A study of the alveolar sacs


The bus traced the toes of the Sooke hills
Wind eddying furiously through cedar branches
Making them wave and toss and throw spray back
To the sky and heavy drops to the ground
Me in this bubble of warmth, pink and humid
And my mind turned up into those hills
The cool green canyons and crevices
The flooded and abandoned roads
The emptiness of humanity there at that moment
In this building storm.
I thought of all the fragile, warm breaths
Being taken then under root-cave and rock alcove
Hidden tunnel away from trail
A massive chorus of sighing warmth
Unheard, but some how counteracting the cold wind.
Do you hunker down? Are you waiting it
Out as I am? Ducking the rain between
Spheres of comfort? Or are you out there
Eviscerating, stopping hearts, drawing nectar,
Stealing blood, staking your claim,
Licking your wounds and waiting for the fawn
Beneath cleft who snapped its last twig
In the dim rain of that forest cacophony
As I want.

Gust Buster — the 2015 Oregon Coast 50k

A gust of wind picked up and then amplified to a raging shriek in the millions of Sitka Spruce needles in the canopy above me. Huge trunks bowed and swayed. As I waited for the squeal and crack, I eyed cover downwind of large trees in hopes of any kind of protection. Shirtless, sweating hard, soaked with tropical rains and dancing down Cook’s Ridge I just couldn’t help it. I started to howl at the wind. Scream at the thrill of more than half-nakedly running through a forest alive with wind and rain; the thrill of being unquestionably alive — as close to my beating heart and thrumming brain as I’ve been in months, years, god knows how long. All of the pent up and broken relationship residue along with the held love and comfort of those times was all laid bare in those screams, yet they remained screams of joy despite working through yet another bonk and being 35 km into the race I was as alive and happy and connected as I could possibly be. This was my Oregon Coast 50k.

The race started as the skies lowered and southerly winds picked up and began to gust up the beach. Forecasts were for 20 knot gusting to 40 knot winds and heavy rains from the remnants of Hurricane Oho and that forecast was conservative. Despite rain, the beach sand was picked up and blown making the lowest 2 feet of air a sandblast. James the race director lead us out from the huddled protection of the Governor Patterson picnic area’s pines onto the beach where nothing could slow the wind. It was immediately clear that this was going to be a different kind of race. It became even more apparent when shoes sunk into the sand indicating that the beach was still summer-soft not yet hammered solid by winter waves. This was going to be interesting.

James counted down and we were off. The whole pack swerved toward the ocean hoping to find hard sand since there was no hope of finding refuge from the wind save for with other racers. The field quickly split into groups although there were the brave souls who struck out on their own, perhaps their race ethics more pure than mine. The eventual race winner set out with his brother in a pack of two. The account of the Ghelfis is here. I found myself in the second (or maybe third) pack which contained about 20 runners variously trying to hold onto and losing the group as it swerved and dodged waves, lumps, dead sea lions, and soft sand. An occasional gust would hammer down hard enough to blast us apart akin to the scene in March of the Penguins where the huddle is broken by a savage katabatic gust. The real hero story here goes to Dave Melanson who makes up half of Project Talaria. He took the lead of our group and while I strove to do my part by leading for a couple of kms, he hung in there for more than 8 of the 10 beach kms. Breaking the wind, dodging the softest sand, and swerving away from the encroaching tide was very hard work. Some runners likened it to putting out a 5k pace effort to move at slower than typical ultra pace.

My pack as we split to cross a stream. We rejoined very quickly. Note the haze of wet blowing sand. Note also that this is a picture I purchased from Glen Tachiyama (tachifoto.net). Please support his great work by purchasing a photo now and then.

My pack as we split to cross a stream. We rejoined very quickly. Note the haze of wet blowing sand. Note also that this is a picture I purchased from Glen Tachiyama (tachifoto.net). Please support his great work by purchasing a photo now and then.

So, that was the beginning. The inverse of how one wants to run one of these races. Eventually the pack approached the trails and split apart for the last km to the first aid. I hung back figuring that I would work on recovering for the next several kilometers before getting back after it. I rolled through this and all the rest of the aid stations fast.

