The author, Jeri Gottlieb
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In the Culture Club

Jeri Gottlieb - April 2nd, 2014

Read Jeri Gottlieb's I Always Travel with My Mother in the April 2014 issue.

After interviewing the bakers for I Always Travel with My Mother, I was struck by how much bread baking seemed more like religion than trade. The word “soulful” was bandied about a few times, and there was certainly a reverence for one’s starter as catalogued in the article. While I can (and do) treat myself anytime to Rachel Crampsey’s Ancient Grain Bread, as she is my local baker, her passion for baking, as well as that conveyed by each baker with whom I spoke, piqued my interest. I felt as if I were missing out on an almost mystical experience, like the yoga of the baking world. Foremost on my mind, however, was the question “Why aren’t they more tired?” Their enthusiasm seemed to transcend the relentless work I imagined they do in the marathon that is their lives. I had to see what would drive people to such lengths for their craft, and see if I had the chops for it.

I decided to pick a cookbook from a baker on my list of interviewees. I started with Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast, giving it a quick perusal with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. (Forkish owns Ken’s Artisan Bakery in Portland, Oregon, and was kind enough to chat with me via email, but admitted to having no time to take his mother out for a spin anywhere so, alas, we were just pen pals for a bit.) The book looked good but wasn’t available at my local library. Luckily for me, in its pages Forkish lauds the method of baking bread at home in a dutch oven as put forth by Jim Lahey in his book My Bread and Chad Robertson in his Tartine Bread. I grabbed the latter at the library and was off. Next, I loaded up my Amazon cart with a Lodge Dutch oven combo (as recommended) and new bench scraper, but I let it idle as my starter got going. Finally, I warned my husband not to throw away any suspicious or smelly bowls of mysterious contents he may see on our kitchen counter. I was all set to begin.

In Tartine Bread, Robertson suggests making a five-pound mixture of 50% white and 50% whole wheat flour. However, I cheated out of the gate with the all-purpose flour I had on hand, which he allows, too. I mixed it with water as directed, placed it in a cloth-covered bowl, and waited for the fermentation to commence. Honestly, I didn’t expect anything to work at all just because I was at the helm. I had failed miserably at baking bread while attending The French Culinary Institute (now The International Culinary Center), consistently turning out rock-like masses suitable as weapons, and I didn’t expect a different result with no supervision. I was a bit surprised, then, when things went according to plan. Within the allotted few days, I had the desired bubbles and a lovely sour smell emanating from the bowl and felt sure it must be because I had some great little unknown microclimate going on next to my toaster oven—a veritable Lactobacillus newjersey that could rival L. sanfrancisensis. I was ready for the first feeding.

Here’s the thing, though. One must discard 80% of the starter and replace it with more water and flour. I was aghast! I simply couldn’t, partially because of my frugal nature, but also because I was so proud things were working. So I discarded my 80 percent into another bowl and added more flour and water to that, too. Now I had two bowls of some form of starter. (Clearly, I was already getting protective of my mother. The fever was catching.) After a few days of feeding both bowls (admittedly discarding less than 80 percent from each), I ultimately realized the stupidity of what I was doing, combined them, and came to terms with the discarding process.

A week or so goes by, as I’m trying to ensure I have a balanced starter, although I’m not terribly confident what that looks like exactly. My husband begins probing. “I thought you were going to bake bread.” (Is that a challenge? He remembers well my FCI bread antics.) “I am…soon.” A few more days pass. No baking is happening. Then I realize—I am scared. I never pulled the trigger on my Amazon purchases, nor did I stock up on the rice flour I would eventually need. Apparently, I still don’t think this bread thing is really going to work out, so my subconscious is unwilling to let me spend any money on the project. Meanwhile, the starter is now beautiful and smells great to me. I feel pushed to the brink. My starter is ready, my pride is on the line, and now a major snowstorm has barricaded my entire family inside. It is the perfect time to bake bread.

One morning soon after, I review the recipe for Robertson’s basic country cread again. And again. I confess the steps just don’t sink in, as there is not much left in me these days to absorb more than a text message, so I determine to read as I go, making for some fun surprises. First, I am to discard all but one tablespoon (what the?) of my beautiful starter, adding a more precise amount of flour and water for what will become the leaven, and then the leaven that is left becomes my new starter. Oddly, at this point, much is made clearer to me. My “starter” starter was my culture and now my leavener is my starter. (Wait. Which is my mother? My culture, starter, or leavener? Oh, forget it. Next step.) I missed the part about the leavener needing to rise for several hours, so bread making will now take place just after dinner time.

