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.

facile verse

I’m sitting pat
on a red ledge
chewing noodles
watching the
sun slide
down no drama
baking heat
mud cracks between my toes
as it dries
facile verse
alternating canoe strokes
fssss shcrack
of opening beer
for a week
the facile verse
in complex geometry
of canyon constructed
of silt and sand
settling drying
between triceritopian toes
one, two, three now?
mesmerized by the maze
languid in the labyrinth
until the power boat return
the power car marathon
the heaving open of email vaults
and dying relatives and discordant
I stand in the lawn spraying cracked Green River silt off of coolers and buckets noting
how easily it washes from the folded faux textures in the plastic, the cerebral courses of the coiled painters and tent lines as though it were never there.

Heat Stress: 1/2 day “speed” climb of Mt. Landale

On Wednesday I decided to go up to the Summit of Mt. Landale. You see, I’m on a bit of a break from work and kind of training for a race in the middle of the hottest part of the summer. So, I’ve got mid-week time and figured a 6km logging road run followed by a 1200m scramble would be the ticket for training. The west of North America is in the grips of a very hot summer. June was one of the warmest June’s on record around here. These records go back almost 150 years, so that’s saying something. The day of my run/scramble was about like all the others lately. In the 30s C, windless, and blazing sun. This was perfect for my aim of a hard day out in tough conditions. To make it better, I futzed around the house until about noon, so didn’t get to the trailhead until about 1:30.

Mt. Landale lies just to the north of Lake Cowichan, a WNW/ESE trending fjord-like lake which almost saws off the bottom third of Vancouver Island into two separate islands. Much of Vancouver Island’s spine is mountainous and the mountains north of Lake Cowichan are seen as the start of “real” alpine around here. In this case, “real” alpine means elevations nearing treeline, heather and blueberry meadows, lakes, abundant winter snows and some decent views. In these respects, Mt. Landale is a typical modest summit. Also typical about Landale is that it sits on land owned by Timberwest, which is a forestry company that owns about 10% of Vancouver Island outright. They own it. They can do what they please with the land, they can lock you out or lock you in. They are a company operated for profit, not for recreation so using their mountains is done purely at their mercy. Although this boggles my mind — that one company can own so much ecosystem and such large and diverse contiguous blocks of land — this is the way it is. Given that the summer has been hot and extremely dry, they have an official closure on all of their lands except for a few campgrounds that they operate. So, any hope of driving up a logging road was non existant.

I arrived at the Cottonwood Creek main, a bit west of the small town of Youbou, at 1:30. There are closure signs everywhere, the gates are locked, there are no trespassing signs. I guess it was clear that I wasn’t wanted there. But, this kind of played into my plan. My hope was to run the 6km of logging road. And being on foot is low impact, fire safe and silent so the chances of being discovered were really small. I loaded my running pack with 1.5 L of water, a few cliff bars, some gels, a pack of shot blocks and a baggie of buckwheat crepes and sliced salami which combined breakfast leftovers with fridge food scraps. I also had a headlamp, my phone, two hand held 22 oz water bottles, and a wind shell. I had a rough return time of about 8PM in mind but realized I hadn’t told anyone where I was going.

So, nervously expecting to be found out for trespass; nervously wondering what would happen if I hurt myself; and nervous about the unexpected that lay ahead, I trotted off up Cottonwood Creek road. The run was pleasant. I knew it climbed about 250 m up into a valley as it followed alongside Cottonwood Creek. After about 3 km I realized that it was pretty hot. Sweat was running off in rivulets and I was well into my first water bottles. Whew. At 5.5 km and a few right trending forks, the road reaches a decommissioned bridge. Apparently it’s the law for forestry companies to destroy roads that are no longer to be used. Apparently Timberwest had had their fill from the Cottonwood Creek valley and this was their statement to that effect. There is a creek gauging station here, and Lomas creek comes in from the right. The way forward is a 4 wheeler track fording the creek which was flowing surprisingly well given the dryness of the summer. Beyond the crossing, the road took on an alder-ey overgrown appearance and climbed steeply into a clear cut. At about 6.5 km in, the road up the Lomas Creek valley forked off to the right.