My aid strategy was to grab enough gels to replace what I’d lost and fill up on some gu brew and water and then walking off as I arranged my gear. I was going light overall with my equipment consisting of only two hand helds, a Wilson headband, wind shell, shorts, shoes and socks. Simple and to the point. Conditions were very wet and windy but also quite warm. On the drive over the night before, we noted temperatures of 67 F in Corvallis at 8PM and it couldn’t have been much colder than that all day. because of the heat and 100 % humidity I would actually sweat a lot this race and, as a sweaty creature to begin with, this would mean drinking a lot. On final tally, I guess I drank almost two gallons of water or 11 24oz bottles.

Moving on things got easier. The 4 km after the aid were on road and still buffeted by wind but then the route entered forested trail where it would stay until the returning 4 km. And once there, conditions were much more pleasant. The trails were in excellent shape since this was one of the first big rains of the year so they had plenty of capacity to soak up water before turning to muck.

As the trail wound up to Cape Perpetua, the winds began to pick up owing to the prominence of the place. When I reached where the Amanda trail breaks out onto the overlook the storm was  beginning to reach its own climax with winds strong enough to push a runner over ripping up the slope and into the forest to the north. This was a brief introduction to the coming madness as the trail quickly dropped from there down to the second (doubles as the fourth) aid station. Again, this was a quick pass through to fill my fluids, down a bottle, and grab a couple of gels although recalling it now, I seem to have taken a while there. The extreme conditions kind of spurred a nonchalance based in feeling like just running out there was enough and that I could allow myself some comfort given the nutty weather.

Out from there the race soon reaches the halfway point as the trail parallels the coast before ducking east to climb up Cummins Ridge. This climb isn’t difficult but plays with your mind as the gradient is just steep enough to feel, but not so steep as to be unrunnable by a racer of my calibre. And so I ran despite working though a first bonk and some low mood which was causing my brain to wonder extensively about why one runs these races.

And then magic happened. About halfway up the climb, the wind made any thoughts such as those impossible to hold onto. Gusts started to pick up a banshee quality with building crescendos that climaxed much louder and harder than one thought they could without blowing the whole forest down. My eyes started to dart around during the peak blasts, searching for any tree about to fall or limb about to crash down. And with that thrill my race turned into sheer bliss. From then on, each gust was something to laugh at and to celebrate. When the rain  started to come down so hard that a small creek gushed down a rut in the trail and my headband would seep male-sheep-tasting sludge into my mouth it was just funner and funnier. When I reached the top to find the turnaround check point and that they were playing 90s electronica and that apparently a very famous pop artist was present my thoughts could be nothing but enjoyment. I was a crazed, shirtless, stringy haired and balding, flabby but completely enthralled animal.

From the top back to the final aid station was unforgettable bliss. I was alive, the forest was certainly alive, fall mushrooms were practically speaking to me, my frequent pee stops were pleasant chances to gaze into the swaying trunks and to marvel at the setting, at how cleansing the forest can be and how lucky I was to be in it at all and more so to be able to witness it at that time with warmth, fleet feet and legs, and knowing that friends and family were waiting for me at the finish. Hollering and screaming with glee I pushed on. Only 2 hours to go; the length of a feature length movie to burn into my retinas and set fire to my brain.

I finished with a slower time than last year, but with 1000 times the exuberance and that much greater will to run. I shouted it out on top of Cape Perpetua when I passed the race director, but I’ll say it again here: thanks James. This is what it’s all about.

Further down the Tartine path

For a few weeks now, I’ve re-anchored myself in bread baking. Yeah, hah, a few weeks. That’s nothing in a life. It’s the equivalent of half of one manic cycle. A pay period. The transition from full to new moon. Spring to spring tides.

Anyhow, that’s where I am. Finding familiarity doing this while much of the rest of my life bucks and flexes radically, threatening to reassemble into something less known. So it goes.

I’m about 6 loaves into the method now. Two country white and four whole wheat which in my case means a 70/30 blend of whole wheat and white flours. And, I think I’m getting somewhere with this. I understand the process and now have it down by memory. Using baking percentages makes it easier for me to keep the recipe in mind. Remember the hydration percentage, use something like 2% salt, know your flour blend and you are golden. For breads with tasty additions, just keep the percentage of those things and go from there.

