Friday, April 15, 2011

Sea Monkeys

Oh happy day! Today marks day one of the Tartine Bread Experiment, a photographic journey that will move through the Tartine Bread book from cover to end. The ambition is that by the last page I will have transformed into an accomplished baker of sorts, and you will be my witnesses along the way.

Listen up.

For those of you aren't aware of the magic of Tartine, let me just be plain: It is the single greatest bakery and café in San Francisco. No, it's more than that. It is a temple. It is, in fact, my favorite place to be in the best city in the world. Even better, Tartine is especially after my own heart because it was designed to appear as though it was excised from my other favorite city, mon amour, la belle Paris, and planted on the corner of Guerrero and 18th. Rows of pristine little tarts & quickbreads & eclair line the shelves next to deep slices of quiche and pressed sandwiches bursting with earthy innovations that are utterly San Francisco: a pesto made of broccoli rabe, pecorino paired with almonds and sage, you practically have to brace yourself before taking the first bite. You see, these are not just mundane sandwiches, but those made with Tartine's acclaimed bread, a handsome, rustic loaf of impressive proportion in both size and structure and utterly incomparable in elegance. The crumb is something to herald, the crust a wonder of nature both stalwart and noble, whose caramelized aromas - bitter, and nutty, with a hint cocoa bean - speaks volumes of the bread bakers relationship with his bread.

Speaking of...

Chad Robertson, who owns the bakery with his wife, has spent his life in search of le pain parfaitet voila! He (thank challah) found it. What's more, he has written about his search for the perfect bread in his recent book Tartine Bread, and as soon as my own copy arrived in the mail, it became my bible. It is more than just a cookbook. In fact, it's not a cookbook at all. It is rather a narrative about a meditative path that the author began in his youth, which he still follows today. Chad Robertson is almost like a bread yogi, and like any worthwhile yogi, he has shared his path with us so that we can use it to enhance our own. Indeed, several months ago I passed Tartine Bread on to my friend in New York who is making the shift from successful career dancer to already impressive baker. Many of his loaves look hauntingly familiar to those exhibited in Tartine Bread. I think Chad Robertson's book has changed his life, and I have a feeling that it is about to change mine too.

In case the impetus for this blog isn’t a strong enough testament to the power of bread in my life, let me just tell you. When I decided to relocate from the Bay Area to Los Angeles a little over a year ago, I scoped out farmers markets and fish mongers on the internet before my move, along with, of course, a worthy bakery and a reliable mechanic for Blanche, my ’91 civic whom I love at least as much as Paris (and San Francisco). I quickly discovered that the farmer’s market movement has sledgehammered Los Angeles.  And I’m not talking a few measly produce stands bartering a basket of rutabaga and bruised nectarines, no, Los Angeles farmer’s markets are something to sing about. They’re sprawling gastronomical bazaars whose force knows no economic barrier, stretching from the ocean to Compton like fingers pulling you into the organic movement every day of the week. But while a dearth of good markets is nary a concern, I loathe to say that the discovery of a worthwhile loaf definitively is. I know this is going to sound très fou, but I seriously considered packing my bags and fleeing for home, back into the crusty arms of my beloved Tartine. Why, I was beginning to ask myself, would I willfully choose to move to this carbophobic city, given my love of the staff of life? Alas, that’s another blog.

Just so you're aware, this blog is dedicated to my own private search for the perfect loaf of bread and what I discover along the way. Well, not so private since I’m sharing it with you. I am not recreating recipes or giving instruction, I will leave that to Chad. Indeed, I urge you to grab a copy of Tartine Bread to be led along your own path. Chad has spent his entire life living his bread, and from that experience has meticulously lain out a beautiful roadmap for us all. Baking bread for me is like a mantra.  It is the cultivation of a living thing, the honing of it into something all my own. And this whole process is an experiment that I thought might be rewarding to share. I am no aspiring yogi, but I do believe that it helps when we can see someone else’s trial and error down a daunting path to mollify the passage along our own. If you've not spent much time in a kitchen, or baking your own bread from a levain, it may perhaps be a comfort to see the flour-littered countertop and weird gray stuff growing on a lay person's starter. It is one thing to see the skilled hands of an artisan effortlessly shaping a mass of dough in the perfectly photographed pages of a book, and quite another to listen in on the private expletives and heart-pounding panic of an ill-rising loaf with someone who is starting out, just like you. I don’t know, this blog is my way of saying: if I can do this, so can you, and yeah, that’s how that’s supposed to look…I think…

Ready? So, let's go.

Day One: The Culture

So here’s how this thing is gonna go: conceive a culture, gestate a starter and give birth to a loaf of bread. Today is the day that I spawn my culture, which is to become the seed of my starter, or ‘the soul of bread making’, as Chad declares. The culture begins with a mixture of flour and water that when left to its own devices over a couple/few days on an ordinary kitchen counter, interacts with bacteria and yeasts in the air and begins to ferment. This is where the DNA of your bread begins its design, so be meticulous in your efforts, and nurture it as you would any living thing. After all, this will become the root of all your future bread for years to come. The good thing is that you don’t need any special equipment or a controlled environment. Just a few handfuls of flour, regular filtered water, a clear psyche and a modicum of time. As your starter grows, may you slip into the pool of obsession over its development the way that I have.

