"Blues is to jazz what yeast is to bread. Without it, it's flat."
-- Carmen Macrae, (1820-1994) jazz singer and pianist
In culinary school, this short spring semester, I'm taking an artisan breads class. Kind of a crash course, it's ten weeks worth of instruction crammed into five. Starting at noon on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we work late into the afternoon. It's an incredible immersion in the wondrous details of handmade hearth breads. I have six classmates and one exceptionally well-versed, even-tempered teacher.
All of us, teacher included, seem pleased to be there. But that's not too surprising because the average age of the students in this class, I would guess, is about 45. I figure if you can't appreciate complex bread by the time you're in middle-age, you're simply never going to. If you reach that age and you do indeed appreciate exceptional bread, then you probably also appreciate a lot of other basic earthy blessings as well. And, if you ask me, that's a good way to live.
An enormous fringe benefit of the class is the fact that we're allowed to take home at least one loaf of every bread variety that we prepare. Normally, during the busy part of the school year, almost everything produced by students is used for the culinary school-run restaurant, cafeteria, and retail bakery. For now, though, at the end of each class session, I must resemble a pack mule masquerading as a chef while making the trek out to my car. Along with my usual gear, I'm also laden with a few loaves of supremely fresh bread, all tucked carefully into a brown paper sack, some of them still warm.
(Onion and bacon bread, below.)
Too many to count . . .
Let's see . . . there was the whole wheat sourdough studded with sunflower seeds, flax seeds, and sesame seeds that came home this past Tuesday. Soft inside and slightly dense, with chewy bits here and there, my husband and I loved this one. Have a nice piece of this along with a hearty salad, and you're good to go.
And the French cheddar that came home the first week was irresistible. With veins of orange cheese woven throughout and atop the loaf, this one was really hard to ignore. My kids gobbled most of it up.
The big round sesame semolina loaf--my favorite from this week--was tender inside, with an irregular bubbly texture and a beautifully creamy crumb. Pictured below, it's parked next to a compact onion and parmesan sourdough.
Then again, maybe the chocolate cherry sourdough loaf, at the forefront in the photo below, wins the prize for this week. Spiked with big flat chunks of Callebaut dark chocolate and whole dried sweet cherries, I thought this was pretty extraordinary. I'm a devoted chocolate fan, as you know, but the cynic in me withheld judgment until I bit into a slice. All I can think to say to you is yum. There is no adjective in English sufficient to describe the flavor pairing of high quality chocolate, cherries, and really good bread. Our teacher, Chef Andy, recommended we try making this into French toast. Sweet Jesus.
And then there were all the flatbreads, made last week: naan, pita, chapatis, flour tortillas, regular and gluten-free pizza, Armenian cracker bread, and the slightly puffy sweet-olive-oil bread with its pretty sand-dollar design. Most of these were brand new baking experiences for me, now at least partially demystified. Not that we could legitimately duplicate the genuine article with all of these--I mean, come on, real naan?--but at least we took an honest swing at them, yes?
Like an infant . . .
In the midst of all this, I find myself continually comparing the making of dough, and the baking of bread, to taking care of a baby. The dough is tactile and warm, like an infant. It requires careful and focused attention, just like a new addition to the family does, and in one sense it's quite literally alive.
(A moist, soft, potato bread below.)
And, so, here I go again. For the first time in my baking life, I've made and used a liquid sourdough starter. We all got these going on the first day of class. It took two weeks to reach maturity, after being quite literally fed and burped and fussed over. I'm grateful to report that it performed most admirably in class this week when used in a few recipes. Now safely back at home in the fridge, it's been sleeping quietly through the night. What more could I ask?
(Below is garlic and potato bread, made with redskin potato and garlic cloves that were roasted in olive oil before being mixed into the dough.)
You mean I'm cured, doc?
I've remarked repeatedly over the past year about my fear of baking with yeast, but you know what? I think I'm just about cured. No kidding! This total immersion bread-therapy has been good for me. So good, I went out and bought a big baking stone last Monday, as well as a home-oven sized baker's peel.
I tried out these implements a few days ago with results that astounded even me. I look forward to sharing those results with you soon. But for the moment, I think I've probably talked enough. Thanks so much for listening to me ramble. I figured I'd better tell you about my bread class pretty soon or risk bursting and deflating like dough that's been left in the proofing-box too long. Oh, and I just wanted to tell you, I think you guys are the best thing since sliced bread.