Saturday, March 2, 2013

Back to Baking

Yesterday was my first real Back to Baking Day since mid-December. Two and a half months without living dough in my hands. Too long...
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!

19 comments:

  1. You might be surprised that in this post my attention got completely focused on.... the yellow house with the Van Gogh blue shutters!

    Van Gogh is by far my favorite painter, I never get tired of staring at his work in museums, and once traveled the whole night (all by myself) from Paris to Amsterdam just to visit the Van Gogh museum.

    Great that your friend is coming to visit... I know you will enjoy baking together

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    1. I love Van Gogh too and I know you would love my friend's house if you saw it. Very small, almost as in a fairy tale but the yellow and the blue and the minuscule walled garden... Magical! I won't be baking with her though. She is very talented and artistic but handling dough is definitely not her calling!

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  2. So very glad to see you baking, MC! The loaves of bread look delicious! I look forward to trying my first loaf once you post a beginner recipe!
    Many hugs,
    Erin Gill

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  3. It completely warms my heart to know that you are baking again MC:) I absolutely cannot wait to try the beginner loaf also! My son and I did bake challah bread together for the first time and it turned out beautifully!! we had purchased challah bread from a bakery in Pittsburgh,Pa this past summer and truly fell head over heals for this bread and unfortunately ,the company only delivers to our state(Ohio ) in the summer,but it was such a wonderful time baking with him ,it truly is a blessing they dont deliver in the winter.I did a little research on the history of challah bread and found out that when you bake challah ,you take a small piece of dough and make a blessing(Jewish custom)and wrap it in foil then burn in the oven while the loaves are baking! I had Noah in my heart the whole day(another reason the loaves turned out so beautifully)and the blessing was for you family!!!Lori S.

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  4. MC I'm glad that you are baking again. I do believe Noah is always with you.

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  5. YUMMMMM!!!! I LOVE warm fresh bread. I confess that one of my favourite breads comes from Canyon Creek steakhouse (can you imagine?). They have this delicious warm multigrain with honey butter that melts into all the nooks and crannies. In our neighbourhood in Toronto we have a fabulous European market called the Cheese Boutique. Such delicious cheese and meats from around the world. What I love the most is their flat iron baguette. It has a heavier wet consistency like sourdough and is the best baguette I've ever had even in, gulp, France. Sorry MC. ;-)

    I would love to bake bread but I ruin the yeast every time I try. I think my water is too hot. So I stick to the easy scones and things that don't require yeast. Perhaps I will channel my inner MC one day and try some bread making.

    I'm so glad to hear you are baking again. I suspect it to be the elixir your soul needs. Bake, bake, bake,....

    Kindly,

    Lisa Harper

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  6. Wow! Everything looks so beautiful and tasty! Especially that chocolate bread :) I have never baked bread before, but I am eager to give it a try once you post on your "learning loaf." I hope your first baking day gave you some peace and brought back beautiful memories of baking with your Noah.

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  7. Another beautiful bake, MC. It always feels so good when bread turns out so well :)
    I know for me, baking takes me in and out of myself, concentrating, relaxing, joy, frustration. So good for the soul.
    You are such an inspiration to so many of us.
    I too can't wait for more.
    ml

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  8. MC, I am glad that you have returned to your baking -- the breads look delicious. I believe that Noah is with you, as well. Thank you for continuing to keep in touch with us, I really look forward to your posts. You are a very talented person.

    Eileen

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  9. Hi MC,
    I can't believe you have already been home for a month already. Time flies.

    Your loaves are beautiful and I can't help but wonder at the fact that people from all over the world, who don't bake bread, found Farine and now are expressing a desire to learn how to bake bread all because of a young boy they never met. Can't help but think that Noah's spirit lives on in all the loaves begin made by people who are carrying him around in their hearts all because of you and how you introduced him to us by your opening up your heart and sharing so honestly about his life these past few months. It seems as though he has given you a task to do in teaching lots of people how to bake good bread.

    I do hope that getting back to baking helps you through these tough, tough times. Grief has a way of unwinding in a fashion all of its own different for each person. Having some sort of anchor is many times the only thing that grounds one here on Earth.

    I look forward to your learning loaf 'series'. What a treat these people are in for when they learn how easy it is to make really good bread!

    JH

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  10. Your enthusiasm for bread making is "contagious ". I am so glad you are back to it. Take your time, be patient.

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  11. I am so happy your baking again MC!!! I can just imagine little Noah sitting there asking questions and watching you bake!!! My heart smiles on that memory!! Maybe I will take up baking, so some how we can all feel closer to sweet Noah. God bless u MC!!! Much love to u and Ur family!!!

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  12. I began sitting my little ones on the kitchen counter to "contain" them a little while I began dinner :). Now they look forward to it and we sing as I start to cook (with very little countertop space left), the bang their feet too. Next time we are singing "God is so Good" or "He's still workin' on me" as they kick their feet, I will think of you..... It will be one more time I can say a prayer for your peace, healing and continued memories...... Love, Sherri Tan.

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  13. Dear MC,
    Those loaves look amazing. So happy to hear you are baking again & it must feel good; familiarity, sustenance, a rhythm.

    Seeing signs of Noah with a new little finch-type bird that has moved into our bougainvillea. It spends almost all morning playfully perched on the trampoline net & the windows. Boys pointing it out to their baby sister saying Noah's sent a bird to talk to her. They are reminded of him when they see the Noah bead I have.

    Hugs to you.
    Julia

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  14. MC,
    Your friend is going to love all of the gorgeous breads you’ve baked for her. I hope it was very comforting baking again, feeling Noah's presence.
    You are so kind, offering your learning loaf, to help people with their bread baking. The happiness they are sure to experience – tasting their own homemade bread, all the more delicious, being made with one of your formulas :^)
    I’m glad you enjoyed the BBGA class as much as I did. I was grateful to spend that time with you and the others attending.
    - breadsong

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  15. MC:
    I am glad that you are back baking again. Little by little...
    Question for you about the shaping process. I found your blog after the December tragic events, but have been following bread-baking blogs for a few years and have been doing my own pizza dough, challah, and other breads for about 3 years. One thing I have difficulty doing is shaping the bread, making the cuts on top and making the bread look edible, and tightening up the dough so it is not "wrinkly" and bad looking.

    Any advice on that? I bought one of those cutters from King Arthurs Flour and my first few uses were not good. The only bread that I can do somewhat well is challah, but if I were to try to do a curved bread like you have above, the dough would just laugh at me. Thanks in advance

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  16. Dear MC,
    I'm glad to hear that you have started to bake again. It must be hard, as you said, your thoughts wander. I just finished making tacos with my 8 yr old and as he said "it's tacos for Noah night." I am looking forward to the learning loaf as I would like to learn how to make bread. In the meantime, it's nice to hear how you are doing, and I hope the rest of your family is well. Enjoy your visit with your friend! Liz

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  17. I am always crying reading your posts. I am reading for a while. You are an excellent writer. I have three year old twins, in my 40s almost like your daughter Veronique, maybe that is why Noah is most closest to my heart. And he looks a little bit like my son, and something is aching inside of me every time I see his beautiful face. Thanks for this blog, please keep doing it...

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  18. I like the name "the learning loaf," perhaps another name to consider would be a friendship loaf. Your taking the time to write it all down for your new blog friends is so very kind.

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