What is that saying about the best laid plans?
Back in the fall, we found out that Tim’s youngest brother would be getting married this weekend. Tim was asked to be in the wedding, along with both of our older children (there aren’t many things in this world more simultaneously strange and adorable than a tuxedo for a 3-year old) as co-flower girl and co-ring bearer (with same-aged cousins). So the big trip to southern Pennsylvania had been on the calendar for a while. I even bought myself a new dress off the clearance rack at Marshall’s — otherwise, I’d be attending the wedding in corduroys and a Target long-sleeved t-shirt. I had packed bags, made food, grocery shopped, borrowed a dvd player for the car. I had secured plans to visit our good friends in small-town Ohio, spending a night and morning with them on the way. We were good to go.
But then the Wee One woke with a fever Thursday morning. For most kids, a fever isn’t a big deal — just something to watch as you dose them with Motrin and stick them in the car for the drive to Ohio. But our 17-month old runs really high fevers, with no other symptoms, for no apparent reason. Without going full-throttle into the year-long saga, I will say that it has been one of the more frightening and frustrating things we’ve had to face as parents. There is no diagnosis, no answer, no current solution. So when she gets a fever, life for me pretty much stops for several days.
After a few hours of waiting to see if this fever was a indeed an “episode,” we decided that all signs pointed that way, and that Tim would load up our other two kids and drive them to Pennsylvania. I would stay here with the Sick One. And — if you’re a parent you know how it is — there’s that part of me that was truly sad, and I had a short-lived pity party for myself after the van drove away. But then, your kid needs you, and that’s all that matters. I was in nurture mode, and was totally ok with that role.
When I woke up Friday morning, two things happened to make it a decent day, in spite:
- Our new stainless steel french press came in the mail (we had to get one when the glass beaker on our old one became a victim of our ceramic sink — and no, I didn’t do it, so don’t go thinking that it was eerily coincidental with my birthday wish list).
- I realized that I was facing a weekend in my house with no one who could actually talk to me. That — caring for a sick child notwithstanding — I could get so much done.
So I commenced with the list-making, and immediately started with low-hanging fruit — things that required little hands-on time, and could be put aside if I needed to stop and tend to the babe. Make granola, check. Soak some spelt flour to experiment later with homemade crackers, check. Begin sprouting a jar of wheat berries, check. Mop the kitchen floor, check. Spend some time procrastinating by making a new list, check. After exhausting all doable projects, I was finally forced to face the one thing I knew I really and truly should do: leap off a ledge of potential frustration and failure by beginning my first real attempt at sourdough bread-making.
A few months ago, I ordered a dehydrated starter online. After sitting in my pantry for a month or so I gave it a whirl, and spent a good 2+ weeks trying to get it going. I fed it, and let it stay in my microwave since it’s location above my oven has made it the warmest spot in my kitchen over the winter (this was a bane in the existence of my husband, who murmured grumpily each time he had to remove the jar from the ‘wave to heat something). I finally threw in the towel (and the starter down the drain) one busy weekend when feeding an apparently dead starter was no longer a priority. That Saturday, I was talking to a guy at the Winter Farmer’s Market who sells his sourdough. Lamenting my failed attempt, he offered to give me some of his wild starter. I jumped, and a few weeks later procured the goods.
That was last week. I was nervous about the timing, since our long-weekend travel plans would mean I would not be able to consistently refresh the starter and make bread right away. So when all that changed, I had no choice but venture into this new realm of natural yeast and flour.
The aforementioned farmer had also recommended a book to add to my bread book collection: Maggie Glezer’s Artisan Baking Across America. I decided to start my adventure by following a sourdough recipe from a respected source, word-for-word. I wanted to better understand how sourdough acts during the process, knowing that it would contradict the actions of commercially-yeasted breads at different turns. There are only a handful of true sourdough recipes in her book, so I chose the Walnut Levain from Pearl Bakery in Portland (but I omitted the walnuts… they don’t count in the whole “word-for-word” thing). I refreshed my starter Friday morning, and began mixing the levain Friday night.
Saturday morning brought questions and insecurities. After mixing the dough, I was supposed to “turn” it after 2 hours of fermentation. When I scraped the dough onto my board, it was dense, heavy, and somewhat dry — not what I was expecting for a bread that’s supposed to eventually be chewy and airy. Knowing there wasn’t much I could do to change the dough at that point, I handled it as gently as possible and returned it to the container to ferment, untouched, for another 4 hours. After this time it was, as the instructions demanded, not quite doubled in volume. This was promising — something was working in the dough — so I shaped my loaves, and left them to proof for another 4 hours while I and an improved toddler went for a walk, then to a friend’s house for dinner where I was served really good cheese (the highlight was an amazing manchego, soaked in balsamic, from The Goose) and wine. Refreshed in more ways than one after a rough 48 hours, I came home, put the baby to bed, and commenced with baking.
A couple things went amiss at this point: first, my slashing job was horrible. The dough pulled and stuck, and in the end it looked a little like I chewed on the top of the loaves before baking. Then, I let them burn — sort of — I don’t think they truly overbaked, but the recipe called for a 425º oven for 45 minutes, with one rotation — that’s a hot oven, for a long time (and I even dismissed her instruction to bake the loaves near the top of the oven). I rotated after 20 minutes, but then didn’t look at the loaves again until the timer went off. They were already entirely too brown (next time I’ll reduce the oven temp after the first 20 minutes), and I was expecting the worst.
By this time it was 10pm, and I was exhausted. I let the loaves cool for half an hour, but I was ready to sleep, and yet dying to cut into a loaf. So I broke a cardinal rule and cut into one round before it was completely cool — and what was inside made me gloriously happy. The crumb was moist, airy, and even light. I cut away the burned crust, and bit into the warm bread. I could honestly not believe the flavor — it was delicately, almost perfectly sour, with a chewy, light texture. I just stood in my kitchen, in awe of the fact that I just successfully made sourdough bread, on my first try. Since no one was around for me to high-five, I will say that if someone happened to be walking by my house at that point, they might have seen someone dancing a jig, alone, with no music, in the kitchen.
Call it beginner’s luck? We’ll see. I’m not under the delusion that my success was due to anything other than a really strong and tasty starter — but still, a pessimist at heart, I’m already wary of my next attempt. Especially since it involves using sourdough to replace commercial yeast in my whole wheat sandwich bread. Yep — I just figured out how to swim, and have decided to jump off the high-dive with no lifeguard on duty. I’m suiting up as I write, just having refreshed the starter to make the levain this evening. I have between now and then to read up and begin to hypothesize about percentages and measures.
Of course, I’ll record the results. And since I’ve spent the past few paragraphs detailing my success this weekend, I might as well confess the failures: Crackers? Inedible. Wheat berries? Mold in a few spots. Kitchen floor? Already dirty again.
What’s that saying about winning some and losing some?