You Gotta Love Happy Accidents

Shown above are the remnants of my latest bake. I made three batches of dough yesterday for baguettes, 3 rustic sourdough loaves and two Poillane-style “hugs,” which are the two loaves in front. They’re about a foot in diameter!

The first two dough batches went without incident, but when it came to the hugs, while the dough was mixing, I noticed that it wasn’t coming off the sides. Then I realized that I used the wrong calculation for water! I used way too much for that formulation and the dough – if you could call it that – was like a thick pancake batter.

Now I could’ve added flour to thicken the dough to the right consistency. But to tell the truth, that has never worked out very well for me. So I decided to go with it and challenge myself to work with a super-high hydration dough. By my calculation, the hydration only got bumped up to 80%. But because the flour blend I used was 60% AP flour, it felt more like the consistency of an 85%+ hydration dough. So given that, I knew that developing the gluten was going to make or break that bake.

Initially, I resolved to employ a 6-fold folding schedule over three hours ala Tartine. But after the first fold, which was more like running my hands through batter, I realized that I’d probably have to do more folding sessions. In the end, I only had to fold the dough 8 times over the course of three hours, doing the last four folds in 20-minute intervals for the back half of the three hours. I then let the dough rest for another hour to let the starter yeasts do their thing, then I popped my container into the fridge for an overnight rest.

What was truly amazing was witnessing first-hand the dough transform from a batter to a well-formed, well-structured dough! As I performed my folding sessions, I could feel how the gluten was developing. At this hydration, it was never going to be stiff, but I could tell that it was strong by the time I finished the last fold. I was able to stretch the dough with the window-pane test with nary a tear!

Twelve hours later, I removed the dough from my retarder fridge and saw that it had more than doubled, with nice, large pockets of fermentation. Preshaping was a bit of a challenge because the yeast was pretty active as you can see in the photo below.

But what was truly incredible was how the dough balls maintained their structure while they rested. Yes, they spread out a bit, which was to be expected, but they didn’t become pancakes. Mind you, with the dough being predominantly AP flour, had I not spent that time developing the gluten, they would’ve collapsed easily.

I could tell that I was getting close to full fermentation, so I did a cold final fermentation for another 4 hours. I’m glad I did this because had I let the final fermentation go at room temperature, I would definitely over-ferment the loaves. In the end, the loaves were very close to full fermentation, but despite that, I still got pretty good oven spring.

The thing that concerned me the most was with the size of the loaves – which I knew would bake out to about a foot in diameter – was that at that hydration, they’d collapse under their own weight. And within the first few minutes of baking, I was horrified to see how they had pancaked out on my stone. But I trusted the steam to do its work and the yeasts to play out – besides, at that point, what the hell could I do?

But the loaves sprung up nicely despite my initial concerns and while I wasn’t expecting a super-open crumb with huge holes, the crumb opened up nicely; looking very much like a Poillane-style loaf inside.

As far as taste is concerned, these loaves are nicely sour, though not overpoweringly so, despite the starter being about 35% of the final dough flour. The crust is thin and crispy and the crumb is light, chewy and moist. With 40% of the flour being a mix of white whole wheat and high-extraction flour, you can taste the nuttiness of the grain as well. Overall, this is a flavor profile that I really enjoy.

So… all in all,

Here’s the original formula, in case you’re curious:

Baker’s %Example (g)
Flour100%1153
Water76%828*
Salt1.8%24
Starter35%407
Total2412
*The “mistake” I made was that I used 928g of water that pushed hydration over 80%. Damn! I wasn’t even drunk! 🙂 Even for experienced bakers, that hydration level with AP flour is a real challenge!

I know… 2412 seems like a weird number, but I always add a process loss fudge factor of 1% to my calculations because I know that I’ll lose dough in the process. My idea was to be able to scale out 1200g portions. With this particular bake, I only lost 4 grams, so the portions were 1204g apiece.

