Two months ago I found the book that would become my Bible. I have never been religious. I was not raised on Bible verses or pastoral hymns. But I would say that I am spiritual. My parents gave me a reverence for fresh air, good books, and good food that borders on devotion. Nowhere am I more at home than in the middle of the woods. I carry a book with me always. I never pass up a chance for fresh bread. It is for this reason I believe I was perfectly primed to take the Tassajara Bread Book as my religious creed.
My mother gifted it to me when I came back home for Fall Break. Part late birthday gift, part we missed you, part sorry dear god we’re so sorry you have to get your wisdom teeth taken out over break – it was a present that covered a lot of ground. I liked the small brown paperback the moment I saw it. I liked the heft of the pages and the roughness of the cover. I like that it looked a little lived-in, the pages bent slightly, the cover warped from the moisture of an active kitchen. As I thumbed through the recipes my mother stayed my hand and pointed to a series of stray pen marks through the Rye Bread’s ingredient list. You wrote in this book when you were small. (These stray pen marks were mine?) We made bread for the first time with this recipe. (Of this I have no recollection.) The inscription in the front reads: Yesterday I came in to find you sitting on the floor with this book laid across your legs, carefully making “notes.” So today we made bread together for the first time… All this to say I have a history of bread in my bones.
Becoming a Breadmaker for Harkness, the co-operative space in which I live and dine, seemed like a natural progression. I was no longer the child looking on as my mother flipped through the recipe book. The marks I made were no longer an infant’s careless scrawl, but the practiced multiplication of ingredient ratios.
I was elected as one of four Breadmakers at the beginning of the semester. Though everyone participates in the regular cooking of meals and the general maintenance of the building and dining spaces, there are a handful of select positions for people who want to be more involved. Housed among these are the Tasty Things Makers (some honorable mentions from this year's Makers include cinnamon rolls, chocolate chip cookies, and various shortbreads), Granola Makers (we have access to a constant supply of oats), Dining Loose Ends Coordinators (not sure what they do.. something administrative?) and Breadmakers.
I had made bread for Harkness two or three times before I received the Tassajara Bread Book. These loaves had been made from recipes pulled off of the internet, “The Easiest Loaf of Bread You’ll Ever Make” and “No-Knead Peasant Loaves.” They were fine. They were acceptably soft and with a typical crumb and a thick crust that crackled when you raked a knife across it. These breads tasted fine, but they lacked passion. They had no heart beneath their hardy crusts.
When I began making bread from my book, the process changed. No longer was I scrolling through long-winded recipe blogs for the abridged ingredients list at the bottom. I was a baker, paging through my recipe book with reckless abandon. I was up until the wee hours of the morning crafting artisan bread that'd been passed down for generations. Making bread with the Tassajara Bread Book felt romantic in the way that breadmaking hadn’t before.
The process is a learning curve, a series of defeats and long nights bent over a mixing bowl filled with slowly rising sludge. The Tassajara Basic Bread recipe, the one I’d be attempting to master, requires three separate rising times. Every Wednesday night for four weeks, I stay up until 2am trying to conquer the art of dough.
The first week I forget the salt. It is the first time I attempt the recipe and it is a compilation of misadventures. I come back to the bowl twenty minutes before the first rise is scheduled to be done. I say I had a premonition, but my premature check-in is actually prompted by the sound of dough slapping against the stainless steel counter. I enter the kitchen to gelatinous rivulets of batter sliding over the edges of the mixing bowl. Anxious to get the mess under control I fashion the dough into loaves, forgetting to add the oil and salt. This is Mistake Number One. I won’t take responsibility for Mistake Number Two. Just as I am about to put the perfectly formed (though flavorless) loaves into the oven a light starts flashing. Something is wrong. The burner is not lighting. The kitchen is starting to smell faintly of gas. It is 1 am and I’d rather not burn down the Harkness kitchen, so I turn the oven off and set the loaves in the walk-in freezer. By the time I return in the morning, they have overproofed. My first loaves of Tassajara bread are undersalted and overrisen.
My second attempt goes more smoothly. I am determined to redeem myself after last week's catastrophe so I am careful as I multiply the measurements by five (our co-op feeds roughly 100 people and every cook is responsible for making enough food to go around). I teach myself how and when to fold in the salt and oil. Everything seems to go as planned. No dough explodes out of the mixing bowl. No ingredient is left out. But as I am placing the completed loaves out for consumption I realize that I have made a grievous error. Instead of multiplying the yeast and sugar measurements by five, I have accidentally multiplied them by fifteen. My second loaves of Tassajara bread are tragically sweet.
My third week with the Tassajara Bread Book, I enter the kitchen to find that Harkness has run out of flour. Three cooks crowd the kitchen. One hopes to make apple crumble. Another is dead set on brownies. The third is myself, holding her breadbook close to her chest as if this will ward off the misfortune. Thankfully someone goes out into the cold and bleak with a borrowed car to get flour from Tank, a neighboring co-op. They come back, cheeks and noses turned red, two bags of flour tucked under their arms. This time I carefully check the measurements: 15 cups of lukewarm water, 7 ½ tablespoons of dry yeast, 1 ¼ cups of sweetening, 20 cups of whole wheat flour, 20 teaspoons of salt, roughly 1 ½ cups of oil. There is a moment where I fear that I will not have enough flour, but this crisis is averted. The yeast and the salt, measured in tablespoons and teaspoons respectively, I convert to cups for ease of addition. Like the times before, the loaves exit the oven with a hardy crust. As I cut into them they steam. But when I take a bite I realize that I’ve added something extra. Focused on the flour shortage, brain addled with sleep, I had made an elementary mistake. I had mixed up the tablespoon and teaspoon measures. My third Tassajara loaves are salty to the point of dehydration.
The fourth time I make the bread I am careful. I am aware I have passed into a period of insanity. The saying is “three times a charm” for a reason. If you mess up more than three times, you need to take a step back, a step away, a moment to reevaluate your priorities and where you are coming from. But the fourth time I make bread there are no issues. The dough goes in the oven at 1am and exits an hour later – perfect Tassajara loaves. My quest come to a close, I have begun paging through the book for a new recipe to which I can pledge my allegiance.
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