The starter is . . . stopped.

One of my first projects after returning to the ranch was teaching myself how to bake bread.  Not just easy bread like the Irish Brown Bread from a few posts ago, but real European style bread, made with levain (a wild yeast and bacteria starter made by cultivating airborne organisms in flour and warm water).  I didn’t exactly do it all on my own, I had the help of an incredible book by Chad Robertson, who started the wonderful bakery in my old San Francisco neighborhood, Tartine.  From time to time, certain longings for city life are rekindled in me, and they are more often than not triggered by memories of walking Lola to Dolores Park early in the morning, and stopping by Tartine for coffee and croissants on the way.  Sigh.

Anyway, I found breadmaking extremely intimidating.  I’m an excellent cook but real baking is a hybrid of science and alchemy and doesn’t allow you the barometer of tasting your creation in process.  It was kind of awful at first to think about putting so many hours into something and having no idea if it was going to be edible until the very end.

For that reason, though, it turned out to be a very good meditation for me as I came down from the frenetic pace of my former life.  Baking requires patience, the ability to nurture, force and gentleness in the hands, method, and a little bit of faith.  My first loaves were too chewy and didn’t have enough spring, but they bore qualities of real bread that inspired me to soldier on.


First loaf

It got better and better, and I was eventually able to share it with others proudly. I started adding things like kalamata olives and rosemary and lemon zest or sundried tomatoes and big chunks of garlic. I started salivating for that first slice, fresh out of the oven, crusty and light and smelling like heaven.


Later loaf

And then, as things will do, breadmaking was put aside for goat shed building and law practice building, for learning about bees and how to make cheese and so forth and so on.  The starter I grew from air and water and flour finally succumbed to neglect.  Bread started to come from the store again instead of the oven.  It happens. I never said I was perfect.

But this morning as I breakfasted on long-awaited California avocado and (store bought) French bread, I decided that it’s time to bring breadmaking back!  Sure the 500 degree oven won’t feel too super on 100 degree days, but a garden tomato on a slice of homemade sourdough will be totally,

and completely,

worth it.

5 thoughts on “Restarter

  1. I’ve toyed with the idea this summer to attempt bread making. Just about everyone I’ve told tells me to get a bread maker. I’m a broke woman, so 500 degree oven for me (in a poorly ventilated — heat-wise — apartment. Thank goodness I’m the landlord otherwise this would never do! We can commiserate together!

    • A bread maker can’t make this kind of bread, because the crust needs to steam as well as bake. I can’t recommend the Tartine Bread Book highly enough! It gives step by step instructions with photos for each step. Then it goes through each step again in detail. So great. But you’ll need a Dutch oven. That’s the secret!

  2. I’m right there with you on this one… I also killed my starter long ago, then was oven-less in our loft for awhile, then had a no-knead fling… but I’m back to the real thing! My bread bible is Bread Alone, along with some photocopied sheets from a Peter Reinheart workshop at an IACP conference I got to assist with while in culinary school. I’ve now got two new starters, a wheat and a rye chef for making levain chillin’ in the fridge, and have made a sourdough pesto rye loaf (and am now in the pesto donut hole- used the last of the frozen stuff from the fall, and am far from having enough basil to make more. Will taste all the sweeter when I do!) and sourdough wheat pizza. I have a freezer-full of spent grain from the fellow’s brew on Saturday ready to turn into sourdough spent grain bread for the Nite Market on Saturday.

    • The pesto donut hole! I love it! I’ll have to check out Bread Alone. Spent grain? You mean that was boiled for beer? You can make bread from that? No way, how awesome!

      • Yep, more like steeped than boiled. Most of the sugars are extracted (though it still tastes sweet) leaving lots of protein and fiber- a little goes a long way though, so most of it goes to the chickens… or the compost, as it goes bad faster than they or we can eat it! This batch was almost 50% wheat (the rest is barley, which is most of a usual batch, sometimes with rice or oats) so should be particularly good for baking… I filled our freezer with as many bags as it would hold. Time to get baking!

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