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Friday, May 27, 2011

Pizza Siciliano

With homemade mozzarella
By Chris Siciliano

In our house, Friday night is pizza night, a tradition that began in earnest soon after I discovered and began experimenting with Peter Reinhart's method for making incredible crust. The key here is to let the dough ferment in the refrigerator at least overnight and up to three days. During the long, cold, slow fermentation the dough ages much like a fine (barley) wine, developing excellent flavor and its own natural sugar. For best results, bake quickly on a blazing-hot pizza stone. But even baked at lower temps on a regular old cookie sheet, this pizza will surprise you -- it's better than most any you can buy.

The following recipe will make one 20oz. crust, enough to feed two people to the point of discomfort (I speak from many Fridays of experience).

  • 200g (1.5 cups) Natural Premium white flour
  • 125g (1 cup) fresh-milled whole wheat "bronze chief" flour
  • 225g (8oz) water
  • 25 – 30g (2TBL) olive oil
  • 6 – 8g (about 1tsp) salt
  • 2g (1/2tsp) Saf-instant yeast
Directions: Bring all ingredients together in a bowl. Mix into a rough ball. Turn out onto counter and knead for 1-2 minutes. Resist adding extra flour. Dough will by sticky and shaggy. Let sit, covered, for 5-7 minutes (no more than 10 minutes). Knead again for 1-2 minutes. Dough will be much less sticky; it should feel smooth and satiny. Let sit another 5 minutes if necessary. Knead 1-2 more minutes. Dough will feel smooth and satiny. If baking the same day, place the dough into a bowl, cover, and let rise 2-3 hours, depending on room temperature.

For best flavor, let the dough age in the refrigerator overnight or up to three days. After kneading, cover the dough ball lightly with oil. Place in plastic zip-lock bag. Leave on counter for 30 minutes, then refrigerate. Dough can stay in the refrigerator for up to three days. Remove from the refrigerator two hours before estimated baking time.

The dough can also be frozen for to 2-3 months. Follow above directions, but place in freezer rather than refrigerator after 30-minute counter rest. To thaw, remove dough from freezer and place in refrigerator a day or two before baking.

To bake with pizza stone: Preheat oven to 550 (or as high as the oven will go). Roll dough into a disc, square or rectangle. Use parchment. The pizza should be thin—if the dough resists rolling or shaping, let it relax for 5-10 minutes. Par-bake crust for 2-3 minutes without toppings. Remove crust from oven, dress with toppings, bake again for 7-10 minutes until crust, cheese, and toppings are browned to preference.

To bake without pizza stone: Preheat oven to 425. Shape dough as desired on a lightly oiled cookie sheet. Dress with toppings. Bake 15-20 minutes on middle rack until crust, cheese, and toppings are browned to preference.

Tips, tricks, and notes

  • While it's true this dough benefits from extended aging in the refrigerator, even a short 2-3 hour fermentation will produce an excellent pie. In fact, I've baked in as little as one hour with decent (not sublime) results. For extremely short fermentation times (less than 2 hours), you may want to add a little sugar, no more than a tablespoon (even that much is pushing it). Having fresh-milled flour will contribute good flavor as well.  
  • Regarding yeast: (1) Increasing the total yeast amount from 2 to 4 or even 6 grams will hasten the rising process, desirable if you plan to bake the pizza that day, but not if you want to age the dough for any period of time. (2) Active dry yeast is an effective substitute for instant yeast, which can be hard to find for those not within driving distance to Siciliano's. Just be sure to hydrate the active dry yeast according to the directions on the package. Instant yeast does not need to be hydrated before use.
  • Keep in mind that your baking stone will NOT reach temperature as quickly as the oven it's in. Allow at least 30 minutes for the baking stone to reach 500F.
  • Par-baking ensures against soggy, under-baked crust, which can happen underneath the sauce especially. Avoid par-baking for too long, however, as this will result in a dry, overly-crispy crust after the second go-round in the oven. 
  • Most people don't know this, and it might sound crazy, but pizza and beer compliment each other wonderfully. I suggest you give the two a try together. Wine is good too.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

New staff writer, messenger from God

Editor's Note: When Steve, the boss (and my father), told me this morning he had something new for The Buzz, I thought, hey, great, about time the old man got some writing done. When he told me the post in question had been forwarded to him by a beer- and baseball-loving angel, a bona fide messenger of God who would now moonlight as a regular contributor to our little blog, I thought, well it's happened, the old man has finally lost it. Steve assures me that, no, he has not lost it; he assures me also that if I want to keep my job I should just do as I'm told. Sure thing, Pop, whatever you say (and pay no attention to the men in white coats behind you--they are only here to help).