For folding, as I mentioned above, I did 8 folds in a 3-hour period. Because the dough was so delicate, I did nothing but coil folds. But as opposed to folding one side, turning 90-degrees, then doing the other side and letting it rest after that, I’d coil fold at least 3 times, carefully stretching the dough. After the final folding session, the dough held up quite nicely. I knew it was going to spread out eventually, but it more or less held its shape for several minutes. It was a real feel thing.

Luckily for me, the loaves turned out great. It truly was a happy accident!

Coil Fold vs. Stretch & Fold: Which One to Use?

Before I start the discussion, let me say this: This isn’t a discussion meant to argue that one is better than the other, nor will I suggest you use one folding technique exclusively. But what I will say that at least in my experience, the folding technique you use depends on the bread you’re making, and it will affect the type of container you use for fermentation, though I realize many bakers prefer to do their folding on their bench.

So I have a rule-of-thumb with respect to the type of folding I do: If I’m using whole grain flour at or above 20%, or if my dough contains inclusions such as cheese or nuts or dried fruit, I will invariably use coil folds. The reason for this is that it is much gentler on the dough and the particles of inclusion material or bran have less of a chance of tearing the dough. Otherwise, I’ll just do regular stretch and folds.

Now that’s the kind of general rule-of-thumb I use. But the reality is that as of late, once my dough becomes pretty gassy, I tend to do coil folds for my final sets, irrespective of inclusions or whole grain. I do my best to retain the gases as much as possible especially with naturally leavened bread. I don’t want to ruin all the work the wild yeast has done.

The exception to this is when I do yeasted breads, such as baguettes. I will always do stretch and folds with a dough that uses commercial yeast. The reason for this is that it’s fast-acting and once activated very active, so I’m less concerned about degassing the dough and can be a little more assertive with it. Those little buggers will just pick up and fill the dough wtih CO2.

I realize that this is nothing groundbreaking, especially for experienced bakers. And this entry, as most of my non-recipe entries – is more of a reminder for me to practice what I just preached.

Happy Baking!

The Yin-Yang of Artisan Baking

In ancient Chinese philosophy, the Yin and the Yang denote a duality in life; how seemingly opposite forces can actually be connected and interdependent. In physics, this can be expressed as Newton’s Third Law that states the for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction.

Back when I was in high school physics class, my teacher gave us a word problem describing a boat with a single sail, and at the stern of the boat, sat a wind machine that could generate enough force to fill the sail and move the boat.

Mr. Calvelli, my physics teacher, went on to elaborate on the weight of the boat and the friction of the hull against the water. Then he asked a simple question: How much force must be generated by the wind generator to move the boat?

It was obviously a trick question because of Newton’s Third Law. No matter how hard the wind generator worked, or how efficient the sail was (it was assumed it was 100% efficient), the boat would stay in place because the force of the wind blown forward would be negated by the force that would propel the boat backward.

Sorry, I was reminiscing and took a detour… So what does this have to do with baking bread?

I’m actually going to turn to other anecdotal experience for this. I spent the better part of the first half of my life studying martial arts. I then moved onto – believe it or not – ballet, which I did for about 10 years. In studying both disciplines, there was a yin-yang nature that always fascinated me. On the one hand, I had to be absolutely focused on what I was doing at the time (yin). But on the other, I had to be completely aware of everything outside of me (yang).

When I started getting into making artisan bread, I realized that to master the craft, I had to apply that focus-awareness type of approach to my baking. Take mixing ingredients for example. On the outside, it’s a simple, pedestrian step. But it’s not enough to just go through the motions of getting the ingredients together. You have to be aware of how the mixing will affect the dough further into the process.

For instance, yesterday I mixed ingredients for two different types of bread. The first was a roasted garlic levain bread, the second was a traditional long-fermentation sourdough. I used the exact same flour blend for both bread, and they both had the same hydration at a little over 70%. But I mixed them completely different.

