It’s taken me quite awhile to get this post started – if you’re a blogger, you’ve been there too – you have your subject (Barm Bread) but you’ve got questions, and to cap it, my initial experience with this bread was less than successful – all of this leads me to the thought, “Do I really want to post about a baking that didn’t go as planned? And do I know enough about this bread yet to do an intelligent post?”
Hell, if I let those kind of feelings determine when I’d do a blog post, I’d never get much done! Anyway, long ago I determined I wasn’t going to join the “Perfection Food Blog Club” - I like to read blogs of people who occasionally make mistakes – and if you read my blog, by god, you’re going to read about mistakes. Hey, you might even learn enough so you don’t make the same damn mistake yourself!
For some time now, I’ve been fascinated by the “beer/bread” relationship – it truly is fascinating, and the more you learn, the more fascinating it gets. Today, for instance, I was learning of the old, strong relationship in Europe between bakers and brewers. Previously, I had thought that before commercial yeasts were developed, all bakers used sourdough to make their bread – Nope! The period of the nineteenth century was one where village bakers were either dependent on village brewers for their yeast -the foamy residue of fermentation known as barm- in order to bake their bread, or they literally brewed up their own barm for baking. And not until German brewers cultured a form of paste yeast in the late 1800s -a more stable and consistent type- did the dependence of baker’s on brewers lessen.
Dan Lepard, the British baking instructor and author, has a relatively famous recipe for Barm Bread in his book, “The Handmade Loaf” – I chose to use his version, since Lepard de-constructs a “bottle conditioned” ale to recreate a barm – it was either use Lepard’s version, or go without, since I’m not aware of any craft brewers hereabouts with some spare barm.
Right away we have some intrigue – what the hell is bottle conditioned ale? After a little research -ain’t the web grand?- I discovered that a bottle conditioned brew, ale or beer, has a tiny bit of the live yeast used in its own fermentation reintroduced back into the bottle instead of the usual CO2 that most brewers use. It’s a more natural brew then, no CO2 added, and with live yeasts! But don’t be mislead, Lepard is not calling for its use because of the live yeasts, for he immediately has us bringing the brew up to 165F, which kills the yeasts, and then whisking in some flour – we learn later he is doing this to gelatinize the flour (?) and to capture the flavors in the brew – He also says, bringing the brew up to 165F rids it of some alcohol, which otherwise would work against the yeasts which we are about to put back in.
Are you still with me? Good. After having spent several days researching this process, I was a little annoyed with Lepard, because he essentially got heavily involved in a long discussion on his website all about this bread, and he neglected to address why he was calling for the use of a bottle conditioned beer or ale – only two days later did I learn from a different source that Lepard was simply suggesting that a bottle conditioned beer/ale was going to have more flavor than one without, and it was the flavor that he was after. Perhaps Lepard has all of this in his book, but I think our friend, Dan, may be taken with the grand tradition of European brewing, and the fact that they’ve held to the old ways so well – I wish he’d just come out and say it, instead of making a complex recipe even more complex. I know the next time I do a barm bread, it won’t have a bottle conditioned brew in it.
If you still wish to stay completely true to Lepard’s barm formula, just know that many bottle conditioned brews are significantly more expensive than others – this is especially true of the European types – however, here in the U.S., Sierra Nevada, a large California craft brewer, bottle conditions all its brews, and they are priced quite competitively.
OK, let’s get to the baking itself – here’s Dan’s recipe – we must borrow from our bread blogging friend, Mili, for it, since at one time, Dan had it up on his website, but recently it disappeared from there. If it sounds like I have it in for Dan Lepard, actually I have great respect for the guy – he’s as accessible as anyone in the business, he knows his stuff better than most, and he is ready to help whenever – No, I’ve just had a bad last several days, and he’s been a part of my bad!
My mistakes? Let me count the ways – as with most of us, I have my good days and my bad. And in truth, working with a levain requires a bit of concentration to detail – when linked to the need for patience and the long, slow process of a new bake, even those of us with lots of time get a bit antsy.
I missed Dan’s instruction to “gelatinize” the heated ale with the flour of the barm mixture – Mili’s instructions are incomplete here, she says to heat the ale to 165F, cool to 68F, and then whisk in the flour – this needs to be changed to whisking in the flour at the point the ale reaches 165F.
I completely ignored the time factor on when the barm might be maturing – actually, this is one of those breads that has such a wide range of maturation time that it’s difficult to know how long it’ll be – Mili suggests anywhere from 12 to 30 hours – my experience was toward the long side, and I had to leave it overnight in a very warm spot – by morning it had fully matured and collapsed already – what to do?
I decided -perhaps wrongly- that I could simply refresh the collapsed barm and proceed – hey, it’s essentially a build from my main sourdough source, so why not? Well, one reason why not may be that in the long discussion of barm bread on Lepard’s website noted above, Dan says that since it’s the flavors that you are trying to capture here, the initial build will be the strongest, and if you simply keep refreshing it, each subsequent refresh has less and less of the flavor elements – eventually, it’s just a dup of your source starter. I did it anyway.
Everyone who recreates a barm, using Dan’s barm formula, thinks there’s something wrong with it at first – you’ve just got to wait it out!
Because I had to rebuild the barm starter a second time, I had to adjust the final hydration levels of the dough – I’m not good at these things, and I got it wrong – it was too dry, and so I simply added more water during the final mix – I have no idea of how close I got to Dan’s final hydration, but I had a pretty wet dough, and I used a tub for the involved initial proofing schedule - it did very well there.
Damn, this is one aggressive starter! It’s slow getting started, then becomes very fast, but it also has a long maturation holding time – not really a mistake, just be aware of it.
A common mistake I make is not protecting the moisture in my loaves during long proofs – and I did it again with these. I usually proof in my oven with the light on, and it holds a steady 90F degree temp – but it’s bone dry – I need to find ways to introduce more moisture such as misting, using wet towels, or just a tray of water in the bottom of the oven – whatever! These loaves had a very dry surface at bake time, but surprisingly, the loaf structure was quite solid, even with a proofing close to max.
My final proofing time was about five hours, which was a surprise given how long the barm took to develop – be careful, this baby gets aggressive, fast! I’ve been refreshing this starter since I first made it, and it’s easily twice as fast as my source starter!
Final mistake -Ta-Da- for whatever reason, I set the oven at 500F, I guess because I like to start with a hot oven, and turn it down when the bread goes in – but I failed to turn it down! I then compounded this error by baking longer than I should have, because they were not browning well (???). Result: very dry and very light loaves!
I would love to tell you at this point, that regardless of making all the above mistakes, this bread was fantastic – I can’t and I won’t. I owe this bread, and Dan Lepard, another chance for vindication – actually, I’m kind of looking forward to that opportunity!
And as I suggested above, maybe it’s not in the mainstream of fine food blogging to post such a list of egregious errors, but if it helps another baker in their learning curve to avoid a few mistakes, than I think it’s justified.
I’m sure Julia would agree.
It is with some degree of trepidation and mixed emotion that I entrust this post to Susan for consideration as an addition to the next YeastSpotting – I think she’ll be gracious.