Yesterday, in a small glass bowl half filled with warm water, I mixed in several handfuls of flour (1/2 whole wheat and 1/2 bread flour). My hands squeezed it into a thick batter. It’s the beginning of a bread starter using natural yeasts from the air, my hands, the bowl. Covered with a towel, it will sit in a cool, shaded place for 2 or 3 days until bubbles begin to form. This culture will then be fed for days with water and flour until “the starter ferments predictable — rising and falling after feedings.” Then you can use it to make a bread dough.
I am following directions in “Tartine Bread” by Chad Robertson. The Tartine approach is to use natural yeasts to produce the perfect basic country bread. Robertson traveled and worked in bakeries in France and the U.S. before settling down in the Tartine bakery in the mission district of San Francisco. The book includes a variety of recipes once the home baker has mastered the basic country bread.
My first experience with making bread was in the 1970s when Diane and I lived with John and Barbara Paglione on Old York Road in New Hope. Each of us had kitchen duties that involved shopping and cooking. Bread making became one of my responsibilities. Two bread books survive from that kitchen — Dolores Casella’s “A World of Bread,” and a paperback, “Beard on Bread.” Both are spotted and worn, although I don’t recall using any specific recipes. In fact at one point I had a feeling for the amount of flour and liquid necessary to make an acceptable dough. Some salt, maybe some sugar, honey or molasses. From there I might add, raisins, nuts, onions or other treats. I even published from my experience a generic recipe in a cookbook being developed by a local church organization. I sometimes made pizza and I probably followed recipes for some special breads.
My bread baking stopped for decades. In the 1990s I got “The Tassajara Bread Book” by Edward Espe Brown. I think there was a bit of cult appeal — Brown was a student of Zen and Tassajara was the name of a Zen retreat in CA. Brown’s small book was enlightenment to those of us who attempted to make bread in the 1960s and early 1970s. Our yeast breads were frequently heavy, and quite unrefined. The Tassajara Bread Bakery opened in San Francisco in 1976. I’m not sure if I purchased the book or it was a gift. It’s pristine and doesn’t look like it was used to bake bread. I am sure I had good intentions.
About 15 years ago, I began to bake bread again. I started with recipes from William-Sonoma’s “Bread.” I tried about a dozen recipes from the book. Amazing — every one worked. Baguettes, corn bread, whole wheat, beer batter, zucchini, banana-nut, onion focaccia, ciabatta. I’ve moved on to more sophisticated breads but still regularly make Buttermilk Biscuits, page 17.
I graduated to Peter Reinhart’s “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.” For several years this was my bread bible. Reinhart’s recipes usually start with a “polish” or “biga.” Most of his doughs rise a second or third time overnight in the refrigerator. His “Pain a l’Ancienne” for baguettes was the classic. I was usually disappointed that mine were too flat. The Ciabatta was quite good. His corn bread with corn kernels and bacon is rich but delicious. Over the years I’ve tried a lot of other breads from the “Apprentice” — Focaccia, French bread, Pane Siciliano, Challah. Reinhart has a web site devoted to pizza. I make a batch of his Pizza Napoletana dough, freeze small balls of it and make pizza when I want.
Reinhart reigned for several years. I don’t totally rely on him now but the “Apprentice” is still a standard. My next guide was “King Arthur’s Flour Baker’s Companion.” Since I order baking supplies from King Arthur I also get many emails with recipes and can search online. The most recent that I’ve used is No-Knead Crusty White Bread ” such a basic recipe- water, flour, salt and yeast. Mix, let rise, refrigerate (up to seven days). I’ve made it several times — excellent.
In August 2014, I took a class at the King Arthur Baking Education Center in Norwich, Vermont. We stayed in a delightful B and B, Grist Mill House, in South Woodstock. Our innkeeper, Peter, gave classes in BMW motorcycle repair for years. Students slept on the floor of the old Mill. His wife Carole said, let’s put the kids on the floor and rent rooms to the students. So was born their B and B. My class at KA was making Rye breads. For years I had tried unsuccessfully to bake a good Jewish, Deli Rye. We made two breads — a traditional Deli rye and a pumpernickel-rye dough which we could use for rolls or loaves. Both were delicious. I learned that pumpernickel is made from rye berries. In Germany, pumpernickel was cooked a long time and became very dark. In the U.S. some bakers add molasses or other coloring to give it a rich dark color and flavor. While I took my class Diane hung out in the cafe and store. We came home with several flours, a kitchen compost pail, thermometer and a small red bread box. I hope to get back this summer.
About 10 years ago, I read about Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter. The starter is said to have been handed down from his grandmother. Carl began to share the starter, no charge, just send a stamped self-addressed envelope. I did. I followed Carl’s directions from a brochure he provides. The starter continues today in my refrigerator. It should be fed (addition of flour and water) every few weeks, but I admit I get lax. I’ve used the starter for biscuits, bread and pretty regularly the past few months, pancakes. All recipes from Carl.
Never enough books, so I’ve bought several other related to baking bread. “The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook” isn’t really a bread book but a seasonal recipe book. It’s subtitle is “a year in the life of a restaurant.” There are some bread and dessert recipes from the bakery but all kinds from the restaurant. “The Village Baker: classic regional breads from Europe and America,” by Joe Ortiz tells the story of village bakeries and their recipes from France, Italy and Germany. So far I’ve tried a few.
Mike Kalanty was a science teacher at Holy Ghost Prep in the 1980s. He left teaching and studied pastry cooking in France, Brazil and Italy. For years he has been a teacher and Director of Education at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Mike came to Philadelphia about seven years ago for a book signing. Somehow we made contact and although I couldn’t make the signing, I did buy his book, “How to Bake Bread: the five families of bread.” It’s basically a book for students and professionals. Recipes use a shorthand for measurement that is not easy to learn. Mike’s premise is that there are only five different bread doughs. Learn them and other recipes are variations. Someday I will tackle his system. Mike , by the way, is friend of Peter Reinhart.
What collection of bread making books would be complete with a memoir or two. I have “Dough” by Mort Zachter. His Russian immigrant grandparents opened a bakery in NYC in 1926. Mort took over the family’s Ninth Street Bakery from two uncles in 1994. Mort sold the bakery after the memoir was published. And due to high rents (350 East Ninth Street), the bakery closed in 2013 after 87 years. For me “Dough” is a re-read.
I think I am ready for a new phase in bread making. I will work on the Tartine starter and try to make a perfect country loaf. I will begin to explore some recipes from the books, online or from breads I find in bakeries.
One ultimate bread experience happened around state college, PA. We stopped at a farmer’s market that was closing. A baker was loading several loaves in his car and he offered us one. We chose a raisin- fennel. We hadn’t eaten lunch. So in the car, we broke bread. And we were transported out. It was amazing. Our hostess at the B and B suggested it was from Gemelli Bakery in State College. On our way home we stopped and with effort found McAllister Alley and Gemelli Bakery. Monday; closed. Later looking online I discovered that the Semolina raisin and fennel was the signature bread of Amy’s Bread in the Chelsea Market in NYC. We had been there. I’ve made the raisin-fennel several times and before Christmas Jen and Rob brought us a loaf from Amy’s.
As much as I enjoy making bread. Tasting the work of other bakers is an important part of the bread experience. Making, exploring and tasting.