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28 Sep 2008

Liminality doubleheader: bread and running – Today is going to be a doubleheader here at Liminality. I thought I’d start out by breaking with tradition and actually posting content that I promised to post, namely more about my adventures with bread. In a previous post I mentioned a book that my brother Matthew had gotten me, a book called Local Breads. This book has a lot of recipes for sourdough breads, and even though I desperately wanted to try a sourdough, I was hesitant. It was not that I though it would be difficult, or too time-consuming, but I don’t really have a regular baking schedule, and I was afraid that cultivating a sourdough would require a lot of waste in terms of flour.

“I never get bored of watching yeast at work.”

When my parents came to visit at the end of August, they brought along another bread book from Matthew. This time it was The Bread Bible. Not including the bread machine mini-books my mother got me, this is my fourth bread book. Three of those are from Matthew, who is also a baker (the fourth book is a Korean book from the Cordon Bleu school here). With each book I have learned something new, and even if bread books tend to cover more or less the same ground, they each have something new to offer, and at the very least they have a different take on the traditional subjects. The Bread Bible was no exception. In fact, it has an entire chapter devoted to the basics, and that was the first thing I read.

I would like to think that I have the basics of bread making down by now, but I still learned a lot from that chapter. Probably the most important thing I took from this book is the idea that not all starters have to be sourdough. Sourdough is cultivated from wild yeast—that is, you put out some flour and water, wait for the yeast and bacteria naturally present in the flour and air to set up shop, and then nurture it until it’s suitable for bread making. Like I said above, though, this initial cultivation process requires a lot of waste, because you have to throw out a lot of the mixture and replace it with fresh flour. If you don’t add fresh flour, the yeast eats up all the sugar and the mixture becomes too sour, and if you don’t throw out some of the mixture, you quickly end up with way too much.

But sourdough is only one kind of starter. There are other kinds, such as the German method of crumbling old bread into the new dough. What interested me the most, though, were the starters that used the same instant yeast that I use to bake my breads. I decided to try something called “poolish,” which is a mixture of flour and water in equal parts (by weight) with a small amount of instant yeast. This is allowed to ferment for several hours (the exact time varies depending on how much yeast you use) and then used as a base for the dough.

I have tried the poolish before—twice, in fact. The first time I didn’t trust that an equal mixture of flour and water would work, so I added more water. I also added way too much yeast, and the poolish fermented so quickly that it probably wasn’t even worth doing. The second time I went with the original proportions and far less yeast, and I had a poolish that fermented for five hours. Unfortunately, the bread I made from it didn’t turn out so great. It wasn’t the poolish’s fault, though, just a general lack of gluten—it was a rye bread, heavy on the rye, and I thought the poolish plus some more yeast would do the trick. I was mistaken.

But the third time’s the charm, as they say. This time, I knew what to expect from the poolish, and I used it with a recipe I had used before, so I was confident that things would go well. They did in fact go well, and to commemorate the occasion I thought I would share with you, through photos, my first real success with a poolish. We’ll start from the beginning.

This is the poolish directly after mixing. It is 200 grams of water and 200 grams of whole wheat flour with 1 gram (about 1/4 teaspoon) of yeast. The consistency is almost like cake batter, but much more sticky.

After an hour, the poolish has smoothed out and you can see the first of the bubbles starting to form. The yeast is already at work. I covered the bowl with plastic wrap so the poolish wouldn’t dry out. You’ll notice that the photos get slightly less clear as time goes by—that’s the condensation on the plastic wrap.

After two hours, the poolish has grown in size, and there are a few more bubbles. The surface is mostly smooth—all of the imperfections you see in the surface now are the bubbles from the action of the yeast.

Three hours have passed, and the poolish has grown even more. Even more bubbles appear on the surface,

Four hours in, there are a lot more bubbles, and the surface is beginning to grow very uneven. This is a sign that the poolish is nearing its peak.

This is five hours after the initial mixing, and you can see how many bubbles there are in it now. The surface is very wrinkled, and the poolish hasn’t grown much in the last hour, indicating to me that it has reached its peak and is starting to deflate. This is when you want to mix the poolish into the dough. I probably held off on this starter as long as possible.

