Opening a new cookbook is like going on a first date. The attraction is already there and now you want to find out their story—what exists between the covers—and will that story lead to a second date.
The subheading to Josey Baker Bread is Get Baking • Make Great Bread • Be Happy! There is a photo on the cover of Josey Baker (yes, that is his real name) patting butter on a piece of bread. He has a huge smile on his face. Like Baker, I am always thrilled taking a loaf out of the oven. It’s a miracle to behold and celebrate and, I admit, drone on about with endless excitement. Without even cracking open the cover, I was ready for the second date.
“You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed,” the author, John Irving, writes in his novel, Hotel New Hampshire. That line has always stuck with me. When my wife reads this she will most likely say, “Of course, you would like that line. You obsess about everything.” Does obsession mean spending days writing one sentence? Lying awake dreaming about bread? That’s passion, not obsession. I love reading cookbooks where the cook or author is part shaman, part life coach, part butt kicker, part proselytizer, and totally obsessed—I mean passionate. Baker is all of these, which is why I am willing to overlook his occasional lapses into hipster speak.
Like a good loaf of bread, this book just feels at home in my hands. Chapters are divided into lessons that progress in difficulty. I hesitate using the word difficulty, because that is the last word that Baker would use. Mention the word difficulty and some of you—you know who you are—will rush off and order a pizza. These lessons are more like steps, baby steps that lead into the next chapter. Like all relationships, you are building trust and confidence. Lesson One is “Your First Loaf of Bread.” I had the perfect excuse to follow Lesson One. My daughter, who likes her bread as white as fresh snow, had asked recently if I could bake her a bread that wasn’t round and didn’t have a hard crust. I knew that the bread in Lesson One would be right up her alley. I have to admit that I, too, was looking for a change in my routine. I could’ve easily passed on this lesson but I’m glad I didn’t. It provides a framework for the rest of the book. If you follow Baker’s instructions, your first loaf won’t just be your first loaf; it will be a damn good loaf of bread. After getting comfortable with the recipe, you can start fiddling around with it, if you so choose.
The Rolling Stones weren’t singing about baking bread when they sang, “Time is on your side,” but it has become the bread baker’s mantra. Let time do the kneading. Let time develop the character of the bread. Here are the directions for the lesson: mix ingredients together until there isn’t any dry flour left, then cover with plastic wrap and let sit for three hours at room temperature. The next step is to put the dough in the refrigerator for at least a day (up to a week). This is because it is easier to work with dough when it is cold. Keeping it in the fridge for a longer time will also add to the flavor of the bread. I think it would be interesting to set up a blind tasting of breads based on the length of time in the refrigerator. If you simply can’t wait, Baker offers you an out: a minimum of three hours will cool down your bread and then you can proceed. Shape the loaf and plop it into an oiled or greased loaf pan. Spray or brush the top of the loaf with oil and cover it with aluminum foil. You’re supposed to tent the foil so that the dough has room to rise. I shiver with fear at anything that resembles an arts and crafts project so I had a bit of a problem with my initial attempt at tenting. My tenting did, however, improve with each loaf that I made. The loaf rises for about four hours at room temperature. It can also sit in the fridge for up to three days before you take it out and bake it. Just keep in mind that the loaf needs to come to room temperature before baking it (you can leave it out while heating the oven). Bake it at 475° for about 40 minutes.
Don’t get hung up on the time that it takes to bake the breads in this book. Active time is minimal and once you figure out a schedule that works, you will be rewarded over and over. My family really liked this bread. If you’ve read my other postings, you know that I usually bake bread with a variety of whole grain flours. When I do bake white bread, it is because it makes my daughter happy. This bread made her very happy. I also had a smile on my face when I snuck a piece or two. Tasting the first slice, the end piece, with a cup of coffee, is not a bad way to start the day. I do have one warning. I thought there was too much salt in this and other recipes and I wasn’t the only one in my family who thought that. Subsequent loaves tasted better after I reduced the amount of salt. Maybe you should bake your first loaf as directed before fiddling with amount of salt. Here is a link to the recipe.
My daughter was camped out on the couch, wrapped in two or three blankets like they were lifejackets. She was sick and tired. Sick of being sick and tired of being tired. “How about some chicken soup? Tea?” She shook her head. Like a priest administering last rites, I leaned in closer to listen to her deathly whisper. “Father?” “Yes, my child.” “Father?” “Yes, my child.” “Father, can I have some bread?” Every time I checked on her it was the same ritual, ending with “Can I have some more bread.” When my wife came home later she asked what our daughter had to eat. “Bread,” I said. “Bread? That’s all she had all day long.” “No,” I said. “What else did she have?” “Butter.”