In this week’s Sunshine + Microbes, Jackie takes a pizza pilgrimage through her Staten Island roots. Plus, a recap of the #ChickenSandwichWars, the best food-inspired Halloween costumes, and it’s time for you to make a sourdough starter.
Anyone that has spent any amount of time on a dating app will know that roughly 82 percent of humanity considers love of pizza to be a defining personality trait. For example:
[dating profile includes selfie in car, portrait with fish, mirror selfie at gym in tank top]
Always lit 🔥
Grind don't stop! 💯💪
Anything else, just ask...
These dodos are the main source of my early-onset spinsterhood.
Shut up broseph. You don’t love pizza. I love pizza. My love for pizza is not some meaningless cliche destroying the romantic prospects of beautiful, independent, eligible young women the world over. My love for pizza is the real deal.
When I was 10 years old, my sister Leah was concerned that my poor diet would lead to scurvy or rickets or some such illness that takes root when one subsists entirely on pizza, Gushers, string cheese, and the intermittent filet mignon (it was an unconventional childhood). She sat me down for a talk about nutrition and we created a meal plan that incorporated multiple weekly servings of fruits and vegetables, and only a single slot for pizza.
Leah meant well, but eating pizza just once a week was never in the cards for me. I’m a two to three times a week kinda gal. Always gotta order enough for leftovers. And when I ran the Ground Floor Farm kitchen, where pizza became the centerpiece of the menu, I was eating ‘za more like four or five times a week. And trust me, the extreme privilege of that statement is not lost on me.
I spent the last week visiting my fabulous family on Staten Island - my birthplace and landing spot for a gaggle of my Italian immigrant foremothers. It may be the forgotten borough, but damn is the pizza good. During my trip, I ate at five different pizzerias, one in Manhattan and four in Shaolin. I had the classic New York pie, a hipster wood-fired pie, and an exceptional artisan slice. I had vodka sauce with mushrooms, anchovies and arugula, mushrooms and cream, and so much red sauce. Every bite brought me joy.
My New York pizza odyssey made me proud of my own pizza, which I spent years developing in the kitchen at Ground Floor Farm. If I do smugly say so myself, it holds up with the big boys.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of the skills needed to make your own perfect pie, starting with how to maintain a healthy sourdough starter (it’s controversial, but I firmly believe a properly fermented sourdough crust is miles above dough made with commercial yeast). Even better, pizza is also a fun and easy gateway to sourdough baking, so let’s get started.
Are you obsessed with a particular food? Tell us about the comfort foods that fuel you at email@example.com.
Viral Culinary Tales
Even as every single fast food chain appears to be launching their own vegan meat meal, people still go wild for some old-fashioned fried chicken. Popeyes executed the first volley in the 2019 Spicy Chicken Sandwich Wars in August with the launch of its own new product. This ignited a meme war between Chick-Fil-A and Popeyes (sorry KFC, nobody likes you), debates on social media (powered by Black Twitter), and articles waxing poetic in the New Yorker (“The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich is Here to Save America”).
This all amounted to $23 million in free advertising for Popeyes — and for some — a top-notch spicy chicken sandwich alternative for those made uncomfortable by Chick-Fil-A’s founder’s support of anti-LGBT causes. At least it was an option until the chicken sold out in early September, and disappeared from stores for two months. The result of all that free publicity not only sold out the sandwich but provoked tensions in real life too. Customers harassed underpaid Popeyes’ employees about the sandwiches. There were discussions on the fried chicken sandwich’s political history and also dumb, dumb, dumb takes that devolved into racist tropes, plus many other sidebars.
On Sunday, two months after the supply ran out, the prodigal chicken finally returned. Are you waiting for one? Or… Make a homemade (possibly, tastier) fried chicken sandwich in the style of Popeyes — and yes vegan recipes already exist too.
Our favorite food and environment reads from around the internet. Give’em a click👇
In an essay from the new cooking anthology Women on Food, Bee Wilson recounts the history of labor-saving devices in the kitchen from the innovative apple-parer to absurd apparatuses like horseradish scrapers and fruit steamers. Wilson describes how labor-saving technology didn’t always move society forward. The utensils didn’t necessarily “lessen the burden on a cook” or even try to, because in earlier kitchens labor-intensive cuisine was “seen as a positive status symbol by those that did not toil over it.” The monied elite turned maids into machines, and an eggbeater or a peanut-roaster was just an extension of their kitchen servants. Most of those household workers were African-American women over the age of 50.
Superstar chef Julia Child spurred a change in attitudes toward kitchen work by focusing her cooking on “her own pleasure.” Still — while current devices like the Instant Pot actually do ease the burden of cooking — apathy toward the people doing the labor persists “whether it is the toil of a cook in a kitchen, or the punishing lives of tomato pickers and the chicken packers who enable us to feed ourselves.”
Read the full fascinating history of labor and labor-saving devices in the kitchen here.
🍟French Fries of the Future | Planet Money
We always enjoy a deep-dive into food minutiae, and this podcast episode on inventing a new kind of French fry satisfies that appetite. With food delivery wars only amping up, fries are in need of a make-over.
As any fry fan knows, those potato skins don’t taste so good after five to seven minutes left out in the cold. Seriously, food scientists have tested this. Now those scientists want to create a new fry that will last more than 30 minutes — in order to survive delivery runs. Listen to their quest.
