Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Adventures in bread-baking.

Growing up, I learned to bake bread from the Tassajara Bread Book, by Edward Espe Brown. As far as I remember, my mother used the basic whole wheat recipe, almost exclusively. Not only did it open to that page automatically - it wouldn't open anywhere else, the pages were so soaked in gluten.

"Bread is alive," Mom would say, wiping streaks of flour into her perpetually messy red hair, "like a baby in the womb, it's growing. Would you like to pat the baby?" My sis and I would gingerly pat the shiny, smooth surface of the kneaded dough. It did feel remarkably like skin - a baby's bottom, in fact. You had to admit, it was pretty spankable.

Before bread machines were even invented, we learned that fast bread is generally icky bread. Who were we to imagine that we could improve upon the slow, patient, carefully perfected processes of the past six millenia? To summarize:

Rule #1 of bread: Yeast is your friend.

Rule #2 of bread: It just takes a long time. Get over it.

Also, I learned that the Tassajara Bread Book was revolutionary in its insistence on rising a sponge before the first kneading, with only flour, sweetener, warm water and yeast. This gives the yeast a chance to really get going with their favorite ingredients before adding salt and oil, which retard the growth of yeast. I didn't realize at the time that this step is omitted in most recipes, which is generally fine for white bread, but a serious problem with whole wheat breads.

I love that the new edition looks just like the older one I grew up with, rough brown paper cover and all.


Much later, when I was in college at UC Santa Cruz, I made bread often, mostly on days I was studying or writing papers. If you're stuck at home all day anyway, why not bake some bread? I got excited about whole grains and started experimenting with using all whole wheat flour. However, without a little bit of white flour to "lighten" the loaf up, the Tassajara loaves came out of the oven looking more like building materials than bread. Dense and small, these loaves could double as hand-weights.

But, I asked myself, I regularly buy 100% whole wheat bread at the store that was light and fluffy. What am I doing wrong?

So I started experimenting, using more yeast and longer rising time. I stretched the four hour process into a six hour one. Sure enough, a lighter loaf! The longer you let the yeast work, the better your bread will be.

Then I discovered the benefits of elbow grease - kneading your dough vigorously for 25 to 30 minutes results in lighter, prettier loaves. This must be why peasant women always have strong arms (that and carrying buckets of water from the well, anyway). It's hard work! But worth it.

Since then, I've tried a few other recipes. For example, I tried the basic loaf in The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book. Eh. It didn't turn out nearly as well as my standard. Why? In my opinion, it's because Laurel does not call for a sponge. White bread doesn't need a sponge, but whole wheat bread really needs that extra boost.

But my bread adventures are by no means over. I am trying something new now - a starter. As we speak, my first biga is ripening on our kitchen counter. It has a post-it on it that says: "Do Not Disturb Me: I Am Fermenting." This is for an Italian country bread recipe in Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes from the World's Healthiest Cuisine. As far as I can tell, bigas are halfway between a traditional sponge and a sourdough starter. The process was developed after dry yeast became available in Europe - chefs were moving away from sourdough, but wanted something more flavorful than dry yeast alone. It is similar to the Polish or French poolish. It's a sponge (with dry yeast in it) that is allowed to sit at room temperature for a day or two and pick up some wild (sourdough) yeast. I can't wait to see how this turns out. Coming up: "Adventures in bread-baking, part II."

After that? True sourdough starter. "Adventures in bread-baking, part III."

Of course, I have to buy all new flour now, and glass containers to hold the flour in, because our flour stock was full of worms and I tossed it. No problem. But that whole episode did give me pause. I was reminded that, back in the day, this type of infestation would have been really devastating. You probably would've just sifted the maggots out and eaten the food anyway (Rebecca remembers someone in her childhood doing that - that's old school). I mean, there wouldn't have been super-cheap Whole Food bulk bins down the street to draw from. But don't worry, my inclinations towards traditional cooking and housekeeping methods don't go that far.

1 comment:

  1. I tried making sourdough from scratch once. It took two weeks just to get the starter going, but it was fun. The Cheeseboard book recommended rye flour for that.

    In the end I had a couple of bricks, but then I know very little about bread-baking so I'm pretty confident yours will turn out awesome.

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