As you know, about a year and a half ago, we moved from Manhattan to San Francisco in order to be closer to Tartine. I mean, the Ferry Building. No, wait, it was for Andrew's work. Or was it Tartine? It's hard to keep track here in the land of the Lotos Eaters. Whatever the case, we're down to our last few months here, so Bee and I have been trying to stop by Tartine once every week or two, lest we find ourselves regretting morning buns not eaten.
Tartine really is all about the morning bun for me. Okay, and the croissants, of course, I'm not dumb. Do you know that I've never even tasted the famous bread? Until the bread book came out, I actually didn't know it was possible for any old person off the street to buy the bread. I had heard that you had to be on "the list." It turns out that you, yes you, and I can buy it, if we call three days ahead and pay in advance (and then also stand in a line? I'm not really clear on that part).
But why not make it at home? You can spare 15 minutes a day for the next three weeks tending a starter, can't you? Call it your meditation practice. And really, haven't your pants been feeling extra loose? You look like you could use a slice of bread.
When I first saw and read about this book, I thought, no no no no no, I do not need to get into making a starter, and I don't even like sourdough bread that much. Although it was hard to resist another beautiful book from Tartine, I just knew that a bread-baking adventure was not what I needed. It was reported that the basic bread recipe went on for pages on end; the very thought of such a recipe drove me to bed for a contemplative nap. But then the January Martha Stewart Living included a condensed version of Chad Robertson's recipe, and it was on. The man advocated dipping hunks of bread in vinaigrette; what kind of stomachless fool would I be to ignore whatever else he had to offer? If I could bake a decent loaf of bread from the Martha version of his recipe, I would buy the whole book.
In a development that will surprise exactly no one, I procrastinated starting the starter, reluctant to commit. Once I had started it, however, I actually looked forward to its daily feeding, despite the fact that I really don't like getting my hands all ooky. The early days were thrillingly full of promise. In the dark middle period, I worried that my starter wasn't showing enough activity, so I started randomly tweaking because I figured it might be dead anyway: a few times I let it sit for 36 hours instead of 24, and I made it dryer or wetter according to some instinct I certainly didn't believe I had. It never started rising and falling predictably, the way it was supposed to, but neither did it start smelling or looking foul, so I kept at it. Almost four weeks after beginning, when I made a levain that floated (the first one I made never did), I baked.
And the bread is terrific! I suppose my mental tag for this kind of bread is "levain" or "country," "sourdough" being something I tasted and didn't like when I was eight. I didn't realize that the crusty brown Frenchified bread I've enjoyed all these years was probably made from a starter.
My first loaf puffed up gorgeously. (You bake this bread in a covered Dutch oven.) When I cut in I realized that this was because its interior holes were far too large. I think I let the final proofing go on a little too long, worried that my room was too cold; or perhaps my improvised shaping technique is to blame. Nevertheless, it looked and tasted wonderful.
Not ideal for a tuna fish sandwich, maybe, but this did not keep us from making croques monsieur! DIVINE. I followed this recipe, skipping the potatoes, using aged cheddar instead of gruyere, and slathering with slightly less bechamel than called for (plus 1/8 teaspoon cayenne in the bechamel).
Again, I followed the Martha instructions for the bread, which apparently differ slightly from the book (and might be a little more precise? I still don't have the book in my hands but hope to soon). My only changes were fiddling slightly with the starter as described above and failing to slash the top of my unbaked bread with a razor blade. I looked to this post from SFWeekly for moral support, and it led me to this page at Breadtopia, which gave me the information I need to keep my starter alive (I hope) without feeding it every single day.
Since I had pretty much convinced myself that my first attempt at this loaf would not work out, I was extra pleased when it did. It has given me unrealistic faith in the less successful parts of our tabletop garden. The bean and chickpea plants are thriving (perhaps because Bee greets them with a hearty, "good mornin', beans!" several times a day), but our carrot stumps, avocado pits, citrus seeds, and funny pineapple top have yet to show new growth. Undeterred, sustained by bread and hope, we plan to plant radish seeds.