Despite my previous grumbles about the opaque ordering system at Tartine, I think Robertson's breads are amazing, and if his book could teach me to produce something two-thirds as good in my home oven, I wanted to give it a go.
Two months later, I finally succeeded.
Before I launch into the saga, whose length I apologize for in advance, here are the two things you need to know about me:
1. I have baked bread on a regular basis since the age of 7 or 8 ― usually
the simple German-style breads my mother taught me as a child, and
nothing so complex as baguettes and levains. (Why kill myself attempting
something Acme will always do better?)
2. When it comes to anything practical ― painting a wall, making salami,
changing a bike tire ― I have a learning deficit. I can't figure out the
instructions just by reading them, or talk to you on the phone while you
explain the steps to me. I must be shown. Once I've asked 15 questions
and done it myself, it'll be lodged in my hands, eyes, and nose, which
know better what my brain can't grasp.
Considering #2 cancels out #1, I figured I'd be an ideal recipe tester who could tell other non-committed amateur bakers how well the recipe works.
The years Robertson spent coming up with the method for the book, which has already occasioned a lot of talk in the food world, are evident. The book is lavishly (and helpfully) illustrated with photographs by Eric Wolfinger, a former Tartine baker. A charming YouTube video about the book has gone viral. It's hard not to watch it and break out the credit card, even if you plan to buy the book and store it next to the copy of Ad Hoc at Home you've never cooked from, either.
The basic recipe, which begins with making a sourdough starter and ends with two finished country loaves, starts on page 42 of the book and ends on page 79, with another eight pages devoted to technical notes and descriptions of his three testers' experiences. It isn't a recipe so much as a textbook.In for a penny, right? I bought 10 pounds of flour for the experiment, plus a couple of implements I didn't have. (Do you know how sketchy it makes a man feel to buy razor blades at the Walgreens on Mission and 23rd?) Cooks who don't have as much kitchen gear as I do may need to spend $50-$150 on such tools as a decent metric scale and a bench knife, not to mention a 5-quart cast-iron Dutch oven.
Over the two weeks it took for my starter to become viable, I read the recipe two or three times, trying to absorb all the background intel on bread structure and the baking process that Robertson was trying to impart. Eventually, I had a bowl of muck that smelled just as fruity and sour as Robertson said it would and bubbled and collapsed according to the schedule he described. Working name: Alphonse.
Then came baking day. The night before, I read through the recipe a few more times. That's when problem #1 with the book appeared. Though I was sure the author's thoughtful descriptions of concepts like "surface tension" and "bench rest" would make sense someday, I needed to know something more basic: How long was this going to take?
So many factors seemed to be able to throw the timeline significantly off, from water temperature to the temperature of the room. Finally, as I reread Robertson's passage on the success of his least-experienced tester, an accordion-playing grad student, I spotted a photo of a chart she'd created. It laid out the schedule of steps, how much time she wanted to allocate to each, and how long each step had really taken. Ignoring the fact that she began baking at 8 a.m. and finished baking at 2:30 in the morning, I recreated the chart (). Somewhere in the middle of the 12-hour baking day ― which involved another two or three panicked read-throughs of each step ― the dough stopped rising like the photos showed, even though I'd followed the directions as scrupulously as I could and had turned my oven into a heated proofing box to speed up fermentation. I followed the book's schedule and went through with the baking, anyway. I heated my oven to 500 degrees and placed the dough into a preheated 5-quart pot as instructed. The crust came out perfect. Otherwise, the bread was a dense, flat, inedible lump.
Was Alphonse just a bum starter? Did I not give the dough enough time to rise? I couldn't tell. Problem #2 with the book: It gave me no sense of how to evaluate errors and improve the product. I could have pulled rank and called other food writers and professional bakers, but that would be cheating. (Okay, I did call one writer, who listened to my complaints and sweetly suggested I stick to yeasted breads.)
Tomorrow, the conclusion of the saga: "Tartine Bread Part II: A New Start(er)"