Sunday, February 27, 2011

The envelope please... and the winner for perfect movie food is...


Maybe it's not so much about what it tastes like, but that it can be totally transformed by lighting. Just like a scene. It can be dark and spooky. Mysterious. Dramatic. Light. Fluffy. Molten and lavalike. It can impersonate little doves or sheep. It can be sweet or salty; spicy, herbal, exotic.

This recipe was nominated for best popcorn in the herbal category.

Olive oil
Duck fat
Garlic, finely chopped
Fresh rosemary, finely chopped
Smoked salt
Sel gris

Fry the garlic in the olive oil, until it starts to color.
Filter out the garlic from the oil, pouring the oil into the pan you're using for the popcorn.
Add the duck fat to the pan.
Drop three kernels into the oil, cover and wait. When they pop, pour in the rest of the popcorn.
Give it a few shakes until it starts to pop vigorously.
When there is more than three seconds between pops, dump the popcorn into a bowl.
Add the rosemary and salt, head for the TV and enjoy.

It goes well with margaritas (fresh lime juice with some water, agave sweetener, white Tequila, ice cubes, stirred not shaken).

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Food porn or art?

Everyone would likely agree that the top image is art or illustration; the lower image, however, might fall into another category. It's sensuous, glossy, hard to identify...

I'm still kind of unclear about what exactly transforms an ordinary photo into food porn, despite having browsed through a cookbook prominently featuring this style of photography. Or is it an entire style of food?

Is it things with lots of butter, sugar, chocolate? Rich foods with flavor profiles set to make your toes curl? Things you shouldn't be eating but can't resist? Aphrodisiacs? All of the above?

Funny how you don't notice that the glaze is dusty until after the photo... kind of hard to dust off an eclair, and I didn't want to spend hours in Photoshop fixing it. Are real porn stars dusty, too?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Asian pork with sumo wraps

Digging through the pantry and the refrigerator can lead to some interesting recipes.

Asian wraps
Serves four
  • 2 pounds boneless country style pork (or leaner if you like), cut into 1" cubes
  • salt to taste
  • black pepper to taste
  • cloves, ground (to taste)
  • cinnamon, ground (to taste)
  • fennel seeds, ground (to taste)
  • New Mexico chili powder (to taste)
  • 1 cup garlic chives, fresh
  • 1 cup snow peas, fresh
  • Sumo mandarin
  • Flour tortillas
  1. Toss the pork cubes in the spices, salt.
  2. Heat oil in wok, brown meat. Remove and set aside.
  3. Quickly sauté the snow peas in the wok, set aside.
  4. Sauté the garlic chives in the wok, set aside.
  5. Finish cooking the meat in the wok. 
  6. Heat the tortillas, set aside
  7. Slice the sumo mandarin into about 1/2" to 1" pieces or wedges. Set aside.
  8. Toss the meat, peas and chives in the wok to mix together quickly and re-heat. Adjust seasoning if needed.
  9. Place the warm meat in a bowl, bring the tortillas and sumo slices to the table and assemble the wraps. 
  10. Enjoy.

February 24th: National Tortilla Chip Day

Yes, there really is a day officially dedicated to tortilla chips. I suppose this means there is also a day dedicated to tortillas. Maybe two days, one for flour and another for corn. Maybe even blue corn, white corn and yellow corn.

Catastrophically, I was out of tortilla chips. Yet, there were lots of perfectly good corn tortillas, yellow, in the freezer. So... a little fooling around and tortilla soup here we come!

Tortilla Soup (sopa de tortillas con ajo)

Serves four

The soup
  • About 1 quart chicken broth
  • 6 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • about 1/2 tsp cumin
  • about 1/4 tsp allspice
  • 2 large ripe avocados
  • four springs of cilantro
  • 1 stalk green onion, chopped
  • salt to taste

The tortilla strips
  • 2-3 Corn tortillas
  • oil for frying
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • salt
  • green onions, chopped
  1. Pre-heat oven to 375° F.
  2. Place the garlic, onion, cumin, allspice and salt into the broth. Blend to a smooth consistency and simmer for about 30 minutes.
  3. Cut the tortillas into 1/4" strips. Set aside
  4. Heat the oil, add the tortilla strips, toss to coat with oil. Fry a couple of minutes until they take a hint of color. Add the garlic and onions, toss around to distribute the flavor.
  5. Remove the strips from the pan drain on a paper towel in a plate. Place the strips in an oven proof dish and crisp in the oven, about 15-20 minutes.
  6. When the strips are ready, remove from oven and set aside.
  7. Remove stems from cilantro, set aside.
  8. Slice the avocado into thin slices, set aside.
  9. Taste the broth for salt, spices. Adjust as needed.
  10. Ladle the broth into four bowls. Add avocado, tortilla strips, cilantro.
  11. Serve immediately.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Izakaya: おいしいですね!

