So. I've been doing some interesting reading lately. A bit of chatting. And some thinking. Here's what's going through my brain these days, spawned by books, conversations, and well, life.
There is an ever-growing "trend" these days, of returning to what many view as old-fashioned values. I'm sure you've noticed the rising number of CSA's, farm stands, and farmer's markets. You may have heard about the rising popularity of upscale restaurants delving into recipes from the past, sourcing local foods, and adopting a less wasteful stance on food. I know many people who make their own yogurt, soaps, lip balms, and brew beer and cider. More and more people are gardening and keeping chickens. I bake bread, as do many. Canning is huge, and hip. You've surely heard about the popularity of knitting - even movie stars are sporting needles and yarn these days.
I have a theory, though, about this resurgence of the ways of the past, that are generally viewed as trendy.
Perhaps, and call me crazy if you like, but just perhaps, it isn't a trend at all. Perhaps, looking at the big picture, and the scope of human existence, we may more accurately view the past half-century or so, as the trend. An anomaly. Maybe we lost our way a bit, got a little excited by the supposed "freedom" offered to us by technology. Less time spent "slaving" away in the kitchen...microwaved dinners...pre-packaged meals... cheap, store-bought, imported goods... These all seemed such a great idea, initially. (And they still are, to many people. I'm not slating convenience.) But it seems to me that this gradual, and ever-growing movement to return to more traditional methods of supporting our families, and ourselves, is simply a way of seeking a more fulfilling way to live. People are finding a great deal of satisfaction in growing their own food, knitting a sweater, collecting eggs. There is a tremendous sense of pride to be had when we spend time thoughtfully creating something, or supporting a local business to do it for us, rather than rushing into the omnipresent, and ever-easy, Target or Safeway to pick it up. It would be ridiculous to suggest that everyone move out to the country, and start a homestead. But picking up a more traditional skill or two, one that we can share with and pass down to our children, our grandchildren, our friends and neighbors, makes sense. It grounds us somehow.
I think we're very fortunate to have the choices that we have, and the modern conveniences that allow us a larger world view. There is something rather important, however, in occasionally taking the time to shrink that world view down, and look around at our immediate surroundings: our homes, our neighbors, and our local businesses. It's peaceful, and gratifying, I think.
I was at a baby shower over the weekend, and chatting with friends that I've known for nearly twenty years. I noticed a tendency to sort of poke fun at ourselves for embracing various old time-y activities. Don't get me wrong, a little self-disparagement has a time and a place...and usually makes for a good laugh if you do it right. I joke about my inner Laura (Ingalls, of course); my inherent geekiness. Other friends laugh at how ironic it is that they're into these "hippie" habits. Really, though, I think we're all rather proud that we've picked up a skill or two, often without the benefit, as in bygone days, of having our parents or grandparents teach it to us. The sheepishness must come from this very fact. We are children of a technological, time-is-money, era. It hasn't been "normal" for quite some time, to bake bread from scratch, to knit our own socks, or to keep animals for food. We should be proud of ourselves, I believe, whatever our motivations for embracing old timey traditions. Some of us do it as a way of saving money. Some of us desire to create meaningful traditions. Some of us are just looking for a way of peacefully keeping our hands busy. It's all valid, and significant. And kind of awesome.
I'll start us off, on the shouting from the rooftops...I made my own yeast starter, a levain, in bread making terms. And I am super stoked, and super proud of it.
About two months ago, I showed you this:
I cajoled the Mister into climbing some wild apple trees for me. And some wild plum trees. Free food, after all. Just sitting there, ripe for the picking. And nobody was picking. It was a little too tart for eating, but great for applesauce. And for making yeast.
I learned the technique in 52 Loaves, by William Alexander. (Love this book, by the way. I felt personally invested in his self-proclaimed "pursuit of truth, meaning, and the perfect crust.") If you are just crazy enough to try it, like me, you will be well rewarded. I am turning out some profoundly amazing loaves of bread these days. I know I've said it before of other breads I've made, but Alexander's recipe for Pain de Campagne, is the end-all, be-all for me. And because this post is getting mind-blowingly verbose, I'll share the recipe soon. Bread recipes take some words, after all.
