Because we have always been big fans of San Francisco-style sourdough bread, our Alaskan tour guides made our mouths water every time they referred to the common nickname for a Klondike prospector, a sourdough.
Turns out, the prospectors traveled with a pot of sourdough strapped to their backs. Like many pioneers and cross-country travelers, they kept a small amount of yesterday’s dough alive to start tomorrow’s bread.
Maintaining a sourdough starter on the trail was said to be a true art. The accomplished cook ("cookie") was able to keep a batch replenished in any weather or trail condition.
Happy to learn about our history during our Alaska travels this summer, we were even happier to encounter sourdough on menus everywhere we traveled. The delicate tang of sourdough starter can influence everything from pancakes to pretzels, quick breads, pizza crust and biscuits.
Raising pancakes with yeast is an old American tradition that predates the invention of baking powder. The overnight proofing develops the flavor of the flours, and the yeast ensures lightness.
With little effort and planning, sourdough can transform pancakes for your overnight holiday guests. Pancakes are more economical to cook at home than eat out, plus the cook looks like a hero — as most of the preparation is done the night before. (You can keep the batter in the refrigerator for a day or two. Just know the flavor will get tangier.) After the overnight rise to develop flavor, the house smells delicious in a jiffy the next morning when you griddle-bake the cakes.
My favorite sourdough pancake recipe starts with a version from our 1975 edition of “The Doubleday Cookbook.” Growing up, my mom called these tender cakes blinis and served them with sour cream; she used the same batter for her yeasted waffles. Now, I substitute whole wheat flour for a portion of the all-purpose flour for a nutty flavor. I admit that I rarely keep any of the starter due to an always-crowded refrigerator. Instead, I simply plan ahead a day or so.
Pancakes for dinner is a thing in our home. Economical and surprising. I make the batter in the morning and it is pleasantly sour by evening. Serve the pancakes with thinly sliced smoked salmon, whipped cream cheese and capers. Or, while they are on the griddle (before you flip them), sprinkle with shredded cheese, corn kernels and a few black beans; serve with sour cream, thick salsa and a shower of cilantro.
Perhaps the Alaskan sourdoughs made biscuits as often as pancakes. I love sourdough biscuits because their yeasty-sour flavor reminds me of warm homemade bread — with much less effort. I like to bake the biscuits in a heavy cast-iron skillet. Perhaps because it makes me feel a bit like a trail cook, but mostly because the heavy skillet gives the biscuits a delicious crisp crust with a super tender interior.
Serve the biscuits warm with salted or herbed butter or cream cheese. Or turn them into dessert by splitting them and layering them with sweetened whipped cream and crushed berries.
At this time of the year, I serve both the pancakes and biscuits with an easy fruit compote made from colorful dried fruits. The mixture can be made several days in advance and refrigerated. Warm it a bit in the microwave before serving.
Tip: When working with yeast, use an instant-read thermometer to measure the temperature of the water to be sure you don’t kill the yeast.