One of my favorite Christmas presents this year was Betsy's bread starter that she's been keeping around since 1971, made from grated raw potato. I've been making bread for about a year, and the results from the loaves made with this starter are my favorite. The flavor is so much more complex than the quick recipes requiring no starter.
I know most people don't have a starter already hanging out in their fridge, so here is a basic "sponge starter" recipe from the Joy of Cooking.
also called "poolish" in France, and "biga" in Italy
In a medium mixing bowl, combine:
1/2 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
3/4 cup of bread four
Stir rapidly with a clean wooden spoon until you notice elastic strands pulling away from the sides of the bowl, about 2 minutes. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until bubbly and tripled in volume, about 6 hours. Or let it rise in the fridge overnight for 14 hours. (When it comes out of the fridge, use warm water in your recipe.)
When the starter has tripled in volume and begins to collapse slightly, you must use it immediately or "feed" it with 3/4 cup bread flour, and 1/2 cup water to keep the yeast from starving and the starter from weakening.
Betsy's Bread (plus bread tips for beginners)
Combine and let stand for 15 min in a mixing bowl:
1 cup warm water
1 Tbs (or packet) of dry yeast
a "sprinkle" of sugar
To yeast mixture, add:
1 cup of starter
1-2 cups of flour (enough to make it knead-able)
2 tsp salt
1 tsp soda
Knead on a floured surface until it passes the window pane test. (Tip: Hold the dough up by one end in front of a light source, let it stretch itself until you can see light through it- if it wants to tear easily, continue kneading. If it stretches until you can see light through it without it tearing, it's ready to rest)
Let it rise in a large, lightly oiled bowl covered tightly with plastic wrap. It should double in size. This could take several hours. Shape loaves as you like and let rise again under plastic wrap. (Tip: A test to see if its ready is to flour or grease your finger, gently press the dough with a finger tip- If it springs back up after you remove your finger, it's not finished rising. If it stays down, it's ready to go into the oven.)
Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Right before you put your loaves in, take a sharp knife with a floured edge, and put at least one shallow slit in the top of the loaf. This is called "scoring" and aids in rising. It also makes the loaf look gorgeous. Bake for 25 min or until the top is golden brown and it sounds hollow when you tap the bottom of the loaf.
When it comes out of the oven, allow it to cool a while before cutting into it because it will ruin the crumb inside later on. ENJOY!!
For the dinner party, I adapted a Soup Sticks recipe from Better Homes and Gardens, using a half recipe of Betsy's bread as follows:
Soup Sticks variation
Start with a half recipe of Betsy's Bread.
When adding ingredients to yeast mixture, also add:
1 Tbs of brown sugar
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp dried parsley
Follow directions for first rise as usual.
When ready to shape the bread- turn dough out on to a floured sheet of parchment paper. Pat or roll into a 15x12 inch rectangle. Transfer parchment with dough to large baking sheet. Using floured pizza cutter or knife, cut dough width wise into strips about 3/4 inch wide.
Cover, let rise until doubled in size. Brush with olive oil. Bake in a 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes or until golden. When out of the oven, cool slightly, cut apart and serve upright for a stunning presentation.