By the end of 2017, having lived in California for 18 years, one of the things that I most enjoyed about return visits to the East Coast was the bread. To be clear, great bread is not difficult to find on either coast, or in between. But for my taste, the average East Coast bread is more consistently warm, crusty, toothy, delicious, and just more thoughtfully prepared and served. There is lots of speculation about the reasons for this. Is it all in the water? Is it a closer connection to old world European traditions? Is it the flour or the yeast? I sought answers from The Internets, most notably r/Breadit [reddit.com].
Like all internet subcultures, some themes and lingo appeared time and again. Discussions of sourdough cultures were pervasive, as were references to “Tartine” and “FWSY”, which I later decoded as Chad Robertson’s 2010 Tartine Bread [amazon.com], and Ken Forkish’s 2012 Flour Water Salt Yeast [amazon.com]. Creating a sourdough culture seemed like a good start, so I found a few online guides, mixed up some flour and water, and experienced several failed and/or moldy starts. Eventually, I discovered @maurizio’s [instagram.com] website, theperfectloaf.com. His excellent instructions set me on the path to creating a successful starter, which reached viability just as we were about to drive to Portland for the holiday break.
So along with our luggage, I packed my neonatal starter, which I fed in the hotel bathroom during our first night away from home. Next stop, Powell’s City of Books, where I bought the copy of Tartine Bread that would be become well worn and dusted with flour in the coming year. We stayed in a VRBO apartment for a week, so on the day after Christmas, I formed my first two loaves, which proofed while we journeyed to Pok Pok for legendary Thai fare. When I attempted to turn the loaves out of their baskets, they stuck to the liner towels (note: dust with more flour next time), and were a sticky mess. Considering them a loss, I baked them anyway to see what would happen… To our amazement, they were shockingly good! First lesson: good bread is more fault tolerant than I expected.
Robertson’s Basic Country Loaf is the cornerstone of Tartine Bread, and the variant that I practiced probably over 20 times during the year. Usually, I baked two loaves: one to eat during the week (they stay fresh for a surprisingly long time), and one to give away. My version uses 200g spelt in place of 100g whole wheat. Here’s the formula:
- Starter: 50/50 AP/rye flour, 100% hydration. Replenished daily with about 20g of yesterday’s starter, 25-40g of water, and equal amount of 50/50 flour.
- Levain: 100g 80F water, 20g starter, 50g AP flour, 50g spelt. Ready in about 3 hours.
- Dough: 700g 80F water, 200g levain, 800g King Arthur bread flour, 200g Bob’s Red Mill spelt flour.
- Process: After 25 minute autolyse, add 20g salt and another 100g water. Bulk fermentation in the oven, heat off and light bulb on, door open a bit, maintaining an 80-90F environment. Four turns, one every thirty minutes, then one more after an hour. Split and form after another hour. 25 minute bench rest. Fold to develop tension and form final loaves. Then into baskets dusted with rice/AP flour blend, and into the fridge for cold bulk fermentation overnight.
- Bake: Place cast iron combo pans [amazon.com] in the oven, set to 500F and preheat for at least an hour. A pizza stone [amazon.com], covered in foil on the floor of the oven, acts as a heat sink. The built-in oven thermometer claims to be at 500F in less than a half hour, which is a lie. An Omega industrial thermocouple [omega.com] speaks the truth. When ready, remove the cast iron skillet from the oven, place the first loaf, score, return to the oven and cover with the lid. Drop the oven setting to 450F and wait 20 minutes. Remove the lid, avoid blast of steam, and bake another 22 minutes. Remove the loaf to a rack, and listen to crust crackling while resisting temptation to eat immediately. Return the cast iron to the oven, raise the oven temperature back to 500F, and wait at least 30 minutes before repeating for second loaf.
I compressed the two day process into this two minute video:
Everyone asks if my starter has a name. Well, as she was born in the City of Roses, and in the spirit of “We Can Do It” [si.edu], she is Rosie. Every day, all but about 20 grams gets moved from her countertop Weck 743 3/4 Mold Jar [amazon.com] to a matching jar in the fridge. Then, I feed her 20-40 grams of a 50/50 blend of rye flour and all-purpose white flour, and an equal amount of water. I actually add the water first, mix to combine, then mix in the flour. After about a week, sufficient spent fuel has accumulated in the fridge to make pancakes [theperfectloaf.com], waffles [theperfectloaf.com], crepes [culturesforhealth.com], or sometimes cinnamon rolls [theperfectloaf.com].
Just about every weekend, I baked something, usually from Tartine Bread. By year’s end, a total of 42 episodes of bread production had been completed. It became a lifestyle.
I also made the Tartine baguettes a few times, yielding elongated loaves of variable aesthetic quality, plus some dinner rolls (converted by scissors from the most #fail of the baguettes), and sometimes also pan fried English muffins. Many times, I rewatched Dan McTiernan’s YouTube instructions for shaping a baguette, and eventually achieved reasonable results. I also made the brioche a few times, best deployed as Glorious Hamburger Buns.
I’m now reading Flour Salt Water Yeast (2012), which was published after the first Tartine book, and is probably a better starting point aspiring artisan bakers. Forkish gives more details on the process, and his recipes start simple and work their way up to more complex. Next on my list is Tartine Book No. 3 [amazon.com] (2013), with more advanced whole grain breads. Whatever 2019 has in store for us, it is certain not to be gluten-free. #🍞