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As I See It: The baking and the breaking

We all have fond memories from our youth. One thing I remember clearly and dearly from many years ago is bread baking.

Both grandmothers, my mom and a few of my aunts baked it, too. After my father retired he took it up and even shared his prized recipe and method for bread making in writing with my wife. Those stained yellow pages are one of our true treasures.

My mother worked a lot in the early evening, so my father usually made the evening meal until us kids were old enough to handle major parts of it. I guess that’s where my love of cooking and later baking comes from. Sorry ladies, I’m already taken and my wife will eagerly tell you about the significant baggage that comes with me anyway.

A couple of years ago while visiting my brother I spied a new book he had just purchased, “Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast,” by Ken Forkish. The subtitle is “The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza.”

In case you haven’t noticed, “artisan” is one of those words or phrases like “organic,” “gluten-free,” “0 trans fats” or “all-natural” that appears on nearly everything. The book is very detailed and sort of lost me when I first skimmed through it.

Fast forward about six months when I actually had the chance to sample the product my brother had made. The explosion of flavor and the crust that removed any semblance of tartar from my teeth turned me into a believer and an artisan bread baking wanna-be.

The title of the book lists the only ingredients in the basic bread recipe. I haven’t really delved into the sourdough/levain processes yet – mostly because I’m so darn happy with the basic recipe and the results.

Anyway, this new endeavor required the proper tools and equipment. Just as a golfer must have the proper gloves, shoes, balls and clubs, the artisan bread maker will have another excuse to spend some money.

First comes the digital food scale; all the ingredients are measured in grams. The yeast is the toughest, with one basic recipe using only .8 grams. Then you need the large, clear polycarbonate tub and cover where you mix the dough, “fold” it a few times and then allow it to rise.

You also need an instant-read thermometer for the water. It’s de rigeur to have the correct “proofing” baskets to hold the loaves after you’ve formed them. “Proofing” is the final rising before baking in case you didn’t know.

And then you have the two five-quart cast iron dutch ovens in which you bake the loaves. The dutch ovens are pre-heated in the regular oven for at least 45 minutes ahead of time. Baking the loaves in these replicates the bread being baked in a wood-fired brick oven and gives the bread its lovely crust.

When I first started baking this bread, I faced a skeptical wife who thought the old bread machine did a fine job, and after totaling up the costs of the new equipment wondered out loud if this was going to be another unused power tool situation. Why don’t women understand man’s basic need for tools?

I will admit things weren’t cheap and as I started out on this new venture, it looked as though it would take a while to amortize the costs.

I haven’t kept track, but I’m pretty sure I’m well below the cost of your average bland, commercially baked bread product, and I’m so far above that in taste that it doesn’t matter. Even my loving wife is a believer in that regard.

There were some hiccups in the initial production process. Handling pre-heated cast iron pans and lids can be dicey. All our cutting boards now have scorch marks from the lids where I chose to rest them while putting the loaves in the pans. I have ruined two kitchen rugs.

I was using a rack to hold the pan while I put the dough into it. Unnoticed by this clever baker, the legs of the rack were too close to the edge of the top of the stove. When the oven door was opened, the legs caught on the door, the pan — with dough — flipped over and the cover landed on the rug.

On another occasion after the pan landed on the replacement rug, it retained a beautiful pattern from the rug until after it cooled down and the melted plastic began to flake off. Why, oh, why, do they make kitchen rugs out of artificial fibers that melt under extreme heat?

I have also carefully measured out the proper amount of water at the correct temperature. Most of the time I pour the water into the measuring cup from another mixing bowl and use what’s left in the mixing bowl to wet my hands when I fold the dough. Occasionally I have poured the remaining water into the flour and, thus, have to guess how much more I have to add until the dough feels right.

No matter what I have done wrong, the bread has always turned out just fine.

So, if you have a hankering for some fresh-baked bread you can give this method a try. It takes time (and minimal skill), but it’s not time consuming and you don’t have to knead it like grandma used to do.

And, just to be safe, we now have a woven, non-synthetic kitchen rug.

Bread in many forms has been a diet staple around the world for millennia. In many cultures and religions, the breaking of the bread is a sacred ritual that keeps man in touch with himself, others and his Maker.

And so seems the baking.

Well, that’s the way I see it.