Book Review: The Magnolia Cookbook


Does America have a taste? The Magnolia Cookbook, comes from the former owners of what was probably the most in-demand pastry shop in New York during the ’90s.It has inspired many people to devote their lives making cupcakes, including I believe the people behind Cupcakeria. It basically covers America’s baked passions like cobbler and pecan pie, and none of the coffee-cake nonsense that German bakeries offer. We’re talking about major moisture and maximum fluffiness.

I spotted this at–where else? TK Maxx, and started with their blueberry muffins.Then I got cracking on their pecan pie. The muffins were really moist, but I wouldn’t call it extraordinary. The pecan pie was interesting, but it isn’t someting I would write home about. I haven’t tried anything of theirs yet that made me say, “Yes, this one is a winner!”

What I found most interesting about this cookbook is that they have devoted the beginning of the book to their set of very specific set of instructions regarding their baking and stirring techniques. That they always use room-temperature eggs, do not over-mix the  dough or batter, pie crust dough has to be sprinkled with ice water…and this for four pages. Learning about the process is what I find most fascinating, which is why I’m learning how to cook.

The techniques mentioned really do work! Ice water and vegetable oil make for a flaky pie crust, while buttermilk and ignoring lumps in the batter make for a moister cake. Just learning how I could prevent a cheesecake from cracking in the oven makes this book worth the money I spent on it.

Michael Pollan’s Sour Dough Bread Recipe

Making sour dough bread is a fight of air against gravity, according to Michael Pollan’s Cooked. Going through the process of baking sour dough bread, I can attest to the truth of this assessment. It seems to me that in baking this bread, you should really throw out the time instructions, and let your sense of sight, touch, and smell decide whether the bread is “done.”

This is the process of how I baked this bread, and I will also point out where I deviated from Michael Pollan’s recipe. I have also incorporated suggestions from Regensblog and the fomer Heidelbergerin in baking this batch.

Sour dough bread is basically infecting a bigger, then an even bigger, dough with the starter’s bacteria. The medium sized dough is called a leaven, and the even bigger dough is the bread. Making the starter can take a week, while baking the bread will take a day and a half. For some reason, I have better results in a loaf pan than the free-styling method. The dough is really liquid, the consistency of a thick batter, so the urge for the dough to turn into pita bread is huge.

I have described how to make the starter. What I can tell you is that putting in a hungry starter will make a more sour bread than a starter that has been fed an hour before. I make the leaven and the bread dough just before I go to bed, and get cracking in the morning. You will need an iron or ceramic pot, something that you can put in the oven. Since only my 8 x 4 inch loaf pan fits in my iron pot, I use that. It is really important to use a digital weighing scale.

The leaven: 100 g whole grain flour, 100 g all-purpose flour (I used Type 550 for a higher gluten content. The recipe says unbleached), 200 g tap water, and 30-35 g (2 Tbsp) starter.

The bread: 600 g whole grain flour, 250 g all-purpose flour, 150 g rye  or pumpernickel flour (I kept to the recipe this time with the recommended rye flour percentage), 900 g warm tap water (abt 40°C), 25 g sea salt.

The night before baking the bread make the leaven and the bread dough.

Leaven: In a glass bowl, combine the flours and water and stir. Add the starter and mix thoroughly. Cover with a towel and leave overnight in a draft-free spot.

Bread dough: The flours need to be “soaked” to soften the bran in the whole wheat flour and make the bread fluffier. Sift the whole wheat and rye flours to get the bigger bits of bran: You need this to decorate/cover your loaf. Set the bran aside. Combine the flours in a big bowl with 850 g of the water. Cover it with plastic wrap and leave overnight in a draft-free spot.

In the morning, test the leaven by dropping at least half a teaspoon (recipe says a tablespoon) in warm water. If it floats, you’re set. If not, Pollan recommends mixing 3.5 g of fast-acting yeast with 50 g warm water, then adding it to the leaven after a few minutes. What I did was I added one, then two tablespoons of the starter. That seemed to do the trick for me.

