Monday, April 18, 2011

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker

I do all my best thinkin’ in the shower, and a fair amount of subconscious dredging. I will be soaping away, et voila! There will materialize something that was buried so deep in my mind that its unearthing provokes genuine surprise (which my good friend Sylvia pronounces 'surpreeze'), quickly reminding me that my life is comprised of many different lives. Sometimes, when I am very lucky, I am afforded the luxury of forgetting some of the smaller and more dismal incarnations. For instance, today while shaving my leg, I thought of this ghastly little bakery I worked at during a dark and lengthy winter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I’ve always thought it a little ironic that I was born in the cheese state and have a horrible allergy to dairy. I left when I was seventeen.

But never that mind, this is a blog about baking, so here’s where my errant mind led me:

I had just become officially urbane and chock full of condescension having freshly returned to the states (that is what we the well-traveled call it) from a three-month European tour with a brief lighting in pre-radioactive Japan. With a dollar fifty to my name, but loaded to the gills with the riches of experience, I had stopped off in the cheese state to visit my mother and to claim all of the crap I had accumulated from Paris to Morocco and sent to her care. By reason of my recent destitution (and condescension), the fact that I was a seasoned California resident and the cold hard truth that I hated the beans out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I had to find a job pronto. I was in a hurry to expediently fulfill my obligatory familial visit and fly back home to San Francisco where no dietary irony awaited. Other ironies, sure. But that’s another shower.

The only job available that didn’t require a serious temporal commitment or long commute was a subordinate baker position at a tacky bakery that produced those enormous praline-covered muffins when they were all the rage. You know, the ones that people thought were wholesome because they were made with canned pumpkin. Never mind that they were glistening with hydrogenated soy bean oil and that they were as big as a cow's head. I remember thinking that the crossed wheat shaft signage that hung over the door, which brought to mind vigor and good health, was negotiably false advertising. 

Anyway, the joint was owned by a resistant hippie who looked as though manufacturing cheap baked goods was a last resort at the tail end of a long and badly decisioned life. Plus it's no secret that hippies excel at baking things. His dejection was as big and palpable as his muffins, his eyelids permanently half-mast from either too much weed or a firmly installed melancholy. Clearly, tenuous temporal commitment was as important to him as it was for me, because I’m pretty sure the bakery was a chain, and we all know that owning a franchise is another way of saying ‘I give up’. It would appear that my life was not the only one kissed with irony. The bakery was tucked away in a terrible little strip mall beside a geriatric institution that overlooked a hollow tannery which in its glory days perfumed Milwaukee with the effluvium of boiled calf skin. It smells a lot like bruléed banana.

The good news was that the bakery was about a half a mile away and I could get there on foot. The bad news was everything else. I had to be at work at 5 a.m., and the walk was excruciating. It was so cold that the wind felt like a gang of really pissed off hornets launched an attack my face after I had just mistaken their hive for a piñata. Not exactly the luxurious Parisian life that had supplanted all other versions that I had funneled through, one where I rolled out of bed at noon into the boulangerie, sauntered to the café, then swam my way between innumerable wine bars plugged along the cobbled roads left of Seine. How could I resist? There were shutters on the windows. It was like being welcomed into grandma's house. Lots of them. And with booze.

I’m gettin’ there.

So here I am, resuming my baking career, as it were, but this time in my own kitchen with yeast that I’ve conjured from thin air, so it would seem. I was a smidge of a liar in my first post when I said that I was a novice like you. Clearly I have some prior skill when it comes to this flour slinging thing, and I thought you might be a little intimidated when my starter was doing cartwheels and yours excelled at the art of playing dead. I have experience, understand.

I dried off after my shower, thinking of my little starter on the counter bubbling and belching away. Life is indeed regenerative, and for that I am more grateful than I can possibly relay. You see, my very first illumination, and my starter has barely taken its first steps. I knew this was going to be a spiritual journey.

Brass tacks.

I’m consolidating the past few days of my experiment because the life of a starter is not as dramatic or exciting as I thought it would be when I first began this photo journey. I expected, I don’t know, great, billowing levain, inflating like the heaving busts of opera singers; and worldly starters in their finest smoking jackets, nibbling the ends of their pipes while reminiscing about the wild days of yore when they were merely cultures. It’s rather like my youthful expectations of the sea monkeys. Alas, neither of these relationships have exactly developed into great, visual Busby Berkeley productions. Evidently there will be no swan diving krill or dashing cultures dispensing calculated quips here. But I have steadily photographed the results and documented the goings on of my (boring) starter so that you can compare my progress to your own.

Have a look:


This is day two of my starter. It was flat, with the consistency of pancake batter. No discernible sour smell. Appeared as though small bubbles were beginning to form under a grayish liquid layer. Yield: 400 ml. Ambient temperature: 63 degrees, a clear day, no precipitation.

Then lo'! And behold, gorgeous little bubbles started to form at around 3pm! And it had swelled to just about 500 ml!


By the third day the activity was positively gripping! It had swelled to 700 ml, large bubbles began to appear, and I photographed the dickens out of it like a newborn at a KMart photo shoot. A glutinous network of proteins is evident, and there is the lovely sour smell that means that the starter is indeed active. The liquid layer that you see on the top of the starter in the pictures above has moved to the bottom with the mass suspended above. It was 68 - 76 degrees today, with no precipitation.

Today is the first feeding (I feel like this should flash neon or something). How's this instead: Today is the first feeding!! So, I discarded 80% of the culture (I know, painful, right? But you get used to rejecting your baby). Only 20% of the culture/starter is used to make the next batch. I did an evening feeding here. And you use equal amounts water, 50/50 flour and starter. As you can see above, I first stirred the culture with my hand.
That little action knocked it down flat.

I mixed 50/50 wheat and white flour.

I then added 200 g each 50/50, water and starter.

Mixed with my hand again. The consistency is like thick batter. Oh, and I made two, just in case.
Covered and put it back in its cage where it belongs, animal! Just kidding. I put it back in a dark corner to grow up and make mama proud.


I checked the starter in the morning. I twas sour smelling with a strong bubble formation. Ambient temp: 85 degrees. 

This time I made one larger and one smaller starter just for kicks. One with 200 grams of each component, and one with 80 grams. I did an evening feeding here.


I realize that I may be playing with fire here but I wanted to change my starter's evening feeding schedule to a morning one. I feel that it's much more meditative to take care of it in the morning. Anyway, I'm a little freaked out about not feeding it on schedule (remember, you must feed your starter every day! Toss out 80%, mix water/flour/starter yadayadayada...) I am going to feed it tomorrow morning instead...I'm nervous!


Complete panic! My starter looks and smells flat! I consulted with my New York friend Joe, AKA 'The Big Guns', since, you know, I'm sure Chad is busy and all (there really should either be a disclaimer with the book, or it should come with two weeks of free starter consultation). Thank goodness Joe was armed with gentle consolation efforts, but I know what he really meant was 'calm the f&%$ down'. He assured me that it would be fine tomorrow. So, I forged ahead and performed its regular feeding. Joe also said I should be using regular whole wheat, not winter white whole wheat because regular whole what has more protein in it and will create a more vigorous starter. Tomorrow I'm heading up to whole foods to get a bag. He also says that his starters are more liquidy. He uses 100% flour to 125% water ratios. I may try that, or I might not play with fire again until I get this baby revived. Please baby! Don't die on me!

That's all for now. I will let you know if I see signs of life this week!

To the staff of life!



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