The rise and fall of a yeastie baby
Making bread with a sourdough starter is one of the oldest arts of cooking. It's also quite traumatic, discovers Ewan Sargent.
Yeastie Baby was born on a winter's afternoon, in the dappled sunlight out on the decking.
The bassinette, a bowl quarter-filled with a batter made from flour and warm water, was left to idle away the hours in the open air. It looked passive enough but it was giving the big come-on to any passing wild yeasts that might call my backyard home.
This was the part that really excited me - the idea I could make bread uniquely mine because it came from my yeasts.
What I didn't realise was how you gained another member of the family. And it was a demanding one.
The batter came inside and on to a stool near the pellet fire. The dog and kids were warned to "leave it". A Chux cloth (instead of the fancy muslin we didn't have) covered it.
Day two. Yes, yes, BUBBLES. Beautiful little gaseous bubbles. Yeast had colonised and was eating, and I guess burping. Let's stick with burping.
Best of all, some of the teasing from non-expert bakers in the family faded.
I felt all artisanal and started a journal to properly document the triumph. Looking back over it now, there does seem a slight OCD aspect, but I blame Dean Brettschneider's over-detailed instructions in Bread, his new book which sparked it all in the first place.
The idea is to let the captive yeast eat flour and water. Then you start a complicated feeding and throwing away process to concentrate it and mature it enough to handle making dough rise and taste nice.
Brettschneider suggested YB would be mature enough in 10 to 14 days. Days? It seemed like forever.
On Day 3, I wrote: "The surface looks like a pock-marked lunar scape. An exciting tang is coming off."
But I began to worry our empty house and night-rate only hot water cylinders meant it was too cold. I couldn't be a stay-at-home parent. YB wasn't thriving.
I got no support for heating the house on week days while we were away. There was even less for the suggestion that my wife take YB to her warm office each day (I cycle).
"Things seem to be spiralling out of control," I wrote on Day 8. No bubbles, no tang. I crashed ahead with the divide and conquer routine, breaking free of Brettschneider's prescription. I went rogue. I cranked up the heat of the water added (it must be 25 degrees, says Brettschneider), threw in unmeasured flour and fed it on instinct when it looked hungry.
When home, I constantly carried it around trying to find the warmest place.
On Day 9 I belatedly spotted Brettschneider's baguette recipe needed 5 grams of malt flour, "preferably enzyme-active". An hour on the internet later I had paid $13 to courier 500g from Auckland. If you can get it in Christchurch, I don't want to know.
The goal was the sourdough baguette recipe, which had some instant yeast in as well as 100g of the subdued YB.
The 15-minute kneading felt great but the dough struggled to double its size over an hour in a warm oiled bowl.
I was supposed to roll and shape and leave it to "prove" for another 15 minutes but sensed it had done its dash. I made a loaf shape and bunged it in a super-hot oven along with half a cup of water on the bottom to steam it up for a crispy crust.
It's the journey that makes any goal special. I'd been driven on by a demonic perfectionist recipe in the coldest month of winter. I'd tripped and stumbled, gambled and yet, somehow, the golden, crusty loaf turned out to be wonderful to eat. It was easily the most expensive bread I have eaten. It had a gentle tang and was gorgeous with a thick spread of butter.
And like the brood of Little Red Hen - the family lined up to agree.
Dean Brettschneider's on the phone from Singapore.
The 44-year-old former Rangiora Bakery apprentice has global aspirations that have largely been fulfilled. He calls his brand the Global Baker; he has bakeries in Asia, consults in Europe, hosts TV shows including Hottest Home Baker, has written a dozen books and has worked with the likes of Peter Gordon and Rick Stein.
But now he's been hi-jacked to talk about Yeastie Baby.
Brettschneider listens patiently to the tale. He agrees it was probably too cold because he knows Canterbury winters well. Unprompted, he suggests YB should have been brought into a workplace during the day (a suggestion I will hand on).
It is also obvious I was much too heavy-handed with the kneading and most likely knocked what little life the dough had out of it, which would explain the failed proving.
I still got a tasty loaf, but it's clear that a food-from-the-gods loaf is still out there.
But Brettschneider puts the challenge into perspective. Cake baking is paint-by-numbers easy compared to making "the king of breads".
"Sourdough has only four ingredients but it is the most complicated loaf of bread you can possibly make because of the living wild yeast.
"If you like something in that loaf, then the next loaf you make you will put in a little more. The next loaf will give you something different that you will learn from and process. It's an evolving and never-ending story."
We are deep in the Zen of bread territory, and yet there seems much in what he says. The Yeastie Baby loaf wasn't a journey, so much as a tiny first step. And that feels strangely exciting.