Most people are intimidated by the prospect of baking bread from scratch. I know I was. Like many, I learned much of what I know in the kitchen from my mother who, owing to a combination of lack of patience and one failed bread baking experiment when I was quite young, left bread production up to the local bakery or whomever it is that makes bread for grocery stores.
Earlier this year, however, finding myself without gainful employment for the first time in many years and with an unnerving amount of leisure time, I decided to cloister myself away in my tiny Brooklyn apartment and teach myself the art of artisanal bread baking.
After a few days in the library scribbling down copious notes and a few unsuccessful attempts at the very simple task of dissolving yeast in water, I was able to produce what appeared to be a loaf of bread.
Its outward appearance filled me with a sense of accomplishment and it was only when I cut it in half that I discovered that I still had a ways to go. While it was certainly more chewable and moist than a hockey puck, it was more or less the bread equivalent of the birthday present your daughter, son, niece or nephew gives you that is made out of construction paper, glue, glitter and pine cones – its nice and homemade and clearly a lot of work went into it but the quality of the thing leaves something to be desired.
Not to be deterred, I continued to turn these prairie sod-like loaves out, foisting them upon unfortunate friends with the confidence that, like driving without a map, if you just did it long enough, you would eventually get where you need to go. (Yes, I sometimes find it difficult to locate willing passengers.)
Then I had a bit of good fortune – last Christmas Eve I wandered into a bookstore with my sister and father and happened upon a giant coffee table sized book entitled Tartine Bread with what can only be described as the perfect loaf of bread on the front cover. It was dark brown and glistening – almost black with tiny air bubbles all throughout the crust and a white crumb underneath the looked…well, perfect. It was both a feat of bread baking and of photography. I purchased the book on the spot.
Happily, the book did, in fact, live up to its cover. The baking technique it suggests uses no industrial yeast at all opting instead for a wild fermentation process whereby water and flour are mixed together and left for three or four days to harness airborne yeast and become the “starter” for a loaf of bread.
When I first experimented with this method, I was a bit worried that assiduously monitoring a bowl of bacterial spores in my kitchen might have negative consequences for my social life but the possibility of achieving something close to the loaf on that front cover was too much to resist.
Now, I should say, for those of you with bread baking aspirations, that this bread baking technique requires not only three to four days of fermentation but the bread baking process itself takes about nine hours. The good news (or bad news depending on your personality type) is that the vast majority of this time is spent waiting, checking, gently poking, evaluating and trying to come up with something to do in the 30 minutes before you have to get back to the kitchen to re-check the loaf. But if you are interested in tackling a Russian novel or a graduate degree, this kind of bread baking might be a perfect part-time job for you.
As for me, I was, if recall, in the throws of unemployment and the throws of winter so I had…ahem, nothing but time. It made things a little easier.
But I will say this with all humility – following this book’s instructions resulted in, by far, the best bread I have ever tasted anywhere. I take no credit for this beyond being able to read and follow instructions. But it really was a miraculous thing.
The first time I took a loaf out of the oven, I just stared at it for about 5 minutes not quite believing that I had been responsible for creating this thing. It looked and smelled absolutely amazing. I immediately bundled up and jumped onto the subway to share this creation with my sister and her kids who lived a few blocks away.
After a few minutes, the subway car smelled like the best bakery I’d ever walked into and it is no easy task to make New York City subway cars smell anything other than dreadful.
Upon arrival at my sister’s house, we cut the loaf in half and dug in.
Suffice to say that everyone was very pleased and the non-bread elements of dinner were left untouched.
Following that first loaf, I spent every second or third day baking a different kind of bread – wheat bread, pumpkin seed and rosemary bread, olive bread with hazlenuts, walnut bread, raisin and cardamom bread etc. Each one was better than the last. The only problem was that I began to produce much more bread than my friends and family
could possibly consume. Had I stayed in New York, this could have
become a serious problem. Happily in April, I packed my things and moved to D Acres.
Upon arrival at this community, I quickly came to realize that most of the professional skills that I had acquired over the course of my working life were of very little use here – which absolutely delighted me. But this newly acquired bread-baking skill? Now there was a transferrable skill…sort of.
Baking 30 loaves of bread at once is a different universe entirely from baking two. My first experience at D Acres bread baking saw the employment of just about every single bowl and dish-cloth in the house – numbering in the hundreds, I think. And being unfamiliar with the general kitchen layout and having a tendency to forget a needed spoon or spatula or something resulted in having to rummage through the kitchen drawers with dough caked fingers which, in turn, left a residue that I believe had to be removed with a blow torch and sandpaper. Sigh.
But I am pleased to report that despite a few challenges here and there, reviews of the final product have been incredibly positive - so much so that we have started to sell the bread at the Plymouth farmers market and are starting a bread CSA in the fall. I would like to report that I’ve gotten cleaner and more contained in the kitchen…I would like to report that but just last week I received a inquiry as to just how did I get flour on the CEILING?! So I am still learning to bake in such a way that does not leave the kitchen looking as though it should be cleaned with a fire-hose.
But for those of you who are looking for (deep breath) organic, locally produced, artisanal, wood-fired, whole grain, naturally fermented bread, baked lovingly in a dedicated although somewhat er…free spirited way, let me know. Our bread CSA begins October 8th.
Here is the email: firstname.lastname@example.org