He then recommends adding half of the leaven to the dough, and reserve the other half as the starter going forward. I deviated from the orginal Tartine bread recipe, which calls for throwing out all but 1 Tbsp. of the starter, by not throwing out my starter. I just dumped the whole leaven in the dough. I figured I needed the extra leaven since I did not use commercial yeast. Mix the dough thoroughly and let it rest from 25-45 minutes. Towards the end of the proofing time, mix the salt with the remaining 50 g of tap water, add it to the dough and work it in thoroughly by hand. The salt slows down the fermentation process in the dough.

The next step takes 4-5 hours. Warmer temperatures and a vigorous starter meant that I was done at the fourth turn. What does that mean?

Every 45 minutes or every 60 minutes, turn the dough in the bowl. wet your dominant hand, work your fingers to the bottom of the bowl, then bring up the dough from your cupped fingers to the top. Give the bowl a quarter turn and repeat the process, until you have completed a revolution of the bowl. This is supposed to strech the gluten and trap air in the dough. I noticed that after my fourth turn, the dough was not really sticking to my hand anymore, but was dripping back into itself. It felt definitely billowy, just as the book said it would. It smelled yeasty and a bit sour. If it smells sour, then it is time to end bulk fermentation.

In the book, Pollan recommends shaping the loaves by sprinkling a work surface with flour and spilling the dough onto the surface. using a plastic dough scraper, divide the dough in two halves and shape them into globes with your floured hands and the scraper. Rotate the dough on a work surface until it forms a ball with some surface tension, then cover the balls with a towel and let them rest for 20 minutes. After that time, scrape the dough off the counter, flip it upside down, then strech the dough. Grab the dough on the side farthest from you, stretch it away from you, then fold it back on the top. Do this with all four sides of the dough, and it will resemble a package at the end. Do the same procedure of stretching and folding on top on the four corners of that package. Then roll the package away from you, so the seams would go under that cylinder. Then sprinkle the bran on the bottom of two bowls, and place the dough in there for final proofing.

I didn’t get good results from this, but I did get good results by greasing, flouring, and then sprinkling an 8 x 5 inch loaf pan with bran and pouring the dough into that, until there was an inch and a half of space left until the lip.

In both cases, cover the bowl or loaf pan with a towel and rest them for 2-3 hours in a warm spot. You can also place the dough in the fridge and leave it there for several hours until overnight if you are not baking within that 2-3 hour time frame. When ready to bake, take it out of the fridge and give it an hour to get back to room temperature.

Baking: Be careful, this is very dangerous!!

Pre-heat iron or ceramic pot to 250°C (500°F) in the oven. Using kitchen mitts, carefully remove the pot from the oven and onto the stovetop. Drop the dough into the pot, or place the loaf pan in the pot. The dough doesn’t have to land squarely in it, it will right itself. Score the bread in a patern you prefer (be decisive!), then cover the pot and place back in the oven. Lower the temperature to 230°C (450°F) and bake for 20 minutes.

After that time, remove the lid of the pot. The bread should have doubled in volume and should have a tan or pale brown color. Give it another 23-25 minutes. The bread will turn dark mahogany: Burned tops are okay! If using free-styled loaves, remove them with a spatula, and they should give a hollow sound when tapped. If not, return to the oven for an extra five minutes. I skip this step with my loaf pan breads, but they have all turned out fine so far!

Alrighty, so that concludes this extremely long post on my sour dough challenge. I guess this proves that sour dough is not for wimps!

The Little Critters That Live in My Kitchen

Hi! Meet my pet Fifi or Fluffy, I haven’t decided on a name yet. It is my sour dough starter. Yes, it is alive, and it is a pet. It is a living organism, It has to be fed and cared for, so how can it not be? It requires more attention than my plants, but less than my son. This sour dough was born three weeks ago, two days after mixing. This batch of sour dough is more active than my old one, I really think that the summer heat makes for a frisky bugger.