🍩Pssssst… wanna buy a Krispy Kreme donut? This college student will bring you one, for a price | St. Paul Pioneer Press
In a just world, nobody would have to pay for an education with two years of donut runs — but while trying to pay off his college debts, Jayson Gonzalez tries to satisfy the state of Minnesota’s craving for Krispy Kreme donuts. The chain left the Land of 10,000 Lakes in 2008, but Gonzalez learned the Twin Cities missed those gooey donuts after posting about a visit to a Krispy Kreme in Iowa on FB marketplace. And, even better, Minnesotans would pay double for them.
His “Krispy Kreme Run Minnesota” Facebook page has more than 3,000 followers. The 21-year-old Gonzalez begins his four-hour journeys on Saturdays at 2 a.m., and when he arrives to the Iowa store the manager there loads up boxes upon boxes into his vehicle. Back in Minneapolis, he dishes out the donuts at Target parking lots. They go quickly.
👆Freshly fed sourdough starter, then the same jar 6 hours later, filled with CO2 bubbles and ready for use in baking
Many people think that sourdough refers to a style of bread — a crusty white loaf with big holes and a sour flavor. This San Francisco-style sourdough is famous thanks to bakers like Chad Robertson (of the Tartine empire). However sourdough can run the gamut of baked goods, from dense rye loaves to pizza crusts to croissants. Sourdough refers to the process in which bread and other baked goods are fermented or risen.
Nowadays bakers typically use a package of commercial yeast to rise their dough. Those lab-bred microorganisms work super fast and uniformly by converting the starches in flour to carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the dough and creates the air pockets seen in bread crumb (crumb refers to the interior of the bread). Sourdough uses wild yeasts and bacteria — found in the air, on the flour, and on our hands — to do the same job, but much slower. This slower fermentation process produces more nuanced flavors — the sweet and acid notes associated with sourdough, and if properly managed — a more digestible product.
To bake sourdough bread (or pizza, or croissants), you need to maintain a sourdough starter. Anyone can create a sourdough starter from scratch, with one trip to the grocery store and about five minutes of work a day for approximately two weeks. After that, the starter will require regular use or occasional maintenance, and — Bam! you got yourself a collector’s item that can be shared with friends and family.
Rye or whole wheat flour
Two clear containers (I use wide mouth pint mason jars)
Yeast and lactic acid bacteria (LAB) like to eat sugar. Mixing flour and water together creates an all-you-can-eat buffet for the wild yeast and LAB in the kitchen environment. The microbes will gobble up the sugars (starch) and convert it into carbon dioxide and lactic acid. Happily fed, the yeast and LAB reproduce and take over the mixture. A healthy colony of microbes will thrive perpetually in the flour and water mixture as long as they’re kept fed (in the form of flour and water). Now it’s time to make delicious baked goods!
On the first day, mix together equal parts room temperature water and rye or whole wheat flour (I do 30 g and 30 g) in a clear jar. Stir to remove clumps of flour and thoroughly aerate. Loosely cover with a kitchen towel or lid (don’t screw it on).
Check in on the mixture for the next few days. After 3-5 days, tiny bubbles should begin to form. Those bubbles are the sign that wild yeast and LAB have made their way into the mixture. This is the beginning of your sourdough starter.
Once the bubbles appear, begin to feed the starter.
Scoop out 30 g of starter into a clean jar. Add in another 30 g room temperature water and 30 g rye or whole wheat flour, mix thoroughly, and loosely cover. The leftover starter in the first jar is called the “discard”, which I save in a separate container in the fridge for other uses (it’s great in pancake batter).
Feed the starter (the direction in bold above) everyday, ideally morning and night, at roughly the same time. Once the mixture begins to follow a regular schedule where it doubles in size and then collapses back down in between each feeding, it’s ready for baking. I recommend feeding the starter twice daily for another week or two, in order to develop its strength and flavor.
Storage, Use, and Maintenance
Once satisfied with the starter (taste it throughout! The flavor should be a pleasant combo of acidic and fruity), seal it tight and store in the fridge until ready to bake with it.
About 4-6 hours — longer if living somewhere really cold — before baking with the starter, take it out of the fridge and feed it. Once the starter has roughly doubled in size, looks aerated throughout, and floats when dropped in water, it is ready to bake.
Take out the amount of starter required for the recipe. Don’t forget to reserve some of the starter and feed it, so it can be used for future bakes. Store in the fridge between uses.
Sometimes a brown or grey liquid will form at the top of the starter. This is perfectly fine. It’s alcohol from the fermenting process. Just pour it off and continue as normal. It is a sign that the bacteria are hungry, so simply feed the starter more regularly.
You cannot “kill” a sourdough starter. Even if the microbial colony in the starter dies, you can always coax more wild yeast and bacteria with fresh feedings of flour and water. So if the sourdough isn’t behaving, it’s a sign to feed it more regularly.
These are the basics to maintaining a healthy sourdough starter. If you have any questions at all, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The best food-related tricks and treats from Halloween.
And actor Willem Dafoe hopefully (?) dressed as his character from “The Lighthouse.” looking at pancake mix and wondering, “why’d you spilled yer beans?”
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Sunshine + Microbes team
Jackie Vitale is the current Chef-in-Residence at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and co-founder of the Florida Ferment Fest. Her newsletter explores the intersection of food, culture, environment and community.
Matt Levin is a freelance reporter based in Colombia. He edits Sunshine + Microbes and contributes other scraps to each issue