Seasonal Cooking 21 Nov 2011 01:00 pm
With the cooler temperatures of Autumn I’ve taken up bread. Years ago made bread fairly often but I gave it up after moving to Brooklyn. In Carroll Gardens, the neighborhood where I first settled, I discovered a trove of incredible Italian bakeries, small storefront shops with names like Caputo’s and Mazzola. Suddenly, home baking seemed utterly unnecessary. I found a huge range of breads: long Italian loaves and thinner French-style baguettes; bread made from semolina flour; ring-shaped loaves and sourdough and whole wheat loaves; breads studded with olives, and lard bread – yes, lard bread — stuffed with cheese and salami, that left translucent oily patches on the brown paper bag I brought it home in.
I was in bread heaven. Every variety was delicious, and much more interesting than the sandwich loaves I’d learned to make from the Joy of Cooking. Once, I overheard one of my Carroll Gardens neighbors – an affluent newcomer, not one of the long-time Italian residents – actually complaining about the bread from these bakeries – not as good, apparently, as what she was used to getting in Manhattan. I was appalled. “Spoiled yuppie,” I thought. “Can’t appreciate anything.” How could anyone want bread better than this? What bread could be better?
Five or six years ago my brother Joe wore out his hip and went in for a new one. Housebound during his recovery, he passed the time making bread, following the recipe for Pain au Levain in the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking cookbook. On a visit to his place I tasted one of these loaves, and I was shocked. My brother is a good cook and an experienced baker, but even so I was surprised by the rich, deep flavor of the bread he’d made.
To leaven his bread, instead of packaged commercial yeast he’d used a levain – a sourdough culture made only whole wheat flour and water left out to capture yeast from the air. The flavor of that bread stayed with me, and this summer I resolved, once the weather cooled, to try and make my own. I raised my own levain, carefully feeding it twice a day until it was bubbly & lively, then began using it to bake my own loaves. I’ve just finished my forth batch, and am very – and increasingly – pleased with the results. It’s a hearty bread with more depth of flavor than I find even in my beloved neighborhood Italian bakeries. It’s the sort of bread, I guess, that my Manhattan-expat neighbor was pining for.
Pain au levain has been my introduction to artisanal bread-making: using natural leavening in place of commercial yeast, and using slow, traditional techniques for proofing, kneading and shaping the loaves. A loaf of pain au levain takes all day to make, with lots of hands-on attention required during much of that time.
These days the fancier food shops all sell plenty of Brooklyn-made artisanal bread. I can walk up the street to the Brooklyn Kitchen and buy a beautiful loaf from Roberta’s or from Scratch Bread. But I’m happy to be making my own. It’s cheaper (though probably not by all that much: keeping my levain fed and healthy ensures I’ll go through a $5 bag of King Arthur flour every week or two, whether I’m baking or not), and there’s a lot of satisfaction in a pulling well-formed loaf out of my oven. But more than that, what really draws me to baking bread this way is how alive and natural it is. My bowl of bubbling levain is a mini-garden, and I’m cultivating flavor and nutrition that’s been coaxed from the very air of my kitchen. Like eating produce grown from the soil of my backyard (if only I had one), baking with my levain seems more than a little miraculous.
I’m only at the very beginning of what I’ll learn about these venerable old breads and their techniques and traditions. I’m excited about what I’ll discover, and happy to know I’ll be eating lots of great-tasting bread along the way.