The Ballad Of Leon The Behemoth

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Pain pouliche, a pre-ferment (aka a bread starter)

When the quarantine began, my daughter offered to visit Target at Broadway Commons for our weekly food shop. The list had grown over the past few days, with items like “yeast” and “gluten-free flour” at the top. It was our intention to “follow the trend” of home bakers who had created delicious goodies that rose for hours and yielded a crispy loaf after time in a very hot oven.

Daughter returned home sans the yeast and mentioned that she would head over to ShopRite to find it. While she had been shopping at Target, I searched through my baking supplies and found a single pack of yeast, which was wadded up behind a tin box of saffron. It was like I had struck gold.
My neighbor heard of my plight and mentioned that he and his friend had made a “bread starter.” Intrigued, I asked for more information. He went on to mention that the starter had been used to create a beautiful sourdough, some bagels, a batch of fluffy pancakes and some delicious English muffins. He mentioned a bakery in San Francisco that boasted a starter that was over 100 years old. I mused to myself that I would be surprised if I could last the five days that was required to make my own batch.

The recipe was rather simple. One only had to add a cup of flour to a half cup of warm water and mix well in a glass bowl. I had three metal mixing bowls, so I made do with what I had. The mixture was then set aside in an area free of drafts and covered with a kitchen towel until the following day, when the mixture was halved and “fed” another cup of flour and half cup of water. The other half of the starter was to be discarded.
If you’ve ever purchased gluten-free flour, you know the expense. I didn’t have the heart to toss the discard, so I got another bowl and started the second starter. On Day 3, I had three bowls. By Day 5, I ran out of room in my front window and had to move the additional bowls elsewhere. It was time to use some of them before they ran me out of house and home.

On Day 5, I made a beautiful sourdough loaf and a dozen and a half crispy flatbread. Hubby and I plowed through those carbs like Grant took Richmond. My neighbor asked how the starter was going. If anyone has ever seen the movie, Airplane!, you will understand my response, which was, “Leon’s getting larger.” He mentioned that his friend had also hated to part with the discard and she’d gotten herself overwhelmed with starter dough. I completely understood. At this rate, Leon would have to pay rent or I would need to get comfortable with discarding some expensive dough.

If you opt to make a starter yourself, you should be aware of how often it changes its aroma. For example, Day 1 doesn’t smell much like anything. By Day 5, the starter begins to take on a yeasty fragrance. By Day 10, the starter smells a lot like one of the Hicksville High School locker rooms. Thank goodness it doesn’t taste like it smells. Don’t be alarmed, for this is all part of the natural fermenting process. I’ll admit, using starter in bread is part of the secret to excellent bakery-quality bread.

Since Day 5, Leon the Behemoth Starter has enabled us to create bread

sticks, sweet potato dog biscuits and enough flatbread to keep us fed for the foreseeable future. I had to freeze half of the baked goods because I don’t want to become like Leon, who has been reduced to one bowl at present. He smells a lot like a beer that was left out after a night of intense partying. I’m looking forward to creating more baked delights with him before he once more takes over my window. As Fred the Baker from the Dunkin’ Donuts commercial always said, “It’s time to make the donuts!”

Patty Servidio is an Anton Media Group columnist.

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