Tartine Bread, a love/hate relationship

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It was my idea. Let’s make that bread.

We spent barely a day in San Francisco before and after a wedding in Sonoma, but we made time to visit Tartine. Twice. And then once more again just before heading to the airport. It’s Mark Bittman’s favorite bakery in the country, and Chad Robertson’s bread was well worth the trip. The crust is thick and impressive with its ridges and myriad shades of brown. The crumb was delicious. His brownies, scones, and sandwiches with salty ham were wonderful.

Back home in Tampa, I checked out Robertson’s book from the library. Noelle, who owns the book and wanted to attempt the bread for some time, agreed to make the bread with me. She wrote about her Tartine bread experience here. She has more experience with bread than we do, and it shows. Look at her lovely little loaf! Look at her toast! Still, as she says, going into this project together was comforting:

It’s a nice feeling, knowing that even though you live over 2,500 miles apart, you’re in this mess of flour and water together. Thanks for that, Ileana.

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We started our starter. We fed it every day for at least a month or so. Our little monster ate fresh flour every day and bubbling up as the yeast ate the sugars. At first, the smell was rather foul. Like a pungent and stinky cheese, and not exactly something I wanted to keep out in my living room for any friends to admire. Danny, I pleaded, stop showing this thing to people and assaulting their nostrils. But soon it started to mature, and its aroma softened into something delicate and sweet.

The “recipe” for his country bread goes on for two dozen or so pages, and so this bread project quickly became spearheaded by Danny. Maybe it’s his biology major and science background that gave him the patience for the precision and labor this required. He read through it repeatedly and took notes. I was supportive. At first.

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Our first loaf was beautiful. Danny pulled it from the Dutch oven, and we were so proud. It was golden and smelled great. We knocked on the bottom, and it sounded as hollow as someone knocking on the front door. Just as it should.

We sliced into the bread and quickly realized something had gone wrong. The bread didn’t rise enough. The crumb was a bit gummy. It wasn’t at all the bread we had tried at Tartine.

The second loaf was not much of an improvement. Where was the so-called oven spring? We’d slashed a square shape into the center of the loaf and expected it to puff up to a thrilling height. But it never did.

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Determination moved us Danny into mad scientist territory. He started other starters. We had up to five at some point as he waited for the best one to win. Some were fed more. At least one had the help of sugar. I wanted out. I’d given up. There were jars everywhere and every morning flour dusted the dining table. Let’s please try another recipe for bread, I pleaded, and revisit this some other time.

Nope. More starters. Those led to more gummy loaves and increasing feelings of defeat. He perused online forums from other Tartine fans who attempted the bread, and he posted about his experience. Could anyone help? What had gone wrong so many times? I needed to get Danny out of this abusive cycle. Finally, one day, he announced the next loaf would be his last attempt.

He pulled it from the oven, and let it rest for a bit. The crust looked good. He took a knife and sliced it for the big reveal.

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It was the same poor bread we’d seen before. We were done.

A month later, this was still a sore subject. I showed him a recipe from Chad for panzanella or toast or something, which I thought we could make with any other bread.

Too soon, he said.

But as you’d expect, I’m not getting off that easy. Soon his parents will be here for the holidays, and Danny already made plans to try it again with his dad. Let’s hope it works out. It’d make a great Christmas present.

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