I will, however, share the recipe for making your own levain, to get things moving. It takes a little time, and wild fruit, which contains wild yeast. (Don't wash off the hazy coating on your fruit, that's the yeast!) It's a pretty cool science experiment, too, if you have kids in school in need of a project.
Away we go:
Building a Levain - adapted from 52 Loaves
To begin, you will need:
2 apples, wild or organic, unsprayed*
1 cup water**
A large mason jar, or covered container, preferably glass
*I, in all my excitement, realized on Day 2 of my levain making, that I'd rinsed the apples. I had a mini panic, until I remembered having read about yeast on wild plums. Which I happened to possess. So, I halved one, and removed the pit, and threw it into the mix.
**Leave your water out overnight, if it's chlorinated. The chlorine, which will inhibit the growth of yeast, will evaporate.
Peel one of the apples (discard the flesh or use it in something else), and cut the other, unpeeled, into 1 inch chunks. (If you're using plums, halve and pit them.) Put the peel, and cut up fruit, into the container, with one cup of water.
Let the fruit and water sit, covered, at room temperature, for 3 or 4 days, shaking or stirring daily. The mixture will be fizzing a bit, and should smell somewhat like cider by the third or fourth day.
Next, you'll need:
350 grams bread flour - preferably organic, definitely unbleached
50 grams whole wheat flour
*Note* Mr. Alexander prefers metric measurements, for their precision. A kitchen scale is a cheap and super handy investment. I highly recommend using one.
Build the levain:
Combine 50 grams whole wheat flour with 350 grams bread flour.
Measure out 150 grams of the apple water through a fine strainer, and add 150 grams of the flour mixture. (You'll use the rest soon.) Whip vigorously with a whisk, scrape down the sides, and cover with cheesecloth.
Leave the levain at room temperature, whipping every few hours to incorporate air. It's vital to keep it aerated the first few days.
Add 75 grams of water (treated as above, to remove chlorine), and 75 grams of the flour mixture. Whip, and leave at room temperature for another 24 hours, again whisking occasionally. You should see bubbles starting to form and the mixture slightly increasing in bulk.
Transfer the levain to a clean, 2-quart container. Avoid transferring the dried bits from the sides of the old container.
Add 75 grams each of the flour mixture, and water, and cover, as before.
If at any point in this process the levain starts to smell a bit funky, discard half, replace with equal parts (by weight) flour and water, and whip more frequently. If the levain seems limpid and doesn't bubble or rise, increase the frequency of feedings. (I didn't have an issue with either of these.)
Feed the levain once again with the remaining 100 grams of flour and 100 grams water, and let it sit at room temperature for two to three hours, then it will be ready for use. It will continue to develop flavor over the next few weeks.
Care and feeding of your levain:
Store in a covered container in the refrigerator.
For the first few weeks, feed twice a week, or whenever you bake bread. After that, it's only necessary to feed once a week. I bake a few times a week, so I haven't actually needed to do this, since I feed it at baking time, as follows.
Feeding is simply part of preparing the levain for the bread. You should always feed the levain several hours (I usually do it two to four hours before), or the night before making bread. Remove the amount of levain the recipe calls for, then replenish it with the same amount. (For example, you need 260 grams levain for Alexander's recipe. I remove this amount, using my scale, then replenish with 130 grams each all purpose flour and water. You no longer need to use bread flour for your levain at this point.) This way, you will have a constant supply of levain.
Occasionally, usually once a week or so, I swap out the container for a clean (not soapy, or detergent-y) one.
To encourage a stronger, more sour levain (think sourdough!), leave out your container overnight, or for an afternoon, once in a while, and feed with smaller "meals."
You may see liquid forming on the top, a product of fermentation. You can stir it back in, or if it's too much, you can pour it off. Weigh the levain before pouring it off, then replace with the same weight of water and flour (in a ratio of 3 parts water to 1 part flour.) Then feed as usual. (I've never done this. I just stir it in, since it's never been much, I suppose because I bake so regularly.)
That's how it's done, my friends. Mine looks like this these days:
The cool thing about it is that this can last years. I hear about starters that are 80 or more years old. Can you imagine?
And the bread? Oh, baby...the bread...
...it's insanely good. And it gets better - lighter, more hole-y, a little bit more sour - every time I make it.
I am definitely embracing old time-y around here.
Have a wonderful day. I'll be back with the full bread recipe soon, for you.