Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Rise and Fall of Bread

This time of year, the littlest of setbacks can be heartbreaking. I sometimes think to myself, in the midst of one of these fits, if you can't deal with this, then how on earth are you going to deal with the REAL stuff in life? The things that are actually hard?

I am describing, of course, the way I felt last night when my sourdough bread baked up awful.
On Sunday night, I was so tired. I was going to meet up with a girlfriend for some wine and cheese and I just couldn't do it. We postponed until the following night, and I thought to myself, I shall make bread! I will be that awesome friend who flakes on Sunday but makes up for it on Monday with a fabulous loaf of homemade bread--the perfect carrier of cheeses, be they soft or hard!

Though I was tired, I pulled my sourdough starter out of the fridge for examination. I'm sorry to say, it's been some time since I've used the starter--maybe six months?--and the batter had developed, well, I guess you could call it a grayish-black film on top. Now, my dad had warned me this might happen. NOT that he is the most trustworthy source on when it's time to throw food out...this is the man, after all, who recently ate a jar of unsealed olives we had sent him cross-country and reported they had "a slight funk" but still tasted great. However, the man has been baking sourdough bread for thirty years and hasn't died from it, so I thought it wise (or at least not insane) to accept his advice of "scraping off the black parts" and using the batter beneath it. Which I did (much to Robb's horror). And then I mixed in some more flour and water in equal parts to freshen things up. Voila! I was ready to bake some (possibly toxic) bread.

I mixed up my batter and let it rise overnight, and in the morning I woke up, thanked my lucky stars (and MLK) we had the day off from work, and then I set about making my dough, which got stuck in my friendship bracelet while I was kneading it (which is the most hipster statement I've ever made in my life).

Two hours of rising, punch it down, another hour and a half of rising, punch it down. Split it in half and let it rise again.

I must say, this day-long ritual of bread-baking started to have a familiar ring to it...a winter ritual of rising up now and then, only to be occasionally punched down. Over the smallest things really (perhaps we're more delicate in winter.) A really good cup of coffee can make my day, a wintry mix on the way to work can make me feel ill. And don't get me started on the pot of paper white bulbs that shot up into the air so so fast in December (glee!), but decided to dry out just before they bloomed,  their tall green stalks reminding us of their unfulfilled destiny. Making me wish they were onions instead. Something at least useful. January is all about the ups and downs. January makes me want to take a box of cookies into the bathroom and eat them alone in sulky silence.

I baked the bread at 375 degrees for 45 minutes, but the loaves looked so anemic, so pale and pasty. I knew they weren't done. And so I let them bake for five more minutes. Robb put on his sweatshirt; the puppy carried his leash around in his mouth. They were waiting for me so that we could all go to the dog park. And I kept saying, it's almost done! You can't rush the loaf! Five more minutes, another five minutes. Soon it had been over an hour. The dog was laying on the floor in front of the door, wishing he could take a box of cookies into the bathroom and eat them alone in sulky silence.

I took out my loaves, knowing in my heart of hearts that they were not done. But also knowing that they would probably never be done. That there was something wrong with the fundamental chemistry of the bread, with the leavening agents, and hell, probably with the grayish-black film on the starter, too. And sure enough, when we returned from the dog run, I sliced off a piece to find a slackish doughy loaf. I smothered it in butter and ate it. I sprinkled it with kosher salt and continued eating it. And then I cut off another piece from the other underbaked loaf and ate it the same way. It was hot and there was too much butter and it wasn't at all what bread is supposed to taste like. But melted butter and kosher salt can make anything edible.

I ate two slices and sulked, thinking I should probably eat them alone in the bathroom. Instead I licked my fingers, picked myself up off the couch, and walked with Robb to work. On the way there, snow fluttered in a spontaneous burst, and we looked up at it as we passed under streetlights. It was just refreshing and just pretty enough to help me forget the wasted day, my head rising toward the dark sky and the promise of a breadless night with friends.


  1. It was hot and there was too much butter and it wasn't at all what bread is supposed to taste like.

    I think you're forgetting that about one of every, um, two loaves of sourdough bread Dad made when we were kids tasted EXACTLY like what you're describing. I swear, the taste of hot butter and really doughy sourdough is my (our!) childhood.

    My point is, don't take it as a personal failure. Sourdough is HARD, man. You were asking for drama trying to make it in January. But then, that's kind of what January is about, too -- one day your hopes are through the roof (new year! new dreams!), the next second, it's cookies in the bathroom (or shower...).

    1. Erin, I actually had written a whole paragraph about Dad's bread and how we used to have to stay up late in order to eat it fresh out of the oven because it takes so damn long to make, and we'd all stand in the kitchen in our pjs and spread tons of butter on slices of that hot, undercooked bread! Only I remember Dad's being better. I deleted the paragraph because I realized I was saying "hot butter" too many times in such a short space and it made me feel uncomfortable. True story!

      Also, omg, I forgot about mom with the cookies in the shower. HOW I forgot about that, I don't know. So, it seems that undercooked sourdough and bathroom cookie eating are totally genetic!

    2. HOT BUTTER. That's your new nickname.

  2. I think bread making is much harder than people make it out to be. Differences in humidity and temperature can change everything. We bake loaves all the time and I'd say a third of them are unsuccessful.

  3. The good news is it must not have been too toxic since you lived to tell the tail :) I bet you bake a fabulous bread... when the starter is good. Happy mid-January. It's almost over. xo

  4. Bread making IS hard. What a relief it is to hear that others miss the mark sometimes too! Anyone who undertakes bread-baking should really have a good amount of emotional fortitude. And lots of cookies on hand.

    Also, for the record, I came home tonight and was so hungry that I ate MORE of the bread. It was not delicious. Robb came into the kitchen as I was eating it and said, "Really? Even after you wrote that blog post?" Really.

  5. I will never eat your food again.