How active you say? The picture above was taken after Fifi’s morning meal. And here is a photo of Fifi in the afternoon:

It has doubled in size, meaning it has eaten through its food.

Pet Food

Pet Food

Fifi can tell me that it’s hungry. Yes, it can. All you have to do is smell. Caring for a living object requires the use of the senses, and Fifi is no different. If Fifi starts smelling sour, it means it is time for a feeding. And boy, does it eat a lot. It has been going through its food so fast, I go through a kilo of flour a week.

The not so nice part is that I have to throw away 80% of Fifi before every feeding. That is a whole pile of Fifi going into the compost pit, but unless I want to make the “sour dough that ate Milwaukee,” it is a necessary evil.

It is really strange that something can literally come from nothing, from the bacteria in the flour and my not-so-sanitary kitchen. I would like to thank Michael Pollan, if he is reading this (heh heh), and my cooking friends (please visit their links at the right). Without them I would have given up on the sour dough bread project.

Anyway, the recipe for sour dough starter from Michael Pollan’s Cooked is: Mix 50 g of whole grain flour with 50 g all purpose flour with 100 g of warm water. The water should just be slightly warmer than your hand. Mix it, and re-mix as often as you remember to do it throughout the days until you notice that the dough has become alive. That means that it has started to smell sour, or bubbles have formed on the surface, or the dough has doubled in size. This can take two days to one week, depending on the weather. I once used rye flour and it built a crust over the surface, quite neat! After it has come alive, feed at least once a day by throwing out 80 percent of the mixture and adding the same proportion of flours and water as the recipe above.

The best thing about Fifi that you can put it to sleep. No, I don’t mean into the good night kind of sleep. I just added 50 g of whole grain flour and 50 g all purpose flour, mixed it and put it in the fridge. I can wake it up again by taking it out, and repeating the process by throwing out 80 percent and feeding it twice daily until it is alive. So I said good night to Fifi and it is now in cryogenic sleep. Weird huh?

It’s Aliiiive!


sourdough1 So, I put the other half of TBF in a loaf pan in the hopes that not all was lost and lo! It’s aliiive!!!

crumbIt is relatively sour, more sour than I am used to, but it works! It’s alive! Look at the crumb of this bread! It worked! Next time I should definitely increase the wheat content of my loaf.



*Total Bread Failure

Ok. Strike two. My first attempt at sour dough bread was a failure, and now my second attempt has produced less than stellar results. See that picture up there? That is supposed to be a globe.

From what I read, I overproofed my dough and it has completely lost its structure. The other half is in my fridge, let’s see if it will fare better in a loaf pan.

I am starting to have a theory about rye-based sour dough. As I read in the book Cooked by Michael Pollan, it takes a special kind of obsessive personality to be a good baker. And if anything, Germans are anal. I can give you many anecdotes to prove this  theory  over a beer, but if my experience with sour dough bread is any indicator, the mere fact that Germans have perfected this type of bread is the best proof of their anal-ness.

Sour Dough Challenges

Sour dough bread is a puzzle. My first attempt at sour dough was not really a success. It looks great, but instead of the spongy, airy bread I am used to, I ended up with a dense brick. Does anybody know what I should do? I’ve thrown away my starter and will start a new one soon. .

Obsttorte/Fruit Pie/ Crema de Fruita

Fruits, cake, and cream. It doesn’t matter where you are, this combination is always a hit. What I like about Germany is that if you want to cheat about “from scratch cooking,” you can and still get from scratch results.

This is my go-to potluck party cake if I am short on time. Get fruits from the grocery store, get a packet of vanilla pudding powder, get  glaze powder, milk, and prepared cake base.

Slice the fruits, prepare vanilla pudding according to packet instructions. Once cooled,  spread it on the base like pizza. Place the fruits on it. Prepare the glaze according to packet instructions. A total of 35 minutes and you’re done!

