Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Making Bread

I'm in the process of making bread, for the Thanksgiving table. I just accomplished the sponge step. The yeast are now busily consuming sugar and converting to CO2. Yes, the secret to bread is yeast farts. But it smells good, tastes good. Not an onerous task, either. I enjoy making bread but don’t do it much nowadays. I should get back to it.

Baking bread for holidays and special occasions rings true. For one, homemade bread is better, period. Two, the making has an almost ceremonial aspect. Lammas Day, which is my birthday, is the day the harvest is consecrated. From the Old English for Loaf Mass. This doesn’t make me a baker, I just note the importance of bread.

In the day, I used to make eight loaves a week, four at a time. This was for Erin, Beth, my father and me. The first loaf would be gone before cooled, still warm from the oven enchantment. It should never count as a loaf, we disappeared it before it existed.

Beth routinely handed out loaves to people like the mailman, or when visiting. A simple gift that people took much pleasure in. Bread is a staple as much as any food.

I’ve baked bread since I was young, single digits even. I used various recipes. I became more serious about it when I got the Tassajara Bread Book. That book, by a baker at a Zen center, expanded on the thoughtfulness of the process. Without over-zenning it, he made each step, and the addition of each ingredient, singular, important, and worthy of consideration.

I have nothing against bread machines. They are convenient. I won’t knock that. I find bread making a pleasure, with many sensual and tactile components. The way the ingredients change within the process stimulates a certain feeling like awe. Why leave that feeling to the machine?

I made many of the recipes in the Tassajara book, tried a lot of different ingredients and flours. The book, in fact, is just about edible, since it was handled many times by dough-covered hands. I even made unyeasted bread, which is something of a practical joke to play on the unwary (including the unwary gut). Unyeasted bread is leaden nourishment at best. At worst it is something to discreetly ignore until the appearance of mold makes it okay to discard the loaf.

I have to admit that I favour plain old white bread, but I like adding other flours (oat, rye, barley (toasted), and rice). I’ve also added things like lecithin and soy protein powder. I don’t even remember why I added lecithin except that it’s good for you. The bread was lovely wit it, I remember.

I had to check the recipe today, since it has been a while since I made bread. Used to be I didn’t need a crib, it was in my head. Anyway, you can’t be too specific in following measurements. The amount of extra flour one might use on a humid day is considerably greater than on a dry day.

I start by adding yeast to warm water. Just to make the yeast happy, I add some form of sugar, like honey or agave. The yeast can get by without it, but I want them to feel inspired.

If you watch, the yeast and water will start to show activity. Nothing violent, but one realizes that cooking is chemistry. I let it bubble for a bit before adding flour. I tend to add the flour by greater quantities than the recipe says, that’s mere impatience. The flour at first clumps up in what seems like intractable clumps, as if it will never mix with the water. Persevere, Pilgrim!

The recipe says stir one hundred times. I dip the spoon down the side and swing it around the bowl’s side. After a few strokes, blending seems possible. You can see the dough becoming more elastic. I count the full 100 strokes, and only a few more. Supposedly you can overdo it, but by the 100th stroke, things look pretty good, and my arm’s tired.

The sponge rises for an hour or so. When squished for time, I’ve gone less, much less. I’ve also gone much longer, when I’ve been distracted. The bread forgives.

There is something here about the creative act. Certainly there is an alchemical transmutation of base element, which perhaps isn’t a nice thing to say about those stalwart yeast cells. Thank you for the bread, Yeast Friends, and the wine and beer!

I’ve skipped steps, forgotten ingredients, over- or underextended rises, and something breadlike has resulted. The rules offer guidance, not stricture.

In cool weather, I’ll turn the oven on for a few seconds and stick the dough to rise there. Turns out that that incandescent bulb in the oven provides a suitable, non-yeast-killing, temperature.

The next step begins hopelessly. You’re supposed to stir in the remaining flour (for 4 loaves, a five pound bag roughly does the job). For me, the dough isn’t stirable so I just scrape the dough onto the counter and dump the remaining flour on. It doesn’t look like it will happen: the inchoate mass cannot possibly become an amalgamated dough. Eventually, by pushing the dough and flour together, using a scraper to push the mass and clean the counter, a bread-like dough replaces the previous glop. Kneading will bring the former glop to dough perfection. Trust me, it will happen. The dough becomes smooth with a silky surface. I have maximized the available gluten.

I ball the mass up, pour oil over it, and let it rise once more. Just like with my joke telling, I forgot to mention a few things I should have added earlier: oil and salt. These are withheld from the sponge so that yeast activity won’t be hindered. I’ve added eggs in my time but I don’t really care for the cakiness that results. I’ve also forgotten to add eggs and oil. Without oil isn’t too noticeable but lack of salt is.

The second rise means I get to punch it down. The whoosh of yeasty gas is pleasant. The dough is easy to work with. I cut it into four equal parts. Shaping the loaf is important otherwise you get a poor rise, or misshapen loaf.

