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Week 8: Bread

What follows is an installment of my Writer’s Diary, which for eighteen weeks I am sending every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Hello, Gentle Readers, and may your Sunday be peaceful. This is the eighth letter in this food-themed season of Nighthawk’s Notes. (Is that the name of this newsletter/email diary? Still not sure.) Thank you for reading it.

When I started this season, I said that there would be either 12 or 18 issues. Finally this week I figured out the answer: there will be 18 issues! But they won’t all be in a row. After today’s newsletter, I’ll be taking a break for the next three months—I have a lot of stuff needing doing, all of which has been made more complicated by the pandemic. You might hear from me once or twice over the summer. Then on October 11th I’ll resume sending the newsletter weekly, and we’ll finish off the season around Thanksgiving. I can hardly wait to write about the food we eat when it’s not 100° outside.

Before we get to the heart of this email, a quick thanks to everyone who read and circulated Elias’s column. He and I were both gratified by the feedback, and it seems to have moved the needle a little bit in the renaming movement. Stay tuned for more guest columns in this space—including one about biscuits!

For now, though: bread. Beautiful bread. Crusty bread. Creamy bread. Sourdough bread.

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I started baking bread in college, when I lived in a co-op with 31 other students. Our living situation was cooperative because we pooled our ‘board’ money and shared our labor to take care of cooking for each other and cleaning our two big houses. It was a good deal in some ways: we saved about $600 a semester, in comparison to what the other students living in college housing paid. But we made up for it in labor, each spending somewhere around 4-8 hours a week doing chores.

The chores were something you signed up for on a big online spreadsheet. Each had a different point value. Cleaning a small bathroom was worth 5pts, while tidying up the kitchen in the middle of the day was 4pts and cleaning our three regrigerators was 7pts. The two cooks every night each got 7pts for cooking dinner, while the person who did the dishes got 4pts and the one who washed the pots and pans got 9pts for the trouble. Chore point values were assigned roughly on the basis of demand: because many people wanted to cook dinner, it was worth fewer points than clean-up even though it often took hours longer. Everybody had to do 33pts of chores every fortnight. It was a socialist system that operated on principles of supply and demand.

One of the most in-demand chores was baking bread (7pts). There were some talented bakers at the co-op, including Abram, who had been the head baker at Deep Springs College when he studied there, and Ashley, who would go on to be a professional pastry chef. She was the one who showed me a good cookbook to start with (The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart) and how to do the ‘window pane test,’ where you test gluten development by stretching the dough thin and looking to see if it lets light through, like the webbing between our fingers does.

I was a senior when I baked my first loaves. When they came out of the oven, I was so proud. They were ugly, sure, but they were mine. They were worth so much more than seven points.

Today, it seems like half of all Americans have had the empowering experience of pulling loaves fresh from the oven—and the other half is sick of hearing about it! The pandemic has led to a much-publicized sourdough bread baking craze, including shortages of flour, dry active yeast, bannetons, popular bread cookbooks, and even instant-read thermometers. Americans love nothing more than to buy all the gadgets for a task.
The funny thing about learning a new skill is that it’s not enough to have the requisite materials. You also need to know where to start—and where to find guidance if everything doesn’t work out. A teacher or mentor is someone who does this work. But so too are books—cookbooks especially—and blogs, and forums, and even email newsletters.

I can’t teach you how to make delicious sourdough bread in this single email, but I can guide you to the resources I have found—and created—that make it possible for me to pull delicious, life-sustaining loaves out of my oven with consistency. Maybe you have a bunch of bread baking gear and have baked a half-dozen loaves so far, but you don’t know how to take things to the next level. Maybe you feel like the sourdough train left you behind, but you don’t know how to catch up. Perhaps you’re just curious what all the fuss is about. This email is for you.

When I graduated college in 2012, I knew that I wanted to get better at baking. But it wasn’t until I signed my first lease—on a tiny one-bedroom in soon-to-formerly-have-been-known-as Fort Bragg—that I got the materials and started baking bread again.

At Gallery Books, I found the first ingredient: a cookbook called Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. I didn’t know at the time that it was an international bestseller that was revolutionizing home bread baking. Instead, I felt like I was the only person encountering Robertson’s long narrative about his apprenticeship in France, his search for a specific sort of loaf he knew from old paintings, how he built his wood-fired oven out in windswept Bolinas, and his eventual to glory in the form of a popular storefront in San Francisco’s Mission District. A story of rags to riches—but with bread!

