Happy 20th Birthday, Bubbles!

Bubbles, my sourdough starter turns twenty years old this year. She and I have been through a lot over the last twenty years. We’ve fed dozens of people and even won some culinary competitions together.

I guess I have personified this extraordinary mass of living matter, because she has meant so much to me and has been a large part of my professional life for so long. I like to call her my “flour child”. You see  I, also, have two other sourdough starters as well.

For me baking bread is like yoga– very calming and relaxing. The origins of Bubbles began in the Fall of 1996 when my husband was working very late, and I was waiting for him to come home. I had been reading about the baking guru Nancy Silverton and her La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. Her methods of creating a natural sourdough starter using no commercial yeast intrigued me.

I had read that bakers that do a great deal of baking had an ample supply of natural or wild yeast floating around their kitchens. Going along with this train of thought I felt that because I did a lot of baking perhaps I, too, had an abundant amount of yeast that would help to create a great starter. Or maybe it meant that I was just a lousy housekeeper. Either way I was willing to give Nancy Silverton’s method a shot.

Late that evening I wrapped some unwashed, organic red grapes in some cheesecloth. Most fruits have natural yeast on them so hopefully there would be enough wild yeast on those grapes to help my starter to develop. I placed the grapes into a clean, food grade gallon container and added some water and flour as food for the yeast. I covered it tightly and placed it in a closet to develop for about 14 days.

After 14 days I opened it up and WOW! It looked so very terribly GROSS and NASTY (words cannot describe what I saw and smelled) that I threw it out. Actually I made my husband throw it out. He is such a good guy!

After doing more research to see what went wrong I realized that the beginning of a starter should and will look like baby vomit and smell quite sour before it fully develops. Feeling brave I started a new starter.

Once I started adding more flour and water, after the 14 days, the natural bacteria and wild yeast became more balanced. It developed a wonderful yeasty aroma and became quite bubbly. Hence, the name– Bubbles!

What I soon learned was that wild yeast and natural bacteria share food nicely– each consuming different sugars within the flour. Yeast and bacteria each have their own enzymes that break down the starches in the flour into sugars. They also give off their own byproducts.

A true symbiotic relationship begins. The yeast, giving off carbon dioxide and alcohol through the process of fermentation, and the bacteria giving off their own byproducts of acetic and lactic acids. That is why bread from a sourdough tastes a bit tangy. Each physical location has its own species of yeast, so breads made in different areas of the world may taste differently. Think of the wonderful sourdough bread in San Francisco.

Sourdough breads taste much better than your average breads that don’t use a starter. The time it takes to create a starter helps to form wonderfully, flavorful  organic compounds that provide a complexity and character that cannot be tasted in a white bread from the grocery store.

I strongly urge you to try to bake your own yeast bread even if it is not a sourdough. Even once just to taste the difference. People who bake bread get it. It is so worth it.

Happy 20th to the best partner in bread making. I look forward to many more years of wonderful bread with you, dear friend!

Happy Baking!

Chef Gail


A Chef Too Big for His Britches

I just spent a wonderful week traveling through California starting in San Francisco and ending up in Napa Valley! The food and wine were amazing as were the people. At least most of them.

Among the wonderful restaurants that I ate in, one in particular, stood out. The food from the apps, bread, entrees and desserts were beautifully presented and delicious! Most people pay attention to this sort of thing, because we all eat with our eyes, but as a culinary teacher and chef I REALLY pay attention! So this place, I thought, would be etched in my brain as a most wonderful experience.

What I learned in that restaurant that evening was that the dining experience is only one aspect of going to a food establishment. How you treat the customer is tantamount to your business. After all the customers keep you in business by patronizing your establishment, right?

The  chef/owner of this restaurant is quite famous and was actually in the house on the night I was there. He actually was not working that night but he was present I was told. I was as giddy as a school girl. I asked the manager if Famous Chef would mind autographing a menu for me since the menus were to be taken by the customers if they so chose to do so. Of course, he would put in my request, but at the moment he was talking to some people on the patio. No biggie. I still hadn’t had my entrée or dessert and was thrilled at the possibility of getting a personalized autograph from him.

