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Chasing the Perfect Loaf

At one point in last week’s mix, the Metchosin Wheat bread was two hours into its proof. I was busy mixing the second loaf and wasn’t thinking about the wheat bread until I happened to catch a glance. 

Whoosh! The dough mass was pushing up the lid on the bin and was about to spill over at the edges. Bubbles were popping out the sides; it looked like a sourdough monster rising out of the container. I had counted on a four-hour proof! It was more than ready for the next stage!

The kitchen was unusually warm, 27ºC! It was sunny and summer-like outside and even more summer-like inside. It’s typically 20ºC in the kitchen! If I didn’t act fast, that 93 lbs of dough would be unusable!

A magician in the kitchen?

But I was past the point of no return for the second loaf — too far along to delay the mix further! I’d have to finish it before trying to rescue the wheat! I would have to be a magician in the kitchen to get through this—time for some baking sleight of hand.

Even after a lightning round of shaping and mixing, both doughs were way over-proofed. Moreover, the following day, the bake took too long in the oven. I was still pulling loaves out of Mildrith when the bread was supposed to go out for deliveries. And those of you who stood waiting for her could not have known the whole sad story of my morning!

These were circumstances beyond my control, granted, but I spent the rest of the day thinking I should have known the kitchen was hotter than usual. Should have mixed cold water instead of warm with the flour, added salt earlier to slow down the proof. I should have realized there were too many cold bread pans in the oven, and I might not have enough heat toward the end of the bake.

They were sorry-looking loaves, I thought. The bread had to go out, but I wanted to just crawl back into bed and hide.

The sun also rises

Well, it wasn’t quite that bad. One thing I have learned in baking and life is that the sun also rises. And armed with new knowledge, you’re less likely to make the same mistake until you make it again and then again.

These misshapen loaves!

Perfect bakes are rare. There’s always something wrong: the tops might be burned; the bottoms or sides might be too light. The loaves that go into Mildrith looking pillowy and perfect might emerge with their sides blown out. There are so many possible mistakes, a new one for every day and every bake.

Vain as it may be, I do chase the perfect loaf — an ideal of perfect colour, shape, crumb … any number of factors. I suppose it is an excellent guide to follow, but rarely, if ever, achievable. A proof that you can overlook true perfection if you’re aiming for a set of criteria that have nothing to do with the loaf in your hand.

Overlooking perfection

At the beginning of the Happy Monk Baking Company, I felt shame at the mistakes, the ugly loaves. They were a mark of inexperience, my foolish pretensions to be a baker.

Over the weeks and months, the loaves became more consistent. Either the baker learned from his mistakes, his sourdough starter got better, or some kind of magic happened.

What is the perfect colour or shape, anyway? A lighter coloured loaf might indicate there wasn’t enough heat in the oven. A slightly burned one might suggest too much heat, as there often is when the first loaves are loaded into Mildrith.

Some “imperfections” might be the result of lack of experience or inattention, true. Still, all the loaves are made by human hands. They are full of attention and intention. And most, not all, reflect the spirit of the baker. I know this to be true because there ain’t nobody else mixing or baking, most days.

The paysans boulangers

Nicolas Support

I take great inspiration from the YouTube videos of Nicolas Supiot, a baker/farmer/miller who lives in the Brittany region of France. He’s known as a paysan boulanger (peasant baker), a movement of bakers who make traditional bread with locally-grown heritage grains, mostly in wood-fired ovens. 1

You don’t have to know French to understand the passion he brings to his bread-making, which borders on the ‘spiritual.’

The videos show him walking his grain fields, examining wheat berries and sowing seed by hand. He mills his own grain the night before mixing. He says a prayer before his wooden mixing trough, then gradually swirls flour into the water, adds salt and levain, building up an enormous dough mass by hand. No mixers, automated dough shapers or deck ovens.

The loaves that come out of his wood-fired oven aren’t unlike Happy Monk loaves, wild and uneven, rustic, made by rough hands. No artful scores, no beautiful patterns or subtle flavourings.

Bread unadorned

It is bread unadorned, made for subsistence, not for a fancy table. It comes from a wood-fired oven with heat inconsistencies – hot spots and cool spots — created by multiple opening and closing of oven doors.

I’m no Nicolas Supiot. I don’t grow my own wheat or follow the socio-gastronomic tenets of les paysans boulangers, of which he is a leading voice. But I’m happy to discover that my inspiration for bread making aligns with this group of European baker.

And in that, the perfect loaf is something much more approachable and human than I have imagined. And that the “imperfections” may actually be perfections. There’s lots of room for improvement, but I feel increasingly on solid ground.


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#anadama #anadamabread #cornmeal #cornmealbread #metchosinbc #armstrongbc #stoneground #stonegroundflour #stonemilled #stonemilledflour #stonemilledbread #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries

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#anadama #anadamabread #cornmeal #cornmealbread #metchosinbc #armstrongbc #stoneground #stonegroundflour #stonemilled #stonemilledflour #stonemilledbread #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries
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  1. Also see the earlier blog post, “The Paysans Boulangers”, which includes a video of Supiot baking his bread peasant-style.

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