Ask anyone who's ever been to California about sourdough bread and they'll be sure to tell you how great it is. This famous bread with its crusty outside and chewy center has a slightly sour tang that has made it popular far beyond the state of California. San Francisco sourdough has a history that dates back to the gold miners of the California hills, who carried around little crocks filled with sourdough starter as they moved from one spot to another.
This starter - a bit of the yeast that's left over from the last batch - is the secret. The starter for Parisian sourdough, a bread its bakery calls the original San Francisco sourdough bread, dates back to 1856. It survived even the 1906 California earthquake - thus the ``mother dough'' used today by the Parisian bakery literally dates back to the days of the gold miners.
Sourdough bread is so closely identified with prospecting for gold that the word ``sourdough'' is often used as a name for any prospector who looked for gold in California, Alaska, or the Canadian Yukon. Prospectors carried their sourdough starter in a pot that fitted in their packs, and so were prepared to make bread anywhere by mixing some of the starter with flour and a few other ingredients.
There are dozens of colorful tales about sourdough starters that survived years after being carried thousands of miles by wagon, ships, automobiles, and planes. Actually, sourdough starter did not originate with gold rush prospectors. The process was discovered by the ancient Egyptians, who passed it along to the Greeks.
Loni Kuhn, a fourth-generation resident of the San Francisco Bay Area where she manages her own cooking school, was in Boston recently to talk about Parisian San Francisco Sourdough.
Why does the head of a sophisticated San Francisco cooking school trek across the country telling the wonders of a new kind of sourdough bread?
``I come by it naturally,'' she says. ``I really care about sourdough bread. Maybe it's because I've always heard stories of my great-great-grandfather making sour dough biscuits with his own starter when he came across the bay.
``What's new about it is that this is a partially frozen loaf you pop in the oven, and when it comes out you have the real sourdough - wonderful aroma and all.
``It's actually three-quarters baked, then flash frozen. It took a year and a half to get the formula just right since it takes special heat and humidity for the ovens and also in the freezing,'' Ms. Kuhn explains.
The loaves, baguettes, and rolls are shipped to stores from San Francisco. Available in the grocer's freezer case, they will bake in an oven in less than 20 minutes.
You might wonder what makes the sourdough from this particular bakery different from that of any other bakery in San Francisco. The answer is that there are four sourdough bakeries in the city, and the bread they produce is all slightly different.``If you really know your sourdough - you can tell,'' Ms. Kuhn says. ``One may have a bit more of the sour flavor. Another might have a crisper crust or a stronger crumb.''
Kuhn explained that she went through the big bakery where the freezing is done and marvelled at the automation. But then, at the end of the line, two bakers in their floury whites were adding a final touch by hand - giving each loaf a slash to make the top design, just before they slid into the baking oven.
``Besides having a wonderful taste and texture, sourdough really is a pretty honest loaf,'' she says. ``It's made with plain homespun ingredients - flour, water, and salt, and your sourdough starter, of course. There's no sugar, no fat or oil, and no chemicals.
``The new frozen bread comes in several shapes and sizes, from little dinner rolls to the long French baguette, the round loaf, and a nice large roll that's perfect for a barbecued sandwich. I barbecue swordfish with rosemary and oil and it makes a super sandwich with the sourdough bread,'' she says.
Guacamole Bread 2 8-ounce Parisian sourdough mini loaves 3 large avocados, peeled and coarsely chopped 2 tablespoons chopped green chilies 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 garlic clove, minced 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1/4 cup tomato paste 3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
Bake bread according to package directions; cut in half lengthwise. Combine avocados, chilies, juice, garlic, and seasonings; mix lightly. Spread bread halves with avocado mixture. Top with teaspoonfuls of tomato paste; sprinkle with cheese. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 20 minutes. Serves 8.
San Francisco Shrimp Dip 1 8-ounce Parisian sourdough round loaf 1/2 cup sour cream 1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese 4 ounces cooked tiny shrimp 2 tablespoons milk 2 tablespoons chopped chives Dash of hot pepper sauce 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Bake bread according to package directions. Cut 1-inch slice from top of bread; remove center, leaving 1/4-inch shell. Cut removed bread and top bread slice into bite-size pieces; place on cookie sheet. Bake at 450 degrees F. for 5 minutes. Reserve 1/4 cup sour cream. Combine remaining ingredients in saucepan; stir over low heat until cheese is melted. Add reserved sour cream; heat thoroughly, stirring occasionally. Pour into bread shell. Serve hot with bread pieces and vegetable dippers. Makes 1-1/4 cups. Variation: Substitute flaked crabmeat for shrimp.
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.