This week at Tuesday breakfast we served real sourdough pancakes made from my homegrown starter, leavened by the natural yeast that grows in my own kitchen. Strange as that may sound, let me assure you there's yeast in your kitchen, too. And while the whole sourdough process may sound like some bad sixth-grade science experiment, it's actually the oldest way to make yeast-leavened bread. (Unless you managed to scam some yeast from your local brewery, it was the only way until commercial yeast became available in the 19th century.) For all I know it was a sixth-grader who discovered on some pre-biblical hearth that if you started each new baking with a bit of last week's dough, your bread would rise magically in the oven, and would have a more interesting flavor and crumb. But whoever it was, they were on to something, and thousands of years later, this is still the best way to make bread. Or in this case, pancakes. (I'm betting they were just trying to find a way to recycle their leftovers, but it paid off.)
The most important ingredient, obviously, is the starter. For instructions on making your own, see my earlier posting on sourdough.
Beyond that, there are plenty of recipes for sourdough pancakes, but most struck me as lacking. Many start with a cup or two of starter, to which you add flour, water or milk, eggs, oil, butter, sugar, salt, baking powder and/or soda. In other words, ordinary pancakes with some starter added. But then why use starter at all. Natural yeast needs time to work its magic, so a small amount added right before cooking seems unlikely to make much of a difference. Other recipes make a starter of water and flour with commercial yeast and let it sit overnight, which is not my idea of sourdough.
My ideal method would use only natural yeast, would allow the starter to ferment overnight to build that great sourdough flavor, and would not add chemical leaveners (no baking powder or soda).
Finally I found a recipe in Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery that combines active starter with a small amount of maple syrup, oil, eggs, salt, baking soda and powder. This sounded more like what I was looking for, though I was surprised that even Silverton added baking powder and soda, since she's a big advocate of natural leavening. Her recipe also called for two eggs and 2 tablespoons of syrup per two cups of starter, which struck me as a lot for that amount of flour. After scaling back the eggs and sugar and substituting butter for oil, I settled on the following recipe for my first attempt:
4 cups starter
2 tablespoons syrup
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
I fed the starter the night before, so it was active and bubbly by morning. For flour I used a mix of bread flour (which is what I normally put in starter) and all-purpose flour (which is normally used for pancakes). In the morning we combined all the other ingredients, added them to the starter, and mixed until just incorporated. (Too much mixing would develop more gluten, meaning tougher pancakes.) Then we cooked them off on a griddle over medium heat, adjusting the batter and the temperature as needed so the pancakes spread nicely on the griddle and don't stick.
The resulting pancakes were a big hit, less cakey and more bread-like the most pancakes, but still light and fluffy, and with the expected, barely-soured flavor. In short, they had character, and people seemed to like them. I'll continue to experiment with the recipe -- next time I may try skipping the baking soda and powder -- but for a first attempt we were satisfied.
As an aside, I give a mixed review to Nancy Silverton's book. It's full of excellent information, but many of the recipes are so detailed, running onto multiple pages, that they're impossible to follow when your up to your arms in dough. I believe recipes should always be separated into the rambling part -- like I'm doing now -- and the procedural part, which should be as succinct as possible. If you catch me violating this rule, feel free to bust me.
One of Silverton's more interesting observations is that bread is alive. You're not just cooking, you're collaborating with tiny little critters whose actions can be coerced but not forced, and which are highly sensitive to temperture, humidity, and who knows what else. But if you coax them just right, they'll work for you. Up until the moment you fry them, that is. Violent as that may sound, survival, at some level, is a rough sport. That's what makes it interesting.