If my blog is isn’t getting updated quite so regularly these days, it’s because Fran and I are at a pretty intensive stage of a journey we’ve been on the past decade. It’s a journey that’s much shorter for most people: that of starting a family.
The old-fashioned way failed us, so we tried medical intervention. Quackery also failed us, so the past year or so we’ve been involved in the adoption process.
As anyone who’s had similar experiences will tell you, it’s a roller-coaster. The adoption process in the UK is predicated on extending the protection of children in care who may well have had tragic, sad or painful starts to life. So as the prospective adoptive parent, you’re scrutinised to within an inch of your life, every corner of your life checked, considered, evaluated.
You spend months filling in forms, being interviewed. The sheer weight of bureaucracy can make you buckle with its Kafkaesque convolutions as you struggle to prove you can be a good parent – without ever having had the experience of being a parent, thanks to the fickle vagaries of nature. It’s tough, but the end goal is clear – giving a child a good home.
Baking as palliative
When times are tough, baking is gives me solace. Bread-making especially is unique and special: it’s about making a basic food stuff, but it’s so tactile. Plus it’s all about fertility too, in its modest way. You’re reliant on the life incarnate in microorganisms: yeast, and, for sourdoughs, yeast and lactobacilli (bacteria). You need to nurture them, feed them, encourage them to reproduce. Reproduce as fervently as possibly. Unlike us, they shouldn’t need any intervention.
So I’ve been baking a lot recently. I’ve been baking most of my life, and making bread for at least 20 years, though it’s only been the past eight years or so I’ve made pretty much all the bread we eat at home. Although I’ve got a baking diploma, I’m not a professional. The thing professionals have over home bakers is a mastery of skills acquired through repetition. For long baking shifts, often through the night, professional bakers will make their doughs, prove them, shape the loaves, bake them, perfecting the processes.
So although I have a reasonable knowledge of all these things, I haven’t the mastery: it’s a lot harder to achieve when making one or two loaves a week. Especially if, like me, you have an enquiring mind and want to keep experimenting. There are so many variations on basic techniques, so many kinds of flour, so many permutations. So I keep on playing around.
I was a pretty good artist when I was young, but art, like bread-making, like any skill, is something that needs constant practise. Creativity needs nurturing. I carried a notepad and sketched all the time until my mid-twenties, but then it just tailed off. I don’t really know why. Anyway, my creative urges these days mostly go into food, into baking. Talking to my friend Rachel, who knows all about our trying-to-start-a-family saga, she suggested the baking obsession is also an expression of my creativity, my nurturing instincts. (I’m not a stereotypical macho male, obviously.)
If fate, and the powers that be, allow us to adopt and, finally, start a family, I don’t intend to stop baking. But I suspect I’ll have less time for free-form experimentation as the focus of the nurturing will be very different.
Bread experiments in the oven
Another thing Rachel’s said to me is: make your blog more personal. But I’ve not really known how to approach this. This attempting-to-start-a-family thing is mine and Fran’s big personal project. Fran’s sort of tried to put me off talking about it, but we process things differently.
The way I see it, with a pregnancy, you get to a point where you can’t not talk about it – it becomes publically obvious. I feel we’ve been involved with the adoption process for long it’s reaching an equivalent to that publically obvious stage. Just without the bump. Without the literal bun in the oven. Instead, there are my bread experiments in the oven.
This is my latest haphazard experiment. I wanted to see how the same dough behaved when baked in two different ways.
I made a dough using a kilo of flour, a mixture of white wheat flour, wholemeal spelt flour and rivet flour. I combined 400g of this with 650g of water and 15g of yeast to make a sponge pre-ferment.
I let that ferment for a few hours at about 17C, then made up a dough with 15g fine sea salt and about 200g of cooked wheatberries (wheat grains) I had.
Then gave all that a prove for about five hours, giving it some turns and folds.
I then managed to break Fran’s camera. We’d had two days of howling winds, 40-50mph (64-80kph), and that frays your nerves somewhat. Clearly it made me clumser than usual. I’d just said to myself, better watch out, the concrete floor would destroy this camera if dropped – then I dropped it while climbing a small stepladder to take an overhead photo. So now my pics are taken with my inferior phone camera. And I need to take a trip to the camera shop.
After breaking the camera, both pieces of dough were scaled at the same weight, both were moulded the same way, and both were given their final prove in round bannetons.
After the final prove, I put one in a Le Creuset casserole dish, pre-heated in the oven at 220C. Some call this the Dutch oven technique. I used a peel to slide the other onto a baking stone (or, more specifically, my pizza stone). Both were then baked at 220C for 20 minutes, then 30 minutes more at 180C.
Now, as you’ll see from the photos, despite all these years of baking, I’m still making some errors. Firstly, the two kilos of dough I had was too much for the size of Le Creuset I was using. Oops. Secondly, the one I baked on the stone, not being constrained by a container, did a funny oven spring and opened out sideways. This is frustrating for several reasons as I know the factors full well:
1. I probably didn’t leave it long enough in the final prove.
2. It may have opened up better if I’d give the top some slashes.
3. I quite possibly didn’t get the dough tight enough in the moulding stage.
The latter is one a baking skill I really struggle with. Sometimes I nail it, sometimes I fail miserably. I’ve managed 80% hydration ciabatta, then made a 70% hydration ball that’s turned out a discus.
Anyway, the real thing I was wondering about with this experiment was whether the crust and the crumb of the bread would be markedly different when baked with the different techniques. I was expecting they would be. They weren’t. Both are lovely loaves, soft, wholesome, good for sandwiches or, when they’ve staled a bit, toast.
For this experiment, I probably should have divided the dough in three, and baked a third on a steel baking sheet. Not sure my oven’s big enough though. Still, it was a fun experiment, a nice distraction from the anxiety and emotional intensity of the adoption. And, heck, one day I hope it’s the sort of bread my kids will like for their school lunches.