“Cooking means the knowledge of Medea and Circe, and of Calypso and Helen, and of Rebekah, and of the Queen of Sheba. It means the knowledge of all fruits, and herbs, and balms, and spices, and of all that is healing and sweet in fields and groves, and savory in meats; it means carefulness, and inventiveness, and watchfulness, and willingness, and readiness of appliance; it means much tasting and no wasting; it means English thoroughness, and French art, and Arabian hospitality; it means, in fine, that you are to be perfect and always ‘ladies’—’loaf-givers.’” — John Ruskin
Though the notion of being a “lady” seems rather antiquated to postmodern feminist ears like my own, it is interesting to recall that the word lady comes from the Anglo-Saxon word hlaefdig, meaning loaf-giver. I don’t believe that feeding one’s family and loved ones is solely a woman’s art, but I do take the heart the notion that preparing food for a friend or loved one is an act of love, protection, magic, and bonding. The receiver must have trust that the giver will feed them well. The giver has all of the time involved in the cooking to imbue the dish with his or her love, intentions, dreams, prayers, and magic.
Food is a powerful medium in many ways. It also teaches us lessons we can apply to our lives in other areas. When making my first Pate a Choux (the pastry used for puff pastries, eclairs, etc.) last week I had one of those moments familiar to many cooks, a moment where all the hard work seemed to be falling apart, the dough didn’t look right, didn’t behave, and generally seemed like an absolute failure. I trusted the recipe, though, I followed the directions, and then in one single lovely moment it all came together and turned out to be perfect. That brave step into the abyss and the reassurance of a hand catching you and lifting you is something we all experience in life, and that trust in a higher power, whether the recipe or the divine, is something worth cultivating.
I have made a lot of bread in my time. I love baking bread, and have done it on a weekly basis for as long as I’ve lived on my own. I’ve tried to learn about the technique, the chemistry, and the history of baking, and I’ve certainly made enough doorstop loaves to learn a few things. This past weekend I baked the loaf of bread I have been trying to bake all my baking days. It taught me that trust in the recipe even when it didn’t seem right, it taught me to not mess with things too much and instead to trust them to turn out, and it reinforced my love of cooking on good, strong cast-iron, the older the better.
In celebration of kitchen magic and this time of year, a time in which we are drawing in as the days draw in, all engrossed in feeding those we love, here is a simple and delicious bread recipe. Dream as you bake it, and tear into it, hot and steaming, with someone you love. Happy thanksgiving.
Diane’s Best Boule
Sourdough starter: If you don’t have active starter yourself, and don’t know anyone who does, it isn’t hard to make your own starter (and by make I mean catch several wild living organisms, strains of wild yeast and bacteria that will do your body a favor by digesting wheat gluten and giving you the staff of life… isn’t yeast amazing?!). It takes a few days, and there are many different ways to do it. Here is mine:
Mix 1 cup of water and 1 cup of flour in a non-metal container. Add a pinch of sugar. Cover with a cloth and leave out at room temperature (or warmer, 80 degrees is about perfect for yeast). Check daily. In 4-7 days it should start looking bubbly with a little liquid on top (the alcohol given off by the yeast, called hooch), and smell sour. You now have your very own living yeast culture, made from wild yeast unique to your area. It can be stored in the fridge (covered) for several weeks without feeding (this varies). It can be frozen or dried for long-term storage, and it will provide you with endless delicious food. It will be your favorite pet, I promise.
To feed your starter pour off the hooch on the top, add equal parts flour and water, mix with a non-metal utensil, and leave out in a warm place until it gets bubbly. This can take several hours. I will often feed my starter before bed and go on to the next step in the morning. When feeding add the same amount of water and flour that you need for your recipe (i.e. if you need one cup of starter, add one cup of water and one cup of flour to your starter). If you can’t wait 4-7 days to try this bread, make a quickie sourdough starter by adding a teaspoon of instant yeast to your water/flour mix, then treat as normal sourdough starter. It won’t be as sour at first, but leaving the starter out every time you feed it will begin to expose it to wild yeasts. All starter gets better with time, which is why you should try to get some from a friend. :)
Sponge: This is the start of all good breads, and will help give your bread that wonderful sourdough taste. In a large non-metal bowl mix 1 cup of sourdough starter, 1 cup of water, and 2 cups of flour. I use a 50/50 mix of all-purpose flour and whole-wheat bread flour. Cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm space until the sponge doubles in size. This usually takes several hours, and can certainly be left overnight or all day while you’re at work.
Dough: Now the magic happens. To your nice poofy sponge add 2 teaspoons of salt, 1 tablespoon of oil of your choice, and a teaspoon of sugar. I’ll be honest, this next bit I never measure, so I am going to start talking in handfuls. Your hands are going to get doughy and floury at some point, so you might as well get into it. Besides, this is a spiritual experience. Add two handfuls of flour (I use one white, one whole wheat), and start folding and mixing the dough. It will be very sticky at this point. There are lots of videos out there about how to knead dough. I leave it in the bowl and kind of stretch/smoosh it, fold it over, rotate the bowl, and repeat. Once the flour is all incorporated add more flour, one handful at a time until the dough just barely stops sticking to your hands. You want it as wet as it can be without being goop you can’t handle. This is the time to add herbs, cheese, garlic, dried fruit, nuts, etc. if you want them.
Proofing: Shape your dough into a ball (or a boule if you’re fancy and Italian) and place it on a VERY well-floured surface. Sprinkle with more flour and leave it to sit for about 30 minutes. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Place in your oven a large casserole dish with a cover - glass, iron, enamelware, whatever you like. You want the dish to get hot with the oven.
Baking:When your dough has rested for a while and the oven is hot, carefully pull out the dish. Gently lift your dough and place it in the dish, cover, and return to the oven for 30 minutes. The dish serves two purposes - it distributes the heat more evenly over the surface of the bread, and it helps hold in the moisture, giving you a nice crisp crust and chewy interior. The time while the dough is cooking is another great opportunity for reflection or other workings. I often will light a candle or say a prayer to Brigid, who protects the kitchen and the hearth.
When you take the bread out of the oven place it on a cooling rack and try to give it at least 10 minutes to cool, this will keep it from tearing when you try to cut it. Enjoy and give thanks to your quick mind, strong hands, and warm heart for helping you feed yourself and your family.