My first bread, or how baking is more fun if you don’t make a mess

October 15, 2009

I love to cook, and I adore cooking for other people. Surprisingly, I’ve never really enjoyed baking, however—in spite of my love of all things warm-from-the-oven and a childhood full of quickbreads, buttermilk biscuits, apple cakes, and lemon meringue pies.

Yes, I made it

Recently, I finally came to terms with my distaste for baking. To my amazement, I discovered that my aversion has nothing to do with the process of baking itself, and everything to do with my personal obsession with not making a mess.

Yes, this is the reason: The mess.

200 degrees

A few months ago, I began to suspect that I limited myself in the kitchen more with my OCD tendencies than with the holes in my culinary knowledge.

We hosted our first cooking group at our place: Me, Fernando, and 6 other cooks in the kitchen.

Typically, I cook alone, and I noticed with some bemusement that I physically cringed when one of my cooking companions dripped egg goo all over the counter (and left it there to dry!!!) as she scooped up a pile of emptied eggshells to dump into the compost bag.

Next, I observed a veritable mushroom-cloud of all-purpose flour drift up from where it was being overzealously deposited into a bowl by another cook, and I noticed I was clenching my teeth.

Then, I watched in horror as another companion used their fingers to place some fresh scallops into a hot skillet, and then immediately dipped those same still-fishy fingers straight into the sugar bowl to rake some sugar into a saucepan, leaving a crystaline wake of sticky-AND-fishy all over the stove.

At this, I felt positively despondent. 

Closeup

Later, I reflected on my discomfort, and realized that I usually cook alone because I can’t stand seeing other people wreck my kitchen.

I hate having to scrub up someone else’s drips and drabs, and I feel practically offended at the total lack of concern and consideration shown for my if-not-gleaming-than-at-least-tidy cooking space. As for myself, I take great pains not to spill things when I’m cooking, even if I have to dirty twice as many dishes and spend twice as much time to do so.

It seemed like a step towards further personal development, then, to further explore this concept, and to take steps to address how this constraint affected my behavior, in the kitchen or elsewhere. It was time to push some boundaries.

So I did.

First slice!

And I realized that what I really wanted to do—actually, what I felt I SHOULD do—was to give messy a try.

The logical opportunity was baking. I imagined flour settling in all the kitchen crevices. And drying dough stuck on the countertop. And bits of egg white dried onto the floor. And once my palpitations calmed down, with great trepidation and my new KitchenAid stand mixer (a recent gift from my dear hubbie), I pulled out Michael Ruhlman’s book “Ratio,” and I got to work.

In the interest of full disclosure, it must be said that I kind of cheated. You see, the point of the Ratio cookbook is that one measures ingredients by weight, not by volume. As a result, Ruhlman’s instructions read something like: “Stick a bowl on your digital scale, zero out the weight, into the bowl, dump 400 grams of flour, 240 grams of water, 12 grams of yeast and 6 grams of salt, mix, let rise, mix and shape, and bake for an hour.” Note: everything goes into the same bowl. No rolling pin needed. No sprinkling of flour all over my countertop necessary. Bonus!

I was delighted even more by the overall ease of the bread-making process. The smell of yeast grew stronger as the dough rose, and felt like an exotic perfume, and the resistance of my nascent bread dough after its first rise was a treat to the fingertips. I kneaded out the air bubbles on a SilPat (no flour on the counter!), and shaped to place carefully in my 9” loaf pan. After resting for a while longer, My First Bread was ready for the oven.

One hour later (well, 45 minutes – I got nervous so started checking on my lovely loaf early…), I peeked into the oven. What a glorious sight! I tapped the top of the loaf, and heard a hollow thump which made my stomach do somersaults. Could it be? Would I be enjoying hot, fresh bread from my own oven, in my own kitchen? I’d taken out the fancy Irish butter to soften for the occasion. After a perfunctory test of the bread’s internal temperature (200 degrees, woot!), I flipped the loaf out onto a rack to cool.

Briefly.

Yum

I mean, how could I resist? The heady smell, that hollow thump! My First Bread was calling my name. I sliced a chunk off the end (the heel, I reasoned, would be Fernando’s least-favorite part anyway), and smeared on a generous dollop of butter.

And…Wow! I was blown away by how surprisingly good it was! I noted to add more salt to the recipe next time, and then settled in to enjoy the heavenly texture. Trader Joe’s New York Rye, I think I just found how to quit you…

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