The garlic loaf used both levain and a tiny bit of yeast, so I fully mixed and did initial kneading with my mixer. With the traditional sourdough, which used nothing but natural leaven, I was much more gentle and mixed to a shaggy mass, then did stretch and folds over the course of a few hours. Both mixing actions required absolute focus to get the dough to the right state. But at the same time, I had to be cognizant and aware of what I’d have to do following those actions. So… yin and yang.

Though I used mixing as an example, it applies to every step of the process. Of course, this could be extended to other things out of bread-making, but I’ll stick with bread-making…

I can’t stress the criticality of this yin-yang in bread-making. With respect to focus, it’s not about concentrating on something to the exclusion of everything else – that would defeat awareness of other things. But at the same time, it’s not letting yourself get distracted. On the other side of things, we need to be simultaneously aware of our surroundings and our dough and respond to the infinite variables.

So what’s the point of all this?

Simply that for those of us who’ve immersed ourselves in the craft, it’s not about just crafting a single loaf, but the same kind of loaf consistently. As Bruce Lee put it…

I fear not the man who has practiced ten-thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten-thousand times.

~Bruce Lee

To put a finer point on it, in “Bread,” Jeffery Hamelman wrote:

…if we acquire the skill to make a dozen or a hundred or a a thousand loaves, the next level of proficiency is to be able to make them consistently. And that for both the professional and the home baker, is probably the greatest challenge: to be able, day after day, to adjust to the specific needs of the day’s doughs, to factor in and accomodate the slight changes in ambient temperature and humidity, as well as the degrees of ripeness of the poolish or biga or soudough and the tolerance of the dough during fermentation…

~Jeffery Hamelman

It’s fine to say this, but the backdrop is this idea of the yin-yang of making bread.

Happy baking!

BTW… I’ve been writing this entry while baking and I just pulled the garlic loaves out of the oven! The traditional sourdough loaves have at least another day in my retarder.

I’ll provide a recipe later on, but I adapted it from Jeffery Hamelman’s book, “Bread.” His recipe uses bread flour, but I used a high-extraction/AP flour blend.

Engaging the Five Senses

It was supposed to be a batard… 🙂

I’ve been baking bread for over 40 years, but I haven’t really taken it seriously until this past year. My only goal up to that point was to create something edible. Take, for instance, the loaf pictured above. It was absolutely delicious. But I remembered thinking it didn’t look right. It completely conformed to the shape of my Dutch oven. It was supposed to be a batard! But it exploded in my pot probably due to it being under-fermented.

My wife, ever supportive of my new passion, told me that it didn’t matter as long as the bread tasted good. But I showed her pictures from Ken Forkish’s “Flour Water Salt Yeast” and said that I wanted to make bread that looked like the bread in the pictures and further explaining that as an artist (I’m a part-time professional musician), aesthetics are important to me.

After that conversation, I put my foot down and decided to not only make bread that tasted good, but it had to look good as well.

But since then, I’ve evolved my sense of aesthetics. Now, I feel as if a successful bake is one in which the bread appeals to all five senses.

Sight – I’ve broken down the visual sense into two categories: 1) Similarity to the archetype of the loaf I’m creating and; 2) General visual appeal, or how appetizing the loaf looks. For the first item for example, do the baguettes I made look like what I expect baguettes to look like. The second one is easy. Does it look good?

For example, look at the loaves above. Both are sourdough batards. If I placed the two side-by-side for consumption, I’m willing to bet that the loaf on the left would be cut into first for the simple reason that it just looks better than the loaf on the right that has collapsed (it was over-proofed).

Visual appeal is important to me at this stage in the game. A “hug” should look like a hug. A ciabatta should look like ciabatta and have a beautiful, open crumb.

Touch – What does the loaf feel like? Again, does the loaf feel like it should? For hearth bread, even for large loaves, when I pick one up, I want them to feel lighter than what my eyes tell me. Take the batard on the left above. That loaf weighed over two pounds. It was a big loaf. But when I picked it up, it felt light and airy. The crumb reflected that:

Not only that, the texture of the crumb was spongy and soft – and I was even using a predominance of whole wheat and high-extraction flour!

