White Bread and “Simon the Fiddler” (Novel Food No.42)

go directly to the recipe

summary: revisiting bread-making using commercial yeast and white flour only; Ken Forkish’s White Bread with Poolish; brief review of “Simon the Fiddler” by Paulette Jiles; Novel Food Event; sigh… late again; sneak peak at “The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen” by Jacques Pépin;

This recipe makes a palate-sparkling, almost buttery-flavored bread with a thin, crisp crust.

Novel Food No. 42

White Bread with Poolish

Eeeeeeek!!! I cannot believe I keep losing track of time. I had great plans for participating in Novel Food No.41, with several books to choose from, but one in particular that I was completely entranced by. And here it is, already past time for Novel Food No.42! One day past the deadline, but past is past!

I cannot stop thinking about “Simon the Fiddler” by Paulette Jiles. I could not put the book down. And yet, because of the sheer beauty, I wanted to read and savour it as slowly as possible. I found myself backtracking to re-read sections, before going forward.

Here it is, several months since I read the last page, and I still cannot stop thinking about it.

Texas. Just at the very end of the American Civil War and the months following. Before instant electronic communication, when men could still be conscripted into the army, when battles would still be raging in spite of the following:

Jeff Davis had already been captured and was in jail […] Lee had cashed it in a month ago at Appomattox […] Lincoln was dead at the hands of a demented actor. Why were they all still here?
– Paulette Jiles, Simon the Fiddler, Chapter One

Yet I cannot stop thinking about the fact that what is most memorable about this book is the music. The desolation of war and its legacy are pervasive, of course. Perhaps that is why the music is so heartbreakingly beautiful.

Listen. You can hear it.

In an unseasonably hot October he had been engaged to play at a barbecue near Marshall in East Texas, in plantation country. Horses were tied at random in the shade of the tall loblolly pines, among the fires and the drifting layers of smoke. Black servants moved with pitchers of iced drinks and men and women sat with plates in their hands to listen to Simon play “Jock of Hazeldean”; light and poignant strains so different from the war news, the tattered letters arriving from the ruins of Atlanta with accounts of its burning and its dead.
      Simon stood on a flatbed wagon and poured the notes out into the overheated air, unmoving, straight-backed, his hat cocked forward over his face. He had a high-boned face, bright hair, and light eyes and his music was enchanting.
      He knew that he did not play music so much as walk into it, as if into a palace of great riches, with rooms opening into other rooms, which opened into still other rooms, and in these rooms were courtyards and fountains with passageways to yet more mysterious spaces of melody, peculiar intervals, unheard notes.
– Paulette Jiles, Simon the Fiddler, Chapter One

It is not just the music from Simon’s violin that is captivating. Equally so is Paulette Giles’ musical description of the land.

      The night drifted on. The river sparkled, it was a light-bearing streak through the level country. A black-crowned heron waded with high steps in the dark shallows, intent on fish. An elf owl slid in a long trajectory over its surface. From far out in the brush they heard a water creature call out rum-jug, rum-jug in a low conspiratorial cry. […]
      It was a dreaming time; the long blue Nueces curving through this grassy country with a secret life of its own, and on both sides of it herds of wild horses stood together quietly grazing or sleeping. Wild cattle lifted their heads down in the brush alongside the river to hear the noise of the loping, scenting wolves, who ran with their noses to the ground searching for the smell of something newly born, something wounded, something old, something sick. The river fed the darting Guadalupe bass and its own gallery forest on either side. [Chapter eighteen]

But for this event we’re here for the food, aren’t we? And food there is in this lovely story!

They ate extravagantly that night, shoveling in the roast beef, boiled potatoes with butter, white bread, pan-fried squash, and an entire melon for dessert. Kitchen cleanup went on noisily all around them. The cook watched them eat, shook his head, and filled their plates again.
[Chapter Nineteen]

Last December, I attempted to make Ken Forkish’s White Bread with Poolish by following the recipe exactly. Ha. As if I know how to do that.

Then last month, I received another pleading request for white bread – no lumps, no seeds, no extras – just white bread, please. Considering that T’s skills in the kitchen are the reason we eat like royalty, I couldn’t say no, could I?

This time, I was diligent. I measured everything correctly and the bread turned out brilliantly.

Ken Forkish's White Bread with Poolish
Ken Forkish's White Bread with Poolish

I’m afraid we didn’t serve the bread with roast beef, boiled potatoes with butter, pan-fried squash, and an entire melon for dessert, but we did use it to make the most brilliant grilled chicken sandwiches to eat outside on our newly painted porch, gazing out at the sun-dappled greenery and listening to the robins, finches, and cardinals singing in the treetops.

