Second try. I’m leaving for a two-week trip to Scotland tomorrow with my daughter and a best friend. Hopefully these posts will show up on my Jean L French Facebook page. Pics will be there too, I hope! We are going to be visiting some amazing places.
I call this recipe and my sourdough discard cinnamon roll recipe “cheater” because I add yeast to my sourdough starter discard so that I can make a quick yeast bread, use up my discard, and get that sourdough flavor without the wait for the 12 hour bulk rise. For the cinnamon roll recipe, click on Cheater Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls.
I love raisin bread for breakfast toast. It was a childhood treat, not indulged in very often, because there wasn’t enough money in the grocery budget for many treats. Now that I have sourdough discard to use up, I’ve been experimenting with ways to use the discard in things I make anyway, Sourdough Pancakes and Waffles (which I just realized I’ve never posted a recipe for!) Sourdough Rolls, and Sourdough Snickerdoodles, Sourdough Pasta Noodles, and Sourdough Battered Onion rings. The recipes for these three appeared some time ago in a post called Sourdough Fun. And I’ve finally posted the recipe and technique I use for getting a good loaf of Stand Mixer Sourdough Bread for sandwiches and toast, without having to use a bunch of expensive equipment like fancy Dutch ovens, bannetons for raising the bread, or a baking stone. Feeding the starter for 10-12 hours for the bread is what leads to the discard, and the need to use the discard is what leads to all these other fun baked goods, including the recipe below.
Cheater Sourdough Cinnamon-Raisin Bread
2 cups of sourdough starter discard (it doesn’t have to be freshly fed)
2 teaspoons of instant yeast
½ cup milk (I use milk kefir because I’m lactose-intolerant)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup softened butter or butter substitute OR 1/4 cup of good quality cooking oil
1 teaspoon salt
Beat all these ingredients together in a mixing bowl until well combined. (I use my stand mixer with the dough hook.)
Bread flour (can be all white or mix of white and whole wheat, or all whole grains)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ cup raisins
To the batter in the bowl, add the cinnamon and approximately 3 ½ cups flour, ½ cup at a time. It works best if you stir the cinnamon into the first half cup of flour, so it disperses without clumping. Use your stand mixer with the dough hook to work enough of the flour in until you have a dough that just cleans the bowl as the hook rotates the dough ball. Add the raisins and mix to combine.
Use the stand mixer and dough hook to knead the dough on a low-medium speed for about 5 minutes. After that, hand-knead on a lightly-floured board, adding more flour as necessary, until the dough is smooth and elastic, about another 5 minutes.
Lightly oil a bowl or lidded container with a bit of mild-flavored oil, and place dough ball inside, turning to coat the top with the oil. (Too much oil in the container and on the dough will retard the rise.) Cover the dough with a tight-fitting lid or plastic wrap or shower cap and place in a warm spot to double. With instant yeast, the dough will double in size in about 1 ½ – 2hours. With whole wheat flour, doubling might take as much as 3 hours, and your finished loaf will be a little heavier than an all white flour bread.
If you don’t have a stand mixer, all the mixing can be done by hand. You’ll be mixing and kneading for about 10 minutes, or until dough is elastic and a knuckle dimple pressed into the kneaded dough springs back.
Prepare your bread pan, standard size for bread (or two smaller pans, if you wish), by greasing them with a solid fat like butter, butter substitute, or shortening. Oiling the pan tends to make the bread stick, unless you are using an oil with a smoke point of 490 or 500 F. (Avocado oil and avocado blends are okay.) To shape, turn the dough out onto a floured board and press down gently to get the air out of the dough. Shape the dough by pressing it into a rectangle just slightly longer than your pan. Fold one third of the rectangle over to the middle, then fold the other third back over the first. Pinch the seam together, and poke the ends of the loaf inside the folds or underneath them and pinch to seal. Your loaf should be the same size or slightly shorter than the length of your pan. You can brush the top of the dough with a very small amount of oil to keep it moist, if you wish. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and put it in a warm place to rise.
The dough should double within 30-60 minutes. (Again, whole wheat takes a little longer, but I was surprised by the rise I got on the loaf in all these pictures. It was nearly all stone-ground whole wheat, with just about 1/4 cup of white bread flour added.)
When the dough has risen, place an oven rack on the next to lowest support, and heat the oven to 425 F. (A knuckle or fingertip pressed into the dough should leave a dimple that doesn’t spring back.) Remove the plastic and cut a slash lengthwise down the top of the loaf. This allows steam to escape and encourages oven spring.
Bake the bread for 20 minutes, then check to see if it’s done. It will be pretty brown because of the sugar content, and you have to watch carefully to keep it from burning. You can lower the heat to 375 after 20 minutes if your loaf is browning too quickly but you don’t think it’s done. It should not take more than 30 minutes total baking time.
Turn the loaf immediately out of the pan and onto a cooling rack. Do not cut the loaf until it has cooled at least an hour. Because this is a sweet bread, I recommend storing it in a plastic bag in the fridge if it isn’t gone in a few days! It might mold on the counter sooner than ordinary sourdough bread does.
I like this bread best toasted for breakfast, although a slightly warm heel slathered in butter is a good thing with a cup of milky tea in the afternoon.
I’ve been putting off writing this post, hoping I’d get good enough at making sourdough bread that I could show off some beautiful, fancy-looking loaves. I’ve made some decent-looking bread (it all tastes delicious), but I’ve not achieved that bakery-standard look I so admire in the pictures on the sourdough group I belong to on Facebook. However, my loaves are certainly serviceable, and I’ve decided to write down my recipe and my method now, because my sister is going to need it.
If you read my recent sourdough posts, you’ll know that my sister, Goldie, gave me a dehydrated heirloom starter she’d had in her kitchen drawer for about 5 years. This was Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail sourdough starter, which you can obtain for yourself by searching online for his name. I activated the starter, fed it up, and started baking with it. I finally got it strong enough again to bake bread with, so at that point, I passed a jar of Carl 1847 back to my sister, so she could begin her own sourdough adventures.
In the two or three years since I started baking sourdough bread, I’ve tried a bunch of different recipes and techniques. I want to discuss some of these before I give you the recipe and my technique, in the interests of passing along more information. More information is always better, so you can pick and choose what you want to try. I have settled on the Breadtopia no-knead sourdough bread recipe as the most consistent for me, although I’ve had to experiment with it using different flours. The recipe that follows is the Breadtopia recipe, with my own personal tweaks. I do weigh my flour, but if you look up the recipe on the Breadtopia website, you’ll see the approximate flour measurement in cups. In a way, I think measuring in cups and adding the flour slowly as you work it to get a dough that feels right is probably better than measuring and adding it all in at one time. The main thing is to get dough of good consistency, but it’s hard to determine that with sourdough. Sourdough tends to be sticky and loose, and you don’t knead it in the traditional way of yeast breads. Instead, you use a stretch and fold technique. There are lots of videos of this on You Tube and also on the Breadtopia website. ( I do recommend this website for tips and recipes.) Because of my arthritic hands, and because I tend to be working my dough late at night after mixing, I devised my own method of stretch-and-fold, using my stand mixer.
