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Baking Bread on Sunday

I have been using this book for more than a year now, and tried almost every recipe. The ciabatta loaves are one of my favorites.

Our family schedule has changed in a way that has made it difficult for me to bake bread during the week. So now, Sunday is the day that I make sure to indulge my love of fresh sourdough bread. Most of what I know about baking sourdough bread comes from Jim Lahey’s Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook. I have baked a few duds along the way. Patience is definitely the main ingredient. Yesterday, however, I came close to achieving perfection!

Instead of covering with a damp cloth, I put my dough in the bottom oven with the light on and a pan of warm water.

I keep my biga, (a drier, thriftier form of sourdough starter,) alive in my refrigerator. Since I didn’t remember to start some dough on Saturday night, I chose a recipe that doesn’t take as long to rise that I could still start on Sunday morning. Mr. Lahey offers two ways to make the ciabatta dough, the slow, no mix method, or the fast, use your mixer method. I used my mixer. After three hours I had a glass bowl full of bubbly bread dough that I turned out onto a board, folded in half, and cut into two loaves. I left them to rise for three hours in my bottom oven.

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All the stuff I still don’t know

sourdough culture in a crock
This is my sourdough biga. Recipe from Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook by Jim Lahey

The more I learn, the less I know. Sometimes it feels like that. Really, I should say that the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. About a decade ago I thought that I was doing something great making bread with a bread machine, and that pickles could only be made with vinegar, and that I could pick pears from the tree when they are ripe. Looking back on the ten years of living and working on this same little piece of the world on Paris Mountain, with my indispensable mate, I do feel a sense of accomplishment. But what I feel more, is that I am still a virgin.

I started off baking bread by assembling the ingredients, mostly flour and water and yeast, dumping them in a bread machine, and pushing a button. It was easy and the fresh bread tasted so much better to me than the packaged bread in the supermarket. But after awhile I wasn’t satisfied with that. I wanted to do better, a little foreplay, you could say. So I started using the bread machine only to knead my dough for me and let it rise the first time. I committed to a second phase of massaging the dough in various ways, and then leaving it in suspense for an hour or so, for a second rise.

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Learning the Forgotten Ways

Fermenting carrots and ginger, and sourdough starter …

What seems like a long time ago now, when I was a single mother of two, I had mastered a small repertoire of recipes and baking was not included. I was the stovetop queen of East Harlem. So after I moved to California and then got married (and quickly had two more kids,) I was proud of myself when I started baking muffins and other treats. I felt pretty smart when I also started canning the vegetables and fruits that my husband grew in abundance in our little backyard. Even so, when we moved here to Greenville almost nine years ago, I was still a virgin bread baker. I had never used yeast for anything. But I was no virgin to eating bread, and have always preferred it fresh.

I started off with a bread machine that I have since gotten rid of after I realized that most good bread rises twice, and you have to flirt with it for a few minutes in between rises to get the best out of it. For a little while I thought I had arrived after turning out some beautifully braided challah loaves, Belgian waffles and seasonal cinnamon rolls. I also admired the rows of pickled peppers, cucumbers, and cabbage on my pantry shelves. But after awhile I wasn’t satisfied. It was all foreplay, the yeast in my baking goods, the vinegar in my canned goods, the carbonation in my soda.

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