Dear readers of The Buzz:

My name is Sagnessagiel and I’m a beer loving angel. First off I want to set a few things straight. Angels don’t have halos, we don’t wear long white robes and we don’t have wings. I repeat: WE DON’T HAVE WINGS. If you’re gullible enough to believe that we have big feathery appendages sprouting from our shoulders then you might as well believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. The truth is you couldn’t pick an angel out in a crowded bar. I know that for a fact because I’ve spent a lot of time in bars and no one has ever come up to me and said “hey, you’re an angel, let me by you a beer.” Never happens. This whole wings thing started when some artists with over-active imaginations back in The Dark Ages thought that’s what messengers of God had to look like and it just snowballed from there. You see, it may not be common knowledge anymore but that’s an angel’s primary responsibility—to be God’s messenger. When the Old Man wants to get the word out on something He still sends out the angels.

Unless you’re an expert in angelology you’ve probably never heard of me because in the grand hierarchy I’m quite low on the totem pole so to speak. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the names Michael, Raphael and Gabriel. Now I’m not saying that The Old Man plays favorites but it does seem that those guys have always gotten the prime assignments and as a result have gotten all the press. At any rate, besides my duty as a messenger I’m also responsible for guarding the fourth hall of the seventh heaven. That can be a little boring since there hasn’t been anything to guard against since The Old Man gave Lucifer the boot. I’m not complaining. The Fourth Hall of the Seventh Heaven is where Peter sends all the professional baseball players so I get to spend a lot of time shooting the bull with guys like Ruth, DiMaggio, Cobb and Stengel. (Here’s a hot tip: unless you’re really, really evil, The Old Man will let you pass through the pearly gates. If someone like Cobb can get his ticket punched, almost anybody can.) I guess you’ll just have to take my word on the part about the ball players; as for my name and my job you can, as my good buddy Casey Stengel likes to say, look it up.

About three weeks ago I was having a little fun ribbing Ted Williams about his body being freeze dried by his idiot son when I was summoned to a meeting. As soon as I entered the Great Hall I saw that The Old Man was in a sour mood. I haven’t seen Him that agitated since a non-Italian was elected pope. The Old Man places a lot of emphasis on tradition you know. Anyway, you could hear the proverbial pin drop in The Great Hall while we took our seats. (Here’s a question for you all: How many angels can sit on the head of a pin? Answer: none.) After the meeting was called to order The Old Man bellowed for an hour about that crack-pot preacher who was spreading that crock about the Rapture. Now the Old Man isn’t averse to hurling an occasional well-placed lightning bolt to bring a wayward sheep back into the fold but He had declared a moratorium on total annihilation after The Great Flood. He felt pretty bad after exterminating the dinosaurs for not living up to His lofty expectations but He felt just awful after The Flood so He decided then and there that there would be no more mass extinctions. That particular promise of His can be found in the Bible and you can look it up. At any rate He decided it was time to quell all this nonsense about Armageddon (yet another product of an over-active imagination) so He told all us angels to don our messenger hats and get our butts down to Earth.

Now I like it when I get to go to Earth because, as you may have heard, in heaven there ain’t no beer. The only thing we get to drink up here is milk and honey. Well I have to admit that I wasn’t jumping for joy when I found out that I was being sent to a sector called West Michigan. I was praying for Belgium but would have been more than happy with Germany, the Czech Republic or England. I wouldn’t even have minded Ireland even though I find the Irish a bit bombastic when they get drunk and a steady diet of Guinness does get rather boring. But West Michigan? It had been a while since I spent any time in the States and I thought I would only be drinking watery American Pilsners. Boy was I wrong! When I got here I thought I had, as many of you are fond of saying, died and gone to heaven.

I hope you West Michiganders realize that you’re living in beer paradise. Good Lord I drank some good beer while I was down there! I set up my base of operations in a cushy hotel in Grand Rapids (we get a pretty handsome travel allowance) and I immediately set out giving folks the straight scoop on the Rapture. Turns out I was preaching to the choir. I did a lot of talking and the only person I had to convince that the Apocalypse wasn’t imminent was some dude who also believed that the Cubbies would someday win another World Series. I finally set him straight on both counts. Of course I did most of my work in brew pubs and I guess I have to at least entertain the possibility that people who love good beer also have the good sense to recognize false prophets.

