Some thoughts on competing in the Arlington County Fair bake-off, Part I

IMG_5030Last week, I entered my breads in the Arlington County Fair bake-off.

I hadn’t submitted anything to the bake-off in five years (read about my last bake-off here), because the submission timing is a little wonky.  Judging is on Thursday from 9am-2pm.  You can bring your baked goods either Wednesday night, which means they get to sit out all night, losing their crispy crust, or you can stay up all night to bake fresh bread and bring them early Thursday morning.  There’s really no good option that maximizes sleep and tastiness.  And I’m all about maximizing sleep.

Luckily, my rye sourdough breads do best when they’re baked the night before and given a chance to cool completely and continue to develop flavors.    I wasn’t thrilled about wrangling two Little Bread Dudes to drive across town and deliver the breads at 7am, but what’re you gonna do?


Little Bread Dudes rising and shining to submit bread entries on Thursday morning

I was very excited about my chances this year.  I knew the judges would be blown away by the rye sourdoughs.  So on Monday, I took out my sourdough starter from the fridge, scooped out and threw away most of it leaving about a tablespoon of starter, and fed it some flour and water.  It smelled like nail polish remover, but I was hoping that was just the hooch, or lactic acid, that had separated a little from the rest of the starter.


The next day, Tuesday, it still smelled like nail polish remover (it should have a very mild smell, or none at all) and was very gloopy.  When I say gloopy, I mean if you scooped some up with a spoon, it would quickly flow over the sides in long wet ribbons rather than sticking to itself.  I really hoped the starter had not turned proteolytic, because that spells disaster for bread (more on that in a second).

Hoping against hope, I threw some starter into my bread dough and prayed it would work out.

It did not.


See the breads above?  They started out with very nice gluten formation when I mixed them up.   But the starter, instead of eating the sugars in the dough, attacked the gluten instead.  By the time it was time to bake, the dough was a gloopy mess.  The dough did not stick to itself, as well-formed doughs should.  When they got into the oven, they just collapsed and became dense hockey pucks.  I let them cool, then threw them out.

The starter was indeed proteolytic.  Hang on, let me explain.  A sourdough starter is made up of wild yeasts and lots of different bacteria that are gathered from the air.  Lactic acid, also present in sourdough starter, keeps the acidity of the starter high enough to kill most of the dangerous bacteria.  Different bacteria need different food sources to survive and reproduce.  The bacteria that we like eats sugars in the wheat flour.  But there are other kinds that eat gluten protein.  As long as you feed your starter frequently, the sugar-eating bacteria will make up the majority of your starter.  But if you go too long without feeding your starter, the bacteria that eat the sugars run out of food and many of them die off.  Meanwhile, the bacteria that like eating gluten take over and thrive.  A starter that has an overabundance of gluten-eating bacteria is called proteolytic.  The Fresh Loaf has a good explanation here.

I used to think there was nothing I could do if my starter became proteolytic.  DSC02335.JPG

But now I know there’s a way to revive the starter – it just takes between 4-7 days on an intensive, twice a day dumping-and-feeding schedule.

I had 2 days.  I knew there was no chance that my starter would be recovered enough to submit my beloved rye sourdoughs for the Fair.  I needed to come up with another plan.

The basil in our garden has been very successful this year, and I’ve been able to make lots of pesto.  I thought I could take my chocolate babka recipe and tweak it to make a ‘pesto babka.’  Also, why not add cheese?  Everyone loves cheese.

So that’s what I did.  I downloaded the Fair competitive exhibits forms and spent my Wednesday evening making pesto cheese bread.


The Bread Maiden’s pesto cheese bread (makes 2 loaves)

1 tablespoon instant or active dry yeast

1 3/4 cups warm milk

794g mix AP/whole wheat flour

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons honey

6 tablespoons melted butter

2 eggs (one for the bread, one for the egg wash)

1/4 cup pesto

1/4 cup Italian 6-cheese shredded cheese mix (or other shredded melty cheese)

  1. Mix all ingredients and one of the eggs together in a large bowl.
  2. Knead until smooth, about five minutes.
  3. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise 3-4 hours.
  4. Punch down and divide your dough into 2 loaves.
  5. Using a rolling pin, roll out your dough until it’s about 1/2 inch thick.  Spread 1/2 of the pesto mixture, avoiding 1 inch around the edge.  Fold the right and left sides in about 2 inches, then, starting with the bottom edge (the one closest to you), carefully roll up your dough tightly.  Keep your top 1-inch edge free of pesto.  Once your dough is all rolled up, pinch the seam together.
  6. Now, using a bench scraper or a knife, cut your dough straight down the middle.  Ugh- this is hard to explain without pictures.  Check out Smitten Kitchen’s kranz-cake-style chocolate babka here for a better idea of what I’m talking about.  Basically, you divide the roll straight down the middle, then twist the two pieces together to make it look really cool on top.  Sadly, this does mean you sacrifice the internal swirl.
  7. Move your swirly dough to a buttered bread pan and repeat steps 5-7 with the other lump of dough.
  8. Cover your doughs with plastic wrap and let them rise for another hour.
  9. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Whisk together your egg with a teaspoon of water, then brush over the top of your loaves.  Bake for 40 minutes until golden brown.


Click here for part II, the actual bake-off!


4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on competing in the Arlington County Fair bake-off, Part I

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