When the Bread Hits the Pan
People in crisis do funny things. Some take up smoking. Others find their solace swirling through chipped ice in a glass tumbler. Still, many attack the elliptical with the full thrust of their being, working it out on a contraption that goes nowhere. You’ve heard of the funny bone, perhaps have wondered about the wish bone, but I tapped into something that still surprises me now- I found my baking bone.
Not that this surprises any of you if you’ve followed my escapades here or here in this plot of proverbial internet soil. I’m a woman obsessed. I’m a late nighter who finds a spring in her step to crank the oven on high and pull the slowly fermenting dough out of the refrigerator to begin its wake-up because like a lobster lowered into boiling water (which has always frightened me- let it be known), that dough will soon meet its maker, sizzling along the blisteringly hot walls of the enamel Dutch oven.
I buy bags of whole grain flours just so I can experiment. I’m scouring my address book to find the carb curious. On my bread baking shelf in the kitchen (yes, a full shelf has been consecrated for its implements) a Pantone journal’s pages are filling with sketches of bread loaves, marking down variations of crumb, crust and taste so I can keep working toward turning out excellent bread– All this from someone who, almost a year ago, had very little interest in bread at all, and yawned at droll sandwiches. What happened?
I inherited a sourdough pet. He threatened to eat the entire glass vessel of flour and sometimes looked like his appetite could expand further, eyeing the freezer that’s become a repository of folded, rubber-banded bags of whole grain flours. Some people stash vodka in their freezers- mine would block access to any bottles of alcohol since they would have to sneak past the bouncers of millet and mesquite flour. Don’t get me started on the half-loaves or the bags of English Muffin experiments that launch at us like puck-shaped projectiles whenever we open the door. You don’t want to go there.
Salvatore the sourdough starter lazily settles into his mason jar or cheerfully doubles and bubbles up like the blob that might ooze over the sides. I had become so enamored of this cause and effect relationship that it set my daily schedule. Each morning, I would throw away a significant amount of starter and began questioning the humanity of that action. So, like a zealot, I began sharing progeny. But until I bit the bullet and started baking loaves of bread, I didn’t fully comprehend Salvatore’s raison d’etre even as I was contemplating my own.
For several weeks, on Thursday evenings, I strapped on an apron at the San Francisco Cooking School and learned how to bake bread. My partner Suminder and I made a great team- we both gathered ingredients and he laughed at my quips. Over those three weeks, we plunged our hands into kneading pizza dough, braided challah, and shaped baguettes, slashing their tops with sharp-edged razors.
Finally, the sourdough class arrived. I came equipped with questions jotted down in my notebook and tried my best to not hijack the class or push instructor, Kim Laidlaw to the edge as my hand shot up like an antennae or my questions eviscerated any silence. We watched loaf-shaping and the fast dance spritzing of the oven as the timer counted down until the next spritz to keep the oven steamy and moist for a crackly crust, just like with baguettes.
Alone in my kitchen, I fecklessly dove into baking one loaf and learning from it. As one crisis came, I measured, stirred, turned and rested one loaf. That crisis averted, and like a hydra another two had popped up, turning out two loaves to take them on. One week I made eight loaves of bread in five days. I had become a mini machine. Something about the yeast feeding off the flour and water made whatever current circumstance a bit more bearable. That the loaves would be dispatched to friends in equal straits of calamity made them hand-slashed letters of solidarity that this too shall pass and until then, you’ve got stuff for sandwiches! Never had something so mundane become so sacred. Just-out-of-the-oven bread sings, its pockets of air hissing and crackling against the metal cooling rack, and serving up a truth: that even when we’re in the hot seat, we can still find voice enough to sing.