You might be wondering how it was that I came to write this. Well, one night I stumbled into Siciliano’s on the way back to the hotel because a bartender at Founder’s told me they have a good Belgian selection and I was in the mood for a St.Bernardus 12. I was a little tipsy, (don’t worry, I was cabbing it) and when the guy behind the counter asked me what kind of work I did I told him I was an angel.

“Yeah,” he replied. “And I’m the Buddha.”

Obviously he was skeptical. But by the end of the conversation I had him convinced, and since I love beer so much he asked if I would like to be an occasional quest blogger. “Hell yeah,” I replied.

You’ll be hearing more from me and I can guarantee that the next time The Old Man sends us down to Earth I’ll be requesting this sector. I hear there’s a new Belgian brewery in town.

Peace and love,


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Recipe: Red Cheddar Flake (No-knead)

By Chris Siciliano

Several people have asked for a no-knead alternative to the cheddar jalapeno sourdough recipe. What follows is that alternative, albeit with a twist. Instead of fresh jalapenos, this recipe calls for two teaspoons of dried red pepper flakes. The reason: variety and convenience. On one hand, I really like the taste of red pepper flakes, sometimes more than jalapenos. On the other hand, red pepper flakes are a cinch to use. No dicing, chopping, or slicing means no risk of scorched eyeballs from an errant shot of pepper juice. Crisp jalapenos, they get me every time.

At the start of this experiment, I didn't know how well red pepper flakes would perform as a substitute. I now believe that nothing, not even jalapenos, could work better. The delayed heat of red pepper allows the cheddar cheese to shine for just a moment. Then POW! a nice clean burn cuts through the richness of the cheese, lingers for several minutes and then begins to fade. The fact I used a smoked cheddar didn't hurt matters any; the smoke provides a welcome, natural transition from the cheese to heat, a good way to tie the whole thing together.

This recipe is one I foresee returning to often, more so than even the jalapeno-based original -- that's how happy I am with it. I wonder too how many different kinds of dried chilis I can find in the international grocers around town. Could this be the start of something beautiful? My hope is that it is.


  • 454g bread flour (1 lb)
  • 340g water (12oz)
  • 9-10g salt (1.5 tsps)
  • 1g Saf-instant yeast (1/4 tsp)
  • 5g red pepper flake (2 tsp)
  • 80-100g smoked cheddar cheese (3-4 oz)
Tips & Notes

  • To learn the no-knead method, please click here.
  • Incorporating two teaspons (5g) of red pepper flakes produces quite a kick. If you're a fan of say, mild salsa, you might want to back-off slightly or even considerably on the amount of red pepper you incorparate. One teaspoon or less should still give you some good flavor. No pepper at all will give you mere cheese bread, which, on its own, is still better than most anything else on earth.
  • Mix in the pepper flakes and cheese with the other dry ingredients (salt, flour, yeast). Add water when all ingredients are uniformly dispersed.
  • For this recipe, err on the side of less salt. The salt already in the cheese will make up for any you don't put in.
  • Bread with cheese (fat/oil) tends to brown sooner and burn faster than breads without. Ovens will vary, but if you're prone to bottom scorching (and let's be honest, who isn't?), try turning the heat down to 475 or even 450.
  • Still rather have fresh jalapenos? No problem. Simply substitute the red pepper flakes with two good-sized jalapenos, diced. I hear the peppers with the white lines are hotter than the rest, though I can't verify that myself.
  • Breadheads unite!
Smoked cheddar cubes

Just mixed



Monday, May 16, 2011

Recap: The 8th Annual Homebrew Party

On Saturday, May 14, 2011 more than 150 revelers descended on Townsend Park in Rockford, MI to celebrate all things homebrew. Despite an ominous forecast, the rain held off and the good times didn't. Excellent brews were in abundance, with growlers, coolers, jockey boxes, and even kegerators brimming over with the sweet (and sour) nectar of the gods. Great beer, good people, incredible food, kick-ass music--that's the easiest way to describe this year's homebrew party. Here's Steve to elaborate further (and randomly) on the day.