Most recipes for no-knead sourdough, including Breadtopia’s, call for putting the dough in a lidded bowl or container for a bulk rise in a warmish place for 10-12 hours (or you can do it for 48 hours or longer in the fridge if you want or need to slow down the bulk rise and get a tangier, more sour flavor). I’ve learned that the first rise needs to double the dough, but for me, it works best to not let the dough rise past the point of doubling the first time. In my house, by the heating stove in the winter (but not so close that the container of dough gets too warm and over-ferments), this takes about 10 hours. It’s about 72-74 degrees in that spot. I think 68 to 74 degrees is ideal, and the cooler end of that range is actually better, although it might take a little longer. Better to take a little longer than to over-ferment the dough, which leads to a stickier dough that becomes nearly impossible to work and won’t rise properly when baked. In the summer, I put the container of dough in the laundry room, where it’s about 70 degrees, and it takes about 12 hours. The colder the temperature in the room, the longer it will take to double the dough in the first rise (or first proof, as some bakers say, or bulk rise or ferment; you’ll see these terms used interchangeably in the videos, blogs, and websites about sourdough and bread-baking in general).
The other thing about the no-knead method is that because the dough is loose, and it will be looser after the first/bulk rise, when the flour has had 10-12 hours to absorb the liquid, it can be hard to shape. Or rather, once it is shaped, it tends to spread rather than rise up in the second proof. Traditional methods for dealing with this are the use of a proofing basket, or banneton, in which the dough would rise after shaping; then, it would be turned into a hot Dutch oven and placed in a hot oven to bake. I bought two Dutch ovens, porcelain over cast iron, one large, one small, hoping to improve somehow the look and rise of my loaves. I got a few decent loaves out of this method, but usually, when I would turn the banneton over to dislodge the risen boule into the Dutch oven, it would deflate, and I’d end up with a flat, heavy loaf. So disappointing! In short, I spent over $100 in equipment for making sourdough which I no longer use because I have worked out other methods which require no special equipment and which produce better results for me.
I have also baked sourdough in bread pans. I don’t like the result as much as I do using my method below. I find the dough doesn’t rise as well for me. I have a hunch I might have been oiling my pans too heavily, so the dough had no way to climb as it tried to rise. So if I try bread pans again, I’ll use a solid fat, like shortening, to grease the pans. Also, I think I was baking in pans at too low a temperature, about 375 F, and I think 425 F might work out better, baking on the next to lowest rack in the oven, but I have not yet tested these theories. Below is a picture of a sourdough loaf baked in a bread pan at 375 F (surrounded by sourdough discard biscuits, which I covered in another post.”
The recipe and technique that follows is what I’ve developed that works most of the time for me. (I haven’t found any method or recipe that isn’t sometimes adversely affected by temperature, humidity, and differences in flour.) I don’t guarantee this method will work for you. But if you’re interested in making sourdough without buying a bunch of stuff, you might want to try this method. By the way, I call this stand mixer sourdough bread because I use my stand mixer for the bulk of the work, but you can do this by hand if you don’t have a stand mixer. Again, watch the videos on Breadtopia for the hand mixing and folding and stretching and shaping.
Stand-Mixer Sourdough Bread
¼ cup bubbly, active sourdough starter (which should have been fed between 3-4 hours previously) *See note
1½ cups unchlorinated water
1 ¼ teaspoons of kosher or sea salt
16 ounces of bread flour *See note
In the bowl of the stand mixer, stir together the starter and water until completely mixed. Using the dough hook, mix in the flour and salt until a thick, sticky dough forms and the flour looks mixed in. This dough will not look like traditional yeasted dough, which cleans the bowl of the stand mixer with the dough ball as it rotates. This dough will stick to the sides of the bowl. Scrape the dough from the hook attachment back into the bowl. (If you are mixing by hand, and as most great bakers will tell you, mixing by hand is a good idea because that’s how you learn the feel of the dough, just work the dough in the bowl until all the flour is mixed in.) Cover the bowl with a plastic shower cap, or a sheet of plastic wrap secured by a big rubber band, and leave it to rest for 20 minutes. (This is called the autolyze period, when the flour is allowed to absorb the liquid.) Then, with the dough hook on the stand mixer, mix for about 8 seconds on the lowest setting. Scrape the dough from the dough hook back into the bowl, and cover again. Set the timer for 20 minutes, and then repeat the 8 second mix on the lowest speed. Do this twice more, so that you have mixed three times in an hour. After the third mix, you will notice that that sticky, almost battery dough has thickened up considerably and become much more dough-like and stretchy. The stretchiness indicates that gluten has built up in the dough. Gluten is a protein that gives the dough enough strength to hold a shape as it rises and bakes. This whole stand mixer process takes the place of the by-hand stretch-and-fold process you can learn about on You Tube and Breadtopia. I have no doubt that doing it by hand is actually a better way, but I had to find a way to minimize stress on my hands, and this stand mixer method works. Here are pictures of two different doughs with different flours, made exactly the same way. You can see how much difference the flour makes. These are ready for their bulk ferment, after I snap lids on.
Now it’s time for the first or bulk rise. Transfer the dough to a container with an airtight lid. I typically don’t like to store any ferment in plastic, but I found that using these square containers that once had frozen mini-cream puffs and eclairs in them is perfect. The lids snap down tight, pushing out the air, and there’s plenty of room for the dough to rise. If you don’t have a container like this, you can use the bowl of the stand mixer covered in plastic wrap with a rubber band to keep it air tight. Or you can use a clean shower cap with a tight elastic band. Or any sort of Tupperware-type container with an airtight lid. Just make sure that the dough has plenty of room to double. Put the lidded container in a warmish, not hot, place to rise for 10-12 hours. (I do my starter feedings during the day, 3 at 3-4 hour intervals, then mix my dough at night and let it bulk rise all night, so I can shape, rise, and bake in the morning.) This is a picture of a seven-grain starter dough and a heritage whole grain wheat dough after their overnight bulk rise.
After the dough has doubled in the first/bulk rise, it’s time to shape. This is where I depart a little from most of the websites. Because I don’t use a banneton any more for the second rise, I work my dough a bit more than most expert bakers advise. I dump and scrape the dough out of the proofing container onto a fairly heavily floured board. I stretch and fold (stretch-knead) the dough until it begins to hold a shape, adding flour until the dough no longer sticks to the board. When it holds a mound shape when I take my hands off it, then I can do the final shaping. I”ve come to prefer a long loaf shape to a round boule shape (I think the loaf shape works better for sandwiches, and it fits in the toaster), so I stretch and flatten my dough into a rectangle, then fold it into thirds, one third to the middle, the second third folded over the first. Pinch the seam to seal the loaf, roll it over onto the seam, and push the ends of the loaf inside or under the folds and pinch to seal. Then let the loaf sit and rest while you prepare the pan. Make sure there’s a little flour under the loaf on the board, or you might have to use a bench scraper to pick it up.
