A few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to try making some sourdough bread. I found a starter online and enthusiastically mixed it up. It immediately started bubbling as it was supposed to, and I was excited at the prospect of having some yummy bread in a few days. The starter I selected required 5 days to ferment before you could make any bread with it. Our weather was frigid at the time, and our house often gets down in the 60s at night; this isn’t exactly optimal for cultivating a yeast colony, and by the second day of my experiment, my starter had clearly died. By the third day, its solids and liquids had separated entirely. M had the smart idea of putting a starter in our half bath, which stays very warm with the door closed at night, and her starter (a different recipe that actually had no yeast added) flourished. The bread she made with it didn’t turn out so great (it tasted good enough, but it was shaped like a discus). She gave up on making bread altogether, and I decided to give up until warmer weather would prove beneficial to my starter.
But then she got me a nifty bread book for my birthday. Entitled The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, it has some introductory matter, followed by a comfortably detailed tutorial on how bread making works. The author lays out a 12-step process whereby the baker’s mission — “to evoke the fullness of flavor from the wheat” — is best accomplished. And then he offers recipes (he calls them formulas) for a few dozen breads. It’s a very pretty book, with photography of much lovely bread and a pleasant writing style. He gives plenty of details about the fermenting and baking processes (e.g. did you know that crust is actually caramelized sugar?) without being tiresome or over-detailed about it. Once I read the first hundred pages, I was ready to pick a bread formula and get to it.
And I did just that last weekend, starting off with a simple Italian bread recipe (page 172). It has just a few ingredients and an easy pre-ferment (this is basically a simple dough you make in advance to start pulling flavor out of the wheat; you let it ferment overnight and then add it to the rest of your dough ingredients when you’re ready to bake), and it seemed like a familiar enough type of bread that I’d know if I got it more or less right (compared to, say, a marbled rye). The pre-ferment (this bread calls for one called a biga; it’s basically a doughy one rather than a more liquidy one) behaved beautifully, and I was thrilled at how my loaves (batards — basically oblong loaves, but not so thin as a baguette) turned out. Everything rose as it should have, and the dough had a consistency that I think was close to what the formula called for. One thing went a bit wrong, though. This recipe is really a hearth baking recipe, and though the author provides guidelines as to how to emulate hearth baking in a standard oven, I’m not sure his instructions are best suited to a gas oven, which heats intensely from the bottom. I cooked the bread on the back side of a sheet pan and spread corn meal underneath as recommended (presumably to help keep the bread from sticking), but the corn meal began to burn, and the smell was disappointing to say the least. The bread was far enough along by this time that I was able to shift it to another pan sans cornmeal, and that improved matters. The bread came out looking pretty nice, with a pretty even distribution and sizing of holes in the cross section. I don’t know that the loaves’ shapes would have won a blue ribbon at a baking competition, but they looked like real bread, and they tasted more or less like bread as well. M characterized the outcome aptly enough when she said that she’d be perfectly happy having purchased one of these loaves from the Kroger bakery, if perhaps a little less happy having purchased one from a more respected bakery. The bread was great for little sandwiches because it was soft but not gummy or so soft that it couldn’t bear its meaty freight. As a dinner bread, I’m not sure it would stand up on its own without more practice on my part. One key thing I should note is that for my first effort, I was in a hurry and so didn’t let my pre-ferment go overnight as the author suggests (he admits that you don’t have to but insists that it’s better to). If I try this bread again, I’ll try to be more patient, and I’ll find a way to work around the corn meal incident. We ate the first of two loaves in a couple of days and have another one to unfreeze at our convenience.
Today, I tried my second bread from the book. It’s a Casatiello, and the author describes it as “a rich, dreamy Italian elaboration of brioche, loaded with flavor bursts in the form of cheese and bits of meat.” He also suggests that the bread can be thought of as a Panettone (a particular seasonal bread with things like dried fruit in it) with savory meat and cheese substituted for the sweet bits therein. The dough is an entirely different beast than what I made for the Italian bread, and as it was cooking, it gave off the delectable smell that I expected of the Italian loaves and that pretty much everybody who’s not a baker associates with the baking of bread. This smell I think I can say pretty confidently comes from butter in the dough. This recipe had 1.5 sticks of butter (the Italian had none), along with a cup of whole milk, a tablespoon of sugar, some salt, flour, and the savory and cheesy bits. It was a one-day recipe because it required no lengthy pre-ferment, and though I dirtied a lot of dishes making it, it was really pretty simple to throw together. It has made my house smell as good for the last hour as it’s smelled since I’ve owned the house, and the loaves came out a lovely orangey brown. I’m letting them cool now, but they feel as if they have a very firm, thick crust, and they look just beautiful. If you sniff them from up close, you can smell the salami (which I sauteed to crisp before adding to the dough), and they have little pocks of browned meat and cheese here and there. I think they’re going to be a hit.
I’m not sure what bread I’ll try next (there’s a potato rosemary loaf that looks appealing and would be a great use for our expanding rosemary plants), but I know I won’t stop after the two I’ve done so far. If you’re a novice bread maker, I’d definitely encourage you to try this book out.