Ken Forkish's White Bread with Poolish

We were so pleased with the bread that we made it again. To the letter, without any changes. It was even more brilliant the second time. :-) :-)

Ken Forkish's White Bread with Poolish

White Bread with Poolish

for one largish loaf, or one loaf and one large bun

Poolish (to be mixed the evening before baking the bread)

  • 250 grams no-additives all-purpose flour
  • 0.2 grams instant dry yeast (measured with our nifty Precision Pocket Scale (1000g x 0.1g))
  • 250 grams water at warm room temperature (approx. 22C)

Actual Dough

  • 250 grams no-additives all-purpose flour
  • 1 gram instant dry yeast
  • All of the Poolish from above
  • 125 grams water at warm room temperature (approx. 22C), divided
  • 11 grams sea salt (mixed with 25 grams of above actual dough water)
  1. Poolish: On the evening before making the bread: Put flour into a medium sized bowl and whisk the yeast in. Pour water overtop, and using a wooden spoon, stir to combine. Cover the bowl with a plate and leave in the oven with everything turned off (ie: out of draughts) overnight.
  2. Actual Bread: On the morning of the day you will be baking the bread: Sift flour into a largish bowl (enough for the dough to triple). Whisk in yeast. Add all of the poolish, along with 100 grams of water. Use a dough whisk (or wooden spoon) to mix until the dough pulls away from the bowl and the flour is pretty much encorporated. Cover the bowl with a plate and leave on the counter for about half an hour.
  3. Adding the salt and “kneading”: Use one of your hands to squoosh the salt and 25 remaining grams of water into the dough; use the other hand to steady the bowl – this way you always have a clean hand. At first the dough might be a bit messy and seem like it’s coming apart. Persevere. Suddenly, it will seem more like dough than separated glop. Keep folding it over onto itself until it is relatively smooth. Cover the bowl with a plate and leave to rest for about 30 minutes.
  4. Stretching and Folding: Turn the bowl as you fold and re-fold the dough from the bottom and into the center. You’ll notice that the dough is considerably smoother. Cover the bowl with a plate and leave to rest for another 30 minutes.
  5. Stretching and folding again: Repeat the folding step at least one more time after 30 minutes or so.
  6. Pre-shaping: Scatter a light dusting of all-purpose flour on the board and gently place the dough on the flour. Wash and dry the bowl. Use a dough scraper to fold the dough over in half, gently patting off any extra flour that might be there. Continue folding in half until it is shaped into a ball. Cover the dough ball with the overturned clean mixing bowl to let rest for 20 to 30 minutes.
  7. Prepare the brotform: Liberally coat the insides of a brot-form with rice flour.
  8. Shaping: Scatter a light dusting of flour on top of the dough ball. Lightly pat it to make sure there is no excess flour. With the palms of your hands, gently press the ball down to form it into a disc that is 3 to 4 centimeters deep. Without breaking the skin on the bottom, use the dough scraper to fold the dough in half. Turn the dough a quarter turn and continue folding until a ball is created. Now carefully put the shaped loaf seam-side UP, pinching the seam again for good measure, into the brotform. Cover with the overturned mixing bowl and let sit for an hour or so to allow the loaf to almost double. “Almost” is the key here….
  9. Preheat the oven: If you have been proofing the bread in the oven with only the light on, take it out NOW and put it on the counter! (Don’t ask….) Put cast-iron combo-cooker into the oven and turn the dial to 450F.
  10. Scoring and Baking:
    • To know when it’s time to bake, flour your index finger and gently but firmly press it on the side of the bread. If the dough springs back immediately, recover the bread and leave it on the counter for another 15 minutes of so. If the dough gradually returns back after being pressed, it’s ready to bake.
    • Make sure the oven is thoroughly preheated before proceeding. Using oven mitts (again, don’t ask why I stress this…), take the shallow part of the combo-cooker out of the oven. Tip the bread out of the brot-form into the hot pan. Using a lame, sharp knife, and/or scissors, score the bread in the pattern you like.
    • Put the pan onto the middle shelf of the oven and immediately cover it with the pre-heated larger part of the combo-cooker. Bake for about 60 minutes in all: about 45 minutes with the hat in place, then remove it for the final 15 minutes until the bread is beautifully deep golden brown and sounds hollow when rapped on the bottom.
  11. Cooling: When the bread has finished baking, remove it from the oven and allow it to completely cool on a footed rack before serving; it is still cooking internally when first removed from the oven! If you wish to serve warm bread (of course you do), reheat it after it has cooled completely: To reheat any uncut bread, turn the oven to 400F for 5 minutes or so. Turn the oven OFF. Put the bread into the hot oven for about ten minutes. This will rejuvenate the crust and warm the crumb perfectly.

