Thursday, November 14, 2013

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Winter is fast approaching, and nothing tastes better in the cool weather than a warm bowl of soup. One of my family's winter favorites is Butternut Squash soup. Almost any type of squash can be used to make this soup. Generally I use Acorn or Butternut squash, however pumpkin makes a nice cold soup served Gazpacho style. Although the use of squash may be a little daunting to some, like all cream soups, this soup is delicious, inexpensive and the roasting process really makes it easy to prepare.

Soups are a great way to expand your culinary budget. We found the squash on sell at one of Wal-Mart's competitors for 77cents a pound, and a 1 pound bag of carrots were 2 for $1.00. My local Wal-Mart price matches so we saved a bundle. All the other ingredients I had I my pantry, so essentially I made 6 pints (12 cups) of soup chock full of vitamins and nutrients for less than 20 cents per serving if you factor in the butter and the half-in-half.

I prefer to roast my squash and other root vegetables as the roasting process not only accentuates their natural flavors, but all the natural sugars caramelize during roasting bringing out their sweetness. In addition, the roasting process is a whole lot less work than trying to peel and cube the squash before boiling it until it is soft enough to puree.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

2 Butternut Squash, halved (about 4 pounds)

4 carrots, peeled

3 cups vegetable or chicken stock

¼ to ½ cup half-in-half

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon white pepper

  • Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees.
  • Cut squash lengthwise and scoop out seeds and membrane with spoon, and place the squash cut side down in a shallow baking dish along with the carrots. Add enough water to the pan so that it about ½ inch up the side of the squash and place it in the preheated 375 degree oven and bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until the squash is soft and the flesh is easily removed with a spoon.
  • The peels went to the chickens!
    Scoop out the squash and place in a blender with the carrots and add enough chicken stock or water to puree the soup. I usually do this in batches of one half of a squash and two carrots, but your biggest determining factor will be your blender of food processor.
  • Once the squash and carrots are purred, add them to a large stock pot and continue the process until you have purred all your vegetables.
  • At this point your soup may well resemble purred vegetable more than soup. But have no fear, we are in the home stretch. Simply add water or chicken stock in small amounts to your stockpot to thin out the soup just until it coats the back of a spoon.
  • To finish the soup, heat the soup on low heat until warm, then add the butter and half-in-half and stir with a wire whip or spoon until mixed thoroughly.
The great thing about this soup is that it lends itself to self expression rather well. Listed below are many of the variations I have and may make depending on the time of year. Some of my favorite variations include:

Savory - Saute 1 medium onion and 1 granny smith apple (peeled and cored) until the onions are translucent and the apple is soft, add 1 - 2 cloves of garlic and saute for an additional 30 to 40 seconds.
Curried -  Substitute 1/2 cup plain yogurt for the butter and half-in-half, add 1 tablespoon curry powder, 1 teaspoon garlic ginger paste, and 1/2 teaspoon Garam Masala.
Thai - Substitute coconut milk for the half-in-half, saute 1 medium onion until translucent, then add 1 -2 teaspoons red curry paste to taste. 

The pot on the upper right has the butter and half-in-half already added to the soup which accounts foe the soups lighter color. The larger saucepan in the lower portion of the picture does not have the butter or half-in-half added and will be canned.
As mentioned, this recipe make about 6 to 7 pints and generally I pressure can 4 pints of soup each time I make this recipe. The important thing to note about canning this soup is that the FDA does not recommend the canning of soups with dairy products. Therefore, the large pan that contains the darker or is a more 'orange' color for lack of a better description does not have any butter or half-in-half added to it before canning. Rather, the butter and half-in-half are added to the soup once it is warmed up just before serving.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Creating Your Own Sourdough Starter

Few things in life are better than a fresh loaf of baked bread. In particular I am partial to breads made from a sourdough starter, but how do you get a starter if you do not already have one?

