“Poolishing” the Mirror. Or, the Strange Science of a Cast Iron Pot.

Poolishing the Mirror, author image.

“Poolishing” the mirror. Some of you may remember one of Ram Dass’s last books, Polishing the Mirror. He died a while back, of course, and I think by the end he was preferring to call himself by his original given name, Richard Alpert. He was a mystic, in many ways, of course, devoting more or less the second half of his life to his oftentimes intellectually compelling, sometimes quirky, mostly Hindu-centric, bhakti yoga style pursuit of radical compassion, service to others and a legitimately innovative introduction on behalf of the West to Indian-asian contemplative traditions.

But this post isn’t about Ram Dass. Although it may be said to include some contemplation. And a dash of my version of spirituality which, inevitably, arises from my mythological perspective. No. It’s just that I did some bread baking this week and anyone with a passion for baking or for that matter cooking can probably agree with me that making food, for many of us, inevitably involves matters of the heart. And soul. And spirit. I’ll leave it at that. And move on to the strange science of the cast iron pot.

Above, then, is my first home bake of a loaf of bread in years. Literally. It’s a very nice example, I must say – an attractive loaf. This one utilizes a poolish, which is a leavening device that imitates the sourdough culture by way of instant yeast. That is to say, you mix your favorite factory yeast with flour and water and allow it to do its thing for twelve to fifteen hours before using it to make your dough. The goal being to enhance the flavor over that of a loaf made without the fermentation period, as they call it.

Meanwhile, anybody who knows food can tell you that if it looks good it generally tastes good (with some exceptions) but that with bread, you can’t trust that intuition. That is, you can bake a great looking loaf that is essentially flavorless. You can even bake a loaf that looks great on the outside but has a disappointing crumb (the inside) – a crumb without proper substance and perhaps merely a hint of yeast and a tincture of cooked flour as a substitute for full-bodied chew and inviting, satisfyingly complex, bready breadiness, let’s call it.

Which tends to describe, if I’m being honest, the otherwise handsome loaf above. Crust? Sturdy, crackly, crunchy. Crumb? It demonstrates the perfect balance between air and substance. This bread looks and behaves perfectly. Except it lacks flavor compared to a bake using a levain. So be it. I’m glad to have finally conquered my nemesis with this example, namely, my notoriously pathetic oven spring. I can’t tell you how many loaves I have baked over the years (with the exception of pullman loaf and brioche) and none of them have exhibited properly professional oven spring, hence, their crumb was always too dense and the loaf too heavy for its size. So that the flavor was beside the point. In short, the power-to-weight ratio of my round loaves, otherwise known as a boule (French for “ball”). has always been fraught. How did I finally emerge victorious regarding oven-spring?

One of my earliest DOP volumes describes my interminable analysis of the sourdough process, including all my misery trying to establish and maintain a resiliently strong and biologically flavorful and aromatic so-called culture. In the end, after months, perhaps years, really, of bake after bake and mediocre results, utilizing all the combined knowledge of the ancients and the internet, things never really came together – my boules, on a good day, were serviceable but never memorable. They never seemed to get to the level of what I could buy at the bakery in terms of pizazz.

The solution? Long story short, I abandoned by cookbooks and availed myself of some videos of the entire process on Youtube (given the platform’s problems with censorship, they nevertheless provide a uniquely convenient resource). Well, first off, I eliminated the dubious contribution of the levain. I used the polish instead because that is a reliably energetic and bacteriologically neutral, let’s call it, leavener. I’d had energetic cultures that I’d created “naturally” but some of them stank. Yes, they clearly had undesirable bacteria despite their ability to generate gas. Or they failed to thrive. I’ll leave it at that. Otherwise, the long and boring record of my trials resides within the DOP where it probably deserves to remain.

Okay, then, I have the polish cranking away, I can see that it’s got good gas after fourteen hours or so, behaving as described with the top beginning to cave in upon itself a bit. And let me make clear that all this time I’ve been using the rocks and chains in the oven style steaming method, ostensibly to generate a substantial, crackly, crunchy and flavorful crust like the professionals. I used the polish and studied the videos (my go to cookbook had a description of folding and fermenting and proofing and pre-shaping and shaping that, frankly, I never completely figured out) on dough handling and my dough was, as I said, behaving to plan. Anyway, I’ve got the boule on the baking stone and I steam the f*cker and, yet again, pathetic oven-spring, argh!

One baker I watched demonstrated four different oven techniques with the same dough and I won’t go through them here except to say that two methods generated great oven-spring and an attractive loaf: (1) using a Dutch oven, and (2) open baking (no Dutch oven) but shutting the oven off for the first twenty minutes. Don’t ask me why the shutting off of the oven made such a miraculous difference. I don’t get the science of that. Suffice it to say that for the first time I tried baking my bread in a Dutch oven and, lo, success! No steam. I still used a baking stone, placing the crock directly upon the stone, but now I have the answer. I’d watched and read about folks who swore by the covered crocks and Dutch ovens and for whatever reason I resisted trying it. To me, it just seemed impossibly counter-intuitive to bake your bread in a cast iron pot when a professional bakery doesn’t. The loaves go in on conveyors, are steamed and bake at a reliably high temp, no fussing with individual cooking containers.

