It has been my great good fortune to have interacted with a number of extraordinary individuals – some of whom have become my teachers (some in the area of baking). It has also been my great good fortune to have been able to bake in various kitchens and bakeries throughout my baking life to date.
(I feel compelled to say here that one of these extraordinary teachers – in an area far removed from baking – would remind me that it was not so much good fortune, but that I sought out these opportunities, managed priorities in my life, and was willing to work hard so that I should be able to pursue them. However, I do feel fortunate and am grateful that both chance and will have allowed me the experiences I have had.)
So last week I headed to the great northeast – where driving seems to be some kind of competitive sport – to bake.
Of course, as the blog title suggests, everything was different: the work surface, the doughs, the mixers, and the shaping methods. No friendly wooden surface with its unique combination of being non-stick yet slightly “grippy”, rather stone with its qualities of cold and absolute smoothness. Every shape (and pre shape for that matter) was made in a way that I had never done it and although the mixers were familiar to me, most of the work would have been faster and easier in my beloved spiral. Although I will often say my oven has no “soul”, the wind tunnel of an oven we baked in was never meant for hearth breads and each batch pulled from that heartless thing is a triumph of skill and persistence over the machine.
In short, everything I knew was wrong, but for me this was far from the first time this has happened (and while I will not tell the story, it recently happened in a particularly spectacular way) and I have learned in such situations that it is best to be humble, empty oneself, and learn as though for the first time.
What I have found is that when the vessel is emptied, not only does it make room for the new, but actually grows in capacity. Certainty is replaced with curiosity and for the curious, the days fill with wonder.
This may be applicable to many things, but when making breads to another person’s specifications (for I was there to learn more than to teach and we all should control the bread that comes from our own kitchen), it is essential. And although Varda did some amount of fussing at many of my loaves, I did my best to use her methods and most loaves came out looking pretty much like hers.
My braiding (and I’ll contend that the braid she was using is supposed to come out like that – but it was her bread, not mine) was naturally much more linear than hers, I contented myself with dividing and pre shaping. I could have learned her twist on the method, but there was no sense in my slowing down the process.
Varda puts a special finish on the ends of her baguettes which I could do, but, as it turns out, in my own specific style. It wasn’t enough of a difference to make the baguettes not acceptable, but it was a difference caused by my hands and how I approach rolling dough on the bench and was enough to identify my loaves.
It was the baguette shaping that caused me to think of the nature of this craft (for it is a craft) of bread baking.
Once I heard one of my extraordinary teachers discuss why he had chosen the equipment he had for his well-equipped (and well-funded) bakery. He had purchased a large, state of the art hydraulic divider (much better than the old mechanical dividers) but had declined to purchase machines to do shaping and pre shaping even though these fast and effective machines might produce more consistent loaves. His rationale was that dividing was a solitary and mechanical process (although skill comes into play in cutting the dough into nearly the correct weight before putting it on the scale) no matter how it is done. But he looked at the bakers who were pre shaping and shaping and they were clustered around the bench talking and laughing. Shaping equipment would reduce this group to solitary individuals feeding machines. His first consideration was to create a good life for the bakers in his employ. Most hobby bakers bake alone (and I am certainly one of them most of the time), but as Varda and I stood in the same kitchen chatting about various things we were doing, I began to regain a better sense of the community of bakers, and not in that somewhat over sharing and yet impersonal realm of the on-line community, but in the world where a hand can reach over and feel the dough, correct the mistake right away, or laugh together when, once again, one of the bakers (well, me..) talks to the bread.
The second consideration was that in his bakery, although consistency was important, retaining the subtle differences in loaves made with hands and skill was just as important. Baking is a hand craft, and consistency is not uniformity. While the risk is always that with hands there can be bad days, with machines there can never be exceptional ones. Bread is being made, but it is the baker, the baker, who is always central.
There are those who contend that our understanding of symbols (for what are words but symbols - pale representations of vibrant realities) may never change but I am not in their number. So as my understanding of the word “artisan” develops, I will say that while I washed what seemed to be an endless stream of the bowls and containers created by the baking process I found myself thinking about being both central and humble.
I did teach Varda a way more efficient pre shape, but will I be changing my methods? Not in my kitchen, not for my breads. No. I am very fast with my shaping, my breads carry my signature, and I am content with that. But I have been changed, and we can all hope for the better, by the experience of doing things someone else’s way yet again. I am even more convinced (after closer reading of the Colorado Cottage Laws has informed me that I can sell - with many restrictions – foods made at home) that baking hearth breads in a greater volume is more work (and investment) than I want to take on, although other baked goods and confections seem distinctly possible. I will be happy to return to a wooden work surface, but will miss the good company.
And I have adopted a new motto: “Bake wonderful brioche or the terrorists win!”