Tag Archives: baking

Breadmaking: A skill worth pursuing

While I was living abroad in Ecuador, I got really into cooking. After the culture shock wore off, after the initial feelings of exciting and new wore into the normal rhythm of daily life, I started to feel a rumbling in my stomach, a yearning for the tastes and comforts of what I was used to back home. Without access to what I would consider normal groceries, I had to learn how to make what I wanted with the ingredients at my disposal.


Whereas Ecuadoreans receive the majority of their carbohydrates from rice, I was longing for my North American diet of bread, the thick, crusty loaves that I took for granted back home. So I learned how to bake. Everything boiled down to trial and error. Sure, I could read a recipe, watch videos of people kneading flour and water into dough, but it was only after doing it myself that I began to understand what a lot of people talk about when they describe bread making as a Zen-like, almost spiritual experience.

It’s something that I could only learn to appreciate by making it into a daily practice, by starting out with words on a page and developing those recipes into my own muscle memory. Again, trial and error. Like two cups of flour, that sounds simple enough, right? But the cookbooks never explain that flour scooped out from a sack with a spoon tends to measure out to a greater volume than that same flour packed into a measuring cup.

Stuff like that makes a big difference in the end product. So do variables that nobody could ever teach me, like the discrepancy in what my oven thermometer assured me was the inside temperature compared with the undercooked doughy loaves suggesting a different level of heat. Or the fact that on humid days, I found it necessary to keep a bowl of flour next to my counter space, to prevent the dough from sticking to my hands and the work surface.

When I took my first really good loaf out of the oven, I’m talking a deep brown, crusty bread, steaming from the inside out, I knew that this was a skill worth pursuing. After a few months, bread making became almost second nature. I knew how to make a dough without even using a measuring cup. Judging by touch and texture, I could tell if a little more water was needed, maybe an extra blast of heat at the end to really give it that golden finish.

After I had a comfortable handle with the basics, I was able to start experimenting, adding different ingredients, molding the dough into various shapes. My understanding of the leavening process allowed me to craft baguettes or custom cakes. With just three simple ingredients, I was able to create an endless amount of goods I’d normally buy prepackaged at the grocery store.

If I flattened out the dough, I had pizza crust. If I made those crusts a little thinner and cooked them on top of a hot skillet, my rounds inflated into perfect pitas. By adding some sugar and eggs and frying my dough in hot oil, suddenly I had fresh donuts. I found that all of these tricks could be applied to everyday dishes I hadn’t before considered, like yeasted pancakes, or by eliminating yeast all together, by replacing wheat flour with other grains, I could fashion my own tortillas.

After reading something online about sourdough bread, I decided to capture my own wild yeast, to leaven my bread without the use of the dry-active prepackaged convenience. The process was slow, starting with a tablespoon of flour and water, leaving it in the kitchen to attract the myriad microscopic organisms floating invisible through the air. I’d add a little more water and flour each day, giving everything a stir whenever I happened to pass by.

There was life inside of that cup. In that controlled environment, although I couldn’t see it, there was feeding, there was reproduction. Eventually my starter bubbled with visible proof of success. I poured a little into my next bread, and it actually rose. When I pressed my hands to the dough, I can’t explain it, but the texture was slightly different. I’m having trouble describing the difference, but it’s something that was noticeable only because I had become so familiar with my everyday process.

The finished product was denser, it had a definite sour taste, and as I took a few bites of what I had baked, I thought about the microbes and yeasts unique to that region, to my kitchen. I had made something distinctive, and this was the end result. How did human beings come up with this process? Without an Internet or cookbooks to consult, who thought to grind up grain into a flour, leave it out for days to moisten and rise, and then bake it in the oven?

It’s all too common to lose myself in the contemporary world, with the comforts of our modern food system, the many shortcuts available to every home cook. But I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn how to bake bread, to really make it a part of who I am. When I’m in the moment, when I have my hands in that dough, when the mixing turns to kneading and the mass becomes something real in my hands, I imagine the generations that came before, I feel the whole of humanity behind me, the future stretching out endlessly in front.

Originally published on HonestBlue.com

You leave a pie on the windowsill, someone’s going to take it

A couple of weeks ago I was walking down this street by my house when I caught a really great smell. I looked around and pinpointed where the aroma was coming from. About two houses down, this lady was setting a pie out on her windowsill. I couldn’t believe it. This was like something out of a movie. People actually do this in real life? They actually leave pies out to cool?