While your loaf is resting, prepare your baking sheet. Using a pastry brush, I brush on a little oil with a high smoke point; that is, it won’t burn or turn sticky in the oven at a high baking temperature. I use a baking oil or avocado oil (I get them both cheap at Grocery Outlet) with smoke points above 450 F. I brush the oil only where the loaf will rest as it rises and doubles, and around that edge, I sprinkle cornmeal, in case the loaf spreads beyond the oiled section. You can go the no-oil route like Paul Hollywood, and just use cornmeal sprinkled on the pan, but I’ve never been brave enough. I used to sprinkle cornmeal over the oil, but it makes a mess on the bread board when you slice the bread, so now I just use the cornmeal around the oil. At this point, I check my loaf. If it has lost shape while I was preparing the pan, I know I should probably work a little more flour into it, stretching and folding and gently kneading, and re-shape it into the loaf. This is why I prepare my pan after shaping, so I can see how the dough is reacting as it rests.
Move the dough onto the pan in the center of the oiled shape, and use the leftover oil on the brush to oil the top and sides of the loaf. I have also begun to slash the dough down the center at this point to allow the dough to move up, not out, and to release any surface air bubbles.
Cover loosely with plastic wrap. I make a little tent on top, so the dough has room to expand upwards. I then use my two wooden rolling pins to block the sides of the loaf, on top of the edges of the plastic, to keep the loaf from spreading and becoming too flat. Large glasses would also work, or anything large and round that will force the dough up and keep it from spreading out. This method circumvents the need for a loaf-shaped banneton for the second rise/proof, and prevents what was, for me, the almost-inevitable collapse of my loaf upon transfer from the banneton.
My bread typically needs at least two hours, often three, to double again. I like to do this second rise/proof in a cooler environment, because I’ve found that if I proof the shaped loaf in a warm environment, I get more spreading than rising, resulting in a flatter loaf. When the bread has doubled, however long it takes, it’s time to bake. One test of whether a loaf is ready to bake is to push your fingertip, or knuckle if you have long nails, lightly into the dough. If it leaves an indentation and doesn’t spring back, the dough is ready to bake. You can see in this picture that the dough has risen to fill the little tent of plastic wrap I made for it in the picture above.
Heat the oven to 450 F. Make sure your baking sheet is rated for that temperature. If you don’t know or aren’t sure, reduce the temperature to 425 F. Most cookie sheets will handle 425 F. I use a stainless steel baking sheet that is good to 450 F, and I like the result of baking the bread at that temperature, but I have baked at 425 F. 425 F will produce a softer, lighter crust. Here’s a picture of a loaf baked at that temperature, followed by one baked at 450 F.
Remove the rolling pins or glasses and plastic wrap. Using a bread lame or razor blade (or extremely sharp knife), score the bread about a quarter-inch deep either lengthwise down the loaf, or in about 5 slashes diagonally across the loaf, whichever you prefer. This allows the steam in the dough to push the dough up as the bread bakes. It’s called oven spring, and you want it, because that is what gives your bread a light crumb. If you don’t score the top of your dough, your loaf will likely explode out the side, which makes for an uneven look, although the bread will still be edible, of course. Don’t score until the loaf is ready to go into the hot oven. When you get good at scoring, which I am not, you can get fancy with the designs you cut into the top of your loaf, and they will show after baking.
Place your loaf into the middle of the hot oven and set the timer for 30 minutes. At 450 F, your loaf will be perfectly baked. At 425 F, you might need to give it another 5 minutes. Immediately remove the loaf from the baking sheet using metal spatula or two, and place on a cooling rack. Cool at least one hour before cutting. If you cut the loaf while the bread is too warm, it can become gummy, and it will dry out much faster. I eat the bread fresh for the first few days until it starts to get a little dry, then I start toasting it. It makes the best toast!
Some people store the cut loaf with the cut end against a wooden cutting board because they don’t like plastic. I don’t, because I find the whole loaf (there is no fat in it to keep it moist) dries out too much exposed to our arid air. I put my completely cooled loaves into plastic Ziploc bags. I buy the two gallon size so the loaf fits entirely inside, and I can leave it on the counter that way for as long as a week with no mold appearing. After a week, I usually put the bread in the fridge if I haven’t used it up already, or I slice the loaf and freeze the slices for toast.
Feeding your starter: It’s generally accepted that to get your starter in the best possible shape for rising a loaf of bread, you need to feed it three times in a 12 hour period before you mix the starter into the bread ingredients. I have cut that down to three times in 10 hours by reducing the time between second and third feedings to 3 hours instead of 4 hours. I always let my starter feed for 4 hours in the first feeding of the day because I have taken it from the fridge and it’s cold. It needs to warm up a bit to start eating the carbohydrates in the flour. I always use warm, not hot, water for that first feeding and put the container in a warm place. After that first feeding, tepid water is fine, and I can shorten the time between second and third feedings if I want to, so that I’m not mixing dough at midnight. Here are two bubbly starters before stirring down to measure for baking.
Types of flour:
Always use some kind of bread/strong flour, not all purpose flour. Bread flour is high-gluten flour, and your bread needs gluten to hold its shape. In the recipe above, I use 8 oz. of organic, strong, unbleached white bread flour, and 8 oz. of an organic whole grain bread flour, sometimes hard white winter wheat, and sometimes a mixture of that and another heritage or ancient grain, like Einkorn or Kamut flour. You can play with percentages of this flour and that, but be prepared for a few failures along the way. I’ve found that types of flours and proofing temperature are the two variables that can really affect success or failure, and it’s taken a lot of experimentation for me to figure out what ratios work for me. Expect to experiment yourself to find what works for you.
And remember, experiments are edible. You can always make bread cubes, bread crumbs, salad croutons, or bread pudding with a loaf that doesn’t live up to your expectations for sliced bread.
I love making my own bread. It’s time-consuming, but the results are worth it, to me. I can eat my own bread without gaining weight. Store bought bread always produced a weight gain, but since I have been making sourdough, my weight has stabilized. I can’t say I’ve lost weight, but when I am sensible and don’t eat more than a couple of pieces of sourdough a day, I don’t gain weight. This is simple bread, just flour, water, and salt. The starter is just flour and water in which natural yeasts have developed. If you use organic flours, as I do, there is no cleaner bread in the world. No sugar, no fats, no dough conditioners. You can make it more complicated if you want to, and you can spend money on bannetons and Dutch ovens, but if you don’t have to, why would you want to?
I call these rolls “cheater” because I use yeast in them. They’re made with my sourdough discard, left from feeding my starters three times in a 12 hour period before I use the starter to make bread. Each time you feed a starter, you’re supposed to discard half of the mixture from the previous feeding, so your starter can consume the flour easily and get happy and strong and bubbly.
That’s how starter needs to be before making bread, but for these rolls, you can put your discard in a covered bowl and leave it overnight without feeding, if you wish, before you start the cinnamon roll dough. That’s because of the addition of instant yeast, and that’s the cheat. I dump my white, whole wheat, and seven grain starter discard together, and that’s what I use to make my cinnamon rolls and other discard goodies.
Instant yeast is great. I buy it in bulk at Winco. For those like me who grew up with the little red-and-yellow packets of regular yeast that you were supposed to activate in warm water or milk with a little sugar, to make sure it was bubbly before you started making dough with it, instant yeast is like magic. You don’t have to add it to warm liquid. You don’t even have to add it to liquid first. So this recipe is easy, fast, and still has the sourdough taste from the starter without the wait. (Sourdough typically takes 8-12 hours to double.)
