Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve

Today is Christmas Eve, and I pulled ten loaves out of the oven this morning. It's a good time to knead bread and watch it grow; to think slow and wait. After eight weeks of micro-baking on a schedule, this week I just sent out an email and let friends order whatever they wanted. Out of five choices, three varieties made it to the table: French Country Levain, Whole Wheat Levain, and Cranberry Pecan Levain.

After tasting a loaf of the Cranberry Pecan, I decided it's my favorite loaf of the year. Hands down. It's also one of the prettiest loaves of the year, featuring a bird-scratch cut on top (don't mind the bird with four toes; that one's irregular). So here's to you, Cranberry Pecan Levain: Best Loaf of 2011 Award.

As my friend David said, it's lucky I made the best loaf now, or it would've had to wait for the 2012 awards. It's kind of like all these Oscar-class movies that hit theaters at the end of the year; know what I mean?

In other news, my wife was gracious enough to take some Christmas-themed still-life photos of the Cranberry Pecan bread (see below). Good work!

So, do I have any closing bread-thoughts for 2011? Here's something:

I think bread-baking, and spirituality, are both concerned with the work of discovery. But not so much the discovery of what one is, as of what one need not be. The simplest loaves are the most enlightening; the prayers with the fewest words are the most true. It's as much about what's left out as what's put in. In my mind, this raises the question, what is the world given in Jesus, and what is it not? What does Jesus mean, and what does he not? What are we for, and what are we not? I can't help but think these questions are more meant for asking than answering. Likewise, baking bread is not an answer for me; it's a question. What do I mean and what do you mean and what does all this mean? I just nod and knead my bread.

Happy Christmas, Happy 2011.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Week VIII: Micro-Bakery Dec. 10

Today marks the end of the second Micro-Bake cycle! That's eight straight weekends of baking and delivering bread. And now, time for a Micro-Bake-break until after the holidays (at least from bread subscriptions). In the mean time, I plan to continue baking (and blogging) with an eye toward experimentation. I'm hoping to have a go with the Desem recipe in The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book, and to try a few more breads from Chad Robertson's Tartine Bread.

This week I've been writing final papers for all my classes, so it's been stressful to say the least. But there was a moment last night, when I was shaping the last loaf of levain, that something broke inside me (in a good way). I saw the dough in my hands, in all its beauty and simplicity, and I felt an unbidden joy. It was as if waters had wept from the deep and wet my weariness through.

This morning, when Megan walked into the kitchen, the first thing she said was, "Dragon Bread." And lo and behold, she was right. A number of the loaves grew jagged ridges in the oven, their crusty sides textured with scales (see pictures below). I was born in the year of the dragon, my Feng Shui is 'Yellow Earth Dragon,' and I have a deep appreciation for dragons in general, so this was another occasion for wonder.

To the dragon belongs the element of fire, and wheat belongs to the element of earth (or so it seems to me). The Earth Dragon would, therefore, be the patron animal of bread-baking. I can't imagine how Zen I'd be if I were baking bread in a wood-fired earth oven. The future is bright.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Week VII: Micro-Bakery Dec. 3

Well folks, another Saturday, another bake. I dubbed this week's loaf the 'Via Media Levain,' because it's made with 50/50 bread flour and whole wheat flour, the middle way between white bread and whole wheat bread. Like last week's bake, I gave the bread some extra time to ferment (about 12 hours), so it got nice and sour. I'm still trying to discern which of my subscribers prefer the acidic flavor, and which don't. If everyone likes it I'll keep pushing the sour flavor. If not, it's just a matter of cutting down on the time, and voila, a more balanced flavor.

And speaking of balance, my friend Tom and I were riffing last night on the idea of seeking balance in our lives. We agreed that balance is a verb we work at, rather than a noun we attain. And I decided that bread has a similar resonance for me. Bread is something I do, a way of being I settle into, rather than a place I arrive. There is always more to learn, more to improve, more to explore. We need "bread" in our lives, labors of wisdom that cause us to realize we are made whole in the seeking, rather than the grasping.

Today was another beautiful day to cruise around town with warm bread in my bike basket. I got to chat with many blessed friends, and at the end, to layer miracle upon miracle, I got to eat Banana Caramel Cake in the park for Blanche's birthday (Happy Birthday Blanche, thou neighbor and friend!). In my mind, you can't really ask for a better day.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Week VI: Micro-Bakery Nov. 26

Today's bread turned out tres magnifique. Having a break for Thanksgiving made the baking process more leisurely, and today's weather made deliveries a great pleasure. I'm not sure it's a good thing we're having 60º weather in late November, but I'll take it when I'm biking bread around.

With warmer weather comes a warmer kitchen, and with a warmer kitchen comes more vigorous levain. Once the loaves hit the 500º oven, a number of them expanded to the point of bursting on top (see pictures below). It's a nice effect, though not necessarily something I planned for. Maybe next time I'll curb the vigor by making deeper cuts (scores) in the dough.

The flavor of the French Country Levain this week hit its peak – definitely my favorite loaf thus far. I gave the shaped dough some extra time in the fridge (12-14 hours, rather than the usual 8-10). The extra time, with the addition of warmer temperatures, allowed for a more thorough fermentation and a boost in subtle sour flavors. And to make it better, Megan and I's friends David and Eileen helped us knock out most of a loaf when we made grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch this afternoon. So good. So good.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Week V: Micro-Bakery Nov. 20

This weekend my Mom, Dad, and sister were in town. Yet the bake must go on, so our Saturday morning was spent around the 500ºF oven. Dad took some photos (see below), Mom and sister went to the Farmer's Market and got a heaping bag of vegetables. Dad got pretty excited about some sunlight shining through the kitchen window, so he set up a photo that looks (in my mind) like a loaf of bread has just beamed in from the heavenly realms. Wild.