For more complete details and explanations, please refer to Ken Forkish’s excellent book, “Flour Water Salt Yeast”.


Simon the Fiddler by Paulette JilesHere are a few more food related passages from “Simon the Fiddler” by Paulette Jiles:

“Here you go. You’re wondering when we’re going to eat.” He glanced at Simon’s lean body under the shell jacket and his thin face.
     “More like what.” Simon commandeered the box by putting his rucksack on it and sat down on the dirt floor. He was weak with hunger and the heat and was determined not to show it. He cocked up his knees and laid his hands in his lap.
     “Beans and cornbread. Sometimes hominy.”
     “It’s food.” Simon watched as the bugler went back to sewing a patch on a trouser knee.
[Chapter One]
[H]unger overtook him. “Where’s supper?”
     “Here,” said the color sergeant, and led them into the kitchen. “Sit down. Y’all are hungry, I know.” He held out an invitational hand.
     Damon and the Tejano and Simon got their supper from the cooks and ate sitting at one of the long tables in the mess hall like rats arriving in the dark. Roast beef, potatoes, light bread, corn pudding, a jelly made from agarita berries. Not a crumb or a rind remained when they were done.
[Chapter Three (agarita berries = barberry)]
They laid down their instruments on the stage, shoved through the hedge of laurel, and ducked into the kitchen. The smell of good cooking made them faint.
     There were four women in there: a black cook who was very thin, her head in a snow-white cloth, eyeing them distrustfully, and another black girl rolling out dough with a bottle in lieu of a rolling pin while two young white women loaded hors d’oeuvres on trays.
“Hey hey, we’re the music this evening,” said Simon and then they bore down on the food like Comanches. They ate a good third of the appetizers—bone marrow on toast, tiny meatballs swimming in a red sauce, herring in a peppered cream, tubes of rolled ham and the German Harzer cheese on toasted rye bread—in the space of fifteen minutes while the cook looked on in astonishment.
The girl […] said, “Ummmm . . . I bet you don’t know ‘La Savane’?”
     Simon saw her lift a hopeful face to him and then she laughed a small laugh and looked down. She took out a pale blue handkerchief and fanned herself with it to cover her shyness, her embarrassment.
     “That I do,” Simon said. He paused with a meatball in the air. “My own version. I will play it for you if you keep the food coming. It’s in G-flat major.” Then his face grew abstract with inner musical calculations.
     “T’inquiete pas!” she cried. “It’s for me, homesick.” She lifted a floury hand. “For somebody that, so, he and me, we love that song together. He is in New Orleans. He is not here. Play it for me and I would bring you all the food you like.”
[Chapter Eight]
The shouting crowd carried them out into the hot air, where cabrito roasted slowly and tecomates with tamarind water were set out. Doroteo hurried to sit at an outdoor table and began to work his way through the dishes on offer: pulled pork, tamales, carne guisada and arrachera, salsa verde, a cake of tres leches.
     “This is real food,” he said. “Real food at last. Come, come, Damon, Simon, eat. Mira, these tortillas just now from the comal, fresh masa made this morning. Gold.” He closed his eyes as he ate. “Al fin,” he said. “Volvi a la vida.” He handed around the dishes. […] His smile was enormous over his pointed mustache and he had the shotgun leaning against the bench where he sat. “Eat, sit down, eat this.”
[…] [T]he tables were covered with barbecue, huge square tamales with fillings of pork and chocolate.
     “Come, here.” A young woman came to take Simon by the hand. […] She led him to a skillet full of Spanish Dagger flowers, thick and creamy, being scrambled up with eggs. She took up a broad leaf from the wild grapevine and filled it and handed it to him. Simon ate it all with his fingers. Eating flowers. He walked away with his hand full of another grape leaf and a trembling yellow mound of flowers and egg that smoked in the cool evening air. The air was full of celebration, color, and noise.
[Chapter Seventeen (dagger flowers = aloe yucca; arrachera = skirtsteak; carne guisada = beef stew)]
[T]hey camped where others had camped before them, in places near the river and under great live oaks so that their fires lit the undersides of the leaves all the way to the crown. Then there was a great bustling of mules and horses being unharnessed, men walking backward from tree to tree uncoiling ropes from their cold, wet hands for overhead tie-lines where others had strung lines before them. Somebody sang, Shady Grove, my little love, I’m going back to Harlan . . .
[…] The cooks dropped tailgates for working surfaces and there was a great clashing of crockery and tin. […] Every night big skillets turned out frybread and bacon, a man walked past tossing apples at people, one box of oranges was broken open by agreement with the owner. Freight payment.
[Chapter nineteen]