The other nice thing about this recipe is that you can play not only fast with it, but loose. I have used 3 cups of sourdough discard, pretty much the same amount of the other ingredients, and have just added enough flour to get a workable, kneadable dough, however much flour that turns out to be. I ended up with about 30 cinnamon rolls that time. But usually, I have about 2 cups of starter discard left, so these are the approximate amounts I use. I’ve been winging it for several batches now, but the last two times, I thought I’d measure so I could write up a recipe. They always turn out tasty no matter what I do.
Cheater Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls
2 cups of sourdough starter discard (it doesn’t have to be freshly fed)
2 teaspoons of instant yeast
½ cup milk (I use milk kefir because I’m lactose-intolerant)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup softened butter or butter substitute (I use MELT because I’m lactose intolerant)
1 teaspoon salt
Beat all these ingredients together in a mixing bowl until well combined. (I use my stand mixer with the dough hook.)
Add approximately 3 to 3 ½ cups flour, ½ cup at a time. When you can’t use a hand mixer any more, use your hands to work in the flour, or use your stand mixer with the dough hook to work the flour in until you have a dough that just cleans the bowl. I then use my stand mixer to knead the dough on medium speed for about 5 minutes. After that, I hand-knead on a lightly-floured board, adding more flour as necessary, until the dough is smooth and elastic, about another 5 minutes. If you’re doing it all by hand, you’ll be mixing and kneading for about 10 minutes. (This is too much for my arthritic hands, so my stand mixer has been a Godsend.) Shape the dough into a round ball.
Now, just a little dough lesson here. Press your fingertip into the dough ball. (Use your knuckle if you have long fingernails.) Your finger should leave an indentation for a moment, but the dough should spring back and the dent should disappear. That’s the quality of elasticity you want, and it tells you your dough has been kneaded sufficiently to develop the gluten that holds breads together. Take note of this for later, because you’ll want to see just the reverse after the first proof.
Lightly oil a bowl or lidded container with a bit of mild-flavored oil, and place dough ball inside, turning to coat the top with the oil. (I use a square, plastic container with an airtight lid. I like the shape because when I turn the dough out to roll it, it’s closer to the rectangular shape I want.)
Cover the dough with a tight-fitting lid or plastic wrap or shower cap and place in a warm spot to double. With instant yeast, the dough will double in size in about 1 ½ hours.
(See, cheater! Regular sourdough would take at least 8 hours, maybe longer. I’m willing to wait for bread, but I want the cinnamon rolls done before the grandkids get home from school!)
While the dough is rising, prepare ingredients for filling; prepare your pan/s.
Ingredients for filling:
Soften ¼-1/3 cup butter or butter substitute (how much butter you use is up to you, and also depends on how much dough you have.)
Mix approximately ½ cup sugar with 2-3 teaspoons cinnamon (again, it depends on personal taste and how much dough you have. You might need more cinnamon sugar if you have a big batch of dough.)
Grease a 9×13 inch pan with butter, shortening, or cooking spray. (I use the paper that was wrapped around my MELT butter substitute and a little baking oil if necessary.)
When the dough looks like it’s doubled, press your fingertip or knuckle lightly into the center of the dough mass. Unlike the last time, your finger should leave an indentation in the dough. The dough should not spring back into shape.
That tells you the dough has risen enough to go on to shaping your rolls. (If the dough is still springy, leave it to rise longer but check about every 15 minutes.) If the dough is ready, press the dough back lightly into the container with your knuckles and turn/scrape out onto a floured board. How much flour you need depends on how sticky your dough is. You’ll be able to tell when you press down the dough if it is sticky or not. Never use more flour on your board than necessary to keep the dough from sticking at this stage. (Sourdough doughs tend to be sticky. How sticky your dough is depends largely on the qualities of your particular starter. )
Pull and stretch your dough into a roughly rectangular shape, then use a floured rolling pin to roll it smooth and straight. I usually roll mine out to about ¼ inch thickness. Spread the softened butter over the dough, keeping it at least ¼ inch away from the edges. Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar evenly over the butter, keeping it away from the edges. Then it’s time to roll.
I roll away from me. Some people like to roll toward them. Do what feels natural to you. Starting on one lengthwise edge, roll as tightly as you can toward the other edge. When you get to the end of the roll, pinch the dough together tightly with your fingertips all along the length of the roll to seal it. Sometimes it helps to moisten the edge of the dough slightly or moisten your fingertips, especially if you’ve put too much flour on your board! Make sure there is flour on the board where the seam is going to land when you turn the roll onto the seam. Push the ends of the dough into the tube you’ve made, and pinch them to seal, again with moistened fingers, if necessary. Now you’re ready to slice.
I always used to cut my cinnamon rolls with my sharpest knife, but I learned about string cutting on The Great British Baking Show, and it really does work better. Cut a length of cotton string or dental floss long enough to wrap around the roll a couple of times. Using a knife or bench scraper, mark your cuts by pressing lightly into the roll about 1 ½ inches apart. Slide the string under the roll to the first mark, bring the two ends up and cross them, and pull on the ends with equal pressure at the same time.
The string cuts evenly all the way around and through without the distorting pressure of the knife, and your cinnamon rolls will be rounder. As you cut each roll, place it in the prepared pan with sides just touching. (You may need an extra pan if you made a lot of dough. I sometimes use a small bread pan for just two or three extra rolls that won’t fit in the big pan.) Don’t overcrowd the pan. The rolls won’t rise or bake well if they don’t have room to grow. I can usually fit 18 at the most in the 13×9 inch cake pan.
Cover your pan of rolls with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to double again. This should only take about 30 minutes. When rolls have doubled, preheat your oven to 375 F and bake the rolls for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove the pan from the oven and place on a rack to cool.
Mix vanilla glaze, if desired. Drizzle over rolls when they are cooled but still slightly warm, so the glaze soaks in a little bit.
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-3 teaspoons milk
Add the milk one teaspoon at a time to the powdered sugar and vanilla, beating hard with a spoon, until you get a thick, but pourable glaze. Drizzle with the spoon over the rolls until you’ve got the amount of glaze you like. Now, some people I know make double the glaze and really glop it on! That’s okay, if you like them that way. Other people make a cream cheese frosting. I’m something of a purist. A cinnamon roll is all about the sweet roll dough and the cinnamon for me, so I like a light, drizzled glaze best. I want the cinnamon to be the star of the show, and in these rolls, it is.
Note: The last time I made these, I was out of powdered sugar, so I made a honey-caramel syrup with about ½ cup of water and ¾ cup of sugar, boiled together until just starting to thicken and take color, and then I added about ¼ cup of honey and a teaspoon of cinnamon. (The honey keeps the caramel syrup from hardening.) I poured that shiny glaze over the cinnamon rolls, and it kept them really moist during the week it took Dennis to eat them all. Later, I wished I’d used my vanilla sugar instead of plain sugar in the syrup. Next time!
