In days of yore, before the TV Food network, before recipe “apps” for your phone, before PriceChopper offered freshly baked breads all day, when artisanal referred to hand made shoes – there was Wonder Bread, or worse. If you grew up in Queens, you had Dugan’s bread delivered to your door each morning, along with a bottle of milk. It sent bread lovers everywhere looking for alternatives. If you were lucky enough to live near an Italian neighborhood, you might find “Italian bread” from the Bronx at the local deli, or better yet freshly baked at the local Italian bakery. Those loaves only lasted a day and cost a quarter so we only had them on special occasions.
A good loaf of bread can be so much more than a side dish at the edge of the table. A really good loaf of bread can be the reason to sit down and eat. Some of my earliest culinary memories spring from the bread that was being served. In a former life, when I still aspired to be a rock star, I traveled to New York with my group on occasion to play gigs at coffeehouses downtown. We took the train back to Queens, and exited at the Jamaica Avenue Station next to a German restaurant called the Triangle Hofbrau. We would stop in regularly for a very late dinner, and spend the few dollars we had made for our efforts that evening. We always had the same wonderful meal, which was all we could afford – a small wheel of Camembert cheese, a bottle of Liebfraumilch Riesling, and a boule of luscious, dense, black, German style pumpernickel bread. I can still taste that bread today. When I think of those dinners today I realize that the waiter must have really liked us kids, dirtying a table at one o’clock in the morning to eat a loaf of bread and some cheese. I do hope we tipped him well. Probably not.
To this day if all I have is a crusty loaf loaf of bread, some good smelly cheese and a glass of wine I am a happy camper. When I built a home in Schroon Lake in 1992, we needed to make do without certain services that many people would call necessities. There was not enough critical mass to support many businesses, so the town, like most small Adirondack towns, did not have a dentist, or doctor, or dry cleaner, or shoemaker. I could live without the dry cleaner; what I needed was a baker. Necessity being the proverbial mother of invention, my weekend bread making career was born, after a crash course at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park to learn the basics. What followed was ten years of experimenting with hundreds of boules and baguettes and batards and focaccias and flatbreads and pizzas, pretzels and bagels, some pretty good, some not so good. None were what I would call the perfect loaf of bread – until today. Maybe.
Last month I was presented with a gift – a book by one William Alexander, entitled “52 Loaves – One man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and the Perfect Crust”. As the name suggests, the book chronicles a year of weekend bread making by the author in which he describes the trials and tribulations of trying to cook what is essentially a living, growing organism. We had some parallel discoveries , like how convection fan motors do not like being sprayed with water misters when the oven is 500 degrees. Did you know it costs $167 to replace a fan motor, including two service trips from Glens Falls? Mr. Alexander on the other had a book advance to pay for his bread making crash course at the Ritz in Paris, with a quick side trip to Morocco to experience a village’s communal ovens, all in anticipation of a stay at a cloistered monastery, working with the monks in the bakery. He also accomplished what I have to date failed to accomplish – bake the perfect boule, the perfect loaf with a perfect crust, just like the one that is rising right now in my kitchen proofing drawer. I hope.
His experiments, which included things like growing his own organic wheat, led him to the conclusion that the most important part of the process was the utilization of a proper levain – a starter, or sourdough – to develop the full flavor and the crusty exterior of a true artisanal peasant bread. And so I started over. I discarded the old starter that I had attempted, with limited success, to keep going in my refrigerator. Mr. Alexander’s levain recipe, which he included at the back of his book, insists on using local natural yeasts, garnered from local apples. As it turns out that “haze” on the apples at the farmers’ market is not some residual spray as I had always assumed, but a natural yeast. This yeast, and the sugar from a few diced apples, is all that is needed to get a levain started. After a a week of feeding my new starter, it was, according to my new mentor, ready for a trial run. The peasant bread recipe, also included in the book, calls for a very small amount of additional yeast, only 1/8th of a teaspoon, to be added to the dough. This also results in a very long proofing time, five hours for the initial rise, and two hours for the final rise. I suspect that I will modify the recipe to make for a shorter time commitment in the future, but for today’s attempt at the perfect loaf, I followed the recipe to the letter.
I even mixed and kneaded the dough completely by hand, and left the Kitchen Aid mixer in the cupboard. It took an extra five minutes, but if I factor in clean up time, the old fashioned way still works. I also measured everything by weight, in grams, instead of by volume – the way I usually do it. The author insists (as do most professional bakers) that volume changes with temperature and humidity. Minor changes in the weight of a cup of flour will alter the outcome of your baked product. Measuring everything by weight, including the water, is highly recommended.
10 AM, Saturday
The bread is almost done with it’s initial rise; it has been proofing for four hours. In anticipation of this heavenly loaf, I have a late lunch planned. A lentil soup is on the stove, simmering with some diced carrots, onions, and celery, all started with some seared Oscar’s smoked bacon for flavor. Something to complement a crusty boule. Perfect, yes? Actually it was Mary’s idea. I also have a seventeen pound brisket in the smoker, which after ten hours will make for the perfect sandwich, with the perfect bread. What’s better than that? The brisket is actually for a party tomorrow afternoon, but I don’t think anyone will notice a few missing slices. To make all of this happen by sundown, I needed to start quite early, in true baker fashion, before sunrise this morning – so early that our chocolatier friends at Bark Eater Chocolates had yet to Twitter their first Tweet, which I think is a first. Those guys start early.
High Noon, Saturday
Honestly, setting the oven at 500 degrees scares me. The recipe calls for starting the oven at 500 “or better” then lowering the temperature to 480 degrees for the first twenty to twenty five minutes of baking, then finishing for twenty five minutes at 425, until the bread is 210 degrees. He also uses a pizza stone. I replaced my pizza stone long ago with an Alton Brown suggestion – unglazed quarry tiles. Six eight inch square tiles perfectly fill a rack in a standard oven. A case of tiles cost $10. I wash them every few months in the dishwasher. It allows for multiple loaves to be baked at one time. Mr. Alexander also suggests placing an old cast iron skillet in the bottom of the oven and adding a cup of water when the bread first goes in to create steam. Commercial baking ovens have steam injectors, which facilitate forming a more substantial crust. In home kitchens, you have to improvise. And replace fan motors.
1:15 PM, Saturday
The bread is almost done, and the book suggests letting it cool for fifteen minutes in the oven, with the oven shut off, before removing it to a cooling rack. The crust is so hard that I can’t even get a thermometer in to measure the temperature. I think that’s good. Maybe not.Now I am having second thoughts about this whole quest. Is it overdone, or is it the perfect crunchy crust? What happens if this actually is the perfect loaf of bread, the best loaf of bread that I’ve ever baked – with a rich fermented flavor, a great crumb with those illusive big air holes, a crunchy – poke your finger right through it – crust. What would I do next weekend – try to better it? Try to match it? What if I can’t? What if this was just a chance brush with perfection?
The bread is done.
The bread is done.
Maybe I won’t eat it.