This Saturday began the second four-week cycle of Levain Micro-Bakery. I added three subscribers (yay!), bringing the total to eleven, meaning twelve loaves baked per Saturday (one for the house). This was also my first week baking a large batch of Whole Wheat Levain (70% whole wheat, 30% bread flour), which turned out quite well. During the mix I was a little scatter-brained and added too much wheat flour to one of the batches, but no big deal, right? Four lucky subscribers got a bit more fiber than the others. Also, I decided to score (slice before baking) the Whole Wheat Levain with triangles, leaving other shapes for other bread varieties. We'll see how this pattern evolves in the future.

I learned this weekend that baking (especially 10+ loaves) is a very Zen experience. It requires great concentration and balance. You have to be centered. So family, I love you, but in the future I think I'll need to bake on my lonesome (though honestly, great to have y'all here!). I decided to deliver the bread in the car so that the Fam could tag along on my delivery route. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful time together.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Week IV: Micro-Bakery Nov. 12

Well, I just delivered the last loaf of the first four-week micro-bakery cycle (special Sunday delivery). That means 36 loaves baked, and 32 loaves delivered, over 4 weekends (I always eat a loaf myself, it's quality control, right?). What fun. And if it's possible, things are about to get wilder. I'm adding a few more subscription slots (already taken, it looks like), meaning I'll be up to 11 loafs per weekend, 44 loaves per month. Not bad for a teeny-tiny-micro-operation.

The bake this weekend was a little crazy due to a conference at Duke Divinity School titled 'After the Yellow Ribbon.' The conversation centered on 'healing the hidden wounds of war.' Tough stuff. It was a great weekend, though I skipped the Saturday morning sessions to bake 9 loaves of Rustic Light Rye Levain. No pictures, as the camera was at the conference (woops). Ah, well, the loaves were lovely, take my word for it. Megan and I cut into a loaf hot out of the oven (with butter and jam, to die for). Now I've got a busy week of reading and writing ahead, picking up a couple 50 lb. bags of flour, and getting ready for Micro-Bakery Cycle II. Peace.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Week III: Micro-Bake Nov. 5

An excerpt from this week's process.

I'm cloaked in darkness, headlamp lit, stooping over a low-running rosemary bush in my neighbor's yard. It's cold and windy. Leaves are tinkling off the trees like snowflakes. My kitchen sheers cut quick and harsh through the woody rosemary stems. The bush's resin coats my fingers. I keep cutting and cutting, whittling the plant down. I wonder to myself, am I giving or taking life? Am I pruning, or dismembering, this quiet little soul?

This week I made Rosemary Olive Oil Levain. Due to a busy afternoon, it was dark before I got around to picking fresh rosemary from the public bush across the street. In the final mix I approximated my own formula, using other recipes as references. Turns out, olive oil wasn't such a great idea. Any fat, at high temperatures (450-500ºF), does strange things to the crust. Water allows the crust to get sharp and crisp, while oil softens the crust from glass to cardboard. Or so my conjecture goes. Next time, I think I'll just add rosemary.

One of the most satisfying components of this week's bake was scoring the loaves (putting shallow cuts in the dough-tops before putting them in the oven). These marks keep the loaves from rising in the wrong direction. It's like pruning the rosemary bush, helping it grow in controlled, predictable ways. But scoring also has an aesthetic function. It takes bread beyond Goodness into the realm of the Beautiful.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Week II: Micro-Bake Oct. 29

I'm exploring the edges – pushing them and pulling them. This week my hands found great joy in shaping raw dough, stretching it taut and giving it form. There is something primordial to this.

During the bake today, I tried to push the crust further than usual. I wanted it darker and thicker. I cut into a loaf (pictured below) and loved the results. The crust was so thick it wanted to break my teeth. The moist and aromatic crumb (bread insides) provided a perfect textural counterbalance.

Each Friday I mix the bread before dinner. Rather than kneading outright, I give it turns at certain intervals to stretch the gluten and build structure. This method dwells in the land between kneaded and no-knead bread, providing the practical benefits of both. An hour after the final turn, I divide the dough and pre-shape, then give it a final shape thirty minutes later. Right now this is my favorite part of the process. It's like separating day from night, land from sea. Chaos takes form.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Week I: Micro-Bake Oct. 22

Here's some images of the French Country Levain I baked yesterday, nine loaves in all. For those who are curious, here's some info on the flours and ratios I'm using.

French Country Levain: 90% bread flour, 10% wheat. The bread flour (white) was grown in US, and milled over at Lindley Mills in NC. The wheat flour is Whole Foods Organic Whole Wheat (I'm looking for a more local alternative). The dough is hydrated at 75%, meaning it's super wet, which results in the moist interior of the final loaf (66% is an average hydration level, in comparison).

Saturday, October 22, 2011

In the beginning, a turn.

This is the beginning of a bread pilgrimage. Not a journey, not an adventure, but a pilgrimage. Both the way and the end are unknown. What is known is bread: its density, its slowness, its meekness. It is, and by it, I am, wending up, and down, and through, the slow and measured way of perfection.


Setting Out – a poem by Scott Cairns

In time, even the slowest pilgrim might
articulate a turn. Given time enough,
the slowest pilgrim – even he – might
register some small measure of belated
progress. The road was, more or less, less
compelling than the hut, but as the benefit
of time allowed the hut's distractions to attain
a vaguely musty scent, and all the novel
knickknacks to acquire a fine veneer of bone-
white dust, the road became then somewhat more
attractive; and as the weather made a timely
if quite brief concession, the pilgrim took this all
to be an open invitation to set out.