Aroma – Pretty much any homemade bread smells great coming out of the oven. But I found so much complexity in aroma by using a blend of different flour. To me, there’s nothing like the aroma of whole grains when they’ve been subjected to high temperature.

Taste – Though they’re not listed in any particular order, I purposely didn’t list taste first because it’s kind of a given. And frankly, similarly to wine, taste goes along with aroma. As with aroma, what I strive for with my bread is a complexity in flavors. And since there’s technically on three ingredients in naturally leavened bread, achieving complexity is a system of trade-offs.

For instance, because I use a healthy percentage of whole wheat and high-extraction flour (typically 10% whole wheat, 50% high-extraction) in my flour blend, my loaves generally don’t have a super-open crumb. I also tend to bake my loaves more aggressively to ensure good caramelization of the sugars on the crust (though I do my best not to take things out to black).

A more “aggressive” bake

Sound – This one isn’t as apparent as the others. But when I pick up a loaf and give it a light squeeze, I want to hear the bread sing as the crust gently crackles beneath my fingers. I also listen to my loaves as they cool and expect an occasional crackle as the loaf contracts and the crust cracks. It’s a sign that the crust is crispy, but also has some give in it.

There’s really nothing like that sound!

The Law of Necessity

If you’re like me, you spend a bit of time going through recipes and lurking or participating in online forums. You will often see pictures or read about different kinds of equipment people will use to bake their bread. In turn, you will be compelled to get that gear.

Don’t. At least not immediately.

As with written recipes where the timings are highly dependent on the kitchen environment, in many cases, the equipment people use is congruent with their other gear or their own personal processes.

For instance, I recently read about someone who invested in a KitchenAid 8-quart commercial mixer. They were complaining that their hook wasn’t working very well on the little 500-grams of flour recipe that they were using. When queried about their baking volume, they admitted that they only baked one loaf at a time every week or so. I’m not sure about anyone else who read that post, but it got a bit of chuckle from me. Talk about overkill!

But it’s not an isolated incident. I’ve read or heard about similar accounts of people getting all sorts of items that they report they never use or are too much for their needs. People spending thousands on stuff! It’s crazy!

In the guitar world, this seemingly nonsensical (and expensive) urge to get gear is called Gear Acquisition Syndrome or GAS. It’s a compulsive response to seeing and hearing gear. It’s not just a one-time thing. I suffered from GAS for years, accumulating tens of thousands of dollars worth of guitars and amps and accessories. And the worst thing about it is that most of it just collected dust until I sold most of my gear off. But as a working, active musician, I kept a lot stuff.

When I really started getting into baking, I saw how I could fall into the same trap with baking accessories. So based on my previous experience with guitar gear, I made a conscious decision to only get stuff that I absolutely needed to get the job done.

I’ve read or heard about similar accounts of people getting all sorts of items that they report they never use or are too much for their needs. People spending thousands on stuff!

It’s not that I’ve completely foregone getting baking accessories. But I do a lot more evaluation on what an accessory will get me before I make a decision. And I really ask myself if I absolutely need it.

For instance, though my volume in baking has definitely picked up, and though I really could use a higher-capacity mixer, I’m holding off for now. One of the reasons for this is because I’m limited by my oven capacity. I can only bake two boules or batards at a time, and only 6 baguettes. Technically, I could get another baking stone and double my capacity, but that wouldn’t be fair to the other members of the family who might need an oven.

And speaking of a baking stone, right before I bought mine, I was baking entirely in a Dutch oven. But I wanted to make long loaves. And my family kept on asking me if I could make baguettes and ciabattas and French bread. So it was easy to justify getting the stone.

This all boils down to what I call the Law of Necessity which basically states: If I don’t NEED it, I don’t want it.

