Confessions of a baker
At some point during COVID, I became an addict. It wasn’t at the beginning but sometime during the fall of 2020 I decided to make my own starter. It seemed easy enough and soon it was bubbling away.
The transition to bread was a bit more difficult. For my first attempt, I watched the YouTube videos and read all the steps, but my dough looked nothing like that and came out of the oven a leaden lump. Round two was the same, and round three. Now I was getting annoyed – in a “game on” sort of way. I began experimenting. With ingredient amounts, with temperatures, with process.
I don’t remember how many attempts later it was, but I do remember the moment. I opened the Dutch oven after 30 minutes and the bread had popped. It even had ears. And that was the beginning of my addiction.
One success did not satisfy me, it propelled me forward. I worked on my crumb. I learned to make different kinds. I read many books. Sometimes I made one loaf, other times several. I bake bread a lot, not every day but most days. I bake bread for all my friends. When I have a bad day, I bake bread. When I have a good day, I bake bread. Two years later, I have yet to moderate. Why?
There is something to the difficulty I had getting started. I have always liked a challenge and there were many along the way. Making the starter, the many attempts to any success at all. Then figuring out the basic dough, working on the best crumb, experimenting with different flour and various additions, focaccia (today's pictured below). There have been many successes but also some setbacks that have kept me interested.
But it is more than that. My starter is alive. It responds to my care – loves to be fed, really loves to be fed with warm water. It bubbles and even talks as it eats. I love to watch it and sometimes I find myself talking back.
As I have developed a good relationship with my starter, my bread has become predictably good. I never worry that it won’t turn out. It is amazing. I love to give it as gifts. I love to take it to outdoor concerts. I love to hear people say “did you bake that?” I love it when it is the best bread they have had. Baking bread satisfies many of my perfectionist tendencies.
Like other sentient beings, though, it also has its own rhythm and there is always some uncertainty about just how our interaction will turn out. It rises faster sometimes and slower others. It develops more or less structure. Sometimes it pops ears, other times it does not. (Incidentally, it almost always pops ears when I bake it in Vail, less reliably in Denver. I assume it is the altitude but have not been able to find anyone who says that should be true.) So, while it is always good, sometimes it is much more amazing than others.
Bread is also an undeniable benefit to the world. Who (with the sad exception of my gluten-free friends) doesn’t like a good loaf of bread? Bread makes people’s lives better, it gives them sustenance, it makes them happy. Passing around slices of bread to strangers at concerts leads to immediate bonding. Even those who can’t eat it appreciate its smell and beauty. Baking bread is never wasted effort or effort that leads to harm.
I think that is why I am addicted. There is something really alluring to me about an activity that holds confidence and uncertainty in tension all in pursuit of something undeniably good. When I fantasize, as I do often, about opening a bakery my daughter warns me that my love of it could change if it was a job, something I had to do. She may be on to something, but it is so, so tempting.