“You made bread!”
It’s always a joy to hear my daughter say that when she gets home from school on baking days. It’s not so much what she says as how she says it. Her tone of wonderment makes me feel like I have been gifted strange and magical powers—the kind that allow you to conjure something quite tasty out of thin air. There may some truth to it. I’ve never heard her come home and say, “You cleaned the toilets!” in quite the same way. Or at all.
I seem to be attracted to things that one can become good at through time and practice, but can never really be perfected: radio, boxing, bass guitar, the Cubs. And baking bread. Look, to be honest, it’s not that hard. There are really just four ingredients—flour, water, yeast, and salt. You get the proportions the way you want them, mix them all together, and away you go.
Ah, but it’s the “away you go” part that’s crucial. Yes, I could knead it for 15 minutes, taking all my frustrations out on the dough. Push, pull, whap! Push, pull, whap! But why fill a perfectly good loaf of bread with that level of bile? Why risk someone saying, “Your bread tastes like impatience with delicate undertones of unbridled hate.” Why make the kind of slice fit only for the monsters who insist on using Goober Grape (that’s peanut butter and grape jelly in the same jar, for those who weren’t aware this abomination existed) to save time and effort. Yes, and I’ll take my cigarettes actually floating in my coffee while you’re at it.
Instead of all that violent kneading, you could just be patient and let it sit for 24 hours or so. To me, the secret to good bread is time. Time for the yeast to work its magic, time for the dough to take on flavor and texture, time for me to fix dinner, drink a beer, and get a good night’s sleep before I bake it in the morning. I like drifting off to sleep knowing that a living creature, one that I made, is slowly rising in the warmth of the kitchen of our little row house. In moments of insomnia, I’ve been known to go downstairs and read it a story or two in (poor) Dutch.
Yes, the whole thing can become a bit of an obsession. That’s the way it is, I think, with something that is equal parts science, art, and magic. At its heart, bread baking is about craft. You learn as much as you can from those who have done it before, try to get as close to their versions as possible, and then, when you start to feel that it’s all becoming second nature, you feel competent enough to spread your wings and strike out on your own. When people ask about my level of bread-baking knowledge and skills, I like to say: “I know just enough to be dangerous now.” I’ve baked bread on a kamado grill, and steamed it in a slow cooker.
I have even threatened to deep fry a loaf in the back garden, using a big pot full of peanut oil and a raging wood fire. This suggestion always leads to the fairly common, yet always appropriate refrain here in the Slachthuisbuurt: “Get a job, already.”
More than anything, though, baking bread consistently reminds me that time is a friend, and that patience can, occasionally, be rewarded. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I took up baking again while I was in the thick of producing a daily news show. The process of making bread took my head out of the news cycle and put it in a place where I wasn’t just reacting to random events. Instead, I was actively, and purposefully, creating something. It gave me some back some measure of control over the chaos, and yes, it was a kind of therapy.
It also provided the raw materials for some delicious pastrami sandwiches. It still does. Give me a measure of control, I mean. The pastrami went out with the rest of the cured meats when we went vegan.
That loaf pictured above? Here’s the skinny on that:
- 500 grams of flour (I use 400 grams of bread flour, 100 grams of semolina)
- 8 to 10 grams of salt (depends on your taste)
- 2 grams of instant yeast (1/4 teaspoon)
- 375-400 ml of water
The process, of course, is a closely guarded trade secret. Not.
If you end up trying to make it yourself, be advised that it’s never going to be perfect, but that’s OK, because even freshly baked imperfect bread tastes pretty damn good. Remember, it’s all about competence, not perfection.
You can check out my latest sketch from Haarlem here.
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