Levain: the long rise


I’ve just returned from Paris. I am still incredulous that I can go to places like Paris on the train in less than 3 hours. My dear friend and bread twin, Amy, braved the international airways all the way from Washington, DC to meet me there. Naturally our goals were to consume bread in all its forms: baguettes, croissants, pastry… as well as to see all the art. Oh, how we ate! Oh, how we drank! Oh, how we saw! Oh, how we walked… and walked… and walked. 

2017-03-12 19.21.43
From the Pompidou’s escalator

Je ne parle pas français. 😦 I took 4 years of Latin in high school, so I can conjugate all day in a dead language. However, we managed with apologetic smiles, a lot of “merci,” Google translate, context clues, and pointing to the choux pastry we wanted to eat. Amy and I both felt strange returning to our respective English-speaking countries–mostly that we no longer need to greet everyone with an enthusiastic “bonjour!”

Despite language barriers and visiting France for the first time, my anxiety was in check. No panic attacks. No shut downs. I’m really proud of that. And I made a list in my brain.

Things that take forever, but feel like they aren’t supposed to:

  • overcoming anxiety & depression
  • being healthy after a bout of thyroid issues
  • making new friends, especially since I’m very introverted these days
  • starting a life in a new country
  • letting my bagels rise

We’re now at 11 months in the UK. Well, it’s more like 7 for me since I was away all summer. It’s like a blink of an eye. Emotionally it feels like it’s been decades. I finished my therapy sessions this last month. My therapist was incredibly excited with my progress–and I am, too! I got some new tools, and I’m feeling like myself. She recommended that I do something to celebrate. Another patient apparently bought themselves a new Mercedes.

My Mercedes? A trip to E. Dehillerin in Paris, a magical kitchen store where I spent some Euros on bagel equipment–including three 12-liter plastic containers for dough to rise in.

At E. Dehillerin

You see, I’ve rolled (ha!) my bagel-making into a small business that I call Bay-gel Bagels. Every Friday morning I sell sourdough bagels at David’s workplace, and I’m expanding to other studios in the same complex in Kentish Town. It’s been four Fridays, and so far it’s been fun.

The thing is: sourdough is slow. I start making the bagel dough on Wednesday. I have to knead for an hour. Then I have to wait 18 hours for it to fully rise. Then I shape them, and they need another half an hour. Then they have the boil for ten minutes. Finally they bake! The recipe calls for a bake of 12 minutes. My real life experience knows they need twenty-five minutes.

There’s even a French word for this long, slow sourdough process: levain.

There’s no cutting corners with time. Initially I only gave them a rise time of 8 hours–too fast! Slow down, Leah! They punished me by not baking all the way–there wasn’t enough air inside them to bake correctly, even though 8 hours is forever. It’s this crazy, internal structural design that yeast creates inside the bagels. The gluten has to be strong enough to trap the air that the yeast makes as it eats the carbohydrates. All the air pockets heat up to actually bake the bagel. If it’s too dense, it can’t do that. Sigh.

New containers! That’s 10 batches after 16 hours of rising.

And so I have to knead and wait. Knead and wait. Knead and wait.

It’s way too much like my actual life; but if I’m a bagel, there could be worse things. I think I’d say that I’m the “shaping” phase. I rose to where I need to be, and things seem to be headed toward me being able to do the things I need to do. If I were a bagel, that would be to be boiled and then to be baked.

But as a human, that means I’m starting to have the energy to make my artwork and to get it out there. I’ve sent out a bunch of teaching applications, but in the meantime I’ve gotten a temporary job as an arts administrator.

I arrived home Wednesday evening, rinsed out my new Mercedes-plastic-containers, and made 10 batches of bagel dough. On Thursday evening I lifted the bagels out of the boiling water with my new bagel scooper. I hope to better remember that life is a slow rise. It’s probably tastier that way, anyway.

Matersbier // For Lent, I decided to make a small drawing everyday about Trappist beer. When some monks fast for Lent, they’re given double portions of beer for the day. Trappist monks believe that the monastery needs to financially support itself, which can mean making beer and cheese. They’ll also make a beer they drink themselves called a patersbier.

I’ve co-opted images of monks at the 11 Authentic Trappist breweries. These drawings are colored pencil & ink on gessoed paper. They are the size of a square coaster (about 4″ x 4″).

Bay-gel Bagels // @baygelbagels // I’m having so much fun making bagels. I can’t believe that I’m making 60 to 70 bagels in one go these days, which uses 5.5 kg or 12 lbs of flour. Now all baking seems adorable when it uses less than 2 lbs of flour.

Paris with #MonAmiAmy // The City of Lights lives up to its name. Paris loves to let the light in. I noticed it with their famous French doors, which were always left open in our Airbnb. And that’s what oil paint does: it lets the light run around in the paint to let it glow. It was good for my soul to be in a city where art literally lives in the palace. (The Louvre was the royal palace until Louis XIV moved to Versailles.)

BONUS: Virginians in Paris!!! I loved seeing a huge exhibition of Cy Twombly, a painter from Lexington, Virginia, at the Centre Pompidou. There were also TWO fellow Fredericksburg-ians. First, a statute of George Washington on Avenue L’Iena. Second, a Gari Melchers’ painting in the Musee d’Orsay, an Impressionist whose home still overlooks the Rappahannock. I remember meeting painting for one of the first times there.

*A note… most of my photos are just of paintings, which is because in 5 days, we went to…

  • the Louvre to see Mona
  • on a Montmartre walking tour, which the neighborhood where all the Impressionists lived. I saw Vincent van Gogh’s window!
  • the Musee l’Orangerie to see Monet’s waterlily rooms–probably the highlight of the whole trip for me
  • the Centre Pompidou to see Cy Twombly and Modernist work
  • the Musee  d’Orsay to see all the rest of Impressionism and painting ever
  • and one general walking tour of Paris to say hey to Notre Dame

2 thoughts on “Levain: the long rise”

  1. Leah, thank you so much for your update. Great to see you getting back on your feet with therapy and bagel making. Say hello to David and I look forward to your next post. Aunt Kimberly


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