Bakers Have Nine Loaves

In his cooking, my dad goes through intense periods of experimentation with single dishes.  At one point, when my parents were first dating, they found themselves in a tiny urban apartment with enough quarter-eaten lasagnas in the freezer to survive a nuclear attack. There was beef lasagna, veggie lasagna, white lasagna; I wouldn’t be surprised if my dad had a recipe for dessert lasagna tucked up his sleeve. He’s gone through the same process with chocolate mousse, stewed fruit and, every summer, with ribs. This summer I discovered I’ve inherited this slightly obsessive gene.

I am a confident baker. I have a few recipes memorised for brownies, don’t usually fret over pastry and last week reached a new goal: I made a plum and almond tart that looked like the one in the glossy cookbook photo. In June, I spotted a gaping hole in my baking artillery: the billowy, luscious, crusty creation that is bread. Word on the street is that baking the perfect loaf of bread is pretty difficult, particularly on your first try. I set out rather boldly to challenge that notion.

My first efforts were mortifyingly unsuccessful; a puzzling rye loaf that leaked oil before I began kneading, a lopsided, whole-wheat brick and a salty, grainy soda bread.  With each dull loaf, I lost interest and self-assurance. In August, however, salvation came in the form of The River Cottage Bread Handbook. The author Daniel Stevens is the chief baker at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage, a project that emphasises growing your own vegetables, rearing your own animals and making everything, from beer to ovens, from scratch. I believe in this latest food philosophy of organic, locally grown ingredients, and also have a bit of a crush on goofy, flour-dusted Dan. He told me that my failures were not disasters; in fact, they were to be expected and that patience with the bread and myself was fundamental. So, after reading thirty pages on the anatomy of grains, origin of gluten intolerance and behaviour of yeasts, I revisited the Bread Quest. 

I mixed, kneaded, knocked back, proofed, baked and turned my oven into a bread sauna with the aid of a spray bottle. Flour showered everything, from the coffee maker to the fruit bowl. The underwhelming result was two uneven, heavy loaves. But they were truly delicious and tasted of real homemade, grainy goodness. 

This taste gave me enough courage to cook another couple of loaves, which appeared less amateur and much tastier. But my next effort was worth every botched attempt. I produced two round, crusty, golden, milky, soft white loaves. My confidence was restored. I began a sourdough starter, tackled new flours and stocked the fridge with misshapen but proud loaves. I have encouraged my family to adopt a carb addiction.

It took one instructive book, nine loaves, six days and probably forty-hours to reach that stage of completion. The Bread Quest was also done in the comfort of my family’s big kitchen, with my parents paying for the wasted flour. I don’t know yet if I will be able to continue bread-making in my under-equipped student kitchen, whilst paying for books, booze and other essentials like electricity.

Bread is notoriously picky about which climate it likes to live in, so I don’t know if my skills will translate from tropical, hurricane-ridden Washington, DC to drizzly, windy St Andrews. I do know, however, that I admire my dad’s (and any perfection-seeking cook’s) perseverance. I didn’t realise how much patience his experiments required, because he has never cried over a fallen soufflé or burnt chicken; bread baking revealed my patient gene.