A good, old-fashioned bread post...

NW sourdough

I mentioned recently that I was actually disgusted by bread for a good many weeks.  I couldn't think about it, or even have it in my line of sight.  I purchased the first bread I've bought in years just to get my boys through, and I had to make sure it was hidden in a cabinet.  I swear, I could smell it through the plastic packaging.  Fortunately, that wave of nausea and bread phobia has passed, and I have felt like I'm making up for lost time: reading new-to-me bread books with vigor and back with a vengeance for playing with dough.

Halfway through the levain recipe section of Ken Forkish's Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, it dawned on me just how much I have to learn about bread.  Going to bed each night now, calculating mentally (which is difficult for a math-challenged person like me) how to convert my "liquid levain" 100% hydration starter successfully into a 80% hydration starter so I can start on his formulas, wondering if keeping two separate starters is smart or economical, wondering if instead I can figure out the formulas to convert his 80% recipes to fit my 100% lifestyle.

In a way, I wish I was 20 again and could just enroll heart and soul in a baking program - but that time for me has passed.  I'm at the mercy of baking once or twice a week, learning as much from those few loaves as possible and hopefully snowballing it into future successes.  The comforting thing is that I learn best from experimenting, and even without notes I seem to have a preternatural ability to remember every single baking experience, as if they are all children birthed to me in a unique way.

As good as the bread is around here, I have serious envy of those serious bread bloggers, Susan over at Wild Yeast, and Teresa at Northwest Sourdough for example.  Loaves that seems to always work with their careful calculations.  This past week and a half, I've been obsessed with the Northwest Sourdough "Blond Wig" bread.  It's a bread that Teresa developed for a friend with cancer, and it's not totally unlike the Peter Reinhart bread I used to have such great success with.  Just after my bread obsession returned, I tried a "Wisconsin Sourdough" for old time's sake and had terrible results.  Not inedible, but a bread that was lacking in the character of my previous successes.  When Teresa's version popped up on Facebook, I could think of nothing else.

Varying slightly from the flour, water, salt, yeast basic sourdough, this bread also has a touch of dairy.  I think it makes the finished bread stale slightly quicker, but we've eaten every morsel so I can't count that much as a negative.  As always, the true test of a good bread (in my opinion) is how good is the toast on days 2, 3, and if I'm lucky, day 4.  It is exceptional toast.  So good, that I was almost tempted to buy a little bunch of overpriced fresh basil and some imported Mexican tomatoes and pretend I was basking in the heat of Summer.  Instead I started a Winter-hearty minestrone soup, anticipating toasted bread in the bottoms of the bowls.


I had kind of settled into a rhythm with the Tartine bread method, higher hydration bread that is folded every 30 minutes for 4 hours or so, not requiring the use of my (sometimes compromised) stand mixer or my sensitively skinned hands.  I can now make that bread in my sleep, and sometimes I do, when I start too late in the day and then pull myself groggy from deep, REM sleep to attend to it in the middle of the night.

But this Blond Wig bread has me beguiled.  I mix it in my stand mixer for several minutes and then it lazes about on the counter for 6 hours, only being folded 3 times before bench resting.  I've autolysed and not autolysed with similar results, I wouldn't say the extra time spent on the autolyse is even worth it.  I've made the motherdough (60% hydration firm starter) and let it cure at room temperature for 4 hours before putting it into the fridge, and I've made it and popped it right into the cold.  Both methods seem fine to me depending on my time frame.  Without refreshing, the motherdough holds for at least 3 days in the fridge.  I made my breads when it was 2 days old, and when my 100% hydration starter was well fed (and floated in water like Chad Robertson recommends), in the morning before I mix.

Ken Forkish wrote somewhere in that book I'm reading that when the proportion of already fermented dough is high, autolyse isn't really necessary, and I'm suspecting that the small addition of milk makes the gluten break down in a really labor-free way for a home baker.  At any rate, this loaf of bread has a sweet tang that comes from the refrigerated motherdough, a creamy texture and a cracking, brittle crust since I bake in a pot... all with the benefit of not so much work.

