The thing about bread is that it is present in every corner of the globe that I’m aware of. It comes in more shapes, forms and recipes than one could count or even record. It spans as much of human history as I care to think about.
Most importantly, each loaf, no matter how it’s made, represents a culture in its entirety. Whether it’s meant as a daily meal, an accompaniment to a main dish, a celebratory loaf caked with dried fruit and nuts, a dessert, a ritualistic breakfast food, something only consumed during times of hardship or poverty: bread is bread. Leavened or unleavened, sweet or salty, fluffy and light like a brioche or dense like a true rye loaf, bread is always bread.
Perhaps that’s why it became my first food study of choice, my maître. At age 7 I still remember sitting in a café in Paris drinking warm milk out of a small ceramic mug and biting into my very first croissant. The memory has never left me. I carried with me the idea that never had there been a croissant or baguette that I had tried before or since that was ever AS right as a French croissant or baguette. There was just something about it.
When I returned to Paris, I was 14 years older, and slightly wiser. I still didn’t know I would become a baker someday (that, as it turns out, is what my trip to Paris was for as fate would have it). No, I just knew that the first thing I was going to do when I got settled was to run to the nearest boulangerie or patisserie and grab as much bread and as many pastries as I could.
While in Paris I sampled loaves from many different bakeries (organic and not, industrial and mom & pop varieties). I began to branch out: pear and walnut loaves made with buckwheat flour, nutty stone ground whole wheat boules, baguettes, batards, and more. But my heart stopped when I had my first Levain. Levain means sourdough, although this is not your standard American San Franciscan character. I could go over much of the history of sourdough, but I’ll leave that for a book on the subject, for the information is tedious to follow and that’s not the point of this story. I simply want to explain how something so innately simple became something so frustratingly complicated that I practically threw out my idea of ever becoming a sourdough bread maker because of it.
When I ran my bakery, I never sold much sourdough because I was so terrified of it. I once made a batch of sourdough croissants (oh! the torture) only to be reamed out by a customer about how this was neither a croissant nor was it sourdough. Heartbroken, I left my sourdough dreams in my kitchen, and began simply growing and feeding sourdoughs for my own pleasure. I would bring home loaves from the bakery to my home for the evening meal every other night (each time I refreshed my starter and didn’t have the heart to throw out the excess liquid levain).
I also didn’t have the guts to go “whole levain” and instead would add a pinch of yeast to help it along. We lovingly called this loaf “halfie” (half yeast, half levain) and the kids would laugh every time I brought a loaf home. They also loved to eat it, but I never quite got over the fact that I couldn’t grow, hatch and successfully feed my own micro-climate of bacteria known as yeast. I felt like a minor failure.
Then I read a book about using apples to start levain…and then I got pregnant and forgot.
Now, here I am, six years after closing my bakery, and three more kids later, and I am finding myself in the space once again to tackle sourdough, only this time I will conquer it. At least that’s what I thought.
As it turns out, I have done more than that, and the irony is that all I’ve changed is myself.
Before, when I would refresh my levain, I would resort to the same amazing cookbook, following instructions exactly, not leaving out a single ounce of flour here or a tablespoon of water there.
This time? I haven’t measured once. The only time I do measure is when I use some starter to begin the process of making loaves. I’ve gone from a scientist in the kitchen to an alchemist. I feel the dough, I feel the day, I check in with how my mood is. I’ve often taught bread classes in which I’ve told my students that if you’re feeling bad or stressed, don’t even bother making bread. I could never really put my finger on it except to say that bread can tell when you’re in a bad mood and it absolutely will not cooperate. You see, despite the fact that this will make me sound partially crazy…yeast is a living organism and it picks up on negative emotions.
This is especially true of sourdough, as it is literally created (it creates itself, I mean) from the natural yeast that live in the air in your kitchen. The idea that a batch of sourdough was brought from Russia to the U.S. with an immigrant and that it’s the very same strain is actually impossible. Yeast morphs over time and absorbs the local cultures that live in the air. These are things like the dust that floats all around us, skin cells, your breath, a misting of water from your well, the tiny bits of leaves on a windy day: yeast is life.
