We had an exciting day yesterday. Among the incidents of note was the mud wasp nest we found in one of the bookshelves in the living room:
We’ve had a bit of a wasp issue this summer and can’t really figure out the source. We even climbed up on the roof of our building to see if there was a nest above our living room window (we live on the top floor) but there was nothing, and so we haven’t been able to do anything to rectify the problem and have just had to deal with the half dozen wasps that meander into our apartment on a daily basis. Last night we were sitting at the table eating dinner, minding our own business, when Alvaro remarked that he thought there was a wasp stuck behind one of the paintings on the wall next to us. “I’ve been hearing buzzing from around there all evening,” he said, and I agreed. He got up and listened around the paintings, then moved toward the bookshelf and declared it was coming from there. “What do we do??” He stepped away (insect phobia). Just shove the books toward the back of the shelf, I said, it’ll either get smashed or fly out. He wasn’t keen to do it, so I did it myself, and out flew a wasp. It flew straight out the window and I felt quite accomplished, until Alvaro cried “Holy shit, there’s a nest!” A nest, what are you talking about, I said, and moved the horizontal books to one side to see, and yes, there was a nest. It looked like all but two larvae had already hatched so we scraped everything off into a trash bag while screaming and hopping from one foot to the other. That was the end of dinner. Life lesson learned: we need to dust/move our books around more often.
Another exciting thing was that I had a spectacularly messy bread failure yesterday. I haven’t been doing much sourdough lately because it’s been too damn hot to bake anything, and also I’ve been a bit of a lazy baker so when I’ve felt like bread I’ve been doing Irish soda bread (which is a quick bread, no yeast). The day before yesterday I suddenly felt motivated to prep the starter for baking, and then yesterday morning made the dough. I recently saw a video of a guy shaping dough no thicker than pancake batter — really — into perfect loaves, and even though I’m really bad at shaping wet dough I decided f it, I’m going all the way this time. I mixed my wet dough, gave it a few turns throughout the morning, and then let it rise for the rest of the day. The other half of my big bread plans was to cook it in this beauty:
… one of the random cookery items that had been stocked at my parents’ place since I moved overseas ten years ago. I thought this copper baking dish would work as a stand-in for a lidded cast iron pot, which bread blogs all over the internet swear to be the closest in-home approximation to a proper bread oven. I’ve looked for a cast iron pot but they don’t seem to be a thing here, so when I unearthed the above from the cobwebs in my parents’ basement during a visit last month I decided to bring it back with me and try using it for bread.
Only yesterday I didn’t get that far, because once I’d decided that the dough had fermented enough, I turned it out onto a floured counter and it immediately spread out and just kept going, a bubbling, liquidy mass of something that in no way resembled bread dough. I’m still pretty happy with my emotional response to this: instead of yelling and swearing at it, I stared down at the dough in mild disbelief (mild, because somewhere not so deep down I knew that this would happen) and laughed, and called Alvaro in to see my mess before I scraped the whole thing back into the bowl. I added more flour, kneaded it a bit, and let it rise for a few more hours before putting it in the fridge for the night.
This morning I baked it in the copper pot, but I won’t bother with a photo because it was nothing to write home about. It’s flat, with a dull colored crust, and I just had a piece of it and am not crazy about the high level of sourness. It’s fine, edible, but my copper pot is not magic after all so I won’t be trying that again. But what’s that self-helpy thing they say? Perfect is the enemy of good enough. And I’ve decided that this bread is good enough to bring along for sharing at the outdoor concert we’re going to with some friends tonight. These guys:
I’m anticipating a fair amount of leftover bread, but it’s fine, as I’ve come to accept my role as human garbage disposal of my sketchy kitchen concoctions.
My sourdough starter turned one year old at the beginning of April. I can’t calculate the date exactly of course, so I chose the date of what I thought was more or less its birthday the way I celebrated my shelter cat’s birthday on February 2. (By celebrate I mean just saying “Happy birthday cat” and letting her gorge herself on cat treats — I wasn’t the sort of human companion who baked birthday cakes for my cat.) My sourdough starter didn’t get any special treatment, just its usual morning dose of fresh flour and water, but I did sing happy birthday to it as I gave it a stir. And now I’ve gone and embarrassed myself.
