My friend Mark* is a baker. Right now he bakes for Whole Foods, but he plans to have his own baking business one day soon. Till then, he hones his recipes at home and his friends sometimes find themselves the lucky recipients of loaves that are so delicious – perfectly moist, rich, and crusty – that they have a hard time refraining from gobbling them up in a single sitting. I know from experience. I exhausted my willpower trying to make the two large loaves he gave me last more than three days.
Like many health-conscious eaters and paleo-diet dabblers, I have avoided bread over the past few years. Bread is a convenient conductor of calories, and it’s tasty. But commercially available bread often doesn’t contain as much nutrition per calorie as I prefer to consume. If I’m gonna watch my calories to maintain my girlish figure, then I’m also gonna make sure every calorie counts and allows room for the occasional chocolate binge. So I abandoned bread and other common grains, eating fruit, veggie, and quinoa-based carbs instead.
But when my molars finally tore into this chewy crust and gulped down yeasty bite, the bread awakened a dormant craving in me. This homemade sourdough bread was so unbelievably good – and from what I've read about sourdough, was also quite nutritious. This was the kind of bread that ancient peoples wrote songs about. This was the kind of bread that generations of mothers and fathers made each day to feed hungry families. This was bread that fed your soul as well as your gut. When you ate it, you were eating the result of thousands of years of planting, growing, farming, harvesting, milling, kneading, and finally, baking. Millions of hands and minds and stories went into those loaves, and you could taste the history in every bite.
I wanted to learn how to make that kind of bread. I wanted to challenge myself to learn the art of bread making, an art that until recently, I hadn’t appreciated enough. But mostly I just wanted on-demand access to delicious bread. If I baked it myself, I could have it whenever – and in whatever portions – I wanted, right?
And besides, I was looking for more hands-on skills to learn. Few domestic skills involve your hands more than baking. From measuring to kneading, just about everything you do relies on touch, texture, handling.
“I realized recently that one reason I like baking is because of how it feels,” Mark told me. “It’s all about your hands being in the dough, feeling when it is ready.”
He made the dough sound alive, and it kind of is, as I’ve learned from attempting my first batch of sourdough bread.
I used a sourdough starter, a special yeast culture, that I ordered online. It came with an intimidatingly detailed guide to making sourdough. Apparently it would take several weeks, then a few more days, then a few more hours, and then I'd have to do this thing, and then that thing, and oh yeah don't forget about this other thing over here that is super critical to the process, and if I did all that to perfection I'd have some really good bread.
“The instructions are sooooooo complicated,” I texted Mark. “I predict mayhem.”
“Treat it like a pet,” was his blithe reply. “Give it a name and feed it daily.”
I didn’t name my starter – I’m open to suggestions, if you have any – and I like pretending that personal slight, not my obvious lack of skill and knowledge of bread making, is why my first batch failed to rise. I could tell something was wrong early in the process, but I didn’t know how to fix it. I baked the loaves anyway, leaving them in terribly inappropriate pans, and wound up with something that looked a bit like ciabatta. Although the loaves have a texture that would make an experienced baker sob – uneven and chewy and dense as a steak – their flavor isn’t too bad. Also, my cat likes the bread, and keeps trying to steal little pieces of it from my plate, which I find adorable.
“Since it is just flour and water, it still tastes fine and will be consumed in time,” I told Mark in an update. “Will try again next week.”
My adventures in bread will continue. It feels good to try something new, even when it doesn’t turn out quite right. It’s all about what you learn in the process, right?
*"Mark" is not this friend's real name. ;)