Upper Valley Sourdough Boule: The Ultimate Holiday Starter Gift...Literally

If you have a mother sponge in your life, you spend an inordinate amount of time tending to the living beast.  As much time as I enjoy baking with her (every day), it seems I devote just as many hours nurturing her to popping and crackling effervescence.  Don't get me wrong, it takes seconds to feed a starter.  And the feeding schedules can be quite liberal (once a day!  or twice!  or three times!  you choose!).  But when I'm in full bore sourdough mode, I baby my sponge and dissect her bubbles; I note  their size and relative activity.  I sniff and evaluate.  I stir and contemplate.

My Rye Starter, just fed.

It goes without saying, that if you spend the amount of time that I do tending the beast, you'll have a hard time parting with it.  This can lead to big trouble.  For the nature of sourdough starter, if properly tended, is to grow.  Standard practice is to toss up to half the starter (assuming you're not using it daily and in decent quantity) before feeding.  My reticence to just dump my living mass, no matter that it's really just water and flour with a liberal dose of wiggling bacteria (yummy!  Really!), has led to my main mother sponge to now weigh in at 57 pounds.  I can use a few pounds of her a day but that really does little to trim her fat.  And with many feeding schedules calling for you to feed the thing her weight in flour and water, you can double your starter every day.  It's shocking that my main lady isn't larger.

Starter in an antique bell jar and a fresh baked sourdough boule.

Enter the month of December.  It's time to gift!  And as I'm a baker and pastry chef by trade, I have a few thing of great value that I'm happy to share with the people I really care about and my mother sponge is one of them.  Some of my favorite people live right next door.  They also happen to be avid bakers.  And as they share pretty much the same air as I, my 8 year old starter is already technically their starter. So I baked a sourdough boule and printed up a recipe.  I bottled up some starter and packed a bit of semolina.  I acquired a lame and some lovely, ashy European flour from King Arthur Flour.  And there it is, the gift that keeps on giving (as long as you feed it).

Makes 2 Boules

This takes two whole days …but is worth every minute.  And most of it is just resting time, not active time.

12 ounces mother sponge/starter
2 pounds plus 2 ounces European Flour (you may need more or less)
1 pound 2 ounces cold water (you may need more or less)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sea salt (fine mill)
Non-stick cooking spray


•Combine all ingredients but the salt in a bowl and stir with a dough whisk or wooden spoon until it just comes together.

My King Arthur Flour dough whisk is the perfect tool for this part of the process.

•Turn it out onto a work surface and knead the dough until it’s shiny smooth and elastic in texture.  You could use your mixer but it’s better to hand knead.  This can take up to 12 minutes but it’s pretty hard to overwork by hand (easy to do by mixer AND easy to burn out your mixer’s motor).  Keep in mind that the dough is very soft, almost tacky.  This is right.  If it’s soggy, add more flour.  If it’s stiff, add more water. 

When the dough just comes together in the bowl, turn it out for kneading.

•Stop kneading and cover with a barely damp kitchen towel and allow to rest 20 minutes.

•Sprinkle the salt over the dough and knead again.  The dough will become stiffer very quickly.  Knead by hand for about 8 to 10 minutes.

•Place the dough in a large bowl sprayed with non stick cooking spray.  Turn the dough over a few times to coat completely with the oil.  Cover with plastic wrap and allow to ferment for 4 hours, it should almost double in volume.

•Divide the dough evenly in half and gently shape into a rough round, tucking the ends under.  Cover each with a towel and allow to rest for 20 minutes.

•Prepare a willow basket by liberally coating with flour or rub a kitchen towel with flour to saturate the fabric, line a small round bread basket with the towel and sift an even coating of flour on the towel again.

Final form and ready for a nap in the fridge.

•Shape the boules by placing your hands on either side of the round and spinning the loaf clock-wise while using your pinkies and ring fingers to gently tuck the dough under to create a tight boule (don't sprinkle your work surface with flour for this, you want the dough to almost grab the surface to create tension on the dough).  Gently turn the dough smooth side down into the prepared baskets and pinch the seams together.  Cover the dough with a towel and allow to rest at room temperature for an hour.

•Once rested, cover both baskets tightly with plastic wrap (if you got ‘em, use shower caps) and place in the fridge overnight to develop flavor (no more than 24 hours).

•In the morning, take the dough out and place a barely moist kitchen towel over both baskets.  Allow to proof at room temperature until doubled in size, from 4 to 6 hours.  (It really takes this long for sourdough.).  To make sure the dough is ready do bake, gently poke the dough.  If the indentation stays put, it’s ready, if it springs back, it still needs time.  Also feel the temperature of the dough. It should be 62º.

•About an hour before baking, place a baking stone on the bottom rack of the oven and preheat to 500º.  Put a shallow pan (a restaurant pan is perfect) on the top rack at the same time.  Get a spray bottle ready with warm water.

•When the bread is ready, gently sprinkle the exposed underbelly of dough liberally with semolina.  Take a wooden peel ( you can use a bread peel but I use a large cheese board) and place on top of the bowl and turn it over so that the dough gently falls onto the paddle.  Gently remove the towel (if the towel sticks, spray the top of the towel with water a bit at a time to gently remove it without deflating the boule.º.

•Using a lame, slash the boule in a cross (or in a decorative manner) at a 45º angle and about ¼” to 1/2 “ into the dough.  This is more than decorative, it allows the dough to rise properly without busting at the bottom and cracking unattractively.

•Carefully but quickly pour warm water into the shallow pan in the oven (wear gloves and keep your face away from the oven to avoid steaming your face off).  Spray the sides of the oven with your spray bottle (avoid the bulbs, they may burst), and close the oven door for a few seconds.  Open the door and gently slip the bread from the wooden peel onto the baking stone and quickly spritz the sides of the oven again.  Close the doors immediately.  Within the first 5 minutes of baking, spray the sides of the oven 2 more times with water, making sure not to hit the bread.  After those 5 minutes, turn the oven down to 450º.  Bake for 20 minutes.  Don’t open the oven during this time.  After 20 minutes, rotate your loaf (put on your oven mitts to do this) and bake for 10 to 20 minutes more.  The loaf should be deeply brown  and when you knock on the bottom of the loaf, should sound hollow.

•Allow to cool completely before eating.

***NOTE***In the event you don't have a starter ready to go, start one now!  Go to this link for instructions.  

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