Well, the most common way most of use acquire our first sourdough starter is to find a family member or friend who already has one. Most people who love baking with sourdough love to have company and are more than willing to share not only their experiences, but their starter with new sourdough bakers.
Fresh Starter

However, if you do not know of any baker's or have access to a sourdough starter, short of buying one off the internet, you have only one option left and that is to make your own by capturing the wild yeast that already resides in your own kitchen. Capturing wild yeast is of course free, allows you the satisfaction of knowing how you pioneer ancestors felt, and it can be kinda of fun to say “hey, look what I did!” The downside to capturing your own yeast culture is that the results can be a somewhat unpredictable depending on your location and time of year. Most people seem to have the best results in the summer and fall when there are more wild yeasts floating around in the air.

If you are already an avid baker, there may be enough wild yeast in hanging around in your kitchen to activate a starter. I suggest that everyone try this at least once, heck I know many sourdough bakers that will only bake with these homegrown cultivated starters. So if you have the afford the time and feel like walking on the wild side, go for it. This is the way I acquired my first sourdough starter and it never let me down. When you’ve captured some wild yeast successfully, you’ll feel very accomplished. Here’s how to set your trap.

In the beginning, I use stone ground whole wheat flour as whole grains generally have up to 200 times the amount of microorganisms as white flours. I also choose to use unsweetened pineapple juice as opposed to water to start my wild cultures because the acid in the pineapple juice encourages the growth of desired bacteria and yeasts, while discouraging the growth of bad bacteria and yeasts. Pineapple juice is naturally sweet, unsweetened pineapple juice simply means that it is 100 percent juice with no add sugars. I use the the Dole brand 6 ounce cans of 100% unsweetened pineapple juice, but any brand will do. According to Wink, Oftentimes, a new culture will appear to start off very strong, only to die a day or two later. The early expansion is caused by a prolific gas-producing bacterium which many mistake for yeast. Pineapple juice can be added to flour instead of water at the beginning, to insure against unwanted bacteria and the problems they leave in their wake. It doesn't change the end result, but it does seem to keep things on the track to finish on time.

Sourdough Starter Recipe

To set your sourdough trap, add to a clean bowl, one cup organic whole wheat flour, and ¾ cup unsweetened pineapple juice. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and place on your kitchen counter. Many books tell you to place your starter in an area where in which you think there is the highest concentration of airborne yeast as well as the warmth that is needed to begin fermentation. If I knew where such a place was I would tell you, but as I am no clairvoyant, I just leave mine on the counter and it always seems to work. Stir your starter 2 to 3 times a day to help aerate the yeast and cover it back up with the tea towel. You probably won't see any activity out of the starter for the first two days, but have patience, if you follow these steps this will work.

  • 1 cup stone ground whole wheat flour.
  • ¾ cup unsweetened pineapple juice.

Starter After three days.
On the third day, add another cup stone ground whole wheat flour and ¾ cup pineapple juice. Stir to incorporate completely and cover with the tea towel and place it back on the kitchen counter to allow the yeasts and bacteria to multiply for two more days. After the fourth day you should begin to see a few small bubbles appearing on the surface of your starter. Stir your starter 2 to 3 times a day to help aerate the yeast and cover it back up with the tea towel. If you are seeing quite a bit of activity then that's great as well; each environment is different so just follow the plan, your almost there.

  • 1 cup stone ground whole wheat flour.
  • ¾ cup unsweetened pineapple juice.

On the fifth day, you should see a light to moderate amount of bubbles on the surface of your starter. Now we are going to feed the starter and kick it into gear. Remove on cup of the starter and place in a clean bowl. Add 1 ½ cups each stone ground whole wheat flour and water. Stir to incorporate completely and cover with the tea towel and place it back on the kitchen counter to allow the yeasts and bacteria to multiply for one more day. After the starter has been feed for 12 to 24 hours it is ready to be used.

  • 2 cups stone ground whole wheat flour.
  • 1 ½ to 1 ¾ cups lukewarm water.

Starter after five days.
So that's all there is to making your first whole wheat sourdough starter. If you want a white flour starter, all you have to do is substitute the two cups of whole wheat flour on day five with bread flour. Then each time you feed your starter simply use a bread or all-purpose flour. The only reason we used the whole wheat flour to start with was to gain the advantage of the extra microorganisms found in the stone ground wheat flour. Once you have a good supply of yeast, the type of flour you use is a matter of personal preference.

