Routines are shifting, and I have spare time during these coronavirus lockdown days. I find myself spending more hours in the kitchen. Inspired by my son, who has earned his stripes this past year making bread, I take the challenge under his tutelage. His wife and two boys look forward to his weekly production of perfect home-baked sourdough loaves that I have tasted and appreciated. It seems like a good way to fill my idle time. During my visits to his nourishing household I have asked questions about the making and sharing of it. He listens and gifts me a recipe, some starter, and a Dutch oven.
In my own kitchen I learn that there is something meditative about the breadmaking ritual. It seems both complicated and familiar. It is not unlike making ‘tsoureki’, the Greek Christmas bread every household has for New Year’s Eve to celebrate the ending of a fast and the beginning of a New Year, except that recipe calls for yeast which is hard to find. I decide to make it with sourdough and read my son’s recipe carefully to assure I have all the fixings and kitchenware I will need ahead of time.
The recipe I follow is one that requires no kneading and takes about twenty-four hours before my kitchen fills with that hard to resist smell of freshly baked bread. It is a process that requires precision in measuring ingredients. A scale is desirable, one that counts grams, but I prefer the Julia Child approach of approximations which means learning from the imperfect results. That is fine, because repetition is a good key to improving. On such a day, I find I am eager to take time making bread over again; it feels nourishing to the soul.
Early in the day I feed the sourdough starter my son has furnished me with warm water and flour. Adding equal weight of flour and warm water to the base I kept stored in the refrigerator activates the mixture to double, bubble, and signal that it is ready for action. In a plastic container with holes drilled on the lid, the sourdough starts rising. I keep it on the kitchen counter during fermentation when wild yeasts and bacteria liven up. This simple mix of flour and water holds so much zest for life. This is when I first detect the slight sour aroma, a promise of sourdough bread.
I realize this starter has been known to many bread makers around the world, and I came to it late. It feels organic, closer to mother earth, vibrating with the energy of creation. I imagine Greek women of the past century wearing bandanas in their hair and aprons over their black widow dresses, getting up early on a summer day to feed the starter, to bring out their trough, flour and water, to make bread in their yards under the azure sky. After a busy day of managing households, kids and shopping, they return to continue breadmaking again in the late hours of the day. So do I, between nine and ten o’clock at night, an unusual time for me to start a project. The rise and fall, the light kneading and the time in between is organic fermentation time when rest alternates with action, as so many things require in life.
The whole process takes me back to my childhood chore, one I never resisted: it was to pick up loaves of bread for my family from the 1950s storefront bakery in my neighborhood. I knew the best time to arrive was midday, when Mr. Papadopoulos would be stacking loaves of steaming bread, taking our change from behind his counter, and handing out what we ordered. His shop served the whole neighborhood with bread and took our sheets of meat or chicken and potatoes for holidays and Sunday dinners to bake them to perfection. He sold only two kinds of bread, white and dark. By the time I returned home the heel, and perhaps a bit more of the crust would be missing. The adults did notice but they did not scold me for my gluttony. On those afternoons, my snack was often a delicious slice of white bread with a thick layer of butter spread over it.
But back to my coronavirus day in the kitchen for the next step: I blend a ¼ cup sourdough starter together with all the ingredients in a deep ceramic bowl that I use exclusively for that purpose. It’s a glazed, thick, heavy ceramic bowl, in earthy beige and brown tones. I set it on a tall stool next to the counter and add measured ingredients:
- 260 grams (~2 cups) whole wheat flour
- 260 grams (~2cups) white high protein bread flour
- 10 grams (~1 ½ tsp. salt)
- 438 (~2 cups minus 2 Tbs water)
- 70 grams ( ¼ cup) sourdough starter
Mixing flour, water, oil, salt, and the starter with my hands is a messy proposition, sticky and quick. Globs of lumpy dough hang on my palm and fingers as I lightly knead it, adding a bit of flour when necessary, working fast to persuade the mix into a smooth mass.
The recipe calls for me to cover it with a wet kitchen towel and leave it in the bowl to rest in a warm corner of the room. It rests there overnight, rising to almost double its original size by the morning hours, when I eagerly return to check on progress. It is getting close to baking time. I lift the dough out of the bowl and one more time, flatten and fold it on the kitchen counter which is lightly dusted with flour, and shape it into a round ball. Back in the bowl, covered, it rests and rises for another hour or so. Once it has doubled in size, it is time to bake it. The hard-working starter has done its job.
I bring out the heavy, old-fashioned, dark, cast iron Dutch oven. Having never used one before, I pick up the phone. My son suggests that it needs to be hot before I bake. He reminds me to set the temperature to 500 degrees and set the thick-walled pot in the oven. Careful not to burn my hands, I wait for fifteen minutes, place the dough into its infernal belly and with the lid shut, I return it to the oven, lowering the temperature to 450 degrees. Twenty minutes later, I reach in and remove the lid, leaving the oven door slightly ajar. It still looks pale, but in another 20 minutes, a round, golden loaf is resting on a rack, cooling down to room temperature.
Waiting for it to cool, a skill I have finally acquired as an adult, I recall the sweet village bread we sometimes bought on Sunday drives in the Greek Macedonian countryside. My father used to stop the car by the woodburning oven we had discovered at a nearby village. He would park by the earthen structure next to a whitewashed house on the main road. I still remember the lineup of tin pots in front of that home, brimming with geraniums. Father would honk the horn, and a man would come to the car, accept some change, and hand us a round loaf of sweet village bread. It often was still warm and was heavier and heartier than Mr. Papadopoulos loaves. In the car, we would slice it and share some on the spot.
A feast for the eyes with its golden crust, my loaf rests on the rack, and my son awaits a full report. I pick up the phone eager to thank him for the inspiration. He asks me to rate the experience: not bad for a first try. The loaf has not risen as well as it could have done, I discover when I slice it, but the house is filled with the satisfying smell of freshly baked bread. “That’s pretty good, mom,” he says. In the background I hear my grandchildren and their mom working in the kitchen. It’s nearly lunch time. I have some soup to take to their household along with a sample of my bread. Life with family is good on this coronavirus day!