The qualifier of course is – at least for now…

It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature…

Back in the ’70s, there were a series of commercials for Chiffon margarine that featured “Mother Nature” and how she could be fooled by the margarine being butter. Her tagline was, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Here’s one of the commercials:

Well, you might be able to fool Mother Nature with margarine, but you can’t fool Mother Nature with bread making. She’ll make you pay. Badly.

Last night, I was excited to start a levain for some high-hydration whole grain loaves I wanted to bake today. I made an overnight levain and as of 7 AM this morning, everything was great. I mixed the final dough, placed it in my trusty Cambro container, then went through four stretch and folds the first two hours, before I’d do the final bulk fermentation of an hour-and-a-half. At which time I thought it would be a good idea to go to Home Depot.

I returned home just before my timer went off, checked on my dough and saw that it had doubled in my container. Nothing seemed abnormal. So I set up my shaping board and got my bench scraper ready and went to get my dough…

Which I then literally poured out as a liquid mess onto my board. F^&k!

To be honest, I actually laughed when I saw it come out. I knew there was no way to salvage the dough. It stuck to everything. And frankly, I didn’t feel like making pancakes out of it, so I just tossed it out. Oh well.

So what’s the lesson with Mother Nature? It’s simply that there’s no escaping her laws, especially the law of doubling. The job of the microbes is not to feed but to reproduce. They feed on the sugars in the flour, then split. That’s their nature.

Our job is to catch them before they consume all the fuel. But here’s the kicker: Right before they completely consume all the flour, they’ve only consumed half. That’s Mother Nature in action and you see it in the world.

Eutrofied pond

For instance, there’s a process called eutrofication that occurs in ponds and lakes where algae completely infests the body of water. Each day, the algae doubles, and the day before the body of water is completely eutrofied, it’s only at 50%!

The point is that with yeast and bacteria it’s the same principle. The point of no return comes fast. Very fast. Which is why you can’t rely on time because the yeast and microbes double at their own rate, so you have to physically check dough progress.

Had I not gone to Home Depot, I would’ve caught that the dough was rising really fast and shaped the loaves far earlier and all would be well. But I relied on experience that dictated that I had time. After all, I’ve made these rustic loaves dozens of times.

But looking back, I was using a different starter than what I’ve used in the past. This particular wild yeast has been super-active. But the thing is, I actually used less starter for my levain because I knew just how fast-acting this wild yeast is. Looks like I’m going to have to either use less to stick to my regular schedule, or adjust my process altogether and do things in shorter intervals.

We live and learn. Happy Baking!

The “Secret” Ingredient in Baking Bread

In the home artisan bread baking community, there’s a predominant focus and emphasis put on recipes and processes. That’s natural. After all, you have to know what goes into bread and how to make it to bake it. And there are lots of people – including myself – who are relatively new to making artisan-style bread and recipes are important.

But now that I’ve gotten much more experienced, I’ve come to learn that making artisan bread isn’t just about successfully making a single loaf from time to time. And it’s certainly not just about being able to successfully follow a recipe’s instructions. To me at least, bread really doesn’t become artisan until you can bake the same kinds of bread with consistent results.

The very word artisan implies that craft and skill are involved; moreover, it implies a certain repetition to achieve consistent results from loaf to loaf. And the results, in turn, reflect the achievement of a certain aesthetic. For example, if you think about an artisan batard, the general aesthetic is that it is an oval-shaped loaf that has an ear on top, with a crumb that is fairly open.

To achieve that aesthetic, you can’t just simply follow a recipe and expect it to come out the same every time. Granted, you could get lucky. I certainly have gotten lucky myself, especially when I was first starting out baking seriously. I’d see a recipe online or in a book. I’d follow it step-by-step, and it would come out gorgeous (well, at least I thought so).

That success would urge me on and inspire me to bake again. But more often than not, my next bake of the same bread would go seriously awry, and well, not knowing what went wrong or what caused it was as if I was a balloon and someone came up and pricked me with a pin! Talk about being completely deflated!