I haven’t kept tabs on the number of loaves of bread I’ve made with this starter in its first year of life, but I can guess at something in the two hundreds, and it’s also been split off and shared with a number of friends. Mas got some, as did the people who came to the Trade School classes I did. I gave some to Patti and Bron as well, twice, since they killed the first ones (like I’ve done, many times). Patti also managed to bring some over to the US, by putting a small amount in a travel sized jar in her toiletries bag. TSA was none the wiser. This was a good thing since the authorities generally don’t like cross-border transportation of microbial life. Stefan Tiron (an artist who comes to visit Plantopic regularly) ran into some issues once when traveling with his nukazuke. The customs agents were suspicious (maybe understandably so) when they unearthed from his belongings a Tupperware of fermenting rice bran and Stefan tried to explain, but it’s nukazuke! They weren’t impressed but eventually he got it through to Geneva, and I wound up getting a bit of it to start my own (which I killed).
Thanks to stuff that went wrong with clay casserole breads #1 and #2, I’ve learned a thing or two and was feeling pretty good going into #3. It didn’t disappoint. Pat on the back in order. My bread quest will never be complete and I will never stop experimenting (and failing), but I think I’ve got a pretty decent formula and (very flexible) routine down now. This makes me feel happy and capable, and I believe this clay casserole thing was the clincher in the whole game. Bread #3 is basically my standard bread that I’ve been making for a while without the casserole, and with different hardware it comes out way, way better: soft and light on the inside with a thin, very crispy crust. I wish I’d gotten the casserole sooner, but then maybe this discovery wouldn’t be as gratifying.
Busily transcribing the interview I had this morning with a recently retired International Labour Organisation statistician. Her area was work that has not historically, culturally, statistically been considered “real” work, nor factored into GDPs, i.e., “invisible” economies of goods and services that the ILO as of last fall refers to as “own-use production.” Its recently adopted resolution on work statistics very openly declares own-use production to be considered work. With “own-use production,” we’re talking homesteading, housework, even, to use one of Sophia’s examples, knitting a sweater. With this resolution the International Conference of Labour Statisticians has redefined productive work in a literal sense — as not just production that leads to growth on paper, but also growth in communities, growth in families.
This may look like a bread failure:
But I am going to tell you why it is anything but a bread failure.
You see, I think I’ve finally left the realm of the nervous beginner who obsesses about following dictates and worries about making mistakes, gets frustrated at the slightest imperfection in a final product, is impatient for the day when mastery will be reached. I don’t generally like making such bold declarations, but in this case I don’t think I’m overstating things. I really do think I’ve stopped worrying about my bread “failing.” (Maybe because it happens so often and so I’m used to it? Ha.) I’ve realized that even when a loaf comes out of the oven looking absolutely nothing like the pretty loaves of bread in all my cookbooks, it is almost always perfectly edible, and often tastes very good despite appearances. Like the loaf of bread pictured above, for example.
Pretty much any sourdough bread baking guru or cookbook writer I can track down from at least the past five years or so talks about a Dutch oven as an essential piece of equipment for those of us stuck with electric home ovens. Even with the ventilator shut off, an electric oven will send steam out its vents so the humidity inside is way lower than what you’d get in a wood-fired one. And high humidity is part of the reason why loaves baked in a wood-fired oven will always, in my opinion, come out way better than electric oven-baked loaves. (“Better” is subjective of course, but I’m using it anyway here, in reference to the general qualities that bread geeks consider when sizing up a bread success or failure: towering oven spring, crisp crust, chewy interior, lots of air pockets. There are others, but those are the ones that I understand are affected by oven temps and humidity.)
