The Lousy Cook Makes Bread

Happy first birthday, sourdough starter! (Those bubbles are yeast farts.)
Happy first birthday, sourdough starter! (Those bubbles are yeast farts.)

Before there was cake, there was bread.

Breadmaker sourdough loaf
First perfect breadmaker sourdough loaf (July; yes, after half a year of trying)

It all started with the potato bread. Seattle has amazing fresh bread choices, but the prices are as high as the quality. My son particularly likes the potato bread, a soft white bread with a caraway tang, but an active fourteen-year-old can put away a lot of bread, which quickly adds up to a lot of dough.

First non-breadmaker bread rising
First non-breadmaker bread rising (August) while away on a writing retreat

So likely it started with fresh bread being so pricey. We also liked the freshly baked pecan raisin bread, and the sourdough, and the multigrain. Bottom line: I’m cheap. I could make this stuff for a fraction of the cost, I thought.

First oven loaf
First oven loaf (Laurie Colwin recipe). Looks like something from an archaeological dig (and just as hard on the outside, but tasty).

Of course it also might have had to do with my son’s orthodontia. Those hard crusts on fresh bread are nothing like the soft square bread that’s loaded with preservatives and lasts forever in plastic wrappers. Surely I could make an easy-to-chew crust.

First oven sourdough
First oven sourdough (August)

So it might have started with a desire to be healthier. Not only to cut out ingredients I couldn’t pronounce and sounded like they belonged in a science experiment or powering an alien spaceship, but because those yummy fresh breads were largely made with white flour. My family should be eating whole wheat.

Dutch oven bread (recommended by my cooking teacher)
First Dutch oven bread (recommended by my cooking teacher) (November)

Come to think of it, maybe it started with plastic. I was trying to eliminate my use of plastic, which is why I started making my own yogurt (which also turned out to be 25% of the cost of store-bought yogurt) and even my own suet cake for the birdfeeder. The milk I made yogurt with came in plastic, but I hadn’t figured that one out yet, other than stockpiling water in the jugs to prepare for nuclear winter, which more and more isn’t sounding so farfetched.

First Dutch oven sourdough (November)

Whatever the reason, I pulled out the dusty breadmaker a year ago and began making bread. Because I’m cheap, I soon thought, Yeast is free. Why am I buying yeast? On February 19, I made my first sourdough bread with my days-old sourdough starter.

Sourdough that can't be removed from pretty Dutch oven (gift from my mom) (January)
Sourdough that can’t be removed from pretty Dutch oven (gift from my mom) (January)

I decided that if I was going to have my own starter, it might as well be unique, so I fed it with all kinds of things in the beginning: beer, orange juice, beer, apple juice, beer.

Chocolate Sourdough!
Chocolate Sourdough!

Against all odds, I’ve kept the starter alive for a full year now, and have continued to make my own bread, with varying degrees of lack-of-success.

Pita bread! The stuff is miraculous.
Pita bread! The stuff is miraculous. (February)

I even moved on to oven-baked bread in August, after reading Laurie Colwin’s lackadaisical approach to bread in Home Cooking. I began kneading my own bread, which wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be, and Lord knows I needed the upper-body workout. But to hell with that once I got the KitchenAid: let the robot do the work.

Pizza. (The Little Man prefers frozen pizza.) One of my pizzas turned out like a large cracker.
Pizza on childhood pizza pan. (The Little Man prefers frozen pizza.) One of my pizzas turned out like a large cracker.

I’ve baked bread on cookie sheets, in bread pans, in silicone cones, and in Dutch ovens (but not on the asbestos cement recommended for bread by Julia Child), all with varying degrees of success. I’ve made beet bread, and orange brioche, and cinnamon raisin bread, and lots of pizza, and sourdough: lots and lots and lots of sourdough.

Sourdough 1/2 wholewheat pretzels (with Hawaiian salt!)
Sourdough 1/2 wholewheat pretzels with Hawaiian salt (Is it just me, or are these vaguely pornographic?)

At first I cobbled together my own sourdough recipes, based on recipes that used store-bought yeast. In January, my sourdough bread still wasn’t working with any consistency, so I finally did some online research, borrowed a book, and followed the complicated recipe, which called for kneading every 10 minutes for the first hour: good grief! That’s more often than our current Emperor checks Twitter! AND it produced my worst bread disaster yet, though it tasted pretty good.

Sourdough from an actual recipe, baked in Grandma's breadpan. It tasted delicious.
Sourdough from a complicated recipe, baked in Grandma’s breadpan. Slicing proved difficult.

A much simpler recipe has proven more reliable. Knead once and done.

Simple Sourdough (short but reliable, like its maker)
Simple Sourdough (short but reliable, like its maker), made in Grandma’s pan

As for the goal of making a soft crust, let’s just say that the bread knife has gotten really, really dull, and the Little Man continues to make his lunch sandwiches with square bread from a plastic bag.

**UPDATE: Bagels!**

They look like bagels, but they didn’t taste like bagels.



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