But I’m not the kind to give up. So I began to educate myself and do a deep-dive into the process of handmade artisan bread. With that, I decided to focus on mastering four types of loaves: Boules, Batards, Baguettes, and Ciabattas. Each would have their own flour formulation so I could affect different flavor profiles in each. And through the regimen I’ve developed this past year, I’ve gained the confidence to know that whatever kind of loaf I choose to bake, it’ll come out the same.

But as I was baking the other day and admiring the gorgeous baguettes that had just come out of the oven, I started thinking about how I was able to make baguettes – or any loaf – the same from bake to bake. Was it my process? Was it my recipe? My shaping technique? It was “yes” to all those questions.

And for that particular batch of baguettes, I actually had a fairly challenging time with the dough. My starter was particularly active that day and things were happening way too fast for my comfort level. And since I only had two opportunities to build dough strength, I didn’t want to have the dough fully proved before I could build some strength into it. So I made sure to do a lot more stretch and folds in each session to ensure that the dough would be strong. I knew that would knock down and degas the dough, but with the yeasts being super-active, I knew I’d get plenty of rise.

Then it dawned on me that what made this particular bake and other bakes successful was something related to my process but not necessarily part of it. It was mindfulness.


mind·ful·ness/ˈmīn(d)f(ə)lnəs

  1. the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.”their mindfulness of the wider cinematic tradition”
  2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

The one thing I came to realize is that I have to be constantly aware of what’s going on in my process at all times; in other words, being mindful of the various nuances and gotchas that could occur during a baking process. And as with anything in life, if you’re not aware of what’s going on with what you’re doing and what’s going on around you, it’s going to affect your success, and oftentimes, in negative ways.

Mindfulness allows us to respond – not react – to changing conditions; seemingly being able to anticipate exactly what to do when certain conditions arise. Reaction to an event or circumstance is almost always chaotic because when the event occurs, we have to evaluate what has happened then figure out what to do, and once we finally figure it out, it’s often too late.

Contrast that to responding to a situation where we’ve already considered the various permutations of things that could occur based on our awareness of current conditions. The action we ultimately take seems much more organic. We just make it happen. There is definitely a life lesson in this that goes way beyond baking bread. I could probably write a whole self-help book on the subject. But I’ll just keep it bread.

Mindfulness also ensures we’re precise in what we do. Especially with baking bread, making precise measurements is absolutely critical. When a recipe calls for 2 grams of yeast you need to be precise about those two grams. The reason is that the process’ timings are based on that amount. If you use too much, the process will be much faster as the flour gets metabolized faster; using less, the converse occurs.

Even with shaping, you have to be precise and deliberate. With shaping, you’re not just getting the dough to conform to a particular geometric shape. You’re building the internal gluten network AND developing the outer skin of the loaf. In other words, you can’t just roll up a piece of dough and expect it to magically become a baguette or batard. You have to be mindful of what the shaping technique is trying to accomplish and you follow the technique precisely, otherwise, your loaves will come out looking different.

Those are just two examples of the criticality of being mindful. I could go on forever, but I think I made the point. And to me, mindfulness is really the secret ingredient to baking bread.

My Dirty Little Secret

If I could point to one positive thing about this pandemic lockdown it has to be that it has given me time to master a few different styles of bread. I’ve reached heights of quality and consistency in my baking that I didn’t think possible just six months ago. Though I no longer use a Dutch oven and bake on a stone, all my loaves basically come out the same in appearance and taste and texture. And I’ve also gotten to the point where I know exactly what to tweak to get a particular result.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to brag on myself. But the plain fact of the matter is that I bake bread at least 6 days a week, ranging in quantity from 2 to 12 loaves. So naturally I get a lot of practice; not nearly as much as I would in an actual commercial artisan bread bakery, but enough practice to where I’ve developed a comparatively high degree of skill.