March 4, 2019: An update on this recipe. I have tried reducing the amount of coconut oil in the original recipe by 2 ounces, and it works fine, with no need to “drain” the cookies on paper toweling overnight. I also adjusted the amount of buttermilk or kefir in the recipe to account for the change in the amount of coconut oil. Both changes have been made to the updated recipe below. I’ve also made a note about about a variation using dark chocolate chips instead of white chocolate chips. Very good!
* * *
I’m laughing at the title of this post! These cookies are made with coconut oil instead of butter. I have become lactose-intolerant, and butter really bothers me. I wanted to see if I could substitute coconut oil for butter in my favorite cookie recipe. I did a little research first on baking with coconut oil and making substitutions, and then I tried a batch. Success! I made these first for Thanksgiving and posted them on my Facebook timeline. I had several calls for the recipe, but I wanted to test it one more time before I posted it. I thought I might make some tweaks. However, when I took the cookies to my daughter’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, everybody said, “Don’t change a thing! They’re perfect as is!” My son-in-law’s brother couldn’t stop eating them. He said, “These are the best cookies I have ever tasted.”
So here they are. I did make one small tweak. I increased the amount of white chocolate chips slightly. I only had ½ cup of them when I made the cookies the first time. I should note that this recipe is just an adaptation of another recipe, my favorite basic cookie recipe which I use for chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, white chocolate and pistachio nut oatmeal cookies, black and white chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, M & M oatmeal cookies, raisin and spice oatmeal cookies, and other variations. For that basic recipe, see my previous post, Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies with Variations. The beauty of this recipe is that variations are endless. It produces a thin cookie with a soft chew when warm that crisps up as it cools. With coconut oil instead of butter, the crisp is instant.
These directions are for using a stand mixer. Alter as needed for a hand mixer and wooden spoon. It is also necessary to weigh the coconut oil on a kitchen scale. If you don’t have one, get yourself one for Christmas! I love mine.
Coconut-Cranberry-White Chocolate-Pecan Oatmeal Cookies (updated)
(Makes 3-4 dozen cookies)
8 ounces room temperature coconut oil (softened)
3 tablespoons buttermilk or milk kefir (See note)
¾ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 egg, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups of old-fashioned oats (See note)
1 ½ cups dried cranberries
½ cup flaked coconut
¾ cup white chocolate chips (or vanilla baking chips)
1 cup chopped pecans
In the stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the coconut oil until smooth and creamy. Beat in the sugars until well mixed. Beat in the egg, buttermilk, and vanilla. Add 1 cup of flour and beat. To the other ½ cup of flour, add the salt and baking soda and mix together with a spoon. Mix well into the cookie mixture. Add the oats one cup at a time, mixing on low.
With the mixer on low, mix in the cranberries, coconut, baking chips, and nuts. This will be a pretty stiff mixture, so if you don’t have a stand mixer, you will probably be mixing with a wooden spoon at this point, because a hand mixer won’t do it. (And that’s why I asked for a stand mixer for Christmas one year!)
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Using a soup spoon (we called these table spoons in my day, which led to some confusion), gather a spoonful of dough and press it against the side of the bowl as you draw it up the side. This presses the dough together, and you get a more uniform load. You want a slightly rounded spoonful.
These cookies don’t bake quite the same as those made with butter, so you don’t want to make big cookies with this recipe. Scrape the dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet and press down on the cookie dough with the back of the spoon to flatten the dough ball a little. Leave about 2 inches of room between cookies. I have large cookie sheets, and I get a dozen cookies per sheet without them running together.
Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the edges of the cookies are browned, the cookies have flattened out, and the centers look set. (They’ll puff up as they are heating up, but should flatten when done.) Pull the cookies out and leave them at least a minute on the cookie sheet to cool slightly and set before you remove them with a flat spatula to a cooling rack. These cookies need to be completely cool before you store them.
Some things to note: My original cookie recipe uses butter and baking soda. The baking soda reacts with the butter to give a little rise and a good texture. Coconut oil is not as acidic as butter, and it doesn’t contain the water that butter does. I read that when subbing coconut oil for butter, it’s good to use a little milk to add moisture the butter would otherwise provide. But as I looked at my recipe, I realized that I needed also to replace the acid the butter would provide, to react to the baking soda. So instead of regular milk, I used milk kefir or buttermilk. Both are acidic, so they work properly with the baking soda. I have not tried to figure out a substitution of baking powder for the baking soda, so that regular milk could be used. I like them as they are, and I always have either buttermilk or milk kefir (a fermented milk similar to buttermilk, just different cultures) in my fridge.
Another thing to note is the use of old-fashioned rolled oats. This kind of oat gives the best texture in the cookie. You can use quick oats, I have, but they change the texture, and you get a cookie that’s not as thin, flat, chewy in the middle, and crisp around the edges. Quick oats make for a stodgier cookie.
As for any of the additions–coconut, cranberries, white chocolate chips, pecans–you can leave out any you don’t like or come up with your own substitutions. Just remember, when you’re using coconut oil, you’re going to taste coconut, so make sure your additions will match up well with the flavor of the coconut oil. This particular combo was a big hit. I can’t wait to try some other combinations.
Update March 4, 2019: Chocolate chip with or without pecans and added coconut is really good! Without adding coconut, the cookies still have a slight coconut flavor from the coconut oil. My husband and granddaughter prefer these to my original chocolate chip oatmeal cookies made with butter!
Thanksgiving is approaching, as we all know. I usually post a recipe or some links to past posts about Thanksgiving that contain treasured recipes, and I will do that again, but first, I want to tell you a little story about sourdough.
At our family hunting camp this year in September, I was making toast for my niece, Brielle, and my sister, Goldie, from a sourdough loaf I’d made a couple days before and brought to share with them. I was explaining to my science-loving niece how sourdough works, and how homemade loaves are different from grocery store bakery loaves, and how to use the discard to make pancakes, waffles, and biscuits, and they were enjoying the tangy flavor of the toast and some homemade jams I’d brought. My sister pipes up with “I ordered some Oregon Trail sourdough starter a while back, from an ad in a magazine, I can’t even remember what it was, and I never did anything with it.” I made my sourdough starter three years ago and have been obsessed with sourdough for years. And I’m just now hearing about this? My sister said it came in an envelope, so I knew it was dehydrated. When questioned closely, she couldn’t remember much about it, but she thought she knew where it was in her house.
In October, my husband and I were visiting Goldie and her family in the Brookings, Oregon area, and my sister handed me an envelope. “Here, I found it,” she said. “You take it. I don’t know how to activate it. I’d probably just ruin it.” The return address on the envelope said Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough. My sister said I could give her some of the starter when I’d activated it, next time we met.
When I got home, I looked at the self-addressed envelope Goldie had given me. The envelope was post-marked 2013! It contained a sandwich bag holding about a teaspoon of dried starter. I wondered if it would still be good after 5 years in a plastic bag, stuffed in a drawer somewhere. (I don’t know where Goldie actually stashed it, but that’s what I’d have done.) I already knew how to activate a dried starter, because I’d dehydrated some of my own and sent it to friends with instructions for activation, but I wanted to find out more about the starter and the story, so I googled Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter. And that’s all you need to find the website and request some of Carl’s starter, although you can just click on carlsfriends.net.
