Is that a Poolish, a Biga, or a Levain?

If you know what I’m talking about, then you know what my latest obsession is.  And although I’ve been sick the past few days, I’ve still managed to spend some time honing my skills.  I discovered Flour Water Salt Yeast (FWSY), The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza, by Ken Forkish, during my last Barnes and Nobles trip, and I’ve been a bread making fool ever since. 

What’s really cool is that I’m actually getting pretty good at it, which is saying a lot because it’s not something that came easy for me when I first began cooking.  In fact, I can remember making rolls on more than one Thanksgiving that didn’t rise like they were supposed to and looked more like hockey pucks.  I could have taught classes on how NOT to make bread!     

I think some of my desire to be a competent bread maker comes from my dad.  He loved homemade bread, and would make it in a bread machine from time to time.  I remember how happy it made him to eat his fresh hot bread slathered in butter!  But while he liked using his bread machine because it was easy, my goal was to learn to make it from scratch.

A few years ago, I watched Eli Zabar teach Ina Garten how to make his rustic Country Bread on an episode of the Barefoot Contessa. It’s a pretty easy recipe that you can start in the morning, and have 2 fresh baked loaves by dinner time.  I watched that episode over and over, step by step, when I made it the first time.  Wow!  Success!  And I think having some experience with his recipe prepared me for the artisan breads that I’m learning now.

Which brings me back to FWSY.  I love this book.  It’s really more of a textbook or instruction manual on how to make artisan bread at home.   Ken starts by telling his story about how he left a 20+ year career in Silicon Valley to risk everything he had and open a bakery.  His desire for perfection took him to Paris where he learned about their methods for making great bread, and also to a couple of cooking schools in the U.S.  He writes in an easy style, sometimes funny, that makes you feel like you’ve known him all your life and you could sit down over a cup of coffee and talk bread.  

But a book that teaches home cooks how to make great artisan bread at home is only as good as the results one gets from following it.  And that’s where he really nails it.  His method for baking bread in a cast iron Dutch oven is genius and foolproof.  I’ve made several loaves using his techniques and mine come out as beautiful as the pictures in his book.  And they taste delicious ~ with a super crispy outer crust. 

While I’m still a beginner, this book has really inspired me to learn the art of great bread making.  In addition to learning a whole new vocabulary, I’m also learning all about pre-ferments such as the poolish, biga and levain.  Using pre-ferments enhances the flavor of the bread, and adds more acidity for longer keeping and richer colors and flavors in the crust.  Making bread using a levain gives the baker creative control over the outcome, like a winemaker has over the wine, and allows for a more personal creation than the other methods.

So while some people obsess over decorating, or clothes or exercise, I will continue to be consumed with making the best homemade bread (and pizza) that I can.  Until of course, the scale insists that I find a new hobby, like tennis or golf, or something that doesn’t involve flour, water, salt and yeast. 

May 30, 2017