From the Lomas Creek turnoff on up is considered the “trail” although the next couple of kilometers could have been mistaken for logging road still. The alders had grown in, but you could still drive a car up there. Eventually, this lead into a nice patch of hemlock forest and the road narrowed into a track that gradually switchbacked up the flanks of Mt. Serivice. This track was alternately alder choked, open and rocky, bordered by dense newgrowing hemlock and doug fir and featured numerous Grouse flushing that startled me every time. Every now and then views up the west flanks of Mt. Landale opened up or snippets of Mt. Service would appear. I sat down about 9 km into my hike and up 600 m of climbing for a first break. I was about 1:30 in and had gone through about 2/3 of the water in my handhelds and a few sips off my pack. In the shade, I pulled out my phone to get some GPS bearings on a map. Everything looked as it should and after what would be my last pee for 20 hours, I was on my way.

Just beyond a left-turn switchback soon after lunch, a small camp marked by a fire ring signalled the start of the trail. Normally when scrambling around Vancouver Island, the word trail would be written “trail” indicating that it is barely a track and choked with bush that’s festooned with flagging tape. But, in this case, the trail was nicely groomed, steep but not terrible, modestly flagged and entered immediately into a beautiful grove of shady old growth hemlock. I was stoked to be in the cooler forest and my map locating had put me a few hundred vertical meters below Lomas Lake. The trail continued for 3 more km making a couple of small stream crossings and opening up for a couple of views down into Cottonwood Creek valley. Bluffs started to appear near the trail, blueberry started to come into the understory, and occasional views of El Capitan or Mt. Service indicated the arrival to the “alpine”.

At 12.5 km from the car, the trail dropped a bit to the shore of Lomas Lake. This lake is nestled in a steep cirque that cuts into Mt. Landale and has El Capitan as it’s northern wall. The slopes around the lake quickly lead to cliffs save for a couple of gullys that seemed to penetrate. The eastmost gully had the clear signs of the mine tailings that I’d read about in the various guides and online postings about the mountains. The dryness of the season had left the lake about 10 feet lower than normal, but its waters were still clear and deep enough for a swim. By this point, 2:30 in, I was feeling a bit tired and was wondering what to do. I had been hoping to get home early enough to have a bit of an evening with Liz and was unsure of my water supplies. But, I’d come that far and who knows when I’d get back there, and the way forward looked so enticing. I laid down in the shade of a boulder on the gravel bar where the inlet creek had formed its delta and ate a snack and drank the last of my water bottle water. I was about 1150 m above sea level and knew Mt. Landale is just under 1500 m. So, I didn’t have far to go, but knew that there was some scrambling to get there. Well, curiosity killed the cat, and I decided to see what was at the top of the gully where the mine tailings were.

From the lake, the route remains flagged but is less distinct. I soon lost the flagging as the route entered an old avalanche and its broken down trees. I invented a route boulder hopping and jungle gyming through the downed trees and across a talus slope. Eventually, I wound back to the route just as it hit the scree of the mine tailings. I slogged up through that with shakier and shakier legs and then past the mine and up to the pass. My mountain sense had told me that the summit route would be above and right of the gully and when I got there I found a nice little bench leading around to the SW. The agreement with myself on the way up that this would be my high point was soon annulled. I wanted to at least get to the scrambling difficulty. So, around the bench and slightly down lead to a ledge entrance to another gully leading up through the major cliff bands. I could see a couple of minor rock steps but nothing steep and nothing exposed. With curiosity, onward. I delicately scrambled the gully wishing for a helmet but not feeling much endangered otherwise. This topped out with a steep exit onto another, larger bench. I rediscovered the route here and decided to get onto the ridge above to see if I could pick up cell service. If I could, I’d let Liz know where and when I was and continue on. If no service, then this would be my high point.

Ha. Cell service was found and I called to find out that Liz was in the midst of birth craziness and wouldn’t be around for the evening. I told her I was on Landale and that I wouldn’t be back until 9 or 9:30. Also, from this ridge, the way forward was clear and looked easy. After taking in the amazing views back down to Lomas lake, which seemed very far away already, I headed onward. From that ridge, a high point has to be descended to reach the summit block of Mt. Landale. The trail goes along the east side of the ridge and soon crosses the small pass and begins to climb up and to the west for the finals step. This last step is a very moderate scramble/veg climb leading to some small tarns and then the summit.

