sourdough bread – ye olde-fashioned waye

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I love good bread. I didn’t grow up eating it, save on special occasions; we were pretty cash-strapped in my younger years, and my mom didn’t inherit her grandmother’s Nebraska-hewn, farmgirl baking skills. I ate a lot of shitty bread, the bland, machine-extruded monstrosities that delivered nutritional content of dubious origin but filled a hungry belly. I ate a little really good bread, served in restaurants with linen napkins and chilled plates for the salad.

As I got older and in a financial position to eat more of the latter type, I found myself eating enough good bread (and every other concoction churned out by purveyors of good bread) to increase my mass to a disturbing degree. That battle continues, but I am finding a balance, now. I love good bread, but I limit myself to bread that is worth eating for enjoyment rather than fuel. I can enjoy it more, eat less of it, win win.

Along the way to finding balance, I started learning how to bake good bread. My early attempts were suitable to re-pave my walkway, but I got better. I’ve made some very good loaves in my time, not to the point where I’m confident that every loaf will pass muster with my own standards of consumption, but enough to know I can produce a really tasty loaf when I pay attention.

There are ways to make pretty good bread at home without being fussy about it. I like Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day; it’s easy, it provides for multiple batches of bread that will get better with time, the baking instructions are acceptable. I used an adaptation of the basic loaf recipe/method to teach some young men living in a group home how to churn out good, inexpensive, belly-filling loaves.

That said, I have a few nits to pick with Hertzberg and François. Before Artisan in Five, I learned to bake bread from the ground up from Tartine Bread. The basic country bread requires far more time and attention than actual skill, until one becomes familiar with the chemistry of bread. And it is chemistry: as with all baking, bread is as much about science as art, amply rewarding the diligent student. It really is a beautiful process when examined closely: the progression of look, smell and feel as flour and water become imbued with life is fascinating. Coaxing that life into a form that offers, in its final throes, a transcendent experience of taste is simply magical. I appreciate the delivery of artisan bread to the masses, but what Artisan in Five provides in convenience and accommodation, it subtracts in craft and quality.

It’s almost Christmas, which for me means croissants, Brie, leftover ham and fresh blackberry jam. Since we are not yet at Halloween let alone Thanksgiving, I have time to play Dr. Frankenstein, putting together a sourdough starter for the croissants. I blew the dust off of Tartine Bread, although there’s neither science nor art required today. Fill container with clean water, add organic flour, stir, cover with cloth. Grunt. (For the record, it was 61 grams rye flour, 83 grams filtered tap water.) Science will come in a few days, when bubbles begin to appear and the concoction begins to acquire the delicate, sublime aroma of a dead body.

Speaking of sublime – whoop whoop for my high school days in Long Beach, listening to home-grown band Sublime.

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