Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Catching yeast in the air

As may be quite obvious by now, I really enjoy baking bread. I took five semesters of ceramics in undergrad and fell in love with the process of something so simple and so profound. Baking bread is similar in many ways. Watching the yeast interact with the water and then flour, coming alive and doubling in size not once but twice is a profound experience for me. All of the elements are there: patience, ritual, attention to detail, invigoration of every one of the senses and, at the end, you've got a loaf of some sort of goodness. Every batch makes two standard loaves, so one of my favorite things is to share the second loaf with someone. I have been very intentionally gradual in my bread adventures, keeping things straightforward and letting myself learn gradually. As both a student and teacher, there are so many times when my brain is on overload; baking bread allows me to slow down and soak in the joy of a process that has no expectations or end-goal.

One thing that has proven a bit difficult in the bread baking process is that N is allergic to yeast. Now, while I am interested in the ritualistic practices of eating and sharing unleavened bread, it doesn't really make for very good toast or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So, last night I decided to move forward in my quest for yeast-free starters. N has said before that it is possible to gather the yeast from the air, but I assumed this to be a much more energy-consuming process than it actually is. Turns out, all you need is honey, water, flour, and a bit of time (5 days, to be precise). So, we have a starter going in the kitchen (see the photo album if you would like to view some pics), and it has already started bubbling! Because I was in the mood to make starters, I also made a poolish for a ciabatta--just breaking right out of the box, eh?

Another one of my favorite kitchen adventures is making soup. As the weather turns consistently cooler, I am drawn to the kitchen to mix in whatever combinations of vegetables suit my fancy. While N and I both have strengths in the kitchen, I gladly tip my hat to her as the better cook between us. She can step in and put together a bouquet of flavors that could bring you to your knees in a state of gastronomic bliss. However, when the mood hits me, I can spend a day tossing things together in the kitchen. As my palette develops, and I learn more about how to combine flavors, soup continues to be a great way to experiment. Soup is very forgiving; you can toss something in and, if it doesn't work, you can typically just balance it out with something else. Soup also gets better over time, so a dish that is bland on day one is typically be full of flavor by day three. We make a big batch, eat some, freeze some, and keep leftovers for a week. One of my consistently favorite soups to make is one I have dubbed "kitchen sink" soup, as it typically contains everything we've got on-hand. It's like a one-home version of stone soup, and it usually makes enough to provide food off and for weeks on a very low budget. Last night's creation involved onions, celery, butternut squash, a red bell pepper, turnips, rutabaga, greens, broccoli, white beans, and a couple of slices of bacon that needed to be consumed. This was all served with a side of sunchokes roasted with garlic, thyme, olive oil, s&p, and coarse salt turned out to be a nice meal.

So, the evening last night was spent as a downpayment of sorts: beginning bread starters and making/eating soup that will be best in a few days. My love of this process seems to be a metaphor for something, though I'm not quite sure I want to read that much into it. For now, I think it's enough to just love being in the kitchen, dog sleeping on the floor behind me. As I was working, I found quite a bit of joy in knowing that when N returned from her dinner meeting she would find a home full of good smells and a yeast-free starter beginning the process of fermentation. Welcome home, love...

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