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Life and Work

Bread for life

Workshop teaches breadmaking as part of ‘re-skilling’ for a changing world

PUTNEY—What does baking sourdough bread have to do with preparing for a world that will likely have to grapple with the triple threat of climate change, financial instability, and the end of cheap petroleum?

For Transition Putney, the ability to bake healthy bread with local ingredients is just one of many skills for area residents to learn to prepare for an uncertain future.

The goal of its members: to build community resilience by localizing food production, health care, and other aspects of daily life.

The group, which was formed last year and is part of the global Transition movement, calls the process “re-skilling.”

It has held a series of workshops over the past year which cover everything from canning food and fixing bicycles, to weaving textiles and making herbal medicines.

On this Sunday afternoon, around 25 potential bakers, including half a dozen children, showed up for the sourdough bread class at the Putney Cares Barn.

Robyn O’Brien, who manages the Putney Food Co-op and has five children, made the process plausible, pleasurable and, eventually, delicious by making several loaves with varying ingredients during the three-hour class.

She invited a young boy about 5, Torger Knudson of Brattleboro, to help her knead one of the loaves. Torger admitted to just welcoming a younger member of the family, a girl named Lightning.

O’Brien made her approach to planning and measuring a casual one, without brushing off the natural concerns of more methodical bakers.

She said she never measures, which can drive a novice nuts. But then, she demonstrated what “about a cup of starter” looks like when it’s being poured into batter, or how you can estimate a cup of water and find out by stirring that a lot more is required.

She’d brought along some mini-enamel colanders, about two quarts in capacity, that she used as rising containers.

First, she placed a ball of dough in a well-floured towel. Then, she placed both the dough and the towel it in the colander and, as she put it, created “a micro climate” by putting the whole thing in a plastic bag.

In about 60 minutes, the dough balls, maybe four inches across and resting on the warm top of the refrigerator, doubled in size.

She conceded that her rule breaking was a matter of necessity and experimentation, rather than some secret formula known only to the initiated.

And she said she’s been using this method for years, extending it to intriguing experiments, like making light but substantial doughnuts with sourdough starter.

“For the past five years, I’ve been baking sourdough bread every week,” O’Brien said. “I take shortcuts, I don’t follow recipes, and so far I haven’t had anything fail — completely.”

She offered several explanations relating to the use of sweeteners to quicken the leavening process, or finding warm or cool spots to speed up or slow down rising times.

Also, she emphasized the adaptability of sourdough batter to incorporate seeds, fruit, and several kinds of flour. The loaves she made for class were half whole wheat, half white.

But everything in sourdough baking starts with starter, made from a mixture of flour and water.

As a rule, basic starter is made from three cups of flour and about a cup of water, in a commodious jar, mixed well by plunging a wire whisk in and out of the mixture.

The mixture is then covered tightly and refrigerated for several days, at which point a bubbly mass has developed.

After using whatever your recipe calls for, you feed the starter with about a cup of the flour of your choice, plus half as much water. You then mix the starter and put it back into the fridge. Unused starter should be fed every five days.

O’Brien said she has a good friend, a baker at Amy’s Bakery Arts Café in downtown Brattleboro, who is a good deal more precise than she.

“He’s always talking about hydration rates. I have no idea what my hydration rate is,” she admitted. “There are rules everywhere and I’ve probably not followed any of them. It’s all about flexibility.”

A rough guide for her might be 2 cups of white flour, 1 ½ cups of whole wheat flour, 1 ½ cups of starter, 2 cups of water, 2 teaspoons of honey, and salt to taste. She used about 2 teaspoons.

“At the kneading point, you can add stuff, like dried fruit,” she said.

She spoke a little about different types of flour, those that are hard wheat and thus high in protein, as well as other varieties, advising interested bakers to study up on these matters because they make a difference in the loaf.

One woman said that she used to be a bit more adventurous, using all sorts of fading ingredients in her fridge for the starter, even leftover salad. Leftover rice, O’Brien agreed, makes a tasty batch.

“I bake my bread, like the ones I made here, about 40 minutes in a 400-degree oven,” she said.

First, though, she takes the round risen dough, shaping it into a loaf, and then, as she put it, she “[does] a karate chop to the ends” to get a nice flat edge, folding under the excess.

The bread O’Brien shared with the group had been started the previous day and then baked off in the oven in the barn’s well-equipped kitchen, producing enough slices from the three loaves for everyone who wanted a taste.

The slicing and the slathering of butter and jam and honey were remarkably orderly given the temptations.

Most of those attending were local residents.

Toby and Pam Halne came from Springfield to support groups such as Transition Putney. Toby said he was trying to learn all sorts of transitions “for when they collapse the economy.”

“I came because my bread making was disastrous,” Nancy Redding said, laughing.

“I was a yeast killer,” added Redding, who had been an art teacher in Massachusetts before retiring in Putney. “I came today because it’s the only hope for me.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #132 (Wednesday, December 21, 2011).

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