It was late in the night when we crossed the New York / Vermont border. Miss Pain, wrapped in a furry embrace of Mischief The Sloth, her new best friend, slept soundly in the back of the car, and everything was lullaby quiet; we heard nothing but her breath, an occasional tiny snore and the pleasant humming of the engine. With the invisible border behind us, we slowed down on an empty dark road and stopped on a narrow shoulder to stretch our legs and take a break. “Let her sleep,” Dr. V told me, as we were about to step out of the car. “She is tired. It’s been a long drive.” We got out of the car, took a deep breath of Vermont air, infused with the scents of pasturelands and farming fields around, ripe and giving, and we looked up at the moonless sky. We stood for a moment, in silence, gazing at the glowing indigo canopy above us, and then we ran back to the car and carried our daughter out, because it was something we did not want her to miss.
It was the sky of a lifetime. Gigantic Perseus kept rising from underneath the horizon, growing bigger by the minute, the galactic plane of the Milky Way stretched across the sky into the mountain backdrop, rugged and infinitely black, and we stood under a downpour of stars, as if all the galaxies of this universe, and the unknown universes behind it, had opened up and poured their jewels on us. And we stood right in midst of it all, three little speckles in the center of this indigo vastness, although it was not indigo anymore, it was really quite silvery, the color of polished steel, we stood there tiny and insignificant, flickering with the distant suns, trembling with the galaxies, breathing with the universe, until we all became one.
Maybe we felt that way because it was the night of meteor showers, the night of shooting stars as they call it, the night when Perseus shows up determined to showcase his archery skills, and for one long night he dominates the sky, shooting an army of tiny silver arrows against the Heavens. Or maybe it was because we are from New York City, and everyone knows that all the stars and all the galaxies, and all the nebulae are lost in the lights of Big Apple and the ambition of its inhabitants. “You will never see the stars,” my Dad told me when I moved to the City. I do not remember anymore which book it was -- which is a shame -- but Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote about this starless sky of New York City, and to this day, my Dad quotes it every time he comes to visit. “You live in a city with no stars,” Mr. Stan likes to say.
Or maybe it was really just the feeling of being in Vermont, and the excitement of the weekend ahead, that made the sky glow.
This weekend has been many years in the making. Every once in a while, Heike and Jens email us. “Why don’t you guys come for a visit,” they will say, or “It’s about the time you come,” they will say, or “How about next weekend,” but the next weekend comes and goes and then it comes and goes again, and we never make it to Vermont. There is always a business trip, a play-date, a school event, a meeting that needs preparing for, a paper that needs to be written, which make Vermont like million miles away, in a completely inexplicable way.
But Heike does not give up easily. She is smart and she reads people well, hence this time she did not invite us to visit. She messaged me on Facebook, and when the tiny blurb appeared on my screen, it simply said, “Let’s make some bread! Let's take some photos!” And how can anyone resist that?!! And that is how we found ourselves on the way to Fairfax, Vermont, and to Heike’s Brot bakery, and on a mission to learn the secrets of sourdough bread making.
Heike lives and bakes in a tiny stone cottage, next to a big red barn, tucked inside an enchanted garden, on an outskirt of a deep green forest. And yes, I know that this might sound like a passage from a fairytale, Snow White perhaps, or Thumbelina, or my ever-favorite Rumpelstiltskin, but it is pretty accurate, both in capturing the magic inside the bakery and the magic of its surroundings. As we walked the tiny path through the woods towards the house, Miss Pain let go of my hand and ran into the woods in search of fairies. “Look Mama, look,” she gently pulled my sleeve, for she knows that inside the Fairy Kingdom one must speak softly, or the tiny creatures will never come out, “look, Mama, there is a fairy hiding in the moss of the forest floor, and look, there is one inside the hollows of that big old tree stump!”
