A Note on Bread

I can’t tell you exactly when this new pastime of mine began, but I can tell you that I don’t see it ending any time soon.  It started with one considerably awful loaf of white bread that more resembled a brick than edible food, and a loaf after that in which I forgot to add the yeast.  But the process, oh my goodness, it was so wonderful.  I like bread, don’t get me wrong.  In fact, I’d eat nothing but carbs if given the option.  But I think that I bake bread for the process of baking, not for the eating (which is a nice outcome, though).

The more I think about it, the more obvious it becomes.  I’ve been needing, clamoring for, really, some way to feel connected, grounded, like a living member of humanity and not just a fixture of the music library or a lone existence in my tiny, soundproof practice room.  Think about it.  What is more natural than baking bread?  People have been doing this for centuries, probably thousands of years.  It’s changed, sure, but bread has been around nearly as long as people.  It seems almost congruent with life.

And it’s so, so simple.  Flour, water, yeast.  Some time in a hot oven.  It’s beautiful.  And delicious!  For some reason, I find it so incredibly comforting that here in 2010, I’m doing something so normal and human.  And the kneading requires time, effort, and, depending on the kind of bread, you really have to put your weight into it.  As you knead, it starts as a bowl of flour and water, crumbly in places, sticky and gooey in others, and within 10 or 15 minutes of rhythmic breathing, folding, pressing and turning, it turns into this cohesive thing, this cool, elastic ball of silky dough.  And it rises!  That’s my favorite part, when I go check on it and find that it’s doubled in size and is filled with big air holes from the yeast feeding.  And then you punch it down, the air forced out as you push, and then it rises all over again.  Another thing that I really love about this is how lovely it makes my house smell!  If there was a way to put a scent on this blog, you’d want to move in with me.  Which brings me to another thing I love about this– I get to give it away.  I don’t have a lot of time or money these days, but I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t appreciate a loaf of hand-made bread.  I don’t know a whole lot of people in this city, but to those I do, it feels nice to give something away, something I’ve made by hand.  I’ve always been a fan of hand-made cards and presents and I like that I have an excuse to do that kind of thing for no reason at all.  Plus, there’s no way I can eat it all.  As I’m trying to perfect these recipes, I’m making more loaves than I can possibly ever eat myself, and I don’t want them to go to waste 🙂

It’s sort of like the edible version of knitting.  Doing something mindless, something that doesn’t require my brain to short out or my eyes to water, but a way for me to use my hands for something productive and with a tangible outcome.

So here’s a pictorial view of how this works.  This is sourdough bread, start to finish:

Sourdough Starter

This is sourdough starter.  I used natural yeast out of the air, which means that I let my flour and water mixture sit covered with a tea cloth and waited for some of the yeast to land and start feeding and multiplying.  The initial process took about two weeks for the starter to be ready to use and it went through some interesting stages of looks and smells before it finally settled on a foamy texture and the smell of fermentation and bread.  It almost smells like beer!  Every couple days I dump a little out and replace it with equal parts flour and water so the yeast can continue to feed and ferment. 

Sponge- flour, water, and starter

Next, before I go to bed one night, I make what’s called the sponge.  This is half of the flour and water for the actual dough recipe, plus a ladle of the starter.  It sits covered in a warm place overnight.

 Sponge after sitting all night

As you can see, this looks like a sponge– hence the name.  It has huge air holes but is not solid like dough.  The next morning (or, after I get home from my morning classes) you add the rest of the flour and make the dough, kneading for approximately 10 minutes.  Not too little time or the gluten won’t form correctly and it won’t rise, and not too much time, either, as it will be too hard and solid.

Rising.

The dough rests in my “dough incubator” in my laundry room.  This is sort of ghetto-rigged, but I think it works just fine. The dough sits in a glass bowl (never metal as that reacts with and kills the yeast) inside a big (unused) plastic garbage bag.  I also sit my space heater on the washer to make the room nice and warm– perfect rising environment!

Sourdough and Whole Wheat/Corn Meal/Hazelnut bread before 1st rise

Once your dough has doubled in size, you dump it onto the counter and gently deflate it, pressing out all the air.  This is a gentle process, not as vigorous as kneading.  Form it again into a round and put it back in the bowl in the bag in the laundry room.  Do this up to 4 or 5 times, depending on the time you have.  With my sourdough, I’ve found it takes about an hour or so for each rise.  This creates for a long process and lots of waiting time.

Punched down and ready to rise again!

So what do I do in the interim of punching down and rising?  Practice!

 Practice area all set up and cluttered.

After the dough has risen between 2 and 5 times (I usually get antsy and go for 3 or 4 rises), you use a sharp knife and split it into the number of loaves you want.  Then they are formed into rounds and sit on a (clean) tea towel with (fresh) flour or cornmeal so that they don’t stick to the towel and that the bottoms are coated when they go into the oven.  This process is called Proofing, and the balls of dough proof for between 15 and 30 minutes, just enough to get used to their new shape and to puff up a little before baking.

Proofing.

Last step!  Baking.  They rise a good deal more in the oven, so they need ample room on the sheets.  I slit the tops with a sharp knife to give the bread room to rise, otherwise they can crack.  Sometimes they crack anyway.  I haven’t figured out how to make pretty *looking* loaves yet.  But soon.

Finished loaves

All finished!  They’re crazy hot to touch when they come out of the oven (you’d think I’d stop feeling the need to touch them straight out of the oven, but I keep burning my fingers), so be careful and use a pot holder to remove them.  Let them sit for a little while, then enjoy!

I know this is a crazy process to go through all the time, but I love it.  Next on my list of things to try are Naan, bagels, and English Crumpets (for Judith!)

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