So one would assume that with all the bread that I bake that I have this super starter that I keep alive and have grown from scratch to give me my signature taste. But I don’t have one, and as I admitted to a close friend of mine last night, I really don’t have any intention of getting one started very soon. I know that I have mentioned in the past that I will eventually get around to making a levain, but the truth is, I’m having too much fun and too much success with my bread to even consider it.

So here’s my dirty little secret: None of my bread is made with a sourdough starter, nor do I in the immediate future intend to start and grow one. So there! 🙂

I used to think that not going down the whole sourdough starter route made my bread less “artisanal,” so I didn’t openly admit that I didn’t use one. I’d say that I have a culture in my fridge that I was intending to use. But truth be told, it has been sitting in my fridge for months now, and though it’s not dead (yeast and microbes go dormant, not dead), it’ll take at least a week to revive it. That’s a week I don’t want waste.

Furthermore, as I’ve dived deeper and deeper into the artisan bread making rabbit hole, I’ve realized that there’s really no formal definition for “artisan bread.” The only common factors are that it is made up of only flour, water, salt, and a leavening agent (with no chemical additives) and that it is handmade; well, at least the shaping part. Hell! Even commercial artisan bakeries use mixers for at least part of their process. 🙂 So I figured that if I’m meeting those informal criteria, my sourdough starter-less bread is no less artisanal than one made with a levain.

People have debated with me that a sourdough starter makes their bread more complex and nutritious. But as I’ve mentioned previously, I have spent a lot of time introducing complexity and nutrition through other factors such as flour mixtures and varying my pre-ferment fermentation times, among other things.

I think what “ruined” it for me using a sourdough starter was my focus on developing my poolish technique. Once I figured out that if I vary the fermentation times of the poolish, I could affect different flavor profiles in my bread and also introduce other by-products like amino acids and enzymes that make the bread more digestible, on top of adding flavor, so the whole sourdough being more nutritious argument kind of went out the window.

After that, I kind of lost my aspiration to make a sourdough starter. BUT, I’m excited to say that I also recently started using a Pâte Fermentée, or old dough technique with my baguettes where I reserve some of the dough from the previous day’s bake to kickstart the current day’s dough. I have to do write-up on it once I’ve worked out the process, but so far, it works marvelously!

So… Sourdough starter? We don’t need no stickin’ sourdough starter. And there’s my dirty little secret! Nee-nee nee-nee neeeee-neeeeee!

It’s Memory, Not Vanity

A friend of mine asked me why I write the blogs that I write. To answer that, I have to go into a little bit of a back story. I already have a fairly popular blog called GuitarGear.org that I started over 13 years ago. It’s still going strong, but I really don’t contribute to it that much any longer. Though for several years, it was one of the more popular guitar-gear-related sites and I was going lots of reviews. Then there’s the recent conversion of this site from a vanity free-for-all blog to one that’s focused almost entirely on bread making. In both cases, I’ve used the blogs to record things I would learn and document processes. But in the case of this blog, it’s a little bit more than that.

You see, I’m pushing 60. Truth be told, I now have more years behind me than I have left. It’s life and I’ve lived a great life. But especially in the last few years I’ve come to notice something: I’m losing my memory. I have to write down practically everything nowadays lest I forget something. I have to be in regular contact with people for me to remember their names when I see them – unless they’re close family or friends where their visage and spirit are etched in my brain. And as you can probably tell since I’m writing about it, I know that it’s happening. I’m completely aware that my memory is eroding.

Does it bug me? Not nearly as much as you might think. The reason is that I’m still able to retain memories of things that are important to me, such as details in my professional life and people and places that have been part of my life, shaping who I am as a person. What I’ve started losing is my memory of the mundane.

It’s almost as if my brain knows I’m starting to butt up against my memory capacity, so it says, Hmm… not really too impactful… We’ll keep it there for a few days, then just let it go or replace it with another mundane memory. It’s as if my brain created what is known in software engineering as a FIFO buffer, which stands for first-in-first-out. It’s a construct of limited size where the oldest thing placed in the space is always the first thing to go.

