Monday, November 20, 2006

Bread and Book Deficit

Lately, I have felt an odd kind of emptiness, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. And then it came to me—I haven’t been baking or reading since I moved here. I used to have a voracious appetite for both—baking artesian breads and flying through a few books a week. I haven’t baked bread yet because I don’t like my kitchen right now. I have barely been reading, save for my weekly U.S. News subscription, because I read all day at work, and when I get home, I would rather go downtown and grab a beer with the girls. Also, I don’t like my living room, and to read, I need a cozy place to snuggle up and get lost between lines of text. I am blaming my current living situation, which will be remedied in January, but in the meantime, the absence of baking and reading is burrowing a deep void in my life.
I went and saw Stranger than Fiction this weekend. Interesting, a little slow, but the part that gripped me was the baking. The love-interest female bakes and owns her own bakery. She has some great dialogue about how she discovered the magnificent powers of baking and decided to open up shop because it changed her perspective on life. My baking epiphany wasn’t quite that forceful, but making bread is supremely satisfying. I am continually amazed that I can find such joy just by mixing flour, yeast, salt and water. Baking is more than just the act of mixing the ingredients, tweaking rising times, flour/water ratios, kneading techniques, or adding a biga. The whole yeast chemistry thing is fascinating to me, but giving away the bread, and eating it, is truly divine.
I used to bake a few loaves a week for friends or dinner parties. I would go through 25 lbs. of flour in a month. No more. I have yet to even turn on my precious Kitchen Aid mixer. And that, I have determined, is the reason that I am a bit down and empty at the moment.
It took me awhile to figure out bread. For an object with only a few ingredients, it is actually quite complicated to master. Through many trial and error loaves, I finally got it down and moved into the holy-grail realm of baking: baking by feel and without recipes. I can tell, just by how slack the dough feels, how it will rise, if it will be a porous loaf, if it will develop a sour tang, or if it will be dense and hearty. I have experimented with dough by letting it sit in a cool room for days on end before baking. I have kept sourdough starters. I have added oregano and basil, figs, walnuts, and cloves of baked, oozing garlic. My favorite bread is still just a loaf with water, salt, yeast, and flour—the purist loaf. The trick is manipulating how long the dough sits for the best flavor—it is, I suppose, akin to wine or cheese making. And therein lies the beauty: the absolute simplicity of bread.
Bread cannot be rushed. If I am to bring a loaf to a dinner party, I need to know a few days in advance so I can start a biga. On the day that the bread is to be made, I start mixing early in the morning so the yeast will have time to throw a party and work itself through the glutenous strands. It has to be periodically pressed down and sprayed with water or olive oil. The flavor has to be coaxed along patiently. And then the actual baking itself—shaping the loaf so it doesn’t lose the lightness and keeping the oven sufficiently hot and the loaf moist so that a perfect crust forms. The process is methodical and deliberate, but surprisingly forgiving.
But here is the part that gets me: watching people enjoy the bread. Drinking wine, eating bread with friends, lovely. Thanksgiving is coming this week, and I am spending it with my dear Kara’s family in Virginia. I resolved that even though I cringe at the thought of baking in my current kitchen (I don’t even know if the oven temperature is accurate!), I absolutely must bring some bread. I am hoping that feeling the dough again and smelling that fantastic scent of corn meal hitting a hot baking stone will ease my current malaise.
Now if only I could find a good book again…

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