Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Great Bread Challenge Begins

The more that I read about the loaf that is slowly taking shape in my kitchen, the more convinced I become that this bread-baking business may be the hardest thing that I have ever done. I'm also slowly realizing why the bread that I buy at market costs so gosh darn much--making a good loaf of bread is no cake walk. Heck, cakes are easy!

To preface this adventure, I'm not a stranger to ovens, by any means. I've been a baker since before I was even allowed to touch the oven (I used the toaster oven) and I licked the bowl before that. But my experience is primarily in sweet things, and I think that it is a good deal easier to disguise imperfections when you finish with chocolate ganache than when your only accompaniment is a plate of olive oil. In college, I was the proud owner of a bread starter, with which I made countless loaves of increasingly creative sweet bread. I made the strangest substitutions--pumpkin, chocolate fondue, peanut butter--and my bread never failed me. On a dare, I once tried to make a failed loaf, but even it was pretty tasty, at least fresh out of the oven.

That bread, I am now learning, is to the real staff of life what Candy Land is to chess against Bobby Fisher. The introduction to the bread chapter in my new Chez Panisse Cooking cookbook is eleven pages long: eleven pages of instructions on the proper temperature of ingredients, the sharpness of scoring knives (you need a straight razor, apparently), and the relative lengths of fermentations. And then it informs me that, even if I follow directions perfectly, the natural vagaries of wild yeast, organic flour, and the microclimate of my kitchen might still yield an "unpredictable and disappointing" loaf. Ooof.

Despite all of that, I'm not only trying to make bread, but I'm blogging the process. I have no idea if I will end up with a floury brick or a dense, chewy, flavorful loaf, but my fingers are crossed.

Spontaneously Leavened Sourdough Bread

A confession: I've already made a small miscalculation. I started this bread on Friday morning, planning to bake it on Wednesday for a dinner party. I thought that I had added up all of my fermentation, sponge, and risings times correctly. I think I'm actually a day short. Moral of the story, if you want to follow this recipe, ask yourself what you want to be doing in six days time. If the answer is not babying a loaf of bread, hold off until next week.

Step One: Sourdough starter
2 1/2 oz. peeled russet potato, cut into small pieces
7/8 cup water
7 1/2 oz. organic unbleached flour

Natural yeast is everywhere. My task is simply to cultivate it in a particular medium (in this case, flour, water, and mashed potato). To begin, combine 1 1/2 cups water in a small stainless steel saucepan. Bring the pot to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes, until the potato is soft. Pour the potato and its water into a clear 1 1/2 quart glass or plastic bowl. This will be the holding tank for your starter while the yeast culture develops. Mash the potatoes and allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. Now gradually stir in the flour (N.B.: for greater accuracy, flour measurements are given in ounces rather than volumetric units like cups) until combined in a stiff batter.

Congratulations! Your task for the day is accomplished. Now cover your starter with plastic wrap and put it somewhere warm (70-80°) for 24 hours. You'll notice over the course of the day that your starter becomes a bit grayish. This is a result of the oxidation of the potato when it contacts the air and is ok. Here's what my starter looked like at the end of day one. So far, so good.

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