This most recent round went quite smoothly. I allowed my starter a few cycles of feeding, each new feeding starting with a couple Tbsp of the old starter and running for a full 24 hours. I think this is a low inoculation method within a range of higher inoculation methods that require more frequent and larger feedings. I like the 24 hour, low feeding cycle because it prevents me from wasting flour in case I can’t bake when the starter is ready.

Last night I gave the, now leaven, the float test and it passed easily. And, at about 7PM I blended the ingredients thereby kicking off the baking cycle that took me to now, noon the following day, with fresh bread out of the oven. Here’s what the bread looks like:

A couple of country wheat boules. What you can't see is that they are a liiiiitle bit flat. Not pancakes, but a tad flat. But, I'm sure they will reveal themselves to be plenty open in structure.

A couple of country wheat boules. What you can’t see is that they are a liiiiitle bit flat. Not pancakes, but a tad flat. But, I’m sure they will reveal themselves to be plenty open in structure.

Some things I’m challenged by still:

I have difficulty getting the loaves to stand up into rounder forms. I think my dough is a little bit weak either from lower gluten content or not enough development in the turning phase of the bulk fermentation. There’s enough structure to capture the fermentation gasses and make nice texture, but not enough to really make them stand up and bloom in the oven. This could also be from a slight overfermentation in the proofing phase, or even a slightly weak starter thus requiring longer fermentation times. By smell, they seem ever so slightly over fermented with that cheesy smell from excess lactic acid formation.

Loading the loaves into the dutch oven is very difficult. The high rims make it hard to ease the loaf into the pan and also make docking the loaves very difficult. I’ve also been having trouble with the dough sticking onto the baskets despite sometimes heavy flouring. This seems to be an issue of the high hydration doughs. This time around was much better because I used more flour and the dough was better developed/stiffer. I’ve also found that even botched loading still leads to nice finished loaves. The environment of the dutch oven provides so much steam and support for the loaves that they still wind up baking nicely with only minor defects.

Loaves five and six and the baking tools.

Loaves five and six and the baking tools.

The bulk fermentation with folding process demands attendance frequently during the 3 to 4 hours and then more time to pre shape and then shape the dough. I have a lot of time for this now, but this amounts to a 5 hour stretch of time to commit to the bread. When I’m working and not wanting to be latched at home for all of that time, this is going to be challenging unless I can find a way around it. Maybe I can start bringing my doughs to work and doing the bulk fermentation there?

I’m getting better at the shaping, but still deal with sticking and awkwardness during the pre-shape and to a lesser extent during the shape. I think this will take becoming a dough scraper ninja.

The flavor is much more subtle than the Nancy Silverton way that I’d adopted into using a LOT of starter. For those breads, I was using up to 2 cups of very mature starter compared with roughly one cup (200 g) of starter for these breads. That extra starter gave the breads much more acidity and apparent flavour. In blind taste testing with family, my breads were beating some of the better breads from California artisanal bakeries. Including tartine. For flavour only. Texture was better in the other breads. I need to find the middle ground and suspect it’s a bit more starter and a slightly lower hydration.

I’m not sure how I’ll approach the baking for other shapes given that I don’t have an oblong dutch oven. I like to make small batards because they are a better size for giving away to friends. I’ll have to experiment with these and the process of baking them in an open oven maybe with a steam source?

Altogether, I’m enjoying this a lot. I’m much more excited to bake than I have been in a long time and the results are really good.

A Bread Post

I started baking again, which is remarkable in that it’s the first baking I’ve done in months and also because somehow my ferment survived all of that alone time in the fridge.

Lately I’ve been attempting high hydration doughs. These incorporate something like 75 bakers percent of water meaning that for each 100 g of flour in the dough there’s 75 g of water. This means that you don’t get a nice kneadable dough at all. At best it becomes juuuust shapable at the end of a 4 hour long fermentation. Before then it’s kind of a sticky goo.

