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GOOD COOKING

Not-So-Instant Gratification

January 20, 1994|ABBY MANDEL

Despite the excellent bakeries we now have, bread continues to be one of the most satisfying things to make at home. What else equals the thrill of removing a crusty loaf from the oven with that heavenly aroma permeating the house, then letting it cool slightly and savoring it with a slather of butter?

For years, I made a straightforward loaf with flour and a proofed yeast mixture, meaning that the yeast was first activated in warm water before it was mixed into the flour. It was a 1-2-3 procedure. More recently, however, I have had impressive success with loaves using a sourdough starter.

The extra step of making a starter requires a little planning, but it's simple enough. You make a batter of flour, potato water (water that potatoes have been cooked in) and yeast and set it aside in a warm place for about two days, until the yeast ferments and the mixture is bubbly. At this point, some of the starter can be used as the base and partial leavening in bread dough. The remaining batter should be refrigerated.

You can keep this starter going in the refrigerator for years, as long as you feed it regularly. Whenever you remove some starter for baking, replace that amount with fresh batter. At least every two weeks, whether you've been baking or not, you should stir in one cup bread flour and one cup water (discard some starter first, if you're running out of room). Before using or replenishing the starter, bring it to room temperature. Should the starter discolor over time--turn orange or pink--discard it.

This sourdough starter enhances the quality of bread in terms of texture, crust and flavor. Consider the recipes that follow. The sourdough baguettes have great spring to their texture and substance in their taste, while the sourdough focaccia is chewy and robust, laden with garlic, shallots and rosemary. One of the distinct advantages of a flat bread is time--no need to let it rise on the pan, as loaves typically do. This not only saves an hour but allows for at least fairly instant gratification.

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This is a simple formula for a starter. You can use tap water but water that's been used for cooking potatoes is preferable. Just be sure to let the water cool down to warm--about 105 to 115 degrees.

SOURDOUGH STARTER

2 cups bread flour

2 cups warm potato cooking liquid

1 package dry yeast

Combine bread flour, potato liquid and dry yeast in glass or pottery bowl. Cover with cheesecloth (to allow air to contact mixture). Let stand at room temperature 2 days, stirring at least once per day. It should become bubbly with clear, yellowish liquid on top that becomes incorporated when stirred in.

(Each time you use starter, replenish with equal amounts of bread flour and water. Starter should be at room temperature before using. When not in use, keep refrigerated in airtight container. Should starter turn pink or orange, discard it. As starter ages, it will develop stronger sourdough flavor.)

For 3-cup flour recipes, use 1/2 cup starter with 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water mixed with 1 package of dry yeast for mild sourdough flavor. For fuller flavor, use 1 cup starter and scant 1 cup warm water mixed with 1 package of dry yeast. Makes 2 cups.

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Mixing dry yeast into the starter as well as adding it to the bread dough as a boost to the starter makes sourdough bread baking predictable and satisfying. For a great crust, shape the loaves, drape them with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight. Let come to room temperature (they will not double) and place in cold oven. Then turn on oven to 375 degrees and bake until bottom of loaf sounds hollow when rapped, about 35 to 40 minutes.

SOURDOUGH BAGUETTES

1 package active dry yeast

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water (105 to 115 degrees)

1/2 cup Sourdough Starter

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups bread flour

1 teaspoon salt

Oil

Cornmeal

In bowl stir yeast into warm water.

Put starter, flours and salt into processor fitted with metal blade. Turn on processor. Through feed tube, slowly add yeast mixture, then 1 tablespoon oil. Process dough until supple, elastic and sticking slightly to sides of work bowl, about 1 minute. Add more water or flour by teaspoon, if dough is too dry and hard or too soupy. Dough should be slightly sticky. Alternately, use mixer fitted with dough hook until dough is kneaded, about 6 to 8 minutes.

Transfer dough to large plastic food bag, squeeze out air and seal tightly at top of bag to allow enough room for dough to expand. Set bag in bowl and let dough rise in warm spot until doubled, about 1 hour.

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