Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Essence of Bread

Ross actually reminded me, quite by mistake, that this post needed to be made. When we first got together, he had never (other than rolls for holidays, I believe, though anyone who knows about this should feel free to correct me if I'm mistaken) had home-made bread. Or maybe he'd tasted it but not so routinely that he remembered home-made bread as a thing separate from grocery store bread. As y'all know, I am not really an advocate of buying bread and have done so just a couple times in recent (last couple years) memory. And so when he wanted bread I would make a loaf. This started turning into a loaf a day, which is kind of a lot (in a good way!), and it occurred to me that if I taught him how to make bread, I wouldn't have to make it anymore.

Now, that sounds a little bit like I don't like making bread, which is absolutely not the case. I love making bread. I just don't always have time to make a loaf every day. Mostly I can't commit to being home long enough to do it daily. So, I decided to teach him how to make bread. He's not the first person I've taught how to make bread, but he is the first person I taught bread to without recipes. Mainly because my relationship with bread, after around thirty years of baking, had changed by the time I got him.

In my home growing up, freshly made bread was a thing that was part of daily life. My mother didn't make a loaf every day, but like most moms in the 80s, she was a stay-at-home-mother and that afforded her the opportunity to do things routinely that so few of us do now. Because she stayed home, very little of our food was processed, and we kids grew up seeing food being made and participating in that making. It's a thing I'm still thankful for, since my entrance to the kitchen started before I could even write in cursive (which I could do when I was 5). And my mother was, hands down, a really talented baker (I say "was" not because she's dead but because she doesn't really bake much anymore, due to physical constraints). I remember clearly the smell of her starter in the house, treasured and kept in the fridge in one of those absurdly tall mason jars with the flip and clamp lids (I keep my part of her starter in a similar jar, though not in the fridge since it gets used daily). I remember watching her bake breads, cakes, pies, elaborate tortes, cookies and donuts. I assume she learned from her mother, since I have some of my grandmother's bread recipes too. I remember my joy in helping her make these things that we would gobble down so quickly I often wondered (although I no longer wonder) if it was even worth it to spend so much time making these things when they were gone so fast. We usually had some kind of store-bought thing around, but it never had the traffic the homemade items did.

I remember when she went back to work, too. Suddenly, a pretty large percentage of the bread on our table came from the store, rather than from her hands. And you know what? It wasn't very good. Grocery store bread really never is though, is it? I remember when I moved out and got my first place, I needed bread, because I like to eat bread. So I bought bread. My mother observed this happening and gave me some cookbooks that focused on bread baking. And so then I baked bread and I bought bread. I baked bread mostly when I had one job (and when I was in school). I bought bread when I had three jobs. I didn't know about cold fermentation then, so it's no real surprise that life got in the way of my bread.

Bread baking was for me, however, despite this incredible legacy, about recipes. I did not bake bread without a recipe, ever. It never even occurred to me that one might do so. Oh, sure. I would take existing recipes and rework them into entirely new things. But mostly I was sticking with an established base and turning it into something new-to-me. There was creation, but not creating. Nonetheless, I was a competent baker. I moved away from breads and into pastry, and became quite good at pastry. But still, regarding bread I was merely competent. I could get (good) bread on the table. My mouth understood bread, and so did my belly. But my brain and my hands did not yet know the essence of bread. When I taught people how to make bread, it was with recipes. I never taught them what bread was, because I didn't really know.

And then one day, I saw that my favourite baker, who had already started the process for me through which I learned about the essence of bread, Peter Reinhart, was opening up slots to be a recipe tester for an upcoming book. This was pretty exciting to me. I have several of his books, and I was interested to be on the team of testers as an opportunity not only to further my knowledge, but to see how his bread brain works, in progress. A chance to learn from the man who most accurately may be called the best. So I signed up. While testing recipes (and I did not test nearly so many as other testers did), I started realising the patterns. I also realised that because these recipes were works in progress, there was a lot of instructional information given in relation to the appearance, feel, etc. of the breads. And after decades of baking bread, something in my brain clicked. I could see the bread for what it really was. Finally.

