Tuesday, December 4, 2007

100% Whole Wheat Desem Bread

Dear God, what have I gotten myself into? I'm not sure what came over me. Well, that's not entirely true. I know where the inspiration came from, but I really don't know why I decided to go for it. And now I'm thinking I've gotten myself into something that may not have an exit, other than death. Not mine, necessarily, but death of some organisms I've been sharing my kitchen with for maybe 2 months now. Or more. I can't remember my life before them.

It began when the lovely Susan of The Well Seasoned Cook sent me an Amish Friendship Bread starter. "Oh, how quaint", I thought. It took me back to the days when my friends were passing such things along, and we all had time to bake and turned out lovely breads. Those were the New Mexican years, and for those of you who have followed this blog for a while, you know how dearly I hold those memories. I had a garden. I worked as a potter in my studio. I baked bread and even learned to turn out some decent flour tortillas. I learned to cook from my husband, who was absolutely one of the best chefs I've ever known. (The way to this girl's heart was definitely through her stomach!) I learned photography and bird watching and how to play in the winter (ski). I even tried my hand at sewing, although that never ever ever was my strong suit!


So when I got this Amish Friendship Bread Starter, it reminded me of when I used to bake bread. Other than banana bread, the only bread I truly got into was one I found in Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book - Flemish Desem Bread. It's by far and away the most lengthy recipe in this book -- she devotes 24 pages to desem (pronounced day-zum) bread and it's variations. I have no idea who Laurel is, but having re-visited this recipe and actually having been insane enough to do it YET AGAIN, I'm thinking she must have been a Birkenstock wearing hippie chick, and I must have been having a flash back.

Now, there are things about desem bread which are flat out fabulous. Desem, which is Flemish for "starter", is a bread which was baked over 100 years ago before commercial yeast was produced in laboratories. So for people who have candida or other problems with yeast, this bread is a blessing. It can be made with a variety of grains, such as spelt and kamut, so for people with wheat allergies, it can provide a delicious bread that doesn't produce an allergic reaction. Because the fermentation process is so slow and cool, it breaks down the phytic acid that binds the minerals in the grains, so the bread is more nutritious. It has no dairy or fat in it either.

Sounds good, yes? Well, my memories of the desem bread I used to bake were fabulous. I remember it being the most satisfying bread I ever had in my life. I'm certain that part of the reason for that came from the fact that in those days, I used to buy wheat berries from a health food store in Albuquerque whose friendly staff would then grind them for me to make flour. Starting with freshly ground flour is something that truly does produce a different bread than using anything else - even fresh whole wheat flour from Whole Foods. The other major difference was the water. The house we lived in had a well which was over 200 feet deep. The water we drank was, to my mind, the best water I had ever tasted. Since this bread uses flour, water and salt as it's ingredients, it's pretty easy to understand that if you have the freshest flour, the best water, and any kind of salt, you are going to produce an outstanding bread. Even if you don't have a brick oven - which is what they claim it takes to make the very best desem bread. And even if you, like me, start with a starter which is made with yeast and milk. The fermenting process is quite long, and requires many feedings. Since I never added anything other than whole wheat flour and water to the original starter, at this point whatever else was in there only exists in homeopathic proportions. I don't think it influences the final product anymore.

At any rate, I got sucked me into the fantasy that I could produce that same bread here in San Diego. The reality, however, is quite different. I did buy organic whole wheat flour, and I used my filtered water, but the end result was less satisfying than what I used to bake back in the day....The first time I baked the bread, it had the weight of a brick. I was a little nervous about cutting it - even with my bread knife. It was not exactly a friendly loaf. A machete would probably have been a better tool. The next batch was a bit better - a little bit lighter, but still not worth all those feedings.
The third batch actually produced an edible bread, though still not the bread of my memories. This one at least yielded itself to the bread knife. It was quite delicious with peanut butter, and had it not separated a bit at the bottom, would probably have even been reasonably good for sandwiches.

This last time, however, I couldn't bring myself to go through with the bread recipe. (It takes 7 hours from start to finish.) I decided to turn my attention to Larel's alternative recipes for desem. I got up enough courage to have another go of it and try her desem yeasted buns, only with a Toni twist. Instead of using 100% whole wheat, I used 50-50 whole wheat and unbleached white flour. Frankly, for the ingredients I've got at my disposal these days, I think this was the way to go. My desem, or starter, is still 100% whole wheat and shall remain so, but I'm thinking that what I will bake with it will not be.Which is too bad, actually. Because if I could produce that beautiful bread again, I would do so in a heartbeat. Well, actually it would take many, many, many heartbeats. But it would be worth it, because a slice or 2 of that bread with some butter in the morning with my tea would satisfy me for hours and hours. However, without the quality of those 2 basic ingredients, I don't see that it's possible to reproduce my former results.At least I have the memories.

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11 comments:

Lydia said...

Funny, isn't it, how certain foods are associated with certain places or points in time, and you can never recreate the circumstances that produced the food in quite the same way. Nevertheless, your desem rolls do look delicious, and I hope they were, even if they were not as you'd remembered.

katiez said...

Gorgeous photo with the sunlight on the bread!
Writing about your New Mexico days took me back... I wonder if those days were as wonderful as my memories...and if I'd like them again...

Terry B said...

Stories like this are SO why I don't bake bread, Toni. As much as I love good bread, I love my time more. And there are so many people out there who do it so well, in exchange for money. Gorgeous photos, though, as always. And I know the bread was heavenly.

Toni said...

Lydia - They actually tasted quite good, in spite of having been "adulterated" with some white flour.

Kate - Good question! Memory is tricky....I've often wondered if it's the person or events that we have the nostalgia for, or if it's for our younger days.

Terry - I SO understand why you don't bake bread! When a terrific bakery opened within walking distance of my house, I decided that my bread baking days were over. HAH! It's amazing the vortex that memory can create...It'll suck you right down that rabbit hole before you can say "hookah"! ;-)

Susan said...

Toni, you are a trooper! I wonder sometimes if what Tom Wolfe said is true, that we can't go home again. Do you remember Woody Allen trying to replicate the lobsters he'd had with "Annie Hall" with a new girlfriend? It just didn't work. I'm glad your perseverance did ultimately pay off. That starter has been all over the map; even with all the troubles, I'm glad it found a place in your kitchen. Thanks!

Cynthia said...

I lov the fact that you never gave up and kept trying.

Mimi said...

I love to bake bread, but I have to agree with TerryB these days. I can identify with your story, Toni.

Those photos are evocative of a time in my life, too...

Susan G said...

Bread is so nurturing that even the photos make me feel whole.

Chris said...

You're the woman, Toni! This bread looks so satisfying. I can smell it now...:)

ann said...

*sigh* Such a nice story... I bet those New Mexico loaves were amazing. Sometimes birkenstock-wearng hippie chicks actually do know what they're talking about. But only sometimes ;-)

Anne Marie said...

I also used to make desem for a number of years, following Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book, and it was sometimes the most wonderful bread in the world. But I neglected the starter for too long and it got moldy. I've been meaning to start all over again. It's a commitment, and the first few loaves aren't that great. The starter improves over time, but it must be replenished regularly... Mmm thanks for the memories.