Later on we would learn that baking bread is a magic of its own. Heike has been doing her magic in Farifax, Vermont for over eight years. Before that, she traveled the globe to study the craft, to bake with artisan bakers, to discover traditions and recipes behind some of the finest breads in the world. Heike’s kitchen and her bakery are the reflection of this journey. A huge wood-fired oven presides over the room. Next to it is a pile of logs for putting up the flames inside the oven, there is a crate with bags full of grains and flours, and a stack of papers with mysterious scribbles, formulas and timetables – a manuscript of carefully collected measurements for starting and manipulating the oven. As Miss Pain correctly observed, it is a “user’s manual for the furnace”, a guide to becoming its master and an ultimate secret behind turning perfect loaves of bread every time you fire up: fragrant and crusty, rich and ancient, and bursting with flavor. “Many folks can make a pretty decent loaf of bread these days,” Heike remarked as I was studying the manuscript, “but it is a lot of work in getting them exactly the same -- identical -- every single time.” That’s where the craft comes in. And the secret tables, because as we all know, there are no buttons on a wood-fire oven.
We started the day by milling the grain and preparing the flours. Miss Pain to be correct, because I was awestruck; captivated by the place and the process that was unraveling, I simply stood there, unable to do anything but watch and take photos. The two of them mixed the flour and water in a gigantic tub – in reality it was Heike doing it all, but as she did her work, she accompanied it with thoughtful and precise instructions to Miss Pain, as if guiding an apprentice and not an eight-year old child. Miss Pain loved it. Together they poured in levain, Heike’s own starter culture, all bubbly and bursting with life, and mixed it in, carefully, until the starter inhaled its breath into the dough, and suddenly the mixture became alive. I kept on watching. There was so much magic in that bowl of starter, in that tub of dough, and I realized that one day of learning will not do it justice.
While the dough was taking rest, we stopped for a mid-morning breakfast -- a cup of coffee and a sample of Heike’s breads: her sprouted loaf, made with grains and fermented rice, amazake, tiny cubes of delicately sweet lemon loaf, and slices of Heike’s flagship sourdough, rich and chewy, almost sweet in its sourness.
Afterwards, Heike embarked to teach my daughter how to make amazake and how to shape bread. For a good part of the morning, the two of them were deeply absorbed; Heike had found her favorite apprentice and I was on my own. They shaped about twenty boules together, and again it was Heike doing the work; boule after boule, she swiftly moved the dough around, rotating it with a scraper, with gentle, almost invisible movements – she made it look simple and effortless, as if the dough danced on the table with its own free will, a hectic waltz, until voila, all of a sudden it became a perfectly round and perfectly shaped sourdough boule. At the end, when all the neat balls of dough were resting snugly inside their own proofing baskets, Heike presented me with the last remaining piece of dough, “Here,“ she said, “let’s practice shaping skills.” Miss Pain too received a mini-loaf of its own, and we did our best, rolling it left and right, lifting it with the scraper, up and down, but the sourdough was sticky and mischievous, like no other dough, and we quickly found out that the dough indeed has a free will of its own, but not in a way we imagined it to be. “Oh my,” said Heike laughing, “the other breads are for the market and these two are for our dinner tonight. Looks like we will be eating bricks.”
We took another break to sooth the shaping-induced wounds and munch on kamut and buckwheat crackers, almond butter and apples from the garden... Then we made more bread... Took another break. Made more bread. Sent Miss Pain to rummage in the garden and the woods in search of fairies and berries. She came back with her hands full of blackcurrants, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries -- once, twice, three times -- and we made a deliciously tart berry smoothie for lunch. Then we made more bread. And more smoothies... And more bread...
In between the bouts of baking, we talked a lot. We talked about practicing the craft and about the quest for perfection; we reviewed our favorite cookbooks and exchanged recipes. Touched upon yoga and meditation. And we talked a lot about organic farming and the hard work of growing good and healthy foods. “It always puzzles me that food and education are among the most basic of human needs,” Heike said, “yet the ones who provide it are among the least appreciated and awarded of professions.”
