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Purple Bread and Starters: The Baker’s Magic

I have been meaning to share this with you for so long now. Last month I attended the most amazing bread workshop at Hot Bread Kitchen. I was over the moon for days after going to this event.

In San Francisco I had a soft spot for La Cocina. Well, Hot Bread Kitchen is a similar concept – helping immigrant women become entrepreneurs using their cooking traditions. However, at Hot Bread Kitchen, the focus is on bread. The event, Women Bake Bread!, gathered together women bakers from around New York City. My first workshop was on sourdough with … Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread! In fact, she generously gave all her workshopgoers some of her sourdough starter. Aaaaah! That’s right – I have some of Amy’s starter in my kitchen right now. I’m still feeding it water and flour.

Amy called starters “the baker’s magic.” She said, “Chefs have really cool sauces and essences that they put in their food; bakers have starters.” Starters are leaveners for bread, but they also impact taste. If your starter doesn’t have a good taste (is too vinegary, for instance), you won’t end up with a nice-tasting bread.

Amy gave us a starter glossary handout and said that at her bakery there are about nine different starters in tubs all around. She has a ton of a certain kind of starter, poolish ( a mix of flour, water, and a little yeast), that works well in a lot of breads. The poolish undergoes 18 hours of fermentation. The way she explains it is that with a starter, you can have 18 hours of fermentation (and the character that brings to your bread) without taking 18 hours to make the dough. Amy was a huge promoter of starters as a little extra effort that makes a big difference. She said starters extend the shelf life of bread, improve its browning quality, and add truly great flavor. In fact, Amy said every bread at her bakery is made with a starter and that when she makes breads she keeps the amount of yeast she uses at a minimum and instead gets much of the flavor of her bread from the starter.

At the workshop, Amy used King Arthur‘s Special bread flour. The bread flour has a higher protein content (12.7%-12.8% protein) than regular ol’ all-purpose flour. According to Amy, that percentage allows you to get a nice gluten structure when you knead it. She said if you used all-purpose flour (usually 11.7% protein), the bread would be fine, but wouldn’t have as much volume. And, says Amy, it would spread more and be lower in your oven, and not be as elastic. If you used a flour with a much higher protein content, like high gluten (over 13%), the dough would be chewier, something more akin to a bagel.

Amy let us munch on fresh-from-the-oven bread sticks that she made. She called it ” a casual snack” because they aren’t the perfectly proportioned twists she sells at the bakery. She sprinkled her dough with a seed mixture whose highest concentration was sesame seeds, followed by poppy seeds, a little dill seed and some salt. The result was a savory satisfying taste — crispy in certain spots and chewy in other spots – in other words, a totally delicious treat.

The day continued with other amazing baking instructors. We made our own baguettes and bagels and participants saw demos of fougasse, pizza, flat breads, chapattis, and tortillas. One highlight for me was when Amy gave us samples of walnut bread (one of my favorites!).

When I eat walnut bread, I look for that purple-y gray color. I love it in the inexplicable way I love those outdated tan M&Ms. Amy’s walnut bread wasn’t very purple-colored at all; she added toasted walnuts after the dough had rested about twenty minutes, when it had some structure. When I make mine, I actually want the purple color so I will add my walnuts in earlier and watch for the change. Until then, I have my eye set on trying one of Amy’s famed breads tomorrow — her signature semolina with golden raisins and fennel. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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