There's something very satisfying, very basic, about making bread. Perhaps it is the tactile nature of the exercise (all that kneading is so therapeutic), or perhaps it is the fact that bread is something that civilized societies have been eating for so many hundreds of years that it makes me feel some sort of connection to those who have come before. To those women who used to gather at the town oven to do their daily baking or something.
So I've been doing it on and off for quite some time. Often I just make something out of Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone, which has fabulous yeast bread recipes. But when I decide to get serious, it is generally with something from Nancy Silverton's Breads From The La Brea Bakery. The book is full of breads to be made with a natural sourdough starter, which per her directions can be developed over the course of two weeks using organic grapes and many pounds of flour. There is much adding of flour and discarding of starter along the way. A total pain, but I do recall my mom undertaking the whole thing back when I was in high school and I believe my family has been relying on the original starter ever since.
But frankly, as wonderful as those Silverton breads are (they come perilously close to being as good as my beloved Acme breads) they really are just too much work to be made on a regular basis. They are almost always a multi-day affair with lots of very vigorous kneading necessary, and I end up with flour in every nook and cranny of my kitchen. So I gave up on the whole bread baking thing for a while.
But as it turns out the Silverton way is not the only one. Dan Lepard has written the most illuminating book called The Handmade Loaf. He also favors the natural sourdough starter, but instead of weeks, his takes days. Instead of organic grapes (which are actually surprisingly hard to find) all you need are some raisins and instead of throwing away quarts are starter you throw away none.
My very active starter (there were more than a few occasions when I left it out, covered, and it busted through the seal onto my kitchen counter):
And even better, the man has essentially eliminated the kneading! You stir ingredients together, leave them to ferment for a little while, mix again for ten seconds, leave to ferment, and repeat, repeat and bake, et voila, lovely loaf of bread. Sort of like Mark Bittman's no-knead bread, but with infinite variations. It was so easy, that I went a little crazy with the bread baking this weekend.
White levain bread:
Just prior to the oven:
A milk loaf (which I used to make David Lebovitz's wonderful orange almond bread pudding out of his book Room For Dessert):
Rye berry bread (this is delicious, so healthy...with all of those whole grains I just feel so...cleansed):
And rye barley bread (barley flour is a prime example of one of those weird things I can find at Integral Yoga):
All delicious. So now my formerly very organized freezer is stuffed to bursting with bread. So I'm set for several months. Bring on the natural disaster.