Thursday, April 02, 2009

Bread Alone

There was real fear. Something could go haywire at any time. The whole process could end up as a wreck and I was pretty sure that's where I was heading. At any point a nasty turn would doom the outcome.

“Oh for Pete's sake,” my daughter says. “What's the worst thing that can happen?”

“A big mess?” I reply. “Maybe a fire?”

“There won't be any fire. And what do you do with a mess?” she asks.

“Clean it up?” seemed the reasonable response.

“That's right – a mess. And we'll clean it up like any mess,” she says. “But it'll be good and there won't be any mess.”

The book Bread Alone by Daniel Leader and Judith Blahnik had put the fear of bread baking into me. Years ago I'd bake bread all the time and I didn't think too much about it. My mother used to bake bread constantly and I'd learned from her. Back in the day, mom used to do all of our cooking on a wood-fired stove including baking in the oven. It wasn't until 1966 that the kitchen was remodeled and a shiny new electric stove went in.

The urge to return to bread-baking strengthened over time. Ten years living in Kansas exposed me to the culture of growing wheat, the memories from my childhood remained strong, the increasing interest in local foods, fresh foods, organic foods all took root and finally, the huge upsurge in commodity prices and food in 2008-09 lead me to buy the book “Bread Alone.”

The book is touted as something practical. What it turns out to be is precise. You need to use spring water. It's important to have sea salt. The wheat must be organic and ground in a certain way. Temperature control is crucial. Your oven must be made correctly with the proper kinds of stone. An electric oven is useless and whatever lowly consumer-level oven you have must be fitted with proper baking stones.

I was scared. There was no way I could bake a loaf of bread in our kitchen. Bread Alone told me so.

Armed with courage supplied by my daughter we went ahead that day to bake bread. The outcome was in doubt: no thermometer, tap water, electric oven, regular flour, ordinary table salt, no baking stones... The process was doomed.

Yet, at the end of mixing and kneading and rising and kneading and rising and finally baking we ended up with a couple of loaves of whole wheat honey bread. Well, the crust was a little too brown. Okay, the interior was somewhat doughy. Yes, it had an odd swirl to the grain. Parts of it tasted good though.

What went wrong? Bread Alone was on the coffee table so we cracked it open. Temperature control was the big thing and when we interpreted our experience with what we read in Bread Alone it was clear we needed to make temperature adjustments when baking.

What about the rising part? Well, tap water is treated and that can affect the yeast. Hmmm. Maybe we didn't get the right bounce out of the yeast. And temperature control with the water helps with the yeast and with the mixing and all that's needed is a thermometer. Sea salt? Oh, never mind.

Organic stone ground wheat is big in Bread Alone. But give me a break. Getting exactly what Bread Alone calls for is hard, expensive and probably a mail order deal. And, not to mention, there in the chapters about wheat flour is a begrudging comment, “This does not mean you can't make these breads with ordinary supermarket flour!”

Bread Alone is a good read and if you have an interest in baking the book is a fine addition to your collection. There are recipes and plenty of instruction – precise instructions. You'll find some history and some stories and you'll find inspiration.

Along with the fear Bread Alone caused, the book also elevated my interest further and helped push me to take the next step and actually bake some bread.

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