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Culinary Exploration: Pork, Cookies and Sourdough

So this weekend I kind of went on a baking/roasting bender.  My electrical bill is going to be disgusting this month but I think it was well worth it.  Three things did I accomplish: roasted pork shoulder, chocolate chip cookies, and sourdough bread rolls.  I’m jotting down my observations and recipes for posterity.

Roast Pork

The parts list on this is pretty small: pork shoulder (went with a bone-in shank end, about 10 lbs), salt, and rub.  The rub I used was my rib rub, which is a combination of brown sugar, paprika, cayenne pepper, cumin, black pepper, and garlic powder.  In that batch I also had some chili powder, which I made myself for an earlier chili experiment, which turned out pretty good but I did not write down for posterity, so I’m not sure what the parts list on that looked like (it amounts to about 5% of the total rub.)  Now normally I throw my pork shoulders into a long brine (crushed garlic, salt, soy sauce, sriracha, Worcestershire sauce, and chicken stock) before rub-down and roasting, but this time around I did a pure dry rub 24 hours before cooking time.

Hardware-wise I just had some heavy duty aluminum foil and a roasting pan.

Give the shoulder a good pat down and rub with the rub and salt for proper seasoning.  Cover it in foil and stick in the fridge for 24 hours for a good resting/marinating period.  Take it out an hour before cook time so that the meat comes to room temperature, and heat up your oven to 275 degrees.  Put the meat in your roasting pan and put it in the oven for the day.  I put the meat in the oven at 8:00 am, went to a softball game at noon-time, then out to lunch with friends.  (Also, yay Slightly Tainted on another solid win!  Woo!)  When I came home at 4:00 (err… you probably shouldn’t leave appliances on and leave the house… fire and all that stuff… ahem), I could smell the amazing wafting scent of roasting meat from the hallway.  I pulled out the pork just at the 8 hour mark, did a test pull and the meat apart like butter.  Wait an hour and pull apart with two forks.

I was afraid that the meat was going to be dry, but there was a lot of great juice left in the meat to keep it beautifully tender.  There was also a lot of jus in the pan, so I just scooped it right up and turned it into a sauce for dipping.  (Put it in a pan and boil until thickened.)  It was like its own BBQ sauce.  I have pork for… oh, forever and a half.

For next time: Next time I’ll stick to the brine, and get better aluminum foil.  Mine sprung a leak somewhere and a lot of the juices spilled out into the roasting pan, which defeated my plans for a basic self-created braise.  Some aspects of the meat were a little on the dry side because of this.  Also, I still have to figure out how to deal with the skin.  It’s an unfortunate waste to leave good pig flesh behind because it turns into a gummy fatty mess.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

These monsters were the size of your face.  I used a basic chocolate chip cookie dough recipe, nothing particularly complex about it:

Butter, 2 sticks, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups AP flour
2 cups chocolate chips (I used Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips)

Cream the butter and sugar together (basically, beat/whisk/blend sugar into the room temperature butter so you get a whipped and creamy consistency, like it has taken on some air), then add the eggs and vanilla and salt.  Sift flour and baking soda together, then incorporate the flour mix into the creamed butter.  Alton Brown of Food Network (from whom I modified this recipe, who in turn modified it from the Nestle Tollhouse Cookie Recipe) recommends incorporating the flour slowly, in thirds, into the mix.  I was lazy and/or just plain forgot and dumped the whole thing in there.  It was not a big deal!  My hand mixer could handle the job well enough, though I’m sure it would have been easier had I followed that simple recommendation.  After the flour is incorporated into the batter, throw in your chunkies (ie, chocolate chips – though you an easily add nuts, pralines, caramel, or bacon to the mix as well.)

I used a disher/ice-cream scoop in the 2-ounce range to scoop out large golf-ball sized orbs of dough, all told a full dozen cookies.  Bake in a  375 degree oven for 13 minutes, or until the edges brown up.  The cookies will be the size of your face, and deliciously chewy.

Notes: No particular observations.  I used this very recipe once to make chocolate cookies – I did not add chocolate chips but instead added about 1/4 cup of cocoa powder (Dutch processed) to the batter.  I also had reversed the sugar/brown sugar ratio (1/2 cup of brown, 1 cup white), which made the cookies come out deliciously crunchy and crispy.  (More brown sugar = chewier cookie, according to Mr. Brown.  My own experiments have borne this out.)

Sourdough Rolls

I have, for a long time now, been pondering the mysteries of sourdough, and whether or not it was possible at all to make my own sourdough bread.  A few months ago I decided that, doggone it!, this summer was going to be the summer.  No longer would I be forced to go to the market to buy little packets of wee yeast whenever I get the hankering to roll up a batch of dough and kill some microbial critters.  (Plus, you have to buy in batches of three, or the little jar which you’re never going to use – how wasteful!)  So I dedicated some time to learning about sourdough starters.

Ultimately, my research concluded that starting a starter was a (relatively) simple thing!  Just get some flour, throw it in some water, leave in a dark, warm place, et voila!  Well I did that… and a few days later had a gray flat mess which did not look like it had much in the way of fungal activity at all.  There were a few bubbles when I fed the thing some more flour, but overnight the mixture would separate, with a mass of flour hanging out at the bottom of my container, and a gross grayish liquid riding on top.  A few days later, I had signs of mold – so I threw the first experiment away in shame (also, a bug had gotten into the mix, because I had left it partially uncovered one night.)