Here’s what I learned about the history of Carl’s starter. Carl Griffith was the descendant of immigrants who moved west from Missouri in 1847 and brought their sourdough with them on their journey along the Oregon Trail. The starter passed through three or four generations of the family before it came to Carl. Carl learned to use the starter making camp bread in a Basque sheep camp and homestead in southeastern Oregon when he was 10 years old. Later, he used it on a chuck wagon in the same way, making bread and biscuits in a cast iron Dutch oven, during cattle drives in southeastern Oregon. Carl’s brochure, which he used to pass out with his starter, and which can be downloaded from the internet now, also has a number of recipes for using the starter.
I was really skeptical that after 5 years in a plastic bag, the wild yeasts in the starter would still be active, but I thought it was worth a shot. All it would cost was flour and time. I activated the starter my way, using just water and flour, named it Carl 1847 (we tend to name our starters in the sourdough world—I have two others named Number One and Seven). Much to my surprise, Carl 1847 was nice and bubbly in under a week. I’ve yet to make bread with him, but I’ve made pancakes and waffles, cinnamon rolls (with the addition of some instant yeast), and my favorite bread for Thanksgiving, sourdough rolls.
Sourdough rolls made with Carl 1847 have a uniquely tangy flavor. Every sourdough starter is different, and with the addition of different flours, the flavor and consistency of the starter changes, and thus the flavor of the baked good changes as well. In general, heritage starters, because they have been kept going for so long and have continued to garner new yeasts and beneficial bacteria each time they are fed and used, have unparalleled flavor, although I have to say, my Number One and Seven are very good as well. Number One was made from Guisto’s organic bread flour and now is being fed with Azure Standard’s organic Heritage bread flour. Seven started with Number One, but then I started feeding her a mix of flours made from seven different types of organic grains: buckwheat, hard white wheat, Heritage wheat, Kamut, Einkorn, spelt, and rye. To illustrate how different flours change the flavor of a starter and a bread or baked good, bread made with Number One is tangy but mild and uncomplicated, and bread made with Seven is tangy but with a very robust flavor from the heartier grains. So whatever Carl 1847 is fed with will change him, adding new strains of yeasts and new flavors. I’ve kept one jar of Carl 1847 fed with unbleached organic white bread flour from Natural Grocer, and one jar fed with the Azure Standard organic Heritage bread flour, which is finely ground whole grain. I’ll give the jar of white to my sister, and keep the jar of whole grain for myself. Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail sourdough starter lives on.
And with that, here is my recipe for sourdough biscuits. I posted it some time back, but I’ve made some changes to the recipe since I’ve been using it more often.
(no previous prep if using fresh discard)
For small batch (about 6):
1 cup active, bubbly sourdough starter
½ cup dry milk
1 cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 Tbs. sugar
½ tsp. salt
Additional ¼- ½ cup flour for kneading
1 Tbs. butter, melted in 8 or 9 inch square or round pan (your preferred cooking oil can also be used)
Heat oven to 425 degrees.
Mix starter and dry milk together until smooth. Mix baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt into 1 cup of flour. Mix flour mixture into wet ingredients until flour is moistened.
Sprinkle ¼ cup of flour onto board. Turn out sticky dough onto board and knead about 25 times until just at soft dough stage, adding more flour just as necessary to keep dough from sticking to board. When dough is stiff enough to cut, roll to the depth of your biscuit cutter and cut biscuits. (Press the floured cutter all the way through the dough to the board and then twist to free the cut biscuit from the dough.)
Dip one side of the biscuit into melted butter in pan and turn over so buttered side is up. (This helps the biscuit brown beautifully. So does the bit of sugar in the dough.) The sides of the biscuits should be touching each other so they rise up rather than spread out. Bake biscuits for 15 minutes or until golden brown.
*Note: How much flour you need to work into the starter depends on how thick your starter or discard is. I feed my starters up pretty heavily for bread, and my discard, which I use for biscuits, pancakes, or waffles, is spoonable rather than pourable. In other words, it’s thick, and doesn’t require much additional flour to make a kneadable dough.
Large batch (about 12):
2 cups active, bubbly sourdough starter
1 cup dry milk
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
2 Tbs. sugar
1 tsp. salt
Additional ¼ – ½ cup flour for kneading
2 Tbs. butter, melted in 9×12” pan
Mix and bake as for small recipe above.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
I can’t believe I’ve never shared this recipe on the blog, but I searched for it for my daughter, Amy, who has a bumper crop of green heirloom tomatoes this year, and I couldn’t find the recipe. She loves my green tomato marmalade and requests it every year. I’m just very proud that she wants to attempt it herself!
Green tomato marmalade is one of those things that sounds really weird, and you think, no way could that be good, but trust me, folks, it’s delicious. It’s good on toast, etc., but my favorite use for it is on top of cream cheese-laden cracker. It makes a great snack or appetizer. It’s also good on a bagel with cream cheese, or on a turkey or roast beef sandwich. There’s something about the spice, the lemony-tart tang, and the sweetness that just works with so many things.
Since I don’t have any green tomatoes to speak of this year, I won’t be making green tomato marmalade myself, so here are some pics from last year.
But the recipe is the important thing, right? Here it is.
Spicy Green Tomato-Lemon Marmalade
Makes about 6 half-pints
2 large or 3 small lemons, thinly sliced
5 pounds green tomatoes, washed, cored and thinly sliced
6 cups organic cane sugar
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds, crushed or 1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon red chile flakes
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup of apple pectin stock (optional, but it gives a nice set to the jam, and you need to add 1/2 cup of water in the bottom of the pot if you don’t use the apple pectin stock)
Bring lemon slices to a boil in a pot of water. Drain.
Combine all ingredients in a large heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cook at a gentle simmer until tomatoes and lemon slices are translucent and syrup thickens, about an hour. Quickly spoon into sterilized jars, seal and boil in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.
If you don’t have enough green tomatoes, this recipe can be easily halved, then jarred and stored in the refrigerator for several months.
This is now one of my favorite ways to use green tomatoes, and my family likes it too. I love knowing I’m passing on my knowledge to a new generation.
I have a lot of plums. Dennis and I picked about 45 lbs from our Santa Rosa plum tree last week. They needed a little box-ripening time; we always have to pick them a bit early because otherwise the birds get them all. But they ripen up beautifully in the cool house. I had several days to figure out what I wanted to do with this year’s crop. I made a big plum cobbler with the first batch of pecked and damaged plums. Delicious. When we picked again, I had another big basket of pecked and damaged to deal with first. And I decided I wanted to make barbecue sauce.
I looked for recipes online, first. All the recipes I found either had ketchup in them, or were for Chinese plum sauce, which I still have loads of on the shelf. I didn’t want to use ketchup. It has high fructose corn syrup in it, usually, and other things I don’t want to put into a homemade, home-canned sauce. So I turned to my canning Bible, my Ball Blue Book, the one my mother gave me when I married in 1981. I didn’t find a plum barbecue sauce, but I did find a tomato-based barbecue sauce recipe that I knew I could adapt. A rule of thumb with canning is that you should never add more non-acid ingredients than a recipe calls for (like onions or peppers or garlic or celery), but you can substitute an acid ingredient for another acid ingredient, particularly when you are adding more acid in the form of vinegar. Tomatoes are no longer considered a safely acid ingredient, which is why you have to add lemon juice or citric acid to them when you can them in the water bath. But plums are acidic enough not to need any extra acid, so in terms of safety in canning, subbing out half (or more) of the tomatoes for plums is fine.