Simon the Fiddler
Author: Paulette Jiles
Publisher: William Morrow, April 2020
ISBN: 006296674X (ISBN13: 9780062966742)


Novel Food

Novel Food Inspired by Adam Gopnik’s 2007 article in the New Yorker in 2007, Simona (briciole) and Lisa (Champaign Taste) launched “Novel Food”, looking forward to “hearing interesting literary and culinary stories” from other food bloggers.

There are four kinds of food in books: food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.
Adam Gopnik, “Cooked Books: Real Food from Fictional Recipes”, New Yorker, 2 April 2007
I have eaten the first apricots, peaches, tomatoes and zucchini of the season: summer is approaching in the Northern hemisphere and with it, the time to launch a new edition of the culinary/literary event Novel Food, the 42nd to be precise. Novel Food is a voyage of literary discovery and a party featuring literary-inspired dishes contributed by the event’s participants.
      I invite you to join the event. I am looking forward to learning about a published literary work (a novel, novella, short story, memoir, bio, poem, etc.) that provided you with culinary inspiration.
– Simone, briciole

For more information on how to participate in Novel Food, please see Novel Food #42. (Please note that the deadline for Novel Food No.42 was yesterday, 4 July 2021…. :lalala: )

edit: Simona has posted the round-up for Novel Food No.42.


The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin (cover)

We’re in the middle of reading “The Apprentice” by Jacques Pépin. The section about bread making in the first chapter is fascinating. How much easier we have things now!!

Every couple of weeks, Mme. Mercier undertook the formidable task of making bread, a staple for the family. Preparation started two to three days ahead of time. She began with a leftover hunk of dough about the size of a plucked chicken, which she kept covered with water in an earthen jar in the cool cellar under the house. To that she added flour, water, and salt to form a soft mixture, like slurry, in the pétrin, or kneading vessel. The pétrin was made of carved hardwood and resembled a coffin in size and appearance. […]
      Making the dough was backbreaking work. The first slurry would be left to ferment and rise a little, usually overnight. In the morning, the fermentation would have run its course, and Mme. Mercier added fresh flour and water to the mixture to give it new life. She left the dough again for a few hours to activate and ferment, repeating this process, called a rafraîchi, or a refreshing, several times over the course of three days. Eventually, her dough became strong, elastic, and filled with pockets of air, which would burst and produce a wonderfully aromatic, yeasty fragrance that permeated the farmhouse. On the final day, Mme. Mercier shaped the dough into round loaves, saving a piece to store in the cellar as a starter for the next batch of bread. […]
      Mme. Mercier arranged her loaves like decorative plates on the high, narrow shelves running along two entire walls of the room.
– Jacques Pépin, Chapter 1: The War Years, The Apprentice

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen
author: Jacques Pépin
publisher: Houghton Mifflin, April 2003
ISBN: 0618444114 (ISBN13: 9780618444113)



This entry was posted in baking, bread - yeasted & unyeasted, bread recipe, food & drink, Novel Food, posts with recipes on by .

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1 response to “White Bread and “Simon the Fiddler” (Novel Food No.42)

  1. Simona (briciole)

    I was not familiar with the novel before reading your review: the excerpts you chose are intriguing. I get the sense the book includes many voices, like a choir, and some interesting foods too. I like how you describe the request for the bread and glad that the recipe delivered. I know all about not following recipes ;) Thank you so much for contributing to Novel Food!

    edit 12 July 2021, 18:11: Thank you for continuing to hold this event, Simona! “Simon the Fiddler” does indeed include many voices, but with one voice (Simon’s) being the soloist that binds them all together.
    I just realized recently that Simon is a featured character in one chapter of Paulette Jiles’ equally stellar earlier novel “The News of the World”. (It isn’t necessary to read the books in order. Both are stand-alone.)
    – Elizabeth
    P.S. Ha! I bet I know more than anyone about not following recipes! One of my most famous ones was to make stirfried Chicken with Almonds, but instead of chicken, I used fish, and instead of almonds, I used sesame seeds. :-) :-)


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