Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Bread Book

I am a nerd.

I admit it.

Now it's in writing. I am not ashamed. I am who I am.

I love books.

I love history.

I love cooking and baking... and I love books about the history of cooking and baking. That's right.

A few months back, my mom treated me to a thrifted copy of The Blessings of Bread by Adrian Bailey.

Because my life is what it is, it took me those few months just to read it... page by page, chapter by chapter, sometimes weeks between the chances of reading a few lines. Those chances, however, were always moments I intentionally savored- the quiet (however brief), the beverage of choice I held in my non-page-turning hand, the feel of the large, aged, lightly floured pages as my fingers skimmed over them, the heft of the thick, hard-covered book itself. I especially enjoyed the quirky beauty in the choices the author made in depicting the history of such a taken-for-granted staple...


As I read, I couldn't help but be transported back to an ancient hearth, around which laborers gather to eat the only meal of the day, before heading out into the fields (pre-dawn, always) to work at least 13 hours... a meal which centered around the only thing they could afford that would also sustain them through that much back-breaking labor... and then, 100 years later, at another hearth, where a peasant family mixes together ingredients that have evolved much yet changed little, to produce a very similar product- just as important to them- but within its sustenance grows a weapon for the branding of their class... then, as the centuries roll by, I follow and watch the tides turn, causing the reversal from a food of peasants to the food of kings, and then, finally- with the help of modern machinery- to the food of every man.

It is humbling to think just how far such a seemingly mundane staple has come, how long it's actually been around, and just how important it's, ahem, role... was then, and still is now. It gives me quite a bit more respect for my morning toast, to say the least!

At the very end of the book are the recipes, and they're not just ordinary recipes... they're ancient recipes, with methods intact from pre-industrial revolutionary Europe, and the simplicity one would expect from those times. I made myself finish the history part of the book in it's entirety with nary a peek at the recipes until I was through it all.

It just so happened that I got the opportunity to read through those recipes, and even to try a couple of them, the morning after I finished the book- without 'helping' hands- thanks to an involuntary 5am wake time (ahem).

So... in the silence and still of the pre-dawn hours that so many bakers of antiquity knew too well, I had the pleasure of meditating on the smell of cool morning air, the sound of birds waking, the taste of fresh coffee, the warm glow of my own 'hearth,' and the feel of bread dough under my palms.

Always cut a cross in your loaves to let the devil out... or so they say

For a moment, standing in my quiet kitchen, I felt connected to the generations, cultures, and classes of centuries of bakers- both amateur and master- that baked bread daily, not for the experience or the superior flavor or the novelty of it, but for their survival, and I marveled at the power of such a simple staple... and felt infinitely thankful.

>I've always enjoyed making my family's bread, and before this book, I was terrible at it... once I understood some of the chemistry and 'why' behind the 'what,' though, I feel like I got the hang of it pretty well; however, it's easy to get stuck in a rut with so many things in this life, and bread making is not an exception. I came out of my comfort zone a little with these recipes, and my verdict is this: great flavor, fun to make, but a little too low-moisture for our area, perhaps? I found the crumb on both loaves a little dense, and they 'proved' in a strange way when they baked. However, the book has so many more little gems I've dog-eared... I'm not going to let the texture of my first try stop me from trying the others!

"The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight." -M.F.K. Fisher

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