Abdul bin Mohammed was beaming when we entered his humble home. While times had been good for this one-time poppy grower, the decision by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to drop the annual quota of brown resin was music to his ears.
“It was very lucrative at one time,” he said through an interpreter, “but there were also many costs. American soldiers would often walk through my fields and threaten to set them on fire if I didn’t supply them with money and raw opium. Prices were going up and down without reason. Then there was the problem of oversupply.”
There’s so much of political interest happening in the world at the moment that, conversely, I find myself bereft of a coherent blog post. So I’ve decided to take a break and talk about a subject close to home. Bread.
We have a problem here in Malaysia and that is that everyone likes sweet bread. Yea, even unto the hamburger buns. It got so bad that, about nine years ago, we started scouring the shops and supermarkets for bread flour to start making our own.
Almost three years ago, I delegated and the kids were tasked with making the daily bread. They’ve done a good job. Mostly. However, I’ve noticed that their skills have been deteriorating recently. We were getting loaves that were completely flat on top, resembling more the topographical map of a rugged plain that the dome of a nicely risen loaf. I started calling those efforts “truck bread”, subtly implying that a lorry had run over them at some point, but it was obvious that Something needed to be done. We had to kick up our bread-making a notch and breathe new life into the daily dough.
I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I stumbled across something called “Tartine Bread”. Tartine is a San Francisco bakery specialising in sourdough. While we were living in the Bay Area of the United States, we ate sourdough. Lots and lots and lots of sourdough. In fact, it was very much like it is here currently. Back then, I couldn’t find a non-sourdough loaf and now I can’t find a non-sweet loaf. Both have their place, but every day for breakfast isn’t one of them. I fell out of love with sourdough very quickly and only a decade later can I even bear to imagine eating such bread again.
Serendipity pointed me the way to the Tartine style of bread and I decided to give it a try.
The first step in making a sourdough is to cultivate a “sponge”, which is basically a fermented mixture of flour and water. You’re supposed to mix the flour and water together and leave it out–covered by a tea towel–for three to five days, in order to capture the local yeasts for fermentation duty. I gave it four days and the sponge was delightfully bubbly and smelling a bit like cheese. Then I hit every YouTube video and internet page I could find to finetune further instructions.
Before I go any further, I have to point out that nobody can masturbate like a North American. Instead of saying, “leave to hydrate”, they say “let it autolyse”. Instead of “mix flour and water in a 1:1 ratio”, they say “at 100% hydration”. There’s a lot of faffing about weights and softness and gentle movements, but I get it: the first time you do it, you’ve got to get it right, so masturbation it is.
I decided to go for 800g of flour at “75% hydration” (that’s 600g (or three-quarters by weight) of water, for all you non-NAmericans) and set to it. Pull and fold. Twist the bowl. Pull and fold. Twist the bowl. Rest. And again. Pull, fold, twist. Pull, fold, twist. Rest. Number 3. Rest. Number 4. Rest. Number 5. Rest. Number 6. Over a span of four hours, the dough transformed from a lumpy mess to a smooth stringy mess but was still very very sloppy. Still, it seemed to approximate what I’d seen in the videos, so I soldiered on.
After all the pulling, folding, twisting and resting (without all the twee wicker baskets with the cutely fitting linen interiors that seems to be an intrinsic part of Tartine masturbation), I formed my two loaves, heated up the oven to 200 Celsius (I have a hot oven) with my cast iron casserole in it and, at the nominated temperature, baked the bread. My timing was 20 mins initially, lid off, finish for another 20 minutes.
Wow! It came out wonderfully. Just like in those photos of rustic bread you see in cookbooks. (In fact, all the pictures of bread you see in this post have come from my own efforts.) I’ve been sold ever since. But I’ve made a couple of adjustments.
For one, I’m way too lazy to bake two loaves separately. I only have one cast-iron casserole you see. So I pressed a too-small Römertopf back into service. A Römertopf is a German clay vessel, glazed on the inside, and I’ve found that it’s perfect for baking this bread.
The other thing I’ve done is cut the hydration down to about 55%. You see, there’s so much humidity here in Malaysia that the flour has already absorbed quite a bit of moisture. Seventy-five per cent hydration may work in the dry SF region, but it’s too unworkable here at the Equator. Fifty-five per cent (give or take) seems about right.
The third thing is that I’ve changed the timing. It isn’t 20/20 (total 40 mins of baking) anymore, but 25/30 (total 55 mins of baking). This gives a lovely dark brown crust with a soft, chewy interior. (I’ve used 100% bread flour, 50/50 bread flour/plain flour, 50/50 bread flour/pau flour, 100% pau flour, 80/20 bread flour/wholewheat flour, and they’ve all turned out wonderfully. I’ll be trying some rye flour next…if I can still find it.)
The kids are in swot week/s at the moment, preparing for various exams, so I’ve taken on Bread Duty till they’re done. But once they are, I’ll be taking them through how to make a San Francisco sourdough…
Except it isn’t. No matter how often I leave my sponge out on the countertop, feeding it every few days with a fresh mixture of flour and water before popping it back into the refrigerator, it just isn’t sour. Smells wonderful, like homebrew beer, but the sourness just doesn’t come out in the bread. J thinks it’s because the locals like sugar in everything so much, the very air is sweet!
Wouldn’t you know it? Right when I’m prepared to confront sourdough again, I can’t make it. Story of my life.
