Friday, February 13, 2009

Baking Bread

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this site are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel.

My weekly bread making has become a firm ritual.  I bring it as a gift to the homes of friends when I'm invited for a meal. One loaf goes with me every weekend to my vintner's home. And, whatever else they eat throughout the week, I know that with my multi-grain long-rising bread, my boys are well-nourished.  It was a hit at the bed and breakfast, and during the cooking classes -- much more fun than putting baguettes on the table. Even my mother -- who's made her own bread since I was little -- awaits anxiously my arrival in Michigan in the summer, hoping I'll take over the bread baking there too.  

It's a combination of experimenting and reading matter that have brought me to my current recipe.  I devoured On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, learning about glutens. Then I spent a year or so reading Cookwise by Shirley Corriher every night, learning more about citric acid, spices, liquid content and temperature. Then I read the chapters on making your own starter in Peter Reinhardt's The Bread Baker's Apprentice.  I went through the entire book of Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions soon after receiving it from my cooking colleague one summer.  She inspired me to pursue long and natural fermentation. My local bakers kept repeating the mantra of temperature -- the ideal rising temperature is between 26-27C (78F), which you obtain after vigorous kneading.  And then, along came Mark Bittman's column in the New York Times on no-knead bread. And I was converted.

However, I had a past history in bread baking that could not be ignored, and, I've rarely followed a recipe to the letter (my brother will attest to this at times frustrating quality).

Thus, my recipe has evolved into the following:

my own starter which I began a few years' back at this point.  It is quite simple to do.  Take one cup of organic whole wheat flour and one cup of water.  Blend, leave in a bowl with a cloth on top. The next day, add another cup of flour and more water.  Blend and leave in the bowl with a cloth on top.  Repeat all week, increasing the quantities of the flour and water to double the mixture in your bowl.  If the quantity becomes cumbersome, you can pour some of it into your compost or garbage, or down the sink as the case may be. when the mixture starts to bubble you have your own home-made sourdough starter made with the ambient yeasts floating about your home.

Depending on the yeasts in your home, the starter will be more or less acidic, more or less sweet.  I've been able to make a surprisingly mild yet active one here in Provence.  But when I've made one in Traverse City Michigan, it has come out rather acidic -- akin to the San Francisco sourdough.  

Voila, once I've my starter, I can continue the process.  I measure haphazardly, but, this style of bread baking is thankfully very forgiving.  I have a large mixing bowl -- I'm always making at least 3 loaves at a time, remember, I've a household of 5 growing kids to feed, and my bread is one of the staples, along with pasta and raw milk from a farm by their school.  My mixing bowl is 5 quarts (or liters, as I purchased it here in France). I begin by putting all my starter (I've generally 2 cups of it in the fridge in a glass jar just waiting for me) into the bowl, I add 3 or more cups of organic wheat flour, sufficient water to blend it with a wooden spoon -- not soupy, but not too stiff either.  I put 2 cups back into my glass jar and back into the fridge.  Now, what's in my bowl is the beginning of this week's bread.  I pour in my 9 grain flour (in Provence we've a wonderful organic flour supplier called Moulin Pichard which makes a very flavorful blend), at least 10 cups or till it fills 2/3 of my bowl.  I then sprinkle on a handful of sel de Guérande (the gray sea salt from Brittany), a 1/2 cup of good local honey, preferably a wild flower from the Garrigues, or Provence hills. I then pour in sufficient filtered water to be able to stir this mixture together -- not soupy, but not so hard that my wooden spoon snaps.  Far thicker than pancake batter, but still stirrable.  This is not a recipe where my Kitchen Aid gets a work-out.

I then put a cloth over the bowl and forget about it till the next day.  Here is where temperature comes in.  I don't put in warm water -- not necessary at all.  However, this dough reacts very differently as the seasons change.  Now in the winter, in my minimally heated home, it bubbles and rises in about 24 hours. However in the summer, the heat pushes it to bubble much faster, and ideally, if I can, I put it into a cooler place so the fermenting stays slow.

The next day, I put flour on my kneading surface -- a couple cups at least. This might be more of my 9 grain, or some whole wheat or spelt or some such.  I arm one hand with a pastry scraper, and I then pour my dough (which has nicely doubled) out onto the surface, catching it as it tries to slide away. I work it gently, bringing the new flour into it.  I use one hand free, and the other keeps the pastry scraper, helping me lift it off the surface each time this super moist dough sticks.  I don't want to add too much flour, just enough to give the dough a bit more body.

Once it all comes together -- relatively light for its quantity. I prepare my baking dishes. I line them with parchment paper to make life simple, and put a nicely worked lump of dough, approximately a third the size of the dish, in each.  I sprinkle with flour and wait.  This winter, the second rising time has been at least 3 hours, if not more.  I want to let the dough rise and rise, till it is completely filling its baking dish.  FYI, I've rarely had problems with over-rising this dough, perhaps simply because it goes slowly, so whereas for traditional bread, a 30 minute delay can be a problem, for this one, it is not.  Then I heat my oven to 450F/225C.  When the oven is hot, I put my bread in (I use a convection oven), and not owning a spritzer, I take a small cup of water and I throw it on the bottom of the oven (no doubt not a great idea, but so far, I've not broken the oven, so I'll keep it up). The steam from the cup of water helps give a lovely top color to the bread, and I believe improves the oven rise.

I turn the oven down a bit, to 400/200 after about 15 minutes, and I bake for at least 30 minutes, if not a bit more.  I keep an eye on the color of the bread, wanting to bake till it is nicely browned.

If the kids are walking through the door at this moment, a loaf disappears before you can say boo.

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