Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Notes from the Baking Trail

First Stop Brick Maiden
I’ve taken a good many road trips in my life, mostly in my teens and twenties. Back then I was unstoppable. I traveled endlessly to pursue my passion for food and to discover what my niche in the food world would be.

Now I’m on a new kind of road trip, this time to San Francisco to begin my baking career. Believe it or not, and I don’t quite believe it myself, I’m no longer twenty. My passion for food hasn’t diminished, but I’ve got a few more aches and pains. I may be growing older but as Laurie Anderson brilliantly said, now that I’m fifty, I feel like five ten-year olds in one body.

My first stop was to visit Celine Underwood, the owner/baker at Brick Maiden Bakery in Point Reyes, California. Chad Robertson of Tartine bakery in San Francisco (he’s next on my list for a visit) used to bake his bread there before he moved to the Bay Area. Celine bought Chad’s business and she now bakes her bread in a wood fired oven—my dream!

When I walked into the bakery at 11:00 am, Celine was mixing dough, an assistant was shaping dough, the oven was being fired up with wood, and Celine’s husband was getting ready to feed the starters. Celine’s breads are made using a live sourdough starter, which has to be fed a couple of times a day. She shared with me that she has been to known to take her starter on vacation with her so she could continue feeding it. That's commitment! I can’t envision a more ideal operation.

Celine uses almond wood because it is sustainable. I’ve been eager to visit a bakery that uses wood because there is something unbelievably romantic about it. When I get my operation going, almond will be my wood of choice.

After a few minutes with Celine, I got a really good sense of how incredibly physical and laborious bread baking can be. Doing everything by hand, without the use of dough machines, really tests your stamina. No wonder few people do it which explains why most of the bread we get is machine-produced crap!

Celine works with wet dough, something new to me. Wet dough is not used in commercial baking because industrial machines can’t handle it. Wet dough is much more pliable and elastic than other dough. Watching her work with it is like watching a dancer move. Because the dough is so loose, cutting and shaping depends on timing. To the onlooker it seems nearly impossible to control the dough as it is poured out of the tubs. But Celine and her team are masters, skillfully mixing and folding the dough, so that it can shaped.

Celine tells me that she started baking at nineteen. And now, at thirty-four, she feels her body is starting to wear out. She wants to expand her business but she is already baking four hundred loaves a day for her wholesale clients and various farmers’ markets. To get ready for this coming Sunday market she has to start baking at 1:30 am on Saturday!

I’m getting a reality check here and I’m starting to panic. What have I gotten myself into? If Celine is only thirty-four and feeling worn out, maybe I should stop now. When I ask her if I can come back and watch her bake the next day, I’m hoping she doesn’t suggest I appear at 1 AM. I’m thrilled to find that I don’t need to show up until 7 or 8 am.

Celine is my hero. When I calm down I realize that I understand her passion and her commitment. And I think I’ve learned from her, that no matter how hard the job is, if it speaks to your soul you will be fine, if a little tired. As I leave, she joins her assistant in shaping dough and placing it in on the linen couches ready to go into the retarder, where the fermentation will be controlled until baking.

So this was my first stop. I’ve got a ways to go on my baking travels. I couldn’t be more excited. Until next time.

Brick Maiden Bakery
40 B Street
Point Reyes Station, CA 94945

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

First Loaves

Baking is so incredibly hot!! When I think about it, all my senses are aroused. Seeing, listening, touching, smelling and tasting. The time has come to finally bake off some bread. I’m baking in my little house with a very little oven, so I’ve decided to bake my first two loaves ensuring at least a gorgeous crust using Jim Lahey’s, baking in a pot technique. Though baking in covered pots has been around since the days of Apicius, he’s brought the idea into vogue recently.

It’s ironic that I am drawn to baking as my new medium. I was a terrible student because maybe I had such trouble focusing on reading and studying. As a cook/chef I did well, but as a baker I had to be very studious because I lose my concentration quite easily.

Since I am baking a pain levain I’m not sure what the results will be, I’d just be happy if my pain levain would rise and taste half way decent. After weeks of working on the starter I’m just happy to do something different.

I pre-heated the oven to 500 degrees with the pot in it and was so excited. I took the pot out of the oven and gently placed my loaf inside. I sprayed some water over the loaf, covered it and placed it back in the oven. No explanation in baking is simple, but simply put; water affects the gluten and creates a shiny crust.

After 30 minutes of baking you remove the lid and then continue baking it for another 30 or so minutes. As I lifted the cover, I stared at a real loaf of bread but in my ecstatic moment I realized that I had forgotten to score the top of the bread. Scoring the bread you allow the bread to have an escape route basically which results in a much better loaf of bread/ Luckily I had one more loaf to bake off so that mistake wasn’t the end of the world. I’m sure plenty more are in the horizon so I can’t get hooked up on this one.

