Journey through the Book of Bread: I

We all have them, those kitchen dreams and gastronomic aspirations of greatness. Most everyone who’s ever made a meal, and actually enjoyed it, has at least one creation that taunts them: Try me. Perfect me.

The second one is where it starts to hurt.

so close it's crusty

Don’t label me a perfectionist too quickly though. I love experimenting in the kitchen even when the results are far less than perfect. Chalk it all up to experience, to I’ll never do THAT again. Throwing last night’s leftovers together with some pasta, marrying unlikely combinations up in a whole wheat wrap for a quick lunch, laying the contents of the crisper to rest in an impromptu omelette. But perfection, ah, that is an entirely different story.

It’s probably because of the simple fact that a person’s standards will rise proportionately to their experience. Climb a couple mountains and soon you’ll want Everest (or at least Temple.) Start drinking fresher coffee and soon you’ll want to roast your own. Run a few miles here and there and soon you’ll be signed up for a 10k. It seems this progression is part of human nature. It’s great to be an amateur climber, coffee drinker, runner, cook. In fact the word amateur is from the French for “lover of.” But I also think the desire for excellence lies dormant in all of us.

Bread has become my terminus ad quem, the Mecca to which all my baked things march. Over the last year or so, bread has risen to the top of my list of things I want to be really good at. The more loaves I attempt the better my ideal loaf gets. With mediocre and failed loaves jousting for rule of my counter, this process has paved the road to greatness with frustration. I tried a bread maker and hand-kneading. I tried recipes from Betty Crocker herself. I copied down meticulous steps from internet bread sites and researched yeast brands. My loafs ranged from sticky-gluey to coarse to bland. Maybe they weren’t all that bad, but through it all, something just didn’t seem right.

That was before I discovered Rose Levy Beranbaum, who has since become my personal bread guru. Since picking up her 2003 The Bread Bible at our local library, my bread joy has risen proportionately to the number of her loaves I’ve tried. I’ve never been so at peace with my Kitchen Aid mixer.

My first loaf was her Basic Hearth Bread, a simple, artisan-style loaf which came in rather handy for some impromptu vegan brunch company. The rustic dough was springy and supple and so tasty it disappeared before I could photograph it.

The second was a billowy sandwich bread entitled Cracked Wheat Loaf. With the addition of lecithin, it stayed tender for days. It was great for sandwiches and even better toasted. The only change I would make would be to soak the bulghur in less water next time to yield more crunch.

Because Rose’s recipe style is so well-researched and technical, I chose not to recopy her recipes here. Instead, this series of posts is going to serve more as a journal of my walk through the Bread Bible. It just wouldn’t seem right to try to represent her massive work here: her breadth of scientific and artistic knowledge, evidenced through meticulous instruction on pre-fermenting, mixing, dividing, shaping, slashing, glazing, cooling, slicing and storing, is just better done on the pages of a book.

Opening with the invitation, “this is my bread biography,” Rose chronicles her love of something so simple, something that most of us take for granted, packaged and neatly sliced on the shelves of the superstores. Any cookbook author who writes “Could it be that I’m only completely happy now when a bread is happening somewhere nearby?” deserves my allegiance, if not for her techniques alone, at least for her sense of the life of food. Her invitation to find a favorite recipe, vary it a little, re-type it in your own words, and share with others as “your bread” made me feel an instant kinship with her. She notes that bakers say “the sound of the crust crackling as it cools is the bread’s song.” When I heard this sound coming from my first loaf of Basic Hearth Bread like a cozy campfire (see below) I was surprised. I was delighted to find out later that it’s a sign of a bread well done.

If you are interested in not just baking but truly understanding bread, I highly recommend her book. Look for it at your local library (a great place to help break a cooking rut without breaking your wallet) or bookstore. You won’t be disappointed.

listening to the bread's song

Spoony Sundays #3 (or how to chop an onion)

I’ve learned a lot through this blog. It’s kind of like getting a pet– it changes your life significantly less than having a baby, but you still have to adapt. You have to feed it posts for it’s healthy growth, and make sure they’re quality ones, like Purina Puppy Chow. You have to make sure it’s loved and looked after, and give it plenty of fresh air.

nervous throat clearing, onset of feelings of failure

I’m currently “spring breaking” with family and friends in Canada, and have thus been unable to post a proper Spoony Sundays post involving hours of chopping, salivating, and food photographing. Because of this hiatus from my kitchen, I’ve had to feed my blog a little treat instead of its full serving of essential nutrients:

A technique post! Besides, doesn’t every good soup start with a properly chopped and fragrantly sauteed onion?

After all these years, working alongside chefs and experimenting in my own kitchen, and I have just recently learned this. Some of you may scoff, having figured out this technique long ago, but I hope it’s as helpful for some of you as it has been for me. I’ve also learned that a sharp knife is the key to a less, shall we say, emotional performance. A dull knife actually disturbs an enzyme which produces a gas which mixes with your tears and produces a painful acid. I guess it boils down to a choice — get yourself some good knives or an emotionally repressed partner to do your chopping. (I’ve got both.)