I’ve been having a hankering for the sourdough rye bread I baked years ago from the Tassajara Bread Book. We’ve been baking the New York Times no knead bread for several years. It’s so easy and with a miraculous crust thanks to the trick of baking it in a very hot oven in a heavy enameled pot for half an hour with the lid on so it steams and then a half an hour without the lid to finish the perfect crispy crust.
In search of starter, I called up my friend and neighbor Karen Barker of Magnolia Grill fame, where David and I worked way back in 1986 when they first opened. She gifted me with a couple of cups of her sourdough starter that she told me they've been using for bread at the Grill for 18 years. Now that’s a tradition and I think there is nothing like longevity when it comes to food.
With a cold gray forecast on the horizon for today it seemed the right moment for baking. Last night I pulled out my grandmothers’ chipped, sienna brown, crockery bread bowl and mixed together flour, water and starter and set it on top of the freezer, constantly warm, to steep, stew and ferment. This morning I took a cup of starter out of the sponge, the whole batch now stretchy and with a mud like consistency, to keep for next time. I added the rye and wheat flour, salt, oil and caraway seed, kneaded the dough and set it to rise.
This is not bread machine bread, I never understood the appeal of those machines that churn out a strange square loaf. My father bought one in the 80’s and went on a bread baking craze, trying all kinds of recipes out on willing visitors. But that bread was never right to me, the crust and shape all wrong. I would prefer an uneven loaf any day. I think he finally came to the same conclusion and eventually stowed the machine in the back of a cupboard where it gathered dust for the rest of his life.
When I pulled out my old Tassajara book, published in 1970, it brought back fond memories from my youth. It was from this book that I taught myself to bake bread as a teen. The thorough instructions of kneading and rising made all the difference. While the no knead bread is easy, I missed the feel of dough under the palms of my hands, pushing and folding, pushing and folding until the dough takes on a smooth and resistant quality. Only by doing it again and again can you know the perfect feel, that you’ve added just the right amount of flour and worked the dough long enough to develop the gluten that promises a nice loaf with good crumb.
The simple paperback book is stained brown with age, pieces of oatmeal stuck to the pages, a flip through them reminded me of the many recipes I’d tried, successes and failures in my early years of baking. It was from bread that I launched into my career in food. I first worked as a baker at the Pyewacket Cafe, Chapel Hill’s original vegetarian restaurant that recently folded after a long and happy life of over 2 decades.
In 1980 I took it on the road, moving to Austin where I worked my way up through several restaurants finishing with a four year run with Sweetish Hill Bakery and Restaurant. There I worked with other young chefs under the tutelage of Patricia Bauer-Slate. She was generous with the sharing of her knowledge gleaned from cooking school in Belgium. It was there I established my base of classic French cuisine, poring over the pages of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French cooking, perfecting the mother sauces; Hollandaise, Béarnaise, veloute and béchamel, demi-glace made from beef bones browned with vegetables in the oven and then boiled into a rich stock, later reduced with tomato to a sweet, dark glace.
Patricia held weekly classes for her chefs teaching us how to bone a duck, make a galantine, prepare sweetbreads, pates and sausages. In 1980 no one was talking about cholesterol. We kept a 5 gallon stock pot on the back burner of the 10 burner stove with clarified butter cut from chunks out of a 50 pound block. The bakery there was famous for its crusty French loaves and authentic croissant and Danish made from freshly rolled dough filled with more slabs of butter.
When I returned to Chapel Hill in 1986 I went to work for the Barkers. I first found them at the Fearrington House restaurant and then went on to Durham and the newly opened Magnolia Grill. Watching and working with Ben and Karen I honed my skills in the new American cuisine. This food was intricate, multi-layered in flavors and ingredients with a focus on fresh and locally grown. I developed a new appreciation for my family’s southern roots and my French cooking background as I learned from Ben ways to take the old standards in a whole different direction.
My professional cooking days ended in 1989 when I returned to school, tired of the long hours and low pay of restaurant work. It’s not the glamorous world it’s cracked up to be these days with so many famous chefs, restaurants and cooking shows. They say the average American only spends 25 minutes a day preparing food, though they may watch 2 hours of cooking TV per day! I have no regrets about my years spent in kitchens. I learned to love food and to prepare it in every way imaginable and from that foundation I continue today to appreciate food, now more simply prepared than in the days of yore, but fresher than ever, much of it straight from the garden. Most days we spend more than 2 hours cooking, and without TV, I never watch food shows anymore.
I pay homage to Patricia, Karen and Ben today as I sit down to a lunch of vichyssoise made from our homegrown leeks and potatoes, finished with cream from the dairy up the road and topped with fresh chives snipped from just outside the kitchen door. Topping it off, a fat slice of freshly baked sourdough bread, spread with homemade butter. What better way to spend a somewhat gloomy October afternoon.