Loafing in School

Two hours; two beers; two pounds of freshly milled flour; one sourdough starter; more cheese, pizza and focaccia than I could eat; and a lot of knowledge. It only cost me $35, but I think I ate, drank, and learned a lot more than the price I paid.

On Wednesday, I attended the Fair Food Farmstand’s “Food School” class dedicated to sourdough bread baking with Philly Muffin’s Pete Merzbacher. Although I have been baking sourdough bread for some time, I still came away from this having learned some very important things that have already improved my break baking:
– The tight, even “crumb” of a typical sandwich loaf or the airy, irregular crumb of a ciabatta are functions of gluten development. The more developed the gluten is, the more uniform the crumb.
– My greatest weakness in bread baking, loaves that spread out rather than spring up, is most likely a result of the dough being too wet.
– Because a home oven loses so much heat when the door is opened, preheat your oven higher than the temperature at which you are going to bake. Then, reset the temperature once you have actually put the bread in the oven.

Pete is not a believer in using spray bottles or pans of water to “steam” dough in home ovens. Pete is a believer in baking in a cast iron pot (a la Jim Lahey’s no-knead method). The pot serves two important functions. One, related to the previous point, it will maintain a consistent heat for your bread. Two, by trapping steam released from the dough as it bakes, it will function in very much the same way as a professional baking oven that injects steam. In fact, Pete said that while he can easily tell a loaf baked in a home oven using a pan of water as compared to a professional oven, he would be hard-pressed to do so when comparing a loaf baked in a cast iron pot as compared to a professional oven.

Throughout the class, the good people of the Fair Food Farmstand plied us with PBC beer and tons of local cheese with pizzas and focaccia at the end. Pete was personable and patient with a class of students with extremely varied levels of experience. Most importantly, he tolerated my incessant questioning about my own issues and about using local grains. The sourdough starter came from his own bakery, as did the whole-grain flour he had milled himself that day.

Beer, Wine, and Booze · Classes

East Coast Wines from the Wine School

On Thursday, April 10th we attended a class at the Wine School of Philadelphia devoted to East Coast wine. As excited as I was to do this, I was surprised (and disappointed) when our knowledgeable, passionate instructor (Zach) told us that in years past, the Wine School has had difficulty filling seats for this class. The reason? People, it seems, are very skeptical about the idea of quality wine made on the East Coast. Zach was intent on changing that, and I suspect he succeeded with just about everyone in the room. I actually heard someone say, “California wine is dead.”

We covered most of the East Coast wine regions – Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York (the Finger Lakes), and New York (the North Fork of Long Island). In all, we tasted nine wines, four of which were from the immediate area:

1) Galen Glen Gruner Veltliner – I had tasted this wine years ago at the fantastic farm-to-table restaurant John J. Jeffries in the Lancaster Arts Hotel. I was impressed then, and even more so this time. The nose on this wine was incredibly delicious, and the acidity begged for grilled fish. This is something I could linger over with a leisurely summer dinner.
2) Va La Prima Donna – I have written about Va La before, and the more I learn of Anthony Vietri and this winery, the more impressed I am. Quite simply, I love everything they produce and I love the way they produce it.
3) Heritage BDX 2010 and BDX 2012 – These were the “biggest” wines of the evening, with complex aromas, tannins, and a long finish. For a special occasion, I wouldn’t hesitate to offer one of these, but they wouldn’t do for most meals. That is, unless you eat like royalty at every meal.

Of the remaining East Coast Wines, we tried a Keuka Lake 2012 Riesling and a Damiani 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. Both of which were excellent, but neither of which I would seek out – simply a matter of personal taste.There was also another North Fork wine, a 2010 “Taste” Red Blend from Bedell, that was lovely, but with which I had a similar issue as I did with the Heritage wines and the Barboursville 2010 Petit Verdot. Again, I can’t fault any of them, but they simply weren’t my preference.

Of the non-local wines, the one I most enjoyed most was the Black Ankle 2011 Syrah. It was softer and more subtle than any of the other wines – far more so than the other reds. It wouldn’t dominate any food it might be served with – though you would have to take care not to dominate it with food. Regardless, this sustainable winery is only 132 miles from Philadelphia. I think there is a road trip in the near future.

This was my first time at the Wine School, and I was impressed with the quality of the wines Zach had procured for us. In fact, the only complaint I have – and I am not even sure if this would qualify as a complaint – is that the Wine School was so intent on convincing us that the East Coast makes great wine that we wound up drinking great wines – few of which I would drink on a daily, or even weekly, basis. So, here’s hoping the Wine School ceases to have any trouble filling those seats. With wines like this, it is hard to imagine how.