionist father and impossible-to-please mother? That is a motive I’ll leave to my therapist for analysis.

“I’ll make artisan loaves,” I declared, having absolutely no idea what I was getting into. When I had my first successful artisan boule (a bread nerd’s term for a round crusty bread made without a loaf pan), I charged forward with another idea—that I would henceforth make only sourdough bread. As I have mentioned in a previous post, “sourdough” is commonly (though incorrectly) assumed to be a flavor of bread, but it is more accurately understood as a leavening method. The process begins with creation of a culture that you feed regularly, only flour and water and nothing else, and the culture replaces commercial yeast. For me, this began in early 2016.

My sourdough culture does the same work as the recognizable yellow yeast packets, but in twice the time (you have to be patient, which means it’s been a learning experience for me) and resulting in five times the flavor of bread that is produced with commercial yeast. Sourdough is a fussy thing to learn (with lots of math involved), but once the light bulb goes off and you understand how to relate to it, there’s no going back. This is exactly the thing I’ve wanted my whole life—a relationship that is so solid, there’s no going back. Thank you, God.

Somewhere along the way of making sourdough bread, however, I lost a bit of my gumption and started playing it safe—making only a few “safe” sourdough breads, or the ones that worked out just right every time. The potato onion sourdough loaf that is easy to shape because you do it while the dough is cold, and it stays so soft and is perfect for my husband’s beloved tuna salad sandwiches. The sourdough rye loaf that seems to work backward from all the other loaves, in that the sponge (nerd speak for “wet starter”) contains the full amount of water for the recipe, but somehow the bread comes out perfect every time. The “basic” sourdough loaf from my Peter Reinhart book that is supposed to emerge from the oven with a crackling crust, but mine only did so on my very first try, giving me a confidence that I hadn’t yet earned. And the sourdough challah, which many experienced bread makers have doubted is even possible, given that challah dough is sweetened with a good deal of honey, which tends to put the whole process into even slower motion than sourdough already does. But I’ve made sourdough challah successfully for two years, though only for celebration of the big Jewish holidays that allow leavened bread: Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah.

Still, I wanted to push it further and make a pumpkin challah, for which there are plenty of recipes on the internet. Except none were made by way of sourdough, and so that became the new high bar for me. For two years, I kept this challenge off in the distance, lest I be disappointed in the outcome. If you’ve ever baked with pumpkin, it was probably muffins or quick bread or something that is intended to be soft and kind of crumbly in texture. I’ve tried making chocolate chip cookies with pumpkin, and they were tasty, but cake-y and more like muffin tops than cookies (let’s not discuss what they did to my own muffin top). I made a successful sourdough pumpkin artisan boule a couple years ago, and it was delicious, but dense. I really, really wanted a sourdough pumpkin challah.

Fast forward to this week, and this gorgeous, swirly slice of sourdough perfection.

All that pumpkin! And swirls of maple sugar and warm autumn spices.

Introducing pumpkin to the mix is complicated for several reasons. First, I had to speculate how much moisture vs. bulk to account for in the pumpkin puree, because I had to create my own recipe and formula. Secondly, the fibrous nature of pumpkin puree contradicts the stretchy gluten structure of bread; the puree is wet, but it isn’t liquid. Challah is made with several eggs and oil—in its classic form, it should be light and soft inside, with a delicately chewy crust. With so much adjustment, coupled with long ferment times, I was sure that I’d fail in this venture. I hate to fail. But if failure is inevitable, I will go down in flames. Dramatic? Welcome to my mind.

The trouble is, I didn’t fail. No, I definitely did not.

The round braided loaf has a maple-spice swirl, and the braided wreath is filled with a blend of dried fruits: cranberries, golden raisins, blueberries and cherries.

This first attempt at making a naturally leavened pumpkin challah had me on pins and needles from start to finish, but these two loaves far exceeded my expectations. And, just in time for Rosh Hashahah! My loaves are round in shape to symbolize the new year, and coming around full circle. I cannot wait to make French toast this weekend. Imagine the bread pudding possibilities! I feel like a proud mama, showing off pictures of a new grandbaby.

