a lesson in bread

Last week I took a breadmaking class. I spent two hours listening to complicated, obscure rules about how to care for the San Francisco starter i was going to take home with me. I watched a fat pillow of pre-risen dough flop onto the work surface and saw it unceremoniously severed into sections for us to form into rounds.

My first pass at shaping the dough failed, as the surface of the dough ball broke and I was advised by the instructor to just "let it rest for awhile." So I sat back and watched as the question and answer session devolved into the question and more question session and then, when enough time passed, took the dough in my hands again.
A few swift folds, pats and pinces later and I had a round fair enough to place alongside the others to bake in the oven. And then, at the end of class, we cut into the steaming rounds of our collective efforts and reaped the rewards.

Unfortunately, the bread was terrible.

Dense. Undercooked in the center (but with a nice crust), far heavier than what I was expecting. It just made the whole class, the whole process seem entirely not worth it. I'd come to learn how to make bread, and I hadn't learned much of anything.

But then something happened the next day. A moment of the class came to mind when an old friend and I were talking about work. We were talking about the nature of the creative process, and how for me, I've always thought that if you work something to death, you might just kill it. I've had a lot of luck with the first round of things being the best, the freshest, and I'm often loathe to go something over and over again. But then, the thought of shaping that dough came into my mind. That yes, you might work something until the point that it breaks, but what happens if you let it rest for a bit? You don't force it, don't give up, just back off for a few. Move on to the next thing. And maybe the next time you come back with fresh from rest and with a dose of perspective, it might be a little more forgiving this time around.

Now of course, there's something to be said about the fact that the bread itself came out terrible. That despite the process, it might not seem to be worth it in the end. But then again, I took something away from the experience I didn't expect. All I needed was a little time to get it.


Embracable Debacle

It’s undeniably humbling to make really bad food. Especially after you’ve taken all the care and dedication to make something you’re really excited about. Some fennel and onion came through in the CSA box, and I was seized with the thought of making a tart, like a Pissaladiere, but with prosciutto replacing anchovies and some torn basil for color. I talked about it for a few days, finally bought the ingredients and spent a night letting the dough rise and fall, slowly sautéing onions and fennel over low heat until they caramelized. I rolled the dough out on my dining room table, my afterthought of a kitchen limiting the counter space. It wasn’t until then I realized I’d made a mistake. I’d picked up whole-wheat flour. The khaki dough looked entirely wrong in the pan, and made worse by the beautiful onions and fennel I nestled on top of it. But, determined and optimistic I might happen on a lucky accident, I put it in to bake.

An hour later, I pulled out the tart. I let it cool, the wafting steam carrying the sour wheat germ laden flavors of the crust battling the sweet sugars in the fennel. I cut a corner and took a bite. My jaw worked twice before I gave up trying to convince myself it was good at all. This was inedible. But before tipping the entire mess into the trash, I salvaged the fennel, onion and prosciutto to see if inspiration might strike the next day.

Even more satisfying than an out-and out failure is those rare moments of culinary spark where you sublimate a debacle into something even tastier than you anticipated in the first place. Once I tore a recipe out of Cook’s Illustrated for a rosemary-bacon tomato sauce, but after the sauce was in the pan, realized that the tomatoes were scant and of questionable quality. But the bacon was in the pan and the pasta was cooking. Answer? I mixed the pasta and bacon together, cracked an egg and some fresh pepper into the pot and called it Carbonara. And eggs came to the rescue again.

The day after The Terrible Tart, I stirred a couple of eggs into the fennel and onion mixture and cooked it up slowly on the stove. Pushing at the sides of the pan, then browning it in the oven for a moment, I ended up with a dish that hovered somewhere between a fritatta and a latka. The prosciutto made it savory and a side of toast made it divine. Without meaning to, I’d come up with a fine, fine brunch.

Unwilling to let a bad thing go, I bought the right flour and made the tart I’d intended. It was good. Damn good. A fine yeasty dough supporting a waning summer’s best ingredients. I impressed myself. Still, if pressed to make just one of these dishes again, I think the fritatta wins.