Here I am, two weeks into my life in the empty nest, and I am discovering that I now have lots more time for my many extra-curricular interests. Yes, yes, I know I am supposed to be writing my musical -- and I will start, any day now, I promise! But for now, I am baking bread.
Bread-baking is not new for me. Some time during the year before the birth of my first child, Rebecca, I bought some sourdough starter from King Arthur Flour. In the 24 years since, I have been using this same starter to bake most of our family's bread.
I'm pretty sure that I took a little time off from regular baking in the years following the births of each of my daughters, when I was juggling life with a newborn and full-time work. Those years are something of a blur: I can't remember much of what we did, let alone what we ate. Although I am pretty sure we did eat. At least enough to survive.
And I must have fed my starter as well as my children, because it, too, is still bubbling away.
In 1996, three and a half years after the birth of my first child and two years before the birth of my second, I started a bread diary, to keep track of what I was baking and how different recipes and methods turned out.
The amazing thing about bread-baking is that while it is a simple, fundamental task, there is always more to learn. The number of ways you can combine flour, water, leavening and salt is infinite, and infinitely improvable. I have been making pizza dough for nearly 30 years, and while my pizza has come out pretty well for most of that time, it's only in the past six months that I found a change in technique that upped my game dramatically.
Of course, I wasn't taking pictures of my loaves back in 1996 when I started my bread diary. In those days, in order to take pictures, you needed a device called a camera, into which you inserted something called film; and then you had to pay to have the pictures developed. We were in no position to squander our money on developing photos of mere food. We needed all of our money to buy hay for our horses, on whom we relied for transportation.
But I did take notes in my bread journal, and so I do have documentary evidence of what I was baking back then. To start with, it was mostly white sourdough loaves. At the time nutritional experts like the New York Times' Jane Brody were encouraging us to fill up our plates with carbohydrates, as most of the world does, because carbs were Good, and it seemed we were eating far more protein than we needed (especially meat and eggs, which were Bad). And fat--we were eating way too much fat! Fat was Bad.
Eventually, of course, we learned that some fats – Good Fats – are Good, but that all carbs are Bad. This was followed by the realization that some carbs – Good Carbs – are Good, and that maybe no fats are Bad Fats, but that there really are Good Fats and that those Good Fats are very, very Good. Gluten, alas, is now Bad. Nuts are Very Good, and are in fact a good way to prevent death; unless they happen to send you into anaphylactic shock, in which case they are Death Nuts. (In elementary schools all nuts are Death Nuts.) Sugar is pure evil. Coke is Satan in a can.
Whatever. I have never stopped loving, or baking, bread, and putting actual butter on it in fairly generous amounts. The one exhortation I have embraced is the whole-grain thing, first because that particular set of nutritional claims made sense to me, and also because I find the taste and texture of whole-grain bread to be more complex and compelling. Finally, I have made the switch because baking a really good loaf of sourdough whole grain bread is quite challenging. I have come to think of white flour as, well, cheating.
I started dabbling with adding whole grains to my loaves -- a little whole wheat here, a little rye there -- in the fall of 1996. By 2004 I had started the hunt in earnest, limiting myself to breads that are at least half whole grain (I'm now up to 75% or more). Alas, I do not have pictures of these early efforts. Hard though it is to believe, in the early days of this great century, the only things a cellphone could do was make calls and send emails. Even after I finally got a smartphone, I was 20 years too old to appreciate this obvious truth: if it's worth eating, it's worth tweeting.
In 2010, I did, however, take this photo of a cake that I baked with my younger daughter, Julia, and our friends Henry and Claire, in the shape of a traffic cone:
But I digress. The point here is that now that nobody lives in my house who might ask me, at any moment, to drop everything and bake a cake in the shape of a traffic cone. I have more time to hone my bread craft. I have a big collection of bread books:
Extensive though my collection is, resourceful and introspective bakers continue to publish books and share new techniques and insights about the art of baking bread. I have particularly loved the evolution of Peter Reinhart, from his Brother Juniper's Bread Book to my current favorite, Bread Revolution. A few days after I returned from depositing Julia at college, I treated myself to another new book on whole grain baking with which I have been flirting for some time, Chad Robertson's Tartine Book No. 3, Modern Ancient Classic Whole.
I read it cover to cover. Then I started baking. And taking pictures of my bread! Because now I have someone with whom to share them. Last month, Rebecca brought some of my sourdough starter back to her current apartment in St. Louis. Becca texts me pictures of her lovely bread (and yes, I am a VERY proud mom).
And I text her pictures of mine.
Rebecca recently informed me that she has started a bread journal of her own.
There is one new problem, however. With the traffic-cone-cake crowd out of the house, our bread consumption rate is down substantially. My freezer is filling up with loaves. If this continues, I will have no place to store my 5-lb. bags of emmer flour.
Not to mention the Sprouted Kamut flour that I need to buy pretty much immediately. This just won't do.
But we all get by with a little help from our friends. I think I have two or three friends left who are still eating gluten; perhaps I can start leaving loaves on their front porches, like zucchinis. Or better yet, we can sit down together and share a slice...
...just as Rebecca will share slices of her sourdough babies with her friends.
We will wash them down with organic green tea, or with cold Sam Adams (here in Boston; Schlafly in St. Louis), or maybe just some good ol' Satan-in-a-can.
Generations move on, tastes and beliefs turn and turn back again. Life changes, and then changes some more.
But a good sourdough starter can keep going forever.