This is a really wonderful bread, and actually not all that difficult, but it does require you to go through over 30 pages of instructions, including photographs. But, as with so many recipes, once you've done it, you see that it's not nearly as hard as you thought it would be.
It starts the night before you bake, when, curiously (to me anyway), you dump out all the carefully cultivated starter except for one tablespoon. That's not even enough to cover the bottom of the bowl. I always thought the rule of thumb for starters was to discard half, but the Tartine method is much more profligate. This is what I started with:
Next, feed with water, whole wheat flour, and bread flour. This is the same thing as before, except this time we measure: 200 grams of water and 200 grams of flour. The test for whether the leaven is active? See if it floats in water. (Isn't this the test they used for deciding whether you were a witch? If you floated, you were a witch. If you sank, you weren't. Unfortunately, you were dead. But righteously so).
My leaven floated. Hooray! I love to do well on tests.
The leaven, flours (mostly white with a little bit of whole wheat) and water are mixed together. The Tartine way is to mix it with your hands. I think that Chad Robertson must have loved playing with clay when he was a kid, because he thinks you should get dough on your hands on any possible occasion. I used my KitchenAid to mix the dough, but this was the only time my sturdy mixer got even a bit of a workout. This bread isn't kneaded, as you'll see; it's only folded.
But wait! After I mixed it in the KitchenAid, I realized that the next step was to add the salt and a little more water, and - of course - mix it by hand. This time I decided to be a good sport about it.
Next step: into a big bowl. Preferably clear plastic or glass, but I used my regular earthenware bowl. Instead of being kneaded, the dough is folded at half-hour intervals for the upwards of four hours that it undergoes its first rise, or "bulk fermentation."
It was a chilly day in Minnesota, and the dough should be at a "constant temperature between 78 and 82." My kitchen will not be 82 degrees anytime after August. But luckily for me, I have my trusty folding bread proofer.
I set the proofer for 81 degrees. Otherwise, it would have taken all day for the dough to get to its next stage.
It's not easy to determine when the dough has finished its first rise. It doesn't rise that much, so the more usual test of checking to see when the dough has doubled in size is of no help. Instead, you have to look for more subtle clues. Has the dough started to get "billowy, soft, and aerated with gas?" Do more "air bubbles form along the sides of the container?" Are you realizing that if you don't move on, you'll be fooling around with this bread dough at midnight? (That last test is not in the book.)
I moved on after four hours and twenty minutes. I think the dough was more billowy, but I'm honestly not sure.
Next, divide the dough (the standard recipe for Basic Country Bread makes two loaves), and shape each one into a round. Let them rest for 20 to 30 minutes. In bread lingo, this is known as a "bench rest."
The dough is then shaped again, using a series of folds. Then it rests again (Bench rest #2?)
Next step: make a 50-50 mix of rice flour and wheat flour.
Why rice flour? Well, I'm assuming that it has superior non-stick properties, since we're obviously not dealing with a gluten-free product here. This mix is used to dust the towels that line the baskets or bowls in which the dough makes its last fermentation, or "final rise." This takes another three to four hours at warm room temperature. Or, if you're tired of playing around with the dough, you can put the baskets in the refrigerator, which slows the fermentation, and deal with it tomorrow. "After 8 to 12 hours [in the refrigerator], the dough will develop more complex and mildly acidic flavors." I decided just to forge ahead.
I stacked the two baskets in the dough proofer, and moved them from top to bottom every hour or so. At last--some nine or ten hours after I started in the morning, I was finally ready to bake a loaf of bread.
I don't have a good picture of this part of the process because it's hard to see the dough against the inside of the Dutch oven, which has been preheated to 500 degrees. Then the dough is turned into the very hot pot, and you slash a square onto the top of the dough. You are aware that the pot is very hot, and it would be quite easy to burn your arm, but, amazingly, that doesn't happen.
After 20 minutes in the oven (now turned to 450), the lid is removed, and you see a blonde, shiny loaf. Not ready, but looking better than you thought it would look.
After another 20 minutes of baking with the lid of the Dutch oven off, out comes a perfectly respectable looking loaf of bread.
I will now admit that in my years of baking bread, including a number of "sourdough" loaves, I have never before had the courage to trust entirely in wild yeast. Even with my sourdough recipes, I've always added at least a pinch of yeast because I never really believed that the so-called "natural" yeast that's supposed to be floating around in the air would really do the trick. Why chew willow bark when you can buy aspirin? That was my theory.
But here's my willow-bark, natural-yeast bread, and it looks pretty good.
Not only that, but it tastes pretty good too. It actually tastes better than pretty good. The crust is maybe the crustiest I've ever achieved, and it was done without misting, ice cubes, boiling water, or any of the other ways I've tried to get that burst of steam. Full of holes, flavorful, chewy, it's the kind of bread that makes you realize that a diet of bread and water wouldn't necessarily be a punishment.
And this is only the first, most basic loaf of bread! I could still make an olive loaf, or a walnut loaf, or even croissants! Not to mention the last half of the book, which consists of recipes using bread (bread salad, for example, or "Nettle Fritatine"). Well, I may never make it to the nettles.
I'm glad to have this blog, which kept me honest. If I hadn't blogged my progress (very slow progress), I probably would have given up on Day 3 or 4. But I'm glad I stuck with it, and, if you have a couple of weeks without much to do and a willingness to throw a lot of flour down the disposal, I encourage you to do the same.