A challenging penultimate end to 2015 market season

A variety of Smittybreads prior to the Oct. 28 West Lafayette Farmers Market.
A variety of Smittybreads prior to the Oct. 28 West Lafayette Farmers Market.

The downpour of rain that had been forecast for the nearly season-ending West Lafayette Farmers Market yesterday failed to materialize. In its place a cold front blew the rain sideways and then finally out, like a gust of breath blowing out a candle. Meanwhile, I and a few other hardy vendors braved the cold, wet fury, hanging on to our EZ up tents with each gust as well as to our hopes that the day would not be a complete washout. Fortunately, it was not.

The miserable conditions fit my mood. After taking a week off baking last week, I was finding it difficult to get back into the swing. Luckily my starters were more enthusiastic. I started feeding my rye and white starters steadily last week, giving them once-daily, then twice-a-day feedings over the weekend. They were growing like crazy by the time Monday came around and it was time to start building the sourdoughs, sponges and levains for baking on Tuesday and Wednesday.

On Monday the weather forecast was ominous. Hurricane Patricia was over Texas and pushing a large moist low-pressure system up our way. Not know what the hurricane remnants would hold for us Hoosiers by market day, I left caution to the wind (so to speak) and stuck with the game plan that had been bringing me success up to the time I took a week off to go camping. I made the following:

  • 12 loaves of what I call Lafayette Sourdough, which are 25% whole wheat boules (24 oz each)
  • 16 pain au levain, which are 16-ounce batards, mostly unbleached white flour with a hint of whole rye
  • 16 baguettes (not sourdough but a well-fermented and very tasty white bread, again with a hint of whole rye)
  • 6 seeded sourdough oval loaves
  • 6 multigrain sourdough oval loaves
  • 6 40% rye oval loaves, also sourdough
  • 24 croissants, approximately half classics and half pain au chocolat
  • 30 sourdough rolls (bags of 5 each).

Admittedly, that’s not a lot of bread for a standard bakery, but for my home-based bakery, churning out three or four loaves every 30 minutes, it’s a lot, especially when you consider the variety of stuff in the list. Every bread there except the baguettes and croissants relies on the vagaries of wild yeast and environmental conditions, not to mention timing, accurate measurement and what I call baker’s mojo.

I could write a chapter on mojo. Besides confidence and knowledge, its the presence of mind to stay focused so that if something goes wrong it can be quickly fixed.

Example: I make pain au levain from scratch the morning of the farmers market. It’s 100% naturally levained, meaning it takes its own sweet time. The kitchen was 63 degrees, not unusual for a fall morning but cold for sourdough. I heated up the mixing bowl and the water and proceeded to mix at 6:15 a.m. with plans to bake at 11 a.m.

Turns out the dough was too wet, so I added 2 oz. of flour and mixed some more. It still was slack. At this point the mixer had been going four or five minutes, and the dough was surpassing the 76-degree mark I aimed for. Adding more flour to the mixer would risk damaging the gluten, so I turned the entire blob onto the work bench and proceeded to mix by hand. Anyone who has tried to mix 20 pounds of slack dough by hand can appreciate how difficult that is. I managed to work in another 30 grams or so of flour while getting in some decent kneading until it was manageable enough to lift into the fermentation tub in one mass.

Over the next three hours I folded it three more times, and the dough came together. By 9:30 a.m. it was ready to divide, rest and shape like nothing had happened.

So what did happen? A glance at my iphone told me that along with the cloudy skies and rain, the humidity had gone from extremely low from the last time I baked (during a prolonged Fall dry spell) to 98 percent by Wednesday morning. I had not taking that extra moisture in the flour and air into account, but at least I had the presence of mind to not panic and just work out the problem. The resulting loaves were some of the best I’ve made.

But by Wednesday afternoon that was all looking pretty moot. Half of the vendors or more took a bye, calling it quits on the season rather than risking a washout. Those of us who remained looked at the sky, exchanged grim smiles with each other and prayed that customers would eventually show up. At least one vendor’s tent collapsed in the wind, and they packed up early.

The market manager came by and asked my opinion on closing early. My view was we’d come this far, let’s stick it out and see what happens. After 30 minutes passed without selling even a croissant, someone finally came up and bought one baguette. Then another. Before long, the rain stopped and the temperature dropped, marking the arrival of the cold front. Customers began showing up in twos and threes, and before long I had a pretty decent run of sales that lifted me out of my funk and sent me home with money to pay the bills.

While it was the end of the regular weekly farmers markets in West Lafayette, many of the vendors will get together one more time this year for a pre-Thanksgiving sale. That sale will be from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday Nov. 25. I’m planning on bringing some brown-and-serve rolls, sourdough loaves and other goodies. Maybe I’ll see you there. Happy holidays!

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