When I was pregnant with Hugh, I baked constantly. Alongside the weekly loaves I baked for the small Community Supported Bread program I run, I baked for the present and the future. The present baking consisted of bread and baked goods I already loved and wanted to get better at, as well as new-to-me concoctions driven by seasonality. I baked muffins, tea cakes, scones, and cookies, mostly from my favorite baking books like Good to the Grain, Sweeter off the Vine, and the Violet Bakery Cookbook. My bread creations always included a whole wheat or country loaf sourdough, as I played with seeds and different grains such as sesame and semolina. The future baking consisted of freezing many, many slices of bread to consume after Hugh was born, along with half of those muffins and cookies. I knew I wouldn’t be baking in the months after his birth and I wanted to be well stocked.
When Hugh was around two weeks old to about four weeks old, I did manage to bake a few items, like a cranberry curd tart and a beloved almond cake. Justin was so optimistic about my return to baking that he gifted me a patisserie book for a Christmas present. Maybe I could have a baby and still bake as much, after all!
The patisserie book was flipped through many times and sat under our coffee table for months. It now lives in the basement, along with all of my food culture and politics books. I hope to bring it back upstairs one day (year) but reality set in when Hugh transitioned out of the early infancy period — there was no way I was going to perfect my croissant or choux pastry.
I returned to baking bread when our bread supply ran out, roughly twelve weeks into Hugh’s life. After reviving my starter for a few weeks, I started with a simple whole wheat sourdough; pulling these loaves out the oven felt like a true accomplishment. Since then, I have baked bread nearly every weekend, always striving to make extra loaves still for the future: a future illness, future trip, future day where the leaven is bubbly but the bread simply can’t be mixed and formed into loaves because of events outside of my control. In November, I started the CSB back up, offering six loaves on a first come, first serve basis.
Baking sourdough bread mostly works with my erratic schedule with Hugh. I mix the leaven into the flour in the morning and fold it for two and half hours every thirty minutes. Sometimes I’m standing while I do the turns, and, up until recently, sometimes I’d be sitting in the rocking chair in Hugh’s room feeding him or having him nap on me, Justin lugging the tub in, and then following with a wet wash cloth for my hands. If I think that I won’t be able to bench rest my dough at my estimated time, I turn up or turn off the heat, I have Justin move the tub to the front room (chilliest place in the house besides the basement), or in one desperate measure, into the fridge. The only non flexible timeline is the bench rest to proofing basket period of around thirty minutes. Occasionally, Justin has had to carry Hugh and stand right behind me as I do this.
Hugh’s nap schedule is slowly shifting. He dropped to one nap about a month ago and is beginning to settle into sleep around the same time daily (hallelujah) — roughly 1pm. Ironically this is less good for my sourdough boules — around 2pm is when I usually like to bench rest them, and there’s a high likelihood that I’ll be in his room then. My plan for this is adjust for a longer fermentation — keep the heat off, use even colder water. If I can shift my bench rest to 3pm or later, and then bake an hour later the following morning, then I imagine the resulting loaves will be okay. The silver lining is that there is one kind of bread that will potentially work with Hugh’s new schedule: pan loaves, i.e. bread baked in a loaf pan (in my case, a pullman pan).
I’ve now been baking sourdough boules for years. I’m at a point, with my current oven, house’s humidity, and aforementioned timing around Hugh’s nap, that many loaves that I ferment and bake come out nearly exactly as I want them to. Bread baking appeals to both my inner perfectionist and my outward goal of being more accepting and living in the moment. There’s always room to tweak a loaf of bread. And when one is baking sourdough bread, the end result is usually at least slightly different, based on a myriad of factors. This week’s whole wheat loaf is a cousin to last week’s. Which one is better? That’s where the inner perfectionist comes in, because if there is a preference, then it’s a mad mental dash to recall what was different in this week’s bake. Was the house temperature slightly warmer? Did I let the dough bulk ferment an additional 45 minutes? Did I simply do a better job shaping the boules? All of this is to say that though I’m churning out many loaves of bread I’m fairly happy with, I will continue to strive to improve with each bake, as that is the quest of sourdough bread baker.
But since I’m at a relatively stable place with many breads, from the classic country loaf (scoring this bread remains my biggest challenge) to whole wheat, many seeded breads, and semolina, I’ve begun to add more complicated breads to my repertoire: buckwheat with creme fraiche, oat porridge. It’s thrilling and humbling to dive into new bread recipes. On one hand, the basics are the same. But by introducing a porridge or toasted groats or working with doughs that are wetter, the timing shifts and I have to tap into my senses and practice patience.
When I made the Tartine 3 buckwheat bread for the first time, I was shockingly pleased with the bake. Too pleased. Ironically, I never want my first time baking a bread to feel like a grand slam. I have enough experience to know that my next attempt is likely to feel crushingly disappointing when compared to the beginners’ luck of that first bake. I savored that buckwheat loaf — it truly tastes fantastic — and the next time I made it, I felt apprehensive but attempted to stay focused. After I added the groats and creme fraiche mixture, I immediately knew that something was off. The dough was too wet. Way too wet. Nevertheless, I moved forward, attempting to shape the dough into tight boules, and then crossing my fingers that time in the refrigerator would help tighten them up. On the morning of the bake, the first loaves flattened out more than I’d have preferred when I put them in the oven, but when I removed them, they weren’t too flat, so my confidence boosted.
Because of Hugh’s impending nap, I then rushed the next bake, reheating the oven for a mere 10 minutes instead of the necessary 30. The loaves were already trending towards flat, and by putting them into a cooler oven, the steam was less powerful and the loaves I removed were even flatter. In my baking zone (i.e. not thinking!), I did the exact same thing for the final two loaves. These were flatter than ever! (The flavor on these loaves remained excellent, but slicing into deflated soccer balls makes for odd shaped pieces of toast!). I took a deep breath — several — and thought about what exactly had gone wrong on this bake (besides the curse of the first buckwheat bread being too ideal).
There were several items to consider: the wetness of the dough, the soaking of the groats, the temperature of the oven. That the dough was wetter than normal could have been an error in measurement. While the scale I use is quite reliable, I’ve accidentally had my bowl pressed up against an item on the counter before, making the reading inaccurate. This could have happened. The wetness was also caused by the buckwheat groats. I roasted them and soaked them for an hour, per instructions, but after quickly draining them, I put them in the fridge because I wanted to go to bed. I recalled that in my first bake, I had let them drain for hours at room temperature, yielding much drier groats. And finally, the oven temperature. This was an easy one to ponder because of the first two loaves. Those loaves were baked in a fully heated oven, and while flat, were not ridiculously so. I obviously need to take the time to fully reheat my oven before each tier of baking.
This example is to illustrate that while I have a handle on my sourdough starter, the basics of bread fermentation, and shaping and baking, I continue to learn and improve.
So, back to the these pan loaves. Continuing with my quest to bake more styles of bread and hone my skills, I announced to Justin at the end of last year that I was really interested in learning how to bake pan loaves, bread that can easily be sliced in perfect rectangles for sandwiches. I had flipped through Claus Meyer’s new book and had stared at the pan loaf section of Tartine 3 long enough. It was time to take action! For my birthday, Justin gifted me the Meyers Bakery cookbook and two pullman pans. I’ve since baked pan loaves twice, the first a complete disaster, albeit a funny one, and the second attempt, a true improvement, but still, not the end result I wanted. I’ll be detailing my pan loaf journey in a few additional blog posts throughout the next few months. Many experiments to come…