The view is amazing from there. I hadn’t been on the summit of anything since Mt. Allan Brooks earlier in the year, so was more impressed than normal. And, solos tend to heighten the experience even if the route isn’t all that difficult. With the clear skies I had and Mt. Landale’s prominance, I could see Cascade volcanoes, to the ranges near Tofino, and up to Mt. Arrowsmith and beyond. Mt. Tzouhalem and Maple Mountain were nestled down to the SE near home looking like small bumps from that height. I made a note to try to spot Landale from Mt. Tzou next time I was up there. With the heat getting to me, I grabbed the summit register and found some shade for a good rest and a snack. I’d made it up there in about 3:45 so the time was a bit after 5PM. I lounged in the shade and ate while reading and writing in the register. Then took a photosphere panorama and started to make my way down at about 6PM.

The path back down was easier as I knew where I was going and could see the trail laid out before me. The gullys went easily and I found the official path through the avalanche which was much much easier than the way up I’d chosen. I was soon back at the lake where I finished the last of my water, filled up my pack’s bladder with backup water (I was hugely lamenting my lack of water treatment tabs which weigh nothing and would have made my trip much more comfortable). Then I jumped in the lake naked and cooled my jets for a few minutes. A week before I had run out of water on a slightly shorter climb with greater heat and knew that the descent would be killer because the temperature would be going up as I went down and my body’s ability to cool would be reduced as well. So, I packed back up and went for it. 12.5 km to go and about a vertical kilometer to lose.

The trail down was pleasant and actually quite runnable. Again, this presented a dilemma — to run gets one home more quickly, but it also generates more heat which increases the need for water. So, I settled on speed at a nice easy trot. At the largest creek crossing, I grabbed some water for my bottles hoping not to have to try to drink it, but just in case. And down I went making good time.

I popped off the trail an hour off the summit and made good time on the road/4-wheeler track. But the heat was catching up to me. I freed the drinking tube from my pack and began to spritz my legs with the lake water which felt really good. By squeezing the bladder with my other hand, I could spritz my head and feel the hot sweat run off in a wave of coolness. Well, cool wasn’t right. Maybe coolerness? As I came into the clear cut near the Cottonwood Creek main I knew I was going to make it. I only had 7 km or so to go and it was almost all downhill. At the decommissioned bridge where the trail fords the stream I laid down in the cold waters with my legs up and my head and armpits in. I splashed water on my chest and neck to signal to my brain that everything was cool — literally, it was all cool. This felt great but wasn’t getting me home. So, I climbed out of the stream with soaking wet clothes and trotted my way down. As I heated up, I’d use the water in my bottles to spray my head and feel the hot sweat wash off on the wave of coolerness. At about 2 km to go I ran out of water. At 1 km I almost stopped to walk it in, but realized I needed to build some mental reserves so kept at it. Soon the gate appeared, I bounced up the sneak-past trail, and hit stop on my watch. I walked up to my car and pulled out the liter of water I had in there and drank 1/3 of it walking back down to Cottonwood Creek. I climbed down to the creek and laid in it guzzling the rest of the liter and feeling pretty damn beat but also pretty damn good. I’d made it, and I didn’t get caught for trespass, and I saw a beautiful little corner of the island that’s one of thousands of hidden gems out there.

On the way home I stopped in Youbou and spent the $4 in change I could scour from my car on a powerade and a popsicle. Both were gone in a flash. I got home and drank fresh beer from a growler then ate a BBQed sausage while drinking more. It wasn’t until the next morning and about 6L of fluid that I had my first pee.

Trip totals were 28.5 km, 1580 m climbing, and 5:35 of moving time and about 6:40 start to finish.

Overall, this was a great outing. It could easily be done very quickly if a mountain bike was used to cover the first 8 km or so. This would leave about 13 km of hiking for a nice balance. Running as much of that as possible would enable someone to go car to car in 4 hours, maybe? On a cooler day, with water, and knowing the route. I’m sure a mountain machine could do it in much less.