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Chasing the Perfect Loaf: My Home Baker's Odyssey and an Apple-Rye Sourdough #FoodieReads

 

A friend from high school recommended this book - In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey by Samuel Fromartz*- so, of course, I ordered it. I am always reading. And it is usually about food.

On the Page
photo from amazon.com

Let's start with this: this isn't a cookbook. While there are some recipes included, it's an account of Fromartz' journey to becoming an expert bread baker, or being able to bake the perfect loaf. His writing style is compelling and he conveys the reader seamlessly from memoir to food history to cookbook and back again. As he narrates his progress as a baker, you also learn more about the ingredients and the process. You learn about different grains and their resulting flours. You meet all of the experts he seeks out. And, if you're inspired as I was, you'll get into the kitchen and bake some bread.

As I followed his journey I kept nodding my head as I was on this same path when I inherited some sourdough starter at the beginning of our shelter-in-place orders in March.

"The more I baked, the more I realized that the recipe was the least of my concerns. Far more important were the techniques, which were difficult to explain in a step-by-step format precisely because they depend on touch and feel. So let’s just say I made a lot of bad bread by following very good recipes" (pg. 10). 


Yes! I did eventually land on the Tartine Bread (Artisan Bread Cookbook, Best Bread Recipes, Sourdough Book) by Chad Robertson. And that definitely put me on the right path as far as migrating from volume to weight measurements and shaping by folding versus kneading. But, like Fromartz, baking a good loaf was not as easy as following the recipes to the letter. It took a bunch of tweaking and adapting before I landed on a standard process for my own loaves.

"Sourdough is a bit like magic, because you keep this living substance active with regular feedings of flour and water, yet because the microscopic-level work can’t be seen by the eye, it’s also subject to a lot of rumor and tall kitchen tales. The simplicity of the substance, brought alive on a kitchen counter by a plethora of wild organisms, feels so unlike packages of commercial baker’s yeast, which contain just one strain of industrially manufactured fungi. When I began baking many years ago, sourdough felt raw and elemental" (pg. 66). 


I definitely feel like a kitchen witch every time I bake a boule and it has transformed from a flat ball of dough to a brown ball of deliciousness with an ear that is slightly charred.

Fromartz discloses a breadth and depth to his knowledge about bread and breadmaking. I found his food history particularly interesting. "Bread making is something humanity has done for thousands of years. The impregnation of dough, its slow rise, and the spring upward of the loaf in the heat of the oven, before the yeast died, was a metaphor for life. The ancient Romans held an annual festival of the ovens on February 17 called Fornicalia, which shares the same Latin root as fornication. Even in prehistoric times, baking was associated with procreation. Baking was a metaphor for life because bread is life giving" (pg. 11).

Also "...no matter where grain was grown, if scarcity struck, people moved down the ladder of preference from refined flours to breads made with whole grains and then bran. Starvation was a constant motivator, as in Venice in 1585, when bakers resorted to chestnut and bean flours. Or in Sweden, when rye nödbröd (“emergency bread”) was made with lily roots, Icelandic moss, and rowan berries. When hunger beckoned, grape seeds, pine bark, clay, and often straw was mixed into dough, though the use of ground bones was likely a myth. Nothing was wasted. Stale bread was remilled and mixed into new loaves or made into porridges or puddings, or simply eaten, for descriptions exist of giant whole grain breads lasting six months or more" (pg. 132).

But he also includes tips and recipes. Something he mentioned inspired me to diverge from my usual, and tested, process of feeding my sourdough starter with warm water and flour. He had discussed feeding the starter with something sweet and how the proteins in rye flour acted differently than wheat flour. So, I did it; I fed my starter with fresh pressed apple cider from my in-law's orchard and used rye flour. The result was fascinating. The end bread didn't actually taste as distinct as I had anticipated and hoped, but the starter itself overflowed its container and made a mess!


I wouldn't say this is a 'perfect loaf', but I did find the crumb to be more spongy and the crust slightly thicker. I've continued to feed it apple cider and rye because it's vigor is intriguing.