It isn’t really efficient to make your own base because you need SIX eggs to make it, in comparison to the cost of buying it at the supermarket (€1,79 at Rewe), but if I ever make it from scratch scratch, I’ll let you know.

Martha Stewart’s Lion Cake

The one cake that started it all

I started with the whole baking thing because of cakes. I was so inspired by my consistency in baking a good Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte that I decided to up the ante and offered to bake the birthday cake of one of my son’s friends.

When I asked the boy’s mom what was his favorite thing at the time, I thought I bit off more than what I could chew when she said “Lions.”

Alrighty then. I decided to roll up my sleeves and after some research, I decided to bake Martha Stewart’s Lion Cake.

It was this time when I bought my 4 1/2″ springform pan. Though many people think that a small springform pan is useless, I have no regrets! The trickiest part here is making the Caramel Buttercream icing. I mean, 9 egg whites for icing?! But the effort was so worth it. The icing tasted like Goldilocks icing, and it was addictive.

The boy was ecstatic after seeing his birthday cake. It made me so happy, it encouraged me to bake even more.

My next post will tell you what I did with the egg yolks…

Catching the Bread Bug

Thanks to Ian and Cliff, I’ve become addicted to baking bread! I’ve been so encouraged by my efforts, thanks to Cliff’s recipe recommendation, that I’ve been brewing some sour dough to make sour dough bread. I was surprised that it was difficult to find the right type of rye flour to make my starter, but i was finally able to get my hands on Type 997 at Tegut.

On the right is flour and water from this recipe (in German)

On the left is 1 tsp dried yeast, mixed with 3/4 cup lukewarm water, let to stand for 15 minutes, then mixing in 1/2 cup flour with a whisk. Recipe from Low-fat Baking by Linda Fraser.

The yeast starter smells sweeter, while the flour one smells decidedly sour. I’m so excited for this weekend!

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter everybody! I hope you all had a great time with family and friends. In the picture above, I have featured two traditional Easter baked goodies in Germany: sweet bread with raisins, and Easter lamb. Easter lamb-shaped cake tins  are available here around Lent, and in some churches, churchgoers bake them and are given to  elderly parishoners who could not go to church anymore. The sweet bread one is a one-eared bunny made by my son and his Oma. 🙂

I am usually skeptical of recipes that are printed on the box. As I child, I used to rip off Del Monte can labels and save the recipes at the back. Now I know that they are used as advertising. This time, following the box recipe saved me from doing unnecessary research. This recipe comes from the box of the cake form featured on my link.

You would need:

2 small eggs, 60 g sugar, 65 g soft butter, 1/2 sachet vanilla sugar (I used 1/2 Tablespoon), a pinch of salt, 15 g flour, 1/2 tsp baking powder, and some icing sugar. Lemon flavoring/extract optional

Separate the eggs. In a small bowl, beat the egg whites, adding 30 g of sugar bit by bit until stiff. In another bowl, beat the yolks with the rest of the sugar, melted butter, vanilla sugar and salt until foamy. Add in the lemon flavoring if so desired. Mix the flour and baking powder in a cup, and add it the yolk mixture, and mix with a spatula. Fold in the beaten egg white until well-incorporated. The result is a mass that is somewhere between batter and dough.

Grease the baking form by brushing the insides with melted butter, and close the form and secure with the clips provided. Turn the cake tin upside down, and pour the batter into it. Bake it upside down for 180°C top-and-bottom heat for about 30 minutes. Test the center with a stick.

If you need the cake in a jiffy, take out the cake tin, let it cool, wrap the tin with a wet kitchen towel for 10 minutes and gingerly release the lamb from the tin and saw off the bottom part to even it out.

I was too lazy, so i just waited until completely cool and removed it from the cake form.

Dust with powdered sugar with a small sieve, dot the eyes with chocolate or raisins. Enjoy!