20 Months and 43 Loaves of Bread
In January of 2009, I resolved to learn to bake bread. Late that Spring I purchased a copy of the Bread Baker’s Apprentice, hoping that it would provide the guidance and inspiration I needed to successfully master the magic of yeast and dough. A few weeks later my path crossed with Nicole of Pinch My Salt, who was gathering the online troops to tackle what she called the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge. Simply put, the challenge was to bake every single recipe in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice cookbook in order. There were no time limits (thank goodness!) and no restrictions on who could join. I bravely signed myself up and bought a bag of bread flour, preparing to face my fears of bread baking once and for all.
My first bread, a loaf of anadama bread, failed to rise properly leaving me with sunken loaves and the feeling that this challenge was going to be a long journey, uphill both ways! Yet as I continued to press forward, trying one new recipe after another- something incredible started to happen. I began to learn how to bake bread.
The biggest challenge for anyone learning how to cook or bake is that much of what makes a recipe successful is intangible. Success comes from a sixth sense that tells you when a steak is ready to be turned or the moment a batch of cookies needs to be pulled from the oven. It is only through trial, error, and much practice that you gain this sense, learning to pick up on subtle smells, sounds, and tastes that guide your actions outside the basic outline of a recipe.
The clear and reliable instructions provided by author Peter Reinhart, allowed me to slowly gain this sixth sense. I began to understand the difference between a dough that is merely tacky and a sticky dough that needs more flour. When kneading I started to notice a certain warm yeast aroma which coincided with achieving a ‘window pane’ gluten structure, alerting me that I could stop kneading the dough and let it rise. This summer, when I accidentally killed my sourdough starter, I manged to follow Peter’s guidance and create a new one using the ‘wild yeast’ found in our South Dakota air. Over the past 20 months, I became a bread baker.
As I sat down to write this post, I struggled to identify a ‘favorite’ out of the 43 loaves of bread. The book contains such a wide variety of excellent recipes- from cinnamon rolls to ciabatta, from sourdough rye to perfect baguettes and bagels, it is simply impossible to pick a favorite. This is the first time I have cooked every recipe in a cookbook. The cover is worn, my pages are dusted with flour, and through it all I gained an enormous respect for the teaching skill and talent of Peter Reinhart. If you want to learn how to bake bread- this is the book to teach you.
My days of making school lunches and a never ending supply of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are about to begin. I once thought that making bread at home was a time-consuming task which I never would master, but now I know that our home will be filled with the smell of warm bread which comes out of the oven with ease. A gigantic ‘thank you’ to Nicole of Pinch My Salt for issuing the challenge and of course, to Peter Reinhart for turning my fear of yeast into a life long love of bread baking.