The high heat of summer has bakers everywhere struggling, and the humid days of this July are no exception for the home bakers of Ontario Canada. Thermometers measure the heat at greater than 32 degrees Celsius, but here in the cradle of the Great Lakes, it is so sticky that the humidex makes it feel like it is always in the mid to high 40's. Sweating doesn't help. No one wants to turn on their home ovens, not even the most addicted exorphin junkie like me who 'must' have his bread.
Traditionally our family has taken to the woods this time of year, spending as much time as we can in the cool, spring-fed lakes and rivers of Ontario's near north. The objective, in theory, has been to simplify life while camping, taking only what one needs to survive in the woods. In reality, of course, every year we seem to take more and more 'stuff' than we can actually use. We generally eat pretty good.
I worked right up to the day of departure, which was upon me before I had time to get anything organized. But I did take some flour containers of whole wheat, rye, and some wheat berries and rye kernels -- and of course, a bit of my whole wheat sourdough. Along with my Dutch Oven, that is all I had with me, with which to make bread. Measuring scales, even measuring spoons, were not included, although there were some measuring cups and salt in the kitchen stuff we usually take.
For 14 days I baked bread on a campfire, without even a recipe book.
I didn't have an Internet connection to check over what I did last year while camping, and I didn't have time to look it over before I left. But as I recall, most of those loaves last year were made with yeast. And last year I had some recipes with me. This time, I was on my own with my wild yeast starter. And of course, my familiarity with the Tartine Bread routines and my experience of how the dough should 'feel'.
Camp Bread #1
The first bread was a disaster. It was mostly handfuls of rye flour, some whole wheat flour, and then some water and salt. If I had to guess, I'd say it was a sourdough 80% hydration rye with maybe 30% whole wheat flour.
Woops. So much dough was stuck to my couche, I took it down to the lake to rinse it out and beat it against a rock. Minnows like dough.
|First loaf burns in a too-hot pot|
It was a mess, getting it into the Dutch Oven, Lahey-style (which means, you lift it by the couche/cloth and try to manhandle it into the hot pot with its steep sides). Despite the too-sloppy a dough, it might still have worked if the Dutch Oven hadn't been too hot. It was preheated in open flame, and the bread baked too long while the pot was still sitting in the fire.
What emerged, about 12-15 minutes later, was mostly charcoal on the outer edges, and uncooked in the middle.
Considering it a total failure, I took one picture of the gooey crumb and then tossed the whole loaf on the fire to burn, and it smouldered there a long time.
|"Hey Orville. What does this double baguette remind you of?"|
"Throw that thing away, Wilbur, before someone laughs at us again."
|Gooey middle, charred crust: worst bread ever?|
|Doesn't even burn well. So much for my carbon footprint this year.|
This bread disaster could have been avoided if I had at least had time to look over what I did last year. My first loaves then were bad too, because of a too-hot preheating of the Dutch Oven over the open flame of campfire. Coals are better than open flame for baking bread in a Dutch Oven.
Camp Bread #2
I began measuring some stuff for this loaf, determined to keep the Rye content lower. I began with 2/3 c whole wheat, 1/3 c rye flour but I later added more of both. There was about 2/3 c of liquid. Instead of water, I used coffee, leftover and cooled from breakfast. Camp coffee (we use Nabob!) tastes extra good, and I didn't want to waste any of it. The dough was kneaded to a dense consistency.
|A little misshapen, but good enough for a camp bread.|
At the same time I was organizing this dough, I decided to try boiling 1/3 c of rye berries and 1/3 c of wheat berries. When the boiling water had cooled to warm, I tossed my sourdough discard on there too, and let it sit for a couple of hours until I thought I might add it to my dough, about the same time as adding the salt.
Instead of adding it to my dough, however, I decided to try something else. The kernels were still chewy, so I boiled them again, along with my sourdough discard. As it boiled down, it became starchy and glutenous and viscous. Then I let it sit, thinking I would still add it to the bread dough when it cooled. However, it congealed fairly hard, so I thought perhaps I might just try baking it as if it were another bread dough.
