Back to the Basics

Over the past few months I have been engaging in an ever present conversation with a friend over the Romantic versus the Classical. The comparisons were originally sparked by an inquiry into values by Robert Pirsig entitled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. The narrator walks us through these two modes of thinking early on in the book by comparing his own way of viewing the world with the perspective of his good friend. Our nameless narrator thinks of things in systems. He understands the technology in front of him and can organize its working in a hierarchical and pragmatic manner. He fully embraces each component and their relationships to each other in order to be able to interact with the system in a productive and logical manner. He is the Classic.

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His good friend, on the other hand, cannot wrap his mind around this mode of thinking. System and underlying form are hinderances to the organic process of experience. This character prefers to go with the flow and follow his artistic whims. Understanding the technology he does in fact rely on is a task reserved for someone else, for a professional. He does not want to engage in these matters because they disturb his flow and his artistic creativity. He feels he is a prisoner to these systems when they break down and he yearns to be free from “the man” and to be able to “get away from it all”. This man is, of course, the Romantic.

In my relatively short time on this Earth I have dabbled in many skills. With each one of them I learned some basic, classical techniques that one must learn to begin and then rapidly moved into the romantic realm of creative expression. Each new experience brought either a happy accident or a miserable failure thanks to either sheer luck or a blatant fundamental misunderstanding. The former did not allow much space for growth but the latter shed light on the technical skills that still needed honing (ones that I had cast aside in the name of romantic expression). Over time I’ve thought of bringing some of my favorite skills back to the basics as a way of revisiting and relearning (or just learning) some of the classical rules and techniques. The method would be to practice by the book to strengthen my understanding of the rules. Then, once feeling a greater sense of classical mastery, to nurse my creative, romantic spirit to start to bend and maybe break those rules smartly and find the edge of their potential. And, naturally, my own potential.

This practice of mind has started to take shape in my bread baking. After five years of baking bread by bits of information from books, a short but awesome mentorship, and (mostly) by the seat of my pants, I decided that I’d like to start baking by the book. Or by many of them. I could not tell you when the last time I cooked from a cookbook was and I think I’ve only made a bread recipe from a book once or twice. I used the books for reference many the times to create my own recipes and then tweak them as I baked but baking from the book with someone else’s recipe and techniques (nearly) to the letter is rather foreign to me. The book I’m starting with is Tartine No. 3 by Chad Robertson.

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After reading through the introduction and the opening techniques of mixing, folding, shaping, and baking I made preparations to bake the White-Wheat Blend (Ode to Bourdon). It is the first recipe in the book and represents the most simple and beautiful of a loaf of rustic bread. The formula is as follows:

50% high extraction flour

25% whole grain wheat flour

25% white whole wheat flour

7% wheat germ

85% water

15% leaven

2.5% salt

I revived my dormant leaven over the course of two days by feeding it at 95% hydration for the first 24 hour fermentation period and then at 100% hydration for the next 12 hour fermentation period. In regards to my flour choice for the leaven, I diverged from Robertson’s instructions to use a mix of 50% white flour and 50% whole wheat flour. A few years ago I became convinced by the fermentation vigor and long keep quality of rye flour and felt no need to exclude it from this formula. Rye does get awfully sour and I did want to maintain some sweetness to my leaven so I feed her a 50/50 mix of whole rye flour and whole wheat flour. I admit that I am breaking some a rules of baking by the book with this choice but I also do have some level of skill and insight that I can’t help but tap into! And I am sure glad that I did because the leaven smelled and tasted delightful once mature! I also made a few small changes to the original formula: I chose to interrupt “white whole wheat flour” as all-purpose flour and made up the 7% wheat germ with whole wheat flour as I did not have any and because I enjoy a more hearty loaf.

Robertson’s instructions for making the bread are straight forward and important to follow but also leave a nice cushion for the baker to make some decisions based on the dough’s character and performance. I liked this a lot because it provides enough guidance to follow the main path but also points out new avenues to explore if one desires. It also pushes the baker to understand the quality of her dough and how to do best by it. This, I believe, is the mark of a truly skilled baker as well as an artist and a caretaker. The sourdough starter and the final dough are much like pets. They are living organisms that need a certain amount of attention and care that are able to present how they feel even if it is very subtle. As the baker if we do not provide for our pet bread it can easily become ill, weak, and even perish. We must be observant and understanding.

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I mixed all but the salt gently in a bowl with a wooden soup just a bit beyond when all the flour was fully hydrated. Little gluten had formed at this stage but this was no matter as the five to six folds with thirty minutes of rest would build and strengthen the network over the next three hours or so. After the first thirty minutes, the salt was folded in to keep the wild yeasts in check, to increase the gluten elasticity, and to bring out the flavor of the grain. The next three hours were simple. Sunday home baking provides an excellent way to get small chores done in between folds. It does, however, prohibit the possibility of an extended afternoon nap. Oh well.

Shaping this dough was the most exciting tasks and made me deeply wish that I had more than just two loaves shape. I’ve never shaped with more ease and success. In four to five moves I had shaped a beautiful oblong. I used the method of pulling the loaf towards me with its length facing me instead of from side to side with its width facing me. It’s a technique I’ve had rare success with doughs hydrated to seventy two percent. My mind was blown. I shaped an round next with equally lovely results. Now for the proof, for which Robertson offers a wide time range and leaves ample space for the discretion of the baker. I was working in a 66-68 degree house (a bit cool for bread) with nicely active dough of an unknown temperature (I discovered earlier that morning that the battery in the thermometer was dead). I used the time to consider over preparations. I decided to mostly follow Robertson’s suggestions for temperatures and times yet adjusted slightly as I think my home over runs a little cool. I decided to bake the bread on my cast flat iron and to use a soaked towel on a sheet tray for steam in addition to a spray bottle during the early moments of the bake.

Due to space limitations of the flat iron and in the spirit of experimentation I baked one loaf after an hour and a half of proofing and the other after about two and half hours of proofing. Both felt acceptably gassy when I transferred to the peel for scoring. The first loaf got much better lift and a more irregularly open crumb. The second did not have as much success with its oven spring and yielded a slightly more consistent crumb. After conferring with a few fellow bread baker friends, we figured that the second one may have been a little bit over proofed. I also suspect that the second loaf (the round one) may have been shaped a bit tighter as well. Crust color and consistency on both were excellent: crunchy and golden. I think both loaves were a wee bit under baked as well which is way having a working thermometer is quite handy. And the flavor was amazing: mildy sour and bit sweet. Easy to eat and to pair up with just about anything….although I did mostly just eat it under butter.

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All in all my first home bread bake in, who knows knows how long, was personally and nutritionally satisfying. It was really lovely to make a simple loaf that reminded me of some basics and taught me some new approaches to those basics. Focusing on the classics and taking in some scientific observation that makes me feel like my wheels are turning again and that I am growing. Connecting with friends made me feel a sense of community and helped me think through some of the results. I was happy that I was able to use some of my current knowledge and romantic creativity in the process too!

 I now have a chef hanging out in the fridge, resting until the next bread bake:
Wheat-Rye 10% from Tartine Bread No. 3.

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