Later in the evening, as the sun began to contemplate retreat, painting the cottage and garden in golden farewell hues, we took a walk through the woods to a neighboring farm to exchange a loaf of bread for fresh goat cheese, milk and two eggs, just laid and still warm. And we picked some of the ripest, sweetest vegetables from the garden, and cooked, with all of our mighty powers, as if the long day of baking did not happen. And then Heike’s friends arrived!!! They brought delicacies from their own gardens, their own pantries and their own kitchens, and we laid them all on the table decorated with apples, herbs, flowers and colorful china. We baked flatbreads, we poured ourselves wine, beer and cider, made bitters, and threw a feast. We ate, drank, laughed, and let ourselves loose, let ourselves be. Be merry. Until it was time to say goodbye, because bread-bakers are early risers...
I guess I wanted to write about the making of the sourdough bread, but on the second thought, the volumes have been written about it, and perhaps there is little to add. Instead, I ended up writing about something else... About very special moments in life, the kinds of moments that do not come by very often, just as meteor showers and shooting stars do not come by very often. But when they do, you better be there to grab them, and let yourself loose, let yourself be. At the end, I did not learn how to make sourdough. I mean I did, but just in theory... Perhaps next time. But I left Heike’s bakery in appreciation of good food, local ingredients, and friendship. Although, upon return to New York, Heike very thoughtfully emailed me a handout for the bread making class she teaches in Burlington, so that I can practice at home. With Heike’s approval, I am attaching it to this post, as an ode to the wonderful mysteries of the sourdough bread, and more importantly, Heike’s qualities as a teacher and artisan. So let this post be a tiny nod to all "Heike-like" folks out there, who spend their time and energy perfecting the art of making bread, the art of making beer, wine or jams, the art of brewing coffee... Day by day, month by month, year by year, they put their hearts into mastering their craft and advancing their skill, on a quest to make one single product better. Something to think about in this modern day and age, when we are surrounded by things and overwhelmed by choices, and excellence often goes by unnoticed.
As we walked out of the house, into the garden, we stopped for a moment to watch the stars. Perseus had run out of arrows, but the sky was still glowing. And I could not help but think how, just like true craftsmanship, the true joy of a starry night is something many no longer know of or no longer appreciate.
Kamut and Buckwheat Crackers with Nuts
Recipe by Heike Meyer, Brot Bakery
* 125 g whole Kamut Flour
* 70 g Buckwheat Flour
* 100 g nuts (e.g. walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts)
* 40 g ground flax meal
* 1 tbsp cane sugar
* 1.5 tsp salt
* 3/4 cup water
* 1 tbsp vinegar
* 1 tsp sourdough culture
* 2 tsp baking powder
* 1/4 cup olive oil
Preheat the oven to 400F convection or 425F regular.
Combine the dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Add the water and blend on low speed until all is combined, about 30 seconds to one minute. Slowly add the olive oil to combine, scrape sides of bowl with a spatula and mix for about 1-2 minutes to fully combine the dough.
Place the dough on parchment paper. Put another piece of parchment paper of same size on top, flatten with your hands and then roll out thin to all edges. The dough should be about 3-5 mm (1/8 inch) thick. Put on a baking sheet.
Peel off the top parchment paper and place the baking sheet in the oven. Bake for approximately 8 minutes, or until the edges of the crackers are brown. Tale the sheet out, flip the crackers over and bake for another 3 - 4 minutes. Watch carefully not to burn the crackers.
Let the crackers cool completely and then break in desired size. Store in airtight container, for about one week. The crackers can be refreshed in the oven for about three minutes at 400 F.
