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Right From the Start : Celebrity Bread Is What Keeps Them Lining Up at La Brea Bakery

April 22, 1990|RUSS PARSONS | Russ Parsons is food editor of Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

IF PEOPLE LINE UP outside a restaurant, it's often because of celebrity chefs, celebrity architects or celebrity clientele--even, occasionally, for food. But the lines in front of Campanile and its adjacent La Brea Bakery, owned by Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel, are there for celebrity bread.

That may seem a bit of an exaggeration. Bread, after all, is the simplest of foods made from the most common of ingredients--flour, water and yeast, a single-celled fungus that turns sugars into the carbon dioxide that makes bread rise. Most bakeries use the same strain of commercial yeast, but at La Brea Bakery, the yeast is different--the yeast is the star.

There are more than 160 different types of yeast, most of them floating in the air. Some impart a wonderful flavor to bread, some taste horrible. Bakers once kept a chunk of bread dough from a good batch of bread in order to guarantee the quality of the next loaves. Modern yeast, dependable and neutral in flavor, is more convenient, but, some say, makes bread with less character than did its unpredictable ancestors.

At La Brea Bakery, Nancy Silverton's old-fashioned technique yields bread with character: Almost every loaf has its roots in a single 4-cup batch of sourdough starter that she created by soaking organically grown grapes in a mixture of flour and water, then straining out the grapes. The ambient yeasts from the vineyard went to work on the soggy flour, creating a sourdough starter that, four years later, is the heart of her business.

Silverton's white, rye and whole wheat starters are bubbly, smelly things with the distinctly sour, fermented aroma of bad beer. In the course of a day's bread making, 30-gallon barrels are emptied of all but a few gallons of starter. They're replenished three times a day with more flour and water. This is called "feeding" the starters.

When starter is taken from the barrel, it is mixed with more flour and water to make what's called a "sponge." The sponge is left to rise again, at which time more flour and any additional ingredients--herbs, nuts, olive oil, anchovies--are added to make the bread dough, which is then kneaded and shaped to form the final loaf.

Home cooks can make their own sourdough starter using packaged yeast. Silverton says that as little as four tablespoons of starter, kept in the refrigerator and "fed" twice a week, would work well for home cooks. Just remember to feed the starter 24 hours before making bread.

ROSEMARY OLIVE OIL BREAD 3 cups water 1 cup starter (see below) 10-12 cups unbleached bread flour 2 1/2 tablespoons wheat germ 3 tablespoons salt 2 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary 1/2 cup olive oil

In bowl of a large mixer, combine water and starter and stir to mix well. On low speed, gradually stir in flour, 2 cups at a time, until 10 cups have been added. Add wheat germ and mix at low speed for about 10 minutes, until dough pulls away from bowl and has a smooth, resilient texture. Add salt, rosemary and olive oil, and mix for at least 2 minutes. Remove dough from work bowl onto well-floured board or counter. With well-floured hands, knead dough until firm and resilient. Coat steel bowl with about 2 teaspoons olive oil, put dough in bowl and turn dough to coat well with oil. Cover loosely and leave in warm place to rise until tripled in volume, about 2 hours.

Punch dough down and divide in half. Shape each half into round loaves, put on cookie sheet, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Remove from refrigerator and let dough rise slowly and come to room temperature, about 2 1/2 hours. Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Dust another cookie sheet with wheat germ or corn meal, and gently transfer both loaves to second sheet. Using sharp knife, cut shallow crisscross pattern in top of each loaf.

When oven temperature reaches 500 degrees, fill small pan with water and put pan on bottom of oven. Put cookie sheet with loaves on rack in lower third of oven. Close door and turn temperature down to 350 degrees. Bake for about 20 minutes; then remove water. Bake for another half hour ; check during last 10 minutes to see if bread is done--when crust has turned deep-brown and loaves sound hollow when tapped on bottom. Let cool before slicing. Makes 2 large loaves.

SOURDOUGH STARTER 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast or 1/10 cake fresh yeast 1/4 cup warm water 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon water, room temperature 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Stir yeast into warm water and let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in remaining water and flour, 1 cup at a time.

Makes 2 1/3 cups.

Note: The above recipe calls for only half of this starter. Put remainder in plastic container and keep in refrigerator, stirring in about 1/2 cup each of flour and water twice a week so starter will be available when needed.

Starter recipe from Carol Fields' "The Italian Baker," (Harper & Row, 1985, $24.95).

Prop stylist: Rose Mary Aguayo; bottle courtesy of House of Props; herbs from Flourish & Garland Ltd.

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