My first stab involved me following my normal volumetric measure recipe which is something like this:

2 cups starter (my starter is 50/50 by volume flour and water)
6 1/2 to 7 cups of flour
4 1/2 tsp salt

But this time, at about 5 1/2 cups of flour, 2 cups water, and 2 cups starter I decided to see what would happen if I ran with the dough as-is. I mixed it in the kitchen aide (I’ll never do that again). About 10 min total under the dough hood (5 min, then rest for 20, then add salt, then 5 more min). I turned the dough into a bowl and covered and let it ferment.

Came back after a few hours and attempted to cut the dough and shape it as I usually would. This was a mess. My method of forming rounds involves tucking with my hands while turning the dough with friction against the counter top. But everything was a sticky mess and at best I got a sorta round shape. I put that in the fridge on a floured baking sheet thinking I could just pop it into the oven the next morning.

After an overnight retard in the fridge it was clear that the loaves didn’t have any kind of good shape for baking. So, I risked another shaping with slightly better results and then put the dough in my normal proofing baskets with lots of flour. I let this rise for ~3 hours and then baked using the dutch oven method given in Tartine. Essentially this involves pre heating the dutch oven to 500 degrees then somehow loading a loaf in the oven, lidding, and baking the first 25 min with the lid closed at 450 degrees F. The last 20 min is baked without the lid.

The results were pretty good. I botched the docking by trying to use a kitchen knife (NO!). But, the loaves somehow pulled off a magic oven spring but it was clear by smell and later by taste that the loaves were over proofed. Not bad, but definitely very sour tasting.

Not bad looking high hydration loaf.

Not bad looking high hydration loaf.

Then I went away for a week and then came back to give it another shot. Because I had cracked Tartine to look up the Dutch oven method, I decided I may as well start following their basic white method. Or at least give it a shot and see how it would work for me. First off, the author uses weights. This is the de-facto standard for any serious baking because it eliminates issues with varying flour density and starter consistency (or at least minimizes issues with starter consistency). The recipe for the basic country white is as follows:

900 g white flour
100 g whole wheat flour
750 g water
20 g salt
200 g starter

For this, I used my normal starter which is equal parts water and flour by volume rather than the Tartine starter/leaven which is equal parts by weight. The important difference is that one gets less flour when measuring per volume than one would if measuring per weight so my starter was wet to begin with. This is also about 1/2 the starter I would normally use in a recipe, so I expected things to be less active overall.

I mixed the dough following their method which involves just blending the water (700 g of it) with the starter and then mixing in the flours. Once this is mixed, it’s allowed to rest for up to 40 minutes. I gave it the full 40 to allow as much water as possible to absorb into the flours. Next, the remaining water and salt are incorporated again by direct hand mixing (this is hand in dough, not hand on spoon). Once everything is well mixed, it’s allowed to ferment for 3-4 hours.

This bulk fermentation has a key feature that is a major change for me and will make bread baking much more palatable. Instead of kneading, every 30 minutes of the bulk ferment, the dough is “turned”. A “turn” involves reaching into the dough with a clean, wet hand and pulling the bottom dough onto the top, roatating and repeating several times. This is done gently to prevent loss of gasses in the dough. By the end of the ferment, roughly 6 turns will have been performed and the dough is essentially very well kneaded. This works because it allows the fermentation to do the work of kneading as gas expands in the dough slowly pushing against the gluten and aligning things.

So far so good, but I didn’t know where I stood because this was completely foreign to me. The dough was definitely alive with spring and a fair bit of gas in it. Next comes the shaping and this is where things got difficult partly because the book is a bit hard to follow and partly because it was all new to me and partly because my dough was wetter than the recipe called for.

The dough is dumped onto a clean counter (no flour on it) and then the surface of the dough is sprinkled with flour. The idea is that floured dough surface will become the bread’s crust and will thereby primarily stay on the outside of the loaves to come. I dumped the dough, sprinkled and cut it into two pieces. As I cut, the method is to turn the dough over, which worked. Next one is meant to somehow fold the dough to seal in the unfloured bits and then tuck and round the dough into some kind of initial form. I found this very tricky as my hands kept sticking (more to one piece than the other) and then the dough kept firmly sticking to the counter and undoing my work. Eventually I kind of had it tamed and the dough balls separated enough to rest. Again, there’s a 40 minute rest here to let the dough relax.

