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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Recipe: Cheddar Jalapeno Sourdough, AKA 'Crack Bread'

By Chris Siciliano

The current all-star in my bread repertoire is easily Jalapeno Cheddar Sourdough. And why not? A big handful of cheddar cheese and two large, fresh jalapenos makes for some pretty tasty bread, let me tell you. During the bake, the essential oils from both the cheese and peppers migrate throughout, infusing the entire loaf, from crust to crumb, with an amazing, ambrosia-like quality of flavor. Imagine, if you will, a top-notch grilled-cheese sandwich spiked liberally with jalapeno-pepper goodness, and all of it contained in a convenient and tasty package—this is what each slice is like. In a word, magnificent. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an 'everyday bread'. It might be too rich for that. But for a special occasion and accompanied by the right meal—a rainy Sunday afternoon, for instance, and a bowl of creamy tomato soup—this bread is just the thing.

Let’s be honest. It’s the cheese and jalapenos that make this recipe a success. Attempts at invoking subtle wheat nuance or a pleasing sourdough tang are appreciated but will ultimately go unnoticed. The fact is your cheese and peppers will overwhelm any delicate flavors that might otherwise emerge from a long, slow, cool fermentation. Which begs the question: if the flavors are masked, why use sourdough at all? Answer: a sourdough starter or even a simple preferment (poolish or biga) can do wonders for the overall texture of your bread, eliciting a creamier, chewier crumb, a more satisfying mouth feel, and just a better loaf in general. It will also help extend your bread’s shelf-life, delaying the staling process for a few extra days—not like you're going to need it. As addictive as this bread is, the smart money says it's gone the first day, devoured in full, not a morsel left behind.

Initially I developed this recipe as a "straight yeast" dough, but I’ve since adjusted the formula to fit my current sourdough needs. The recipe makes one good-sized loaf, about 825 grams before baking and just over 1.5 lbs when all is said and done.

320g natural white flour
175g Water
80g Cheddar Cheese
60g jalapeno (2 large peppers, seeded and diced)
180g sourdough starter (liquid levain, 125% H20)
6g salt
1-2g instant yeast (1/4 to ½ teaspoon)

Directions: Prepare sourdough starter and let it ripen overnight. When the starter is ready, mix with flour, water, salt, and yeast in a large bowl until the ingredients are well-combined. Let sit (autolyse) for 10 minutes. After autolyse, add cheese and peppers. Knead for 8-10 minutes or until dough becomes smooth and cheese/peppers are well dispersed. (This might be frustrating at first, as the dough will tear apart. Keep at it though and all will come back together eventually.) Place dough in well-oiled bowl and let rise for 60-90 minutes, depending on ambient room temperature and general vigor of your yeast. You should see good dough expansion before too long. Punch down or fold. Let rise again for 60-90 minutes, depending. Punch down or fold.  Shape as desired. Proof on parchment paper for 60-90 minutes, depending. Score as desired. Bake 38-45 minutes @ 475F in a preheated cast-iron Dutch oven* (a la Jim Lahey). Remove lid after 30 minutes, then bake for another 8-10 minutes, until the crust is browned to your liking. Finished bread will sound hollow when the bottom is thumped.

*If you don’t have a cast-iron Dutch oven, you can use a cookie sheet or loaf pan. But keep in mind you’ll have to reduce the oven temperature considerably, to 425 or even 400. Otherwise you’ll quickly scorch the bottom of your bread. Of course all baking temps and times vary according to the idiosyncrasies of your oven and the idiosyncrasies of your taste. This is to say, keep an eye on your bread!

Note: If you’re familiar with a different mixing/kneading process, then by all means, go ahead and use it. The same applies to the fermentation (rising) schedule. Leave out the autolyse if you want. Use a stand mixer if you prefer. Have a better sourdough recipe? Great. Use it. The key here is getting 3-4 ounces a cheese and 2-3 diced jalapenos into every loaf. That’s the only thing that matters. For tips on this, see below. 

Tip 1: The chemical that makes peppers, well, peppery is something called capsaicin, and for the contact-wearers among us it can make for a really bad night. Whenever handling hot peppers make sure to wash your hands before you go and do something you’ll regret, like swab a fingertip across your unwitting cornea. Keep in mind too that just as capsaicin will stay on your skin, it will remain on any unwashed cutting boards, knives, counters, kneading surfaces, etc. If you intend to make more than just jalapeno-cheddar bread, plan your schedule accordingly. I found out the hard way that it’s best to make this bread last, else your walnut raisin wheat bread will have a decidedly spicy influence. Which, come to think of it, wasn’t so bad really, just unexpected. Also, if you’re particularly sensitive to capsaicin or dicing an especially large quantity of peppers (I diced about 25 once and paid the price for it), you might want to invest in a box of disposal plastic gloves. Especially crisp, crunchy peppers have a tendency to spray when you cut them and might therefore demand protective eyewear. Overkill? Maybe. But when you get an eyeful of nature’s pepper spray, don’t say I didn’t warn you. (If you’re wondering, no, I don’t use protective eyewear. I like to live dangerously.)

Tip 2: The last time I made this recipe I used smoked cheddar cheese rather than the customary extra sharp. Highly recommended. We favor the Tilamook brand in our house (available at Kingma's Market and other fine cheese shops). It’s a good cheese at a fair price and they don’t use animal rennet in any of their products, if that kind of thing matters to you. I buy the cheese in blocks and shred or dice it myself into fingernail-sized chunks. Pre-shredded cheese works just fine, but some is spiked with anti-caking agents. Probably harmless. Yet unnecessary too.

Tip 3: Though I call this a sourdough recipe, I do add a pinch of commercial yeast to the dough. The small yeast addition helps shave some time off the total process, which may or may not matter to you. And since most, if not all the sourdough flavor will hide out behind the more charismatic flavors of jalapeno and cheese, I find that using a little yeast to speed things along doesn’t do anybody any harm. You purists out there cry foul if you like. Just know that when it comes to unadulterated sourdough (no cheese), I keep it all natural baby. I leave the commercial stuff alone.

Tip 4: I once made this bread with 25% whole wheat flour. Not bad. But I’m not convinced it produced a better final product. The whole wheat contributed a certain heartiness perhaps, but any potential health benefits were probably rendered null by the onslaught of delicious cheddar cheese. Cheese isn’t bad for you of course. I just think of this bread as a kind of guilty pleasure, an occasional treat. As such, I’m not concerned if it has a higher glycemic index than my everyday sandwich bread. What’s the old saying?  Everything in moderation, including moderation.

And finally, the baker’s percentage: Central to this recipe is striking the right balance between the cheddar cheese and peppers. At 20% cheese and 15% jalapeno (relative to total flour weight) I think I’ve found it.  Others may disagree and I welcome the dialogue. For the curious, my baker’s percentage is spelled-out below. For the sourdough recipe, I use 20% prefermented flour. If I were to use poolish instead, I’d probably up that percentage to 25 or 30.

100% White flour
68% Water
20% Cheddar Cheese
15%  Jalapeno
1.5% salt*
0.5% yeast
Total: 205 = 2.05%

*I back off on the salt in consideration of the salt already in the cheese.


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