Zen, or The Skill to Catch a Candida Milleri

So since i’ve been talking so much about native fermentation on this blog i’ve decided it’s time to put up, or shut up, in baby steps. Ever since reading James Macguire’s excellent piece on pain au levain (native yeasted bread is the simplest translation i guess, similar to sourdough) and trying some in France i’ve had the idea that i would go ahead and make some right here in San Jose. The process is long but not particularly arduous (i’m not working on a commercial scale here) and i’ve been steadily building a starter for 8 days now, which is quite active. My first starter, still inchoate, died after becoming possibly infected with some type of bacteria that made the starter hostile to yeast. Cleaning the bowl daily on the second starter seemed to do the trick there. Somewhere along the line i drew in Edward Behr, editor of Art of Eating, Remy Charest over at Winecase, and amazingly James MacGuire himself, who was more than happy to give me tips on how to get this all going. The recipe i’m working from is his, and if you want the recipe it’s in Art of Eating Number 83. i’ll be blogging this all day, as it’s about 20 hour process. Wish me luck (or not, yeast manufactures of the world).

Hour X: The taste

After cooling overnight i tasted the wine this morning. It’s an ugly loaf, but that has never mattered. The taste is there. There’s a soft, round sourness to it. Not sourdough but not baguette. The texture is a little soft, and the crust is soft, which i think is due to slightly under-cooking it. One thing that it has and i’ve never been able to figure out is the gradation of the air pockets. The ones at the bottom are very dense, leading to a doughy texture and the ones near the top are much larger. It’s happened to me before while baking and i can’t find a solution.

Now i have a starter and i can repeat this over and over and over again until i get it right.

I’m going to have the bread tonight with something simple. Perhaps a Baudry chinon.

Cheers to you if you got the references in the title.

Hour 23: Cooling

At the very last moment sliding the bread into the oven it slipped, folding into itself. i tried to reshape it on the hot stone but didn’t have enough time before i had to close the door to keep the heat in. It is now a bizarre misshapen deflated balloon thing. i quite like it. i will post pics tomorrow when i’m not as tired. It weighs just as it should.

Hour 21.5: The Bake

So after a full day the bread finally went into the oven. As far as i can tell (and since this is the first time, what i can tell is limited). the bread in the bathroom (where it has been fermenting) smells fantastic. Rising and baking bread are smells that seem to be embedded in our memory from the time we are born. It  is something unlike any other smell there. i’m going to go off on a poor Proust imitation here if i’m not careful and as no one wants that, i’ll stop and just sit here and smell.

(i also started a small kitchen fire, which is always exciting)

Hour 18: The Fold

The dough is now safely rising, with only a minimum intervention from me every hour to fold it over itself a few times. Here i can over work the dough, but the real work isn’t actually mine. It’s an uncontrolled process at this point. The appeal of yeast packets is pretty clear throughout this whole process. Open, add, maybe start the yeast a little bit if the packet is older. For large scale industrial operations (and home cooks like myself, interestingly enough) the idea of a wild yeast starter is strange, for different reasons. Of course for a home cook packaged yeasts offer a definite convenience (starters must be built, maintained etc. not a big deal, but look what else we’ve done with food in the name of saving time), and for large scale operations they offer control. What is lacking is of course, i could phrase it better but i don’t feel like it, is “soul.” That indefiniable something that comes from something built solely by one person. Of course the yeast and bacteria play a large part in this, but that’s certainly part of it. It’s going to be unique, even if perhaps not perfect. It also has the added bonus of being able to fail miserably. And who doesn’t like suceeded when failure is more likely?

My concession to technology, a space heater to regulate the fermentation temperature:

Hour 16: The Work

At this point the levain has risen all it’s going to rise and now it’s time to get started on the dough, which is where the people who know what they’re doing are separated from the experts (guess where i am). People always tend to repeat the phrase that “baking is science” as opposed to cooking, which is, i guess in their heads, “art” (preference whichever one you prefer). Of course while this is true, it is mostly bullshit at the highest level of baking, where something that relies on such exacting ingredients and temperatures and ratios can turn out so different for different people. For me baking has so much to with memory, and not just the memory that is easily conjured up, but the lower down memory that lives in the hands and the eyes, that lets us know that something is going on before we realize it is. It’s the repeated memory of the craftsman, of someone who knows how to work with their hands. i’m not saying i have it (because i don’t) but i’m trying.

Hour 14: The Sift

Whole wheat flour is sifted. i used a fine metal strainer instead of a proper sifter and it removed quite a bit of the bran, making the flour finer overall. i have no real idea what this is going to accomplish (i’ve never done this before so i’ll not wager a guess), but there is something to be said about listening to experts and not just deciding what works and what doesn’t based on pre-conceived notions.

Hour 8: The Build

i awoke this morning to find that the refresher build had worked, and i didn’t have to shamefully take this post down. Now i’m on to the true levain build, which is just more feeding and waiting.

i suppose the true inspiration for this current obsession with natural yeast bread (besides having been baking with cultured strains for years now) came in the form of a dual post by Jon Bonne and Wolfgang Weber last year on my blog, where they each made wild yeast pizza dough and we then proceeded to taste each one. the differences for two breads made the same way in the same city was striking, from flavor, texture, amount of air in the dough, everything:



Call it the “terroir” of SF neighborhoods, or whatever.

As in wine this difference caused by different yeast strains and bacteria has been long fought against in bread, with the end result being wonder-bread and 2-Buck Chuck. These two things came about their industrial mediocrity in wholly different ways, with bread being seen more and more as a flavorless plank for meat, and wine being seen more and more as a fetishized luxury object, no matter what the price. This is contrasted sharply with Europe where these two things, at least in the countries that produce them, are still seen as staples (although this is changing, moreso for wine, and this isn’t to say that the majority of the baguettes in France, so evocative of tourist memories, aren’t bland pablum). What we’ve ended up with is a culture that consumes a great deal of both wine and bread products that have no culture of either of these things as a whole. We’ve divorced ourselves from not only the production of both bread and wine, but from the real consumption of them as well.

Hour 0: The Start

Midnight has rolled around and i just finished getting the refresher build up and running. i’ve been obsessively checking the starter for the past 8 days to make sure the temperature is right. It’s been locked away with a small electronic space heater to regulate temperatures, and so far it has been a steady ramp in activity all week. Here’s hoping when the cats wake me at four i can peak in and not call this thing prematurely. Here is the refresher build getting ready to start the magic. The recipe says knead until smooth, but the dough is far too sticky. i’ll leave it be for now:

~ by Cory Cartwright on May 25, 2010.

4 Responses to “Zen, or The Skill to Catch a Candida Milleri”

  1. Waiting for further updates with bated (baited? BayTed?) breath. If it turns the color of Susucaru 2…run…very fast…

  2. Really enjoying this. Maybe when you finish we can trade bread for cherries?

  3. Of course we can. I have a feeling your cherries will be better than my bread for a long while, though.

  4. Proust, misshapen balloons, and a kitchen fire. What’s not to like?

    This is way more over-the-top than the time I made bagels. They were fantastic (better than any I’ve had outside of NYC). However, given the effort it took to make a measly dozen, it was a one-time effort.

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