Saturday, June 5, 2010

i have a plan

And my plan is to leave the house for a couple of days. Go somewhere, anywhere. When I return, I expect my kitchen to be spotless and all signs of disaster gone. You know, the kitchen elves.

Here's my couche with most of the goo already scraped off. I'm hoping the rest will come off when drier.

Everything in the shape of a bowl, including stainless steel bowls, plastic containers, baskets, the plastic colander (used as a banneton, 'cause I'd thrown out all my bannetons some years ago), was put to use in desperation. Not that it helped. What you don't see is the floor, the pile of stuff in the sink, dough stuck to every surface.

Let's start at the beginning. I'd been distracted from making bread for a week. A week ago, when trying to snap out of my bread paralysis, I winged a sourdough loaf again. Basically, I was experimenting with techniques that I'd never used or heard of in my previous bread-baking life eons ago. One was making a stiffer dough than I used to, another was the 'stretch and fold' method instead of kneading, and yet another was proofing the bread in the refrigerator and taking it straight from the refrigerator to the hot oven. This is what resulted.

Not bad, but not terribly good either. Nice 'grigne'. Too sour for my taste, and not enough oven spring. But I love the non-violent stretch-and-fold method.

Then I took a week off and didn't even think about bread. Two days ago, it was time to go back. I took out my neglected starter and started to feed about half a cup of it as starter.

The rest, I thought I'd experiment with. Hubris. I started building up about a cup of it.

Then  I wondered what would happen if I did something to the rest without fussing too much. Added whole wheat flour to get it going, then divided that into two. By the evening, everything seemed to be bubbling up nicely. Put it all in the refrigerator and went to bed.

Yesterday morning I took everything out. I'm now looking at four containers with stuff in it and trying to remember what's what. The starter-to-be-revitalized was easy, it was the smallest amount. I fed it, and put it away.

The batch I was building up looked good. Decided to attempt a loaf with it. To keep things straight, let's call that one 'pathetic hope.' It was very wet, so I fed it with more bread flour than water or starter. Did I measure anything? Hell no. That would be so unadventurous. Then I started to stretch and fold it in the bowl it was in. Here's how it looked before the folds.

Here's how it looked after the second stretch-and-fold. Looks promising. See how much smoother?

Then I added salt, and folded it two more times with 45 minute intervals. Looks good, is rising well. It's beautifully stretchy, better than anything I achieved when kneading by hand.

OK, so now it's time for proofing. Clearly, the dough is too wet to shape into anything. I have two choices. Add flour and start again, or proof it in a container. The second seemed easier. I put my well-floured couche into a bowl, put the dough into it and waited. 'Cause bread pans are for sissies, right? I waited for it to rise.

It rose some, but not a whole lot. First sign that the future might not hold success. But it was springy, and I thought I'd continue.  In my previous life, my doughs were always on the soft side, and I proofed them on a flat surface, transferred to a peel, and put them in the oven. So this time, I thought I'd up-end the bowl onto the floured peel, remove the couche, stick the 'bread' into the oven.

Here's the start of the hilarious part. I turn the whole thing upside down on the peel, take off the bowl, and ooops! The dough starts to flow on the peel. Really, it can only be called 'flowing', not 'spreading.' I start to panic and try to be quick. I try to lift off the couche. I know I'm in trouble because the part of the couche that touched the bottom of the bowl looks very wet. Sure enough, half of the dough is stuck to it. I try to scrape it off. What am I thinking? No way. Now I'm panicking to the max. I look at the goop that's on the peel, and decide to scoop it into a bread tin. Why am I not giving up? 'Cause I'm stubborn and I'm thinking 'who knows..?' The oven is already preheated to 500F. I stick in the bread pan and wait.

After about 40 mins, I remove it. Looks like crap. For some reason, the center of the pan does rise a bit. The rest not much. I was too proud to take a picture, but I'll describe it for you. A brick. (I'm thinking the function of bread pans is to form bread into shape of bricks.) I peel off the crust. The crumb is wet and compact, with few holes. I dunno if this can be called crumb. It still looks and feels like dough, frozen in time. I taste the crust - unbelievably sour. I throw it all out. End of 'pathetic hope'.

But there's more hope. I still had the batch of starter that should have been thrown out. With half of it, I quickly tried sourdough pancakes. Way too sour. Inedible. That gets thrown out.

The second half, which shall be called 'stupid hope,' I decide to go for a loaf. I build it up some, then give it a number of folds, and it's not looking bad at all. You might ask at this point, dear reader, if the pancakes were inedibly sour why would I think this bread might end up tasting good? Well, it's called 'stupid hope,' isn't it? The truth is I didn't care. I was just curious.

And there's an important lesson here. What makes a good scientist does not a good baker make. A baker needs to be an applied scientist, not a research scientist.

When it comes to final proofing, I remember that I forgot to add salt. Ah jeez. Add salt and fold, it all gets deflated, and I continue with giving it extra folds. Eventually, it rises some. I turn it out on the table, and add a lot of flour when shaping it, because this dough is also very wet and I don't want to repeat the disaster with 'pathetic hope.' Going for a different kind of disaster.

It holds its shape. I want to proof it directly on the peel. One side of the peel is stuck with the mess from before, so I turn it over, put down parchment paper, put the dough on it, cover it, and wait. Not much happens. By now it's getting late, and I'm starting to lose patience. Reality takes over. I know nothing good's gonna come out of it. So I transfer it to the oven. When it comes out of the oven, I don't care too much any more. I wait for it to cool, and this is what it looks like.

It has the semblance of bread, but it's clear that it hasn't risen enough. And it's way too sour. Into the trash it goes. I go to bed wondering why I spent the whole day doing this.

There, is however, a plus. You can use the dough as a fly catcher. Potentially useful discovery.

I wake up this morning and I know that my mission today is to understand everything that went wrong. Actually, let me start with what went right. The stretch and fold. The gluten develops beautifully.

Now to the bad stuff.

Dough too wet: This happened because I didn't fold it on the table with my hands. If I had, I'd have realized immediately that it was too wet. So that's how I'm going to do it until I'm comfortable with the feel of it, and then go back to doing it in a bowl. 

Too sour: When feeding the starter, keep a smaller amount of of the old starter. Keep starter strong. Start baking when the starter is at its peak, or almost at its peak. When building it up for baking, use ratio 1:4:4. Keep bulk fermentation much shorter than I've been doing.

Not enough oven spring: Don't overproof.

Finally, even if you're not going to follow recipes, it really pays to listen to other bakers. There are so many great bread sites and personal blogs that it shouldn't be a problem. Here's a baker's blog that was very informative for me, where Susan gives us two excellent quotes:

For reckless adventuring: People who work in family planning have an aphorism: Hope is not a method. 

In defense of adventuring: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” –Thomas Edison

I'm taking today off. I'm not even going to clean.

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