When I first learned about this Dutch oven thing I went immediately on the hunt for one, but it seems that Dutch ovens of the sort I was looking for — cast iron with a frying pan for a lid — are not a thing in France/Switzerland, where I live. All the ones I found had deep bottoms and lids with handles, which I knew would make removing loaves difficult, or else they were Le Creuset and I’m not paying 400 euros for a pot, thanks. So I just sort of gave up on the Dutch oven thing and tried other methods: altering oven temperatures, pouring water in a tray at the bottom of the oven, but my bread was still coming out looking fairly sketchy 50% of the time, at least. I was getting very little oven spring, also because I work almost exclusively with whole grain flour and I’ve been trying to move towards wetter doughs, all of which leads to loaves that spread out during the final rise and wind up looking like pancakes. They taste good but are absolutely useless for making sandwiches.
Then this past Saturday I did my usual farmer’s market run, and there was a couple there selling kitchen wares. Either I was blind to them before or else they’re new (I think it’s the latter), but anyway, they had what they called Roman casseroles (cocotte romaine), which are basically terra cotta Dutch ovens with a base and cover of equal size. Yes! So I bought one, came home and got a sourdough sponge started, later made into dough; all told it was a never-ending wait of 36 hours until I had a dough ready to put in my new toy.
Last Friday I went to a bread baking party on a rural hillside outside Bern, which began with a speech by a historic building preservationist about what I had already assumed was a pretty old oven that we would be using. He was speaking in Swiss German dialect, and I was understanding every eighth word plus getting occasional whispered translations from a woman next to me named Katrine, so I was only following about half of what he was saying. Then I thought I heard him say something like “the year 1650.” I turned to Katrine: “Did he just say the oven was built in the 1650s?” Yes, Katrine replied. This is when I understood that I would be baking bread in what was, indeed, a pretty old oven.
A group of our friends gave us as a wedding present a weekend in a tree house and a bilingual French-Spanish edition of Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets. Neruda’s someone I would invite to my imaginary dinner party; bread and knitting are two recurring images in his poems so I think we would have much to talk about.
Yesterday we accompanied the last of our visitors, Alvaro’s mom, to the airport, and while waiting at the bus stop and all during the bus ride back home we read the poems in grand, booming voices, then got home, collapsed through the front door of our now empty apartment and fell asleep for five hours. These past couple of weeks have been exhausting.
Love Sonnet XIII
The light that rises from your feet to your hair,
the strength enfolding your delicate form,
are not mother of pearl, not chilly silver:
you are made of bread, a bread the fire adores.
The grain grew high in its harvest of you,
in good time the flour swelled;
as the dough rose, doubling your breasts,
my love was the coal waiting ready in the earth.
Oh, bread your forehead, your legs, your mouth,
bread I devour, born with the morning light,
my love, beacon-flag of the bakeries:
fire taught you a lesson of the blood;
you learned your holiness from flour,
from bread your language and aroma.
I’m still trying to process the wedding. It was beautiful and homemade, and so surreal to have nearly everyone I love in my life all together for the first (and surely the only) time. Never in my life have I cried so much from joy.
I. The Disquieting Delights of Salt-Rising Bread (Popular Science)
The result is a tight-grained, dense yet tender loaf with an unusual aroma that’s usually described as “cheesy.” The social historian J. C. Furnas, who learned to love salt-rising bread as a child in the early twentieth century, wrote that “the flavor was once well defined by my sister as like distant dirty feet,” but to his older and more discerning self it tasted “as if a delicately reared, unsweetened plain cake had had an affair with a Pont l’Eveque cheese.” In my experience, salt-rising breads made with milk smell like a combination of swiss and parmesan — sharp rather than stinky. Milk-free salt-rising breads tend to be pungent in their own less cheesy way, though one of them, my all-time favorite so far, came out with a wonderful washed-rind aroma.
II. Victory Gardens (and beating Monsanto ourselves) (Farm Girl School)
Speaking of slug battles, the other night Plantopic hosted Part I (of what will no doubt be a many-part saga) of CHASSE LIMACES (Slug Hunt). The harvest was bountiful:
Guerilla gardening, Freecycle and swap till you drop: how to live for free. An article from The Guardian, a couple months old. It’s absolute crap, written in a cheery voice that, as one commenter put it, “has the feel of someone who thinks they’ve slummed it at some point. Look at what the proles do to survive! How quaint.” I’m all for mainstreaming sustainable living practices, but not like this. I am posting it here solely to point you toward the comments, the majority of which are all sorts of hilarious.