I’m no chef nor am I a baker. Honestly. I’m learning as I go and I end up eating a lot of mistakes. I keep at it though because I like to get things right. I love the process so it’s not a hardship. Other members of my family are extraordinary cooks and phenomenal bakers and I can never compete with that so I just do it for the love of it. I didn’t always enjoy cooking and baking. It’s a fairly new development and one I am embracing wholeheartedly. Scratch cooking and baking is a somewhat new experience for me too. In my pursuit of 80/20 “clean eating” I am teaching myself how to do these things. It’s also a cost savings in most cases which is never a bad thing.
Artisan bread baking though is about more than just clean eating and saving a few pennies. When I bake it’s a full sensory experience. The echoing splash in the dough bucket as the warm water hits the bottom. The shimmer as the salt pours from the measuring spoon and sinks into the warm water. The foaming sound as I stir in the yeast with the dough whisk. The soft texture and coolness of the flour as I scoop and sweep from the wide mouthed bowl into the dough bucket. The earthiness of the dough as I mix the ingredients, lowering my face to smell the sweet fermented yeast as it mixes with the flour and salt. The feel of the sticky dough as I immerse my dampened hands into it to combine the ingredients and complete the process before allowing it to proof. The excitement every time I check back and find the dough has risen another mark on the bucket.
Each batch I make is slightly different in taste, texture or rise time. Baking artisan bread is more than just a recipe – it’s a science experiment wrapped up in that recipe with a beautiful artistic bow on top. It makes me happy giving me a solidity and a feeling of accomplishment as I watch these simple ingredients grow before my eyes as the yeast devours the sugars and metabolizes them into carbon dioxide.
After the first rise the dough is soft and stretchy and still very sticky with bubbles on top and holes where the gasses have escaped. I dig my hand in and break off a grapefruit sized hunk, stretching it in my hands to make a “window pane” before pulling it all together into a tight rounded ball. Creating a gluten cloak, I lay the newly formed ball of dough onto the parchment paper and let it rest for a while for the second rise.
Once the ball of dough has proofed and it bounces back when I push at the side gently, I can slide it into a warm oven and I know in 35 minutes I will have a stunning, oven risen, golden brown, crackling loaf. Pulling it from the oven using my new beautifully simple wooden bread peel I slide the loaf onto the cooling rack and breathe deeply smelling the fresh baked bread and feeling the moisture on my face as it finishes baking on the rack. I know that inside that beautiful dome is a gorgeous open crumb and when the serrated blade slices through the crunchy outer layer the inside will be soft and slightly chewy.
Finally, after it has cooled I can take that loaf and wrap it carefully in a brown paper bag and a tea towel and present it as a gift to friends, family or neighbors. When I give someone a loaf of my bread it’s not just sustenance but a piece of me – of my heart – a small offering of my affection and appreciation of you.
Now I can add memories of the first time I saw someone try my bread and the look of surprise and pleasure at the complex flavors and textures that came from such a simple process. When I mix a batch of dough I can smile with memories of the first time I taught someone else the art of artisan bread baking and find joy in their shock at the simplicity and the goodness and the sense of accomplishment that comes from pulling out their own creation.
All bread baking is an art form and I know I have just scratched the surface with these beautiful simple artisan loaves. I have so much more to learn and explore and I am excited for the experience. Everyone should, at least once in their lives, sink their hands into a fresh warm batch of bread dough, it might change your life. I know it has changed mine.