Sashimi with a shiso leaf & pickled plum

Becoming a chef often involves boldly going where you've never gone before, trying new flavors and old flavors in new combinations. This can mean traveling to far-off lands, chasing down unique or even bizarre restaurants and trying things just because you have no idea of what they'll taste like.

In the interest of exploration in the best tradition of Portuguese marinheiros, I went to The Open Door in Monterey Park. The food, izakaya, is a series of small plates. Something you might call Japanese tapas. So you can try all kinds of flavors and permutations in a single meal, and walk away not too much heavier than when you entered. Some of the weight is imported Japanese microbrew beers. Exploration should not, after all, be limited to food alone.

Just about everyone has probably had edamame. They sell them at Costco. Green soybeans in their pods that you heat and eat, typically salty, washed down with beer. Did you ever ask the question, "What would happen if you used truffle butter and sautéed them?". No? Neither did I. However, someone at the Open Door izakaya restaurant did. Musky, umami truffle flavor meets formerly mundane bean pods for a nice nibbler to fill in between courses.

Then there was whitefish, sliced so thin that it was almost fugu-transparent, fanned out on the plate, with a peppery ponzu sauce, garnished with a green shiso leaf and a pickled mini plum.

Thin sliced beef loin seared on the outside, again with that excellent ponzu, but this time with a spicy kabocha purée and a fine julienne of daikon.

Very fancy takoyaki, too. This is normally Japanese street food, resembling octopus aebelskivers. It's made in a cast iron pan with big dimples for the batter, and turned halfway through the cooking process to make succulent balls of octopus-filled batter. These guys take things a step further. Brush the plate with a soy based sauce. Plate the takoyaki. Drizzle with a cream sauce. Add shaved bonito over the top - a mountain of it. Nice presentation!

Then the plate of Asian mushrooms, all tossed with some zucchini for a quick pan fry. I don't even know what they all were. One type was just rectangles with a very firm, meaty taste.

The last plate was smack dab in the middle of the "what's that doing here?" Duck confit. This is a Japanese inspired izakaya place... not a French bistro. The temptation was too great. It arrived, crisped to perfection, on four crispy pillars of something that resembled crunchy churros, supporting it over a mound of kabocha squash purée. The purée and confit worked well together. The crispy fried things were a bit of a case of adding grease to grease.

I passed on the mentaiko french fries, if that's what they were. Julienned potatoes tossed with mentaiko and a few other things, if I understood the description. Mentai is fish roe spiced with chili, not what most people think of when asked, "what do you like with potatoes?"

Now, the chef's challenge begins: how to take the ingredients, flavors and preparations and combine them into something I create. What if the takoyaki had a bit of pimenton in the batter, maybe a green chimichurri type sauce... Could the duck confit be deconstructed so that the meat were rolled into the crispy skin to form a boneless sausage, with a gobo root through the center as a handle... What if the beef carpaccio were alternately layered on thin-sliced baked potatoes à la pommes Anna...? To the kitchen!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Food memories vs. food memories. A tale of two waffles

Crispy vs... uh... mellow.

My father likes crispy waffles. I like crispy waffles. Everyone likes crispy waffles. So, I decided to make some. I looked at the ingredients on the box. Partially hydrogenated oils? Place box back in pantry. Step back.

Well, time for Plan B. Get a recipe online and make them from scratch. Look through several formulas, pick one that looks tasty. Oops. That one needs yeast, something that seems to be non-existent in the pantry. File it for later, under "real Belgian waffles take yeast". Interesting. Back to the search.

There they are! Buttermilk, baking powder, A.P. flour, egg yolk, egg white whipped to a firm peak with sugar. Vanilla extract.

Nobody in the kitchen yet. Good. Pre-heat the waffle iron. Pre-heat the oven to 200° to hold the waffles. Make the batter. First waffle out of the iron, into the oven. Second waffle. Third. Crispy! Success!

Everyone to the table, waffles all served crispy and hot at the same time.

"I don't like crispy waffles."

Oops. Just when you thought it was safe to play in the kitchen, pouf!