Plum-Tomato Barbecue Sauce
4 quarts altogether of tomatoes and plums, pitted. (See Note*)
1 ½ cups chopped onions
1 ½ cups chopped sweet peppers
2 hot peppers (See Note**)
1 cup of vinegar (See Note***)
1 cup of brown sugar
1 tablespoon dry powdered mustard
1 tablespoon hot smoked paprika
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, crushed, in a cheesecloth bag
1 tablespoon salt
Cook the fruit and vegetables until tender, about 30 minutes. Strain through chinois to remove skins and seeds.
Return juicy sauce to heavy bottomed pan and reduce at a simmer, stirring frequently, until sauce has thickened and is at about half its original volume. Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to a boil, and reduce heat until sauce is at a good simmer. Stir frequently. This sauce will stick to the bottom of the pan if not stirred, and as it thickens, it’s going to blurp a lot, so a spatter screen is helpful. When the sauce has reduced to the consistency of ketchup, it’s ready to jar, but taste it first. See if you want it sweeter or tangier. You can add more sugar and vinegar if you wish. Get the sauce good and hot, then spoon it into sterilized pint or half pint jars, add flats and rings, and process in boiling water bath for 20 min. Please consult an altitude chart for any additional time needed for your altitude.
*I used a bag of frozen tomatoes from last year (amazing what you find in the freezer when you have to make room for berries) which amounted to about 2 ½ quarts, so I used 1 ½ quarts of pitted plums. When I make this recipe again, I will probably go about half and half on plums and tomatoes, because while you can definitely taste the plums in the sauce, I could go a little bit more plummy.
**I used two Serrano peppers for heat. I didn’t deseed them, just threw them into the food processor with the sweet orange peppers. I got the perfect level of heat for me. If you have a tender mouth and don’t want any heat, you can omit the hot peppers, or you can go for a milder pepper, like a jalapeno. If you want a hotter sauce, do not add more peppers. That messes with the acid balance and can make a recipe unsafe to can. Instead, use hotter peppers, but use the same amount of peppers the recipe calls for (say, two ghost peppers instead of two Serrano peppers). You can add 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne pepper and a teaspoon of Tabasco sauce if you want more heat as well. The original recipe called for both, but when I tasted my sauce, it was perfect and I omitted those ingredients. I also substituted hot smoked paprika for the plain paprika called for in the original recipe. I’m glad I did. The hot smoked paprika added just a slight smokiness to the sauce. Yummy.
***I used apple cider vinegar. I always use acv instead of white vinegar when I can do so without changing the look of a product.
Expect this sauce to take several hours to cook down to ketchup consistency. It starts out as juice and has to reduce slowly for a long time, so it helps if you have something else to do in the kitchen, so you can give that blurping pan a good stir every few minutes to keep it from sticking. Me, I was canning whole plums while my barbecue sauce was cooking down. It’s plum-palooza here. And my goodness, the house smells wonderful!
WATERSHED is a reality at last. To order my second book of poems, please go to https://foldedword.bigcartel.com/product/watershed . I would write more, but I’m in Alaska, and it’s difficult on my phone.
I’ve been working for several months on a project that was at the head of my list of priorities and projects for this year. Before I could start on the big pass-through countertop juniper slab, I needed to refinish a set of dining room chairs that belonged to my mother-in-law, Virginia, and which go with the table presently in my kitchen. The table has been in continuous use in the house since it was moved here some twenty years ago, but the chairs had been languishing in the barn, getting ever more worn and decrepit with the years. I moved them to the barn twenty years ago because there was no room for them in the house, and by the time we cleaned out the barn in the fall of 2016 so that we could put a roof on it, the chairs were in bad shape. I decided that I had to try to restore them, and I put them on the deck, under the porch, where I intended to work on them during the winter of 2017. My plan was to begin sanding and stripping them after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
Flu intervened early in 2017, and then two more illnesses followed that took months to diagnose and treat, and it was October of 2017 before I was on the road to health again. Of course, by then there were all the “getting ready for winter” chores to do, the end of the garden harvest to deal with, and then the holidays again, and it took every ounce of energy I had to get through those things. The chairs had, at that point, been sitting on the deck for over a year. One had a split leg, one had a broken arm (side rail on the top of the frame), and one had severe joint arthritis, and all were weathered, dry, splintery, and looked as if a squirrel had been chewing on them in the barn. They all had my sympathy.
Finally, in January 2018, during the mildest winter we’ve had here in many years, I began to work on the chairs. Because of the arthritis in my hands, I was only able to spend a couple of hours a day sanding and stripping. But every day I could, I was out working on those chairs. They were so badly damaged, there were times I despaired of getting them smooth. I thought sometimes I was going to sand right through a piece of wood before I got to the point where I stopped raising splinters. The original finish, some kind of varnish, was worn, but stubborn, and had penetrated into the open grain of the wood. I sanded and sanded. I used a small palm sander when I could, hand-sanded when necessary, over and over and over. I got sick of those chairs, I can tell you. There were five of them, instead of the original six belonging to the set. One of the captain’s chairs went to a family member years ago and was disposed of when no longer needed. I wished at first for the full set, but by the time I finished the fifth chair, I was glad I didn’t have another one to do.
It took months to sand off the old varnish, strip the backs where the fine detail made sanding impossible, then fine sand again. All of this had to be done outside, so the worrisome dry winter was something of a blessing for this project. I worked on the lower deck, under a roof, bundled up when it was cold. I had to figure out ways to save my back while I was sanding, including sitting in patio chair, and balancing the dining chair on my thighs and shoulders.
I didn’t work when it was really windy or when the temperature dropped below freezing, but I was out there on lots of days when it was 35 degrees. Sanding is warm work. When it came time to strip the backs of the chairs, I had a problem. I don’t have a workshop, and you can’t use stripper outside at 35 or 40 degrees. It just doesn’t activate and loosen the finish. I needed a space I could heat to at least 60 degrees. I tried the pump house first, but with two freezers in it, it was too crowded and rather dark. Then I thought of my greenhouse. Even when it’s chilly outside, if there’s sun, the greenhouse warms up to at least 60, and I had an extension cord already out there, so I could plug in a small heater and warm it up a bit more. I ended up stripping four of the chairs in the greenhouse, and it worked out well. It was nice and bright out there, and since I could only work a couple of hours at a time, I was usually finished before the sun went behind the trees and I lost the good light.
When I finally had the chairs sanded and stripped and finish sanded, and we had completed some structural repairs on several of the chairs, mending what was broken with screws and glue, it was time to apply a new finish.
