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One man describes what he learned about the 6,000-year-old history of bread during his year-long quest to bake the perfect loaf.
- William Alexander author of "The $64 Tomato"
William Alexander’s Recipes
400 grams unbleached all-purpose or bread flour
260 grams levain (see Building a Levain)
60 grams whole wheat flour
30 grams whole rye flour
13 grams salt
292 grams water (room temp)
1/8 teaspoon instant yeast (also called bread machine, fast-acting, or Rapid-Rise yeast)
Prepare the dough
1. At least 2 hours before beginning (you can do this the night before), feed levain as follows: Remove levain from refrigerator and add equal parts flour and room-temperature water (I use about 130 g each, which replenishes what I’ll be using in the bread). Stir/whip well, incorporating oxygen, and leave on the countertop, with the cover slightly ajar. Starter should be bubbling and lively when you begin your bread.
2. Place a large bowl on your scale and zero out the scale. Now add the flours, one at a time, zeroing out the scale after each addition. Separately weigh and add the salt. Add the levain, a dash of instant yeast, and the water.
3. Mix thoroughly with a wet hand until the dough is homogeneous. Mist a piece of plastic wrap with vegetable oil spray, press it directly onto the dough, and leave the dough to autolyse for 20-25 minutes.
Kneading and fermentation
4. Knead by hand 7-9 minutes (see my kneading video if you’ve never kneaded before). If you insist, you can use a stand mixer with a dough hook for 2-3 minutes. Knead until dough is elastic and smooth.
5. Clean out and dry the mixing bowl (no soap), mist with vegetable oil spray, and replace the dough. Place the oiled plastic wrap back onto the dough. Ferment at room temperature (68 -72 degrees is ideal) for 4 to 5 hours.
Form and proof the boule
6. Using your hand or a flexible pastry scraper, remove the dough to a floured countertop.
7. Gently press down to form a disk about an inch thick. Try not to press out the gas bubbles or fuss with it too much.
8. Fold the edges into the center. Move around the disk several times, pulling and gathering, tighter and tighter, trying to create some surface tension, as you form a ball. Finish with a just few seconds of half-rolling, half-dragging across the floured countertop, moving the boule in a tight circular motion.
9. If you don’t have a banneton or basket for proofing boules, simply line a kitchen colander with a well-floured linen napkin and place the boule inside, seam side up.
10. Cover with same piece of plastic wrap and set aside to proof, 1½ to 2 hours. While dough is proofing, place a baking stone in lower third of oven, and an old cast iron skillet or pan on the bottom shelf. Preheat oven to its highest setting.
Score and bake
11. After 1 and 1/2 to 2 hours, when the dough is proofed (another term for the second rise), it should have increased in volume by about half, and feel slightly springy. Transfer each loaf to a peel that is liberally sprinkled with rice flour or corn meal (or covered with a piece of parchment paper, but note that the paper will burn if you preheat the oven to 550 degrees F). Sprinkle the top of the loaf with rye or rice flour if you want that country “dusted” look.
12. Make several symmetrical slashes (or grignes) with your lame or razor. A “tic-tac-toe” grid is a good way for beginners to start.
13. Immediately slide loaf (including paper, if using parchment) onto stone and, wearing an oven mitt, add 1 cup water to skillet. Try to minimize the time the oven door is open.
14. Set oven temperature to 480 degrees F.
15. After 20-25 minutes, or when loaves have turned dark brown, reduce oven temperature to 425 degrees F.
16. Bake until loaves register 210 degrees F in center, about 50 to 60 minutes) with an instant-read thermometer, or until a rap on the bottom of the loaf produces a hollow, drum-like sound.
17. Return bread to oven, with oven off and door closed, for 10 to 15 minutes.
18. Remove bread to a rack and cool for at least 2 hours before serving.
Building a Sourdough (the easy way!)
Levain, sourdough, starter…call it want you want — it is the secret to authentic, yeasty, artisan bread. San Francisco sourdough has, in a sense, given all sourdoughs a bad name, but most wild yeast starters are far milder and (to my palate) more pleasant as well.