My mother actually likes soggy waffles. That delicious crunch as you bite through the outer layer surrounded by airy cooked batter, followed by the taste of delicious raspberry jam... not the cat's meow? Unimaginable. Yet, after observation combined with questioning, true. To some people a soggy waffle is a good waffle. Happy waffles are crunchless? Incomprehensible.

Must be that food memory thing again. So, majority food memory: crispy. Minority food memory: soggy.

Plan C: don't crisp the last waffle in the oven next time. Ask no further questions.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

There's a new fruit in town - Sumo mandarins!

Sumo mandarins were developed in Japan, but now they're grown in California where they're not subject to an import quarantine (citrus disease lurks everywhere). They've got a great flavor, and they're juicy in February when their tinier cousins are past their prime.

The only drawback? They're pricey. But, for a first taste of a new fruit it was worth it. Hopefully the price will come down, and eventually boxes of these things will be available for our pleasure at a less sumo-inflated price.

Sumos are also known as Dekomon mandarins. Perhaps someone thought them a cousin of Pokemon, only more art deco?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentines Day - a (très romantique) dinner for 2 humans & 1 cat

First, there might be something to going out to a nice restaurant: no dishes. However, I doubt that we could have afforded this meal:

  • Vol-au-vent avec crevettes, vent d'Asie: shrimp, snow peas, garlic chives, shrimp stock in bechamel inside puff pastry shell. Garnished with purple bok choy from our garden.
  • Steamed Dungeness crab, Crabandaise sauce, baguettes à l'ancien.
  •  Fourme d'Ambert blue cheese
  • Meli-Melo de gourmandises: truffes au chocolate noir legerement orangés, fleurons de pâte feuillétée, Valentine's day candies.


Cremant d'Alsace rosé
Vin Blanc du Cotes de Gascogne

The cat got some steamed crab, no sauce.
Thanks Teresa for the Valentine candies!
Ripping apart recently deceased crustaceans with your (almost) bare hands and devouring them is sooo romantic!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Shrimp Po'Boy (actually Lazy Boy)

Sometimes you just get an idea. There's no trace of where it came from, but it grabs you and won't let go until you try it out. This is not a simple sandwich, with several steps that need coordination, so that just makes the process that much more mysterious.

It was a dark but not stormy night, after a long day. This however was not enough to stop me once possessed by the concept of tweaking a po'boy so that all the ingredients were either seasonal for winter or previously frozen. So, no tomatoes. I was out of lettuce, and did not have or want some of the other traditional ingredients. But then a real poor boy would not run out to buy ingredients that he couldn't grow or didn't already have, would he? Gas is expensive.

So, the sauce became a spicy Hollandaise variant using home made vinegar, three kinds of chilis and salt. The greens became garden fresh arugula. The shrimp was the real deal, frozen Louisiana Gulf shrimp. The relish was caramelized onions and garlic. The bread, rosemary levain - a bit chewy perhaps but with a flavor that would go great with the other ingredients.

After all was said and done, it was quite a tasty sandwich. The dishwashing was less tasty, since all this stuff could not easily be combined into one or two pans.

Winter Shrimp Po'Boy
Serves two hungry people as a meal or four as an appetizer (just cut bread into 3" long pieces)

  • 2 pieces of Rosemary levain baguette, about 6" long, sliced lengthwise to about 1/2" of the other side, leaving a "hinge"
  • 4-5 Gulf shrimp, 16/20 size, cleaned and de-veined, cut into two pieces
  • About 2-3 Tbsp each Corn meal / cake flour mixture for dusting
  • 2 eggs, about 1/2 cup milk mixture for dredging
  • Aleppo chili powder to taste
  • 3 large leaves of arugula
  • 6 Tbsp onions, small dice or brunoise
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, small dice or brunoise
  • New Mexico chili powder to taste
  • Pimenton agridulce to taste
  • Oil for frying shrimp
  • 2 egg yolks for sauce
  • 4-5 Tbsp. butter, cut into 1/2" - 3/4" cubes
  • 4 Tbsp. or so Red wine vinegar
  • Oil for sauteing onions

