Nancy Silverton and the Wildness of Bread

The beginning of bread.

I confess that I have probably read the book Nancy Silverton's Breads from the LaBrea Bakery at least ten times. I have habitually rented it from the library several times a year, long before I ever baked any bread on a regular basis. I feel like I actually know this book like I would know a person, like it has become part of my general knowledge. I even feel like I know Nancy, like I can hear her voice on the page, working through her processes in an authoritative conversational way. Thanks to a woman I met at Annie's class who was paring down her cooking library, I received a copy of my very own, and busily re-read most of it yet again in July.

I actually know whole passages by heart, including the foreword written by Ruth Reichl. In it, she describes Silverton one Thanksgiving as she arrived as her guest with an ice cream maker to accompany the pie she brought. She set it up on the floor, the only surface not being used, and nearly tripped hostess Reichl as she carried the turkey into the dining room. Why? Because ice cream tastes so much better when it's fresh, and apparently she didn't dream of making it anywhere but on the spot of it's imminent consumption.

Obviously, then, I knew that if I were to attempt catching my own wild yeast and making it into something palatable, I would follow Silverton and in all of her exacting madness. Obsessed people usually make the best teachers and the writings that follow them tend to be as detailed and true as instructions can be. I collected my grapes from my Parents Farm, not only because I wanted to have organic fruit that I didn't need to worry about washing, but also because I wanted a deep Wisconsiness to my bread... a bread that has yet to be baked.

Silverton's method of starting a starter from wild roots is a 14 day process beginning with immersion of a pound of grapes in a bit more than a pound of bread flour and 2 pounds of water. I followed the weight instructions to a tee, including the temperature of the water she suggested. I didn't panic when the Concord grapes turned my contents suspiciously purple, and I did note the changes in its scent as the days progressed. Grapey-ness turned to a slightly alcoholic sour smell within several days, until by day 14 a fairly mild and uniform bread-like aroma ensued.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4 (sorry for the blurriness on this one...)

The grapes actually stay in the mixture a whole 10 days. I didn't have any mold appear, but it is normal if it would have. After day 10, I carefully began to feed my baby 3 times a day. According to Silverton, we humans can survive on one meal a day, but really it's not advisable, so if 3 meals is better for us and our metabolisms, it is also better for our living breads. Again, I followed her methods exactly, feeding about 6 hours apart, and with increasing amounts of flour and water on each successive feeding in the day. Every new morning, I dutifully poured off all but a pound and 2 oz. of starter and started the process over again until on day 15, this past Monday, I tried to bake.

Around day 10...

It is completely obvious to me that my sourdough starter is active and alive. After each feeding, it takes awhile to bubble up, it smells sweet and good, and towards the time of the next feeding, it begins to separate - a layer of clearish yellow liquid on the top that is easily mixed in to what reminds me of a sticky crepe batter consistency. Every time I feed it, the same thing happens all over again.

But, when I tried Monday morning to make actual bread, it did not work. It felt like bread as I worked with with the dough, but it lacked any strength to leaven the dough during the first rise. After about 8 hours, and still no change in bulk, I figured I'd just pat it out onto an olive oiled baking sheet and bake it into a "focaccia" after emailing with Lo. It still didn't rise in the oven, not that I expected it to - a leaden thing that tasted surprisingly delicious with sour tang and well complemented with generously sprinkled rosemary and Parmesan cheese...

Late yesterday afternoon, I began my research elsewhere. I have no idea how to bake with my starter - especially when all seems well and living and tasty, if not proper. Meanwhile, I've decided to take my starter down to 100 grams and add 50 grams each of flour and water at each feeding for the next few days (after preliminary research here). I also need to talk to someone who has baked with sourdough I think, since no matter how much I think I know Nancy Silverton, I can not channel the wealth of knowledge that could otherwise be learned firsthand or hands on by a non-book dwelling human being. If anyone in my area (or any not-so-close reader) has any tips for me, please let me know!! Lo has already been a really great resource, but her starter is probably at least 100 years old, or even 250 - if it came from King Arthur Flour. She got it from a friend, and it always seems to work for her.

Since I have had nearly a half gallon of starter by the end of each day, until today when I decided to maintain a smaller amount, I had planned to make one of Peef and Lo's recipes: Sourdough Waffles. This morning, after I weighed out my saved starter to feed, I used a cup of what was destined as waste to make a sweet version of their delicious waffles. No bacon or cheese in here, but they were delicious when served with bananas and newly made peach butter. They were substantial, like bread, the telltale tang of sourdough that I know is alive and active beneath my uncertainty of this newborn.

I have to be out of town this weekend, so I hope I can safely tuck my little baby into the fridge where active fermentation can slow into dormancy until I get back and can resume hovering over it like a mother hen. I want to believe that it is just too young to be productive, after all he's only on day 17 of life. I like to remember that I am dealing with a living thing here, and just like my Boy-O, he's not going to do what I ask him to until he's good and ready - or is explained to that good behavior is something that is going to be expected. But maybe good behavior does have something to do with 3 good squares a day, and plenty of "cot" time. Three squares and a cot. That's what I'll try and remember as I feed for a few more weeks before trying to bake bread again...