Sunday, May 24, 2009

For Starters...

So enough with the cheesecakes, the seasonal fruit-filled cakes, and a Listless Charlotte (which sounds like a character out of a Bronte novel)…I was unhappy with the lot of them…well, okay, I really wasn’t unhappy with the cheesecake. Please, how can anyone be unhappy with cheesecake, that’s ridiculous …(though certainly there is the classic sitcom convention that unhappy women will devour entire cheesecakes, but that’s different)…I guess what it was was that I was bored with cheesecake…cream cheese/eggs/sour cream, yea yea yea, so what...bored with the cheesecake and the other sweet fluff that I’d been making lately. Bored, and honestly, feeling somewhat a traitor, a turncoat. I’m a yeast-man, dammit, give me yeast or give me death! Well, no, not really, but you understand the feeling here…and, yes, yes, I know I’m mixing up my patriotic allusions (i.e., Benedict Arnold, Patrick Henry), but just go with it.

I’d had enough, enough of chemical and egg-white-based leavening. I wanted critters. I wanted microscopic reproduction, organicity. I wanted myosis-mitosis, water-flour-and-yeast all mixed together in an sticky orgy of single-celled reproduction. I wanted life, life I say, no matter how small and unseen. So the other night, late in the night, with dark clouds looming o’erhead, I dove back into the hidden, wonderful world of yeast…Yeast…YEAST! IT’S ALIVE!! Bigas, poolishes, pre-ferments, liquid levains…it was a natural fermentation paradise. Ahhhh. I went to bed that night knowing that in the morning I would awaken to be met by fecund, aromatic, bubbling containers of hungry, wheat-fed life.

Ahhh, the shadowy, black-and-white dreams I might have had that night…my stainless-steel mixing bowls as petri dishes, plastic-wrapped cocoons, lining the dusty shelves of a dungeon laboratory/kitchen, where the gamut of yeast-friendly mixtures were fermenting and oozing and seething with life, just waiting for the right formulas and that magic kneading touch to activate their gluten and release them to realize their springy, perfectly hydrated, whole-grain potential. Well, in fact, I didn’t have that dream, instead I think I dreamed about Hugh Jackman, but the next morning my bowls of preferments were ripe and ready for the next step on their journey to achieving breadness.

Preferments are exactly what the term implies…a portion of a recipe's flour is mixed with water and a tiny amount of yeast and allowed to ferment (while also allowing the yeast critters to reproduce like a bowlful of bunnies) for a period of time (2-24 hours, usually) to improve flavor, improve strength, and decrease the amount of commercial yeast that is added to the final dough. Preferments have a long and varies past...Italian breads have their bigas, eastern European and French breads often use a poolish (poo-LEASH), and the French also have their pate’ fermentes and their levains. And each type of preferment, with its varying ratio of water:flour, has its own personality, each bringing something a little different to the party when it’s time to mix, bake and finally taste the bread.

So I’ve had my yeast fix for another couple of days...ahhh...mmm...yes, the joys of addiction. The freezer is once again filled with a variety of breads, and a few friends and colleagues are hopefully enjoying the full flavor that a night of fermentation can bring to ground grain...variations on Dan Leader's Buttermilk Wheat, Carol Fields' Calabrian Bread, and Jeff Hammelman's Roasted Potato Bread.
Now I can return to making brief trips into the brightly colored world of sweetness and cream feeling satisfied and content, knowing that a thick glass container of dormant acidic slurry waits for me on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, waiting to be nourished, brought to life, and enjoyed on so many levels.

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