PS: I haven’t given any links to recipes because, really, there are so many variations and recipes for Tartine-type loaves and you have to do your own experimentation to find the best combination for your own locality. Search for them and you’ll find a plethora soon enough. Good luck.
Nope, couldn’t stay away from politics.
I’ve been a subscriber to Professor Immanuel Wallerstein’s commentaries for a fair few years now and his latest (No. 447, “Trump’s Foreign Policy: Incoherent or Unpredictable?“) talks about Donald Trump’s unpredictability. I think Wallerstein is correct when he comments on the US domestic situation:
If one puts oneself in Trump’s shoes, the picture might be very different. First of all, if I Trump am unpredictable, I have some extra strength in my position, since the others may try to accommodate in advance what they think is my position.
In addition the incoherence of my position is a way of gauging what is the position that will best serve my interests, which is to increase my power within and outside the United States. Maintaining my personal position and secondarily that of the United States is my primary goal. I do not have and do not want to have a “vision” or long-term commitment. I am not an ideologue but a person who seeks a position of dominance.
However, I think he is incorrect when he applies that strategy to the Rest of the World:
Now let us shift to the perspective of that of the majority of the world’s population who are not Trump supporters. Indeed, the majority fear Trump’s “incoherence” since, as president of the United States, he controls the U.S. military and its terrible weaponry. We, the majority, fear that he is not in control of himself. We fear that he is egoistic and very thin-skinned, and may launch irreversible actions in a moment of pique.
I don’t think the Rest of the World “fears” Trump’s “incoherence”. I think the rest of us hold it in contempt. Trump is just the latest in a long line of incompetents, from Lyndon B Johnson who interfered with the Kennedy murder investigation; Richard Nixon who escalated the pointless war in Vietnam and let his creature, Henry Kissinger, go on genocidal ego-trips across the globe; bumbling Gerald Ford who never read his speeches before he spoke them; Jimmy Carter, who let the Iran hostage crisis get away from him, buoyed by incompetent intelligence; senile Ronald Reagan who could talk a good game but much preferred long naps; George HW Bush, who needed to be reassured on every major decision by his pals and wouldn’t have got anywhere without the influence (and rolodex) of his daddy; Bill Clinton who dismantled Glass-Steagall; George W Bush who thought the presidency was a lark; Barack Obama who lied to everybody’s face at every available opportunity…and now Trump.
After the “stellar” line-up we’ve had so far, Trump isn’t clever like a fox. He’s pitiable like all the others that came before him. But Wallerstein tries to persuade us otherwise, in a kinda loopily optimistic way:
As far as I can tell, both the resistance campaigns and the efforts of other major world powers [to affect Trump’s actual decisions] have indeed had an effect, and have led him at various points to modify his position. I think they have a fair chance of keeping the United States from too much involvement in the Middle Eastern quagmire. Too much is not zero. But reducing the involvement is better than nothing at all.
The reason that these efforts to force a modification of his position is precisely because he does not have a firm commitment to anything. His unpredictability is the sole weapon the rest of us have against Trump the warrior. To make him less unpredictable means to make him less open to change. In a way, it would doom us.
Here, Wallerstein makes two mistakes. One, he conflates unpredictability with incoherence. They are not interchangeable. Look at George W Bush, for example, who was incoherent and yet predictable. (In fact, the only thing unpredictable about Bush is how he’s become the N American Left’s new darling! Come to think of it, that’s incoherent as well.) The second mistake is to assume that predictability is predicated on inflexibility. Again, you can have a predictable approach that is, at the same time, open and flexible. In fact, that may even be the best behaviour one can imagine for a world leader: to be predictably both open and flexible. Predictability and flexibility, in other words, are not mutually exclusive.
(This imprecision is not usually a hallmark of Wallerstein’s essays, so I’m hoping that he’s okay and was only under the deadline gun this week.)
I disagree that Trump’s eventual military impotence will be due to his basic empty-headedness. In my opinion, Trump’s eventual military impotence (and the ongoing disintegration of the United States of America) will be due to the woefully sub-standard level of United States military resourcing, staffing, training and deployment, a dismal standard that will take more than a decade to turn around, if the country ever has the opportunity and, more importantly, the will to do so. And that, for the rest of us, is the most optimistic message of all.
Last night I introduced J to a UK satirical series made in 1982 that I enjoyed thoroughly in my youth. Enjoyed so much, in fact, that I bought the video. I’m talking, of course, of “Whoops Apocalypse” (the series, not the movie). While some of it has dated, the mood and machinations are spot-on: the misery of whomever is the latest puppet of Western powers (in this case, the Shah of Iran’s brother); the hypocrisy of the French, who kick the Shah’s brother out of asylum in France because they want to sell a nuclear reactor to Iran; the idiocy of the United States President; the cunning, ageing Politbureau and constant surveillance of the (then) Soviet Union. Even the Jackal (known here as L’Acrobat and played with understated glee by John Cleese) makes an appearance. Barry Morse is masterful as Johnny Cyclops, a riff off Ronald Reagan, right down to the assassination attempt, and John Barron is superb as maniac Deacon, the conniving, manipulative, overtly Christian Secretary of Defence who is the real power within the Oval Office (“If the Lord had meant us to be sensible, He wouldn’t have given us credit cards.”)
Whatever you’re thinking about the political situation at the moment, know that we’ve been here before, and not that long ago. “Whoops Apocalypse” is evidence of this…I just hope we don’t follow the series to its logical conclusion. Enjoy.
UPDATE: In case what I tried (embedding a video) didn’t work, go here. Set aside two and a half hours and really do enjoy.
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