Baking Real Bread at Home

Over the last few months, I've started doing something kind of strange for me  - baking bread at home. I don't cook or bake beyond cobbling together something for lunch, a grilled cheese sandwich or a simple quesadilla. Kate is an amazing cook and baker, so our deal is that she takes care of the food and I clean up the mess. I've never really felt the need to create anything in the kitchen.

I have no idea what compelled me to start doing this. It might have been this Michael Pollan podcast or a NYT article about how modern man doesn't actually know how do to anything useful. Anyway, I started baking in earnest. 

The first time Kate came home to the smell of fresh baked bread, she was flabbergasted. As in, "Who ARE you?"

You have to score the dough with a razor blade to allow the top to bloom and rise - a basic square score. 

You have to score the dough with a razor blade to allow the top to bloom and rise - a basic square score. 

And since I always, as Kate says, choose the most difficult possible route, I started with Chad Robertson's 38-page Tartine Bakery recipe. 

Before you can actually bake this bread, you have to make a sourdough starter. This is a simple process that involves mixing equal parts of water and a 50/50 mixture of white and whole wheat flour. You must "feed" the starter every day for a couple of weeks until it reaches a bubbly ripe stage. Feeding the starter is simply discarding some of the starter and replacing it with more of the 50/50 flour and water mixture.

After your starter has matured, usually 2-3 weeks, you are ready to begin. The Tartine recipe is available in Robertson's book, but as I mentioned earlier, it's a 38-pages long. This isn't a recipe you'll find on the back of a bag of flour, but to be fair, these are not ordinary loaves of bread. If you are successful, this will be the best bread you have ever tasted. You'll be spoiled and likely won't even bother with bread at your local bakery anymore.

To put this into terms that my photography-minded readers will understand, a typical bread recipe is to the Tartine recipe as a point and shoot camera is to large format photography. Sure, they both involve taking pictures, but the process and the result are worlds apart. This probably explains a lot - as in why I chose this recipe. It's daunting. It's exacting. It's demanding. And the results are fantastic.

Recently, the New York Times devoted an entire dining section to bread. As a centerpiece to this section, they published a two-page summary of the Tartine recipe and had Chad Robertson answer readers' questions online. You can access the article and recipe online. 

As I started getting more familiar with the recipe and the way the bread behaved I started experimenting with different scoring methods to change the appearance of the bread. I've finally settled on an "S" shape to personalize the loafs. 

Adding my "S" Score to make the loaves more personalized

Adding my "S" Score to make the loaves more personalized

The recipe makes two loaves at a time. Click for larger version on Flickr. 

The recipe makes two loaves at a time. Click for larger version on Flickr. 

I'm afraid that I've now become that person who won't shut up about bread. You know the obsessive guy - the cocktail nerd, the craft beer brewer... I'm easily that annoying. I've been flooding my social media outlets with pictures of fresh loaves. And now this blog post. But there's something special about good bread. People understand. They like bread. Good bread is universal and often very personal. 

Most recent loaf fresh out of the oven. Click for larger version on Flickr. 

Most recent loaf fresh out of the oven. Click for larger version on Flickr. 

Kate has endured several of my phases - the coffee phase, the single malt scotch phase, the very expensive stereo equipment phase, the comic book phase, etc.  But this is a phase she can get behind. Far from tolerating this new obsession, she encourages it.  No sooner have we polished off a loaf than she'll ask "Are you making more bread today?," "Can I take a half loaf into work to share?," or "Can you bake an extra boule for my party?"  She was the one to ask about the fate of my starter as we prepared for vacation (alas, I discarded it and started over upon our return, though I should have simply retarded it in the refrigerator).

There's something magical about breaking into that still-warm loaf and devouring several slices with olive oil, ricotta, and flaky Maldon. After a few pieces, we'll put the loaf back into the kitchen, where Kate will invariably return again and again for "just one more piece."  Sheepishly she'll explain "It's so good I can't stop eating it!"

Maybe that's why I continue to bake bread. For once I can provide something in the kitchen, besides clean dishes, to the woman who for years has taken care of my gastronomical needs.