More tinkering with mixed starters. This time, along with the usual rye preferment, I decided to preferment the whole wheat portion of the flour instead of the usual white flour preferment. It worked out pretty well. Using two starters must be providing a greater margin for error because no matter how I tinker I always end up with something pretty good.
Adding the stiff whole wheat starter to the dough after the autolyse had one nice side benefit: it provides a visual indicator of kneading progress. I know that when the color of the dough is uniform I am just about done kneading. It takes a surprisingly long time to get to this stage, the stickiness of this dough doesn't help. But, once I'm there I know I can stop whenever I want. In this case I gave the dough a short rest and then kneaded another minute or two. I'll knead a little longer if I'm after a closer, more organized crumb.
Once the dough is where I want it, it's into my new toy/tool/best friend - the proofer!
Nevermind what this has done in terms of the consistency and predictability of raising bread in my House of Wildly Varying Temperatures, what really has me deliriously happy is the effect on my starter. No more slow, ever more sour, ever more painful decline over the course of winter. This is like a box of summer right on my kitchen counter! My starter rebounded with enthusiasm after just a couple of steady 70°F feedings and is showing no signs of slowing.
Then there is my latest fixation: mastering the tordu. I remember trying to twist some of the first loaves I ever made. The results were not very interesting (neither was the bread, as I remember) so I stopped twisting and stuck to more common shapes. Eventually I bought a copy of Tartine Bread... and there was the twist! It even had a name: Tordu. The loaves pictured in the book were even more gnarled and beautiful than anything I had imagined. More time passed and now I'm finally getting around to trying it. It's harder than it looks.
The trick, I think, lies in making it look like something you actually meant to do rather than something you simply failed to prevent. The really hard part is getting the loaves gnarled-up enough in the first place, and then getting them to stay that way. This may not be the best dough for the purpose but I'm not going to bake a bread I don't want just to get a shape I do want. My enthusiasm has its limits. These loaves show some twisty effect but not as much as I would like. The dough is a little slack, so much of the effect is lost during the final proof. A stronger dough might help, as would a really heavy dusting of flour just before the twist to keep the seams from closing-up. There will be more of these loaves - it's just too much fun to to give up on.