Stepping into the bakery, you're met with a gust of warm air. The parking lot is covered in ice and the snow is coming down fast and hard in heavy, wet flakes. In the twenty seconds it takes to sprint from your car to the building, you're pelted with icy droplets. You stamp the snow from your boots and shake the wetness from your hair.
Inside you smell freshly baked bread. Yeast. A hint of sugar and spice, like someone's baking ginger cookies while slicing into a warm baguette. You're standing in a round room with high ceilings. The walls are blonde wood, the floor is thick, worn planks of the same. Tables are crowded with people: a family dressed in ski clothes, the mother brushing her curly hair away from her face while the father leans in to feed a bite of croissant to his tiny, chubby daughter. A couple sitting next to you holds hands and shares a mug of coffee. The smell pulls you in, reminding you of the early hour and the cobwebs yet to be shaken from your head.
You skirt the tables to stand in line. You can't decide between the porridge (steel-cut oats with flax seed, creamy with milk, sweet with brown sugar. Your dad used to make hot cereal this way. He'd scatter the sugar on the top. You'd let it melt into a caramelized layer, dipping your spoon gently into the top, knowing you should stir it all together but unable to resist each heavily sugared spoonful.) and the breakfast sandwich (a brioche roll, bright yellow and rich with butter, piled high with soft scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, and salty Vermont cheddar cheese. You like when the cheese just starts to melt, making the sandwich the textural equivalent of a lottery jackpot with gooey against crunchy against chewy.).
You're happy either way. You pick up a loaf of organic sourdough bread. The outside is golden and chewy, the sort of crust that requires a bit of force to rip into it. Inside, it's soft with just enough tang to make it taste more interesting than white bread. It manages the impossible: being airy yet doughy at the same time.
Later at home, you lightly toast a slice and drag a buttered knife across the surface. A shower of salt, and you sit down to inhale its yeasty scent. A bite, then another bite.
I wish I could bottle up this feeling: A winter's day, the warm and inviting room. The gentle lull of chatter from tables, the knowledge that you will eat something good and nourishing and then go watch the snow fall, hushed and white and silent.
I can't, but I can offer you this recipe for the sourdough loaf I ate (and will eat tonight with my sister's homemade carrot cake jam and tomorrow night with tahini and honey). I won't promise that it will look quite as beautiful as the loaf I picked up at the King Arthur Flour bakery, but sourdough baking is a worthy endeavour so I encourage you to try!
Basic Sourdough Bread
From King Arthur Flour
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups "fed" sourdough starter
1/2 cup lukewarm water
Combine all the ingredients and mix until it comes together into a soft dough. I recommend using a wooden spoon and then switching to your hands as it gets sticky.
Place the dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel, and let rise in a warm place (it doesn't have to be too warm but it shouldn't be chilly or it will take forever to rise) for about an hour, or until doubled in size.
Lightly grease a standard loaf pan (9" x 5"). Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface and press gently to deflate it. Knead lightly, shape the dough into a log about the length of your loaf pan. Pinch the underside of the dough and place it, seam side down, in the pan.
Cover the pan with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and let it rise for another hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake the loaf for about 45 minutes, or until golden brown. It should make a hollow sound when you tap the top with your fingertips.
Run a knife around the sides of the pan and then let it cool for a few minutes in the pan. Turn the loaf out into a cooling rack. Let it cool fully (except I highly recommend sneaking one warm slice from the end because freshly baked bread is one of life's great pleasures!).