It sort of started with Jeanne, as many things do. She used to be my neighbor, and now she lives up north in a misty place, perfect for bread baking, which she has taken on with her usual zeal and finesse. She did a demonstration of her baking method while we were visiting her last month, and we had it sliced and toasted for breakfast. It was truly delightful, a substantial and flavorful loaf, just moist and chewy enough inside with lots of good air holes and a genuinely crusty crust.
Jeanne describes bread-making as magic…the alchemy of heat and yeast, the traditions of the ancestors, and she uses the method passed down by her great-great-grandfather from Alsace-Lorraine. “It requires mostly just my hands, and heat, and flour, water and salt,” she says, “And time for it to ferment.”
It turns out that my young neighbor Carey has been baking bread also. One day when I stopped by her house, I noticed and admired a newly baked loaf that looked very handsome indeed. I ended up leaving with a jar of sourdough starter, an instruction sheet adapted from the Tartine Bread book, which has apparently become a sort of bread-baking bible, and Carey’s cheerful reassurance. “It’s not that hard,” she said. “You just have to keep doing it. Follow the basic directions, but find what adjustments work for you.”
And thus began my official quest. I bought a bag of top notch whole wheat flour at the health food store, somehow assuming this would make for a superior loaf. I went through all the steps, found the dough to be too wet and sticky, and kept adding flour. The final result looked great, but it was dry and dense. “A heavy wheat brick,” said my husband. It tasted terrible too…possessed of a peculiar sort of tanginess. It was, despite its good looks, inedible.
So the first principle, as Carey says: “Looks can be deceiving.” She recommended turning my failed loaf into croutons. Monte recommended marking it down to experience and throwing it away.
“It’s just your beginning,” wrote Jeanne in an email. “It is a journey, and this is a good start. I think Tartine’s basic recipe is more like 80-90% white (some bread flour, some all-purpose) and 10-20% whole wheat. You tried a much more difficult option to use all whole wheat. There are so many variables involved, hence the huge challenge that has excited so many people to try baking it.”
Notice how tactfully Jeanne interprets my folly as “a more difficult option”, as if I am a brave innovator instead of an awkward novice. I wondered if I should try a different starter, maybe hers. “I really think the one you have is working great,” said Jeanne. “The flavor will be about the same with either one, as they adapt and blend with your local airborne yeasts, as well as it having to do more with temperature of the air, and the flour you use.” She also reminded me that having two starters would mean feeding two starters. I’d forgotten about this whole “feeding” thing. It’s a little like having a pet in a jar, a creature composed of yeast and lactobacilli. I don’t fully understand the science of it.
The second principle would be: tweak and customize for your conditions, but stay within the basic framework, and don’t be changing horses in the middle of the crossing. Or something like that.
For my second loaf (at the left), I used mostly unbleached white flour with a small amount of whole wheat. The dough was sticky again, so I kept adding white flour to make it easier to work with, and I sprinkled flour into the bowl before I left it overnight. Too much. You can see the lumpy splotches of flour there, which is not very appealing. It also didn’t rise as high and proud as Jeanne’s or Carey’s.
But look at those nice air holes! And it actually tasted pretty good.
“You’re learning more each time,” said Jeanne. And she was right. Take a look at loaf number three!
It was sluggish about rising, and there is something sort of miniature about it, but it was perfect in every other way.
So the third principle: keep trying, apply the lessons learned from previous bakings, and be patient.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to report on every tedious twist and turn of my baking journey. I just wanted to document this little adventure because it has been so therapeutic for me. When in doubt, bake a loaf of bread. You need not explain yourself further.