by Emily Esterson
The idea for today’s blog post has been poking around in my head for a few days now, and it’s turned out different from what I originally thought I would write about—that one was going to be called “The Trouble with Tribbles” or, alternately, “Don’t be a Slave to Your Levain.”
But global pandemics have a way of derailing ideas, businesses, lives, and so this one has derailed my blog idea temporarily. Don’t worry, there’s still trouble with Tribble, but for now, that one is dormant in the fridge.
Baking has always been a way for me to manage stress, and for many years I baked or cooked every Friday afternoon and/or evening. It was not always bread—sometimes pie, cookies, the occasional cake, tartes, Rugalach around Chanukah, Guinness Stout chocolate something around St. Patrick’s Day; a recipe I saw in The Times or on Smittenkitchen.com.
This routine came about as the result of my participation in a weekly shared meal after riding—it’s called a hunt breakfast, and it happens after a mounted foxhunt—no foxes were harmed, and in fact it’s a dog scenting sport, and yes, you’ve seen the pictures of equestrians dressed a certain way and a pack of foxhounds. The sport involves galloping around in the desert (here) on horseback in a futile attempt to chase off death—the sport is practiced mostly by middle aged and older equestrians craving adrenaline and desperate for a good story to tell.
Believe me, after three hours on horseback at a fast pace, you pony up a big-ass hunger. Tradition dictates a meal afterwards, and in our particular club, everyone brought a dish to the table. I loved the fame and appreciation of my weekly baking endeavors, almost as much (and some days more) as the riding. I loved feeding those people my goodies.
So baking became the punctuation at the end of my work week: It signaled the beginning of the weekend, a time to turn off the computer and close the office door (turn over the shingle, as we like to say in my house, where both of us work at home). Baking required recipe searching, planning, grocery shopping—sometimes, if I needed an obscure enough ingredient, a trip across town to “Whole Paycheck”—all activities I find distracting and fun in a cerebral, kind of process-oriented way (see previous entry). Baking requires that you be present; in the moment; not on your phone or your computer, but with your hands in the dough. Get distracted in the middle of the process and you end up with salt instead of sugar.
I have taken a break from that weekend activity this year, so my baking urge ranges all over the week. I started a rye bread recipe from my San Francisco Baking Institutetextbook on Tuesday. The recipe was scaled for a commercial bakery, so I did a little math (dad would be proud) and reduced the recipe by 75% (to be honest here, Scot did the math, sorry dad).
I still got more than 5 lbs. of dough—a massive amount for a home kitchen. The borrowed KitchenAid would never cut it.
Technical note: if you are doing bread dough, go whole hog on the biggest, most powerful mixer you can afford. My Pro-series 6 was a trusty companion for 15 years until I burned out the motor on a batch of bagel dough. It is now at the repair shop. The Artisan line does not have enough horses under the hood for bread dough on a regular basis. You’ll burn it up much faster than the Pro line.
This rye was a pretty heavy, dense dough, so I pulled out my grandest mixing bowl and did the whole thing by hand. I needed the assistance of my reluctant sous chef to move my bowl and dough-covered hands to a bread board, where I kneaded and kneaded and kneaded.
After discovering the wonders of giant commercial mixers in San Francisco, I’ve been using my mixer more back home (until I had to ship old Greenie off in her prepaid box to the KitchenAid hospital). But I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed hand kneading. The feel of the dough as it develops in your hands is a nugget of visceral knowledge you don’t know you have until you do. I’ll be kneading and turning and folding and kneading, and then it will be smooth and cool and tight. It’s all there in the hands.
And then, when you hear the voice of your French baking instructor in your head (who also believes that love makes great bread, but who insists on testing and temping at every step) you get technical and stick an instant-read thermometer in your smooth and lovingly kneaded ball of flour, salt, water, and yeast, and it registers exactly 75 degrees. Your knowledge is confirmed. Action-reaction. 10,000 hours.
In a world fraught with uncertainty, even now more so, I knew that dough was ready, and I knew, almost without a doubt, that this bake would be great, even before I shaped it. There are few things that make us feel safe these days, but that rye bread dough was a sure thing. I just bought the last two bags of King Arthur bread flour at our local, slammed, rationing #panicbuying grocery. Here’s to a moment of certainty.