Monday, May 08, 2006

Confessions of a Foodie Extremist: Bread Starter from Scratch

I've alluded a few times in this blog to the sourdough bread culture that lives in my fridge. I've given some up for adoption to friends who now make pizza with it. It's become dry bread which in turn gets turned into Greek tatamasalata. Now I'll tell you the whole bewildering truth.
Many years ago, I subscribed to a cookbook of the month club. One of the tomes I got in the mail was Nancy Silverton's "Breads from the La Brea Bakery". Having judged this book only by its cover, I thought it would give me new techniques on making bread with powdered yeast. Normal. Instead, this book is all about becoming a slave to your kitchen. I read the first recipe, a 14-day explanation of how to turn flour, water and organic grapes into a San Francisco sourdough bread starter that can live as long as you will if you take care of it right. I thought, this lady's a nut! Martha Stewart in her wildest dreams could never aspire to these heights of foodie extremist kitchen drudgery. After all, once you finished with the 14-day gloop-making process, then you had to sign on for feeding this beast 3 times a day every day forever. No kidding. Imagine getting a bread culture-sitter for this when you go on vacation. Needless to say, I chucked the book on the highest shelf and left it there for a few years before I went off the deep end.

Graduate school puts you in a strange position. You develop all sorts of high-level taste but you earn near starvation wages. You can't afford anything your newly acquired sophistication demands. Spending $4.00 on a loaf of bread was not only unaffordable to me, it was insulting. This is flour and water, after all. In Paris, every baguette costs 80 centimes because bread is basic, not some floofy luxury good. Yet, I was unable to make really great loaves with powdered yeast no matter what I tried so finally, while writing my doctoral dissertation, I pulled out "Breads from the La Brea Bakery". You see, when you're trying to achieve such a seemingly monumental task, you feel the need for short term accomplishments to cut the sense of anxiety and loathing your disseetation project inspires.

Here's what I did:

Day 1: I mixed 4 cups of 78F water with 4 cups of regular white flour in a 1 gallon glass bowl until everything was pretty smooth. Then I took 1 lb of unwashed organic white grapes (the book suggests red or black, but I ignored it), closed them up in a length of cheesecloth, tied it then squooshed the grapes so that the juice ran into the bowl of flour and water. Then I immersed the cheesecloth and grapes into the paste. Now I had flour, water, natural sugar from the grape juice and the natural yeast from the grape skins, which would feast on the sugar and flour over the next 2 weeks. I covered the bowl with a dinner plate (the book warned that a tight cover might pop off with the different gasses the yeast would produce.

Days 2&3: I just watched for changes in the mixture. On day 2 there were some bubbles in the paste, but the cheesecloth bag never inflated as Silverton said it might. I smelled the bag and it smelled like grape juice (Silverton predicts that or a yeast smell). So far, so good and a fun distraction to my dilemma of whether to add an analysis of Gramsci's Notebooks to my treatise on Nuyorican poetry. Answer: Nah!

Day 4: Silverton predicts the mixture will "seethe with large bubbles" and will smell distinctly like alcohol. Mine indeed smelled like wine. "And will taste sharp and acidic". I didn't go there. This means that bacteria was growing and I needed to feed the yeast to get it to dominate instead. As per instructions, I fed the mixture with 1 cup 78F water and 1 cup flour, lifted up the grape bag, mixed everything pretty well and swooshed the bag around again. Replaced the plate on top and read a bunch of Nestor Garcia Canclini until the next day.

Days 5-9: These are watching days. I checked each day to see how things were changing. The book describes possible developments of a separation of the mixture and the formation of "a yellowish liquid top layer". This happened and was not supposed to be a problem. She said mold might appear. It did and I removed it as instructed, then fed the mixture with 1 cup flour and 1 cup water. The mold was a sign that the bacteria was winning the war. Things went well after that and my culture began to smell like yeast as Silverton said it would. I had time to listen to, transcribe and analyze the lyrics of numerous Ruben Blades releases in the meantime. That was probably the most fun I had doing my dissertation.

Day 10-15: This is the start of what Nancy Silverton calls "the permanent feeding schedule". How ominous. Get how she instills a sense of urgency to this: "After this 5 days-and for the rest of your baking life-you will continue the feeding schedule...It's critical that you watch over your started as a parent watches over a newborn. Don't miss a feeding!" Like watching a newborn?! Have you ever heard Martha talk like that? I followed her instructions to the letter just so that the bread culture would be healthy but I hated every minute of it. Dumping good bread starter down the drain just because none of my friends were as crazy as I and refused the offer of free bread starter. The morning of day 10, I took out the bag of grapes and dumped it in the garbage. It had filled the flour, water, grape juice mixture with the necessary yeast to turn it into a living culture. Then, as instructed, I poured most of the culture down the drain leaving about 2 cups in the bowl. To that, I added 1 cup 78F water and 1 cup flour, mixed and wrote my dissertation for 4-6 hours until it was time to repeat. Another cup of 78F water and another cup of flour more, mixed, cover back on and went and worried about my dissertation some more. Next day the same routine. Dump almost everything down the sink and feed, feed, feed.

