Because we have always been big fans of San Francisco-style sourdough bread, our Alaskan tour guides made our mouths water every time they referred to the common nickname for a Klondike prospector, a sourdough.
Turns out, the prospectors traveled with a pot of sourdough strapped to their backs. Like many pioneers and cross-country travelers, they kept a small amount of yesterday’s dough alive to start tomorrow’s bread.
Maintaining a sourdough starter on the trail was said to be a true art. The accomplished cook was able to keep a batch replenished in any weather or trail condition.
Happy to learn about our history during our Alaska travels this summer, we were even happier to encounter sourdough on menus everywhere we traveled. The delicate tang of sourdough starter can influence everything from pancakes to pretzels, quick breads, pizza crust and biscuits.
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Raising pancakes with yeast is an old American tradition that predates the invention of baking powder. The overnight proofing develops the flavor of the flours, and the yeast ensures lightness.
With little effort and planning, sourdough can transform pancakes for your overnight holiday guests. Pancakes are more economical to cook at home than eat out, plus the cook looks like a hero — as most of the preparation is done the night before. (You can keep the batter in the refrigerator for a day or two. Just know the flavor will get tangier.) After the overnight rise to develop flavor, the house smells delicious in a jiffy the next morning when you griddle-bake the cakes.
My favorite sourdough pancake recipe starts with a version from our 1975 edition of “The Doubleday Cookbook.” Growing up, my mom called these tender cakes blinis and served them with sour cream; she used the same batter for her yeasted waffles. Now, I substitute whole wheat flour for a portion of the all-purpose flour for a nutty flavor. I admit that I rarely keep any of the starter due to an always-crowded refrigerator. Instead, I simply plan ahead a day or so.
Pancakes for dinner is a thing in our home. Economical and surprising. I make the batter in the morning and it is pleasantly sour by evening. Serve the pancakes with thinly sliced smoked salmon, whipped cream cheese and capers. Or, while they are on the griddle (before you flip them), sprinkle with shredded cheese, corn kernels and a few black beans; serve with sour cream, thick salsa and a shower of cilantro.
Perhaps the Alaskan sourdoughs made biscuits as often as pancakes. I like to bake the biscuits in a heavy cast-iron skillet. Perhaps because it makes me feel a bit like a trail cook, but mostly because the heavy skillet gives the biscuits a delicious crust with a tender interior.
Serve the biscuits warm with salted or herbed butter or cream cheese. Or turn them into dessert by splitting them and layering them with sweetened whipped cream and crushed berries.
At this time of the year, I serve both the pancakes and biscuits with an easy fruit compote made from colorful dried fruits.
Sourdough whole wheat pancakes
Yield: Makes about 18 3-inch cakes, serving 4.
Prep: 15 minutes / Rise: 1 hour plus overnight / Cook: 20 minutes
Most of the work of these pancakes is completed the night before serving. The recipe doubles easily for a crowd.
1 3/4 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons plus a generous pinch sugar
1 packet active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons melted butter or sunflower or safflower oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Soft butter and/or sunflower or safflower oil for cooking
Cranberry-apricot-fig compote, see recipe (or pure maple syrup or confectioners’ sugar)
Put milk and 2 tablespoons sugar into a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high (100 percent power) until the milk is very hot, about 2 minutes. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Let cool to lukewarm (105 to 115 degrees).
Put 1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees) into a large bowl. Add a generous pinch of sugar and the yeast. Stir to dissolve, then let stand until bubbly, 2 or 3 minutes. Stir in cooled milk. Slowly whisk in the flours until the mixture is smooth.
Cover the bowl with a towel and let stand in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 30 minutes. Then, without stirring, cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, remove the bowl from the refrigerator so it can warm up for about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat oven to 200 degrees. Place a baking sheet in the oven. Stir the batter, then gently fold in the eggs, melted butter and salt.
Heat a large nonstick griddle or skillet over medium heat until a drop of water sprinkled on the surface evaporates on contact. Swirl some butter and oil over the griddle. Add 2 or 3 small ladlesful of the batter onto the surface, allowing plenty of space between pancakes. Use the back of the ladle to spread the batter into a circle about 3 inches in diameter. Cook until bubbles form on the surface and the underside is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Flip the cakes and cook to brown the other side, about 1 minute.
Transfer pancakes to the baking sheet in the oven while you cook remaining batter. Serve hot with the cranberry apricot compote, maple syrup or sugar.
Nutrition per serving: 404 calories, 13 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 119 mg cholesterol, 59 g carbohydrates, 12 g sugar, 14 g protein, 375 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
Yield: Makes about 2 1/2 cups.
Prep: 10 minutes / Cook: 5 minutes
1 1/2 cups dried apricot halves, quartered (8 ounces)
1/2 cup diced dried Mission figs (3 ounces)
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon butter
Grated zest of 1 small lemon
Put the fruit and orange juice into a medium glass or ceramic baking dish. Microwave on high, stirring often, until very hot, 4 or 5 minutes. (Be careful: The bowl will be very hot.)
Stir in honey, butter and lemon zest; let cool about 1 hour. Juices will thicken. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Nutrition per tablespoon: 30 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 0 g protein, 1 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
Yield: Makes 12 to 14 biscuits.
Prep: 20 minutes / Rise: Overnight, plus 1 hour / Cook: 20 minutes
I add 1 / 4 cup chopped green onions and 1 / 2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper to the batter when I am serving the biscuits with bowls of chili. Increase the sugar to 2 tablespoons when serving the biscuits for breakfast or dessert.
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 1/4 cups flour, plus more as needed
6 tablespoons butter, melted
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Cranberry-apricot-fig compote, see recipe
Put 1/2 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees) in the bottom of a small bowl. Add the yeast and a generous pinch of sugar; stir and let stand until foamy, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in 1 / 2 cup of the flour. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight (or up to about 24 hours).
Butter a 9- or 10-inch well-seasoned cast-iron skillet. Scrape the sourdough starter into a large bowl. Stir in 5 tablespoons melted butter, salt, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, baking powder and baking soda. Stir in the remaining 1 3/4 cups flour and gently mix to make a soft dough. Work the dough gently; it’s OK if it’s shaggy-looking.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Gently pat or roll to 1/2-inch thickness. Using a 2-inch round cutter, cut dough 12 to 14 rounds. (Be gentle when re-rolling dough scraps.) Place the rounds in the buttered pan (it’s OK if they touch). Cover with a towel and let rise about 1 hour.
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Brush the tops of the biscuits with the remaining 1 tablespoon melted butter. Bake until golden and firm to the touch, about 20 minutes. Serve warm with soft butter and the compote.