For the finish, I wanted to use a product I’d used before, years before, on some benches I bought unfinished. It was called Bartley Gel Varnish, a rub-on finish that was so easy to work with and has held up very well on my benches. Unfortunately, the company had been bought out some years back, and the finish went out of production for a while. I took a chair down to the local hardware store, The Woodsmith, to talk to Norm about it, since he was the one who’d turned me on to Bartley’s and sold me my first can of finish all those years ago. I wanted to ask his opinion of the wood in the chairs anyway. He thought the wood might be beech. He said definitely not oak, which I also knew. The grain and softness of the wood is all wrong for oak, we both believe. As for the finish, he said Bartley’s was being manufactured again by the company that bought Bartley’s, and I should be able to find it online, although he could not buy it for the shop because of California regulations.
I did find the finish online, now made by Seagrave and renamed Bartley’s Clear Coat Gel Stain (bizarre contradictory renaming, and it gave me some trouble figuring out it was the same varnish), but I couldn’t get it shipped to California. It’s difficult to get some kinds of chemical products here now because of state regulations, so paints, stripping products, even cleaning products are less effective than they used to be. I ordered two quarts of finish (thinking ahead to other projects and the cost of shipping) and had them sent to my daughter’s house in Reno. I picked them up about a week later. Then it was time to turn my living room into a woodshop.
The beauty of this finish is that it is a thick, wipe-on finish that gives a gorgeous, fairly hard, hand-rubbed glow to the wood. It doesn’t run or drip like polyurethane. Because of that feature, I could spread old sheets and towels on my oak floor in the living room and not worry about messing up the floor. The finish is also not terribly strong-smelling, so all I had to do was crack the living room door and open a window, and keep the air circulating. The other beautiful thing about the Bartley gel finish is that you do not have to sand between coats as you do with poly. It also dries very quickly, so you can do three coats in a day if you want to. I generally put on a coat in the middle of the day, and another one at night, or a coat at night, and another in the morning, whatever worked best with my schedule that day. It’s a rub on, rub in and off process, so it goes very quickly. I worked with one chair at a time, because by the time I was done bending to coat that chair, my back did not want me to bend any more for a while. I did plop a little finish onto my floor a couple of times, and it wiped right up and never left any hint it had been there. But the chairs took on a beautiful golden glow. I used two coats on most of them, but on a couple of the chairs, the ones with the most badly damaged wood, I used two coats to stabilize the wood, then lightly sanded the slightly rough spots and recoated a third time. They feel like satin to the touch now.
As I was preparing to finish the varnishing, Dennis and I contacted the local upholsterer, George. He’s retired now, but he still works on cars and does some furniture when he’s needed. George gave me two books of upholstery material to look at, but they all looked like car upholstery to me. That wasn’t what I wanted. I looked at various materials, and I really started to panic a bit, thinking I wasn’t going to find anything that was just right. Then George told me to go to Mill Ends in Reno. It’s what it sounds like, a warehouse of fabric mill ends. I’d been there before, years ago, for another project, but I’d forgotten about it. I found a piece I loved almost right away at Mill Ends, and it only cost $25!
These chairs were originally covered in a red plastic fabric you’d have seen on diner chairs and booth benches in the ’40s and ’50s (and into the ’60s because the stuff was tough). The pattern was called “ice,” we were told at Mill Ends. I wanted something deep red, because that’s the accent color in my kitchen, and it had to coordinate with my kitchen window valance, sewn for me years ago by my friend, Paula. I love the apple print, and I love how Paula crafted the valance, and so the chair seats needed to look good with that valance. The upholstery fabric I found was made of recycled leather with a vinyl top in a deep red diamond pattern, very retro looking, which is what I wanted, given the age of these mid-century modern style chairs, and most important, easy to clean. Food dropped on them will wipe right off with no staining. This was perfect for chairs that’ll be used in the kitchen by the family. After a short delay while we waited for foam padding, George got to work and recovered the seats beautifully. In the meantime, I cut out stick-on felt pads for the bottoms of the chair legs to protect the new floor in the kitchen. I was so happy the day Dennis brought the seats home from George’s shop, I sent him a jar of apple butter as an extra thank-you.
We had a bit of trouble getting the seats back on the chairs. Dennis had started to number them when he took them off, but then he got distracted and didn’t number three of them. We had a time figuring out which seats went on which chairs, and it was important because they were attached by several screws, and the holes had to line up. He also found several holes that had wallowed out and had to be repaired. George had a tip for that. You pour glue in the screw holes, then jam several matchsticks into the hole. When the glue dries, you can insert the screws, and they’ll be tight. When we matched the seats to the chairs, and after replacing some screws that were so long, they might have punctured the new upholstery, Dennis got the seats reattached, and the chairs were moved into the kitchen and placed around the table. Done! Success! Finally!
This project would probably have taken somebody who isn’t disabled no more than a couple of weeks, outside the time it took to find the fabric and have the seats recovered. Somebody with undamaged hands could probably have done the upholstering herself. The whole project took me about two months. During that two months, I had a lot of time to think about these chairs, and why I was putting so much time and energy into them. I love doing this kind of work, but it isn’t easy for me, and sometimes it is downright painful. So why do I bother? Why was I bothering with these particular chairs that were so badly damaged?
Part of the reason I bothered was because they belonged to my mother-in-law. I’ve written about this before. Virginia and I had a complicated relationship. I was never quite good enough for her only son, and I knew it because she made sure I knew it. It’s hard to like someone who makes you feel that way, but I respected her for many reasons, and I grieved for her when she died. She had a lot of courage, and I admired her for that. Widowed when Dennis was only seven years old, already diagnosed with a disease that would cause slow, but complete, physical deterioration over the course of her long lifetime, Virginia persevered. She never gave up on life. In that respect, she was a wonderful role model for me, and I have appreciated her example. Dennis and I naturally ended up with a lot of her things, and I’ve tried to honor her memory by preserving and displaying most of them.
Even though Virginia’s style was not to my taste, she had good taste, and the things she bought were of good quality. The mid-century modern style of her dining table and chairs is not my favorite style; although I do like it, I really prefer older pieces, true antiques, and I like rustic. But these pieces were well-made. Dennis, his sisters, and his niece and nephews grew up eating at that table while sitting in those chairs. I just couldn’t bring myself to send those chairs to the dump. Even though it would have been easier, I’d never have been easy in my mind about that. So the other part of the reason I bothered with these chairs is that I just can’t bear to throw away something I know I can restore and make useful and beautiful again. And the chairs were in such bad shape, I don’t even think I could have given them away as they were. I felt obliged, by some freak or fault in my own nature, to keep them and restore them and love them.
One day, when I was working on a chair, I said to Dennis, “These chairs better not end up at the dump after I’m gone!” He said, “Well, I won’t dump them.” And I said, “The kids better not either, after all the work I’ve put into them.” But I had a lot of time to think about that as I was sanding, stripping, and finishing the chairs. And what I’ve ended up thinking is that nobody should feel under any obligation to keep these chairs if they don’t like them. I know mid-mod is not my daughter’s style, nor is it my daughter-in-law’s style. Why should they have to live with a style that’s not what they like best just because I have made that choice? They shouldn’t. My choices are my own. I make the best of what I find and what I have, and I love these chairs now because I have made them beautiful again. But that doesn’t mean my kids need to make that same choice.
When I am gone, I won’t care about where these chairs end up. However, having put months of work into them, making them pretty and usable again, I’m pretty sure somebody will want them. I think they’re safe from the dump for many years. And that’s really all that matters.