Words by Katy Anne, Photos by Ilana Freddye
When we signed up to take a bread course with Tara Jensen (Smoke Signals Baking) six months ago, it felt impossibly far away and much like a fantasy - we'd both been following her on Instagram for years and fantasizing about going to her bakery. On top of that, the classes are famously hard to get into. But Ilana was punctual and persistent and we got in - and then the months flew by as months tend to do these days and we found ourselves there: outside Marshall, North Carolina, huddled around a wood-burning oven with Tara Jensen and five strangers who'd flown across the country, too.
We were learning to make naturally-fermented bread: a three-day process of careful science, slow fermentation, and what mostly felt like witchcraft or magic.
It starts with fire. Tara told us she'd lit a fire the night before to start heating up the oven. There were still a few lit coals in the back of the chamber and we all carried long chunks of wood from the yard, layered it into the oven, and watched it ignite into a blazing fire. She explained the fire-building process: you light it, let it blaze for an hour, then place fire bricks in front of it to slow down the oxygen. "Think of it as a pair of lungs," she said, "when you let less oxygen in, you dampen it."
It was bitterly cold and the heat from the flames was welcome. We were heating the oven to bake pizza that afternoon, then cooling it down again for bread. A process in the strongest sense of the word.
We learned about bread, about flour, about yeast, about water and time and temperature - but at some points it felt more like therapy. I felt like I was becoming more human: my hands deep in tubs of wet dough, cold clean air, seven strangers baking and breaking bread together in an age of anonymity and isolation. "Bread-baking is a metaphor for life," she said. "Be patient, intentional, intuitive."
We learned about sourdough starters and using them for levain and for flavor; we learned about fresh-milled flour, gluten development and elasticity; about how to best support fermentation, the flavor profiles of different bacterias; about how to work with different grains.
"If you fall in love with a grain - ask yourself what the grain wants," she said, "how can you help it express itself?"
We learned about process and obstacles and troubleshooting and creativity. Bread is a formula and a tight science, but it's also a living thing with idiosyncrasies and sensitivities.
We made pie and pizza, too, all using local North Carolina flours that blew our minds with how fresh and dynamic they tasted. Like nothing I'd had before. I came home and threw away all my years-old AP flour.
Ilana and I both left the workshop obsessed. We've been treating our sourdough starters like pets, feeding them regularly with fresh flour and water and watching (and smelling and tasting) as they change and develop. We just spent the last few weeks in Aspen cooking for a client and brought our starters with us and some fresh-milled flours from Breadtopia (great resource! check it out). We experimented with a lot of different breads, seeds and nuts and herbs and whole grain flours. And we learned about high-altitude, a beast when it comes to bread baking. We were challenged and frustrated and having fun - and by the end of it, we felt like we had our own little baking routine: a rhythm of feeding the starter, making the dough for tomorrow's bake, re-feeding the starter for tomorrow's dough, and so on and so and so on.
Looking forward to practicing and learning more. Practice makes better, after all.