Bread is pushing and pulling, rising and falling, wet and dry, waiting and waiting. It is physical and experiential, which is why I have a hard time with what seems like an overly scientific approach to baking. Where “baker percentages” are traded like commodities, measurements are treated like holy writ, and various methods are named after the (entirely always every single time) men who “invented” them: Jim Lahey’s No Knead Bread, the Ken Forkish method, Tartine recipes. Then there are the handful of celebrities whose recipes are followed slavishly: Josey Baker, Chad Robertson, Peter Reinhart.
Gender is beside the point though – or is it? How has something so basic, so universal, so magical been transformed into a scientific process in a walled off garden? My mother baked bread weekly, my grandmother baked bread almost daily. Her mother likely did the same, as did generations before them around the world. They lifted handfuls of flour into bowls, poured water by the eye, stirred it with their fingers, added a pinch of this here and a pinch of that there. They set it to rise on the counter, then cooked it in stoves stoked with wood or coal. If they had a measuring cup its lines were worn out by time and use. Their arms were strong and their shoulders broad – they had to be to do such work. That, and a thousand other heavy lifting quick thinking tasks that went unheralded.
When I started baking bread years ago it was to rediscover a simpler approach to what I was doing and how I was eating. I loved mucking about in the sticky mess, and I loved watching my daughter do so too. Probably three quarters of the bread batches I made were failed: too hard, too dense, under seasoned. Sometimes the window for palatable eating was barely over an hour. You knew as soon as they cooled they’d lose their edibility and so we dug in, laughing it off and eating it up.
Maybe it’s because I’m not even slightly a perfectionist, but I couldn’t have cared less. I just kept baking. Eventually I was making large batches of wonderful bread which I happily shared with friends, family and neighbours. When I lost my job one winter, these people became regular customers who put in their weekly orders. A few years ago this morphed into a market stint to replace a baker at the last minute, which in turn evolved into where I am today: baking in a professional kitchen and selling at a handful of markets, shops, coops and drop offs. Madame PainPain became a thing.
But I still don’t measure. It always seemed more important to approach the process physically, to understand how things work by looking, touching with my fingers and weighing with my arms. My sourdough starter is fed daily but certainly not at precisely the same hour as is recommended. No one gets that kind of attention in my life, why should it?
For me, the magic of bread baking begins when I put on my apron. Although traditionally associated with the feminine, the apron is also the uniform of the male chef-dominated professional kitchen. Men do love their uniforms, after all. But I must admit I like the convergence of both those associations – the intuitive feminine and the robust male. Baking is my perfect crossroads: I trust my intuition and haul 20 kg bags of flour.
I begin by carrying my many bags of flour to the mixer when I start: bread flour, whole wheat, spelt. All organic, fresh, local. I pour pitcher-fulls of flour into the mixer, not playing attention to how full or not the pitcher is. I know what it looks like in the mixer. (Now that I’m in a professional kitchen I use a professional mixer. Given the state of my right wrist after years of manually mixing, I don’t think I’d go back to hand mixing. Just thinking about it hurts.)
Then in goes the water, again pitcher-fulls more or less. Everything else is added in a sequence necessary for me to remember: starter, salt, sugar or honey or molasses if called for, added ingredients. Nothing is more than vaguely measured. More flour calls for more add-ons, less for less. The mixer is turned on, turned off for a rest, turned on again, turned off for a rest, turned on again. I taste, spit it out. Adjust, taste again.
When it looks great, feels great, tastes great, I lift the luscious mass of velvet out into a large bowl, the heaving heft of it straining my arms and back. That bowl is carried to a countertop and rests and rises and rises and rises. By the end of the afternoon I have 7 to 10 bowls spread out in the now closed café. I leave them to their own devices.
When I come back a dozen hours later the bowls are full of great bursts of aliveness, overflowing and pillowy and wonderful. One by one I scoop them out onto the countertop and shape the loaves: boules for rosemary, beet & fennel, squash & date, multigrain; batards for almond milk & honey, molasses & date; torpedos for spelt, and so on. They rest and rise in the proofer for 60-90 minutes, depending on how early I managed to get up and how much time I have ahead of me. Then into the ovens they go. I have no idea how long they bake for, I’ve always been too busy to watch the clock. I only know that I pull them out when they are done and perfect.
Bakers love to talk about baking. We talk about the creative breads we make, about the hilarious disasters, about mixers vs hands, about scoring designs, production volume and, if we sell it, about point of sale price.
Sometimes, when we have a moment and we let ourselves shift back a few hours, we talk about the feel of last night’s dough and the sun rising as the loaves proof and the crackling as it cools and the best music to accompany those moments. There’s both excitement and poetry in these conversations, gleaming eyes and sensuous words. I almost always laugh and have a huge compulsion to hug that baker. A big fat hug just because. Who knows, maybe they’re feeling the same.
What’s less magical and definitely less huggable is when the conversation steers into comparing excel sheets, hydration percentages and baker calculations. When words like “must” and “should” take over the conversation and methods with proper names are cited like verses from the Bible. When proofer and oven temperatures are calculated down to the half degree, and times are measured in minutes – not quarter hours, or hours, or god forbid the arcs of the sun. No, minutes sliced as finely as with a blade.
These same bakers are also obsessed with the “right” tools to use. You must score with the same kind of traditional lame that the French use. Bannetons can be imported from – you guessed it – France. Are you using the correct sized pans? Do you have a steamer for your oven? And if you’re going to cover the proofing or resting dough, best to use a couche. Not a cloth, a couche. My French is fine, I speak it fluently, but this kind of pretension is a bit much even for me.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and some people clearly get off on it, I’ve seen it act as a barrier for entry. Too many people, particularly women, instead of exploring baking and discovering what makes sense for them, flounder at the get go. All this talk of exactitude and right vs wrong is intimidating. It draws a line in the flour between the experts and everyone else, with the latter group doing their darndest to keep track of the “variables” and do everything right. Then, when they do finally (because great things take time) produce great bread but do not talk about it like they invented the wheel, the cart, the horse, the carriage, they are pretty much ignored in favour of the slide rule sporting uniform wearing Excel sheet blustering "expert."
What happens is the opposite of creativity, the opposite of true exploration, and it results in an across the board homogeneity of product. It’s all well and good that so many bakers are trying to emulate classic French bread, for example, but a world of only perfectly scored baguettes spells ennuie if you ask me. Not to mention, going head to head with the French concept of perfection is not what I’d consider a good time.
A guitarist friend of mine once told me that he preferred female guitarists to male guitarists. He said the men grew up emulating other men, the so called “guitar gods.” They ended up with great technique but very little in the way of idiosyncratic creativity – they hewed close to the right vs the wrong way of playing guitar. The women, on the other hand, spent much more time alone in their rooms just making things up, creating riffs out of thin air, apprenticing to themselves because no one else cared. He said they took guitar playing farther and made it more interesting. They were rarely elevated to status of “guitar god” but if you took time to listen you’d think you were in heaven.
And on that note, I leave you with Kaki King, a great guitarist. Just imagine the kind of bread she’d bake.