When the bread was finished, I let it rest for an hour, which is important because the bread is still baking, I took a slice and I must admit that it was a thrilling moment. My bread was denser than I want it to be; yet the flavor was there. For my first loaf, it wasn’t a complete failure but I realized I have a long way to go. I opened a bottle of my favorite wine, a Condrieu from Andre Perret and spread some delicious raw butter on the bread and just savored the moment of this journey. It’s baby steps towards my goal and I’ve got a long way to go but I wasn’t discouraged. I anxiously look forward to next week when I go up north to the SF bay area and get to work with some of the best bakers going. Can’t wait.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

All About My Mother

Years ago while I was working in Paris I went to visit the great bread maker Jean-luc Poujauran. While walking through his bakery I noticed he had all these different plastic buckets on the floor filled with dough’s, all in different stages of fermentation. At the time I didn’t quite understand what they were but I now do, he was making soft dough using a wet levain starter. Poujauran’s bread is absolutely incredible and is one of my benchmarks.

A "mother starter" is the sourdough starter culture or levain that is used to make bread without using commercial yeast. The whole idea of bread made from a sourdough starter rather than commercial yeast is appealing to me, not only because I think the flavor will be much more interesting and complex, but it seems like a more natural process. For me the alchemy of working with flour and water to create something is what this is all about.
I’ve spent the past few weeks working on several starters and its been a real learning curve. One starter is just flour and water, the other flour, water and crushed grapes. The principal is easy, first you begin with combining small amounts of flour and water, then each day you continue to add more flour and water, which is called feeding, then hopefully over a few days it begins to ferment. Once your starter is ready, you use it to make bread.

Working on these starters has literally been like embarking on a new relationship. I’ve spent day and night with them, I worry is it going to work or isn’t it? I keep them in my bedroom because it’s the warmest room in my house and I think about them all day long. Finally I've completed the process and its very exciting. I think the sourdough starter worked but the grape starter is weird and I'm not into it as much. I'm throwing it out and will revisit it some other time. I took to much on and realized that I need to do one thing at a time. Meanwhile my starter is resting in the fridge until I have time to bake my first loaves.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Food and Love

I was a childhood foodie. Even at three I knew my destiny lay in the world of food. By my late teens I understood that being good at something meant being passionate about it. I sensed that cooking was magical and mysterious, closely tied to passion and also to love.
I have had an extraordinary journey through the world of food. I have been a caterer, a restaurateur, a private chef, a food stylist and a food editor. I have traveled the world, met amazing chefs, drunk the best wines and eaten the finest meals. Best of all, I have been able to do what I love.
A few years ago, my job as a food editor of House & Garden came to an end when the magazine closed. Eventually I got a call from the Los Angeles Times. They wanted to re-launch the magazine and needed a food editor. I thought, why not? I had always envisioned a return to California at some point so this was it.
Soon after I started the recession hit and my job was cut back. I found myself in a new city and wondering whether to stick it out or go back to New York.
I’ve had to face those big life questions recently that I thought had been resolved in my 20’s. I’ve been down and lost but one bad day I asked myself what is it that I have always have wanted to do? Maybe I wasn’t in the financial position to ask this but I did anyway.
There are two things I’ve always wanted to do. The first is to make wine, the second is to make bread. Wine is an expensive proposition so why not make bread? It seemed right for the times. Bread is so basic. Water and flour and yeast. Who doesn’t love bread? It is also something I can start doing in my house, a grass roots project that I can turn into business.
Now a new journey in the food world begins. The first thing I want to do is to apprentice with some of my favorite bakers for a week or so: Steve Sullivan at Acme Bread and Chad Robertson at Tartine.
Recently two things have happened that sealed the deal for me. Christine Muhlke wrote a piece in the NY Times about Jeff Ford of Cress Spring who sells his breads at the farmers market in Madison, Wisconsin. The story was so moving to me because he was doing what he loved and I could easily see myself doing just what he was doing. Then my friend and mentor Alice Waters visited and we had dinner together. I told her about my plan and she got it right away. She offered to do what she could to make it happen. Before we had finished dinner she was setting up my visit with Steve Sullivan.
My idea is simple: When I get the bread I’m happy with I want to start small by selling it to my neighbors and maybe one public outlet. I’d also like to sell it through a CSA program and then eventually open a small bakery in Los Angeles.
I believe my long journey has taken me here to LA for just this reason. This is my first entry of my new blog documenting my life as a baker. I’m excited, ready, and scared.