Monday, March 15, 2010

Bagel Monday With Sour Flour

I got out of my kitchen this weekend, but I didn't leave the baking behind. Instead, I headed over to Sour Flour, the bakery and brainchild of San Francisco native Danny Gabriner.

I heard about Sour Flour from a friend, after I mentioned my recent adventures in bread baking. I was immediately intrigued by Sour Flour's plan to give away 1,000 loaves of handmade bread. Why give away so much bread, you ask? It's all part of Sour Flour's mission to "build community through bread." As a bread lover, I can't imagine a better foundation for building community. Sharing bread is such a natural instinct. When I bake bread, I want to give it to friends, leave it on my neighbors' doorsteps, or just bring it to the park up the street and start forcing it on strangers.

Now that Danny has given away 1,000 loaves, he is planning to sell 1,000 loaves (I bought #31--they're numbered, like collector's editions!) He says he enjoyed giving away bread so much, that he is just slowly warming up to the idea of exchanging his bread for cash. But it's part of the plan to turn Sour Flour into a flourishing business.

One of Sour Flour's traditions is Bagel Monday. They prep a load of bagels on Sunday afternoon, boil and bake them on Monday morning and give them away to whomever wants them. Anyone is welcome to lend a hand to the process, and get a baking lesson along the way. After my first experience with homemade bagels, I was eager to get my hands on more. I was also eager to bake with someone else. Up until now, Peter Reinhart, as channeled through the Bread Baker's Apprentice, has been my primary teacher. So baking with Danny was a reminder that there are many, many ways of doing things.

I showed up in the Sour Flour kitchen on Sunday, and the first thing Danny did was whip out his calculator. This was my first time seeing baker's math in action. Up until now, I have studiously averted my eyes from the discussion of baker's math in the BBA, and simply followed the formulas as written. Do I have an irrational fear of numbers dating back to Mrs. Blossom's fifth grade math class? Why, yes, I do. Danny, on the other hand, was clearly at ease with baker's math, his fingers flying over the flour dusted calculator, as he figured how much flour, water, salt and starter would be needed to make 64 bagels.

He takes a very relaxed approach to developing the gluten in his dough. He gives it a lot of fermentation time, and stretches and folds the dough (much like the method for prepping ciabatta dough), instead of pummeling it into submission. I am usually under a time crunch when I'm baking -- the kids need to be picked up, dropped off, fed or put to bed -- so I do a lot of pummeling. So it was refreshing to see someone work with his dough for a few minutes, and then walk away and let it do some of the work on its own.

It was also my first time working with a sourdough starter. It definitely brings a whole new level of depth and complexity to the party. It also brings me down a road I never thought I'd travel. You see, I must make a confession: I really don't like sourdough bread. Forgive me. I had some traumatic experiences with stale loaves of Boudin Sourdough bought off of Chicago-area supermarket shelves in the 80s. But it turns out that not all sourdough has to be so painfully, well, sour. The bagels from Sour Flour may have saved me from a lifetime of bitterness.

When I returned Monday morning to pick up a bag of bagels, they were still warm from oven. They only had a hint of sour flavor, which added a nice layer of complexity to the bagels, along with the salt and poppy seeds sprinkled on top. I enjoyed them, almost as much as Alex and Rowan, who came along to"see mommy's bread teacher." Danny's brother helped Alex pick lemons from the tree in their sunny back yard. What a generous family. Danny obviously has a great passion for bread, and sharing the love far and wide. I can't wait to taste more bread and bagels from the Sour Flour Lab.

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