NW sourdough

I'll let you pull up the recipe from Northwest Sourdough, but I'll give you my notes for my last loaves, which I had the foresight to scribble on a scrap of paper:

12:45  Mixed dough, no autolyse, using stand mixer.  I let it mix with the dough hook until it pulled away from the sides of the bowl and formed a ball.
13:00  Covered the mixing bowl with a towel and then a stainless lid.  Bulk rise until 19:00, with folds at 15:45, 17:00, and 18:00.
19:00  Preform dough into loaf and bench rest.  I didn't mean for it to rest for a whole hour but it was before-bed reading time.
20:00  Form into loaves.  I only have one brotform but need another, so one went into the basket and another into flour dusted cloth tucked into a colander.  (The bread that rises in the cane basket always looks nicer, and seems to rise better.)  I covered each of the baskets with a plastic bag and put them immediately into the fridge.
06:30  Took loaves out of the fridge.
06:45  Jury rigged my oven into a proofing box (boiling water in a bowl on the lowest shelf, breads still wrapped in plastic, on the shelf above) and let the loaves proof for 3 hours.
09:45  Breads out of the proofer and onto the counter.  Took off the plastic bags and let them sit open to the air while the oven preheated to 500 f.

I baked the loaves in cast iron pots at 450 f. (reduce heat as soon as the breads are put into the oven), for 30 minutes with the lids on.  After removing the lids, let them bake until deep brown, another 10-15 minutes or so.

 NW sourdough

Last week, I let the loaves rise at room temperature for about 4 hours before refrigerating, then put them into the cold for 6 hours before letting them proof for only 1 hour in my oven.  I feel like the loaves last week had slightly better oven spring, but it could be that I should have left today's loaves to proof a little longer.  Truth be told, I was aiming for a loaf that would be cool enough to slice by lunchtime...  I need continual reminding that rushing the bread is never a good idea.

I also didn't slash today's bread, thinking that it would break apart naturally, like the Forkish (and Lahey) bread, at the seams that I placed into the bottoms of the proofing baskets.  It didn't rise enough in the oven to split, another clue that I should have let it proof longer.  I knew I should have gotten up earlier to attend to it...

NW sourdough

But alone with some cheese, it was the perfect lunch, an extra half hour a proofing time hard to imagine being much of an improvement. 

Today is a day of Spring-like warmth, before we wake tomorrow to tackle a cold and desolate Winter once again.  When sitting in my dining room with the windows open to properly enjoy such wintertime luck, this bread is my companion, a reminder of birth and rebirth, and living, breathing dough.  It's enough reason for me to never want to leave my kitchen, to come close to perfection, or at least perfection for now.  I know better than anyone that there is always a new bread to be obsessed with.

It feels so good to be back to my old self.

On Rye. (Notes, not Recipes...)

I haven't given much thought to rye.  As a cereal grain, I suppose I like it well enough, but I'm fairly certain this was my first time baking it into a loaf - and it was a naturally leavened loaf at that.  The only rye product I had in the house to turn into rye flour for this recently baked experiment was rolled rye flakes I had gotten some time ago at my co-op, and I'm not sure if my finished bread was a direct result of less than optimum rye flour or not.  Either way, this bread was most delicious, and it piques my interest to work with this grain a bit more.

This is just an account of my first rye bread, baked with instruction from Peter Reinhart (who I'm sure will appreciate that I'm not writing down every one of his recipes from Crust and Crumb into my blog).  I did follow his ratios, and I built a rye starter in a single afternoon from my standard resident starter.  This added a day to the bread with an overnight rest in the fridge, but it was all just in wait time, not really active work time.  On his recommendation, I also added a tablespoon of cocoa powder and two teaspoons of instant espresso powder hoping for a deeper external coloring.  An exceptional tongue may be able to detect it, but I can't say I could.

pain au méteil

Pliny the Elder, the ancient Roman philosopher and naturalist who had a penchant for cookery, said that rye is "a very poor food and only serves to avert starvation" and spelt is mixed into it "to mitigate its bitter taste, and even then is most unpleasant to the stomach."  The three day building of this rye bread most definitely served to break down those parts of the rye plant destined to be indigestible.  And the greater wheat flour content tempers any would-be-overwhelming bitterness as well.