  1. Defrost shrimp in refrigerator or cold water
  2. Slice butter into cubes, leave out to soften
  3. Pre heat oven to 250° F
  4. Slice the bread
  5. Clean and devein shrimp, cut into two pieces, drop into milk-egg mixture.
  6. Tear arugula leaves into about 2" pieces
  7. Chop onions and garlic
  8. Mix corn meal, flour, three chilis
  9. Mix vinegar with some salt, half the onion/garlic mixture, 3 chili powder to taste, reduce by about 1/2. If you over reduce, add water.
  10. Mix milk and egg mixture
  11. Heat oil for frying shrimp
  12. Sauté remaining onion-garlic mixture in some oil until it has a nice golden brown color, set aside.
  13. Heat water under double boiler
  14. Dredge shrimp in flour/cornmeal mixture, fry until golden, place on dish in oven to reserve.
  15. Strain chilis and onions out of vinegar, add to double boiler. Have butter cubes and a bit of cold water ready at hand so you can add them quickly as needed.
  16. Whisk in egg yolks, and keep whisking as you add butter a little at a time. Watch this sauce very carefully - when it starts to thicken it will go fast. Keep adding butter to maintain a nice consistency. I usually don't end up adding all the butter. When the sauce is getting thick (or is just a tad thicker than you want, take it off the heat (off the double boiler, since the water is still hot), and add a bit of cold water to stop it from over cooking. Keep whisking a bit to keep things smooth. Add salt to taste if you wish.
  17. Now, you're ready. Don't let the sauce sit since it will go downhill rather quickly. If you have to let it sit, add a bit of heavy cream instead of cold water at the end of cooking to stabilize it. Prepare two plates with a piece of bread each. Pour a bit of the sauce into the bread to moisten it a bit, add some of the onion/garlic relish, add some shrimp, tuck the arugula into the space between the bread and the spinach, and pour on the rest of the sauce. Enjoy! These things are supposed to be messy and drippy, so lean over your plate as you eat.

If you're reading this in summer, add vine ripe fresh tomatoes, maybe sauteed eggplant or peppers.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Cassoulet Chronicles

A chef at my school was the guest of honor at a local restaurant's Family Style Dinner. The main dish: Cassoulet.

This is a pot of beans from southern France. It always contains white beans. It probably contains pork. After that, it may have duck, goose, lamb, tomato and varying degrees of herbal seasonings. Bread crumbs with a bit of fat and cooking juice go on the top, that form a crust during baking. Cassoulet fanatics argue about the next point, but basically the crust should be broken up, mixed into the cooking liquids and allowed to re-form at least once. There are versions from Agen, Toulouse, Castelnaudry. All different, all authentic.

Our chef called it "French pork and beans". I'd seen the meats in various stages of preparation in the school kitchen. Confit de canard. Pork belly. It smelled incredible, yet I managed to resist grabbing a chunk and absconding with the evidence.

I was not sure I'd be able to attend the dinner, so I decided I'd try a piggy version of the dish myself. Instead of very expensive duck, I'd use slow cooked pork. The herbs would be the same: fresh thyme and laurel. There would be a bit of garlic, the beans and the bread crumbs with a bit of duck fat to make the crumbs interesting. Minimal and basic. No lamb, nothing expensive.

I've made my version of Cassoulet - something I prefer to call Haricot de mouton so as not to offend cassoulet purists. The main meat is lamb shanks, a bit of pork, garlic sausages, herbs, beans, etc. This time, I would not be able to fall back on the full flavored lamb to carry the dish. It would be a much more subtle beast.

As it turned out, I did attend the chef's dinner. The cassoulet was interesting. Less herbal than I expected, but with a nice porky note from all that pork belly. There were a few pieces of duck but they were cast in a supporting role under the porky lead. The beans were perfectly seasoned and cooked. Quite different than what I was used to, but a definite success nonetheless.

I'd already begun preparation for my cassoulet, so this was definitely my dish of the week. I'd already decided what I would do, so I knew the taste would be different than the chef's dinner.

I'll just say that it came out nice, not especially traditional, and that I ate too much both nights. So, without further ado, here's the recipe (my first in this blog, take note!)

Cassoulet de Carnitas

Yield: serves about 5-6 people - or reheats well for leftovers.

  • 5 pound pork shoulder roast, bone in, cut into 3" - 4" pieces. Leave some meat on the bone.
  • 7 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • 1-1/2 cup of Cannoli beans.  If you love beans, use two cups. If you're a gazillionaire, use French Tarbais beans. Make sure you check the price first, because I'm really not joking about the millionaire part.
  • 5 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 3 bay leaves, fresh
  • stale bread cut into 1/2" cubes
  • about 2 tablespoons duck fat
  • 1 strip of bacon
  • about 1/4 cup of herbes de provence, dry
  • Water to cover the beans twice. If the beans are 1" deep, add 2" water.
  • About 1/2 cup of sherry
1. Soak the beans overnight in salted water with the herbes de provence and half the garlic (you can use dried garlic and save the fresh stuff for later - if so, don't peel the garlic until the day you add it to the pot.