My thoughts on this year's party

  • I love how the party has evolved into a mini beer festival. What a great way to taste a wide variety of hand-crafted beers, ciders and meads.
  • The draft systems are getting more elaborate and unique. Hmmm. Maybe we should start awarding a prize for the most innovative mobile bar?
  • Home brewers are expanding their horizons. I tasted some stellar sours and the cask-conditioned cider dispensed from the small barrel it was aged in was extraordinary.
  • I think home brewers are happiest when they are sharing their creations with others.
  • It’s amazing how much fun you can have tossing metal washers into a wooden box and bags of beans through holes in a slanted piece of plywood.
  • Mark and his crew continue to impress by finding innovative ways to cook with beer.
  • We are fortunate to live in an area where we can responsibly enjoy alcoholic beverages in such beautiful outdoor venues.
  • Jimmie Stagger and his band mates are extraordinary talents. Those guys were smoking!
Notes & Business

  • As promised, Best of Show Winner Ross Zaigenthaler will soon brew his #winning ESB recipe at Hopcat. Look for it on tap in late June or July.
  • First runner-up Chris Breimeyer will also have the chance to brew on Hopcat's system. Look for Chris' outstanding Coconut Porter on tap sometime this fall.
  • Next year’s party has already been scheduled for Saturday, May 5, 2012, at Johnson Park. Mark your calendars now!

Best of Show winner - Ross Ziegenthaler

Ross won with an ESB, soon to be on-tap at Hopcat

Highly collectible items


Corny kegs abound

It ain't kicked yet!

The mead table

All smiles

Cask-aged cider on the right

The line for dinner

The big reveal

Jimmie and Co. laying it down

Thanks to everybody for making this year's party a smashing success. Stay tuned for news and announcements regarding the next big event: Siciliano's Grand Re-opening!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Expansion Update: One more hurdle hurdled

Here's Steve to say a little about the current state of Siciliano's affairs.

Friends & patrons,

Those who have been following our expansion progress might be aware that we had a public hearing last Thursday afternoon with the Grand Rapids Planning Commission. We are pleased to announce that the hearing went well and we have been given the okay by the city to move into the new space.

While this is great news we still have to wait for the Liquor Control to sign off. How long will this take? Don’t have a clue but, hopefully, not long. At any rate I feel comfortable saying that we are approaching the end of this project.

I would like to express my appreciation to those who wrote letters of support to the Commission. We will continue to keep you apprised of developments.


Monday, May 9, 2011

In praise of pinots

Pinot vines
By Steve Siciliano

One of my most memorable wine experiences involved a bottle of Pinot noir from the Burgundy region of France. The wine had been given to Barb and I by my son Dominic who in turn received it as a gift from the family he had lived with while he was an exchange student in college. According to Dominic the bottle, which was arbitrarily plucked from the family’s cellar, was not considered by his hosts to be anything special. It was simply the locally produced, inexpensive wine that they drank with their meals every day.

Lucky French.

The wine was extraordinary. It had a little age on it and this was evidenced by its brown-red color in the glass. But it had lost none of its vitality, and what was so remarkable was the way the wine evolved from the first sip to the last, that evolution showing the wide range of complex flavors and aromas that can be displayed in a well-made Pinot.

All red Burgundies are made exclusively from the Pinot noir grape. (White Burgundies are made from the ever-popular and ubiquitous Chardonnay.) Pinot noir is thin-skinned, difficult to cultivate, sensitive to wind and frost, and highly susceptible to the myriad fungi and diseases that attack grapes in the vitis vinefera family. It does best in cooler areas like Burgundy where vineyards of this rather unpredictable grape have been cultivated for centuries. Most of those vineyards are small, some as small as sixty acres, and in good years the wine that is produced by the incomparable First Growths are among the most dazzling and highest priced in the world. Unless you’re invited to a dinner hosted by Donald Trump or Bill Gates you’ll probably never get to taste one of those most exclusive wines: a bottle of Romanee-Conti recently sold at auction for $24,000. But take heart. There are plenty of domestic Pinots from California, Oregon, Washington and even Michigan that are delicious and relatively affordable.

Pinot clusters
When winemakers try to describe the nuances of Pinot noir sometimes they resort to creative metaphors. One vintner described it as sex in a glass. Another compared drinking it to falling in love. Yet another called it a seductive yet fickle mistress. Good Pinots often leave you grasping for words.