What better celebration than to eat it, daily?
So, I changed myself and my sourdough changed, too. I’ve worked with it for months, paid attention to it, let the kids touch it and mix it (sometimes with dirty hands!), and yes, mixed some of it with local apples.
The result has been nothing short of amazing. Each loaf gets better and they change all the time. Sometimes dense with small wholes, but airy and perfect toasted with butter. Other times large wholes with a chewy crumb, much like a baguette. Some are tangy and some are mild. Some are reminiscent of German rye loaves while others remind me of my short time spent in Normandy, sour with apple notes and honey.
Every loaf is eaten. We eat it with breakfast, lunch and dinner. I use the heels and stale pieces for use in meat loaf, bread pudding and soup. I keep bread crumbs around the house at all times and use them to coat fish or chicken for a healthy version of our favorite fast foods.
The levain that I once sought after is now a living thing in my own home. We all breath it in and exhale it. We are covered in it. We live it, and it lives in us. Our sourdough represents our family’s culture, our celebrations, our grievances and our rituals. I will pass this ideal down through my children to their children, and through the generations bread will become a part of life again, it will become important, and all who eat it will have a deep understanding of how important it is and how it binds all of us together, through the years and most importantly, through the cultures.
Lynsie’s Levain Starter
1 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour (I recommend King Arthur Flour, the red bag)
1 cup water
1 apple*, peeled and cubed
Mix together in a mason jar with a tight-fitting lid. Lumps are ok! Once mixed, loosely top the jar with the lid and let sit on your counter (or in your cupboard) away from direct sunlight, mixing at least every other day, adding a pinch more flour and a splash more water each time. (Incidentally, if you miss this step, it’s just fine, the process of stirring and adding a little more flour and water each time just helps speed up the process of creating your own sourdough by encouraging the wild yeasts in your air to multiply in your dough.)
Once you begin to see air bubbles developing on the surface, your yeast are well on their way to becoming happy little organisms! At this stage, pour out half in a bowl or container and follow the directions for Lynsie’s Levain Sponge. With the rest of the starter in the mason jar, add 1 cup more flour and 1 cup more water and mix like before, this time closing the lid tightly. Repeat this step each time you make bread, but at least once a week. Each time you make bread, your yeast will get happier and more alive. Your first few loaves might be dense, but over time, they will become airy and light in crumb!
*Add a new apple once a month.
Lynsie’s Levain Sponge
1/2 jar liquid levain
3/4 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour (again, use King Arthur, the red bag here)
3/4 cup water
Mix until just a few lumps remain and store covered for 12 hours on your counter/cupboard (overnight or during the day).
Lynsie’s Levain Loaf
All of Lynsie’s Levain Sponge
3 1/4 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour (King Arthur!)
1/4 cup rye flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour (King Arthur)
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon water
2 teaspoons salt
Mix all ingredients together in the same bowl that you kept your Levain Sponge and turn out either onto the counter top or into the bowl of an electric mixer. Knead until soft, smooth and not sticky (or until the dough pulls away from the sides of the mixing bowl and makes a slapping sound.) If kneading by hand, use flour sparingly. Refrigerate for 24 hours covered tightly.
After 24 hours, empty dough onto a well-floured surface and form in 15-20 strokes into a tight ball, being careful not to overwork the dough. It should feel elastic and very spongy.
Place seam side down on an olive-oiled piece of parchment and allow to rise covered in a large bowl for 2-3 hours. Before baking, place a cast iron dutch oven with a lid in the oven and preheat oven to 475 degrees F. Remove bread from bowl and using a serrated knife, slice a 1/2-1 inch slit in the top quickly and carefully. Using parchment, lift dough into hot dutch oven, replace lid and bake in your hot oven for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove lid and reduce oven temperature to 425 degrees F for 20 more minutes. Remove bread and allow to cool for two hours on metal wire racks. I know, I know, it’s tempting to want to cut in to your hot bread right away, but don’t–it needs to cool all the way so that the inside has time to release steam, leading to a perfect loaf.