Creating history without nostalgia: The Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge

by piecurious

I have no history or nostalgia of baking.  There are no memories of being only yeigh-high, tugging on my mother’s, or as the story often goes, my grandmother’s skirt pleats, as she whipped cream into a sleek meringue, delicately wove a lattice crust on a fall apple pie, or mashed overripe bananas in preparation for what would later become a recipe for a just-like-my-grandmother-made-it banana bread.

My mother was and is many things—hard working, unconditionally loving, understanding and always available.  But she is no baker.  That isn’t to say she can’t bake, but that as a single, working mother, baking wasn’t one of her top priorities.  And it still isn’t.  Her oven doesn’t even work.  As for my grandmother, well, let’s just say she had a very peckish appetite. She enjoyed a fine glass of wine, something I have yet to develop a palate for, but not the baking (or eating) of pies, cakes or other pastries.

So I may not yearn to recapture the sweet and yeasty smell of freshly baked bread cooling on my grandmother’s windowsill from my childhood, nor might I be nostalgically transported back in time to an era of childish wonder at how my mother seemingly magically transformed powdery flour into luscious slices of bread on which she would lovingly spread homemade marmalade when that warm scent finds its way to my nostrils.  But I am making my own history nevertheless.

The history of baking that I have only just begun to create is perhaps less romantic than the familial story so often told.  In general, my interest in baking developed out of the desire to eliminate processed food from my diet—to eat with the confidence and satisfaction of knowing how, who, where and with what the food I chose to ingest and chose to allow to become a part of me was produced.  More specifically, my passion for baking bread grew out of my fascination with the way in which bacteria and enzymes from a variety of different sources can be harnessed and manipulated, and then finally sacrificed to produce numerous variations of what has quite possibly become the most ubiquitous staple of the human diet—the great sustainer of human life everywhere.

Baking bread generates within me the sensation that I am nurturing life.  Each experience is one of creation in which an organism with its own personality is cultivated. It demands my attention to its needs for its survival—more hydration or more flour, more time or less time, warmth or refrigeration—while at the same time exhibiting a flexibility that allows for the shaping of its personality and the coaxing out of different tastes and textures.  I feel a sense of reverence when this creation I have nurtured expels its last breath in the darkened interior of my oven for the pleasure I derive from the crackling of a caramelized crust against my teeth or the downy sensation of a tight, moist crumb on my tongue.

Unsurprisingly, one of the first food/recipe books I bought was Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread.  And while I have made many of the recipes from the book, I have only recently decided to take part in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge—a group of bloggers and bakers dedicated to baking from start to finish each recipe from the book.  The images you see in this post are of the first recipe, Anadama bread, which relies on a cornmeal soaker and molasses to give it its distinct flavour.  While the texture of the bread is enjoyable, the flavour is not something I appreciate, although I find the use of soakers to coax out the sugars and flavours of particular grains interesting and therefore the baking of this recipe has served its purpose.  You can read more about the process for Anadama bread here.  Next in line is Greek Celebration Bread. Perhaps I’ll wait until I have something extraordinary to celebrate.