2. The next day, pour out the salted water through a strainer.

3. Place the beans in fresh water with the garlic, bacon, pork bone and herbs and cook without salting the water until they're just tender.

4. While the beans are cooking, tightly place the pork pieces in a pan with just enough water to cover and some salt and cook at low heat until the pork is falling apart tender and the water has evaporated. Pay close attention toward the end so that you don't burn the pieces. The goal is for them to fry gently in the rendered fat. If this looks familiar, it's the basic recipe for carnitas.

5. Turn the pork pieces to brown them in the fat, then drain off the fat. The pork, basically Mexican carnitas, can also be considered a confit of sorts, just the thing to throw into a nice cassoulet.

6. Transfer the pork and the beans to an oven proof dish and mix them well. Either remove the meat from the bone or just toss the whole piece in. Massage the bread crumbs in the duck fat and press them down onto the surface of the meat & bean mixture.

7. Bake at about 300° F until a crust forms, then break the crust. Check that there is still liquid. You may need to add water or stock to keep things juicy.

8. When a second crust forms, you can eat. No need to be fanatical about multiple crusts since this is a non-traditional recipe.

9. Serve with a nice Cahors (a Malbec from France), a Côtes du Rhône or other Burgundy style wine like a Portuguese Dão. The only other thing you might want is some hearty, crusty sourdough or levain style bread.

Smile, dammit!

Smile when you eat that!

"Why aren't you smiling? Don't you ever smile?" the woman seated across the table accused, piercing me with a rather hostile stare.

My first reaction was to look behind me. Nobody. After all, this woman had not spoken to me all night. My second reaction was WTF? My third was that this was probably something I deserved for not reserving earlier and as a consequence getting seated among total strangers.

After a good fifteen seconds of my best "deer in the headlights" impression, ideas began to emerge. Tactics and suitable responses flashed through my mind. Was she serious? Joking? Mad? Was this a case of HAFS (Hate At First Sight) and was I the target?

"Excuse me? I didn't quite get that," I answered. An attempt to both verify that she was attacking and give her a chance to restate the question in an nicer way.

"I said, 'Don't you ever smile?' Are you a happy person? Are you ever happy?" she blasted. So much for the theory that it was an awkward attempt at conversation rather than some kind of attack.

"I'm not smiling because my mouth is full", I ventured. Just to test the waters. Something neutral, non-agressive. Maybe defuse the situation.

I pondered. Did she have a sense of humor herself? Was she a happy person herself, or merely seeking advice to this elusive state?

"You're not smiling!" she continued. "Are you happy or not?".

"Actually, I find it very hard to smile when a total stranger is attacking me. Not what most people would consider a smile worthy situation, is it?". A warning shot across the bow. Another chance for her to develop some kind of manners.

At this point, the gentleman to her right jumped in, "That's not an attack. That's just a way of starting a conversation." He apparently had a tenuous grasp on the definition for hostile conversation starters.

I thought of more typical openers. Hello, my name is... I'm afraid we weren't introduced. Have you been here before? Do you know the chef? How did you like the cassoulet? What do you think of the new astrological sign? What do you think of raising chinchillas in a hot climate? What do all those doors hanging from chains over there do? Do you prefer solid rocket boosters over mixed liquid propellant and oxidant from a reliability, service and pollution standpoint? Why did they have to kill the linear aerospike?

She left no room for an answer, repeating her basic question insistently.

Silence arrived, permeating the table with quiet tension.

"Well, tell me a joke. If it's funny, I'll laugh."

She frowned.  No joke, funny or otherwise fell from her lips. Not the answer she wanted, apparently. Also a fail on the question about her own sense of humor or lack thereof.

"Aren't you happy? Don't you enjoy your job? Are you always that miserable?" she continued.

"I'd smile if I had a good reason." I answered, fixing her with my best Old West stare, "and this isn't one."

Her companion, who I'll name Blue Shirt, asked what I do for a living. My response - that the answer would be complicated so I'd rather not say - didn't help. I had a reason -  it could potentially escalate the conflict to include the couple seated to my right, since they had just won some kind of free televised landscape based on a list of items that they wanted. So, I said that answering the question would probably lead to more frowns than smiles.

