And Now For Something Completely Different
Marian Burros' Mushroom Barley Soup

Kay Rentschler's Whole Grain Boule


Between Kay Rentschler's wacky sense of time and my terror of substitutions, baking this loaf of bread was an exercise in stress-control. Isn't bread-baking supposed to be therapeutic? Tell that to the palms of my hands, covered with the tiny little bubbles of a stress rash (though, according to the Internets, this could also be a sign of either a. Syphilis or b. Rocky Mountain Fever. Which one would you go with?). I have to admit that the rash broke out prior to the bread-baking, probably brought on by a week in which my stress levels were so high that I on multiple occasions debated about going outside in the middle of the night to give the truck driver, who insisted on keeping his vehicle stalled in the parking space in front of my bedroom window - emitting fumes and a motor hum loud enough to make my window-frames vibrate - hell. But I didn't. I swallowed my anger and bitterness whole, squeezed my earplugs deeper into the passage to my brain and turned over. Healthy, right? So, yes, I wasn't exactly starting off well.

In an attempt to regain some Zen-like equilibrium before a weekend that will be so busy I'll probably forgot to put on underwear, I decided to bake a loaf of bread. Two years ago, Kay Rentschler (she of the world's most glorious squash pie) wrote an article in the NY Times about recreating the environment of a professional bakery in your own kitchen. The bread recipe she included was for a Whole Grain Boule. It sounded like a challenge, baking bread in a preheated cast-iron pot. And a challenge would take my mind off the things that made this week the depressing exercise in futility it was shaping up to be.

Kay has you soak a pile of grains in some hot water for several hours. Millet, red bulgur, coarse cornmeal, and oat groats. Maybe if I'd been in a better mood, I would have tripped happily from store to store searching out these interesting little grains. Perhaps I would have trilled to myself that it didn't matter that I'd only be using two tablespoons of each: it's fun having 400 little packets of grains in my pantry, open and attracting weevils. But as it was, I grumbled at Rentschler's persnickety choices, gritted my teeth and substituted what I had at home: regular bulgur for the red bulgur, steel-cut oats for the oat groats and, well, I had coarse cornmeal. So no complaints there. To make up for the millet, I added in equal amounts of the other three grains. While they hydrated, I stirred together the poolish (water, instant yeast, flour - but having only bleached flour around, I made a mixture of unbleached pastry flour and bread flour, which Rentschler poopoos. Whatever, I was pinched and it worked) and also let it sit for four hours.

Here I'll have to interject: I live ten minutes from my office. So I did this prep work on my lunch break. Four hours after the poolish was made and the grains were hydrated, I came home, beat the grains into the poolish, added more flour and yeast, and kneaded the dough into a smooth ball. Letting it sit for twenty minutes (while I cried watching the Ebersols on Oprah, castigating myself for being self-indulgently depressed when they had to run out of a crashed airplane and survive the death of their youngest boy) allowed the dough to relax - the process known as autolyse. I then patted the dough out, sprinkled it with salt (but I used only 3/4 of a teaspoon - I'm sick of salty bread), and kneaded it together for 10 minutes. Rentschler instructs you to knead for 20 minutes, but after 10 minutes my arms were going numb and the dough was already silky as a baby's bottom, so, enough.

I was to let this dough rise until it doubled in bulk - according to Rentschler, this would take three to four hours. I settled in for a cozy wait. After a mere hour and a half, though, the dough was so high it was spilling out of the bowl. I punched it down, formed it into a tight ball, covered it with more wrap and refrigerated it overnight. This morning, it had swollen to a nice puffy shape. I heated my oven to 500 degrees for an hour (with the fire alarm disengaged this time, thank you very much) along with a cast-iron pot and lid. When the time came, I brushed the loaf with egg white, slashed it ineptly with a knife, and lowered the dough in its parchment sling into the pot. This baked for twenty minutes, covered. Then I took off the lid and let it bake for another 15 (Rentschler says five more minutes, but I say phooey to Rentschler's sense of time - it's not been exactly reliable before), until the the loaf was browned and crackly, and tiny little blisters peppered the surface.

It's resting on a rack while I type. Holding back my impulse to slice right into it is proving difficult, but I'll have a sandwich at lunchtime. I'm sure all my complaints will be moot by that point - the smell is heavenly and the loaf sounds perfect when I tap its browned little bottom. I guess the point is this: Kay's results are good, its just her timing that's off. I'm not going to wonder about it anymore at this point. I'm going to sail into my weekend with my spotty palms and my four million plans, eating fresh bread for breakfast and hoping that next week is better than this one.

Edited to add: Well, it serves me right for being snide about the salt - the bread is bland, bland, bland. If you make the boule, ignore my post, and leave in all of Rentschler's salt. I only sliced off the heel, and am a little worried about the faintly gummy look of the interior, but I'll find out later if it cooked all the way through. The grains give the bread a nice texture - crunchy and chewy in parts - and the crisp crust is great against the soft interior. But there's a faintly bitter aftertaste, and it's almost like it tastes a bit...gassy? The bread's not bad with a nice piece of sharp cheese or sopped with well-flavored soup. Perhaps toasted and slathered with jam it will be good, too. But on its own? I think I'll stick with the baguettes from last week.