Generally, I can have a full blown ready to bake with starter in five days using this method during the spring and summer months. However, I bake quite a bit and I may have more wild yeasts in my kitchen than the average person. I cannot prove this, but it's a working theory. Don't worry if it takes a bit longer for your starter to get going. When it’s developed a yeasty, sour aroma, put it in a clean jar with a lid and refrigerate it until you’re ready to use it. If the surface of your starter begins to look dry during the for the fermentation process, give the mixture a stir, if necessary add 1 tablespoon water.

If for some reason you decide to forgo the initial use of pineapple juice and use water to create your starter and you mixture begins to mold or develop a strange or peculiar color or odor instead of a “clean, sour aroma,” then throw it out and start again. It's very possible that you have inadvertently acquired a strain of bacteria that could cause your food to have an unpleasant taste and possibly cause you or your loved ones to become sick. It is for this particular reason that I use the pineapple juice in my wild yeast starters.

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Sourdough Hearth Bread

   Few things in life are better than a fresh loaf of baked bread. In particular I am partial to breads made from a sourdough starter. One hundred years ago almost all cooks in America made fresh bread a couple of times at home from a starter that was kept in a crock on the kitchen counter. These rich tangy starters were the basis of the type of bread known as sourdough.
   Today however, most Americans equate sourdough bread as something they purchase at a specialty bakery that has the title 'San Francisco' in it. While many of these commercial products are of decent quality, they tend to be chock full of preservatives and just lack a depth of character and taste that can be accomplished by the home baker.
   The following is one of my favorite sourdough recipes and is a staple in my home. This full bodied bread with it's robust and tangy flavor is a favorite of everyone in my household, and I am sure it will be a hit in your home as well.

Sourdough Hearth Bread

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour

1 ½ cups starter, fed
 ¾ cup lukewarm water
1 tablespoon honey
1 ½ teaspoons salt

  • Combine starter, water, and honey in the bowl of your stand mixer stirring with a spoon or wire whip to combine thoroughly.
  • Add 2 1/2 cups of the flour and the salt to the mixing bowl and place on the stand mixer and mix on low (stir setting on Kitchen Aid mixer) for 1 to 2 minutes with the dough hook until thoroughly combined. Then increase the speed to the second setting and mix for 6 to 8 minutes. Add additional flour as needed if the dough is too wet. When the mixing cycle is complete, the dough should have a soft smooth slightly sticky texture.
    • The time of year, humidity and your geographic location can all affect the hydration of your dough, that is why I recommend reserving part of the flour the first few times you make this bread just in case you do not need all 3 cups.
  • Remove the dough from the mixing bowl and shape into a ball, then place the dough ball in a bowl sprayed with non-stick canola or vegetable spray, then lightly spray the top of the dough ball and cover with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place until it is doubled in size.
    • Depending on the strength of your starter, the initial proofing time of your dough may take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours. If your prefer to make a dough with a shorter proof time, you can add 1 teaspoon active dry yeast to the water and allow it to sit for about 10 minutes before adding it to the mixing bowl. This will knock your proof time down to about an hour without significantly changing the flavor or texture of your bread.
  • Dough after first proofing.
    After 3 to 4 hours your proofed dough should look like this before being punched down.
    Once your dough is sufficiently proofed, sprinkle cornmeal on a cookie sheet or line with parchment paper. Gently push your fist into the dough to deflate it and once again shape it into a round ball. Place the dough on the cookie sheet and cover it with a piece of oiled plastic wrap and let it rise once again until it is doubled in size.
  • Once the dough has finished it's second rise, place your baking stone on the lowest rack of the oven and place an empty cake pan on the top rack and heat the oven to 475 degrees. Cut an X-shaped or slash (or pattern of your choosing) in the top of the dough, spray with cool water and place the cookie sheet on the baking stone; add one cup of water to the cake pan.
  • Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 425 degrees and bake for another 20 minutes or until the bread is golden brown and a skewer inserted in the top comes out clean. Cool completely on a cooling rack before slicing.

Note: As mentioned, this bread takes 3 to 4 hours for the initial rise or proof using just the sourdough starter as the primary leavening agent at a room temp of 75 to 80 degrees. You can place the dough in the oven and turn on the light which in my oven increases the temperature to about 90 degrees to decrease the proofing time.