It should be an honor when another chef comes to your restaurant. After all, I chose this restaurant to eat in because of Famous Chef’s reputation. I am trusting him to prepare a marvelous dining experience for someone who understands what a meal like this entails. It’s sort of like being a doctor and trusting another colleague to care of you or a family member that you love and care about.

After waiting and waiting I realized Chef Too Big For His Britches was NOT ever going to sign a menu for me. His manager assured me he was very approachable. Well, after what I saw he seemed the opposite. The staff seemed quite cowed by him and intimidated. The manager even offered to deliver the autograph at another time to my hotel if and when the chef could find a few seconds to do it.

We finally paid the bill after being told to wait for an extended period of time. As we were leaving the manager came over to me and said that perhaps the chef was free now to sign my menu. I slowly approached his Chef Highness and the guy (no joke) skirted by me and started talking to another group of customers. This is even AFTER the manager had spoken to him about doing me, another customer, this small, itty, bitty favor. Such is life. I guess I was not worthy enough. Now I know that he does NOT owe me anything, but I was pretty taken aback by these events.

The staff, all the while, watching this happen pushed the envelope and helped to make an introduction. He finally signed my menu and shook my hand. He then asked if I was going to any other of his well known restaurants during my stay- one of which is $1000 a person. I thanked him and tried to be as gracious as I could. Hard to do. All I wanted to do was to leave.

My thoughts of him changed dramatically. I would NEVER treat another human being like that. I do demonstrations all the time for the public and teach and I would never blow off a student or anyone who had a question for me or wanted to talk. I have even signed some autographs for my first book although not nearly as many as Chef Fancy Pants, but never would I ignore a customer and fan. I would never want to bother a chef while he was working or disturb him in any way. I was not obnoxious in my request and waited patiently.

What disturbed me was that he was schmoozy with a few customers which is fine, but he chose to rudely ignore me. And who am I? I am just a chef, cookbook author, and teacher who happened to be a huge fan and one of his customers that evening who wished only for a quick acknowledgement, a handshake and a few kind words.

Top off Your Cookies

I have a tip for you. If you are baking cookies and you have any leftover nuts, cookies or candy, save them to top off your cookie dough before the little guys go into the oven!

What do all of these things have in common? A quarter of a bag of mini marshmallows, some graham crackers, some potato chips, some chopped dates or apricots, nuts, peanut butter cups… the list goes on and on.

If you haven’t guessed yet, they all make great toppings for cookie dough before  baking.  Just portion out the dough onto your parchment- lined sheet pans and then just poke the various toppings into the dough. Any combos will work.

I made outstanding S’more cookies by poking coarsely crushed graham crackers and some leftover stale mini marshmallows into chocolate chunk cookie dough. And let’s face it, we all know stale marshmallows are better than when they are fresh. When they are stale they hold up so much better in the oven.

So make your own creations and share your ideas! You may just become famous like that Toll House cookie gal who came up with the idea to put chopped chocolate into HER cookie dough!

Happy Baking!

Chef Gail

Grilling tips for Desserts

Strawberry shortcakes and s’mores are great this time of year, but have you ever entertained the idea of grilling your desserts? Here are a few tips.

Try grilling pound cake, sponge cake or angel food cake and then piling on the toppings of whipped cream, fruit, nuts and/or chocolate. I must say browning that cake, whatever type it is, on the grill provides a crunchy and toasty sweetness that makes that dessert something special. Grilling the cake actually caramelizes the sugars that are on the surface of that cake elevating the taste and mouth feel. Make sure the cake is pretty sturdy and won’t break apart on the grill.

I also recommend grilling fruit halves like peaches, plums, apples and pears. After lightly marking them on the grill for a few minutes, brush them with a bit of a glaze. This can take many forms like a simple syrup or thinned down preserves or jelly. Do this on a low flame, and when they become softer and glazed, serve over vanilla ice cream and top with whipped cream and nuts or shaved chocolate. Yum!

Happy Baking!

Chef Gail