Pièce De Résistance

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My kitchen is coated with a fine layer of flour, my nails are caked with dough, and I am eating the most delicious piece of toast I have ever tasted. Ladies and gentlemen, you have to get your hands on a slice of this stuff.

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 Late last night, I mixed up a spoonful of starter with a bunch of flour; in the morning I faced the moment of truth, did my levain have enough oomph to lift a loaf of bread? Thankfully, it rose to the occasion (pun intended) and bobbed beautifully to the surface during Robertson’s float test (more details on that here). This unleashed a whole new set of anxious emotions…as Sherlock Holmes would say, the game was afoot.

That day was spent carefully weighing ingredients, adjusting temperatures, and generally coddling the dough like it was a newborn infant. Although the Tartine Country Loaf requires minimal effort and absolutely no kneading, it demands unending patience. You simply can not rush the process. Every 20-30 minutes during the bulk fermentation the dough must be ‘turned’, a process which can last over four hours. I’ve found those short intervals to be the perfect span of time for maxing out my productivity on various tasks. In half an hour you can wash all of the dishes (the least appealing, but most practical option), finish a chapter in the book that you’ve been meaning to read ( I would highly recommend this one), or take a nap (just make sure to set an alarm). If you bake bread, you will get shit done.

When the time came for shaping the loaves I had already crossed off every item on my day’s to-do list. This next step was tricky for me, even with Robertson’s expertly photographed step-by-step instructions. They weren’t as perfect as his taut, domed balls of dough, but I think they turned out alright.

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These little babies were left to rest for their final rise, a step that allows the dough to develop its distinctly complex flavor. Then I popped them in the oven at a blistering 500 degrees and hoped for the best! I used a cast iron combo cooker as recommended in the book and I honestly think it is what allowed me to achieve such great results. If you want to bake this bread, cough up the $40 and buy one.

When I pulled my bread out, I immediately heard the crust crackle as it contracted in the cool kitchen air. This is what Robertson calls “the song of bread” and let me tell you, it was music to my ears. As I cut into the cooled loaf, a perfectly pearlescent interior revealed itself beneath a burnished surface. The flavor was floral, milky, with just a hint of that classic sourdough tang. In short, I was in carbohydrate heaven. Tartine bread will certainly be a regular staple in my kitchen, my starter and I have a long, delicious future to look forward to.

The Awkward Phase

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What’s that smell? No, it’s not a hunk of provolone you forgot to put back in the fridge. Follow your nose, and it will lead you straight to a small bowl in a corner of the dining room. At this point the starter is, in Robertson’s words,  “very ripe”. Yeah, I’ll say it’s ripe.

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Now that I’ve got a stinky mess of frothy flour on my hands, the next step is to discard 80% and feed the little bugs living in the remaining 20%. Luckily, the organisms are relatively low maintenance, requiring a fresh dose of flour and water only once every 24 hours.

The goal is to cultivate a wild and thriving community of yeasts and bacteria. One that will be strong enough to leaven a loaf to lusty heights, throwing a gorgeous ‘ear’ (yes, that is an actual bread baking term) with impressive oven spring. The wild cultures also add a certain je ne sais quoi that is missing in breads made with commercial yeast. Think of a vanilla bean versus vanilla extract-they both get the job done, but one has the soul of vanilla. The starter is the soul of bread.

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My starter doesn’t rise and fall as predictably as it will, ultimately, need to. But I am keeping the faith. If I nurture it through these awkward adolescent days, then this ugly duckling can become a beautiful swan. Or at least a slightly less stinky duckling.

Stunning art by Heather McCaw Kerley, via the Jealous Curator

For Starters

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My hands plunged wrist-deep into impossibly silky flour, a bit of tepid water was blended in, and now I wait. Like a father sent to pace while his wife enters labor, I am antsy – even jittery. The unassuming glass bowl with a towel haphazardly thrown over it contains my “Tartine Bread” sourdough starter. Or at least I hope it does. If the right microorganisms are nestled within that inert, glue-like paste then I will begin a month long journey culminating in a loaf of bread.

But not just any bread. Creamy, fissured, auburn, floral, and pearlescent are just a few of the praises Chad Robertson heaps on his famed classic country loaf. Sexy right? In fact he is quite the romantic, a scruff sporting surfer from the Bay Area who is not afraid to wax poetic about the shattering of a crust or flavor of a custardy crumb. Seriously, check this man out.

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However, it’s thanks to another person that I have arrived here, jiggling my feet nervously over a bowl of sludge. That man is Michael Pollan. I somehow managed to go through the first 24 years of my life without reading a single word by him. Sure, his modern-classic “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was on my radar (I come out from under this rock sometimes), yet I never cracked the spine. Instead, while searching for an audiobook on a recent trip to NYC, I fell headfirst into “Cooked”.

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In this treat of a book, Pollan’s journalistic wit pairs perfectly with his chosen subject matter, the transformative process of cooking. Each section is centered around one of the four worldly elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Woven throughout the pages are recipes, mythological tales, history lessons, and a heavy dose of humor. It was truly a pleasure to read…even if it left my stomach growling after every chapter.

At one point, he dives down the rabbit hole of bread baking. Pollan visits a Wonderbread plant, a grain mill, and several artisanal bakeries before tackling Tartine Bread’s country loaf. His obsession with this “perfect” loaf borders on religious fanaticism and I was clearly converted by his proselytizing. Now I’ll have to wait to see if my offering to the sourdough gods is worthy of microscopic, bubbling life.

(If you’re interested in embarking on your own Tartine Bread quest, purchase the book here or consult the abridged recipe posted in the New York Times.)