Monday, June 01, 2009

Magic Show

Life's mysteries and miracles are often deceptively simple.

A sperm and an egg.
A seed and a bit of water.

I am fascinated by what you can create out of the most basic ingredients. Take the lowly soybean for example. The Japanese have been able to take that bean and turn it into completely new products, with the addition of only one or two other elements. Soy sauce and miso (which are completely different) only have soy and salt. Tofu and all of its variants all come from soy and nigari.

In the West, we have the Magic of Bread.

My Great Bread Making Challenge began last summer, during my Hooked on Fermentation days. I wanted to recreate those beautiful baguettes and rolls and batards from the streets of Paris. I wanted to delve into the mysteries of the levain batard. But last year was kindergarten compared to this year. I attempted a sourdough starter that never really started up and all of my breads were made with commercial baker's yeast. Then, I found Nancy Silverton's "Breads From the La Brea Bakery" book at a thrift shop.

This is serious magic. If you follow her instructions for a 14-day sourdough starter, you will be using a truckload of flour, most of which you throw out. I have never been able to throw out food ("Yeah. I know. I've eaten stuff that's gone bad more than once," grumbles Big Dog.) Nor can I ever follow instructions to a T. I read her instructions and then, with her instructions in mind, did what I wanted to.

While waiting on my starter, I tried my friend J's No-Knead Bread. It uses commercial yeast, but you mix up the yeast and water and flour, then let it rest overnight. I let mine sleep all night and then most of the next day, waking it up to bake as boules in the evening. They came out better than any bread I had ever made!

Was that it for my Challenge? No way! I wanted to see how my sourdough starter breads would turn out and I've been baking every other day since then. Maybe if I followed Ms. Silverton's instructions, I would have awesome bread without all of this experimenting, but that's just not me. (I would also make a terrible cookbook author because I never measure and never write anything down.) I just take some starter, add water, flour and salt. Sometimes I'd knead it, sometimes not. Sometimes the dough sits in the fridge overnight, other times not. Lately, I'm able to get pretty consistently good results no matter what I do. In fact, I think it's better than any bread you can buy in our area. (Even the DogFather, who stayed with us for a while, was disappointed in the farmer's market bread after days of eating mine!)

Tasting the end product is only part of the appeal for me. In fact, wanting decent bread to eat was merely the launching point. What's really gotten under my skin is the magic of it all. It's not the "Presto!" magic of magic tricks, but the Very Real Magic of nature and it holds me captive every time.

Maybe when I master this, I'll take on the Cheese Making Challenge. Let's see, I'll need a couple of goats and...

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand your method of making bread. Very profound. If you follow a recipe then the understanding remains with the author and you would remain a slave to ritual. Never knowing what makes it work or not work. With no scope to vary for interest, variety, or tailoring to your tastes.
Too many people at work, life and religion are slaves to ritual and cling to the supposed security of familiarity. No capacity to adapt.
If conditions change they are helpless.
So continue to experiment and risk the occasional brick, then mentally file away the best ones.

6:51 AM  
Blogger bad-dog said...

Thank you for the insightful comment! And encouragement! I was getting a bit discouraged recently with my less-than-desired results. But I also believe that people who never fail are those who never step outside the safety zone.

11:31 AM  
Anonymous "J" said...

So glad the No-Knead bread worked out for you!!! For the record, this recipe took six month of experimentation on my part, tweaking and tasting til I got it right. I hope to taste your creations someday!

11:14 AM  
Blogger bad-dog said...

J, I had no idea! You are amazing! It's taken weeks for me to make something really great with my sourdough starter, but Big Dog and I were both surprised with the last baguettes. They were the best yet. Unfortunately, got a real nasty (and big) burn on my arm for it.

12:06 PM  

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