May 20, 2007

No one can quite remember why the bread was called José. ("Was it a Mexican/Catholic thing about constantly reproducing?" wonders Mom. "Or after a restaurant in Long Beach called Hungry José's?" Was it just because we'd moved to Texas, I query. "That bread that lived in our fridge?" asks Bryan. "I think the Tiptons named it.")

At any rate, Mom fed José faithfully through several years of our childhood and he produced bread every three days or so ("The most earth-mother thing I ever did for you," says Mom). José—a.k.a. sourdough bread—was spongy, light, tangy and much sweeter and less crusty than real bread. Mostly I can remember yearning for non-José sandwiches and picking my roast beef out to eat sans bread (which may have been around the time José exited our lives).

So I'm a little wary when our new printer account executive asks me if I'd like some sourdough bread starter (she and her husband boast a wood-burning oven). But I don't want to lose Tiny Kitchen cred by sticking to quick breads and the occasional focaccia. So the starter is duly delivered in a honey jar, and I receive a set of Big Kitchen instructions (a scale is a more accurate measure than volume; a bread stone improves crust texture).

But I make a Tiny Kitchen effort, feeding once a week, transferring to a Ball jar and then to a ceramic pitcher when I awake one morning to find starter runneth over the counter and under the toaster. After a month of travel I pick a Sunday afternoon for bread baking. It's a big commitment; once I pick the day, I have to count back three days to start fattening up the starter. And Sunday requires six hours of bread attending off and on.

I make a giant mess and throw away what seems like at least half of the dough because I can't get it off my fingers ("it should be slightly tacky," says my instruction sheet). There is little discernable difference between my "loose round ball" and "tight round boule" because neither is anything like a ball to begin with, and everything flattens just as soon as I set it on the counter. But my Tiny Kitchen oven has come through before, so I throw everything in and spray it with water.

And lo and behold, I have bread. Real honest-to-God, has-a-crust, like-you'd-buy-at-a-store bread. I'm amazed. Awed. I wonder why unleavened bread is a key to religion when clearly leavening is the miraculous part. I spend the rest of the week announcing to anyone who will listen, "I made bread."

And then I start to think of christening this little jar of starter. Tracy says I need a good Brooklyn name, old-school Italian, like Carmine. I'm not sure yet that I can actually refer to a bread—even a living, breathing bread—by name with a straight face (Joey the doughy cousin of José?). But I'm open to suggestions.