Making things slowly, and some talk about bread

The more I learn about baking, the more interested I become in slow breads and improvisation. I finally made my first sourdough bread the other day.

No, this is not the bread.

The starter took a week to get going; the bread itself took a day and a half, and that was the fastest possible version.

Every recipe I found was a bit vague about time: don’t bake it too soon or it’ll be flat, and not too late, either, or it’ll collapse and ruin the texture. The more I read up on it, the more I was convinced I already knew all I needed to know. The starter was ready when it smelled ready. Instead of measuring the ingredients, I shook flour into the dough and stirred until it looked and felt right: not too shaggy, not too wet, not dry or stiff. I poked at the dough as it proofed, wondering Is it done yet? How about now? How will I know? until the dough sprang back from a final exploratory poke in a way that felt elastic and almost alive and, well, ready. I had a guideline for baking, but pulled the loaf out early because it just looked done.

The loaf crackled like a new dollar bill as it cooled on the counter, covering the crust in tiny blisters. It made a hollow thump like a ripened melon when I knocked it with a fist.

It was perfect.

I mean, almost. I forgot the salt and it could’ve risen a bit longer to get bigger air bubbles near the top, but it looked and smelled and tasted exactly like what I wanted. A friend at work with a passionate love for carbs — he’s a devotee of the Bay Area’s stellar bakeries, and I’ve seen him reduced to speechlessness by stellar pastry — ate a whole slice plain, with his eyes closed, refusing to put jam or butter on it.

It takes a lot of practice before you can wing it with great results; I’ve made some bad bread in my time, especially when I was more interested in making something now than in making it well. But now that I’ve climbed higher up the learning curve, I find sometimes that the process of making is filled with a rich, mellow familiarity. I like those times. It’s like hanging out with a friend who’s seen you in every mood — sick, drunk, infatuated, mourning — who still comes over to hang out in your kitchen and shoot the shit.

The same’s been happening with knitting. The longer I knit, the finer the yarn I like. It takes a lot longer to get there but I prefer the results: Finer fabrics are easier to wear in the Northern California climate and I love the way the individual stitches recede into a flowing, drapey whole. Knitting time matters less than it used to; what I make will be done whenever it’s done. Casting on hundreds of stitches used to be intimidating, but now it’s just a step that flows into all the rest.

The pattern sample I’m making isn’t exactly a fine knit; it uses worsted-weight yarn and size 9 needles. But I’m using a yarn in a particular colorway I love, and I’ve worked with that colorway in the very same fiber in worsted and sport weights. I feel like I know a lot about this yarn. Not quite as much as I know about bread, but plenty — and I’ll know even more once I break into the lace weight.

(If you’re interested in making bread, a Breaducation is a fantastic resource that’ll walk you from your basic white sandwich bread to fancy artisanal loaves. Their sourdough recipe looks pretty great, too.)