“I see bread as a transformational food…first transformation: alive to dead, second transformation: dead brought to life, third transformation: alive to dead but dough to bread…”*
When you work in kitchens, it feels like your life is constantly on-hold. Because it is, sort of. I have friends who are spawning and have houses and mortgages and cars and I have a suitcase on the floor with my clothes popping out everywhere and an expensive handmade japanese knife and a Car2Go account. I don’t even know what my phone number is and yesterday two of three meals was doughnuts. The third was two beers and a glass of wine. But I think I can relate to my friends in a way…
Bread and I have always had a strange relationship.
When I was young, white bread was a no-no. I had it occasionally, either at the babysitters on sandwich day, or at my grandmother’s, where I was allowed to create the awesome, elusive snack of white bread with butter. Butter was also a no-no (except at Christmas).
In my twentieth year I kicked my ass into shape. I started running and doing pilates, but I also spent most of my free time reading about nutrition and allergies. Soon I kept a tight ingestion regiment; I cut out all refined sugars and wheat, consumed only healthy fats and a good deal of veg. It did not take long for me to feel pretty good most of the time.
But I missed bread.
“That’s what bread is, yeast burps and sweats”
I missed sandwiches a lot. I’m a sucker for simple things. An easy, uncomplicated, undrippy sandwich is right up my alley. So is a simple slice of bread with butter and salt.
At LCB, the program didn’t focus on bread. We had a single bread class, 5 hours to make 9 loafs, 5 varieties. The large, handlebar-moustachioed Master Breadmaker (and the only Canadian Chef who was employed by the school) boomed at us the instructions, and I distinctly recall us all, bright-eyed pastry-chef wanna-bees running around the practical kitchen in shear terror because we’d never worked in groups and because we were being screamed at by a giant man with waxed facial hair.
I don’t know how the bread happened, but it did. And that night, after being so excited to finally learn how to make bread, I gathered the 9 loafs in my apron and shuffled home in the rain. At home I looked at the recipes and tried to recall the stages but heard only yelling. The recipes were tucked away, the bread given away to neighbours.
While in Nowhere, Devon, the Canadian and I worked with a chef who was obsessed with bread and insisted on making fresh ciabatta and focaccia daily, though they were made with the same dough as for the pizzas so it wasn’t an optimal learning experience. It was there we started a sourdough starter, and made two loafs with it. One was a whole wheat traditional style loaf, the other followed the Tartine recipe, using high hydration, long fermentation, and folding in place of kneading. The difference between the two was outstanding.
Since then, I’ve wanted to become as competent as possible in the realm of bread, for at least a patissier, considering the two were never a single job for a reason, so competent is a reasonable goal.
For the past 3 months, I have made baguettes every day except Sundays and a handful of Saturdays. Every batch I try to make the best bread possible. I have learned that bread can be a bitch. I talk to it constantly, but Bread isn’t much of a talker. More of a feeler. So I’ve had to learn to feel too, so we can communicate.
It is a lot like pastry, in that it requires a good deal of scientific knowledge and creativity, though there is far more artistic freedom in the dessert field than in bread making. I used to think, “It’s just baguettes, who fucks up baguettes?” Well, I’ve fucked up baguettes. I’ve learned what happens when you deny the dough its rightful salt, when you’ve given it water too warm, or slide it in the oven too soon, too late, too much mixing, too little, too much yeast. You can make all of these incidents work, but it won’t make for the perfect loaf.
Tardy has always been my thing. Good at timekeeping in the first couple of weeks and then deteriorating into immense lateness daily is a bad habit that bread has broken. On three occasions I have shown up 18 minutes late, but that’s it. I show up for work on time, every day, even on my day off because of Bread.
I don’t trust anyone else to make the poolish, to make the bread, to bake the bread, I barely trust them to cut the bread. I’ve watched them, they crush it, refusing to take long, smooth strokes, they opt to race through the process leaving jagged tears…. I have to close my eyes and walk away.
The FOH don’t understand. They feel for me, they know I’m there 80 or more hours a week, that others can go out and party but I always say no because I have to wake up for Bread. They catch me several times a day inspecting the open loafs, smelling them, narrowly peering into their holes….beautiful artisanal holes that likely never existed in bread 100 years ago, even 50, with that glossy, soft crumb that stretches in a myriad of directions through out each…the holes they ask me to NOT create because they FEEL THE CUSTOMER ISN’T GETTING ENOUGH BREAD.
I recently ascended to a new level of bread baking. Chef decided I was ready to begin working with Desired Dough Temperature, probably because I could competently make baguettes regardless of any number of stupid problems that would occur and make tiny portions of my brain explode.
“Personality and character is being developed in this dough under the watchful gaze of the baker.”
Finally after almost a month of my bread, which started out well, went to great and then degraded into Wonder-esq bullshit (which the servers when NUTS for, btw), the DDT method has saved my remaining bits of sanity.
So now that I’ve got my baguettes under control, it’s time to work on building something new; I created another starter. The UK starter died during the move to Plymouth when I was stuck in a hotel for several days as my employers were selfish rats who couldn’t be bothered to reference M and I. I probably couldn’t have taken it on the plane anyway.
At this stage I’m only feeding the young one, and the on-going attempt to carry over the pàte fermenté from the previous dough without anyone THROWING IT OUT AND FORCING ME TO START OVER EVEN THOUGH I ASKED NICELY, is not particularly complex but I’m sure this will build into a stressful situation soon enough. But that’s alright. I mean, I’m trying to be cool about it, but maybe I take Bread a bit too seriously? Compared to a Soccer Mom, I think I’m okay.
“I leave you with a baker’s blessing: may your crust be crisp, and your bread always rise.”*
* Quotes selected from the wonder Peter Reinhart’s TEDtalk.