“Do I smell pumpkin?”

I’m so excited, I want to run to the market and buy every can of pumpkin puree on the shelves. The next round of sourdough pumpkin challah for everyone is on me! Wait, maybe I’ll grow the pumpkins and cook them myself—that may become the next high bar? No, perhaps I shall make it again a few more times to be sure my formula is correct. And though I know that most of my followers here will not ever roll up their sleeves and make this bread (except my fellow sourdough nerds, for whom I’ve presented my formula and notes in PDF at the end), for now, I am delighted to show you the pictures of my journey. Thank you for looking. 😀

Happy fall, everyone, and “shanah tovah!”

For bread nerd eyes only 🙂


On Sourdough Baking

While the world continues to panic over the latest developments in the COVID-19 pandemic, something is quietly brewing (or should I say fermenting?) in the stillness of people’s kitchens. All over the globe, people are suddenly taking new interest in sourdough baking. It makes sense in the new normal of grocery shopping far less frequently, that making bread at home would be more top of mind. Except for essential workers, most of us have more than enough time on our hands. But why sourdough in particular? Why not just regular homemade bread?

Because there’s a yeast shortage.

It’s temporary, of course, because yeast is quite literally everywhere around us—in the air, on those brown bananas sitting on my counter, hanging on the grape clusters out in the vineyards, everywhere. We’ll never actually run out of it. But the usually available commercial form of baking yeast—you know, in the little yellow square envelopes—has gone MIA. During the initial coronavirus pandemic freak-out, it seems people (some who have never even baked before) went bonkers and snapped up all the yeast. In the wake of that, we are learning that it takes a good bit of time to replenish (you can’t rush nature), and with the supply chain already stretched nearly to the point of breakage, it’s dicey. Thankfully, my baking hasn’t slowed down one bit amid the crisis at hand. You see, I’ve been riding the sourdough train for just over four years; this little critter was born in early 2016:

This picture of my starter still brings joy to my heart!

That’s my natural sourdough culture, and although I’m suddenly feeling slightly ashamed that I’ve not given appropriate thought to naming my culture, I am quite diligent about nurturing it and we most definitely have a solid relationship. And I’m thankful, because we all need sourdough culture more than ever.

I will have a lot more to say about sourdough, and that discussion will develop over time (pun intended). The main impression I hope to make today is that sourdough is not a flavor of bread. Sourdough is a method of natural leavening in baked goods, bread or otherwise. A sourdough culture is yeast. If that seems confusing, consider this visual example of two completely different breads I’ve made with my sourdough culture:

The crusty round bread (or boule, as the French would say) is most likely what you imagine as sourdough, with its slightly tangy flavor and firm, chewy crust. But the soft, buttery pumpkin sesame knots on the right were crafted from the same culture. Different ingredients, different ratio of liquid in the dough, different baking method—all amount to a different outcome, but still sourdough. I even make sweet things, like cinnamon rolls, out of sourdough. Because, again, sourdough is not a flavor.

If you’re pondering whether you could do this, too—yes, you can. And I’ll be happy to help you get started. Hey, if you live close by, I’ll even offer you some seed culture so you don’t have to build your own starter from scratch (though you’d probably be a better parent and give yours a name).

For now, check out this easy recipe I’ve been making recently, along with an alternate recipe if you happen to be among the lucky ones with a yeast packet in your pantry. Sourdough English Muffins, y’all!

Sourdough English Muffins

Sourdough English Muffins

Who doesn’t love an English muffin? It’s a terrific change-up from the usual toasted bread for breakfast, and at our house, we’re eating a lot of them lately. They’re quick and simple to make, with or without a stand mixer, and you don’t even need to turn on your oven. My recipe makes 12, and though that may seem like a lot for one household, I’ll note that these muffins aren’t just for breakfast. They also make exceptional burger buns, and my husband uses them to make sandwiches to take to work for lunch, too!

