Monday, March 12, 2012

Bread Bakin' Blues

Julia’s Basic Country Loaf Take 2. 

You guessed it. The bread is dead. I killed it, unintentionally of course, last weekend. My poor starter didn't even get to live to its fullest potential before my impatience got the best of me and spoiled the process of creating a leaven. This lack of patience has burned me before. And this time it washed a week's worth of flour and water down the drain...literally. 

Allow me to set the stage.

It was 10pm on Friday night. The hubs and I were in for a big weekend with family and friends in town, so we decided to lay low that evening in preparation. With my Tartine Bread book in hand, I curled up in bed and began reading about the next step in making bread: creating the leaven. My starter was rising and falling predictably over the course of three days, so I figured it was time to proceed that weekend. However, the book instructs you to create your leaven the night before you plan to make your dough. “Oh s$%&” I thought. “That’s tonight!”

The night before you're ready to make the dough, you are supposed to take 1 tablespoon of your starter, discarding the rest, and mix cette tablespoon with 200 grams of flour mixture and 200 grams of water at 78 degrees Fahrenheit. I can do this with no problem, right? Should be done in 5 minutes and back in bed. No sweat.

Wrong. Loads of sweat and on the verge of tears, I startled my husband with an echoing “Gosh damn it!” coming from the kitchen.  Apparently what my hand thought was 1-tablespoon alas was a ½ tablespoon. Therefore, it was only half of the amount of starter I needed to create my leaven. So just add another ½ tablespoon of starter, right? Wrong again. Because after measuring what I thought to be 1 tablespoon of dough, I proceeded to wash the rest of the starter down the drain and clean the bowl. And to top it all off, I don’t know how to use my scale because the weight of water and flour mixture was all wrong and proceeded to clump into dry balls of dough. 

If I would have just waited until the next evening, and not acted with such haste, I probably would be enjoying the fruit of my bread baking labor right now. Reminder to self: take your time. Don't rush.

So this weekend I start over. I’m either really committed to making my own bread or really crazy. But I should not forget the first lesson that bread has taught me thus far: never give up. Farewell starter #1. Let’s hope starter #2 has better luck.

I don't think there's another woman's voice who can expresses the soul behind blues quite like the great Etta James. And she sings my bread bakin' blues away with "I'd Rather Go Blind". 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Step Two: Training the Starter

I never thought I'd be excited about the smell of "stinky cheese". Never say never. Because last night my culture was perfectly ripe. There were three signs that the culture was ready: the sharp smell (stinky cheese), the taste (slightly acidic) and the look (dark layer of crust over the top).

Here's what that crust looked like.

And here is what was underneath the crust when I peeled it back. Note the bubbles that surfaced. That's a good sign!

So, this morning I began the next phase of making bread: training the culture into a lively and predictable starter. At this stage in the process I discard 80% of the starter every 24 hours (before work) and mix the remaining 20% with new flour and water. Nothing to report thus far, but I imagine it will take a few days to see the effects of training. I have a slight suspicion that this starter and I will form a special bond. Next to my husband, it's the thing I look forward to seeing the most in the morning, when I get home from work, and before I go to bed.

Here's what the starter looked like after the first feeding today. I noted that the temperature in the apartment was 69 degrees; ideally it should be between 65 and 75 degrees. The book also advises you to use equal parts flour and water. So, I used about 1/4 Cup of each and stored the container in a shaded spot on the counter (uncovered). Now it's time to wait...

I also wanted to give my starter a little "training" theme song. Something to get it motivated and active. Let's see if it works.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bread Lesson #1: Don't Give Up

  Bread: a usually baked and leavened food made of a mixture whose basic constituent is flour or meal 

Merriam-Webster's definition of bread sounds simple, yes? Think again. What began as a fun "weekend project" has turned into weeks of preparation, determination, and lessons learned. I thought this blog would be the perfect place to capture it all. So follow me on this journey to experience what it is to be a baker of bread. I can promise it won't be perfect. But it won't be a failure either. My goal is simply to learn...and make a damn good loaf of bread. 

So how did this adventure begin? Much to my enthusiasm for all things bread, my husband gave me Chad Robertson's cookbook "Tartine Bread" for Christmas this past year. Chad Robertson is the baker and owner of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, which reportedly sells 200 loaves of bread a day within the first hour (according to Bon Appetit's article on the 2012 Tastemaker). I've wanted to make by own bread for quite some time, so who better to teach me than the master himself. Thus, I embarked on the process that’s to become my first “basic country bread”.

I technically began last Sunday when I developed my starter, which begins with making a culture. After mixing the flour and water to form a thick batter, I covered the container with a kitchen towel and stored it in a cool, shaded spot for 2-3 days. By the evening of the second day, the culture had bubbles forming around the sides of the container, and the smell (to my knowledge) was acidic. So, the next morning I began "training" my culture into a predictable starter by feeding it with fresh flour and water every 24 hours. In doing this, your starter will begin to rise and fall predictably around the same times each day. But over the coarse of 3 days, I noticed that my started wasn't rising or falling at all. Was it because I stored it in the cabinet with no light or air circulation? Did I use too much water and flour? What went wrong? Enter my first lesson in baking bread: don't give up. Actually, that’s what my husband told me when I became frustrated by my inactive starter. And he was right.

Tis a lesson you should heed try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

So, this past Friday night, I rolled up my sleeves and started over with a new culture. This time, I used a smaller amount of water and flour to start. Then I stored the covered container on the counter in a shaded spot. It’s nearly 48 hours later, and things are looking (and smelling) right! 

There’s also something in my kitchen now that's tasting right: linzer cookies! I made my second batch this weekend. And they are delicious. Now I just need to make sure I don't eat them all myself. 

And the music that sounds just right is Amy LaVere’s “Nightingale”.