The French term this type of rye bread with more wheat than rye "pain au méteil", and the instruction in Peter Reinhart's Crust and Crumb called to bake it deep as possible without burning... but I couldn't bring myself to go much darker than this.  I am going to go on a rye mission, grinding coarse rye flour from rye berries and not rolled flakes of rye - and I'll bake the pain au seigle as well, which is the version that contains more rye than wheat.  I'm also going to try to bake on a stone, and burnish the crusts out with longer baking times.

ka back in action

I've happily been able to return to machine-kneaded doughs; my loving Dad fixed my not-so-old stand mixer by replacing gears and grease, when I was certain that my mixer was heading for a landfill .  I've had it back for two months already, and have been afraid to use it...  It works just great, and I hope that it will now withstand some workouts.  (Though, I'm overly careful, and unlikely to be baking any bagels any time soon.)


Rye flour contains far less gluten than wheat, but yet the dough seemed to reach the "windowpaning stage" faster than traditional, all-wheat breads I've made.  From the photo, you can see that the gluten hasn't quite developed at this stage.  Two minutes later, it stretched thin and without breaking into holes.  It was a lovely dough, and it felt good to have a traditionally kneaded dough in my kitchen after so many months of merely "folding" high-hydration doughs.  Even though (with kneaded doughs) I let my mixer do the bulk of the work to save my hands where I can, I never resist the pleasure of a minute or two of quality "counter time" with a dough!

I formed the dough into two loaves:  one round and one oblong.  I have a proper brotform for the round loaf, but improvised another small basket for use as an oval support.  The breads rose much more than I anticipated after they were formed, risen, and then retarded overnight.  The round loaf must have been better formed, since it didn't appear overproofed when I scored it.  The oblong loaf deflated and had an almost tough "skin" that made pretty patterns impossible.  I used Chad Robertson's 50-50 mix of rice and wheat flours to dust the bread cloths thoroughly, though I might not have needed a cloth at all in my brotform that is well-seasoned.

I brought them out of the fridge, and let them sit at room temp for about a half hour as the oven heated.  Unlike Reinhart, I baked them both in covered iron pots - the oblong one just barely squeaking in, thus its rather homely looking appearance.  I heated them to 500, then dropped the heat to 450 just after popping them in.  I uncovered them after 15 minutes, and baked about 20 minutes longer.

pain au méteil

But like their related Human Beings, no matter what they looked like, it was what was inside that mattered.  Gentle, small holes, with a slightly more regular pattern than the breads I've been used making lately.  The crust was thin, brittle, and easy to chew; the texture of a slice had enough resistance to be interesting without being boring.  I ate the heel, plain without adornment, amazed that wild yeast produces such amazements with such a little help from me.

pain au méteil

Returning to a well-loved bread book after so many months away felt unnaturally calming.  I remembered immediately why it is one of my favorites, and one that produces excellent results, even if my results are most definitely different than those described in black and white.

I ate this bread for lunch today, it's second day, sliced very thin and toasted, topped with super ripe avocado, fresh sliced San Marzano tomatoes, coarse salt and pepper and some arbequina olive oil I decided I had to try (and it was so good I'm glad I did).  I actually can't wait to taste this bread as it ages a few more days, I have a feeling that the flavor will only continue to develop.

I'm also very excited to get rye berries for flour.  While I'm at it, I may pick up some hard wheat berries and grind that for flour too - it may make for a denser loaf, but perhaps an appreciation for heavier Winter loaves in on the horizon...