But, on day 15, I made bread. And it was GOOD!

***Note. Nancy Silverton's bread culture extremism is due mainly to the fact she's a professional baker who adapted her bread culture idea from Los Angeles artisinal bakery to home kitchen. She has the time to feed her culture 3x a day because that's part of her job. After the 14-day bread starter creation period I started rebelling a lot and the results are still excellent. For example my culture gets fed about 3x per week and in order to survive, it lives in my fridge where it multiplies and feeds very slowly. I make bread once a week, so that works just fine. Well, except for vacations. Anybody want to baby-sit my bread culture this August?


Blogger Expat Traveler said...

Susan - you are so funny! I've made some amish bread which was passed down which was the best darn loaf of bread I ever made. Never found the receipe again! But you do this weekly? Wow - I know how it is but still. I'd falter somewhere down the line I'm sure and not bother and instead spend the money or just go without!

I think I'll just wait until you have a pic and lick my lips and wish I would take the time for all of that. :) Through your eyes of course...

5:09 PM  
Blogger Tracie B. said...

i used to watch julia (RIP:) and master chefs on pbs and nancy silverton was a guest one day. she made fabulous sticky buns. i started to see her bread around town, but refused to spend so much for a baguette thinking, "how much better could it be." i caved and it was SO MUCH BETTER than the central market baguettes that i became a convert.

when you talk about the starter, i can't help but remember a quote from kitchen confidential--"feed the bitch!" i guess i can understand the urgency :)

what bread do you make weekly? i want the recipe!

5:32 PM  
Blogger Diva said...

I also made the starter and boy.. is it worth it!!!
but is like having a pet.. must feed it!

7:57 PM  
Anonymous rowena said...

Hahaha! Well brava to you for taking Silverton's book down from the shelf. I know exactly what you went through because I had done the same starter about a couple years ago. Fantastic bread! But man did I hate having to feed the darn thing! Everyday, all the time? So I let it starve to death...

I've a baker friend here in the islands that also works as a fireman. He actually brought his starter to work with him to be sure that it was always fed properly. Guys use to joke that he treated that starter much better than his girlfriends...ouch!

5:23 AM  
Blogger Susan in Italy said...

Expat, Thanks! If you ever want any of this schlop, let me know and I'll mail it to you:)

Tracie, Anthony Bourdain is so, um, earthy. I'll post the bread recipe for you today or tomorrow.

Diva, Do you really feed it 3x a day?

Rowena, I can understand. Ideally there would be other people near you (I converted some friends and now also the woman's mom) so that if one of you does feel like taking a vacation from the bread, you can let it starve and pick up some more from somebody else. If you want some, let me know.

11:17 PM  
Blogger Lotus Reads said...

Fascinating stuff, Susan! My hat is off to you! My cousin makes his own bread (nowhere near as elaborate as yours) but the very fact that he doesn't "buy" like the rest of us, has made him a hero in our eyes! :)

2:01 AM  
Anonymous Heather said...

Thanks for the DEAD-on description of the La Brea Bakery cookbook experience!! I live in LA, bought the book with the same thought, putting it on a high shelf once I realized *every single recipe* required starter, brought it out again a year later randomly, and am now on DAY 13 and am loving the scientific experiment, but just tonight broke down and went to Google with the question - how anyone can justify wasting SO much flour!!!! Literally I was just telling my friends today that I cannot keep this up, and your website has given me new hope!! I look forward to checking out your other writings (hopefully somewhere in there I can learn your "how much on a weekly basis" secret), and thank you so much for the great website!

8:12 AM  
Blogger Susan in Italy said...

Wow Heather, thank you! I just saw your comment, don't know when you wrote it but I hope the starter is alive and well. I'd love to know from you how your starter does in really warm weather. I've been baking sub-par loaves for the last 2 weeks and I'd like to blame the heat (not myself!)

1:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have made this starter two times successfully without getting mold. I do get lots of brown "water" or liquid at the top which I discard. However, dumping the starter is not necessarily wasteful. If you own a home or have access to a patch of dirt, simply dig a hole and pour in the excess starter. You are feeding the soil organisms and improving the soil. During warm weather the starter melts in the soil quickly. I cringe at the thought of pouring the thick sludge down a drain. However, I, like others, rebel at the incessant feeding of the monster. I do leave it n imy frig for months at a time without feeding. Please, someone come up with an easier way! The great bakers of France and Italy couldn't have done this.

4:05 PM  
Blogger Susan in Italy said...

Hi Anonymous, What a great idea! I neve thought of feeding a lawnwith the starter.

8:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dad is making one of these, your funny but it looks hideous I mean I don't how anything good could come out of a tan gooey glob. But apparently it will be good...
but I doubt he'll want to feed the thing 3 times a day.

5:33 PM  

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