Tough Times Sourdough

recipe #21: Vanilla  Snow

There has been a lot of bread baking in our house recently. I tell myself it’s because homemade bread is so much more delicious than store-bought, but really it is because of the recession. In answer to the almost daily barrage of bad news – friends losing jobs, promising projects being canceled and the music program in Luca’s school on the chopping block – I roll up my sleeves and feed my homemade sourdough bread starter.

I spent fourteen days following Nancy Silverton’s instructions on how to make a starter from scratch, discovering along the way that following Nancy Silverton’s recipe for anything is to become a sort of crazed disciple. There are no half measures or shortcuts. Other bakers will tell you it takes three days to make a decent starter and that you need only stir in a cup of flour and a cup of water every day. Nancy says to feed the starter three times daily to the tune of seven cups of flour a day, and to adhere to precise measurements of weight and temperature. She says, apparently without a trace of irony, “Care for your starter as you would a newborn! Don’t miss a feeding!” In other less dire times, I might have read the fourteen page recipe for starter in the Breads of the La Brea Bakery book and laughed out loud. But because the world is in an apparent state of collapse, I am happy to follow her exacting instruction.

starter with grapes

I bought the equipment required for the starter and calculated that I would have to bake at least thirty loaves of bread to make back the money I had just spent. This did not include the price of all the flour that goes into keeping the starter alive and the hours I would have to spend burning off all the cakes and muffins and pizzas I would have no choice but to make. As my starter grew, I became obsessed with the mass of bubbles growing on my kitchen counter and read everything I could find online about starter consistency (it varies), what to do about mold (scrape it off and hope it doesn’t return), what it should smell like (yeasty, beery, bready). For weeks, I took Silverton’s Breads of La Brea Bakery to bed with me and curled up with it like a favorite novel.

I gave away gallons of the painstakingly acquired starter rather than throw it away. As though trying to find a home for a stray animal, I called and emailed all my friends and begged them to take some. “Think of the pancakes! The fresh pizza dough!” I implored. One friend told me that she had a hundred-year old starter given to her by her mother-in-law and that she purposely killed it off as a way to work out family resentments. I had no idea that bread starter could be so loaded with emotional baggage.

pancake or alien creature?

Waiting to find homes for all the containers of starter meant feeding them all according to Nancy’s rigorous schedule and keeping them warmly wrapped in blankets under a warm lamp. Within a few days my kitchen counter was covered with containers of bubbling starter, scales, thermometers and cups of flour. Jim tried making space at the counter and gingerly asked how long this was going to go on.

“She says to feed it for three more days,” I said.

“She who?”

“Nancy,” I replied. The voice in my head.

Jim looked at me as though wondering whether to seek professional help. But I had no time for his worries. My first pizza dough was looking a little blotchy and it was impossible to tell if it was rising properly because I was checking it every five minutes. I knew what was happening, that I was filling a creative void with bread, but I didn’t care. I told myself it was better than Facebooking or any other thing that shouldn’t be a verb but somehow is one. At least you can eat bread, a fact that makes the whole enterprise not only compatible with our tough economic times but deeply satisfying.

When it came time to actually bake bread, I made the mistake of following a much easier recipe than Nancy’s two-day recipe for Country White. Suffice it to say that I learned the hard way that if you are going to bother with any kind of bread baking you should just roll up your sleeves and do it Nancy’s way. Her recipe for Country White is sixteen pages long! Have you ever in your life seen a recipe for anything that is sixteen pages long? Admittedly, she explains the science of bread baking as she goes along and also tries, as anyone might who has reached absolute genius status in her field, what the dough is supposed to feel like at various points in the process, describing it as “flabby,” “soft,” “alive,” “shiny” and “like a baby’s bottom.” There are several baby analogies in her bread book. You can tell she loves babies and children (I actually met her once when carrying baby Luca in my arms and she stopped to admire and coo at him). But you have the feeling it’s possible she loves bread more.

boule ready for the oven

By the time I was successfully baking two of Nancy’s Country White boules another local arts organization had gone under and I was talking to the dough, saying things like, “There you go. Stay warm in there and I’ll see you in a few hours.” Or, “Are you a little too dry? Yes, maybe a little. Let’s give you some warm water and see how you do.” Jim, throwing me sidelong glances, stayed out of the kitchen.