Spicy Cream of Chard with Sourdough Croutons
Jointly developed by QueenSashy and Heike Meyer
* 2 1/2 lb Swiss chard, washed and hard stems removed
* 4 garlic cloves, minced
* 1 medium yellow onion (about 5oz), finelly chopped
* 3/4 tsp ground turmeric
* 3/4 tsp ground cumin
* 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
* 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
* a pinch of cayenne pepper (or up to taste)
* 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
* salt and freshly ground pepper
* 2 tbsp olive oil
* 1 tbsp butter
* 1 tbsp cornstarch
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove crusts from stale bread slices. Brush bread on both sides with olive oil. Cut bread slices up into small cubes. Arrange cubes on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes or until browned. Let cool.
Prepare the cornstarch slurry: Mix the cornstarch with 1/4 cup of cold water.
Prepare the chard: In a large pot bring water to a boil. Add the chard and cook over high heat until tender, about 3-4 minutes. Drain the chard, let it cool and then squeeze out excess water. Chop the chard, not too coarse and not too fine.
In a medium skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and cook over medium-low heat until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about a minute or two. Add the spices and cook, stirring, until the spices begin to release flavor. Add the heavy cream and simmer over moderately high heat for about a minute. Stir in the chard and mix well. Add the cornstarch slurry and cook, stirring, until thickened, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the mixture from the heat and season generously with salt and pepper.
Add the croutons, mix well, and serve.
The Joys of Baking With Sourdough
By Heike Meyer of Brotbakery, www.brotbakery.com
1. The Starter
What do I need to make sourdough bread?
... not much really - here’s a checklist for your first sourdough bread:
- flour (plain wheat (e.g. all purpose flour), whole wheat, rye, spelt or a combination)
- starter culture (= mature sourdough), refreshed
- water (tap water is fine, if not chlorinated)
- clean hands
- a large bowl (stainless steel or ceramic preferred)
- a proofing basket or household basket lined with a dish towel
- a household oven (or a pizza oven)
- baking tray or - better- a pizza stone
Let’s start with making a sourdough starter culture, also called “starter”, “levain”, “chef” etc.
HERE’S HOW TO START A SOURDOUGH FROM SCRATCH
whole wheat flour (ideally freshly milled), 30 gr (1 oz)
water (30 C/ 85 F), 30 gr (1 oz)
mix in the late afternoon/evening and let sit overnight in a warm environment
starter culture from Day 1, 60 gr (2 oz)
whole wheat flour, 30 gr (1 oz)
water (30 C/85 F) repeat resting 30 gr (1 oz)
starter culture from Day 2, 120 gr (4 oz)
whole wheat flour, 30 gr (1 oz)
water (30 C/85 F) repeat resting, 30 gr (1 oz)
starter culture from Day 3, 165 gr (5.5 oz)
whole wheat flour or a 50/50 mix white/ww, 90 gr (3 oz)
water (30 C/85 F) repeat resting, 45 gr, (1.5 oz)
- keep starter liquid for the first few days
- firm starter up on the 4th or 5th day
- you should have a bubbly, active starter on the 4th day, if not feed again like you did on Day 4 for another day. It takes a bit longer in the winter for the starter to mature, when rooms are rather cool.
- the aroma of the ripe starter should be pleasant, fruity and not overly acidic. It’s ready to bake now and looks forward to a regular “feeding”.
HOW TO MAINTAIN (FEED) A SOURDOUGH CULTURE
Once you have a mature starter it’s easy to maintain it. You really only need to refresh it before you plan on baking, usually 1-2 days before a bake. In the meantime it can be stored in a closed container (a preserving jar works very well), undisturbed, in the fridge.
Refresh your starter daily with 90 gr water and 90 gr flour (3 oz) when left out on the counter, or keep it in the fridge if you don’t plan to bake with it so often. If in the fridge, feed it at least once a week and take care to keep the starter on the dry side, as cool (fridge) temperatures promote the acid acids in the starter; those can eventually make the starter too acidic.
Flour: I like to use a mix of white and whole grain wheat flours. Use whole grain rye flour if you plan on making rye bread. Freshly ground flour is the best, avoid year-old refined white flours loaded with add-ons. If you can’t mill it yourself, buy local flour in bulk, which is ofter the freshest. If possible, buy organic: Non-organic flour is almost always treated with fungicides which are known to affect the yeast development.