I had to have it. I thought, I’ve seen this go down in old-time movies, the lady leaves the pie out, they cut to a guy walking down the street, me, I start licking my lips, my mouth watering, salivating with animal desire, and then I’m carefully sneaking up to the window, making sure nobody’s looking, I snatch the pie and make a run for it. Then they’ll cut back to the empty window, that lady will kind of look around and scratch her head in confusion, now where could I have left that pie?

Why not? You know what’s more American than homemade apple pie? Taking a freshly baked apple pie from some lady’s window. I walked right up and grabbed it, which, I found out immediately, it was a huge mistake. No wonder she had put it out to cool. This thing was red hot. Every once in a while I’ll be working at the restaurant, and I’ll watch the cooks, maybe from like years of handling hot dishes, they’re able to pick up anything with their bare leather hands.

And I’ll be like, well, if they can do it, I can do it too. And so I’ll grab a plate and it’s really hot and I’ll drop it immediately. You think you can will your body to ignore the pain, to just muscle through it, but there’s always a point where your hand just lets go immediately. So I had this pie and it was really hot and I though, OK, I better put this down right away.

I didn’t have much time, so I kind of just dropped it down at my feet. I didn’t know what to do, so I took off my shirt and used it as a potholder and picked it up. But this was like not part of my plan at all. I wanted a quick getaway. Instead, here I was still standing at this lady’s window, shirtless. “Hey!” I heard her scream at me, “What are you doing? Give me that pie!”

And so I freaked out and ran. I ran like three blocks, still no shirt on, holding this pie in my hands. I had no idea where to go. This never happened in the old movies. There was a really small park like three blocks away, and so I found some bench sort of out of the way and sat down to figure out my next move. I finally got a good look at the pie. It was definitely blueberry or cherry, some sort of small, jammy fruit. The filling was bubbling out of the sides still, and maybe because I aggravated it by too suddenly dropping it to the ground, it was kind of oozing out of one side, getting all over my shirt.

How would I even go about trying to eat this thing? I didn’t have any utensils, nothing. And like I’ve said already, it was really, really hot. And then I started to feel bad, like really bad, overwhelmingly guilty. What had I just done, really? In my insane impulse to replicate a snippet of Americana that I’m not even sure if I was remembering correctly, I’d gone ahead and probably ruined this lady’s day.

I’m no novice. I know what it takes to make a fresh pie, from scratch. Just getting the crust right is a pretty significant challenge, chilling the butter, working with it fast enough so that you can form a decent crust without the whole thing melting apart. It’s doable, you know, like anything you get better with practice, but I looked at this pie, it definitely had that rustic appeal. Maybe this lady was like seriously depressed, and so she picked up pie baking as a new hobby, something to keep her mind of the debilitating numbness crippling her everyday life. And maybe all of her pies had thus far been unsuccessful, maybe this was her first real triumph.

And as she set that first really good pie on the windowsill she thought, maybe life isn’t so bad after all, maybe things will get better. And then just as she turned around I came up and took it. I fumbled it. I ran. I started to feel even worse. I looked at the pie tray. It wasn’t one of those disposable foil trays. This was nice. It looked like it had a history. Maybe it was her mother’s. Maybe she found it while she was mourning her loss and thought, hey, pie baking, I’ll pick that up in honor of mom’s life. This’ll help me get through it. And so not only did I rob this lady of her pie, of her time spent baking the pie, but now her pie tray is gone too, how would I get it back to her?

I was feeling bad for a while, sitting there in the park, the breeze against my bare chest, sad. But then I thought, wait a second, why was she leaving this pie unattended? Why didn’t she have any screens for her window? Who leaves food right in an open entryway to their house? That’s an invitation for bugs, for rodents, cat and raccoons even. No, I did her an indirect favor. She wouldn’t make that mistake again. And there’d be much less likely of a chance at any infestation now that …

“Hey! You!” someone yelled at me, interrupted my thought.

“That’s him officer! And that’s my pie!”

I turned around. It was the lady. Somehow she found a cop, and somehow they found me here. I didn’t know what to do. I panicked. I went to pick up the pie to hand it back to her, to say that I’m sorry, that that was a crazy thing that I did, that I was just about to bring it back. But I forgot how hot the pie was, so when I picked it up I got that slow burn, until finally I couldn’t hold it in. I screamed, “Yow!” and I threw the pie to the ground, and this time it was totally destroyed. I looked back up at the cop and the lady, I couldn’t think of anything to say, and I just ran. And I’m a really good runner, very fast, a lot of endurance, and just took off, zigzagging through random streets, careful not to lead them back to my house, and I did it, I lost them.