A few years ago I had an extended amount of time off work, which would have been lovely had I actually wanted an extended period of unemployment. I like to keep busy. After about 3 weeks at home I begin to loose my mind and I start looking for things to keep me entertained. Since I am a naturally curious person the objects of my focus can be rather random.
This particular time it was bread.
Our bread machine had died and it occurred to me that it might actually be possible to make bread without a big plastic machine. My wife was skeptical. I was fairly sure it could be done, and if something can be done at all my theory is that it can be done by me given a decent set of instructions and enough practice.
I didn’t grow up with good bread. Bread was something to spread peanut butter and jelly on. At its best it could be used to contain a slice of lunch meat, cheese and artificial mayonnaise. My life view on bread changed dramatically after our trips to Europe.
Bread in France and Italy is an art form. Gluten free does not exist. Lines form at 7am to buy the best bread. At the bakery (boulangerie) in our village of Bedoin you have to sign up on a list the day before to be guaranteed a baguette the next morning.
I wanted to bake bread that people will line up for.
My initial research indicated that great bread is baked in a wood-fired bread oven, not a plastic machine. I bought plans to build one.
When I priced out the plans and estimated the construction time I calculated that I could build this oven for about $5,000 and that it would take the rest of my life to complete. Unless my wife killed me before I was done.
So I did some more research, which is when I found a critical piece of information:
Your home oven can be used to bake really good bread for the cost of a pizza stone and a water spray bottle! Wow, that’s SO much easier!
The next critical component to bread is the hungry little critter that makes it rise. Yeast. Sure, you can get little packets of super-fast-rising-instant-dry-yeast, but I don’t think the French bakers get their yeast that way. And I wanted to make crusty chewy bread that wouldn’t go stale after a day. I needed…
There are processes to grow yeast au natural, but I was too much of a beginner and way too impatient to delve into that black magic. Instead, I found a local bakery that made yummy sourdough bread and asked if they would give me some starter (sure, I bought some bread before hitting them up for a freebie).
Did you know you have to feed sourdough starter every other day at least? Sourdough starter is a living organism and you feed it flour and water to keep it alive.
It was like having another child!
…. coming next, the continuing adventures of the unemployed baker.