At the point there was a clear difference between the dough balls. One was tighter, smaller and overall less sticky than the other. I think I got less water in this one as I was using wet hands to shape the dough and transferred more water into the one ball than the other.

The final shaping is actually pretty straight forward. One piece at a time, the dough is floured, then flipped onto its floured side. Then it’s folded bottom third up, then right third in, then left third to right edge, then top third over to bottom edge, then a final fold of the bottom edge up and over dragging the load to flip it on the counter. I found this very cool as it was clear that each fold was making the dough firmer and more like a loaf. By the last fold, these impossibly wet loaves actually had some shape. I inverted them (seam side up) into proofing baskets and left them for the night (6 hours in the fridge).

In the morning I made my first mistake which was to pull both loaves out of the fridge. Tartine says you only need 20 minutes between pulling the dough out and baking, but I don’t see how this is possible given the coldness of the fridge and the relatively little amounts of starter in the dough. So, I gave them a full three hours which is equivalent to what would be done if the dough was to be baked straight from shaping. Because I pulled both pieces out, I knew one loaf would get more proofing time because I can only bake one loaf at a time in the dutch oven. Nearing bake time, I chose to bake the larger, wonkier loaf first because it seemed more slack as if it were about to become overproofed. I put the other one in the fridge to retard it a bit while the first loaf baked. I’d pull it out when the first loaf was nearly done. This would give about 40 minutes for the loaf to come to room temperature while the first loaf finished baking and the oven re-heated to temperature.

I totally botched the docking and loading of the first loaf. The loaf was firmly stuck to the proofing baskets owing to my use of flour and the wetness of the dough. I kind of had to shake it out and at one point it looked like ruined dough. When it flopped into the hot dutch oven it was half on its side and looked funky. I then tried to dock it with a razor, but the blade slipped off my holder and I just hacked at it. In frustration I stabbed the razor holding stick into the loaf until it broke and then slammed the loaf into the oven. FUCK. I’m having a rough time these days and even small things like this can throw me.

After the 25 minutes, I pulled off the cover and somehow the bread looked okay. After 20 minutes it was as if some kind of miracle had occurred. The loaf was rounded and risen (not as much as it could have been, but risen for sure). The color was golden and the smell was a little overproofed, but pretty good. Wow.

After reheating the oven, and making damn sure I had the other loaf unstuck, I got it into the dutch oven, docked it a bit more successfully, and then shoved it in the oven. At 25 minutes later, the loaf looked great an had sprang up a lot. I was actually sad to see a bit of deflation when I pulled the lid off and am curious about trying a bit longer with the lid on to see if I can capture more of that poof. After 20 minutes the loaf was beautiful. Golden and risen to a nice height (although still somewhat of a disk). A much nicer specimen than the first and holding true to its behavior from the initial shaping.

Second round (uncut) and the cross section of the first round. Overall, the second is much nicer but they will both be really good.

Second round (uncut) and the cross section of the first round. Overall, the second is much nicer but they will both be really good.

While the second loaf was baking, I cut into the first and found it to be pretty amazing. There is a lot of hole structure, the crust was crisp, but not a rock, the taste with butter was outstanding. Overall, really good bread and something I would be happy to have bought in a fancy bread shop. These were made using cheap flour, so have about $1.75 of materials in each loaf. With nicer organic flour bought in small bags, this will double but $3 isn’t bad for a good loaf of bread these days.

Next up is a whole wheat using good organic flour and the leaven as described in Tartine. I expect the dough to be a bit easier to work with and now I’ve got more practice too. Fun.

My Friend the Zucchini

It’s that time of year
when you begin to ask questions
of your zucchini
Gently and with some curiosity
prodding around the edges
of its existence in your life
and in your garden where
it has established itself
like a good acquaintance
who has come from Italy
bearing panettone but
talks a little too much
about the financial crisis
who you knew was coming after
You snap its arm off
and lug three more in
wondering who to phone
for assistance.