When it comes to making a levain, there is as much superstition as science being spread around, and there are as many methods to create a levain as there are bakers. I suspect all of them work and all of them occasionally fail — the main difference is that some routines are more involved than others.
The nascent levain requires the most attention during its first couple of days, so if you’re not around weekdays, make your apple water on Tuesday or Wednesday, and you can begin adding the flour on Saturday morning. I like to include a little whole wheat flour in the initial feedings, as it seems to give the starter a boost. See below for full instructions.
Prepare the apple water:
- Let 1 quart of tap water sit out overnight to remove any chlorine.
- Look for a hazy apple, preferably from a farm stand (the haze is wild yeast). Cut the apple into 1-inch chunks, and place, along with the peel of a second apple, into a container with 1 cup of the water. (Cover and reserve the remaining water for later.)
- Let the apple and water sit covered, at room temperature, for 3 days, stirring daily. The mixture should be foaming a bit and smell a little like cider by the third day.
Build the levain:
- Combine 50 g of whole wheat flour (preferably organic) with 350 g unbleached all-purpose or bread flour.
- Measure out 150 g of the apple water through a fine strainer and add 150 g of the flour mixture. Whip vigorously, scrape down the sides, and cover with a screen (a frying pan spatter screen is ideal) or cheesecloth.
- Leave the levain at room temperature, whipping every few hours to incorporate air. It is important to keep the starter aerated during the first few days.
- Add 75 g of the reserved tap water and 75 g flour, whip, and leave at room temperature, covered as before, for another 24 hours, again whipping occasionally. You should see bubbles starting to form and the mixture increasing in bulk.
- Transfer levain to a clean 2-quart container. Avoid transferring any of the dried bits from the sides of the old container.
- Add 75 g each of bread flour and reserved tap water, whip and cover as before.
- If at any point of this process, the levain starts to smell a bit funky, discard half, replenish with flour and water and whip more frequently. If the levain seems limpid (not rising and bubbling), increase the frequency of feedings.
- Feed it once again, with the remaining 100 g of flour and 100 g water, let it sit at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours, and your levain should be ready for use, although it will continue to develop flavor over the next few weeks. You can either use it in bread today or go to the next step.
- Cover with an airtight lid, store in refrigerator, and follow the care and feeding directions below.
Care and feeding of your levain:
Like an infant, a levain gets easier to care for with age. Just observe the following guidelines:
1. Keep the levain in a covered container in the refrigerator.
2. For the first few weeks, feed twice a week as described in the next step; afterwards, a weekly feeding is sufficient.
3. To feed, stir thoroughly and discard about 250 g of levain. Replace with 125 g water (straight from the tap is fine at this point) and 125 g flour (unbleached bread or all-purpose), and whip with a spoon or plastic spatula. Leave the lid ajar (so gases can escape) at room temperature for 2 to 4 hours before tightly covering and returning to refrigerator.
4. If you are baking regularly, feeding is simply part of preparing the levain for the bread, and no other feeding is necessary. You should always feed the levain several hours or the night before making bread, so replenish with the amount of levain the recipe calls for, and you maintain a constant supply of fresh levain with no effort.
5. Occasionally clean out your container with hot water (never soap) to remove the crud that forms on the sides.
6. If you want a stronger levain, leave it out overnight once in a while, and feed with smaller “meals.”
7. You may see a puddle of liquid forming on top, a product of fermentation. It can simply be stirred back in, but if you want to remove it, place the container of levain on your digital kitchen scale, and zero out. Pour off the liquid, return the levain to the scale and replenish with fresh water and just a little flour (in a ratio of about 3 to 1) until you’re back at zero. Then feed as usual.
By E.J. Mudd
Mix flour, water yeast and salt.
If the phones rings, don’t answer.
Your fingers are a sticky mess.
Let dough rise in a nice, warm place.
If the phone rings, don’t answer.
Knead till satiny. Divide into loaves.
If the phone rings, don’t answer.
Bake in hot oven till crisp and brown.
If the phone rings, don’t answer.
You’re in aromatherapy.
Take out and eat a piece at once.
If the phone rings, don’t answer.
You’re in heaven.
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