Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A watched loaf never rises

A little Chinese man with three teeth, one good eye, a stumpy, wet cigar hanging out of his mouth and a very long fu-man-chu once said to me, “you”, wagging the cigar in my face, “have nooooo patience”, ringlets of smoke circling his head like a halo, “and without patience”, staring me down with one beady, little eye, “you have noooothinggg”. It took 10 years to realize the wisdom in his words and that wisdom never rang more true than on my first day of bread making using my sourdough starter.

I divided my beautifully risen dough into two boules and set them aside for their second rise after which they were to spend the night in the refrigerator to ferment. But I looked at the dough and thought to myself, “how is eight hours in the refrigerator really going to make a difference?”. I’d already cooked and cleaned up after a dinner party that evening, it was well after 1am but my curiosity got the better of me and I sat intently watching the loaves hoping to witness some excitement as the dough proofed for the second time. I preheated the oven and after an uneventful second proofing, I baked off one of the boules.

My boules would make even Pam Anderson envious...

The boule puffed up like a gargantuan, lopsided, one-pound popover. I pulled it from oven and naively admired my handy work, how beautifully it had puffed, I thought to myself! Then, I pulled out my knife to cut into it and what I got was a thick, dense and chewy mass of rosemary scented playdough encased in a crispy brown crust. I poked at it with one finger, which was swallowed instantly by the doughy mass. I pulled out a chunk of dough from the center and squished it between my thumb and forfinger. No little air bubbles showing signs of fermentation, no tender crumb structure. Just a blob. Hopeless, tomorrow should be telling, I thought to myself and put the second boule in the refrigerator overnight.

The next morning I jumped out of bed and scurried to the kitchen, pajama’s and all. I turned on the oven and pulled the loaf from the fridge. Two hours, I looked at the clock. Two hours and I can bake it off.

Soon, the aroma of fresh baked bread was once again filling the house, only this time done properly. “I can never wait until it cools, can you?”, Mrs. X said to me as the dark golden loaf emerged from the oven. It had risen slightly, but it was a moderate rise, unlike the night before, and the loaf had risen even all the way around. Mrs. X and I hovered over the rosemary and olive oil boule admiringly. Pulling out my bread knife I placed it directly over the crusty tick-tack-toe symbol that I had carved into the dough with a razor blade before baking. The knife sliced through the crust with a loud and respectable crunch. A steamy bouquet of rosemary and sourdough goodness rose like a cloud from the cut loaf. I sliced two big wedges.

“I hope Heaven is just like this” Mrs. X said, as crumbs clung lazily to the corners of her mouth, her fingers dusted in hazelnut-colored flour. “This is just sinful”, she said as she took another bite, a bit of crust falling to the counter (God bless those who do not avoid carbs!). The crust was perfectly golden and crunchy, the interior chewy but tender, the tang of the sourdough really showed through and the rosemary just a subtle reminder. The crust crackled as we chewed and I had to halt my chewing to hear what my boss said next. “Do you think we should put anything on it, or would that just be wrong?”. But, I have yet to find anything that a drizzle of a good Extra-Virgin Olive Oil and a sprinkle of Maldon Sea Salt wouldn’t vastly improve. Liberally, we drenched our hot, fresh bread in Castella’s Olive Oil and sprinkled it with the salt. Better than sex (well, perhaps not literally). Within minutes we had devoured almost half of the loaf. Actually, it was I who devoured almost half of the loaf and had to stop and walk out of the kitchen before I completely embarrassed myself by eating the whole entire thing. Mrs. X showed perfect self-control, although that loaf did seem to shrink rather rapidly while I was out grocery shopping…

The hangover from my year of failed bread making and embarrassment over a decade of commercial yeast vanished. I am a convert. I was totally amazed that in the hours of the first proof my dough did actually doubled in volume just like I had read and without the use of any commercial yeast. I don’t think I will ever look at bread the same again, and I can’t believe it took me so long to figure it this out! I think even for the ambitious home cook, making a sourdough starter is simple and forgiving. All it requires is flour, water and a little bit of patience (and Nancy Silverton’s Breads From The La Brea Bakery – if I haven’t emphasized this enough).

Mrs. X and I reconstituted the dried sourdough starter and although I left before having the chance to see how it turned out, the reports from the field are nothing but positive. She says that it has awoken and become a frothing, yeasty, sourdough monster. Excellent! Along with some of the dried sourdough starter, I also smuggled back some fresh starter in a container in my luggage. It exploded in my suitcase but fortunately I had it contained also in several Ziploc bags in case of such a disaster. I was able to salvage it, thankfully, and again referring to the Silverton bible I am now making a rye starter (from the sourdough starter). In just a few days I should be able to make my first multigrain loaf and a rye loaf.

Patience is definitely a virtue.


tammy said...

aaaah........beautiful, beautiful bread. the look of it, the feel of it, the smell of it, the taste of it......bread is just a perfect food from beginning to end :))))

prcrstn8 said...

I also smuggled back some fresh starter in a container in my luggage. It exploded in my suitcase

Low pressure in the luggage compartment probably allowed the yeast to rise uncontrolled. Doesn't the TSI prohibit explosives in your luggage?


ritu said...

there is a sense of comfort about bread.. I always have maintained I could live my life happily if I had some freshly baked bread, some sea salt and a bit olive oil.

I make a slight change here.. I could live happily if the bread looks like what i see in your pictures..
I can actually taste the slight saltiness, and smell that yeast ...heaven

shalimar said...

am off tom, want to join me to the marche? we can stop by at my fave bakery here in Antibes and will introduce you to my greengrocers.

the bakery sells terrific bread

Anonymous said...

Low pressure in the luggage compartment probably allowed the yeast to rise uncontrolled. Doesn't the TSI prohibit explosives in your luggage?Hangover pills

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