He accused me of being a lawyer. I denied the accusation. I said I'd tell the nice guy next to me, if I was going to tell anyone (he already knew anyway). Blue Shirt figured I was lying, frowned, and left the table.

The woman, tenacious as a starving mosquito in springtime, pursued her happiness question. So I answered if she meant always, sometimes, when  properly medicated...?". None of this elicited even the merest flicker of a smile on her face. Instead, her frown deepened. My HAFS theory gained force.

She refused to develop her question further, choosing instead to remain silent and scowl. Maybe she thought I was serious with my answers. Maybe when I did laugh, she thought I was mocking her. I had no idea.

So, I explained to my left-hand dining partner exactly why I'd leave frowns. It's because if we treated food in restaurants like we treat landscape design, there would be a lot of unhappy diners. Plating would be done by listing objects. By this reasoning, a dish could be peanut butter, chocolate truffles and caviar. No relation between ingredients would need to exist. Yet, this is exactly how landscape design is treated, and throwing it together in a televised rush job only reinforces the trend. Unlike a bad plate, a landscape lasts a long time. Bad meal planning could lead to some wincing and a vow never to return to the offending restaurant. Yet haphazard landscape design, where a collection of things are thrown into a back yard and trimmed out with lawn and shrubs is almost universally accepted.

We talk about sustainable food, local food, slow food, healthy food, organic food. Yet when it comes to landscapes we mow the water-thirsty lawn with two stroke engines that spew pollution. We fertilize them with chemicals that run off into local rivers. We treat them for all manner of blemishes, unleashing even more chemicals into the environment. We don't catch runoff so that it can get back into the soil. Plants are typically selected without thought of their compatibility to our soils and climate. Native plants that provide habitat don't fit into the "always lush and bright green norm" so they're little used. Irrigation systems aren't correctly programmed. We don't think of landscapes as a form of art - although presentation is one of the first things taught in cooking school.

Checks arrived. People prepared to leave. The woman eventually shook my hand, saying "Nice to meet you". I smiled. She didn't. I couldn't help the smile. Blatant hypocrisy always makes me laugh. Blue Shirt never returned. Mustache declined his dessert and left. I learned that he allegedly owns a competing restaurant, with which the smile obsessed woman is also involved. Not a place I want to try after this experience!

I walked over to other tables and talked with friends. We laughed. We smiled. We compared recipes. The evening ended well.

So, if you read all this, you may ask what's the point? The first point is that five people seated around a table probably heard that the woman and her companions are associated with a specific restaurant. I doubt that their opinion of her was favorable, and I'm not so sure about their opinions of her companions. These opinions are now associated with their restaurant. I for one don't want to go there and get dissed by some crazies (again). Another point is that randomly seating people together can lead to stranger situations than one might expect. Lastly, if the food and service are good, the host restaurant still gets a good recommendation despite strange social situations.

I suppose I should add that this is but my recollection of the events and conversation. It's not like I taped all this, although I definitely felt I was in some kind of sitcom.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Freckles and Ears!

Pain au levain, with a nice "ear"

Pain au levain

Sourdough boule detail. Nice "freckles"

I don't know the official word for freckles. It's just what I call the little spots or mottling that was on every piece of sourdough bread, but for some reason did not happen on my bread. Now it seems that the reason was more the result of shaping technique than anything else. The upper surface of the loaf has to be stretched during shaping - but this also has to do with the wetness of the dough and the amount of gluten developed.

Ears, on the other hand, are where the crust rises up in the oven after scoring. Since they're out in the open with swirling hot air around them, they crisp up nicely and caramelize, adding more flavor to the bread.

These loaves use 100% sourdough starter, with no commercial yeast. They have a long fermentation time (pétrissage lente), about 24 hours between primary fermentation, shaping and proofing. During this time, the bread develops a lot of flavor, and the crumb is a nice tan color instead of white or cream.

I'm baking with a tiny electric convection oven. It does a decent job on bread since it's small and the steam from the bottom pan can fill the oven. The crust is crunchy and well caramelized, the crumb complex and interesting.

Considering the typically boring excuses for "European Style" bread at the local supermarkets, I really wonder if they know what they're doing. After all, they are supposed to have real, professional bread ovens (I imagine deck ovens with steam injection, but this probably varies from store to store). I remember buying really excellent bread at some stores when they first opened, but the quality has faded to a pale shadow of its former self. Did some maître boulanger come in, get them started, then leave? How do they decide who to hire for bread making duties? I almost hesitate to ask.