Bread Making 101 : Mark Furstenberg

April 23, 2012

The Cranky ChefI have a deep appreciation for specialists.  The patience and passion required to hone in on something, absorb knowledge and carry it, with care, into the future is a human gift not everyone receives.

Mark Furstenberg has such a gift.  By trade, a bread maker, consultant and restaurateur.  Today, an unassuming educator in bread making.

As my journey would have it, I had the fortunate opportunity to bake bread with Mark.  There was no scale, limited utensils and no adequate bread pans.  I was in his way and the Kitchen Aid mixer was not performing as desired.  The decision was made to make the bread with our hands.

We converted measurements with my iPad, (Mark is accustomed to working in grams) and started with a whole wheat flour from Bob’s Red Mill.  I imagine as with so many kitchen adventures, quality counts.

The first task was to activate the flour.  For someone with no prior flour activation experience, this seemed magical. I awaited instructions. Mark took some water and mixed it with the flour.  Activated. Apparently, there is a secret life to flour not many know exists.  Once the water is mixed in, the flour starts to ferment and deepens the resulting flavor.  As imagined, magic.

The wet flour, set on the counter and covered, was left for half an hour while Mark and I went our separate ways to write.  Already, much has been learned. I will never look at flour the same way again.

Once the appropriate time passed, Mark and I rejoined in the kitchen and began the process of kneading.  Mark’s personal yeast starter, feed for the past two decades by the master, himself, was added to the flour.  I was told the yeast came off grape blooms in Napa Valley.  I smiled inside.  Shouldn’t everyone’s first bread making experience include Napa Valley vine yeast cultivated for twenty plus years by a renowned bread expert?

The starter was a thick, slimy liquid.  Messy happened.  My earth encrusted hands kneaded and punched.  I watched Mark work the dough.  There was a confident strength in his movement.  He shared his technique of rolling and pushing the dough.  He told me I was doing a good job.  I smiled inside, again.  Nice things said are always welcome.  I didn’t know when the kneading stopped.  I asked what he was looking for in the dough.  Dough is ready for proofing when it is elastic, smooth and giving resistance.  Information I will endeavor to retain.

Mark lifted the dough and gave it one last pat before placing in a large ceramic oiled bowl covered with cling wrap and placed in the refrigerator, this time for an hour.  The pervasive instructions in most cookbooks on rising dough in a warm spot are incorrect by Mark’s experience.  The fermentation speed is slowed in the cold and thus produces a richer product.  Slow and steady is my new bread motto.  So far, it is my only bread motto.

After the first round of fermentation rising, Mark taught me how to “punch” the dough by folding it over onto itself in thirds like a burrito.  This was done in two directions and then carefully placed back into the bowl and re-covered.  I’m starting to see how this simple, time consuming process might best be left for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Conversations with Mark flow freely.  His depth and breadth of knowledge carry over into all food subjects and our interests are similar.  He is an excellent bread making partner.

The dough is coming along nicely and after the third rest, it is ready to form the bread into round loaves, arrange in a heated stockpot (the only baking vessel we could find) and cut the slits at the top of the dome.  Mission accomplished. The oven handles the rest of the work. A good thing too; this bread making is quite a process.

I am grateful for the afternoon spent in the kitchen with Mark.  I am humbled by his knowledge and confident our bread will be a welcome start of an evening among friends.

He would like to be known as the Cranky Chef, but I know his secret.  Mark is generous of knowledge and life experience. Although his moniker would suggest otherwise, the under-current of his cantankerous efforts is kindness and community.  And as specialists go, he is warmly special, even if he wouldn’t like me to tell you.

For more information on Mark, visit Remarkable Breads

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jen Reyneri May 1, 2012 at 6:56 AM

Love it, Melissa-
and the socks:) couldn’t resist snapping that one! He is truly remarkable, as are you.


Melissa May 1, 2012 at 9:55 AM

and, my dear, you have a remarkable spirit. so happy to have met you and look forward to our next rendezvous


LiztheChef May 1, 2012 at 9:17 AM

Another lovely post, inspiring me to try bread-making once again – sigh…


Melissa May 1, 2012 at 9:53 AM

We should bake and break bread together.


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