Baking Bread in the Dorms, by Jesse Meeks

9:40 A.M.
Before class I feed my starter, a flour and water mixture cultured with Micro bacteria used in making bread. I keep it in a metal water flask, a lesson learned from the pressure explosion of its previous, glass container. In the process I get a little bit of the starter on the side of the bottle, and on a lark lick it off. I taste the iron of the bottle mix with the acidity of the starter, a sharp flavor like someone made a blood and lemon cocktail. My mouth tingles and a shiver moves down my spine. It finishes with an earthy, yeasty flavor that leaves me craving two things: beer and sourdough bread.

1:00 P.M.
I have flour from maintaining the starter, and salt I can steal from a dining hall saltshaker, so the first real hurdle to my burgeoning plan is the Dutch oven I need to cook it in. My usual Dutch oven hookup, a friend who lives off campus, has already left for the summer. All his professors had their finals in dead week so as to avoid overworking there students. He’d been a wreck the past week. So it looks like I’m gonna have to swallow my pride and talk to my Dutch oven hookup, my ex. Things ended relatively amicably, relatively. When she sees me, I’m surprised by the genuine excitement on her face. She asks me how I’m doing and what I’ve been up to, and she actually wants to hear my answers. Suddenly I remember we were friends before we were a couple.

4:30 P.M.
A single bead of sweat drips down my forehead while I lug the heavy ceramic Dutch oven down the street, the sun roasting my neck, and the small of my back is sweltering where it’s trapped beneath my back pack. I go a half mile out of my way to get to the Washington street liquor store. I walk into to a store empty of other customers, which ensures that all the employees can give me weird looks as I waddle up to the counter with a Dutch oven. I spend a few minutes looking at beers, trying to look like I know something about them. Eventually I pick one that I hope looks like it wasn’t picked for its design. The girl at the cash register doesn’t seems as curious about the Dutch oven as I’d expected. I imagine that, this being a liquor store in Oregon, I’m probably not the weirdest customer she’s had today.

5:15 P.M.
Cracking one of the beers open, I finally get to work on the bread, measuring flour, water, salt, and starter into a bowl and mixing it into a shaggy mess with my fingers. One of my Roommates, Jack, comes in and I watch his eyes flick from the beer in my left hand to the bits of dough clinging to my right one. We don’t really know each other, he usually sleeps elsewhere and mostly uses the room as a closet. I’ve only really talked to him a handful of times in the quarter we’ve shared the room, so I feel vaguely self-conscious standing there. However we start talking, and it turns out one of his oldest memories is helping his grandma bake for their family in the early morning before his parents, older sister, and the rest of the world woke up. He tells me about the chocolate swirled banana bread and pecan maple rolls they’d make, about growing up in Portland and how that made his trips to his grandmother’s country house so special. These are the first personal details, besides his name and major, that I learn. But through the whole exchange he never stops stuffing clothes into his bag, and as quickly as he arrived, he leaves.

5:30 P.M.
In the dorms kitchen I pour out the mixture I’ve made onto a counter I’ve wiped down and floured. Despite the relatively significant amount of bread I’ve made, I’ve somehow managed to avoid getting much practice kneading, always had a stand mixer available to do the work for me. Combine that lack of experience with my failure to consistently work out and the awkwardly low countertops of the kitchen, and pretty quickly my forearms are searing with exertion. That’s when an angel came into the kitchen, in the shape of a conspicuously beefy Japanese exchange student named Migi. We awkwardly dance around each other’s personal space in the tiny kitchen before, glancing over my shoulder, he asks what I’m making. We talk, the two of us methodically finding English words we have in common, until somehow I end up watching him knead the dough. He works it with confidence that catches me off guard, rapidly and surely pushing it out then folding it back in on itself. He slowly explains to me how he was taught to work dough, and by the time he finishes, the dough is a smooth elastic ball, ready to proof.  I try to ask him where he learned to work with dough, but a soft language barrier and the harsh alarm of the microwave interrupt me. He half bows to me and politely exits the room leaving me to wonder what the hell just happened.

7:30 P.M.
It’s not proofing very quickly, but that’s normal for sourdough. Proofing, the process of letting a dough rest so it can rise and become light and airy, is generally a lot slower with starter then with baker’s yeast. Hopefully it should do a lot of rising in the next hour. Starting beer number three.

8:30 P.M.
Okay so mistakes were made, the dough has barely risen. I’m going to see about using the oven in the kitchen to give it a warm proofing environment and hopefully that will speed things up a bit. I’m hoping for it to at least come close to doubling in size, but that might be a bit ambitious at this point.

9:00 P.M.
Good news, proofing in the oven has done wonders for getting the yeast to do its job. Bad news, said oven almost ruined the loaf. OSU dorm policy towards alcohol essentially boils down to nothing over 15% ABV, outside your room, or in view of someone under 21. So to use the oven and continue drinking, I’ve basically been running laps, up and down four flights of stairs. Understandably I think, I may have slowed down the last 10 minutes or so. At which point one of my fellow students attempted to cook some pizza rolls within the oven, not noticing the bowl of dough already in there. Fortunately I caught it before any big damage was done, but now I have to contend with the repeated apologies of this other student.

9:15 P.M.
Well, hits keep coming. Little thing I forgot, the dough needs bowls to shape the dough for its final proofing. Bowls which, I don’t have. I’m on the prowl for some kind of replacement maybe my roommates will have something. The kid who almost ruined my loaf is tagging along, apparently they’re a huge Dungeons and Dragons nerd like I am, we’ve been talking shop. I should describe him, narrow would be accurate. He’s well over six foot and that only exaggerates the unique gauntness that only college students living off of instant ramen and Pop-Tarts possess. His face is just as long as the rest of him and his shoulder length hair only makes it seem more so. He’s wearing a plethora of heavy metal regalia, satanic rings and necklaces and the like. His gauntness means they’re all too big on him though, so it looks somewhat like he borrowed one of his parents jewelry. I’m realizing this sounds mean, I might still be mad about the almost killing my loaf thing.

9:45 P.M.
Okay, this is officially the jankiest loaf ever made. I couldn’t find any bowls of the right size and shape, but some RA’s had left over plastic top hats from a party they threw, which as it turns out, are close enough to right. I only had one towel to use, so one of the two loafs I made out of the dough is resting in a floured t-shirt. But they’re on their final rise finally, looks like I’ll be baking around one in the morning.

3:45 P.M.
I’m the luckiest unlucky person I know. Alcohol gives me weird fever dreams, so I’ll usually have a hard time sleeping through the whole night, which came in handy because I laid down for a moment and immediately conked out. On top of that, despite being three hours later than intended the loafs have somehow not over proofed. I’ve got the Dutch oven heating up right now. Barring an act of god, I’m finally gonna make some bread.

5:45 P.M.
Honestly, I give I’d give them a seven out of ten. They’re beautiful, the Dutch oven really does wonders for helping with oven expansion. Plus I think it helped make sure that temperature distribution was more even then one would normally expect from an oven this cheap. Its crust is beautifully caramelized, and the texture and airiness on the inside is great. My big issue is that it’s not actually sour. You’d think with half a day to ferment that wouldn’t be a problem but I guess something went wrong. That’s baking. The suns rising, I’m going to go watch it, with a slice of not-sour-bread slathered with butter.


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