When it comes to baking, bread has never been my forte. It has always come out heavy, dense and hard as a rock. In part, I put the onus on yeast which never seems to want to reside happily within the confines of my kitchen. But honestly, I can't blame the yeast completely. My apartment as a whole seems to lack good thermal regulation--it's too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer.
And since yeast is very particular about the temperature in which it inclines itself to flourish, I don't always have much luck. However, it's spring now and the heat is off, the air conditioner has yet to be called to duty and it just so happens that the temperature in my kitchen has been consistent. It has consistently been at just the right temperature for my diva-like yeast to strut its stuff. Thus it's bread making season for me.
With the help of an even keel temperature in my kitchen and King Arthur, lately I've been making some pretty good breads. So I feel that my latest project should not go unmentioned. As all of you who have ever made a sourdough know, it requires a starter. And a sourdough starter is created by capturing wild yeast in your own home.
Basically, if you set out a bowl of flour and water mixed together, it will attract yeast. By nurturing it--feeding it more flour and water--you encourage the yeast to grow and thrive. It will double in size, it will effuse a fruity and tangy aroma and it will be bubbly.
It's important that you grow a good starter because when you go to actually make your bread, you don't add any additional pre-packaged yeast to the dough. You are relying solely on the wild yeast you have caught as the leavening agent. So you have to be good to your starter--feed it, keep it warm (but not too warm) and safe, love it, maybe even sing to it. It's basically your child or--if you prefer--your pet.
After a week, I felt like I had raised a good starter. It doubled in size after I fed it, it smelled fruity and tangy and it had some bubbling goin on. I've never been prouder. The rest of the process--as far as the actual making of the bread--was fairly straightforward. The one thing about this dough is that it's pretty sticky. But luckily you don't spend a lot of time kneading it. However, you do have to form it into tight boules and due to its sticky nature, it's a little difficult to handle. Yet with some lightly floured hands and some perseverance, it is manageable.
Another thing about this bread was that you need to provide some steam in the oven for the first five minutes into baking. Apparently this helps create a good crust. Since I don't have an oven that creates steam, I did what my King Arthur cookbook suggested. Before I preheated the oven, I placed an empty cast iron skillet in it on the rack directly below the rack that I used to bake the bread on. Once the oven was preheated--and right after I placed the unbaked dough in it--I poured about a half of a cup of already very hot water into the cast iron skillet and poof, there was my steam. It was almost magical.
Anyway....for my first sourdough I think it came out well. It was kind of spongy (which I think is the right texture) and had that tang that you'll find in most breads of that nature. The crust was crusty as it should be--I'm not sure what else to say about that. Although, I may have over-baked one of the boules a bit so part of its crust was a little darker than I would have liked but I wouldn't say it was burnt.
I have to admit that I have always been a little intimidated by bread baking. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that there's a lot of history behind it--I mean that it has been around a really long time. And in that time people have had time to perfect it and make it a true craft. And that is what gives me a little pause when I think about baking some bread--there's a lot to learn in both technique and the different mediums used to make it which seems overwhelming. Nevertheless, I think I'm off to a good start.
Recipe ever so slightly adapted from Whole Grain Baking by King Arthur Flour
1c (9oz) ripe whole wheat sourdough starter
1 2/3c (6 5/8oz) white whole wheat flour
2 2/3c (11 1/4oz) white unbleached bread flour
1 1/2c (12oz) water at room temp.
1 T honey
2 tsp kosher salt
Using the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mix the starter, flours and water together on the lowest possible speed until the flours are moistened. Then, let the dough rest for 20 minutes. After the 20 minutes are up, add the salt and honey to the bowl. Replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook and--on low speed--run the mixer for 2-3 minutes. Turn the mixer off, cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a tea towel and let the dough proof for 45 minutes. After the 45 minutes is up, flour your work surface well. Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto the work surface. Flour your hands and lightly pat the dough into a rectangle--maybe 12 inches long by 6 inches wide (there wasn't any specified dimensions in the cookbook so I think that's about the size I patted the dough out to). Next, using a bench scraper fold the rectangle of dough into thirds like a letter--at the short sides. Then, fold it again--like a letter--at the short sides. So now you have a rather bulbous rectangular prism of dough. Place it back in the bowl, cover the bowl and let the dough proof again for another 45 minutes. FYI, apparently this folding of the dough between proofs is a sort of substitution for punching down dough that has already proofed once. After this second 45 minutes of proofing is up, you're going to do the same thing you did after the first one. Remove the dough from the bowl and place it on a well floured surface, pat it into a rectangle and then fold it into thirds twice. Place the dough back into the bowl, cover the bowl and let it proof for another 45 minutes. At the end of the 45 minutes, place a baking stone or pizza stone in the middle rack of your oven. Then place an empty cast iron skillet on the rack below the one where the stone is sitting. Preheat the oven to 450 F. Next, take two bowls that are close in size and line them each with a tea towel--or some sort of linen towel--and then sprinkle some flour over the towels. No, pull the dough out of the bowl and place it on a well-floured surface. Divide the dough in half, flour your hands and shape each half into a boule. Place each boule into a prepared bowl, cover them and let them proof for 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile--your oven is preheating and your dough is in its final proof--heat at least a half of cup of water on the stove and bring it almost to a boil. Then, line a rimless baking sheet with parchment paper--or turn a rimmed baking sheet over so the bottom is the top and line it with parchment paper. When the oven is preheated and the boules are done proofing, turn the bowls (I know it's confusing--the whole boule/bowl thing--I'm sorry!) upside down onto the parchment paper so that the boules fall out of the bowls and are sitting atop the parchment paper. Remove the tea towels and dust away any excess flour sitting on the dough. Open the oven door and quickly transfer/slide the parchment paper with the boules from the baking sheet to the hot baking stone. Right after they are safely on the stone, take the hot water and carefully pour it in the hot cast iron skillet (it will sizzle and steam up). Quickly close the door and let the dough bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, reduce the temperature of the oven to 425 F and let the bread bake for another 20-30 minutes--or until the internal temperature of the bread reads 210 F. Remove the bread from the oven and let cool before slicing into.