Saturday, September 7, 2013

Confessions of a Sourdough Slave: A Hopeful Beginning

A sourdough desem loaf (not mine!)
I've been educating myself, recently, about whole-wheat sourdough bread-making.  I thought that it would be a fairly straightforward thing, because people were making bread without commercial yeast for-- what?  Thousands of years, I expect, before that stuff in cakes and jars and little foil packets was invented.  So it can't be all THAT hard to do, surely.  Yeast and bacteria (which is what sourdough is, basically) are all around us... and IN us, too... heck, you can't avoid them, no matter how hard you try.  And bread is made of VERY simple stuff.

So I was surprised, I must admit, when the quest turned out to be somewhat difficult.  Oh, parts were easy... getting a starter culture going, watching it develop bubbles, and start to swell... it was kind of exciting, really. Carefully, I followed the instructions in Ed Espe Brown's classic, The Tassajara Bread Book. I fed the starter, nurtured it.  It looked pretty good to me (well... what did I know?)

So then I made his Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread.  The dough came together easily, silky and elastic. And kneading was a LOT more fun than I thought it would be... I actually found myself GIGGLING!  I found myself filled with a strange excitement, an anticipation... almost as if I was on the edge of something... something profound...

The dough didn't rise much.  It spread out quite a bit, though, especially when I baked it. When it came out of the oven, looking like a very promising door-stop, I felt somewhat deflated.  The thing was bread, technically... and one slice would pretty much hold you for the whole day, if your jaw survived the exercise. But my husband (who loves bread, and me, but not in that order) was very kind about it, and we gnawed it down.  After all, it was my first attempt!

Next I made Espe Brown's Whole Wheat Cinnamon Raisin Sourdough Rolls. The book said to let them rise for "fifteen hours or more".  After my last experience, I was prepared to believe that sourdough just really needed an incredibly long time to rise.  Another, more concerted, effort would undoubtedly produce better results.  More diligence! Try HARDER!!

I made the fermented raisins in raisin-water that the recipe called for.  It's a simple process; you put organic raisins in water and let it sit, covered, on your counter for three or four days, stirring once a day. The raisins puffed up, and the water got a little fizzy, which I was prepared for.  It all smelled very interesting... a sort of tangy, spicy, sweet-sour scent.  When the raisins were ready, I got some starter, and mixed up the dough.  I was feeling quite affectionate toward Mr. Ed Espe Brown.  He's really very charming and supportive; you can almost see him, a kind, jolly, relaxed, Zen-Buddhist friend standing at your elbow, cheering you on.

I put the raisin rolls on a pizza pan and set them on top of the fridge.  Ed Brown said to cover them with a damp towel.  So I did that, and went to bed.

In the morning, I got up, and wandered out to see how the rolls were getting on.  Horrors!!  The dishtowel (of course, what was I thinking?) had completely dried out, and combined itself, fiber by fiber, with the substance of the rolls.  They Were One.  Indivisible.

When I peeled off the dishtowel shroud, the poor, sad rolls were as flat as dead balloons.  I sprayed them with water.  I breathed on them.  I talked to them, and begged them to buck up.  They lay there.  So... I baked them.  What else was there to do?

They were a little like tough, thin English muffins... the kind with raisins, of course.  The outside was very dry, thick and hard; and of course, since they were flat, there was hardly any inside to speak of.  And yet... there was something about the tiny bit of inside that there was... a warm fragrance, a hint of succulent sweetness... I put honey and butter on them... and midway through my first one, I discovered I wanted a second.  And a third.  In fact, there was something about them that I just seemed to crave.  Could I be... was there such a thing as... sourdough-deficient?

I think it was the memory of that taste that kept me from giving up.  That, and the fact that I'm probably a tiny bit OCD.  Anyway, I didn't give up.  I redoubled my efforts.  And made a second doorstop.

I had also bought another, later cookbook from the Tassajara dynasty, Fields of Greens.  It had a short section on sourdough that contradicted Espe Brown's instructions in more ways than it agreed with them; it was complicated, detailed, and (to me) thoroughly confusing..  At first, I just gibbered and looked away... but eventually I decided that perhaps since it was a much later book, the information in it would be more reliable, in that it had withstood the test of time.  And Annie Somerville's recipes certainly had a precision about them, a thoroughness that Ed Espe Brown's (that ol' sweetie!) sometimes lacked.  I mean, she even sometimes measured things by weight, in GRAMS!

I've not had much experience with grams... not spelled THAT way, anyhow.  We had gotten a digital scale some time back, for the purpose of weighing our pet conure, and I always measured her in grams, because the vet said to keep her weight between 160 and 180... GRAMS.  That's ALL they meant to me.  180 grams... is a fat conure.

(I'm going to have to continue this another day.  My latest experiment has just come out of the oven, and so I can go to bed now, and it's past two o'clock in the morning so it's definitely past time.  Gotta work on that time thing...;)

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