I scraped the poolish into the bread machine pan (I don’t have a dough mixer) along with the remaining ingredients for the bread. The problem with the bread machine is that it has only one dough cycle that consists of a five-minute mix/knead, a six-minute autolyse (rest), and a twelve-minute knead. This cannot be adjusted or programmed. In The Bread Bible, though, the author suggests a twenty-minute autolyse to allow the dough to fully absorb the water. So what I did was let the initial knead/mix cycle run and then I took the pan out of the machine. I canceled the rest of the cycle and set the kitchen timer for nine minutes. When the timer went off I started a new dough cycle—without the pan in the machine. Once the machine got toward the end of the rest period, I just put the pan back in and let it run through the twelve-minute kneading cycle. The result is what you see in this next photo.

The dough is fairly smooth—it looks rough because it’s very sticky (this is a fairly wet dough). Even though I oiled the bowl, you can still see it sticking at the top. After only a forty-five-minute ferment, this is what the dough looked like.

I dumped it out onto my work surface and began to shape it into a long loaf. As I mentioned before, the dough is quite wet and tends to stick to the work surface. Rather than use a lot of flour on the work surface (which defeats the purpose of having a wet dough), I used a technique that I learned from a YouTube video (which I can’t seem to find again, unfortunately). Basically, you use quick motions and the bench scraper to flip the dough over. Once I had it in the proper shape and pulled as tightly as I could manage, I put it in my loaf pan.

This is actually a pound cake pan, I think, but my other loaf pans are too high for our oven. They fit in the oven, but only barely, and if I were to try to bake this loaf in those pans the dough would touch the top of the oven. As you’ll see in a moment, this pan is high enough as it is.

Here is the loaf after a thirty-minute proof. I didn’t want to proof it too long because I wanted to make sure to get oven spring—this is what happens when the heat of the oven makes the yeast work like crazy for a brief time before it heartlessly kills them. Not so great for the yeast, but good for the bread. Before I put the loaf in the oven, I brushed the top with water. This helps the loaf rise higher by preventing a crust from forming before the yeast is finished working. It also helps to make a browner crust.

I baked the loaf at 190 degrees Celsius for 12 minutes, but then lowered the heat to 180 degrees for the last eight minutes because I was afraid the crust was going to burn. If I were baking in a regular oven, this would not have been a problem, but the loaf ended up being too close to the upper heating elements.

Here is the finished loaf. The browning on the sides of the top but not in the middle is not a feature, it’s a bug. Like I said above, the loaf rose almost all the way up to the top and only browned where it met the two heating elements. The white part of the top crust is the space between the heating elements. I wish there was something I could do about that, but there really isn’t, aside from making a smaller loaf—and it would be hard to make sandwiches on anything smaller than this.

After the loaf cooled I cut it to get a look at the crumb. It’s not entirely even, probably because I didn’t squish out all the bubbles when shaping, but I like a little irregularity in my crumb. And now for the close-up:

So, I bet you’re wondering: why use a starter? Well, for one, it’s fun. I never get bored of watching yeast at work. Speaking of yeast, it also allows you to use less of it. This loaf without a poolish requires 10 grams of instant yeast (using the same ferment and proof times, of course—I could probably use slightly less yeast and just ferment it longer). With the poolish, the total amount comes to six grams. The long ferment of the poolish also allows flavor to develop that gets imparted to the bread. It’s not necessarily a sour flavor (the poolish only turns sour if you let it go too long, at which point the yeast runs out of food and the acid produced by the lactobacteria takes over), it’s just a slightly deeper flavor. Obviously there would be more flavor with a properly cultivated sourdough, but the poolish is working for me so far.

Finally, the recipe itself. The ingredients for the poolish I listed above, so I’ll just give you the ingredients for the remainder of the dough.

water: 150 grams

salt: 5 grams (approximately one teaspoon)

butter: 25 grams

honey: 25 grams

whole wheat flour: 200 grams

bread flour: 100 grams

vital wheat gluten: 20 grams

instant yeast: 5 grams

The bread flour was added only because I ran out of whole wheat flour (I ended up 24 grams short). The addition of the gluten, though, means you could make a one hundred percent whole wheat loaf that is still just as soft and light as what you see in the photos above. The first time I made this loaf (without the poolish), it was one hundred percent whole wheat and it turned out fine.