I was disappointed, but not entirely ready to give up.  One day, not long ago, I was browsing Netflix for something to watch and came across the documentary How Beer Saved the World.  (I found it way too beer-centric, but then it would be.)  One thing that I did get out of the documentary which I previously had not thought about was the original recipe for beer – or rather, how anthropologists theorize beer first came to pass: after gathering barley to cook (and, presumably, eat), early homo sapiens left the barley out when they went to fetch/hunt a side of meat.  Rain came, filling the container of barley with water.  Some time later when the first men came to gather their goods, they saw that their barley had fermented into a bubbly gooey mess.  The first man drank it, and saw that it was good!

Now, I find it highly implausible that early homo sapiens would stumble upon beer in such a ridiculous fashion, and that their first instinct upon finding this uncooked frothy goop was to taste it.  More like, I think that early man turned the barley into a mush with water, and stored it in a jar intending to cook it, or perhaps they went ahead and cooked it into whatever passed for gruel.  Either way, they had leftovers, and stored the left overs for later.  When they came back to the leftovers, the goods had been invaded by Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and thus beer was discovered, and the world became a better place for it.

Anyhow, what I got out of this was the idea that perhaps the flour I was using was too refined to capture live yeast.  After all, I started my first starter with plain simple bread flour.  I decided instead to use barley flour if I could find it.  (Also, I recently had a side dish with barley pearls and loved it, so I was in a pro-barley mood.)  When I went to the Stop’n’Shop, however, they did not have barley flour.  They instead had organic rye flour – so I figured that was close enough!

Indeed it was!  A cup of rye flour, a cup of water, some mixing, and a day later I have a mass of stuff bubbling out of the container.  (Literally – I had placed it in a 2 cup sealed plastic container as the larger two-quart model disinfected in bleach overnight – again, mold, yuck.  When I came to the following morning, the brew had been so active that it had popped the seal on the container and spilled out all over the sides – more than doubled in capacity!)  I was excited – so I transferred the new rye starter to the larger container, fed it, and watched my yeastlings bloom.

Anyhow, you have to wait a week, feeding the starter daily, before they say you’re good to cook with your starter, so here I am:

1 cup of starter
2 cups plus 1 1/2 cups of bread flour*
Tablespoon of honey
Heavy pinch of salt*
1 cup plus 1/2 cup of water*
1 pad butter

*I created this dough via the sponge method: you mix most of your ingredients into a wet sticky dough and leave it resting overnight so that gluten develops and you get good yeast activity.  Items marked with an asterisk were added after the sponge rested overnight.

So you assemble your sponge – starter, 2 cups of bread flour, honey, and 1 cup of water into a big metal mixing bowl.  The dough will be very loose and very wet and very sticky.  Mix with your hand, then let it rest for a long time.  Recommended rest time is 18 hours in the fridge – I did 8 hours on the counter.  When I came back the sponge had more than doubled in size and the flour had taken in all of the moisture (it was basically a big wet gooey mess.)  I added the remaining cup and a half of flour to the dough, a heavy pinch of salt, and started adding water to the dough until it took on a solid, sticky, tacky consistency that I could still work with.  I mixed that up well with my hands, and turned that out into my work surface (my new massive wooden cutting board which I will never, ever, let see the inside of a dishwasher.)

I let the dough rest for 20 minutes and then shaped it into a log, which I bisected.  I then rolled the two halves into about 8 inch logs, and cut those into half, then halved again, so I had 8 pieces all told.  (I would lie and say they were roughly equal pieces, but they weren’t, unless you have a very loose definition of “roughly.”)  Roll out the separate pieces – each no smaller than a golf ball, some about 1.5 times that size – into a ball, then flatten them into a disk.  Bring the ends of the disk together and pinch sealed.  Place in a half-sheet pan lined with a silicone mat.  Let them proof for an hour, and they’ll puff up to a respectable roll size.  I cut an “x” onto the top of the rolls (one roll was a little bigger than the others, so I did a double-x on him) to allow for oven spring, and then melted a pad of butter, which I painted over the tops of the rolls.

I baked in a 375 degree oven for 30 minutes.  The internal temperature of the rolls was 195 degrees +/- 1 degree Fahrenheit, as well as golden brown, so I pulled them at that time, figuring that they could coast the final few degrees to full done-ness.  (200 – 210 degrees is usually what you want to see out of your baked breads/cakes.  That’s basically the temperature at which all of the water has converted to steam in your baked goods and you have a solid mass of goodness.  The closer to 210 you get, the dryer your baked good.  195 was pretty much perfect for these rolls.)

Notes: I have multiple.

1) My research indicated I might have to use commercial yeast anyway for my sourdough goodies, but my starter had been so active so far that I decided to see what kind of mileage I got out of it flying solo.  (I figured if I didn’t get a good rise out of the sponge rest, I would warm up a package of commercial active dry yeast.)  I was not disappointed!  My dough had a good rise all around, a fantastic texture, and a slightly tangy taste that got better the next day.

2) Traditionally, crusts have never been my thing on bread.  My last few experiments have yielded either crusty, nigh-impenetrably armored loaves, or flaky, not-quite-crusty crusts.  Since the only agent I changed, aside from the starter, was the pad of melted butter to finish off the loaf (I’ve used egg washes and olive oil coats before), I will have to attribute my sturdy-but-yielding crust to the butter.  Very pleasant to the touch, pliable, but reassuringly sturdy, and most importantly, giving to the tooth.  Very happy with the results, I hope I can recreate!

3) My flour numbers might be off.  I floured the work surface multiple times during the rolling out sessions, so that a lot of added flour worked itself into the mix.  I don’t think it was more than a half cup, and I’ve heard that a number of other factors can have an effect on this (humidity, temperature, etc.), so be ready to add a little more flour or a little less flour as necessary.

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