In praise of bread

December 5th, 2011 | Tags:

Not everything I do is about beer, though it has become somewhat an obsession of mine. But I suspect it is an extension of a much broader field of interest: cooking. I have been learning how to cook since I was 18, out of the house and in my own place (well, with roommates). I remember my first real lesson, too; I was awkwardly trying to get the skin off some garlic cloves and one of my friends’ friends showed me the knife blade trick. But one thing I have done very well for as long as I have been cooking is bread.

The Sidhe taught me the basics. She had her standard recipe, as handed down to her by her grandmother, and I followed that for a few months. (I mostly still do.) But the thing about crafting is that if you have the knack for it, you’ll notice things. Specific details about the material you’re working with, how they behave together, and the subtleties of the changes they undergo as they become a unified whole. And this is true as much with bread as with beer, pottery, metalwork, writing, and even (albeit more abstractly) programming. It is the border between reason and reality–the territory that the ancient Greeks called techne. It’s art. And there’s something maddeningly irrational about it. You can describe the process to someone who has never done it before, but until your friend undertakes the process in turn, nothing whatsoever is communicated. Art lends itself to mentorships, either of the autodidactic variety or the more traditional master/apprentice. But it is the sort of activity that is best done with your whole self thrown into it.

Now, I’ll admit that I used to get a great deal of meditative joy out of hand-kneading dough. But our stand mixer now takes care of that part of the work while I can do other things. The important part to remember, though, is that I’m not just letting the mixer go unsupervised. You can do that, but the important part of the kneading process is the assessment and re-assessment of the dough’s texture. Bread machines are handy for those who don’t delight in the details. But bread is way too much fun to watch at every step to use something like that. The smooth texture of a freshly-kneaded doughball, the smell of yeast doing their part during the rising, and the hollow “pop-pop” sound a well-crusted loaf sounds like when it’s out of the oven all contribute to the satisfaction I derive from baking bread.

And then, of course, comes the eating. Mmmmm, bread. It’s like a lattice of deliciousness. The yeast create pockets of air within a gluten-bound matrix, and this matrix solidifies during baking to create the perfect union of five simple ingredients. Fresh bread is incomparable to any other food. It’s pretty great that after all these thousands of years we’ve been around, the art of making bread has really changed very little. We understand the science much better–but the recipe is not the loaf.

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