Chestnut bread sings like a crackling fire fresh out of the oven
Think of the ancient Greeks, middle eastern peoples, the Jews, and the Egyptians as pioneers in the art of baking. Later during the Dark Ages a thick slice of bread accompanied daily meals. Later still, Charlemagne proclaims, “Let the number of bakers be always complete, and the place where they work always kept neat and clean.”*
You might wonder why a someone living in France would be inclined to make his own bread, what with fresh baguettes for sell on every other street corner. The fact is that most of it is lacking in quality. It’s puffy, bland, and goes stale very quickly. Many say that it’s difficult to digest. Already in 1982 a national survey suggested that 75% of consumers were unhappy with the quality of their bread.* These same consumers must take partial blame for the bad quality of their bread as consumers are worshippers of low prices. Base ingredients must be cheap and time spent in preparation kept at a minimum to maintain low prices. Bakers advance with the same speed as the rest of the world. Kneading is not done by hand but by machines that mix faster and faster in order to get the job done more quickly. Most bakeries use pre-prepared flours which contain a number of additives such as ascorbic acid, soya lecithin, preservaties and bleaching agents, aiming to make standard fool-proof breads that don’t change with humidity or seasons. The average baker cannot be called a craftsman, but rather, a small industrialist or worker. Don’t get me wrong- I don’t want to glorify the past just for the sake of it. Certainly innovation is helpful and even necessary, but when do we say when? We end up with bread that has been made according to society’s standards: cost-efficient, regular, and physically attractive. The perfect product. Best eaten in a mad frenzy on your way to work so that you don’t think too much about the taste or texture. Oddly enough, the few bakers who refuse to make bad bread, privileging high quality ingredients and quality-seeking techniques, make their fortunes. A number of bakeries are even starting to offer breads made with traditional leaven (sourdough starter) as consumers start demanding better bread. Gladly, they have economic interest to offer good bread, but a cultural interest as well.
In any case, Bastien and I got bored with the local bakers and decided to test our own bread, made traditionally with homemade “yeast” called leaven or sourdough starter. After almost a year of weekly bread baking (and kneading and shaping, and sometimes pleading on his knees for it to rise…), Bastien is starting to get the hang of it and I decided that we were ready to share.
Fred, meet Steve (our leaven)
Steve is our leaven and lives in a glass jar in the fridge. Once a week he spends the day out of the fridge to warm up and get bubbly. He doesn’t cause too much trouble, and is very quiet… too quiet sometimes. About two months ago someone closed his lid and he almost suffocated to death. You see, Steve needs oxygen like the rest of us, so we don’t close his jar completly. Luckily we discovered the shut lid a week later and spent the next month nursing him back to health. We are happy to announce that he’s been back to his old self lately and seems to love the new summer weather.
A fashion show featuring a few other breads that we make with our Steve:
Organic wheat bread
Round loaf and baguette
Fig and walnut einkorn wheat bread
Pictured to the left is about 300 grams of dough flattened with 3 dried figs and 2 handfuls of walnuts.
Recipe for homemade leaven bread:
Before jumping in, know that it will probably take a little time and a little practice to get your bread the way you like it, but homemade bread is worth it. Here are the basic steps with a basic wheat flour.
You will need:-a pizza stone (to place on the lowest rack of your oven facilitating a better distribution of heat) -300 g leaven (either you have one, you can purchase one online, get some from a friend, or better yet, make your own) -15 g natural sea salt -150 g mineral water plus at least 400 g mineral or filtered water (we use a Brita filter) -150 g rye flour for refreshing the leaven -900 g flour -some cornmeal to create a nonstick surface on your pizza stone …
The morning before, take your leaven out of the fridge.
Before you go to bed, refresh the leaven. In a large bowl, mix it with 150 g of rye flour and 150 g of water. We use rye flour because Steve (our leaven) loves it… (leaven works best with rye flour). Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and leave it on the counter for the night, away from drafts.
Step 3: pictured above
In the morning, or 12 hours later, check that your leaven is bubbly. This means it’s active and ready to use. Put a few spoonfuls of leaven back in your jar and put it in the fridge for the next batch.
Heat the water with the salt on the stove until lukewarm. Using your hand, mix the leaven with the lukewarm saltwater. Gradually add the flour, kneading until all the flour is moist and you have a nice moist ball that springs back a little when poked, as pictured above. If it’s sticky, sprinkle the dough ball with flour for easier handling, but don’t knead more flour into your dough.
Cover the surface with a cloth allowing no air holes and allow to rise in a warm place for about 2 hours, until the ball has doubled in volume.
Step 4: pictured above left
When dough has risen, slice the dough into equal or less equal parts, as you prefer. We usually make small loaves at about 400g the loaf. Quickly form each part into a ball and allow to rest for about 5 minutes on a lightly floured surface.
Step 5: pictured above right
Take a ball and flatten it using to palm of your hand. Fold an edge about one third of the way towards the center. Fold in again, and then once more and press the dough together to form the “key” (or the spot where the dough is pressed back together). It must be well sealed or it risks opening up in the oven.
Step 6: pictured above
Sprinkle a little flour on a kitchen towel and place each loaf as pictured above. Cover with another kitchen towel (to prevent a crust from forming) and leave to rise in a warm draft-free place for about and hour and a half, or until the bread has risen as pictured above and to the right.
When dough has risen again, put the pizza stone on the bottom rack of the oven and preheat the oven to 240°C or 450°F.
When the oven is ready, remove the pizza stone and sprinkle it with cornmeal. Carefully place each loaf on the stone. Quickly score the loaves with a razor blade or a sharp knife.
Prepare a half a glass of water. Open the oven and put the pizza stone with the bread back on the lowest rack. Quickly pour the water into the bottom of the oven and shut the oven door. The steam will help the crust develope a nice color during cooking.
Bake for about 35 minutes.
To tell when your bread is done. Take a loaf and knock on the bottom as if knocking on a door. If it sounds hollow, it’s done! If not, put it back in the oven for a few more minutes and try again.
When it’s done, place the loaves on a cooling rack and allow to cool for at least an hour. Enjoy!
*Information from the fabulous book History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat