One of my absolute favorite things in life is excellent bread. I have a particular affinity for the chewy, crusty, open-structured artisan loaves that have proliferated in recent years – to the point where they’re easily available in most grocery stores. Over the last few years, I often asked Arthur to grab one on his lunch to bring home for dinner that night.
Obviously, the pandemic changed that.
I’ve been baking since I was small, but artisan loaves have always eluded me. Commercial bakeries have steam-injected ovens that help immensely with the crust texture and while I’ve tried most of the suggestions for home bakers (ice cubes to the bottom of the oven, small pan of water, throwing water onto a hot baking sheet underneath the bread), I’ve never gotten the combination of chewy/crunchy that comes so easily from the grocery store.
Since dropping by the grocery store isn’t the usual quick stop now and when I’ve tried to order artisan loaves the store hasn’t had any, I decided to tackle the project. Armed with baker’s tools amassed over nearly fifteen years of adult life and cooking and fortifying myself with some of the bread episodes from The Great British Baking Show, I pulled out the flour, yeast, salt, and water that was supposed to turn into excellence.
I started with French baguettes following this recipe. While my rise times were slightly longer than the recipe indicated, a cast-iron skillet preheated in the oven with boiling water poured over to create the steam was a revelation. I don’t know how, exactly, it’s different than the other methods of making steam, but it worked better than anything I’ve tried before. I suspect it has something to do with the way the skillet holds and diffuses the heat in the oven. Leaving the baguettes in the cooling oven with the door cracked a couple of inches also helped the crust texture – much better than putting them on a rack on the counter. I cut the number of loaves to two (I like a slightly thicker loaf) and while it’s not quite commercial bakery perfection, it’s also pretty darned good.
Ciabatta for sandwiches came yesterday (recipe here). With my trusty stand mixer to knead the incredibly wet dough and a baking stone, I was amazed at how easy this particular bread turned out. It also was every bit as good as anything I buy in the store, making me wonder why I’ve been paying $2.50 – $3.50 a loaf for years. The crust was perfect, the open texture fully present.
The irony, of course, is now I have no dinner parties to plan, no people to host, and no small groups for places like church to throw open the doors. Bread feels like it should be baked for people.
There’s a lot of clashing think-pieces generated by the pandemic and quarantine: chance to learn a new skill! Collective trauma! Optimize your life! It’s okay to not be productive! We can figure this out! We’re all sitting in the corner with no attention span! Learning to bake these loaves seems to fall under all of the above for me. It feels like the kind of thing that I could post to social media as proof that I am doing great under quarantine, but that belies the quiet desperation and anxiety that’s somewhat soothed by shaping dough, the crash that comes after the picture of the pretty loaves: what’s next?
I don’t know. Nobody knows.
It reminds me a bit of when I was pregnant with the pregnancy that turned out to be ectopic, that rollercoaster of hope dashing into unpleasant realities. Desperately clinging to any good sign, cognizant of the many bad ones, hoping for the best, all with an underlying suspicion that this is not going to turn out well. One of the qualities of trauma that the TV shows tend to elide is the long stretches of waiting and boredom and worry. The bad news is preceded by hours, days, weeks of build-up. It’s sitting with a book in my hands, unable to focus more than a few minutes, counting the time before the next lab result, the next ultrasound, when the doctor arrives, the phone call (then) or the next news report, the next zoom gathering, the next phone call (now). Trying to find ways to fill the time. It could be better. It could be worse.
I miss people. It’s a weird thing for an introvert to admit. I miss running into acquaintances at the zoo or the grocery and chatting, small talk that I usually feel awkward making and used to dread a bit but now feels like a lifeline. I miss my parents visiting, miss hosting two of my SILs for dinner periodically, miss visiting with BIL/SIL and niece and nephew, having my MIL and FIL come over. I miss choir and church and the collective responses: Peace be with you! And also with you. And also with you. And also with you. The absolution, the communion, and then the other communion of doughnuts and institutional coffee and talk.
Perfecting recipes feels like faith. Faith that someday there will be dinner parties and small groups and people to bake for again.
At least there’s good bread to eat while I wait.
The ciabatta loaves.