As I’ve continued my research into baking, I find more and more elaborate, complex and interesting techniques for making bread. Each nuance, each slight variation creates a broad pallet of different textures, flavors and consistencies. Being such a novice and expecting to make mistakes early on, I’ve started with easy recipes, blanks slates with which to learn the basics. My Cousin Les just posted a very detailed comment on my page on the blog chock full of really important feedback from what he’s learned in the past couple of years as a baker. There are so many approaches to baking, I’m starting to think about this project as a lifelong pursuit rather than a year-long adventure. I may have to make a trip up to Vermont to visit Ole Cousin Les for a baking lesson. There’s so much for me to learn!
So, on to a new technique – the sponge. My earlier experiments, all starting with just yeast and water, delivered a relatively thin crust, mild flavor and a tight, fluffy crumb. Those breads were good and I’m happy with the results. But to really hit the big leagues, the sponge is the logical next step. This method produces bread with deep flavor, crunchy goodness, porous texture and moist, open crumb, the artisan bread of my dreams. A sponge starter is basically yeast, water and a little bit of flour, allowed to bloom, get frothy and sit around developing flavor. Eventually, the sponge gets mixed with a full compliment of flour and turned into bread. When the sponge is allowed to sour, you get sourdough starter, which I’ll probably experiement with next.
The last time I baked bread, put half the dough aside so I could use it as a starter. That recipe was a suggestion from my friend Brady and was the subject of my last blog – Third Time’s the Charm. The dough was quite sticky and stringy and I thought it would make an excellent biga or Italian style starter. After sitting in my fridge for a week, the original dough had doubled in size and it was extremely sticky and had a very bizzare, supernatural type appearance. I found a basic recipe on-line for bread made with a starter. It called for:
1 cup of 100-115 degree water
3/4 tsp of yeast
1 tbsp of sugar
3 1/2 cups of flour
1 tsp of salt
The yeast gets mixed together with the sugar and water, then the starter, the flour and the salt all go in and get mixed together. The dough is kneaded for 10 to 12 minutes until it becomes soft and pliable and you hear a pleasant, hollow thump when you gently pat the dough. I’m still learning how dough is supposed to feel, so this is all new to me.
After a two-hour rise, I had a lovely full bin of soft dough, ready to be formed into loaves. I scooped it out onto my floured surface and inspected it. It had a nice elasticity and a yeasty aroma. My husband Jason joined me and together we formed the loaves. Last time I made bread, I was unable to slide the raw loaves from my cookie sheet to the pizza stone in my oven. This time I was smarter and I sprinkled cornmeal onto waxed paper, then placed the loaves on the waxed paper for it’s second rise. Ninety minutes later, they were ready to go in the 450 degree oven and they slid right off the waxed paper. I also decided to use a roasting pan of water in the bottom of the oven to create steam. Last time I attempted this, I made an egregious error in judgement and ended up with an oven full of broken glass. This time, I did it right with a metal pan.
The final product showed the fruits of my labor. Perfect bread. It made a round, hollow thumping sound when I tapped the bottom of the loaf. When I cut into the crust, it almost exploded with a symphony of crackle. It had a rich, almost sweet aroma. The crumb was moist and open, not quite as complex and full of giant holes as a baguette would be, but certainly more developed than anything I’d made before. When it was fresh, I served it with a dish of good olive oil flavored with dried oregano, flaky salt and freshly ground pepper. It tasted like heaven on earth. That night, I made spaghetti and we had the bread on the side with just a little bit of butter. Again, it was divine. The next morning, I had a slice toasted with a little bit of jam. It even toasted perfectly. Was it spongeworthy? I’d have to say….HELL YES!