by Emily Esterson
Editor’s Note: As I write this note, Ms. Esterson is driving across town to get some of the scant pounds of flour currently left anywhere in Albuquerque. You can find prior chapters of Breadder Burque right here and here and here.
Sometimes you have to tear things down to start over. For some time now, I’ve felt intellectually dead, and this signals to me that I’m ready for new—for study, for reading, and for learning. And I think that’s why I’ve started baking.
Every project is filled with learning and thought. What if I added too much flour? How do I correct that? A cold front came in late this week, and the kitchen is chilly. Should I use warmer water?
And when I get an “A” on a loaf, I’m transported back in time to a pleased teacher, and a feeling of pride, neither of which was a regular occurrence for me back in my school days, to be honest. I earn that “A” today from the friends and family members who receive my loaves, and yes, the social media approval of my photographs.
Because I have been applying for academic jobs in recent weeks, I had to order my school transcripts (although god only knows why my undergraduate grades are at all relevant to today). I hadn’t remembered or even thought about my grades for decades. It turns out that I was a hugely mediocre college student, given to doing well at the subjects I liked, but doing poorly in the subjects I didn’t like.
I also think this was related to my professors: I sought out those who nurtured me. And because I went to one of those schools that did not actually give grades, but instead wrote lengthy evaluations, I got to re-read all the good and the bad and the mediocre of my college career. I was so marginal.
At the San Francisco Baking Institute this past January, I was, once again, not an “A” student—there were some professional bakers in my class who turned out flawless baguette after flawless baguette. Mine were wonky, crooked, with different widths and lengths, and inconsistent scoring technique. I would say that for the half of the class that were home bakers, I was probably in the bottom third.
But this week, as I take on this new-old endeavor of learning about baking, I get to revisit my marginal student status. This week, according to the recipients of my labors, I got an “A.” My loaves—two olive and one sourdough—had great oven spring, open crumb, crispy, snappy crusts. I proudly posted them on Facebook and Instagram and basked in my many adoring bread fans.
I may not have impressed my college photography instructor decades ago with my extremely detailed understanding of the Zone System, but I’m happy to report that my tenacity (a frequently cited attribute in those Bennington College transcripts) is beginning to pay dividends in the kitchen. My baking projects are much more consistent than they were even a few weeks ago, and while I still have some technique issues to work out (my apologies to anyone who got a slice with a sliver of baking parchment included), I’m gradually developing my own style and my own expertise.
And like much exciting learning, I’m starting to feel the pull of a baking addiction. Although I did multiple loaves earlier this week, here I am once again craving the feel of dough on my hands. When I’m starting to spin out of control during the long, empty days of quarantine, I start reading recipe books or studying my “Advanced Bread and Pastry” textbook, which gives me just enough information to bake, yet latitude to create.