Water: If tap water is treated with chlorine it will have a negative effect on the growth of beneficial bacteria in our starter. Spring water from a bottle is a good alternative; or just leave a jug of tap water standing out on the counter overnight and most of chlorine will evaporate.
STORAGE TIPS FOR THE STARTER CULTURE
- store starter in a glass jar or other container, ideally you like to see your culture
- when refreshing the starter, keep some space in the jar for expansion but try not to leave too much space to prevent mold from growing
- if not storing in the fridge, starter cultures like temperatures around 75-80 F but may need more refreshments if in a warm environment.
- never place a jar with starter culture in direct sun or on a stovetop/hot oven. Yeasts are killed around 140 F.
- if your storage space is rather cold, use warmer water for refreshment (85 F or more)
READINESS-CHECK (OR HAS IT DIED?)
A fully ripe starter culture is happily bubbling away in your glass jar, it will look vibrant, not collapsed and has a pleasant smell of sweet grain.
It may look slightly pale/gray, is rather flat on top, and it may even have a bit of grayish liquid floating around the edges. The odor may be strong vinegary and alcoholic. It may not look great but it’s mostly likely not dead!
If you can rule out the fatal contamination of mold or fungicides your starter can almost always be brought back to life. Most likely, the acids in the culture have taken over (cold temperature benefit that) and yeast growth has come to a stop. What is needed now is a good refreshment of a very small amount of starter culture with plenty of fresh flour and water to dilute the acid and provide new food for the yeasts and bacteria.
Use about 5 times the amount of flour and 7 times the amount of water on a teaspoon of starter culture to refresh a sluggish starter.
The amount of flour and water used for a regular refreshment of your starter culture (one that looks and smells healthy and vibrant) is about
15 grams / 0.5 oz starter culture
90 grams / 3 oz flour
90 grams/ 3 oz water (75-80 F)
But: this depends on your type of flour and if using wheat or rye flour, so continue to experiment with this a bit to find the right mixture. Remember that a starter culture should have the texture of wet concrete.
When you are ready to bake with your starter culture you will need to refresh it to make what is often called a “production sourdough”. In any way, it’s the “freshly refreshed” starter culture that’s ready to go into your bread”.
Make as much production sourdough as you need according to your recipe, but remember to start early enough to bring the culture to the right amount of sourdough. You often have to start 12-24 hours before the baking process with 1 or two feedings.
The final sourdough - the one which goes into the bread- should be as vital as possible but should not look collapsed. In order to achieve that you may refresh with a larger amount of starter culture 3-4 hours before the bake. This could look like:
150 grams / 5 oz starter culture
100 grams / 3.5 oz whole grain flour
100 grams / 3.5 oz white or sifted wheat flour (or all rye flour)
120 grams / 4 oz water (at 80 F)
After a few hours in a warm place the culture should look very active an bubbly, a sign that it’s ready to go. Take your favorite sourdough recipe and start baking!
2. The Bake
Recipe for a classic German whole wheat and rye sourdough bread
- baking stone
- loaf pan 9x4 in
- rimmed baking sheet
- kitchen mitts
10 grams refreshed (ripe) starter culture
100 grams rye flour (whole grain preferred)
80 grams water (80 F or 27 C)
Production Sourdough (Levain)
180 grams starter culture (take 10 grams off to keep for next starter culture)
100 grams rye flour
80 grams water (80 F, 27 C)
200 grams whole wheat flour, or a mix of wheat/whole wheat
200 grams rye flour
10 grams salt
1 teaspoon instant yeast (optional)
360 grams sourdough
330 grams water (80 F, 27 C)
oil for pan, flour for dusting
Evening of First Day
Refresh the starter culture, make sure it’s active, happy and smells fruity, adjust water & flour accordingly to archive a ripe culture - enough for baking - for the next day. Let ferment for 12-14 hours
Morning of Second Day - Bake Day
1. Take the active starter culture and mix with ingredients of the sourdough. This is your production sourdough. Let ferment at warm room temperature for 3-4 hours until slightly bubbly and active looking.