This bread was cooked for about 25 minutes, the lid on all the time. It did not sit on the fire, but on the grate, completely up and out of the coals. We did use another pot to scrape up some coals onto its top, however, and this kept the top very hot. Every 10 minutes or so I would turn the pot toward the lower heat source.
This bread was a hit. There was little or no coffee flavour, but there was a faint coffee scent to the loaf. Everyone enjoyed it, and we ate most of it for lunch with sandwiches made with a Gouda cheese flavoured with cumin and a dill pickle sliced thin. Very tasty!
The wheatberries and rye kernels that I mixed and boiled with the sourdough were mostly a disaster. After an hour of baking, they were still quite moist. I put the dutch oven back on the fire where the kernels just burned on the bottom. I gave up on them long after all others had turned in, and the coons were approaching fearlessly. But I put them in the car so they wouldn't get them.
Camp Bread #3
The third bread I made was mostly whole wheat. I did include a tiny bit of rye. Here is what I measured as I went.
- 300 ml water
- ~3 c whole wheat flour
- ~ 1/3 c rye flour
- ~ small handful of salt ~ 1 1/4 tsp
- The salt was added with ~ 1 1/2 Tbsp of water, but again I didn't measure it.
- I also added a tiny bit of the wheat and rye kernels I'd saved, after cutting away the burned bits, from the earlier disaster. These I added just during the final formation.
This bread was folded once after the salt was added, then we went off to Nippissing, where we got soaked in a flash rainstorm, coming back on South River. When we returned to camp, I turned the dough again, then after a couple of games of cribbage, I formed it with the kernels and set it into the basket to proof another 3-4 hours.
The day was cooler, the dough was tighter -- but still sticky due to the rye flour I added.
The others went out on the lake tonight in the evening calm, the water smooth as glass, to watch the sun go down, while I stayed in camp and made bread. Again, they got soaked in the boat due to a spotty rainstorm. At camp, I kept nice and dry.
Today, the time I used was 12 minutes, then turn
another 12 minutes, then turn and replace the top coals and test the bread
another 12 minutes were required.
This bread is nearly a 'pan integral' - with less than 10% rye, I would guess. The crumb, even though I didn't turn it more than a couple of times, was pretty nice. The taste was fine, but I'll say not as interesting as the one made with leftover coffee.
We took some sandwiches with us to Stinking Lake the next day with this bread, where the ones who were fishing (and the ones who eat fish) caught several pike and bass. The sandwiches taste particularly good when you are in the middle of nowhere.
One of the books I took with me this year to the woods was William Alexander's '52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust'. I really had a good time reading this book, which is at times outrageously funny and then strangely moving -- and all the time striking fairly close to home. It is certainly nice to know that others are out there, like me, trying to bake the perfect loaf of bread, without even fully understanding why we feel the need to do so. But no one has had quite the same experience as Alexander, who eventually got to bake his bread in a community oven in Morocco, and went on to teach the monks of l’Abbaye Saint-Wandrille de Fontenelle in Normandy how to bake their own bread, which to them had become a lost art. The 28th loaf/chapter where Alexander forgets to add the salt to his bread and decides to see a shrink to discover whether he is losing his mind is such a scream, I read it to everyone at camp. This book is highly recommended for other exorphin junkies. I have yet to try the recipes in the back of the book: but I suspect that they will taste a lot like the Tartine Loaf, with lots of All Purpose flour (not my interest), along with some whole wheat and rye.
Reading one of the chapters reminded me of the idea that I could make a poolish. I had been noticing that my dough was sitting a lot longer than it would at home, if I was making it there, and not getting turned nearly often enough, I was busy doing other things all the time at camp. So anything that would help with this situation, I thought, might improve my loaves. I was thinking of making a 100% rye bread, with the final rise in the pot that it would cook in. I felt pretty certain that it would be a gooey mess, but decided to go ahead and heavily oil my pot and try it.
|Looks like chocolate cake. Nope, it's a Rye Bread.|
I started with about 100g of whole wheat starter or more, in 300 ml of water. I added rye flour to that, until I had a moist consistency -- 2 cups, by measure. This I let sit for 4 hours.
