Saturday, June 6, 2009

Bread in the Evening

This past Friday was both an English and a Northern Californian "summer" day in New York City--cold, windy, rainy, and very grey. I can't deny that I somewhat enjoyed this very un-NYC weather, as heat and humidity rank high on my list of "things I could do without"; I'm genetically predisposed towards the cold and grey, and growing up in San Francisco destroyed any chance of being conditioned to enjoy the hot and humid.

I left work early, walked home through a fierce wind--all the trees in Central Park looked as though they were raucously waving hello--and stretched out on my couch with my small stack of cookbooks. I knew that I wanted to make something, but my indecisiveness was driven by two crucial factors: lack of inspiration, and a serious lack of groceries. After an hour of aimless reading, I found myself returning to that bible of bread bibles, The Tassajara Bread Book. Now, this book and I have a long history together, and I think it's important to delineate that history here, however briefly. For those of you who grew up in San Francisco, you may remember the mouthwatering Tassajara breads that were sold both at the Tassajara and Just Desserts bakeries, as well as at some grocery stores--breads like potato and cottage cheese dill (incredible, and coming from someone who wouldn't touch cottage cheese if it were her last meal, much better than it sounds), as well as the more standard whole wheat and rye. My memories of Tassajara bread center around my elementary school lunches and the Cole Valley bakery where AAH and I used to pick up bread for her family, the same bakery where JH exhibited his Bali photos when we were in high school (he's now a photographer for The New York Times).

And then, out of nowhere, the Tassajara bakery shuttered its doors, Just Desserts eventually went the way of the dodo, and we were breadless. Some, my mother included, had The Tassajara Recipe Book lying on their kitchen shelves, and others developed new allegiances to bread bakers like Acme and Semifreddi, but for me, life was never the same. How could it be? Just as sourdough baked on the West Coast possesses a different tanginess than that baked in New York, even when the starter is the same, so too is Tassajara bread unequivocally different when baked in one's own kitchen rather than in the old Cole Street ovens. C'est la vie de le pain.

I did what every human does--or should do--and entered adulthood, and as the years passed I found myself encountering Tassajara at various twists and turns, from James D. Houston's books to the Saturday morning meditations at the SF Zen Center. When in Carmel Valley one summer on our annual family and friends vacation, I began to think a little more seriously about the origins of Tassajara baking in general, as a way of feeding the Center's monks and visitors day after day in the Santa Lucia mountains, and not just as breadly solace for a little girl in a San Francisco schoolyard (although surely that has a place in the Zen schema of the universe?). And then one Christmas, while home from the East Coast, as I lingered in Green Apple's used cooking section, I unexpectedly received culinary dharma transmission: I found a pristine, original 1970 Shambhala Press edition of The Tassajara Bread Book.

I cannot overstate the significance of finding this book, in both that edition and condition. The text contains calligraphy and thumbnail sketches, beautiful illustrations of bread kneading and loaf shaping, and a striking kitchen necessities-lists-cum-poetry, which begins, "bringing food alive with your / loving presence". Ah. The first page contains the imperative "cook, love, feel, create", and the Zen-like maxim "you are breadmaking itself", while the dedication commences, "dedicated / with respect and appreciation / to all my teachers / past, present and future: / gods, mens and demons; / beings, animate and inanimate / living and dead, alive and dying", which is, in truth, a universal dedication for any number of activities.

The Dedicatory Koan
Inspiration, assisted by culinary memories, finally came as I re-read Edward Espe Brown's words and skimmed over the kneading and sponging illustrations; however, my lack of several pantry staples resulted in me alighting upon white flour French loaves, as opposed to rye-oatmeal or sesame with cracked millet (which Brown aptly names "greed-arousing", a nice Germanic compound). At this point it was 7:00 p.m. and I had at least six hours of work ahead of me, so without further ado I slipped on my apron, cranked up Neil Young, and started measuring cups of flour.
Let us now praise the mighty pilot light
One of the blessings of having a small stove with a powerful pilot light is the truly astounding dough rising that can it can produce. While the dough "sponged" for sixty minutes--Brown's term for the initial rising, before the salt and oil are added--I pondered possible variations for the loaves; since I was only making two, a number decided by the size of my kitchen and baking implements, I decided to leave one "plain", and the other dictated by whatever my minuscule herb garden could provide. Although I considered the ramifications of a sage-infused batard, ultimately the rosemary caught my attention, perhaps because it was in dire need of pruning.
After the dough sponged and I had added the remaining ingredients, the kneading began. Now, kneading requires a certain rhythm, and I'm always struck by how much one's hips and core are required in order to truly gain said kneading rhythm. Suffice it to say, I knocked everything off of my tiny kitchen island and almost lost the dough in the process, but once I fell into the kneading groove I could literally feel the dough coming together into one organic unit. Back into the bowl it went for its second rising, and I baked a pan of gingerbread while I waited for it to double in size.

Dough Has Risen

Dough Thus Kneaded
Bread making doesn't frighten so much as nervously puzzle; at each step, the bread maker wonders, "Is this really necessary?", and outright asks, "What would happen if I just poured all the flour in at once? Beat for fifty strokes instead of 100? Didn't punch down the dough?". And yet, deviation from the prescribed steps is at one's peril, as the precision of each measurement and time-step signifies the difference between an airy, chewy loaf and a brick-like blob. The closest analogy I've been able to come up with so far--and let me know if you think of a better one, because I think it could use improvement--is that of trying to get a cranky child to sleep. The slightest shift in tone or a "too quick" lights out can instantaneously result in needing to start all over again, only even more exhausted than when one first began. But when the child sleeps and the best bread is baked: heaven!

Demonstrating my ambidextrous photography skills
After the final rising, I divided the dough into two pieces and rolled each out to about 1/4" thick. I sprinkled one with the rosemary leaves, and then I shaped both into loaves worthy of a Zen monk (or so I'd like to think). I slit the tops to allow steam to escape, and then into the oven they went... went my smoke alarm, and a mere forty minutes later...

...they emerged, brown and crusty with a yummy, yeasty smell that would fill my apartment for the next few days.

Resting on the mini-popover-pan-as-drying-rack
At the end of The Tassajara Bread Book, Brown writes that when he became head of the Tassajara monastery kitchen as a twenty-two year old, he was "about as sure of my position as a leaf which falls in the winter creek", and that he "proceeded to do a lot of things which I didn't know how to do, learning first-hand, the blind leading the blind. Bumped my head quite a bit, and a few other people's heads also. The actual cooking, I discovered, was the easiest part of the job".

This passage seemed fitting for this past week, which marked the one year anniversary of my move to New York. To say that at certain points in the past year I felt like "a leaf which falls in the winter creek", (and bear in mind that this refers to a coastal creek, which rages swollen with rain and run-off in the wintertime), would be an understatement. I don't think I bumped my own or anyone else's heads too often, but I certainly learned "to do a lot of things which I didn't know how to do", and frequently felt like the blind leading the blind (see "coaching" and "computational chemistry"); the cooking has always been the easiest part. Cooking, however, is always the most meaningful when done in someone's home, particularly one's own. And perhaps the best part of this anniversary has been the realization that, after one year, New York has finally started to feel like home.

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