country loaf, for the diva oven

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Bessie durn jumped her fence in the wee hours of the morn. I gave her a seven o’clock feeding last night…and aaaalmost reduced the starter by a few tablespoons, so it wouldn’t crawl out of the container before the next feeding. Hindsight is 20/20, etc. – I didn’t, it did. Çest la vie. I wrassled two teaspoons of ol’ Bess into a new mason jar (the first jar had a lovely armor coating that took awhile to scrub off), then gave her the first exact feeding since I brought her into being: 40g rye, 50g water.

Yes, it’s alive, it’s a she and her name is Bessie. Let’s talk about making some bread with her.

In its purest state, bread is heat applied to a mixture of flour, water and salt which is leavened by the wild yeast that have developed in the mixture over time. Given the simplicity of the constituents, they merit some individual consideration.

Flour. You can get hippie organic flour – and you should; what you pay for organic flour is nowhere near what you will pay for the finished loaf of an artisan bakery, pound for pound. Organic flour is $2.49 for 2 pounds (908g) at my local Fresh & Easy. (It can be had elsewhere for less per pound, but I don’t have the storage capacity to warrant larger quantities.) One Tartine country loaf (bakery size) will use 500g flour and sells for $8.25. The cost of salt, water and power is negligible for my home baking, but call it $1.00 just to be fair. Barring one pilgrimage that I am obligated to undertake to partake of the original, I’ll happily pay $1.37 in flour for my loaf versus $5.00 at my local artisan bakery or $8.25 for Tartine’s loaf. Most times, though, I cheat – I’ll use the non-organic flour at $2.99 per 5 pounds (2,240g), or $0.67 per baked loaf. I have yet to taste a difference – maybe my organic flour isn’t cool enough.

Water. If you are willing to drink the water out of your tap, you can put it in your bread. Considering that most of the world’s bread is still baked with water of less purity than average American tap water (and this has been true for the entirety of human history), about the only thing that concerns me is chlorination. If you can smell it, buy a water purifier that you like to filter your bread water so that smell is removed. I won’t recommend a brand, although I’m not opposed to whoring myself out for corporate beneficence. If your tap water makes you glow in the dark or grow extra appendages, you’ve probably invested in a means of water purification, already – and that water is as bread-worthy as it is drink-worthy.

Salt. Tartine uses sea salt harvested from ecologically-smug areas of the ocean. I use kosher flake salt, $1.99 per 232g, from Fresh & Easy. The country loaf takes 10g per baked loaf, so $.09 per loaf. Use the salt you like, preferably what you stock in the pantry – especially during early baking efforts. I would have felt doubly bad, if my earliest pavers had actually been constructed of something other than the cheapest material available.

Heat. This is the only consistently-inferior aspect of home bread-baking when compared to commercial artisan bakeries. I would love to build a wood-fired pizza oven in my backyard. I would weigh 250 pounds after a year of enjoying it, no doubt, but I’d love every jiggly bit of myself as I produced awe-inspiring, yeasty creations. I admire Chad Robertson’s dedication to bread, which led him to learn to bake it using primitive methods. But I am not going to take on a pizza oven (yet), so I am stuck with an adorable diva of an oven.

I have a dual-fuel Aga Legacy, which is lovely, expensive, a bitch to clean and required employment of the scientific method to produce edible baked products. I would give much for my great-grandmother’s plain-Jane, cheap, gas conventional oven. But I have to live with the Aga, so I learned how to bake with it. My Aga has two sides – multi-use (defrost, conventional, convection) and convection. The multi-use side is too small and contains too many gadgets to be attractive for baking, which leaves the fairly-roomy convection oven.

A convection oven is, in theory, superior to a conventional oven; it speeds cooking through the circulation of heated air around the food. In baking, though, you most emphatically do NOT want hot air swirling around your food, forming and hardening a crust prior to achieving optimal oven spring. Commercial bakeries will often bake using steam injection ovens, so that their loaves stay nice and moist and that final volume expansion can take place before shutting off the steam and letting the crust form and carmelize. For the home baker, an enclosed pizza oven, being terrifically hot but with no heated air swirling about, would encourage the heating of the molecules of water within the dough, rapidly forming the steam that will increase the volume of the loaf without hardening the exterior too quickly to prevent the expansion. A conventional oven, achieving a lower temp but also lacking that pesky swirling heated air, cannot heat the dough enough to produce steam in a timely fashion – but home bakers have been addressing that for years with pans of water (or pans that are filled with boiling water) in place of steam injection.

Chad addresses the inferiority of steam production in home baking with the combo cooker. Half skillet, half pot, all cast-iron and the ideal tool to create a mini-commercial oven in a conventional – or convection – oven. The small, enclosed space, preheated with the oven, is small enough and stays hot enough to mimic steam injection, and keeps that steam close enough to encourage maximum expansion of the dough prior to crust formation. It also acts as a bodyguard against the swirling, heated air of the convection oven. For a country loaf, the combo cooker is great. For croissants, not so much, but I jimmy-rigged an acceptable substitute (I’ll get to it when I get around to my sourdough croissants) and am in the hunt for a better mousetrap. For cakes (yes, even cakes bake to inferior result in convection ovens), I use a lined springform pan and cover the top with tin foil for the first half of baking.

Baking with the diva has presented more challenges that I imagined when I saw it in a catalog, during the planning stages of our kitchen remodel. Then again, I didn’t know jack shit about cooking, either. But it has certainly been educational to learn about how different ovens work – and rather fun learning how to outwit the diva.

Tonight – leaven. Tomorrow – om nom nom.

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