Frankly, I find this rather amusing – at least for now. But in anticipation of my memory getting worse – and it will get worse – I’m writing everything down that I’m learning about bread making, and doing it in a way where I’m sharing or teaching because I found that when I do things like that, I remember them better.

Maybe I shouldn’t take my worsening condition so blithely. But I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it, other than doing my best to de-clutter my life, which has actually helped slow the effects a lot. But even all that just slows it down and doesn’t eliminate it. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll get to the point where I don’t remember much at all, but here’s what I do know:

  1. I’ve lived an amazing life.
  2. I’ve had the privilege to travel to distant places, literally halfway around the world
  3. I’ve been married for almost 30 years to the same woman and we have had eight wonderful children together.
  4. I have a cadre of close friends whom I have been able to lean on in times of need or provide support.
  5. I’ve had a long and successful career in technology
  6. I’ve had the freedom in my life to pick up hobbies like bread making
  7. I have my Faith and a community that helps nourish my spiritual needs

In other words, I’m completely grateful for what I have RIGHT NOW. I know that my life could end at any time. I’m not going to spend my days worrying over things that I can’t control. So if I’m losing my memory, I’m losing my memory. I’m not going to lay down in a fetal position and give up. I may not have as many days in front of me as I have left behind, but I’m doing to do the best I can with the days I have left – no matter if I can remember them or not. 🙂

Not Sure I Buy Into Science and Engineering Jobs “Losing Ground”

I read an article today that was published in yesterday’s San Jose Mercury News Business Section written by columnist Chris O’Brien entitled, “Key Job Sector Losing Ground,” describing how growth in science and engineering jobs over the past decade has remained flat relative to previous decades, and kind of being a doomsayer in that that flatness may have an effect on innovation. He does quote a researcher that said that perhaps that flat growth means a lack of demand for science and engineering jobs. Being in software engineering, I would tend to agree with that assessment. But I disagree that that flatness may lead to the possible constriction of innovation.

I think that the flatness is actually a correction of the excesses of the dot-bomb era. Even in 2007, there was a minor uptick in the technology sector, and several companies, including my former company, SuccessFactors, added LOTS of engineers in a very short period of time. Unfortunately, during a boom period, especially in technology, the focus tends to be on putting “butts in seats” quickly as opposed to getting the right butts in the right seats. I saw that at SuccessFactors, where we added lots of really mediocre engineers to our software development team. Most of these “engineers” were the typical, “code-first-think-later” code-monkey types. As a result, in 2008 when the economy soured, the company had to shed that excess and frankly, unneeded baggage.

I’m probably sounding a bit crass and elitist, but honestly, I truly believe that what’s happening with the technology job growth, especially here in Silicon Valley has more to do with companies being careful about choosing the right people to fill their employment needs, and choosing only those whom they feel will take them to the next level.

People talk about jobs being shifted off-shore. To me, it’s natural that they’d go there. Think about the jobs being shifted off-shore. I don’t think I’d be too far off the mark in saying that those are jobs that tend to be more maintenance and production-level types of jobs. The real innovation stays here. Even with my previous company SuccessFactors, despite senior management constantly saying that our engineering group was “global,” and always tried to blur the lines between domestic and offshore development, in reality, all the innovative work took place here in the States; and even new product development offshore followed the models and innovation established domestically. Plus their designs were always subject to approval from the US-based team. So in consideration of that, to me, this “flatness” is not really flatness. I believe it’s shedding the production and maintenance workers, and distilling down to a workforce of innovators here in Silicon Valley.

Call me insensitive, but as opposed to Mr. O’Brien, I’m in the industry, and have experienced the growth and decline of job number from behind the lines. Yes, I realize that I’m opining, but it’s not uneducated and not without experience in the sector.