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Bread porn: improvisational division


There are two schools of thought about schools of thought: one says you can divide the world into two kinds of people...the other doesn't. I belong to the latter group and have never understood the reductionistic thinking that goes into black-and-white, us-or-them, 'with us or with the tourists' kind of thinking.

It only gets worse, however, when the talk turns to all things kitchen. Seems the common wisdom is that cooks can work freeform, pitching all caution and planning to the wind Iron Chef-like and creating dishes ad hoc, while bakers must follow a recipe, doing exactly what they are instructed lest their creation — perhaps sensing fear — fails to rise, gel, puff, cream, melt-at-body-temperature or otherwise perform as desired.


I stand (okay, sit) here as a proud believer in the other kind of people: bakers without recipes. I do this absolutely all the time and one of the places I do it most often is in baking bread. (oh, stop cringing, it only hurts the first time!)

The other night, for example, I found myself in the midst of some serious bread cravings, and somehow without any fresh bread in the house. This simply would not do! Luckily, I had some poolish (wet bread starter) in the fridge and a rather warm house, both of which helped the process along more than a little bit. Wanting to incorporate some tasty bits in the bread led me to one of my reliable flavor combos: rosemary, sun-dried tomatoes, pinenuts, and parmesan.

Several hours later I was pulling this gorgeous round loaf of golden goodness out of the oven, filling the house with the fragrance of someplace much warmer than here. Somewhere with olives and tomatoes growing.



Here's my dilemma: I want to share this recipe, I really do. The bread was lovely, with a marvelous open crumb and a delicately crispy crust. It accompanied bowls of chili that evening and was yummy. But the entire process was done by feel, so any amounts I can provide are mere approximations.

Here's my rough take on what I did:

Combine ~3/4 of a cup of cold poolish, 1/4 cup room temp water and 1/4 tsp active dry yeast in a bowl. Stir and leave on the counter for half an hour or until it is bubbling enough that someoneElse asks if you're supposed to be doing something with it.

Say, "Oh yeah, thanks for reminding me. I'll be there in just a minute!"

Half an hour later, look up from your computer. Realize that your tea is cold when you take a big drink. yum! (what color is sarcasm, anyway?) Go to kitchen to put on tea water. Notice bowl of bread starter.
Nonchalantly, as if you meant to leave it that long, add some bread flour (maybe a cup) and mix. Mix in additional flour, a little at a time, until the dough holds together; not together like you'd want to knead it, but together. Cover the bowl and put it by the stove so it warms up a bit from the tea water heating.

Ten minutes later, when you remember the steeping tea, notice the bread dough again. Mix in a tablespoon or so of olive oil and about a 1/2 tsp of salt. Decide it needs flavor and dash out to herb garden. Remember it's March. In Washington. Remember that rosemary is good stuff, even if it's one of the few things that's been available in the garden for several months. In attempt to evoke warmer climes, add some chopped sun-dried tomatoes, a handful of pinenuts and a sprinkling of parmesan. Decide the colors are gorgeously sunny, add more red and green.

Turn dough out onto well-floured counter and knead for a few minutes, until it's as smooth as something with all those tasty tidbits of tomatoes, cheese, and nuts can be. (the dough was really soft, oozing over the sides of my hand when I picked it up...) Put dough in well-oiled bowl, turn to coat and set to rise. Turn oven on to heat bread stone.

An hour later...okay, two hours later...when the heat from the 500 degree pizza stone becomes a smell, look up from computer again. Turn bread dough onto parchment paper and slide it onto the pizza stone. Spray water inside the oven a few times, turn oven down from 500 to 450 and head back to computer. Just before sitting down, realize the folly, return to the kitchen and set timer for 15 min.

Now if you are really confident about your bread baking abilities, this might be enough.  Or too much. But for most people, that really isn't enough to get you there, is it? And that just doesn't seem fair somehow.

So that mouth-watering photo has languished on my hard drive (with 15 GB of its friends) waiting for me to recreate the recipe, perhaps measuring this time, so I can post it. Being on a deadline for my other kind of writing (are there two kinds of writers? those on deadline and those with writer's block, perhaps?) also leaves me without adequate time to do this for the next few weeks.

I ws thinking earlier today that it was too bad I can't get someone else to write up a real recipe, maybe even a tested one. I'd settle for a simple round of something rustic that can take adapting with whatever herbs happen to be on hand. Apparently, someone was listening, because Joybugaloo posted this lovely ciabatta (complete with recipe) at Lindsey's Luscious just yesterday.

Just add whatever herbs and things suit your fancy — next time I want to try this with some goat cheese — and there you go. My favorite combinations usually involve an herb, some cheese, maybe some nuts, and something with a savory edge, often salty (olives, for example). Trust your instincts: whatever you do, it'll be good.

In this case, at least, I'll agree that there really are two kinds of people: those who bake bread and those who are glad they do.

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