One of the words that I use to describe the wine is feminine. Pinots are graceful rather than bold, supple rather than muscular. Like a beautiful woman they are silky and sensuous. They tend to be lighter in color than the other red varietals and they have less tannin (the astringent, mouth puckering, often intimidating dryness that is evident in big, beefy reds). For this reason they are more approachable for folks making the transition from white wines to red. Well-made pinots will titillate the senses with their captivating flavors reminiscent of cherry, raspberry and strawberry and their beguiling aromas of earth and truffles.

Because of their low tannin and balanced acidity Pinots partner well with a wide variety of dishes. I love a good bottle of Pinot with roast chicken and it is always my first choice to have with duck. It goes well with pork roasts, pork chops, pork loin and ham. Making a light pasta dish for supper? Pair it with a Pinot.

Unless you move to France, Pinot noir probably won’t be the wine that you drink every day. It can be hard to find an inexpensive, well-made Pinot. But the next time you want a special bottle or two to go along with a special meal, think about the wine that made Burgundy famous. Then you too may find yourself groping for words to describe the experience.

Michigan, French, Oregon Pinot, respectively

Sunday, May 8, 2011

An open letter to all mothers in Grand Rapids & beyond

Dear Moms:

Thanks for raising so many weird and wonderful homebrewers, beer geeks, oenophiles, foodies, enthusiasts, and just good people in general. When your sons and daughters come into our store they are always on their best behavior. They say please and thank you. They hold the door for strangers but never take candy from them. They turn the lights off when they leave a room. They play well with others. They never put their elbows on the table. They always put the toilet seat down. Their jokes are funny and never crude unless they warn us first. They wait patiently for their turn in the yeast cooler. They never take the last ounce of Amarillo hops unless there is simply no other option.

Your hard work has clearly paid off, moms. We appreciate everything you do to keep us all in line. Happy Mothers Day!

Most sincerely,

The Siciliano's staff

Friday, May 6, 2011

When Belgian meets Italian: Pairing Triomphe IPA with a quick & spicy red sauce

By Alexander Atkin

I love pairing beer and food. What I love most about this exercise are the odd-ball pairings that don't wind up in books written about beer and food pairing. Maybe my favorite part is just the eating and drinking. The jury's out. Either way, here's a look at a neat newcomer to the shelves at Siciliano's, and the dish that came to mind when I picked it up.

A few years ago, I learned how to make tomato-based pasta sauce from scratch (not technically marinara - the Italians say marinara must have seafood to qualify as such). It's rather simple, really. Saute half an onion (small) with a clove or two of garlic in olive oil; then add some fresh or canned tomatoes (diced), salt & pepper, oregano and basil. That's all you need when considered from a brass-tacks perspective. I like to throw some other spices, and sometimes veggies, into the pan. One of these is cayenne pepper. And this is where the pairing comes into play.

Takes about 20 minutes

When it comes to beer and national identities, Belgians are generally known for their yeast, Germans and Brits for their malt, and Americans for their hops. Everyone else falls somewhere idiosyncratically between. That's a lethargic summary, I know. But what is important here are the qualities that Belgian beers attain from their yeast. Namely, spiciness. When we consider Brewery Vivant's newly canned Triomphe Belgian Style IPA, we're looking at the yeast and hops.

Now available in cans at Siciliano's

Triomphe is a well-balanced IPA. The character derived from Belgian yeast paired with big hops is distinct. I've never tasted another quite like it. The spice qualities of my homemade pasta sauce and the spice character found in Triomphe make an intriguing pair. My favorite part, as mentioned above, is the cayenne pepper. While the cayenne produces a little heat in the mouth, the big hops of Triomphe are there to quench the sensation, so to speak. The other herbal and spicy elements of the brew do well to match the dish's flavors.

I've heard many different lines of thought on beer and food pairings. Honestly, I find the activity to be very subjective. It's a blast to explore, and you're bound to find something to like between any beer and any food. The possibilities are endless.

More odd-ball pairings to come.

Siciliano's staffer Alexander Atkin lives and writes in Grand Rapids, MI, where if not for the odd-ball we'd only have the weather-ball, which, come to think of it, is pretty odd itself.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Homemade Whole Wheat Tortillas Recipe

By Chris Siciliano

The following recipe makes eight 6-inch whole wheat tortillas. Finished tortillas are chewy, with a pleasant mouth-feel and pronounced wheat taste.

