Alaska and how to cheat at sour dough
There couldn’t be much more of a contrast between Alaska and Dubai. Think vast open spaces to high-rise, cold in the extreme versus baking sun up to 50C, mountains compared with flat desert, food caught and foraged for in the wild opposed to a reliance on imports from around the world. While walking my dogs on a patch of desert the other day I met a visitor from Alaska and she urged a visit ‘especially if you like hiking’ – I nearly booked my ticket then and there. While I revel in many of the things that city life has to offer I adore wide open or remote spaces without light pollution, no sign of civilisation and where the sound of the wind and wildlife is all you can hear.
There are some very wild parts of Alaska indeed as I found out by listening to actress Imogen Stubbs on Excess Baggage (the podcast is still available at time of writing). She is drawn to the Alaskan wilderness and recounted her experiences there with the vast distances, the extreme weather and the danger from encounters with bears. She stayed at the Ultima Thule lodge which means ‘remote beyond reckoning’.
No one goes to Alaska for the food – you go for the beauty of the landscape, the wilderness and the wildlife – but I didn’t eat badly either. My advice on the food front is to just eat at any eccentric bar or diner you might come across on your travels that’s run by a crazy woman and is full of oddballs, and chat to some of the local characters, who all have such tales to tell. It’s great fishing country, too. I remember flying over a river teeming with salmon, which probably explains how I was able to catch two 34lb salmon, even though I’d never fished in my life. – Imogen Stubbs
Self sufficiency and relying on the fruits of the wilderness form the backbone of Alaskan cooking. Seafood especially salmon, halibut and king crab, game such as moose, caribou, elk and reindeer and wild berries.
Apparently “sourdough” is slang for a person who lives in Alaska and this started during the Klondike Gold Rush when everyone kept a pot of sourdough starter in their kitchens. By “feeding” the starter with a little new flour every few days they kept the wild yeast alive so they could bake bread whenever they wanted. I read that people used to take their starter to bed with them to keep it from freezing overnight.
When looking for an Alaskan-inspired recipe I did not want to cook salmon. I choose to eat farmed salmon about once or twice a year due to the chemical content and wild or organic salmon is hard to obtain here in Dubai (not to mention the taste compared to wild line-caught salmon). Sour dough using a proper fermented starter is something that I’ve been meaning to make but haven’t been organised enough to keep it going. The nutritional and digestive benefits of sour dough – and the taste of course – are better than ordinary bread and explained in detail in this post by Artistta. There are good step by step instructions from Belleau Kitchen too.
But if you want a good alternative before your sour dough starter is up and running, my ‘go-to’ recipe for bread making is from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage Everyday (and if you have a KitchenAid or machine with a dough hook I’ve honed the process of his cheaty yeasty sponge loaf to make it even easier). It gives a terrific texture and relies on using a ‘sponge’ so you use less yeast than normal. Just measure out a few ingredients the night before, visit it a few times next morning and you can have a warm loaf with a proper crust and a great texture for lunch. If you have a KitchenAid or food processor with a dough hook follow the instructions under the images.
I ‘visited’ Alaska as part of Foodalogues’ Culinary Tour around the world. Joan has taken us to Panama, and next we are off to Turkey. Visit Foodalogue for a round-up of other recipes inspired by this virtual visit to Alaska.
Cheat’s sour dough or sponge loaf - adapted from River Cottage Everyday
500g strong white bread flour (or half and half plain flour and wholemeal bread flour)
325ml warm water (preferably bottled spring water)
10g fresh yeast or 5g dried yeast or fast-action yeast
10g fine sea salt
- Combine 250g of the flour with the fast-action yeast if using it, otherwise dissolve the fresh or dried yeast in the warm water. Beat the water into the flour to form a thick batter. Cover with cling film and leave to ferment overnight.
- The next morning add the rest of the flour and the sea salt. Knead for 10 minutes on a floured work surface (or in your machine fitted with a dough hook).
- Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and give it a turn to lightly coat it all over. Cover the bowl with oiled cling film or put the bowl into a very large plastic bag (like a clean bin bag). Leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size which will take one to two hours.
- Knock back and shape (I form it into a loose ball and put it in a lightly floured tea towel inside a bowl). Leave to rise again for about an hour.
- While it is rising for the second time heat your oven to 250C or its highest limit if lower. Five minutes before you are ready to cook the loaf put a baking tray into the oven to heat up.
- Lightly flour the baking tray (or put a sheet of non-stick foil onto it). Carefully tip the loaf out of the proving basket or bowl onto the tray so it lands upside down i.e. the rounded side uppermost. I like to use my very sharp carving knife to make slashes across the top. You could also cut it with scissors to make a pattern.
- Put the baking tray and loaf into the oven on the middle shelf and immediately after give a few squirts from a spray water bottle over and around it. Alternatively put a roasting tray full of boiling water on the shelf underneath it.
- After 15 minutes, reduce the heat of the oven to 200C and give another squirt of water from the spray. Leave to cook for another 25-30 minutes. The loaf should be well-browned and sound hollow when the base is tapped. Cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes or more before slicing.
Cheats sour dough or sponge loaf – Printable version
Have you ever been to Alaska? Since ‘visiting’ on this tour it’s one of the places in the world I’d like to travel to most. What did you do? What did you eat?! Where in the world would you like to go to?