what was your first bread book?
Insomnia is out of the ordinary for me, but here I sit this morning counting the hours until my alarm rings at 6 am. As I thumb through my various bread books in search of inspiration (or perhaps hoping to relive the inevitable, instant slumber experienced when opening nearly any book in my college years), I find myself drawn to my very first bread book, Bread Alone, by Dan Leader.
I bought this book shortly after returning from my honeymoon in the French Riviera. This was truly a dream vacation, as we spent two weeks hopping from town to town with only our two small backpacks, like characters out of a Kerouac novel. Our days were filled with simple meals of bread, cheese, and wine, lounging in the sand of Ville Franche, rolling in and out of sleep as the yachts bobbed lazily in the harbor. We lived close to the earth with only a bit of money to carry us day to day, but we didn't envy the movie stars and millionaires hidden away in their Chateaus. Our only luxury was the bread, and at pennies an ounce, it was a luxury in which we happily indulged.
When we returned home to our jobs, house, and family responsibilities, we just could not let go of the bread. I looked all over our city for decent bread, but even the "French" bakery down the street had only stale, cottony stuff to offer. It didn't take long before I decided that if I wanted bread, I would have to learn to make it on my own.
One brisk, autumn day, I spent an hour at the bookstore leafing through the small selection of bread books. I don't know exactly what made me decide upon Bread Alone, but looking back, it's interesting to see how that one book has affected my baking technique and, for lack of a better word, philosophy. In case you haven't read this book, Leader is adamant about high-quality ingredients, and is a stickler for time and temperature.
I spent my first year of baking trying my darnedest to maintain my dough at precisely 78F, kneading for exactly 14 minutes, and in the process, wasting many pounds of expensive flour. Admittedly a bit pretentious, I decried any loaf made with sweeteners or fats. These were not, in my mind, real breads. They were somewhat more of a pastry, or maybe a cake.
Of course, now I know differently. There's nothing wrong with adding a little oil to the dough to help keep it tender. I don't buy the most expensive flours, nor do I obsess over temperature. And after years of practice, several more books, and hours logged at this website, I'm turning out some pretty decent loaves.
I still go back to Leader's book often. I absolutely love the 16 pages of color photographs showing Basil Kamir's bakery in Paris. The stories he tells of his own journey through bread are inspiring and beautifully written. And, while his strict techniques don't work for my lifestyle, I still choose almost exclusively to bake "lean" loaves made only of flour, water, salt, and yeast.
What was your first bread book? How does it continue to shape your baking habits? What do you do differently now than when you first started? Ah, 2:40 am... I think this little essay has just about put me to sleep. I hope it didn't do the same for others!