Saturday, April 4, 2009

Fermenting On A Saturday In Spring

An instructor once described the difference between cooking and baking with a sports analogy. Cooking, she said, is like basketball and hockey, whereas baking is more like golf. As with most metaphors, it can only be taken so far (indeed there certainly can be some "hockey" moments in a restaurant bakeshop) but the concept is basically accurate.

F'rinstance, today I did nothing hockey-like, not by any stretch of the imagination. I took The Mother out of the 'fridge, she'd been hibernating on the bottom shelf for a couple of chilly weeks, fed her, and now she sits on the counter fermenting and occasionally burping.

(FYI - The Mother is our loving term for the sourdough starter.)

Then I mixed up some milk, flour and yeast as a preferment for a brioche I'll put together either later tonight or after work tomorrow afternoon. And that was that. See...totally a "golf-ish" baking day. (I wasn't totally slug-like though. I did make some chicken broth this morning, which will become chicken noodle soup tonight -- Nik woke up with a cold this morning and needs some old-fashioned medicine.)

The Mother has been a part of our lives for 9 years now. Because I am really drawn to multi-step, complex, cumbersome cooking procedures, when I read Nancy Silverton's instructions for starting a levain in Breads From The Le Brea Bakery I just knew I had to do it. It was the beginning of the acute phase of my obsession/love affair with yeast, and when Nancy Silverton became my bread idol. Not that starting a levain is complex or cumbersome at all; it isn't, but when she writes that you should start it with organic grapes (to obtain the wild yeast that grows on them), and that you need to stir it and feed it on a rigid/religious time schedule, well, that process speaks to my love of rituals and rules. (I have wondered whether I bake because I love breads, etc, or am I really just satisfying some deep-seated need to perform rituals - the answer as far as I can tell...both.)

For awhile I had both a liquid levain (The Mother) and a firm levain at the ready all the time. But now I just make a firm levain for specific recipes - it only usually takes an overnight fermentation when the firm levain is started with Mother. There have been times when I hae been busy/neglectful and have kept her in the refigerator for weeks at a time - and yet everytime she bounces back after just a couple of feedings. A really ripe, tangy dark liquid develops on the surface, which had me worried the first few times, given that it smells like paint thinner. I love pulling back a corner of the plastic wrap to get that strong first whiff - so strong it can actually choke you up a little -- ahhh, good stuff.

The formula I use for feeding The Mother is 500 grams of bread flour, 625 grams of water, and 100 grams of Mother. Mix it up, cover it up and let it rip. The first day or two after taking her from the 'fridge I can usually get by with feeding her just once a day, but once she is bubbling and mature she needs a twice a day feeding. Yes, yes, yes, I could decrease the amount of Mother that I include at each feeding once she gets going strong, but I haven't tried that yet and I don't like to mess with Mother too much.

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