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Making Pan de Coco de Samaná

Pan de coco de Samaná is the American biscuit’s Caribbean cousin, from, you guessed it, Samaná, which is a northern coastal province of the Dominican Republic. The area is heavily Americanized, though not in the way you’d think. Free black Americans began moving there some 175 years ago. And when they came, they brought their food traditions with them. That included biscuits, which were already a “thing” in the early 1800’s. The trouble there, of course, was that dairy products were in relatively short supply in Samaná back then. But then as now, there were all kinds of coconuts around. e area is heavily Americanized, though not in the way you’d think. Free black Americans began moving there some 175 years ago. And when they came, they brought their food traditions with them. That included biscuits, which were already a “thing” in the early 1800’s. The trouble there, of course, was that dairy products were in relatively short supply in Samaná back then. But then as now, there were all kinds of coconuts around.

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Pan de Coco de Samaná Recipe

This biscuit-like bread is traditionally sold at roadside stands in the Samaná province of the Dominican Republic, where it’s baked in cast iron Dutch ovens, much like biscuits were once baked on the American frontier. A fire is prepared and allowed to burn down to coals. At that point a round of dough is placed in the Dutch oven, and the oven is set on top of the coals. More coals are scooped onto the lid of the oven to provide top heat. It’s a handy system, and one you can certainly employ if you like, either at home or at the camp ground. For now I’m going to use a very hot kitchen oven to approximate the effect. But first the ingredients. You’ll need:

11 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sugar
1 ounce coconut oil (the solid stuff)
6 ounces (3/4 cup) coconut milk (preferably homemade)

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Can I make real, sour, sourdough bread if I don’t live in San Francisco?

So asks reader Dean (and Liz, and Darren, and Susan). The answer is a definitive “maybe”. There’s no question that bakers in the Bay Area have the edge when it comes to creating very sour breads. However truly sour, naturally-leavened loaves are possible in other regions of the country (or world), provided you can manipulate your starter’s moisture level, temperature, and rising/proofing times in the right way.

Allow me to explain. All bread starters are tag teams of yeasts and bacteria, with yeasts being primarily responsible for the rise, and bacteria for the flavor. The lion’s share of that flavor comes from acid, which is produced by different types of bacteria in varying amounts. As you might expect, the starter bacteria the thrive in the Bay Area,  L. sanfranciscensis and L. pontis, are world champs in realm of acid production. L. sanfranciscensis produces unusually high levels of lactic acid, while L. pontis makes mostly acetic acid, which is the stuff that gives vinegar its sharp flavor.

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Do I feed my mother enough?

Reader Dianne tells me she’s concerned about my mother. She tells me that based on my recent posts, it sounds like I don’t feed it very much, or very consistently. Dianne, that’s true, though I assure you it isn’t a cruelty. The system I use is a little different than most. I keep a very small, somewhat meagerly fed, mother starter. Most of the time I have little more than a cup in the fridge. That’s on purpose, as I like to grow new starters as I need them, not keep bigger ones that require lots of food and attention. Given that the amount of starter you can grow from even a small amount of mother starter is theoretically infinite, I need very little on-hand.

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One Mother, Many Starters

A little-discussed aspect of starters is the degree to which they can be — indeed probably should be — customized according to the type of bread you’re planning to bake. For example, my go-to outdoor oven bread is a pugliese. It’s got a lot of semolina flour in it, which means that in order to get the rise I want from the dough, I need to add a high-gluten (high-protein) flour to the mix.

So far so good. However one key factor is the starter. The starter makes up about 1/3 of the total volume of the dough. My recipe calls for a standard white flour starter. However if I use a white flour starter that I’ve built up (“fed”) using regular all-purpose flour (not a stronger, high gluten flour) then in the end I’ll get a lower-volume loaf, because a significant portion of my flour — the flour that’s in the starter — will be of the lower-gluten all-purpose variety.

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Life with Mother

A number of questions have come in about barm (sourdough) starters the last few days. Though some of the specifics have varied, the main theme seems to be: how do I keep and use a starter on a long-term basis? Looking over in my section on barm starters, it appears that I never really covered that subject in detail. What an oversight! Well, better late than never I guess.

Keeping a starter is a very easy thing to do once you’re in the habit. I keep mine in a 2-quart container in the back of the fridge. It’s been there for years. Every time I set out to do a little starter-based baking I take a little of it out, then feed that bit, slowly building it up into the quantity I need. The main starter that stays in the fridge is what’s known, in baking parlance, as a “mother”.

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Making Bialys

Bialys back in their turn-of-the-century heyday in Bialystok, Poland were very large, very flat affairs covered from one side to the other with chopped onion. After a few decades in New York bialys became both smaller and chubbier, with naught but a sprinkling of onion in the center. This is my attempt to split the difference to some degree. These sport the thicker torus shape but contain more onion because, well, I think more flavor per bite is better.

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Bialy Recipe

I confess the idea of using a starter for these was tempting. I found a few notes here and there on some recipe boards to the effect that a starter would be “traditional” for bialys. I’m inclined to dispute that. Bialys were invented in Bialystok, Poland around the year 1880. Which means they are by any definition a “modern”, “city” bread, made with the packaged brewer’s yeast that would have been commonly available at the time. Considering how much the Poles have always loved light, fluffy, fast-rising breads I think the odds of bialys being sponge-raised are remote. Still I’m not stickler for authenticity. Some of dough or starter would work well here. Substitute either for up to 1/3 of the dough, making sure the 50% hydration ratio is retained, and making sure you use high gluten or bread flour for either preferment.

2 cups (10 ounces) high-gluten or bread flour
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1 teaspoon salt
5 ounces (2/3 cup minus a teaspoon) water at room temperature
1/2 recipe caramelized onions, chopped

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Making Melba Toast

The operative logic behind melba toast seems to be: if you’re going to eat nothing you might as well make it interesting. There’s no question that Escoffier did as much as he could with what he had to work with here. This is as interesting as dry toast gets. Start by turning on your oven’s broiler and procuring some bread. If it’s already a little stale, so much the better. This is some leftover brioche because honestly plain white bread was too much nothing even for me.

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Making Pan de Muerto

This is the traditional bread of the Mexican Day of the Dead — Día de Muertos — a celebration that actually encompasses three days: October 31st, November 1st and November 2nd. Together they make up Allhallowtide, a trio of Christian holy days that includes All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Of course in Mexico they take on a unique character, blended as they are with pre-Christian traditions and motifs. These sweet and aromatic breads, which resemble little piles of bones, are frequently placed on Day of the Dead altars. Just as often they’re simply consumed with wild abandon.

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