The only person in my life who is not alarmed by the depth of my new obsession is Luca. Unlike me, he doesn’t see it as a sad reflection of how little is going on in my work life. No matter how dire things seem to me, Luca sees only my accomplishments. He doesn’t want me to get a job. He wants me to keep making sourdough pancakes and pizza dough, which he tells me greatly improved with the purchase of a proper pizza stone. He compares one loaf of bread to another, loaves that turn out to have a golden crust and a chewy interior full of fermentation holes and a slightly salty, tangy flavor. This is why you follow Nancy Silverton to the limits of your endurance. When the economy is going to hell in a hand basket and taking the schools and the arts with it, you want to be eating her Country White.

Nancy's incredible bread

When Luca asked to cook, I said there was too much going on in the kitchen. A couple of days later, he asked again and this time I felt guilty and said yes. He wanted to make Vanilla Snow from Fanny At Chez Panisse. Lucky for me it was raining and therefore easy to plan a meal that would put the bread at center stage; a variation of Tuscan white bean soup with kale and potatoes.

"All food is bread. The rest is accompaniment."

I bought a whole vanilla bean and Luca said it looked like a dried up worm. I cut it in half lengthwise and Luca scraped out the tiny grains from the inside. It occurred to me that I had never seen the inside of a vanilla bean before. Completely forgetting about the tiny black flecks that appear in good vanilla ice cream, I wondered if the grains were bitter tasting and tossed them. A minute later a panicked Luca read from the recipe: “Add the bean and scrapings to the milk mixture!” He calmed down when I showed him the other half of the vanilla bean and we started again.

Luca went to work on the egg whites and before long they were holding the shape of “soft peaks.” I started to explain how to “gently fold” the eggs into the milk mixture when he stopped me. “I know what ‘fold’ means,” he said. And then I watched him fold the eggs beautifully so as not to break the air bubbles in the egg, thinking how commonplace this moment will become for us; me looking on as Luca (cooking, solving math problems, solving social problems) stuns me with just how well he can do without me.

Luca admonished me to let him turn on the ice cream machine this time. Last time, forgetting the joy that turning an “on” switch can bring to anyone under the age of ten, I did it myself. He poured the mixture into the machine and turned it on. It loudly began turning the mixture round and round. We sat down and ate the soup and bread while the ice cream machine worked on dessert. Luca couldn’t get enough of the soup. “Mommy,” he said importantly. “This is the best soup ever.” He is like me this way. Whenever something is tasty, it is “the best ever.” When we love something or someone, we forget everything that has come before.

I’m not much for sweets and dessert. But there is nothing quite like eating a perfect meal knowing that a perfect dessert awaits. We filled our bowls and ate the Vanilla Snow. Not quite creamy enough to be ice cream, it was cold and lovely after the hot soup and the slightly sour bread. Best of all, Luca observed: “It tastes just like snow.” Once again, I had to admire the genius of Alice Waters. The name of this recipe caught Luca’s attention back in October, the promise of snow and vanilla together being something no child should be able to resist. And it did not disappoint. If there is no word for the taste equivalent of onomatopoeia we should invent one.

snow!

A few days later, I landed a project that will keep me too busy to bake much bread or to obsess about how much hydration to give my bread starter. But for now the snowy dessert had perfect, tiny flecks of black vanilla rescued from oblivion by Luca’s careful reading of the recipe. The rain drummed on the roof and inside we were warm and full and pleasantly accomplished.

Luca's bliss

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