by Emily Esterson
Sometimes, even when you think you’ve done everything right, the results are tragic. There are the sourdough bagels that turn into tiny hard disks (which was mystifying, because I’m really, really good at bagels, normally). There was a cake disaster of sticky, gluey non-cakiness. There was the famous brioche mishap, that brought in the Kitchen Detectives Culinaire and Coquere.
And then there’s the sheer fleeting nature of the Internet. “Where the Hell was that recipe for chocolate sourdough again? Was it this one from Perfectloaf.com or that one from Smittenkitchen?” When I really love a recipe, I’ll print it out and file, more precisely hurriedly cram it, in my recipe binder-from-hell. (In an alternate universe, I put all these sheets in plastic sleeves and organize them in in neat sections with dividers with tabs and refer to it often. Haven’t yet. May never).
Sometimes we’re betrayed by internet recipes—after all, did Clevercarrot.com test this formula? What are @boywhobakes’ actual credentials? (I picture a precocious 12-year-old with glasses and science beakers making a helluvah mess in his parent’s pristine suburban kitchen in Clifton, New Jersey, practicing to try out for “Master Chef Junior.” I don’t know why.)
And sometimes we’re betrayed by hardcopy cookbook recipes, too. While mid-baking, I’ve often thought to myself, this seems like way too much salt, or puzzled over a notation that doesn’t quite make sense (e.g.: well, it says not to overwork the dough, and yet I’ve been kneading it for an hour and it still doesn’t feel cohesive. Shouldn’t we put parchment paper and flour in these cake pans? Now why do I need to add baking soda to the boiling water?). As an experienced editor who has a great love for precise language, who is committed to both doing the right thing and getting it right, it makes me a little crazy when a recipe fails because of carelessness in the recipe/book editing process.
And yet, hard-copy books feel more reliable to me: There was a process to produce this thing, and presumably it involved test kitchens and sampling and edits—multiple edits, in fact—with a brilliant Judith Jones-like editor gently holding the writer’s hand as she struggles to burp out the last tortured chapter. And so I buy books, too many, particularly when I’m depressed and anxious, i.e., throughout this Pandemic.
I made a pilgrimage to the famous Tartine bakery/restaurant in San Francisco last winter (pre-lockdown). Its eponymous book is touted frequently on bread blogs and Facebook pages, and while I didn’t buy the book while I was there (probably stunned by the cost of my dinner, delicious though it was), last week I broke down and bought the damn thing. It’s a beautiful book, illustrated with drawings of wheat fields and closeup photos of a baker’s hands shaping and mixing.
It sports a padded—seriously, like a pillow—ultra-swank cover (I can’t help doing a mental calculation about how much that cost to print). It’s written almost like a novel, with pretty clear instructions, and thankfully not too much page-flipping once you master the main recipe, because god forbid you should soil these artful-oh-so-twee-pages with doughy hands.
Yes, the first few times you have to flip back to page 54 to remember that step 4 is the autolyze and the salt addition, but then you kind of get the hang of it. It’s a hybrid of storytelling and food-making, and while I was tempted to poo-poo it as a celebrity restaurant fan-book and not a real cookbook, it’s help me produce some pretty amazing results so far.
The first loaf, the classic country (pain de campagne) loaf came out just like the picture in the swanky book. The dough was slack and hard to score well, yet it burst brilliantly in the oven and ranks right up there with some of my recent best (okay, and I got 252 likes of my picture on the Perfect Sourdough Facebook page, which is a personal best!).
The second recipe I tried was for baguettes—of which I have made no less than about 150 in the past six months—125 of them at baking school and another 25 or so at home as practice.
Of that 25, I attribute a significant percentage to that Tartine Bread recipe. Holy hell, it made a lot of baguettes. (Editor, take note: A quantity would have been a nice addition—a little footnote that says “This makes a shit-ton of baguettes,” or, “if you measure out your dough during preshape for 200 grams, you will be baking for approximately 6 hours, because you will have like 9 of these suckers to bake in a home oven.)
Clearly I should have weighed and shaped them more precisely (I’m a precise editor, but maybe not a precise baker). I also summarily ignored the steaming suggestions (for the uninitiated, the steaming process in bread-baking is oh-so-important and oh-so-difficult to pull off correctly in your standard G.E. gas range). So I burnt the shit out of the first two thanks to a steaming mishap and poor timing, but the next three were, simply, sublime.
Even Giant Johnny, which in toto looks more like a heavy medieval weapon than a baguette, was quite tasty, with a nice crumb texture. A win for Tartine Bread, and a big win for my neighbors, me, and my partner, all of whom shared the bread love. Clearly Chad Peterson (Tartine Bread’s author) felt passionately about writing a cookbook that worked and cared for his audience—me—when he compiled it.
While the Internet has its moments and purposes, and we all count “likes” as a dog counts belly rubs, there’s just nothing like a good hard-copy book. Nothing.