And so the culture takes root.

This is the phase where I, the mother of the loaf to be, is giddy with anticipation. What will my little starter look like? What sort of personality will it have? Strong-willed, or one that is easy to manipulate? Since we are moving into the summer months in Los Angeles, I have no doubt I have a hellion on the way. Flour. Water. A natural levain. The simplest of components composed to make what has been the dietary cornerstone of just about every culture there is. Yes. It truly is alchemical.


The weather today is sublime really, somewhere in the upper 60s, a little reprieve before the summer heat which is the perfect time to get a starter rolling. I will have a couple of months to learn how to manipulate it so when the weather becomes more aggressive, I’ll be a seasoned pro and handle any wild growth spurts with ease. I’m mentioning weather here because in warmer climates a starter can get really active, as can the bread that you will make from it when you are going through the various rising processes. This is why some people rise their dough under refrigeration. Retarding the development of your levain via refrigeration slows the yeasts from gobbling up the sugars too quickly. When a levain rises too quickly, it doesn’t have time to develop character. And that’s the whole point of this whole process, right? To discover the character of your particular starter? Bread is a fermented food, a living thing, the starter and every loaf of bread that comes from it is your creation. You decide what it will taste like, what it will smell like, what its special characteristics will be through a fastidious understanding of its nature and the manipulation of its growth. Like most things in life, when we rush things, we miss out the beautiful potential that we could have realized had we just taken our time. Bread, for me, is about learning how to be comfortable taking my time, and trusting the journey of a natural unfolding.

Here’s our mis en place:
Water. Flour. A vessel. A scale. Oh, and a cotton kitchen towel. C’est tout.

The only thing you might not have is a scale, which I urge you to purchase. It will change your life as a baker, and it validates your commitment to your important new journey as bread seeker. I got mine for thirty-nine bucks, and it was just another excuse to go to Sur La Table, or ‘toyland’.

I’m using a 50/50 mix of king Arthur white bread flour and white winter wheat bread flour, and plain old tap that’s been filtered in my Brita pitcher.
I mixed it all by hand as the book directed, because there are yeasts on our hands that our culture will use as food. I also opted to use a measuring glass so that I could catalogue the growth of my culture. I’m a geek that way. It’s like watching sea monkeys grow when you’re a kid.
Then I covered it with a clean, thinnish kitchen towel and set it in a cool, shady corner to do its thing.
It was really hard to sleep this night, and I could hardly wait to see what goodies awaited me in the morning, goodies and news that I will pass on to you. I will admit, my stomach, for the first 24 hours, was a bit aflutter: what if nothing happens? What if it just stays flat? In writing this I've had a head start, in fact, I'm already three days into the process, so I'm a little more confident in my post than I think I would have been had I started documenting this experiment the moment I mixed the ingredients for the first culture. But all went swimmingly, and I'm glad, because I have some successes to pass on to you.

I do also plan to keep an account of the going's on with this experiment, and I urge you to keep your own. I think documenting the behavior of my starter and levain will help me to recreate my successes and avoid repeating any mistakes as this process gets more involved and the variables begin to change the dynamics of my project. Remember, bread is a living thing. In order to understand it, we have to know what it needs. And the only way to know what it needs is to listen. It will speak to you.
Here are my notes:
Tuesday, April 12

10:45 a.m.

started culture. 1 cup water mixed with a 50/50 mixture (8.4 g total) white and whole wheat bread flour. mixed with hand. set in cool, shaded corner covered with cotton towel
YIELD: 400 ml
AMBIENT TEMPERATURE: upper 60s to 70˚

And that's all she wrote for the first day of the Tartine Bread Experiment. I will be back for the next two days to show you what ensued since the first mixing. The perfect loaf is not too far away!

To the staff of life!


  1. This makes me hungry... I will be following your new blog intently and smelling the ferment with you!

  2. Thanks Gabby! My starter is in the corner just growing away!

  3. Oh my gosh, this is your blog! We have way too much in common girl. I'll start one next week and we can share "kid" stories. Can you increase the font size? My eyes aren't what they used to be!
    Love it!

  4. i increased the font size ; ) but you can zoom in/out using your browser tool bar under 'view' to view teeny web text on any site...

    PLEASE do start a starter and lets compare! its 85 degrees here today, and my starter is behaving remarkably well before its second feeding at 5:45 p.m. (which i will be coaxing in the next couple of days to a morning feed. i find it most meditative to begin all bread activities in the beginning of the day).

    i hope this finds you and kent very well!

  5. check back for a new post coming later today!

  6. Hi, I'm Brady and I'm currently a finalist in a contest that could fund a traditional, wood fired, bread bakery in Monroe, Maine. I have completed an oven and now I just need funding to start baking. I am using Robertson's 'Tartine Bread' as a reference manual. Here is the link to my project: I could really use the help of fellow bread lovers and bakers! Everyone on facebook can vote once a day for the next seven days. Thanks so much!

  7. Why didn't you keep this blog going? Did somebody die?

    1. Hey David. No. No one died. I stopped the Tartine blog because too many people were emailing me and congratulating Chad on his fabulous blog, so, I divested from the name alone. All formulae, except for where noted, are mine. I wanted to make sure that my I.P. was recognized as my own :)



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