The Bread Diaries – first child

Here I sit, a pastry chef, inspecting a tub of wet cement on my maple work table. No, no, no, not cement, it’s my newly born sourdough starter, a culture of wild yeasts and bacteria I mixed up on January 1 of this year and have been feeding and nurturing ever since. But I have to admit, the warm, maternal feelings were slow to come. Cement is all it seemed good for initially. I could have repaired my plaster walls with the stuff, right? Plus, it’s viscous and blobby and not pretty.

My attitude changed when it came to life. It percolated. Bubbles! For a person more accustomed to a cast of sugar, chocolate, eggs and nuts, this truly was a mystifying creature to behold. Never mind the chipping away of  dried spills, wiping up gooey splatters and messes, this creature was my baby, and it was going to grow up into a gorgeous, crusty, flavorful bread and make me proud.

Armed with an arsenal of artisan bread books, I was ready to go! I zeroed in on Peter Reinhart’s “Crust and Crumb” because it laid out baker’s percentages clearly while also translating them into the weights and measures most of us are more used to. I also liked it because it included very detailed instructions for building starters and using them to create fabulous breads with long fermentation periods. It was going guide me through the process of baking delicious natural bread without the addition of commercial yeast.

Not so fast… After about a week of building the barm starter, I set forth putting together Reinhart’s recipe for San Francisco Sourdough. I halved the recipe, and turned out one and a half small, dense, strange loaves–a cranky one and a very sad one. Look at those eyes… this was not good. As penance, I ate the bread.

What went wrong? I assumed my starter wasn’t quite ready. The starter was active and bubbly, but the firm starter (a secondary step prior to mixing the final dough) did not double–or quarter, or visibly expand at all. I put my tub of starter through another week of daily feedings, then tried again.

Since I have in my possession most of the artisan bread baking books in circulation at my public library, I did some more research. One book, “Flour Water Salt Yeast”, by Ken Forkish, lays out eight details for great bread. The first one jumped out at me: “Think of time and temperature as ingredients.” Brilliant. I definitely wasn’t paying close attention to temperature. Maybe my starter wasn’t ready, but more likely I wasn’t giving my starters and doughs the environment they needed.

My 100+ year old house–and you’d think it would know this by now–doesn’t understand that “room temperature” means somewhere around 68-72F. So, with my trusty portable heater I took the chill off a small, infrequently used room, now known as the “salle du pain” (don’t think about it too much). Now I was able to give my starter and doughs the warmth they needed to kick into action, as well as the cool retarding environment of just about every other part of my home my basement for long, slow fermentation and flavor development.

Knowledge in hand, I made the same San Francisco Sourdough as on my first attempt. The sourdough is remarkably improved because the intermediate starter (firm) had a chance to develop in the salle du pain. But after baking, its structure was still dense, though air bubbles were more evenly sized and distributed–no mean or sad faces staring up at me! Nevertheless, it wasn’t quite “there”. For certain it would have been better had I not second guessed my measurements and added more salt–after the dough was mixed. Mise en place, mise en place, mise en place.

Salt, by the way, is another great way to retard your yeast 😦

Notes for the Bread Diary:

  • Track temperatures in the salle du pain and basement retarding area.
  • How do I get the dramatic “bloom” where I’ve scored my loaves? Is it my scoring technique, or my oven, or something else?
  • I’m happy the loaves came out of the baskets easily this time! I will try flouring the bannetons even more to get a better stripey pattern.
  • Shaping loaves, like baguettes and batards is tricky; keep practicing.
  • What to do with the salty bread? It’s edible and tasty–just a bit salty for my liking. There must be an excellent second life for it as crispy croutons, bread pudding or a breakfast casserole, I think.

Like any mother, I love my ugly kids, and I see fantastic potential in my babies. I am really enjoying venturing out into new non-pastry territory, and I’m looking forward to sharing my future failures and successes. Now I’m off to feed my starter and plan my next attempt.

How are your bread adventures going? Do you have any tips or horror stories to share?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s