The Reluctant Recipe Reader

The Perfect Loaf by Maurizio Leo
The Perfect Loaf by Maurizio Leo

My son likes to scold me. He says that I would be a better cook if I read the recipe all the way through before I start. If you have ever been to my home for a meal, you know there is some truth to this charge. Dinner at midnight, an impromptu visit to a fast food vendor, a suddenly cropped menu. These things happen to me when I finally get to the part in the recipe that says chill for 24 hours or marinate overnight.

For a reluctant recipe reader like me, The Perfect Loaf by Maurizio Leo is a challenge. The first 142 pages contain a single recipe for “simple sourdough.” The rest delves into ingredients and tools, technique, and the science of sourdough. To add insult to injury, I’m told not merely to read the whole damn recipe.

This recipe is a great starting point and if you’re a beginner, I recommend making it several times to hone the process. Once you’re ready, see How to Tinker (below) for variations to help you continue to build your skills.

Maurizio Leo, The Perfect Loaf (Clarkson Potter 2022)

Now, I have been baking bread since 2017. Each time, the result was perfectly edible though most of my loaves have had the heft and shape of a discus shot put. And this despite using recipes gleaned from Leo’s website, also called The Perfect Loaf.

Reader, it took me 7 tries at the simple sourdough recipe and reading all 142 non-recipe pages to create the loaf you see above. I got to say, it worked!

First contact

Bread baking is a contact sport and no recipe can reproduce the smell, taste, and touch of a properly fermenting loaf. So, while I began my baker’s life with a recipe plucked from the internet, it soon became apparent that I needed proper instruction.

Laila Nercessian is a friend from my youth and my first bread baking teacher. It was an impromptu lesson in her kitchen in the San Fernando Valley, frequently interrupted by long chats. She taught me to distinguish the smell of a healthy starter versus a ripe levain as compared to the dough itself. Check out Laila’s Levain, her school in San Diego County for learning to bake bread.

But San Diego is too big a commute from Amsterdam, so my second teacher came from the Bakery Institute here in the Netherlands. This Flemish gentleman was knowledgeable and patient, even after I sprayed him in the face with silicon. After making 18 loaves over the course of 2 days, I learned how bread is supposed to feel.

Of course, at a proper bakery, the ovens are outfitted with steam jets that pump moisture into the bread at just the right time. The recipe I got from my Flemish friend, moreover, includes a bit of yeast as an extra guarantee for a rise. My search for the perfect sourdough loaf continued.

Trial and error

Each recipe in The Perfect Loaf is tested in a warm kitchen in dry, high altitude New Mexico, USA. I bake in a kitchen in Amsterdam, the Netherlands which is below sea level, humid all year round and, given the current energy crisis, colder than normal.

All this affects my bread in ways I could never understand, let alone correct. The simple sourdough recipe in The Perfect Loaf forces me to quantify these effects. For example, when determining how warm my water should be, I need to do a little calculation, taking into account the temperature in my kitchen (ambient), the flour bin, the levain jar and whether or not I’m mixing by hand.

Simple sourdough recipe step 2

It’s not all rocket science though it’s a lot to take in. Did I mention that the simple sourdough recipe is 14 pages long? As I work my way through each iteration of the simple sourdough recipe, I learn that:

  • My proofing basket is too large for my dough, which causes it to spread and flatten,
  • A normal Dutch oven (deep side down, lid on top) inhibits heat from reaching the sides,
  • My starter really does need to be fed every day if my loaf is going to rise, and
  • Using the fan assist in my oven drives away steam and therefore also inhibits rise.

The next recipe

For an impatient cook like me, who thinks I can wing anything, The Perfect Loaf has been a revelation. Plentiful photos offer a visual guide and the QR codes lead to videos on shaping or scoring a loaf. The simple sourdough recipe reminds me constantly to observe my dough as it develops. How does it smell? Is it gassy? Does the skin feel thin and tight? No panic! Use the handy worksheet that can be downloaded for free from The Perfect Loaf website to make a note for next time.

I will confess: I did make another recipe before perfecting my simple sourdough loaf. The last two-thirds of The Perfect Loaf are divided into recipes for free-form hearth loaves, pan loaves, pizzas & flatbreads, buns & rolls, and sweets. A few recipes will help you use all that sourdough discard a daily feed produces.

And for my next trick? I like the looks of the recipe for Fifty-Fifty (whole wheat and white), Twenty-Five Rye, and Rosemary and Olive Oil. But now I’m thinking about going back to the good old simple sourdough recipe so that I can tinker. That is to say, try different flour types and/or add nuts or dried fruit. Who knows, maybe that one will turn out to be a perfect loaf, too?

23 Dec 2022 | Karen Kao