Sunday, November 25, 2012

Getting in touch with my inner hillbilly

I suppose it was inevitable that we would be making whiskey. It couldn't possibly be coincidence that our property includes a large natural peat bog. Those of you who are partial to Scotch whisky will know what that means. The unique flavor of Scotch comes from two sources: the malted grain is dried over a peat fire, imbuing it with a slightly smoky aroma. Also, the peaty water from the bog is believed to add another layer of complexity to the flavor profile.

(If you've noticed two different spellings of "whiskey", give yourself a gold star! For reasons that remain unclear, this tipple is spelled "whiskey" when it comes from Ireland or the United States, and "whisky" when it's made in Scotland and Canada. So please resist the urge to e-mail me with your proofreading tips.)

So what, you may well ask, have we been waiting for? If we had started making whiskey the first year we were here, our first batch would be almost 7 years along by now. Actually, we talked about it from time to time, but for various reasons it didn't seem feasible. For instance, a few years back, the only license available in Washington State for distillers cost $2,000 per year. Now there are several options, depending on the size of the operation, whether the product would be sold wholesale or retail, etc. I recently applied for a Washington State "craft distillery" license, for which I paid $100. This license permits me to produce up to 60,000 GALLONS of liquor per year. As far as sales, I am allowed to sell only retail, the customer must purchase from the place of manufacture, and I can't sell more than 2 liters per customer per day. Oh, and I have to report sales monthly and collect and pay applicable taxes.

In case you weren't aware, there are actually two licenses required to legally distill liquor: The aforementioned State license, and the Federal Basic Permit. (Incidentally, if you think there is a lot of paperwork involved in organic certification, you'll be impressed by the Federal Basic Permit process.)

So far, so good. Actually at this point I have no serious thoughts about selling whatever booze we make. It's not as if I have full-time hours to put into this operation, and the still I'm building probably wouldn't produce 60,000 gallons a year if it was running 24/7. At the moment I'm fascinated by the actual distillation process (which involves a lot of science I never learned in high school), and certainly I'm motivated by the challenge of learning this craft.

Please note that I have no intention of producing moonshine. No self-respecting moonshiner would be caught with a license, for one thing. Also, my still is a high-separation fractionating type capable of producing vodka and gin; from all I hear, moonshiners traditionally prefer to take their chances with pot stills. These don't separate the components (some of which are poisonous) as well as fractionating stills. And frankly, I have not the least inclination to age my booze in Mason jars, tradition notwithstanding.

As my husband David says, when it all hits the fan, what everyone is going to want to know is, what are we drinking? (Those of you watching the Mayan calendar, keep in mind that there are only 26 shopping days until the end of the world on December 21.) Distilled liquor is high enough in alcohol to ensure that it will never go "bad." Homegrown food is all very well, but we're on the brink of raising the bar in our quest for greater self-sufficiency.

OK, now that you've read this far, I'll admit this was a little tongue in cheek. However, it is true that we will soon be running a licensed craft distillery. And since I recently started making my own tonic water, I figure if I can grow Key limes in my greenhouse, I'll be able to serve a truly homemade gin and tonic one of these days. So stay tuned for updates as we progress, plus photos and even a recipe or two. Cheers!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

My first try at making a gluten-free sourdough bread

For a while now, I've been developing a gluten-free sourdough starter. I didn't even know if such a thing were possible. Not that considering possibilities (or lack thereof) ever stopped me from trying something new. I recently learned of Manini's, a Seattle company that makes several gluten-free bread mixes, as well as a fabulous gluten-free pasta mix. I bought a bag of "Rustic Multigrain" bread mix and decided to try using it as the base for a sourdough starter.

The reason why I went to the trouble of making the starter is kind of simple and kind of complicated. In one of my bread books (the one that goes into a lot of scientific detail about what makes good naturally fermented bread), I learned that certain kinds of acid have an effect on the starches in bread grains. This led me to wonder if the acidity of a sourdough starter might have a beneficial effect with gluten-free flours.

After almost two weeks of nursing the starter along, I decided that it was ready to use. The other day I mixed up enough dough for a loaf, adding about 1/2 cup of starter. I'm used to the long, slow, cool fermentation of true sourdough, and I let the dough rise slowly for about four hours at around 65F. (With any bread, you don't want it to rise too quickly before it goes in the oven; the yeast loses much of its rising power and you won't get the dramatic "oven spring" that characterizes good bread.)  Into the oven it went at 375F to bake for almost an hour.

 And here it is! Looks a lot like "regular" bread, doesn't it? It has a nice crispy, brown crust and delicious aroma. When it cooled I weighed it; 3/4 kilo (1 lb 12 oz). Definitely more substantial than most commercial gluten-free breads I've tried. I was good and waited for the bread to cool before I sliced into it, all the while wondering what the texture and flavor were going to be like. I could hardly believe that my first attempt would have good results, but actually it turned out really well. As you can see in the photo below, the texture is like "real" bread. It has an interesting flavor, being a combination of several whole and ground grains. I haven't tried it toasted yet but I suspect it will be even more tasty.

By the way, Manini's pasta mix is amazing. I mixed up a batch using our duck eggs, and made fettuccine noodles with it. At first it was a little tricky to put it through the rollers, but with every pass it held together better and got smoother. It cooked up in about 3 minutes and it was simply delicious. It looks, smells and tastes like, well, fresh pasta.

In case you're wondering, I'm not gluten-free myself, but my mother and a few other people I know are. We like to try to accommodate dietary preferences when we have guests, plus I think bread and pasta would be the two things I'd miss most if I were going gluten-free. And as you know, I love baking bread! I've had it in mind for quite some time now to try making a decent-tasting gluten-free bread, and thanks to Manini's, I think I've made a good start.