The only recipe in The Baker’s Companion I don’t plan to make is the one for sourdough starter, since I already have one. My starter is about nine years old. I made it using directions I found here, and have made several mostly-successful loaves with the directions on that site as well.
It’s been neglected more often than not, though my mother baby-sat it while I was in college. A few months ago, after a long period of being ignored, I had to rescue it from under a thick layer of mold. However, it perked right back up and has been rising pretty consistently since. I think it’s forgiven me for any abuses. It seems to like 100 percent hydration and a mix of all-purpose and whole wheat flour. (I’ve considered giving it a name, but that’s a bit silly, even for me.)
I thought it was time to try a sourdough recipe, so I started with pain au levain, a basic French form of sourdough.
My starter hadn’t been fed for a couple weeks before trying this recipe (yes, I know, bad sourdough keeper), so I fed it starting two days before. (KAF recommends three days before. I forgot.) It seemed to be in normal chipper condition.
I was a little nervous to try this recipe, however, because of a recent near-disaster.
I normally let my dough go through its second rise on the flat surface of the baking pan, or in a loaf pan. I had never used a proofing basket, as serious bread bakers do. But before officially starting this baking adventure, I did try my normal sourdough recipe using the proofing basket method outlined in The Baker’s Companion. It failed miserably.
I made the dough wetter than I usually do to more closely follow the directions, so I had some fun learning to knead with my bench scraper, but when it came time to remove the dough from the proofing basket—for me, a bowl lined with a well-dusted flour sack towel—the dough stuck, resulting in a dough blob with a ripped-off top. I tried flipping it over and letting it rise a bit before baking, but the disaster continued when I tried to slide the dough onto a pre-heated pan sans peel. It flipped upside down. The resulting bread was edible but dense and sadly ugly.
So, it was with some trepidation I mixed this dough. Flour, water, starter, salt.
I had never made a recipe with an autolyse before. It’s a simple enough step, letting the mixed flour, water, and starter sit before adding salt. The reason given for this step is to prepare the gluten for kneading.
After kneading, the first rise, folding, and the second rise, I tried to follow the book’s direction for forming boules, and while I ended up with fairly neat balls of dough, I was sure I wasn’t doing it right. I watched this video after, which was very helpful. I really should do more research beforehand for these.
My two pain au levain loaves proofed in a bowl and a colandar. I was understandably anxious about proofing. I floured my two towels most carefully, and laid the boules in with trepidation.
And after rising in the fridge overnight, they flopped right out and stayed round. I started happy dancing. And the happy dancing continued after they came out of the oven brown and perfect. (Sheet pan peel worked this time!) They were also delicious, but not as sour as I was expecting, possibly because the hydration was higher than I normally make.
I was so pleased, I posted a photo on my family’s group chat and announced that I had made the most gorgeous bread in the existence of mankind. It’s only a slight exaggeration.