My inspiration recipe comes from King Arthur Flour, my favorite brand. And while I would certainly disclose any financial agreements with vendors, I will be clear to say that KAF is not paying me to brag about their products (not yet, anyway, but I’m open, baking team). I just like them, and I trust their website for products, baking ideas and help when I need it.

Their recipe for Sourdough English Muffins does require the use of ripe (fed) sourdough starter, and although it typically calls for addition of commercial yeast (for quicker rise), it’s possible to omit it, and I’ve adjusted for that in my notes below. If you don’t have a starter, their yeast-risen English muffins are great, too. It’s tough to find yeast during the COVID-19 pandemic, but if you happen to have some in your pantry, you’re golden. Here’s a tip—you can ration your yeast by halving the amount called for in the recipe; just give it more time to rise. This is true for virtually any yeast recipe, by the way.

Let’s Get Cooking!

Because the KAF recipe yields 24 English muffins (holy moly, that’s a lot!), I’ve taken the liberty of adjusting all the ingredients by half. Additionally, I always swap in some portion of whole grain flour in place of white, and I usually add some milled flax seed because I cannot leave well enough alone. You decide, based on your own experience and comfort level. If you notice grainy spots in my technique photos, this is the reason. They literally are grainy spots.

When these are completely cooled, you can put them in a sealed plastic bag. They’ll keep on the counter for up to a week, or you can put them in the freezer. No need to thaw them before toasting. I hope they turn out great for you!

Ingredients and Tools

(weight measurement included for seasoned bakers; if you’re baking these for the first time, please see notes section for tips on the best way to accurately measure your flour for baking)

1/2 cup (114g) ripe sourdough starter* (stirred down before measuring – see notes)
1 cup (227g) warm filtered water (ideally, about 110° F)
1/2 tsp instant yeast (optional, for quicker rise)
1 Tbsp. (12g) sugar
3 1/2 cups (422g) all-purpose flour* (see notes for measuring and substitutions)
1/4 cup (22g) nonfat dry milk* (see notes if you don’t have this)
1 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
2 Tbsp. (28g) butter, room temperature
Additional flour for dusting counter for kneading
Cornmeal for dusting muffins before baking

*Notes

  • If you don’t have a kitchen scale, use this method for accurately measuring flour in baking
  • For sourdough science nerds who may be wondering, my starter is 100% hydration; I feed it (once or twice a week) 90/10 high protein bread flour/freshly milled rye flour
  • You may substitute whole wheat flour up to 1/3 of the total amount of flour
  • If you don’t have nonfat dry milk, adjust the water to 3/4 cup and use 1/4 cup regular milk along with it

Stand mixer or large bowl and heavy wooden spoon
Plastic wrap and clean lightweight kitchen towels
Electric griddle or pan for stove-top “baking”
Heat-safe spatula for turning
Cooling rack for finished muffins


Instructions

In a mixing bowl, bring your starter to room temperature, or at least allow some of the refrigerator chill to wear off. Combine with warm water until it’s an even slurry, and stir in the sugar (and instant yeast, if using) a minute or so to dissolve sugar.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, dry milk and sea salt until well blended. Add to the wet mixture and stir with a heavy wooden spoon or blend in stand mixer until all dry ingredients are incorporated. Switch to kneading hook or turn the dough out onto a floured countertop. Knead until the dough feels a little less shaggy and more organized. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest about 20 minutes.

