Six weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown and we’re all baking sourdough bread. What’s with this? I realize that bread is the ultimate comfort food, that it engages all the senses, that there’s nothing like the smell and taste of homemade bread just out of the oven.
But why sourdough? Why not a flurry of white or whole wheat, good enough for morning toast or lunchtime sandwiches, some starch to tide us over until our local bakeries reopen?
Is it status competition, all of us trying to outdo one another by posting photos of freshly baked sourdough loaves whose tops have been artistically scored into beautiful patterns? They should be framed and hung on the wall, rather than sliced and eaten.
Is it challenge? Unlike a loaf of regular bread which takes maybe four to six hours, a loaf of sourdough can take two to three days, or even longer if you’re trying to make your own sourdough starter.
Whatever the reason, I too have caught the sourdough baking virus. I’ve spent hours watching YouTube videos and reading bakers’ blogs. It took nearly three weeks of chasing the holy grail of sourdough starters before I landed on one that worked, thanks to Bake with Jack and his helpful and refreshingly cheeky wisdom. Meanwhile, my tongue is adapting to a new language with terms like ‘bench,’ ‘stretch and fold,’ ‘bulk fermentation,’ ‘scoring,’ ‘puff,’ ‘pre-shape,’ ‘spring,’ and ‘crumb.’
During the last two weeks, I’ve made five loaves. Each time the dough slid into the oven, my heart raced. How would this one turn out? Well, truth be told, far from perfect. Sometimes the dough didn’t rise enough; other times, left too long it ‘over-proofed’ and deflated. The top of the dough didn’t have a nice ‘tight skin’ which made it difficult to score, let alone risk any creative pattern. When baking, the gases in the dough didn’t ‘spring’ through the top, but instead burst out the sides. In most of the loaves, the texture was heavy and gummy.
Straddling hope and disappointment, I discovered something else: determination to keep going and, thankfully, a generous measure of curiosity. During each effort, I kept notes, and sought help from my sister Pat, who for years now has successfully baked delicious sourdough bread. With each of my failed attempts, she commiserated and encouraged: “Been there, done that! You’re getting there!”
Loaf number Five came out of the oven this morning. Nothing artistic about this lumpy, over-browned loaf. However, the crumb is even and light with a nice chewy texture…but…bland.
Oh. I forgot the salt in the initial mix. Yet another lesson in light-hearted humility, as slowly, I learn to love the bread, and it learns to love me, maybe with the sly wink of Brendan Kennelly’s poem.
Someone else cut off my head
In a golden field.
Now I am re-created
By her fingers. This
Moulding is more delicate
Than a first kiss,
More deliberate than her own
And lying down.
I am fine
As anything in
This legendary garden
Yet I am nothing till
She runs her fingers through me
And shapes me with her skill.
The form that I shall bear
Grows round and white.
It seems I comfort her
Even as she slits my face
And stabs my chest.
Her feeling for perfection is
So I am glad to go through fire
And come out
Shaped like her dream.
In my way
I am all that can happen to me.
I came to life at her finger-ends.
I will go back into her again.
~ Brendan Kennelly