Or, more accurately — good afternoon. As I’m writing this, I am sitting at my kitchen table, cold coffee just within spilling distance of my right hand, listening to the mechanically soothing hums and whirs of the dishwasher behind me. I have just spent the better part of my day kneading dough, rolling dough, poking holes in dough — pretty much everything one can do to ball of dough. With any luck and a little time, by this evening I’ll have a two loaves of country bread, a large apple galette, some salted rye cookies, flatbread, and big batch of hummus. Ahh, to be quarantined.
While I certainly didn’t plan to spend the better part of my day ensconced in baking projects, I fell into the “oh, this won’t take long — I’m already in the kitchen” trap, happened to glance at the clock several hours later and realize that I’d been at it for nearly my entire “work” day. And you know what? It felt damn good to just goof off. While quarantine is certainly challenging in some respects, the last few weeks have been virtually devoid of distractions and my productive output has been abnormally high. Suffice it to say, I didn’t feel the pangs of panic that I usually feel after getting lost in some project or another when I really should be working.
I haven’t been baking long. In fact — for most of my life I’ve profusely identified as the type that “doesn’t bake.” When it came up in conversation, I’d swear it wasn’t my style. Too detailed. Too precise. Too many variables. I preferred the oil-sizzling, meat-flipping, seat-of-your-pants improv act of cooking. Just take some flavors you liked, throw ‘em in a pan together, add heat. The rules were loose. Did you put too much salt in that tomato sauce? No problem, maybe thin it out. It will still be just fine. But forget to carefully measure the baking powder in a loaf of pumpkin bread? Might as well toss it in the compost heap and put on a dunce cap.
If I enjoyed the rock n’ roll ethos of cooking, baking seemed its antipode: the slow cadence, the precision, the proofing time and baking time and cooling time. Its peculiar instructions like “the butter should be cool but not cold” or “seperate whites from yolks, beat them, and fold them back together.” If cooking was a guitar solo, baking was a ballet. And I didn’t understand it.
And then one day, I had a catalytic experience; a point when time and place and one particular snack coalesced into a single moment of pure inspiration that would carry me forward through many long hours of practice.
It was a slice of sourdough.
I was in Kamloops, a small city in the cradle of the Thompson River Valley of southern British Columbia. I had just checked out of the small two-story farmhouse where I had spent a night with my then-girlfriend, and was preparing to leave. Our host, a petite woman in her sixties with greying temples and a kind, soft face, had invited me up to her sunny kitchen, where we stood chatting idly about her time in Kamloops and the renovation of her house — a project she had taken on a year before and was still hard at work on.
As we talked, my gaze wandered around ornate cabinetry and worn wooden counters.I inquired about a stack of canning jars sitting open on the counter. Her eyes lit up. She told me about how she canned and preserved all summer long in preparation for the winter months. The frosts destroyed pretty much everything, she said. She told me how she had rows and rows of canned beans, pickled asparagi, and other such preserves on shelves in her pantry, and how she and her husband enjoyed the spoils of her garden all winter long.
Then, she produced a loaf of fresh sourdough bread, baked just that morning, and offered me a slice, along with butter and a dollop of homemade peach jam.
Never being one to turn down a host, I gladly accepted. It was superb. It was sour and sweet and chewy and earthy and perfectly rustic. It was just the thing you wanted to be munching on while standing in a sunny farmhouse kitchen in Kamloops chatting about pickled beans and winter vegetables. I complemented her profusely. I probably closed my eyes for a few seconds in rapture.
Blushing, she insisted that baking these wild, rustic, sour country breads was so easy you could do it in your sleep. She showed me her starter. It was a sour, bubbling, goop with a slightly alcoholic smell. She explained to me that she simply mixed a little goop with a little flour, water, and salt, and threw it in the oven a few hours later. She insisted that she didn’t even really measure ingredients. I instantly believed her. We talked for a while more, I thanked her again, and when I left, I left with a jar of her homemade jam and a small container of sourdough starter tucked under my arm. But most importantly, I left with a newly minted confidence. I would bake sourdough. I ignored the voice in my head that recognized the woman’s bashfulness, and willingly decided to believe it would be simple despite every other experience I’d had to the contrary,
Of course, it was decidedly not simple. Feed the starter. Mix some dough. Bake. Right? I combed the internet for recipes, studiously ignoring any instruction that seemed vaguely fussy or overly particular. Surely, my matronly sourdough progenitor hadn’t measured the final dough temperature, pre-mixed the ingredients, or proofed her breads in the fridge. She had said it was easy.
Quite surprisingly, my first loaf wasn’t bad. Not the fragrant bespeckled artisan bread I had imagined, but good enough to disappear quickly. I mentally high-fived myself. I had this nailed. I imagined myself baking batards and baguettes and even croissants with ease.
Sadly, my beginners luck did not last. My second loaf was awful. So was my third: a sort of oblong brown hockey puck. By the fourth failure, I began to become discouraged. It was a mystery. I had changed nothing, but each time my bread, so promising at first, would emerge from the oven a deflated potato.
I resolved to find out what was happening. After skimming through some forums and home baking blogs, I asked a friend who runs a bakery in Vancouver for advice. He told me, ever so kindly, that I was out of my mind. That it was silly to try to learn to bake sourdough before I had learned, properly, how to bake — like learning to drive in a Formula One car. He told me to buy a few books and start with something simpler, easier to control.
I grumbled a bit, resisted, had bitter thoughts, and for a time I did nothing — put it out of my mind and resumed my life as it had been before The Sourdough.
But, as time passed, the compulsion to bake did not disappear. I would pass a bakery, catch a whiff of bread through an open vent, or notice a book on display in the window of a shop... and catch myself daydreaming. Everywhere I went, bread seemed to follow.
So, once again, I began reading articles and watching videos in my spare moments. I reluctantly put away my sourdough starter and bought some books on baking yeasted breads.
Slowly, I started leaning into the fussiness. I learned about autolysis and dough temperatures and proofing times. Little by little, the complexity that had deterred me from baking for years became less opaque, less mysterious. I began to acclimatize to the long, slow preparations and careful measurements, spurred on by the occasional golden, delicious, fresh loaf of bread.
It turns out that, like anything complicated, baking actually isn’t — if you take time to learn the rules and practice the technique. Many hours and a few books after those first deflated potatoes, my bread is much better. I still can’t make a consistently great loaf of sourdough, but at least I understand why now.
I still think of that slice of bread in Kamloops, sometimes. Perhaps my host was too bashful to admit to her meticulous effort. Or perhaps she was enjoying the spotlight, getting a kick out of how impressed I was with her home-cookery, and wanted to maintain the impression of effortlessness.
Or maybe, for her, it truly was that simple. Occasionally, I have encountered craftsmen and women that have repeated their craft so many billions of times that they are no longer conscious of how they create — the memories long since migrated from foreheads to fingertips.
I’ll probably never know. There is still a certain degree of sorcery in baking, even amongst professional circles. Maybe, it’s something special in the water. Or some errant yeast in the Kamloops air that makes irresistible bread.
In the mean time, as I must, I continue to practice. I mix more dough. Each week, or every other, I bake another loaf. I’ve discovered, as many do, the joys of bread, of using my hands to kneed and squeeze and scrape and mix. Of feeling flour and water coalesce, little by little, into firm, smooth balls. Of watching fermentation happen in real-time. Of transforming simple things into joyful, nourishing sustenance. Slowly, I’m teaching my hands to learn what sorcery they might.
And of course, I enjoy the spoils.