Saturday, March 2, 2013
Back to Baking
But I had a hard time getting in the mood: it took four weeks from the day we came home for me to feel the urge. Of course we had a bread-packed freezer to begin with; local baking friends kept us supplied with marvelous homemade loaves; our Pacific Northwest Trader Joe's carries bread that is quite good (you wouldn't think it likely when you wander the aisles of most Trader Joe's stores I know in the Northeast, where bread is of the barely acceptable variety but yes, grocery chains do adapt to their markets and apparently here in the urban Northwest people are serious about their bread); and finally I still find it difficult to focus. No matter how hard I try, my mind wanders. Combined, all these reasons were good enough for me not to dive into the flour bin right away.
What helped me get my baking groove back is probably the BBGA flatbread class I attended last weekend with a Canadian friend. It was taught by Leslie Mackie of Macrina Bakery in Seattle. I'll write more about it in another post (as soon as I have made one of the flatbreads at home). For now I'll just say that it was excellent and a lot of fun to boot and that I simply love being around bakers. They are among my favorite people!
So the class helped. Plus the fact that I am trying to develop a simple learning loaf in response to the many requests I got from readers who happened on Farine because of Noah, had never visited a bread blog before, are now tempted to give bread-baking a shot and wonder where and how to start. I have been mulling the idea for a while and I decided yesterday was as good an opportunity as any to experiment with a basic -yet tasty- recipe (I'll post about that first learning loaf some time next week).
Finally we have a friend from France coming to stay with us for a while. She lives outside Paris in a dreamy yellow house with Van Gogh-blue shutters and when I go stay with her, we only have to walk three minutes to get our daily baguette from the little bakery around the corner. Since we can't do that here, I must have bread for her. A three-second walk to the freezer in the garage might be slightly less romantic but hey, to her it might be just as amazing. Her French freezer is so tiny it could fit in my American bread box!
So yesterday I baked three different kinds of bread: the two loaves in the foreground are chocolate and currant levain (my French friend will forgive me for revealing here that she is a huge chocolate fan); the big boule in the middle is the learning loaf (I don't know yet how else to call it); the curlicue on top was made with leftover dough from the learning loaf; and the four short batards (or rustic baguettes) on the sides are levain-based and partly wholegrain (wheat, spelt and rye).
For those of you who are new to baking and might be puzzled by the French word levain, let me say that it is usually translated by "sourdough". I don't like to use that word though because it puts too much emphasis on sourness. A levain (also called "starter", a word I like much better than "sourdough") is always characterized by some level of acidity (and, from what I understand, acidity is actually good because it helps make available to our body some of the nutrients otherwise locked in the grain) but the baker can control that acidity by playing with variables such as time and temperature and my personal preference goes to less sour. The learning loaf seen above is not made with levain (which wouldn't be readily available to most Farine readers) but with a pre-ferment calling for yeast commonly found in grocery stores across America (more on the subject next week).
Noah loved bread (all our grandchildren do) and he was very interested in the hand-mixing process. He listened attentively when I spoke of the interaction of flour, water, salt and starter (he especially loved the idea that invisible micro-organisms are present in the flour and ready to spring to life and make dough rise). I remember hoping that one day he and his sisters might be motivated enough to want to learn how to bake for themselves.
So I thought of him a lot yesterday. Of course nothing can replace a little boy sitting on the kitchen counter, banging his feet against the cabinet and devouring slice after slice of freshly baked bread but still it brought me some degree of comfort to know that at least in spirit and in my heart he was definitely present. And maybe, just maybe, he is the one who inspired me to taste the baguette dough before setting it to rise. Good thing I did: I had forgotten the salt!