This recipe begins with a starter that is fed equal parts apple cider and rye flour twice before baking. You can see it's ready when it passes the float test. You can see the two different starters in the photo below. The apple-rye fed starter is on the left; the regular water-wheat fed starter is on the right.



Apple-Rye Sourdough
my mother-in-law in their orchard

I used fresh, unpasteurized apple cider from my in-law's orchard. I will have to see how the starter behaves with apple cider that you buy at the store...because I have neither access to an orchard nor an apple press! Note: the photos in the recipe below are from two different batches because I have tested this through several different bakes.

Ingredients makes 2 large boules or 3 medium boules
  • 200 grams sourdough starter (recently fed with equal parts apple cider and rye flour)
  • 300 grams warm water + 50 grams warm water
  • 300 grams warm apple cider
  • 800 grams all-purpose flour + more as needed
  • 200 g rye flour
  • 20 g salt
  • rice flour for sprinkling in Dutch oven
  • Also needed: banneton proofing baskets or bowls lined with floured tea towels, Dutch ovens

Procedure

Place 200 grams starter in the bottom of a large mixing bowl. Pour in 300 grams warm water and 300 grams warm apple cider. Add in the flours. Use your hands to blend everything together so that all of the flour is moistened. Let stand for 40 minutes.

At the end of 40 minutes, pour in another 50 grams of warm water. Add in the 20 grams of salt and gently knead the dough until the water is completely absorbed. Now I start the folds: rotating 90 degrees four times every thirty minutes for 4 hours.

I run my hand under warm water, grab one side of the dough and pull from underneath, folding it over the top of the ball. Rotate the bowl 90 degrees and repeat. Rotate. Repeat. And a fourth time so that the bowl has completed a full circle.

By the end of the 4 hours, the dough should be billowy and increased in volume. Lightly flour a workspace and use a dough scraper to divide the dough ball in half. Transfer the dough balls to the work surface. Lightly flour the banneton or towel-lined bowl. I used a combination of all-purpose and rye for this loaf.

Now I repeat the folds, but with dry hands to shape the boules while creating tension in the top. Keep the floured side of the ball down and fold from top to bottom four times while rotating the dough. This keeps the sticky side inside.

Flip the ball over and work the dough into a tight round. Let stand for 15 minutes. Repeat three times. 

After the third shaping, place the dough ball, rounded side down, in the floured banneton. 

Now you proof. I typically put the dough in the fridge and leave it there till I'm ready to bake. For these boules, I left them in the fridge for 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the empty Dutch ovens (bottoms only) into the oven. When the oven reaches temperature - an in-oven thermometer is very, very helpful - let the oven stay at 500 degrees for 30  to 40 minutes.

After the preheating, remove the Dutch ovens and reduce the oven temperature to 450 degrees F. Lightly flour the inside of the ovens with a sprinkling of rice flour. Gently pull the dough away from the sides of the banneton and invert into the Dutch oven.

Score the top with a knife or razor blades. I have even just snipped a few vents into the top with my kitchen shears.

Place the lid on the Dutch oven and return the pots carefully to the hot oven. Bake for 35 minutes.

After 35 minutes, carefully remove the lid and return the pots to the oven again. Bake for an additional 30 minutes.

The loaves should be firm and crunchy on the top, golden brown, and feel hollow when the bottom is tapped.  Move the loaves to a wire rack and let cool for at least an hour before slicing! Enjoy.

*This blog currently has a partnership with Amazon.com in their affiliate program, which gives me a small percentage of sales if you buy a product through a link on my blog. It doesn't cost you anything more. If you are uncomfortable with this, feel free to go directly to Amazon.com and search for the item of your choice.
 
Click to see what everyone else read in November 2020: here.

Comments

  1. Fascinating. Karen has suggested using a little rye flour when I neglect my starter for too long but the cider idea is intriguing to me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had hoped to be able to taste that apple a little bit more. But it is a neat idea.

      Delete
  2. My husband, our bread person, made an apple sourdough bread this morning for Thanksgiving dinner. It has dried apples as well as cider in the mix. Amazing how many different ways one can vary the recipes for bread.

    be well... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  3. I like books like this that are more about a person's journey than an actual how-to.

    ReplyDelete

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