Stretch out the dough and spread the soft butter over it. The KAF recipe suggests adding the butter at the start, but I’ve learned to add fats after the flour is fully hydrated, so this is my method. Fold the dough up with butter inside and continue kneading, about 10 minutes by hand or 5 to 6 minutes by machine with dough hook. This part will get messy, but keep at it and eventually, the butter will work its way through the entire dough. You want smooth and even dough—soft and slightly tacky, but not sticky. Shape dough into a tight ball (if you imagine squeezing it around and toward the bottom, you’ll get a feel for this), place it in a lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap or lid and let it rise at room temperature until it’s puffy and nearly doubled in size. If your room is warm and you used additional yeast, this will be about 60 minutes. If you didn’t use yeast, it may be a couple of hours—give it the time it needs. Gently deflate the dough by pushing the center with your closed fist (one day soon, I’ll explain why I hate the term “punching down your dough”). With lightly oiled hands, reshape it into a ball, cover the bowl and put it into the refrigerator overnight. This step is beneficial either way, but especially important if you did not add yeast. Sourdough bakers already know that cold fermentation is a magical thing, and this down time in the fridge will result in extra flavor and improved texture.

In the morning, turn the cold dough out onto a lightly floured countertop and cut it into 12 roughly equal pieces. The simplest way I’ve found to do this is the cut the ball in half, then each half into halves, and each resulting half into thirds, like 12 little pieces of pizza. Shape each wedge into a tight ball, and flatten each ball with your fingertips onto a piece of parchment paper, sprinkled lightly with corn meal. They should measure about 3 1/4” across, or the size of—you guessed it—an English muffin! You will probably want to do two cookie sheets, each holding 6 muffins. Sprinkle the tops of the muffins with additional corn meal.

If the dough is still cold, it will probably shrink back—that’s OK. Cover them with plastic and let them rest 15 minutes to relax the gluten, then flatten them again. Cover the muffins with loose plastic wrap, lay a clean lightweight kitchen towel over the plastic and allow the muffins some privacy in a warm (but not hot) spot in your kitchen. I usually slide the pans into the oven, where it’s quiet and not at all drafty.

About 2 hours later, your muffins should look soft and puffy. My last batch rose to about 1/2” thickness, but they will puff more when you introduce them to heat.

If you have an electric griddle, heat it to about 325° F. If not, you can do it stove-top in a cast iron pan or griddle over medium-low heat. Our gas range has a “griddle in the middle” that allows me to do 6 muffins at a time; in a skillet, you’ll probably want to limit to 3 at once. I kept the flame pretty low because it’s better to cook them a tiny bit longer than to burn them.

I squeezed my camera underneath the griddle so you can see how low I set the flame. If you’re cooking your muffins stove-top, give the pan or griddle plenty of time to reach consistent heat.

When the griddle or pan is radiating consistent heat (you should be able to feel it easily with your hand about 6” above), gently place the muffins onto the surface. They will puff a bit more as they cook, but they won’t spread outward the way cookies do. Still, try to keep a bit of room between them so you can wiggle in a spatula when it’s time to turn them over.

After about 7 minutes, your muffins are probably ready to turn. Check by gently lifting up one edge and peeking underneath. If it looks golden and toasty, it’s time! Gently turn them without flipping too hard—you don’t want to deflate them in the process.

Give the second side about 6 more minutes, then check for doneness and remove them to a cooling rack to calm down. The sides of the muffins will still feel a bit soft, and that can be a little unnerving until you’ve made them a few times. Here’s a simple tip for testing doneness: when you turn over the first muffin, tap the cooked side lightly with your fingernail or the tip of your spatula. If it sounds hollow, you’re good. If it still feels a little soft or spongy, they probably need another minute. To be certain, you can slide the finished muffins onto a cookie sheet and into a pre-warmed 350° F oven for a few minutes to finish any raw insides.

When the muffins have completely cooled (and please, not one second sooner), use the tines of a fork to split through to the middle, all the way around.

Fork-splitting the muffins creates a perfect texture inside, and ensures plenty of pockets for butter or jam. Be certain they are completely cool before splitting them.

This will allow you to easily break them open later, for the beautiful nooks and crannies that I’m probably not allowed to talk about because of trademark rules.

But just look—can you think of a better way to describe those butter-loving pockets?

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