I also poured off the more liquid parts of the sourdough before refreshing it, and added some whole wheat flour to it to make a heavy paste. I'll say that this was about 1/2 c, but I didn't measure it. My intention was to add them together when I added the salt, in about 4 hours time -- and I was willing to add some more whole wheat flour to it at that time, if I felt it required some kneading.
Indeed, it required much more whole wheat flour to get it to a shaping consistency, I'll say about a cup. This meant that the dough was still over 2/3 rye, I suppose. I turned it a couple of times after adding the salt and the boiled, reboiled, and sometimes toasted rye kernel and wheat berry mixture I was still working with.
Then it sat out for most of the day while I did other things. Before dinner, I greased the inside of the dutch oven with the only available oil -- sunflower, I think -- and added the mushy, mostly rye dough. It sat until after dinner, when I started the fire and baked it.
It was a very long rise, and very sour smelling. The bread had risen substantially in the dutch oven, but upon baking it, it began to fall. There was obviously no preheating of this container. But it watt out of the fire, on the upper grill, with some coals on the top, so ti mostly baked from the top. I left it in for 24 minutes before looking at it -- then another 24 minutes before it looked done. At that point, I loosened the edges, but the knife didn't come free cleanly, so I placed the bread and bottom of the oven of the oven (top off) back on the grill, turning it every 12 minutes for 36 minutes more. By then, it was getting dark, and our cribbage game was at an end, and those who were reading had already wandered back to their tents and sleeping bags to sleep. To protect the bread from coons, I enclosed it in the car overnight.
The next morning, it surprised me by coming free in one piece. It is quite a sour tasting rye, and very moist, but I think that it has lots of interesting flavour. It was not, however, a great hit with the others and I ended up eating most of this loaf by myself.
We visited a used book store in Powassan where I found a couple of curious bread books. One was a reject from the Algonquin Regional Library in Parry Sound, and no doubt it had passed through several other hands before finding its way into mine. This is Phyllis Hobson's 'Making Breads with Home-grown YEASTS & Home-ground GRAINS' (1974, 3rd printing 1976). Hobson has written several books for those interested in the do-it-yourself homesteading lifestyle of the 70's. This book is unusual in that it details many different ways for growing yeast. I say it is unusual because by today's standards for sourdough or wild yeast lovers, it contains many recipes that seem just plain wrong. Most of the recipes involve boiling potatoes or other starchy medium upon which the yeast is supposed to feed and grow. I think that Hobson was detailing ways to have yeast stay viable for short periods without refrigeration, and she has gathered a lot of 'old time' recipes and methods that were passed on to her from older generations, perhaps even from a time when not much was actually known about yeast. I'm not sure what to make of this book, but I'll look it over carefully and probably try out some of the recipes in it, to see whether it actually does work.
Camp Bread #5
This was a primarily whole wheat, but perhaps 1/3 rye bread. Nothing measured. Made in Tartine Style, but I was deliberately going for a slightly less hydrated loaf.
- Toss last night's refreshed sourdough into a bowl. Looks to me to be about 125g or so. Quite well hydrated, quite glutenous. Add water. Aimed for 300g, but I think there was more. Mix it up.
- Toss in 2 handfuls of wwflour, and 1 handful of ryeflour and mix. Keep doing this until it feels like dough.
- Do it one more time, and knead it together.
- Let it sit until after breakfast, then add a small handful of salt and some water -- aim for 20g salt, and 50g water, but if its more, who cares? Then squelch it all up until the water is incorporated.
- Leave it to sit, but whenever you think about tit, fold it casually, tugging on it to get the gluten to develop some length.
As expected, the loaf did not rise at all upon baking. It was far too over-proofed to amount to much, and no doubt would be too sour for others to enjoy.
