The Slow-Cooked Sentence

I like reality that tastes like bread

Rachael Conlin Levy
“Bread is like dressed, hats and shoes — in other words, essential!” — Emily Post.

There are some foods that I prefer remain mysterious. Staying ignorant, though appreciative, of the complex ingredients and the skill required to roll sushi, open an oyster, stir a margarita, roast a leg of lamb, bake a croissant or melt chocolate into truffles makes the meal more delectable. Ignorance is tasty.

I feel rich as a queen eating what I would never make for myself, but bread is not one of these foods, bread is basic, necessary, and, in a house of six, a loaf is finished over lunch. Bread is a bite of bliss, fresh from the oven, slathered with butter and jam, but it isn’t a mystery. It requires minimal ingredients, with the basic loaf just water, flour and yeast, and the beginning baker has the necessary skills: mix and wait. Confronted with a choice of either emptying my wallet every few days for a crunchy artisan loaf or suffering through supermarket loaves of cardboard, I decided to make my own.

“Bread is the king of the table and all else is merely the court that surrounds the king.” — novelist Louis Bromfield.

I’ve found recipes that have a handful of ingredients, require minimum to zero amounts of kneading, can be ignored for hours and hours, and still turn out beautiful loaves with toasty crusts and soft interiors. My go-to bread is a recipe found on the back of a King Arthur bag of flour, perfect for the stack of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches packed into lunches.

As time passed, I broadened my bread-baking skills, teaching myself how to make an artisan loaf. Again, it was simpler than it looks, following the basic recipe from Jim Lahey’s “My Bread.” The dough is a sticky mass that goes through a long, cool rise before it’s gently dropped into a hot dutch oven, lidded and baked. It has a high wow! factor, but it lacks depth. Okay, I admit that just sounds silly, like I’m describing wine, but it’s true.

“If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.” — English poet Robert Browning.

What I long to bake is the sourdough loaf. I love its crunch and tang, its hard, knobby ends moistened with a slap of butter, its chewy insides dunked in hot chocolate. My favorite sandwich is a chunk of sourdough baguette, a bite of salami and a nibble of cheddar, eaten in that order, preferably in a park.

My husband believes that sourdough is a West Coast craving, and perhaps he’s right. Sourdough was the main bread in northern California during the Gold Rush, and prospectors were commonly called “sourdoughs.” The dominant strain of bacteria in a sourdough culture is Lactobacillussanfranciscensis , which shares its name with the city that boasts the tangiest, tastiest sourdough.

Bakers and gold miners both guarded their starters. In Alaska, miners carried their starters in pouches around their necks or on their belts to keep them from freezing. My grandfather, a professional baker, carefully tended his starter over the decades he was in business.

But before I can bake, I need a mother dough. The recipe for starter is not a riddle but the foundation of all bread: yeast, water and flour. Yet within the bubbly, glutinous strands is the secret of its origin.
Every sourdough starter tastes different based on the flours used, the time that lapses, the humidity, air temperature, elevation and the wild, roaming yeast spores that land in the mix. It’s the bread’s terroir. And it’s one mystery I want to solve.

* Title courtesy of French dramatist Jean Anouilh.

12 responses to “I like reality that tastes like bread”

  1. anno says:

    I'll be interested in hearing/seeing the results. To my mind, there's no such thing as a bad loaf of homemade bread.

  2. boatx2 says:

    When I was seven years old, I sure of the basic components of bread. Why, cookies were made of the same exact stuff, right? But I was stubborn so I didn't check my math, I just went about my business.

    One flour + one water + heat = bread.

    After it didn't rise and burned like a volcano crater, my uncle let me know I needed yeast.

    YEAST? The missing ingredient! What is yeast to a 7 year old?

    Great, great, post, as always. ^_^

  3. Rachael Levy says:

    Anno, I've been researching how to make a starter and decided I want to use the wild yeast found on grapes. Grapes, flour and water: with the simple one can achieve the sublime.

    Roe, it sounds like at a very young age you took your first steps into the world of art. Flour + water + heat = sculpture!

  4. anno says:

    Snaring and taming wild yeasts makes for the kind of bread that can become a lifetime practice. Delicious, though. And beautiful, too. Looking forward to seeing your first loaf!

  5. please tell us what you find. i read somewhere that the yeast that you get in a store is horribly unnatural. no terroir to speak of. maybe it tastes like the floor of a laboratory?

  6. Rachael Levy says:

    I will, though this is a long-term project given that in February there are no grapes for me to pilfer from neighborhood vines!

  7. Kyna says:

    I tried making injerra using teff flour and wild yeast – whatever's in the air, right? It was an experiment I was too nervous to eat when the water turned black. Good luck!

  8. I like your perspective on mysterious foods. And bread, it is so basic and necessary.

    You've taken me to the spare and beautiful dwelling description at the beginning of The Temptation of Saint Anthony:

    The Hermit's cabin appears in the background. It is built of mud and reeds, it is flat-roofed and doorless. A pitcher and a loaf of black bread can be distinguished within also, in the middle of the apartment a large book resting on a wooden stela; while here and there, fragments of basketwork, two or three mats, a basket, and a knife lie upon the ground.

  9. […] its shell open with a knife, cut it from its home and swallowed it as it lived. I’d said I wouldn’t do it because I believed it was one of those foods best served with starched linen and candles, which my […]

  10. […] and I heard the soft exhalation of the world’s breath. Maybe I will use the grapes to make a sourdough, which needs a wild yeast like that found on the dusty skins to get the spongy starter bubbling, or […]

  11. […] on the tea kettle, cutting boards, potholders, tea towels, cookbooks, floor, apron and nose. My dad gave his children sourdough starter at Christmas and launched a storm of baking that’s covered half the country. From the edges […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe: rss | email | twitter