Well, that’s the end of the first half of our doubleheader. The second half is an update on our training regimen. Regular readers will know that we have been training for almost a month now for a 10k race. Yesterday morning we decided to do a trial run of the full 10 kilometers just to see how we would do. Before that, the longest either of us had run had been six kilometers, and even though I felt pretty good about it, the last time I ran ten kilometers was over twenty years ago (and Hyun-jin has never run ten kilometers before).

We woke up a little later than we wanted, mainly because we hadn’t been getting enough sleep (it’s kind of hard to sleep when the undergraduates set up a makeshift bar right outside your window and scream drunkenly until six o’clock in the morning—I am so not even kidding about this). For breakfast we went with a single banana each, and Hyunjin also had these energy gels that she wanted to try. I didn’t think I would need the energy gel, but I tried one anyway, and I instantly regretted it. It’s basically flavored corn syrup, and I had to drink quite a bit of water to wash it down.

We walked over to Chungnang Stream, which is about twenty minutes away and where we do our running when we have the time (there’s a marathon course that follows the stream), shivering in the morning cold. I emptied my bladder before heading to our starting point, but the extra water I drank to wash down the corn syrup ensured that I felt the urge once again just as I started running. That wasn’t a big deal, though, as I’m pretty good at holding it. The gel itself, though, caused me problems. I started belching a lot, which interfered with my breathing, and I could feel the stomach acid creeping up my esophagus. On the bright side, now I know not to eat any sort of energy gel before a race.

I started off slowly, following the advice of Liminality reader and fellow runner Gregory. He’s much higher up on the runner’s food chain than I am—he’s already run his first marathon, and in very good time at that. He told me that there would always be time to pick up the pace later. I was soon glad I followed his advice, because even though the first five hundred meters took me three minutes, I felt a little tightness in my muscles because of the cold (despite the fact that I had stretched and warmed up before starting).

After the first kilometer, though, the tightness started to go away and I felt myself settling into a decent pace. Just when I started feeling good about things, a bug flew into my left eye, and for about five hundred meters I couldn’t see much of anything. Fortunately the bug fell or was washed out by my tears at some point, and I regained my composure. When I reached the halfway mark, 5k, I looked at my watch and saw that my time was 27:12. That was good, because I’ve been using 5:30 per kilometer as my standard for comfortable running. That is, I’ve been able to run all distances up to six kilometers at an average of 5:30 per kilometer and not feel strained. 27:12 for 5k is just under that pace—about 5:26 per kilometer.

I continued running and felt a little excitement when I passed the six-kilometer mark. This was the farthest I had run since elementary school, and I was doing fine. I maintained my pace for the next few kilometers, and when I reached the nine-kilometer mark I glanced at my watch. 48:27. I was a minute under my projected pace, and the finish line had just come into view (well, not exactly, but I could see the landmark where the finish line was). My pace had gotten faster since the five-kilometer mark, and I was now averaging 5:23 per kilometer.

But I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. Instead, I was thinking, “Not only am I going to make this, but I actually have energy to spare!” I started to pick up the pace and pushed myself to go faster. The meters flew by, and there was the finish line. I crossed it at 53:13, having run the last kilometer in 4:46. No, it’s not going to win me any medals, but it was the first time I had run ten kilometers since the sixth grade—and the fastest I had ever run the distance in my life. My brother told me that his record for the 10k was around 34 minutes, but he also said that he was half the age he is now when he did that. Brian is the long-distance runner in the family, though, and hopefully he’ll get back into running. Maybe we can even run the Boston Marathon together some day.

I feel good about my time. After I finished, I stretched a bit and then walked back along the course until I met Hyunjin closing in on the finish line, and I ran the final six hundred meters or so with her. She came in at around 1:07, I believe, and was also happy with her result. I doubt we’ll run 10k again before the race—we’ll probably just stick with 5k runs or so—but it’s nice to know that we can do it, and it gives us a benchmark to improve upon come race day. My goal from the very beginning has been to make it in under 50 minutes, at an average of 5:00 per kilometer. I don’t know how practical that is, to be honest, but you have to have something to aim for, right?

Well, that wraps up today’s doubleheader. With any luck I’ll post some of the other promised content soon.

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