My bread sat covered overnight in the trailer. Night-time, it rained, and it was still raining in the daytime when we awoke. We drove into Port Loring for breakfast -- Jake's Place, a favourite of locals (got a joke? Send it to Jake, he needs new material for his menu!), was open and gave us the bottomless coffee we craved. Afterward, we stopped in the rain at Loring's nearby Farmer's Market. There were a couple of bakers there, selling their loaves. The farm wife with lots of white loaves made in tins (along with some specialty loaves like cheese breads, multigrain and partial whole-wheat breads) had far more to sell and was doing a brisk business, even though the rain meant that there were fewer customers.
|Farmer's Market loaf on the left, my campfire loaf on the right.|
|We made blueberry jam from wild blueberries we picked and it is extremely tasty, on any bread!|
But at the far end of the Farmer's Market, there was a man selling more rustic loaves (and what looked to be some deli style meats). He was having a tougher sell, it seemed. To me, his loaves looked quite nice. They were obviously baked in a woodfired oven. I chose a boule that he told me was 100% whole wheat (but I don't believe him, now that I've sliced into it. As always, talking about whole wheat bread is a frustrating to-and-fro about terminology. Anyway, it is a nice loaf, but a trifle stale, the crust a deep complexity of Maillard reactions. It is obviously a yeast bread, no sourdough here. We made slices of it into fried 'camp pizza', and that tasted pretty good. But I bet it has less than 50% of the 100% whole wheat). I also took a baguette that was made with cheese and roasted hot peppers (went well with goat cheese), and a multigrain bread.
He told us he had his wares driven northward all the way from Newmarket, where the 'Italian Bakery' with its 2 wood-fired ovens, has been having a rough time of it. He hinted that last year was their toughest year ever. Perhaps that is why he is driving loaves to farmer's markets such a long distance away (the loaves were probably a day or two old already when I purchased them, well on their way to staling). I have tried to find the 'Italian Bakery' on the Internet, but without much success. It may be that this gentleman gets his loaves from the 'Italian Home Bakery' in Toronto, I don't know.
I cut my loaf open and set it side by side with his boule for comparison. My loaf is inferior in presentation but much more moist and flavourful. However, my wife liked it. This was a bit of a wake-up call for me, as I think that she does not eat much of my bread because I am always insisting on more whole wheat or whole rye flours than she really likes. I have to bake more loaves with all-purpose flour in them, for her.
This was the last loaf I baked at camp because we had a number of breads from the Farmer's Market to get through.
Notes to Myself
- One thing that I noticed, as the time passed while camping, was that my sourdough was becoming more and more sour, and the loaves were less and less well-risen. Alexander (in '52 Loaves') gave me a hint to what was going on: my sourdough was left overnight in the trailer with a lid loosely on, while at home I merely cover it with a cloth. Often in the morning I would find the lid slightly askew, which to me meant that there was some gas in the mixture that needed to be released, and was blowing off the top of the container. But more importantly, the yeast needs to breathe, like humans do. Without adequate oxygen, by the end of the two weeks, the lacto bacilli bacteria vastly outnumbered the yeast in this culture. When I got home, I would toss this stuff out and start over with the culture that I had kept refrigerated. A couple of refreshes when I got home, and the yeasties should be back in fine form.
- Everyone else at camp wanted to know: why do the loaves that we buy in the store get mouldy at camp even before their best-before date, while my home-made sourdough breads do not get mouldy at all? The answer, I think, is that the lacto bacilli bacteria inhibit the growth of the fungi that are harmful. My breads pick up just as much moisture as those extra-starchy loaves, but the medium is not conducive to the growth of the bad-guy yeasts.
- If putting coals on the lid, be careful there is no coal stuck in the handle, or you will burn your oven mitt and quite possibly your thumb.
- When camping, you didn't score any of the dough when you put them in the pot. You really should concentrate more on this, when you get home, and perfect the scoring of your loaves.