2. Preheat the oven to at least 500 F (250-275 C) and put a baking stone in the middle and a rimmed baking pan on the bottom.
3. Combine the final dough ingredients:
Start with the sourdough dispersed in the water, than add the rest of the ingredients. Mix well with your hands until all the flour is incorporated and you don’t see any dry bits anymore. Let sit at warm room temperature for about 30-40 min to help the gluten develop.
4. Fold the dough in the bowl a couple of times to give the dough some strength and form into an oblong loaf. Lightly oil a loaf pan and dust with flour. Put dough into the loaf pan, brush with a bit of water on top if it seems dry and dust with flour. Cover the pan with a towel and let rise in a warm (ideally 80 F) place. This final rise depends on your room temperature and can take anywhere between 60 and 80 minutes. Experiment! If the top of the loaf looks cracked and the loaf has significantly risen in the pan, it’s ready! Do not overproof, or it will collapse.
5. Have 1/2 cup of water ready, put on your oven mittens. Place the loaf pan on the baking stone and pour the water in the hot baking pan on the bottom. Close the oven door quickly to retain the steam. After about 2 minutes open the oven door to let steam out. Turn down the temperature to around 400 F (200 C). Bake for about 60-75 minutes or longer if you like good color on your bread. Let bread cool on a rack for at least 3-4 hours so it’s completely cool and the crumb has set before slicing it. You can also let it sit for 12 hours our more if you like the flavors a bit more defined (and if you can wait that long!)
SO....WHY ALL THAT WORK? ARE THERE ANY BENEFITS OF BAKING WITH SOURDOUGH?
Sourdough culture contains a whole array of beneficial enzymes and microorganisms, most importantly a strain of the lactic acid bacteria, (that’s the same stuff that you can find in yogurt, kefir and probiotic supplements).
What can lactic acid do?
- depending on the fermentation time it will break down the gluten protein naturally present in many flours. (This does not mean a person suffering from celiac disease can eat wheat bread; but it does mean that the bread will become much better digestible for people with intolerances).
- Lactic acid produces beneficial compounds like antioxidants, the cancer-preventive peptide lunasin, and anti-allergic substances which may help in the treatment of auto-immune diseases.
- Several hours of fermentation with sourdough is sufficient to neutralize the phytic acid that can “lock up” minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc.
- Bread is often avoided by people affected by metabolic syndromes, rightly perhaps in the case of industrialized white bread with a high glycemic index, but no so with sourdough bread. That’s because when heated the organic acids in sourdough cause interactions with the starch availability, making whole-grain sourdoughs one of the foods with the lowest GI.
- Lactic acids destroy certain harmful bacteria and it’s anti-fungal components keep mold at bay - no need to keep sourdough bread in the fridge for storage.
SOME IDEAS FOR A WEEK OF BREAD
As the days change so does your bread. A good sourdough bread keeps well over a week properly stored, but it changes it’s texture and flavor. Here’s what you can do with it:
Day 1 - Fresh: out of the oven - eat it like it is, it’s perfect that way!
Day 2 & 3 - Sandwich: it’s still soft, but now ready to make a sandwich, it will hold the filling much better now
Day 3 & 4 - Toast: toasting softens the starches of the inner layer of the bread and gives a nice crisp out crust
Day 5 - Bruschetta: it’s dry now, but far from being stale - toast it lightly, brush with olive oil and top with peppers, onions, olive, cheese etc., then finish under the broiler for a minute
Day 6 - Croutons: slice into cubes, fry in a little olive oil, add dried herbs and use or freeze
Day 7 - Breadcrumbs: grate by hand or use a food processor, bag up and freeze. Or mix with herbs and sea salt and crumble on top a baked casserole.