Years later, I was reading Robin Sloan’s novel Sourdough when I found what could only be a gentle parody of Robertson (renamed Everett Broom) and his cookbook. Here’s an excerpt:

The book’s introduction ran for twenty-two pages. It was a baker’s bildungsroman, chronicling Broom’s youth in Sacramento, his visits to his grandfather’s bakery, his flameout as a professional skateboarder, his addiction to a home-cooked drug known as spaz rocks, and finally his retreat to a bread-baking shack on the beach and his reformation there. There were photos, all monochrome: a young man with a thick black beard below a face so clean and cherubic it made the beard appear glued on. In a photo spread across two pages, he leaned against a homemade brick oven, for which the adjective rustic was a favor; it looked like a pile of rubble. Scattered in the foreground were various signifiers of bohemian tranquility: a guitar, a surfboard, a book with VOLTAIRE on the spine.

This is the vibe of Tartine Bread! It’s a weird cookbook, part heroic autobiography, part Pinterest mood board. But at its heart, it is a detailed guide to making ridiculously delicious bread. I studied this book.

At the urging of Robertson, I invested in a few other tools:

  • A digital scale to measure flour and water by weight
  • A dough scraper to scrape out kitchen bowls
  • A bench knife to help turn the loaves during shaping
  • Some razor blades to score the loaves before baking
  • A Dutch oven in which to bake the loaves

These, all told, cost me less than $100. And then I was off to the races: capturing a wild sourdough starter, mixing up leaven and then dough, letting it rise in the fridge, baking in the early morning. Some loaves came out fantastic; others were abject failures. Slowly I learned how to make bread.

You can do all of this without even buying Tartine Bread! There’s a fairly good ‘Cliff’s Notes’ version of Robertson’s method that you can find at this link. It won’t teach you everything, but it’s a fine place to start.

The main learning curves for making bread this way are getting over kneading (you develop the gluten instead by giving the bread ‘turns’), getting used to shaping and handling a wet dough, and figuring out the schedule. But the results are excellent, and the hands-on work only takes about 30-60 minutes total, once you know what you’re doing.

When I started baking this bread I found myself totally stymied by timing. When do you start? When do you bake? How long should each step take?

In my confusion, I did what anybody who enjoyed high school chemistry would do: I made a log in which I could keep track of all the variables.

It turns out it’s pretty useful to keep this kind of record. It gives me data to help sort out out what went wrong or right in any one bake. It lets me replicate more successful loaves. And I’ve even taken to stapling a polaroid of the finished loaves, as an aide de memoire. Also: the filled-out log looks pretty cool, right?

I’m posting the blank log as a PDF on my website, in case it might useful for you, too.

The current baking schedule I’m following—as a man stuck at home all day, every day—has me mixing up my leaven at about 10am, mixing the dough at about 3pm, shaping my loaves in the evening, letting them rise overnight in the fridge, and then baking when I get up in the morning. There’s a certain Christmas morning feeling to getting up, pre-heating the oven, and then waiting to see what sort of oven spring your loaves give you.

Here is a bread log following this schedule that I filled out for my mom—and that may be useful for you, too:

The other big piece of advice I have is to seek out many different voices, different suggestions, different techniques. I’ve found useful videos on bread Youtube (a silly, bearded place) and useful discussion threads on bread forums. Perhaps my favorite place to go for inspiration and fresh ideas is a blog called Girl Meets Rye. The author, Francis-Olive Hampton, started the blog as Tartine Bread Experiment, devoted to exploring the cookbook Tartine Bread. But her curiosity and culinary genius came to exceed the bounds of homage. I can read her posts all day long.

Here in Los Angeles, the hour grows late. The downstairs neighbors are smoking their Sunday spliff, the sweet herb wafting up and through my open window. I want to take a walk before the light fails. And then to make dinner, watch a movie. The small patterns of life that, together, are life itself.

It’s been a pleasure sharing these last eight Sundays with you. Thank you for joining me here, for sending me emails of support or gentle correction, for cooking some of these recipes along with me, and for joining me in the struggle to make our world a more just one. None of this has ended. Even though this newsletter is taking a break, we’re all still here, still hard at it. Let’s keep cookin’.

I’ll see you in a month or two. Till then, stay well and enjoy the sun!

June 28, 2020