But the results speak for themselves. Whatever the science behind this is, I don’t get it. Not exactly. But I venture to say that it probably has something to do with the microclimate within the Dutch oven, namely, that the even heat radiating from the bottom, sides and top of the cast iron pot, in proximity to the surface of the dough, is simply a more effective way to activate the furious off-gassing of the yeast, top-to-bottom and all around and from outside in. And it keeps that crust from becoming too rigid too quickly so that the twenty minutes or less, perhaps much less – as soon as someone puts a camera inside the Dutch oven during baking we’ll know (and they’ve probably already done it) – the dough remains actively off-gassing before the yeast itself is killed by the heat, well, alongside the expansion provided by the evaporating moisture in the dough, that’s how oven-spring works. Whereas within the large cavity of a typical home oven, especially one with a fan-blown heating element like mine (which operates whether the oven is in convection mode or standard), must simply be losing something – radiant heat? – across the expanse, as it were.

Otherwise, somebody explain it to me. Meanwhile, I’m ditching my old sheet pan loaded with river rocks and a heavy steel chain and the whole idea of my worthless steam generator. Bye, bye forever. And if I ever go through the hassle of nurturing a culture again (oh, the feeding and the fussing, ugh!) I’ll be using my Dutch to bake the bread I make with it. I have to admit that I come away from my years of boule baking miseries not a little resentful regarding all the misinformation on the simple topic of what ought to be a simple, homemade bake. Live and learn, so be it.

In other news, as of yesterday, the book cover reboot has officially started. The Mothman Empress artwork is in the hands of Loose Leaf and we’ll see what happens. I’m both full of confidence that the team is solid and chewing glass at the possibility that things won’t work out. Such is the nature of the adventure. It involves risk. What risk? Well, it comes down to money. If we don’t get the cover 90% or so within the ballpark via at least one of the two iterations, then I’m screwed because I can’t reasonably afford to start again. And that’s the way it legitimately works, I get it: you pay for a round of two designs, you pick one, make reasonable tweaks and that’s it. Anything more and it will cost an hourly rate. Or the rate of a complete reboot. Which the dutiful reader will know I’ve endured once already. Which is fair, it’s how things go, it’s how the world works, it’s what risk-taking is and what being on the adventure is like. You win, you lose, you find yourself somewhere in between. But was the boon bestowed and brought back across the world division into the world-of-action? Did the magic happen? Does the outcome kick ass or fall flat? Yes or no?

I’ve done what I can, now it’s up to the ineffable influence of the muse. And the lucky circumstance of sharing a vision, or coming together, each with a vision, each contributing their own talents, their own ingredients, that ultimately results in tasty dough with good oven-spring and a compelling loaf of bread.

Bread is pure science, of course. The only luck has to do with your ingredients not being flawed to begin with. Have the tools, combine the ingredients, apply time and temperature and you’re done. A book cover? Well, I’ve always said that cooking is not an art, as often – too often – as it’s couched in those terms. Cooking is not a mystery. Cooking is a craft. To be learned. Talent makes for that extra something but otherwise, cooking and baking is something almost anyone can learn to do. I’m not diminishing a flair for cooking. Its as priceless as any other flair. It’s just not the same as art.

But book covers? Book production is a craft. Book cover design is an art-craft. (I don’t believe anything is purely within the realm of art because always there is craft involved). The art in art-craft merely communicates that ineffable and mysterious nature of the muse arriving, of the inspiration clicking, of the energies in our hearts and minds somehow synergizing with extra-special effect with those of the cosmos. It’s when the recipe works. On a good day, magical things happen. It’s not magical thinking, so-called, to think this way, mind you. Magical thinking is when you make unfounded assumptions regarding cause and effect. Make a wish and something happens. Sacrifice a goat and the crops come in, that kind of thing, which oftentimes makes mythology troubling, because magical thinking and superstition is sometimes part of one’s mythological orientation. That said, magic and magical thinking, even superstition, oftentimes has its uses, and the utility and sustaining nature of faith comes into play here. Faith in anything intangible generates its own unsettling complications. We need magic. We need mystery. We need to believe in something Other. It makes life worth living.

Rather than the magic of magical thinking, then, perhaps I am referring to the harnessing of energy; the energy of awe, a cosmology that supports that awe, a sociology that establishes mores and tastes and a pedagogical, supporting psychology. I’m talking about the four functions of myth. And how answering to or otherwise devoting oneself to or surrendering to or deliberately practicing or all of these things together sometimes indeed comes together in astonishingly fortuitous ways that we can’t fully explain and that we perhaps really don’t need to.

We are of this world, this cosmos. We are made more or less, literally, of the same stuff that makes up the whole of the universe. The same with a poolish and a levain and a cast iron pot and the mysterious magic of the biology of our consciousness. And whatever may exist beyond the biology and the science as we are yet to perhaps fully understand it. How then should we not have a place here? The Divinity, however you choose to interpret it or experience it or honor it, is within and without. Indeed, perhaps what we seek, as Rumi famously suggested, may indeed be seeking us. Even if it’s just a good loaf of home baked bread.