Later that day, here is how it all went down: mixed leavener, water, and flour and rested it 40-ish minutes. Added salt and more water. Easy peasy. Oh, no. Zoned on the part about bulk fermentation, the dough’s initial rise, taking three hours. Realized I will be up late. With the kitchen frigid from another winter storm, I used the make-shift proofbox method of cozying up the bowl of dough to a pot of boiling water in the oven to support both a more rapid fermentation and my ability to go to bed sooner. “Turned” the dough in the bowl every half hour, the last hour more gingerly as not to deflate. Having managed to organize the project so that the most challenging bit for me–the shaping– came at the time when I am most useless, I peeled the dough from its bowl with my scraper, cut it in half, and, using as little flour as possible, made rather tentative round-ish shapes. Bench rested those bitches, wanting to cry at that point. (What time is it?) Thirty anguishing minutes later, I am now really stressed about getting these into some semblance of a boule without deflating my dough or re-creating an I Love Lucy episode. I fold them into the sought-after package as best I can, pulling and tucking here and there, though none of my process resembles that pictured in the book, nor do I get a tight, smooth round, or manage to turn the dough into the bowls seam-side up. Whatever. By now, the dough and I will both be resting overnight, the former in the fridge until morning.

Finally, the moment of truth. After making a batch of oatmeal and a few frozen pancakes for children who cannot wait for fresh bread, I put my old enameled cast-iron cooker in a 500 degree oven to preheat. After it’s flaming hot, I sprinkle a bit of polenta on the bottom (my substitute for the un-purchased rice flour) and manage to plop the dough in, using a plastic bowl scraper without seriously mangling it or myself. I cut out a square marking, just like the picture—no need to get creative here–crossed myself (or the Jewish equivalent), and placed it in the oven with the lid on to cook. Twenty minutes of cartoons later, I removed the lid to find a pale, albeit unappetizing-looking, boule, as promised. (Is this working? Am I actually baking bread?) I returned the pot to the oven for another 25 minutes, sans lid. Finally, after not peeking (much), I proudly removed a picture perfect loaf from the oven. (Are those trumpets I hear?) Bread Redemption.

I tore into the crustiest part of the loaf right away. It was excellent. A sweet, creamy sourdough inside, a golden crunchy outside. I ripped off a piece for my picky 8 year old, slathering it with a bit of buttery substitute. His eyes widened. High praise. My 18 month old, unaware of the drama that had unfolded in the days before, took its deliciousness for granted, as she ate with quiet contentment. To further congratulate myself, I wanted to examine the crumb for the telltale big holes. It was here, in trying to remove it from the pot, I found the only one of my workarounds that had not worked–the polenta. (Or possibly I had underfloured in my fear of overflouring.) My bread was solidly stuck to the bottom of the pot in places. Undaunted by this hiccup, I wrestled the loaf free, leaving a few bits as casualties, then cut it cross-wise to examine my work. And there were the lovely pockets. I ate most of that loaf by myself that day, and baked the second one. (Unfortunately, I did mangle that one a bit while getting it into the cooker, but it was just as delicious.) I was on a bread high. “I’m going to bake bread all the time!” I exclaimed to myself. “I mean, I have the starter. I’m half-way there every day, right?” I reasoned, forgetting the long evening’s work resulting from my careful non-planning, thinking only of the morning’s warm bread. We had bread for days. Good and moist. I kept waiting for it to get stale, but it seemed so forgiving. My mother came for a visit days later, and I toasted a piece for her. She marveled at the result, either that bread this good could be made at home, or that I had made it. Not sure which.

Sadly, those loaves are a distant memory. My starter still sits on my counter, a little neglected, getting fed only intermittently, as I think of it. Yet, my library book is overdue, as I am reluctant to return it without making another few loaves. A friend had a baby recently, and I was determined to make her some bread as a gift. Certainly childbirth warrants the effort. Feeling daunted once again, perhaps because of my success, I gave her a pan of mac and cheese instead. Was it the perfect storm, literally, that granted me such great bread, no matter what stupid thing I did? Perhaps, but I’m pretty sure it was the recipe and careful instructions from Tartine Bread that led to this miracle of home baked bread, even for a reluctant, fearful, rule-breaker like me. So I guess bread baking really is like yoga, at least for me. Some real thought has to go into the scheduling and execution of both. Possibly some babysitting, too.