Pursuing the Perfect Loaf
The miraculous thing about bread is that it really is incredibly easy to make. Given the number of perilous cooking challenges that are presented to us, a loaf of bread is simpler to make than just about anything in the kitchen — really.
Not only is bread easy to make but each step along the doughy way that leads to crispy crusts and slices of the world’s most delicious taste is a plateau of pure delight. Once you have made bread — not in a fancy machine, but with the muscle and warmth of your own hands — it will be difficult to ever again buy it from a store. First, because whatever you pay, you are being ridiculously overcharged and, second, because you know that your version is infinitely better, a magical gift of hands, heart and soul.
Making your first loaf is setting out on an odyssey that will last a lifetime. The search for the perfect loaf, though it is a journey of recurring delights, is akin to chasing the end of the rainbow. The perfect loaf is beyond the Valley of Ten Thousand Ovens, along the Glen of Gluten, and far, far away in the Kingdom of Knead. And the maps? No matter how many are offered, in the end, you will only have your own experience to guide you. Your loaves will be your own, unique in the world.
Allow yourself lots of time. Bread hurried is bread abused. You don’t “whip up” a loaf of bread. The best bread is made in tandem with another activity, such as reading, sleeping or going out for the day. Some of my best loaves rose completely forgotten — and forgave me every time.
The best loaf is a well-kneaded loaf. Again, don’t hurry. Kneading encourages interaction between the ingredients in the bread and makes for a finer loaf. It is rare that I knead for less than twenty minutes. It is a time to think. It is also great for the heart. You will find that consistent, energetic kneading can increase your heart rate by twenty beats per minute — that’s good medicine.
While I would always recommend using a recipe with any kind of cooking, bread-making is subject to variables — the flour, the temperature of your kitchen, the humidity. In time, you will be able to “feel” what’s right. Bread-making permits experimentation, and frequent baking — make it part of your life! — brings you closer to perfection.
Be kind to your dough. There are those who say it should be thrown on the counter during kneading, that bread-making is something you do when you’re mad at the world and have a need to purge your frustrations. Therapy is an automatic perk of bread-making. Don’t use the dough as a punching bag: make bread as you make love — with purpose, care and profound affection.