These are great for everything—from slow-roasted pork shoulder to black beans and homemade salsa. Once cool, tortillas will stay good for a couple of days in a plastic bag or container, though it's always best to warm them up again before eating. From start to finish, the recipes takes about an hour to complete.

    • 125g natural white flour (about 1 cup)
    • 125g (about 1 cup) fresh-milled hard red winter wheat, or regular wheat flour
    • 150g water (5–6oz)
    • 25g olive oil  (2 Tblsp)
    • 3-5 grams salt (1/2 tsp)
    • 1 tsp baking powder

Directions for Homemade Tortillas

Mix ingredients together into shaggy mass, knead briefly (about a minute or two) until the mass forms a ball. Let sit for about 10 minutes, knead briefly again, until the dough is smooth and satiny. Cut into 8 eight equal pieces (about 50g each). Shape into balls. Rest for 10–20 minutes. Roll tortillas out to desired thickness, thinner is better. Use extra flour to keep the dough from sticking. Place raw tortilla on a hot skillet (cast iron works best). Cook on one side until bubbles form (30-45 seconds); turn over; cook until done (20-30 seconds). Place finished tortilla in a towel until all tortillas are finished. Serve warm.


  • For a more subdued wheat taste and increased chewiness, substitute 1/2 cup (50-65g) of the whole wheat flour with regular white flour.
  • Also, feel free to substitute the hard red winter wheat with other grains/flours available at Siciliano's. I've had success making this same recipe with spelt, rye, hard spring wheat (both red & white), 6-grain flour, and of course plain old white flour.
  • When time allows for a short fermentation, I substitute the baking powder with 2g (1/2 tsp) instant yeast. I don't know if it makes much difference flavor-wise, but the texture seems better.
  • Heat your skillet over medium-high to high heat; make sure the skillet is clean or else you'll be setting off the smoke alarms.
  • Too long on the skillet leads to a less pliable tortilla. It will still taste good, but won't keep for as long or as have the same pleasant chewiness. This is to say, keep an eye on your tortillas—they cook quick!
  • If you accidentally cook your tortillas too long, or you simply want to experiment, you can slice them into wedges (like a pizza), bake in the oven until crisp, and serve them with salsa like nacho chips.
Questions or suggestions? Let us know. We're always looking to improve our recipes. For more pictures, see below.

Dough ball

Dough bits

Junior dough balls (under bowl to escape drafts)

Rolled flat, ready for the skillet

    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 the flour and water in a large bowl until the ingredients are well-combined. Let sit (autolyse) for 10 minutes. After autolyse, add the salt, yeast, 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.

    Monday, May 2, 2011

    2011 homebrew competition, the judging (update)

    By Chris Siciliano

    On Sunday, May 1, over thirty highly qualified beer judges gathered at The Hideout Brewing Company in Grand Rapids to evaluate the 180+ beers that were entered into this year's homebrew competition.

    Siciliano's is happy to report that everything went about as well as you could hope. The judges to a person seemed impressed by the general quality of homebrewed beer on hand, and it was not uncommon to see sincere delight on a judge's face when he or she sampled one of the more successful brews. These were not just experts, keep in mind, but true beer fans appreciating contest entries as much as they were evaluating them. From barrel-aged stout to Berliner weisse and everything between, the judges were treated to a veritable smorgasbord of well-crafted delights.

    With the first round of judging now complete and initial scores tabulated, a select panel of judges will meet this week at an undisclosed, top-secret location to choose the Best of Show. Siciliano's will release all scores with much pomp and circumstance the day of the The 8th Annual Homebrew Party (May 14). No scores will be released before that date, regardless of how sweet the bribe or how jedi-like your mind control skills. Like your mother (or fortune cookies) always told you: patience is a virtue.

    Special Thanks

    To Ken and crew at the Hideout for being such gracious hosts; to Jeff Carlson and John Applegarth for lending their competition expertise; to our wonderful stewards for heeding the judges every beck and call; and finally, a very hearty thanks to all judges for devoting their lives to beer and their Sunday to Siciliano's--your taste buds are much appreciated.

     Random pictures

    Founders representin'

    Waiting to begin

    Greg 'Swig' Johnson - master of ceremonies

    Competition winding down

    Please direct all questions regarding entries and scores to Siciliano's staff, (616) 453-9674.