Don’t know about other bloggers, but as soon as I’m done with a post, I’m thinking about the next. As you may have noticed, I’m not into minimalist blogging – which is in a way to say, I’m not in the mainstream of bloggers, most of whom adhere to the Twitter type of content, short, sweet, and mostly incoherent. I personally don’t care much to read or to write this style of blog post – I’d like to think, even if I don’t always hit my mark, that I need some kind of significant content before I can do a post.
I love the Mark Twain snippet out of a letter he wrote to a friend once – it goes something like, “… Please forgive the length of this letter. If I had had more time, it would have been much shorter.” Mea maxima culpa.
It also takes me time to do what I feel is the necessary prep and research for my posts – I’m a bit obsessed, I know, about getting things right, and I hate the idea of going to post with an uneasy feeling that I’ve left questions unanswered, or worse, gotten my facts wrong. All of this means even more time. So, as Mr. Twain knew well, at some point you’ve just got to say ‘To hell with it’ and post anyway.
Yesterday, in the midst of an interesting but time consuming blogging research effort, my next post rudely forced itself into my face and announced its presence. As in any other day, the normal activities of daily life were occurring, even as I was engaged in gathering my needed blogging data. I was in fact working my way through Mick Hartley’s splendid bread book, ‘Bethesdabasics’, and I had convinced myself the loaf I was working on would probably not make a good subject for a post, since it was a Whole Wheat loaf, and I would be using my own freshly ground whole wheat rather than a normally aged commercially milled whole wheat.
Why would this fact make poor posting material? Because I assumed that I’d have trouble with this loaf, and ‘problem’ posts are not my favorites – and even less when those problems are occurring because I’m using ingredients that are not in common use by others. Additionally, I knew that because I’d be using fresh ground wheat, I was going to have to change a few of Mick’s instructions, making the replication of this process even less likely.
But my cautionary attitude was to prove ill timed, and in fact, I think I may have learned at least one new sourdough secret that may be universally useful, whether one uses aged or fresh whole wheat flour.
One of the things I like about Mick’s process is that all his breads use two 12 hour builds of the sourdough starter – I think this is a better way to approach a loaf than simply dumping in a cup of starter to create the dough. Some may disagree and say there is no difference, but I think there is. Essentially, you are forced into using a very active starter in its third consecutive 12 hour refreshment – and I’d be willing to bet that few of us would subject our regular starter to this same process regimen each time we planned to bake. The difference, to me at least, is that most of us use our starter at the top or after it has peaked, and Mick’s process forces the starter into 3 quick partial refreshments, which may simply be a better prep for the big job ahead.
Mick’s second loaf in his book he calls, Mick’s Classic Sourdough, and he says it’s the loaf he identifies most with – and he tells us that he’s done more developing with this loaf than any other he bakes. He describes the dough as ‘very gentle and forgiving’, but I knew I’d be giving it a challenge or two to deal with. Why? Read on.
I was eager to try Mick’s Classic loaf with my freshly ground whole wheat, but from experience I knew that would change Mick’s process – fresh ground whole wheat introduces changes in the enzymes available in the flour, and the fact that it is not aged (oxidized) yet would mean a few adjustments were necessary. One thing I knew from experience was that the proofing time may well increase significantly, and I needed to be ready for that.
I’m really bad about trying to gauge the times of necessary phases of baking – seems like, no matter how hard I try to schedule, I’m always having to make adjustments before it’s over. Mick tries to help by providing a suggested two day schedule which starts in the morning of day one – I did this. And by evening, you put together ‘build 2’ of your starter, which you leave for an overnight rest. Next morning, he suggests you put the dough together bright and early, but of course, I didn’t do that until close to noon – then, my 3 or 4 hour fermentation period extended to about 6 hours (just didn’t look like it was doing anything yet). When I finally put the fermented dough into my proofing basket, I knew I’d either be baking real late that night, or I’d be making another adjustment.
Round about 9pm, I took a peek at the rising bread – no way that baby was going to be ready to bake before I went to bed, and so I shifted to Plan B. I’ve always heard about bakers who had given their breads long, cool, overnight proofs in a refrigerated environment and baked the loaf right out of the refrigerator, but I’d never tried it myself – until now! Yup, that’s what I’d do with this loaf. I knew there’d be no room in our refrigerator, but my trusty deck-side BBQ is my proven overnight fermenting cabinet (about 40F), and would be perfect for this purpose too.
In she went, and I went to bed.
I rise early – usually by 4 or 5am – and as soon as I was up, I turned the oven on to 450F, for an hour’s preheat. At 6am, I went out and got my overnight loaf out of the faux proofer – it was not much larger than when I had put it out there the night before. Kinda discouraging. I almost changed my mind and toyed with the idea of giving it another several hours at room temp, so it could put on a little more size. But then, how would I know if baking immediately out of a cold proof would work? No, I had to do this.
I added a cup of water to the bottom of the oven for initial steam, scored the loaf as Mick had suggested he does, and slipped it onto the oven’s hot stone. I immediately lowered the temp to 425F and determined to not peek for another 10 minutes – When I did next open the oven door, I couldn’t believe my eyes! That loaf had experienced what we faux bakers call oven spring, and it is a much sought after phenomenon. My loaf had magically expanded by some 50%, maybe more. Wow.
Now this is an amazing thing, my friends – and I’m not sure I can explain why this happened. It certainly wasn’t expected – after all, I had, by all accounts, over-proofed it (which is usually a recipe for a shrinking loaf, not an expanding one). Additionally, I knew from my previous but limited experience with fresh ground wheat that I’d have issues with slow, weak rises. What then can explain this amazing result?
I’m afraid I can only offer a few wild ass guesses – maybe someone reading this will provide a better answer. My first guess is that the fresh ground wheat flour does in fact slow down the rise, and therefore, the dough had something left when the intense shock of the sudden oven heat occurred. My second guess -and this may well be more on target- is that to bake out of a cold overnight proofing is simply a damn good way to go. I certainly shall be applying it to many more of my breads in the coming months.
This, however, is all I really do know about this loaf – this morning, when it had cooled down, we ate almost half of it. And it was delightful. The 50/50% white wheat/whole wheat, gave the loaf a wonderful rustic heartiness that made you know you were having a special experience. And I must thank Mick for his well developed formula for this Classic Sourdough loaf – for all I know, it may well be his recipe that’s the reason for this loaf’s exceptional success – after all, he did say it was a ‘forgiving’ dough, right?