After the completion of the testing, there was still a small span of time in which I baked bread with recipes. Mostly because I lacked the confidence to put them off to the side and just play with my flour. It's weird that as a person who so strongly advocates playing with food to learn about it, I was fully inculcated in the school of thought that was keeping me from knowing my bread. And then one day, my confidence was just high enough and I decided, "screw it. I'm not using a recipe. Let's see what happens." I tossed together some flour, salt and yeast. And then I added water until it "looked right." And then I kneaded it a bit and set it off to the side to be shaped, re-risen and baked later. My bread came out well. Really well. And when I tasted it, I knew that I finally "got" bread and that I'd not be using recipes for it again unless there was a specific bread I was wanting that I didn't know the dimensions of by heart. I do still occasionally use recipes for bread, but more as a guideline for a particular hydration I'm not familiar with the feel, look and smell of. But mostly it's all free-form in my house these days. I'm thankful for this, mainly because sometimes I'm in someone's house and there's a need for bread and I can just toss it together without worrying about recipes (this, btw, is a double-edged sword: you really impress them, but you never go to their homes again without making bread).

So Ross came to me after I had this bread epiphany, and as such, when it was time to teach him how to make bread, I refused to teach him with recipes. He knows where the recipes are, and he's welcome to use them. He also knows how to use the internet, of course, and thusly he may look up any specific recipes he might need that aren't already in the house. But I figured I'd be damned if I was going to inflict on him the kind of restriction that recipes can sometimes cause in one's thinking.

We started with pita, since that is the bread we eat/make the most of. I explained about ratios of bread to water and we talked about the salt content, and how much yeast to use (my opinion on how much yeast to use is "however much you want." If you want it to rise a little more quickly, use a little more yeast, etc.). We poked and touched and prodded and smelled the dough at every step of the way. We only kneaded for a few minutes here or there, and not even always. And then he was off. Now Ross makes most of the bread in the house. I see him sometimes throwing together some ingredients and kneading them for what seems like an eternity to me. I see him other times throwing together some stuff and barely kneading them at all. Sometimes he tosses in some rye or whole wheat flour. Sometimes he doesn't. Bread, for him, is an organic, flowing process through which what you want to do is exactly what you do. The bread turns out as it turns out, and if something you didn't expect happened, you just think about what you did differently, and then come up with hypotheses (and test them) to decide how to create different effects. Because it's so beautiful, the intuitive process by which he bakes, I sometimes sit in the kitchen and just watch him make the bread. Occasionally he asks me technical questions, but not usually anymore. And there's always bread in the house. Lovely breads, rich in character and deep in flavour. Different breads. Sometimes sourdough, sometimes not. Sometimes quick breads, sometimes not. But always, always bread.

What I have learned from this is that there should be no other way of teaching the making of bread. Already, in just a few short months, Ross is a more talented bread baker than I have ever been and than I will likely ever be. I'm rich on technical knowledge, but new on essence. He is all essence, which gives him the technical knowledge he needs, coupled with a flexibility I am still teaching myself to enjoy in my own baking. It's really a wonderful thing to behold. He recently donated some of our starter to his best friend and taught her how to care for the starter and how to bake. And now she bakes. Not only does she bake now, but she gave away some of her starter and that person bakes now too. For me, it's an incredible miracle I'm watching. My mother's starter, which is nearly as old as I am, is making its way around and inspiring people to make their own bread; to play with dough, to be part of their food experiences instead of relying on others to make their food experiences for them. It's incredible to watch. So much so that I find myself running out of adjectives with which to describe the... bigness of process I see unfolding in people's minds, hearts and mouths.

The reason I'm telling you all this story is because tomorrow, I'm planning to post Ross' recipe for pita. He's come up with a non-traditional system for making pita that he showed me last night (because at the end of the day, when a person cooks by instinct alone, sometimes someone with technical knowledge needs to sit down and watch them and write it down so the method doesn't get lost when they die), and I faithfully wrote it all down so y'all can make it. It's not traditional pita, but it's the best pita I've ever eaten (and if it's not the best, I can't remember the pita that topped it) and I think y'all should be able to have Ross' bread even if you don't have Ross. I'll never actually bake this recipe, because this recipe to me is Ross. It's for him to bake, and for me to eat.

4 comments:

  1. I may have to come visit you some day. In a non-creepy way. Just for the bread.

    And the pickles and tea.

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  2. Lol, you're totally welcome to do so anytime, j. I've got a really comfy futon you can crash on, too.

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  3. Oh bread. It's weird the memories and emotions tied up in homemade bread.

    It also reminds me of in Louisa May Alcott's novel "Eight Cousins" Rose needed to have among her accomplishments the ability to sew buttons (and buttonholes) and to make bread. Anything else could go hang. Because those are the two most important things (to her guardian) for a person to be able to do.

    ... I need to go feed and cuddle my starter, I think she's quite sad...

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  4. Aw, if she's been neglected, you definitely should feed and cuddle her!

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