Praise the loaf

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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.

Bread

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
Rising up
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

Absolute.
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

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Comments

  1. Janice

    April 30, 2020

    Dear Mary Lou, how delightful. I’m almost inspired to try some sourdough baking myself but I fear I lack your persistence and good humour. Better I think to imagine and dream and read this clever poem. Thanks for sharing your inspiration – no salt necessary! xoxoxxo

  2. Maureen McGahey

    May 1, 2020

    Dear Mary Lou:
    I was wondering about the craze for sourdough too…but not enough to try it myself.
    I love the idea of working at something even if it is a new skill…to just enjoy the comfort of a comfort food too.
    It’s apple crisp for us these days…warm, sweet, tart and aromatic especially with blueberries.
    It’s the process with bread…intentional…right conditions etc. I really enjoyed this gorgeous poem too.
    Thank you and be well .Take time to loaf around too.
    Maureen

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      May 1, 2020

      Hi Maureen — Apple crisp with blueberries — oh, don’t tempt me! And thanks for the advice to ‘loaf around’; I’ll take that to heart.

  3. Wendy Sarno

    May 1, 2020

    Wonderful, Mary Lou! Congratulations. A beautiful loaf! I am so grateful that you let me know about Jack. My first Jack loaf came out of the oven his morning. Its beautiful, high and toasty brown. I didn’t get a good slice thru the skin so I don’t have a pattern to brag about and I have to let it cool before I cut it. But so far, its the best of my 4 loaves and one batch of sourdough cinnamon rolls so far. I didn’t know sourdough would become a thing when I bought my first starter at a local bakery just at the start of things shutting down. I just knew this would be a time at home to work on my long time yearning to bake a good loaf of bread. And I love sourdough. I had no idea how delicate it actually is and how tenderly one must treat it along the way. Jack is a delightful teacher and his videos are so easy to follow. So fun to share this effort with you across the miles. Enjoy, Wendy

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      May 1, 2020

      Wendy, I can smell the aroma of your bread through your words! Glad to engage in this food play with you.

  4. Kate McGregor

    May 1, 2020

    I feel like such a trendsetter (or a clairvoyant?) as I’ve been baking sourdough bread for months now. For a change, I tried Mark Bittman’s no knead bread with great results. A fun blog, Mary Lou. Thank you.

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