Baking up a bread adventure

Sunday, June 4, 2017
This was my sourdough starter on Day One.
Photo by Jason M. Reynolds

If you try a bread recipe I found online last week, you may start saying, "Vive la France!" Let me share a little of my recent baking journey.

I have been wanting to bake artisan bread for some time. My favorite source had been Wild Flours, a now-defunct mom-and-pop bakery in Murfreesboro. The owners are parents and earlier this year decided after several attempts to run a growing, in-demand business that family came first. Kudos to them. Family does come first.

That, however, left me starving, so to speak, in a bread desert.

This starter for a French-style country bread is ready to knead.
T-G Photo by Jason M. Reynolds

Wild Flours' whole wheat sourdough sandwich bread absolutely spoiled me. Never again would a run-of-the-mill store-bought loaf be sufficient. (Yes, that mill pun was intentional!) I had never tasted such a flavorful bread. Perhaps their sourdough was the closest thing to God's manna this side of the Exodus.

Back to my bread renaissance. I bought a copy of "The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread" The author is Peter Reinhart. According to his Amazon author page, he "is widely acknowledged as one of the world's leading authorities on bread. He is the author of six books on bread baking, including the 2008 James Beard Award-winning 'Whole Grain Breads;" the 2002 James Beard and IACP Cookbook of the Year, 'The Bread Baker's Apprentice;' and the 1999 James Beard Award-winning 'Crust And Crumb.' He is a full-time baking instructor at Johnson and Wales University and the owner of Pie Town restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina."

From the brief time I've had to dig into "Apprentice," I would say Reinhart deserves all his awards. The man knows bread. Baking is, as you may know, a great deal of chemical reactions and being precise. Reinhart's book gives you more scientific detail and step-by-step guides than you can shake a measuring cup at.

One of two loaves of the French bread sits for 45 minutes before baking.
T-G Photo by Jason M. Reynolds

I whipped up a sourdough starter, or seed, last Sunday from Reinhart's book. I also received some inspiration from a column John I. Carney wrote in 2015: t-g.com/story/2226078.html.

When I was writing this column Wednesday, it was too soon to say if the seed would work. I divided the seed late Tuesday night after covering the Shelbyville City Council study session.

The seed seemed to have grown a little, but not a lot. Once I split the seed in half I added flour and water to both versions and stored in separate bowls. You may or may not know that with sourdough, you have to feed the starter on a regular basis. There are various steps to take in the first week. Every week you have to use or throw out part of the seed and keep the rest of it fermenting. Doing this leaves you with a starter batch that could last indefinitely (like from the late-1700s). Instead of throwing away my first attempt, I decided to try to grow it into a second starter. Both starters were bubbling on Wednesday morning, giving me some hope for my attempt.

One of the two finished loaves of French-style country bread.
T-G Photo by Jason M. Reynolds

Now, on to my French connection.

Reinhart's book is not the only resource I've turned to for baking help. Both Reinhart and my amazingly talented cooking wife Holly recommended King Arthur Flour. This flour company, according to its website, have been around since 1790 when a new nation named America was getting established with 13 states. They even have sourdough starter dating to the late-1700s. My inner geek is anxious to try that starter sometime.

I started the sourdough on Sunday. Not knowing if it would work, I wanted to accomplish a quick victory in baking, especially since I was on a three-day holiday and had a little time available. I found an intriguing recipe on King Arthur's website titled "French-Style Country Bread."

The recipe proclaims, "You could make this bread, and no other, for the rest of your baking career, and never feel cheated. It uses the sponge, or poolish, method: sort of a poor man's or woman's sourdough starter -- no feedings, little pre-planning, lots of flexibility, and superb bread. If you've always wanted crusty, hole-ridden, French-style bread, this is it."

The folks at King Arthur Flour weren't kidding. I used the recipe and thought I was beholding a professionally crafted artisan bread. Wow -- this was my first from-scratch bread attempt. I slugged it out of the park.

I can't take all the credit. I followed King Arthur Flour's recipe very closely. While the sourdough recipe I'm following from "Apprentice" takes a week or so to reach the point where you can bake bread, the King Arthur bread is faster. I started a basic starter (or sponge, or poolish) late Sunday night. The recipe says that you should let the starter rest at least two hours. However, up to 16 hours is better. I left my starter resting overnight and started working on it about 12 hours later. There are many steps to follow, including letter the starter and then the dough rest for various amounts of time. I baked the French-Style Country Bread later Monday.

I cannot emphasize again how tasty this bread was. The recipe is correct in saying that it only lasts two days. It was delicious Monday night and Tuesday morning. We finished it up Tuesday night and it was certainly becoming stale. If you make this recipe, eat it quick. I divided up my dough and froze the second loaf. I'm hoping it will taste good whenever I break into it.

The recipe belongs to King Arthur Flour, so I won't reprint it here. But I will provide the link: kingarthurflour.com/recipes/french-style-country-bread-recipe.

I'm hoping whatever bread I bake up next tastes just as delicious.

-- Jason M. Reynolds is a staff writer for the Times-Gazette. He is addicted to delicious baked goods, so if you have some cupcakes or homemade bread, he would be grateful if you shared. His email is jreynolds@t-g.com.

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