I don’t know where to start this post, because every time I start to think about it I get all giddy and grateful and probably over-emotional.
Yesterday, you see, I met my bread hero.
I guess I’ll start in the beginning. I found Heidi over at 101Cookbooks several years ago, and love her blog. By far the most used recipe of hers was an adaptation of Peter Reinhart’s Napoletana Pizza Dough. She turned it whole wheat, but kept a lot of the spirit of his bread baking techniques intact. I was intrigued by his overnight fermentation, knowing a little bit of bread baking from watching my Dad as a child. I’d only seen him make bread a few times, but I remember more than anything the smell of hot, fresh baked bread. It was magical.
Anyways. I read her pizza dough recipe back in September of 2006. For over 2 years I made that recipe faithfully as the only pizza dough worth making. I saw how the overnight ferment made a difference, and how by the third day the dough itself had taken on a new depth of flavor.
About a month after I lost my parents, I bought the Bread Baker’s Apprentice. I knew I needed something to do with my hands. I started reading and highlighting and feeling amazed at how much there was to learn. I was absolutely fascinated by how much the author loved to bake bread. It was obvious that he was passionate about it.
I joined the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge a few weeks later and since then have had some of the best moments in my kitchen. I’ve baked bread that didn’t turn out as good as I’d hoped, bread that amazed me with it’s depth of flavor, and bread that turned my kitchen into a small slice of heaven.
I eventually found Peter Reinhart’s blog and through it learned he was going to be coming to Texas to teach a class with Central Markets. Of course I would go. I didn’t care how far away it was, but luckily there was a class here, in Austin!
The class was yesterday. And it was amazing.
I got there early, partially because I’m obsessive about being late, but mostly because I wanted a good seat. I brought my book and my camera. Is it silly to ask a chef for his autograph? I didn’t know, but I knew I wanted documentation, proof of this moment. I’ve never, ever been the type of person to get all silly over famous people, but this man didn’t just write a good cookbook, he completely revolutionized the way I look at bread.
I was one of the first people in the class and the first person to get his autograph. He’s really not a celebrity, just a guy who loves bread. We talked, I told him I was part of the BBA Challenge (which he’s aware of) and told him how much I enjoyed his breads. He signed my book. I sat down for class and silently squealed to myself.
The class itself was really informative and amazingly great. He focused on sweeter breads, using the same basic dough he made multiple things. It was my first time tasting sticky buns, which I will now have to make. His coffee cake was out of this WORLD. Seriously, I don’t even like coffee cake and I wanted more! He included recipes for all the stuff he made, and I can’t wait to try some of them! Especially the coffee cake, that’s one of Justin’s favorite things.
One of the most significant things for me though, was the basic rustic dough he used. He got the basic ingredients together and instead of kneading them, or letting them rest for a few minutes before kneading, he didn’t knead it at ALL!
I was shocked! No kneading?! But he did the stretch/fold method on the dough one time, then placed a big bowl over it and let it rest for a few minutes. About 5 minutes later he came back to it, stretched and folder again, and put it back under the bowl. Repeated that about 5 times. At the end of the class the basic, rustic dough that had ingredients barely mixed together and not kneaded at all had been transformed into this beautiful dough that was soft and supple and tacky and not sticky and just… beautiful. He said he’d found that for simple doughs like that it tended to work better than kneading because it helped keep the gluten from becoming overworked and over bonded. I could certainly see how it worked out – he started with a very wet dough and by the simple process of stretch and fold vs. kneading the water incorporated itself nicely without the need for added flour. That bread, had it been baked with us there, would have produced amazing holes and I’m sure great flavor. I can’t wait to try that technique at home!
A lot of the things in the class that he talked about were things that I learned from reading/re-reading and highlighting the first hundred or so pages of the Bread Baker’s Apprentice. But hearing his logic behind it, hearing his thoughts, was an amazing experience.
Oh! The other thing he said was that he’d found in the course of creating sweet breads that the flavor developed more if you added the yeast to warm water before adding it to the flour. Most other dough he said it didn’t matter, but that in the case of sweet breads, it did make a negligible difference. He said it was little things like realizing that information that helped to create better loaves of bread. And each little thing adds on top of the other things in the quest for the perfect loaf of bread.
One of the most important things to me that he talked about was the transformation process of dough. He talked about how bread is basically flour that has been transformed into dough that has been transformed into bread. He said that bread was used across religions throughout the world. I can’t name many, but off the top of my head Challah bread and the Holy Eucharist are two great examples from the Jewish and Christian faiths. Those breads are integrated into both of those religions, essential to the symbolism that expresses their faith. Bread is pretty amazing stuff. He only briefly talked about it, because it probably isn’t the most practical way to talk about bread, but I can totally relate in my own life. I can see my own transformation as I became more familiar baking bread, I can see the healing that occurred as I kneaded and rested.
After class I went up and got my picture taken with him.
I wanted to tell him so many things. I wanted to tell him how his book got me through the toughest period of my life. I wanted to tell him that it had changed the way I look at and eat bread. I wanted to tell him that I got the whole transforming power of bread because I lived it and am still living it. I wanted to tell him that my family appreciates the work he’s done because of the impact it had on me. I wanted to tell him how much Justin loves his Casatiello (meat bread!). But I didn’t. Words would have been inadequate. I shook his hand and thanked him for the great class and went home, skipping as I went.