I shape the dough into a loaf. I can’t explain it well but I roll and pull it with my hand so that there is tension at the top. Then I pinch the seam on the underside. I pull and pinch the ends the same way. I place this dough loaf against one side of a bread pan to support it in its final rise. Ayn Rand comes to mind suddenly, but let it pass. With luck I will have remembered to oil the pan before placing the dough in it.

Sometimes I will cut each quarter into thirds, roll them into sausages then braid them to form a loaf. Lardy dardy. It is food first of all. Pass that test then let Martha Stewart take over.

Brush with melted butter or egg wash, sprinkle with salt, wheat germ, or sesame seeds. Or, moat likely, none of the above. Bake. I’m big on underbaking, then cutting a loaf, realizing the fact with a gasp and returning the loaves to the oven. You may want to try patience, instead. The first loaf will soon be gone. The next, the alternate first, will be for dinner. The other two can be frozen, once cooled. Or just leave them out and finish them off tomorrow.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Exciting Visit to the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair

A few weeks ago, we sold some books to a used book seller, Derringer Books. He gave us tickets to the book fair in Boston. Didn’t know of such a thing but it sounded cool. We attended yesterday.

It’s a three day event, much like Anime Boston that Erin goes to every year. And located in the same place, Hynes Convention Center.

We drove in, taking the requisite wrong turns for what should a fairly direct journey. Parking, ugh, the city sinks with its parked cars. We squeezed into the Prudential’s parking hell, with the forecast of formidable cost. But wait, buy 10 dollars worth of stuff at the mall and your parking cost shrinks.

Anyway, we walked into the Hynes, where a long line stood waiting to have books appraised. Passing that, we found that we had to check our coats—for free—to block theft. Just a gesture to make people feel good. At the door there were several official looking people, none of whom asked for our tickets. We immediately discovered Alan of Derringer Books.

As with most of the sellers, he features an eclectic selection, tho he focuses on poetry. He had several books by Jack Gilbert, for instance. Alan had already gathered together what he planned to offer before Gilbert’s death. Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara was on display for around $500 dollars. Maybe I still have my copy, because I like the size of City Lights books, but I may have gotten rid of it when I got the superseding selected poems. And so it goes.

I do not collect books. That is to say, I may well get rid of collections if I find selected or collected editions. Further, I write in books, put coffee cups on them, and otherwise reduce their value as objets. And further furthermore, storage is a concern. I’ve sifted thru my books numerous times to retain what will fit on the shelves. Anyway, I don’t even know if my copy of Lunch Poems is 1st edition or not, which I assume Derringer’s is.

Copies of Fuck You A Journal of the Arts were available. Always thought that was about the best title for a poetry journal.

I once attended a baseball card convention. I stopped getting baseball cards when I was about 11. I liked the information on the card. Supposedly every card was issued in equal numbers. In the sense of rarity, Willie Mays was just as valuable as Eddie Bressoud, but I wasn’t buying that type of logic. I whooped when I got Mays. Eddie Bressoud, at best, was just more stats to pore over.

In the same way, I got excited to see At Swim-Two-Birds, some early hardback edition. I don’t know its value as a collectible. It’s the novel itself that matters. Even signed wouldn’t increase its value to me. Two David McCullough books that I haven’t read yet were available, but signed 1st editions aren’t important to me.

Still, it’s fascinating to see the different cover art of familiar books. There were sellers from other countries (England, Germany, France, Sweden). Myriad editions of Lord the Rings, for instance.

Many dealers offered rarities going to the 15th century, at least. One was the apparently first cookbook, an imposing German book in uncipherable gothic print. Another was a sketchbook of a ship builder with delicate pencil drawings of ships. Nature books of the Audubon ilk. the first facsimile of the Declaration of Independence.

A magnificent book was displayed in a case. It was a large book, and when its pages were unfolded, they were at least 3’ long and more than 1’ tall. On the displayed page was an impressive engraving of a church construction in Rome. It was meant to simply show the work being done—one apart of the building was cut away to reveal the inside of the already constructed part—but the mob of people doing individual things brought to mind Hieronymous Bosch or Dante’s Inferno. As Beth and I clucked over it, the dealer offered to bring it out for inspection but we refused. Just didn’t seem right to handle something so exquisite that we had no intention of buying.

There were maps to overflowing, which delighted both of us. And papers. Beth was impressed by a note written by Lincoln. I was taken by a check for $69 signed by George Herman Ruth.

A tv newsperson and the person who ran the camera interviewed a few of the dealers. I watched that a little, it’s a fatuous process. The reporter somehow looked manufactured as a reporter. She looked crisp, sounded crisp, and of course it is just the same old thing. Earlier, just walking along, I moved into the camera’s line of fire. I thought then that it was just a tourist with a fancy camera, and I apologized. I think he was just getting ambiance shots.

Some of the dealers were crusty dusty old guys, members of a weird little cabal of interest. Others were just dealers in the sense of dealers. There were a few cases where questions could not be posed because the dealer was schmoozing with a likely captive. I don’t suppose the really expensive stuff (6 digits) are actually dealt right there. Alan says that he would like to offer less expensive items but the cost of the booth and a hotel room makes that impossible. It was a fun event tho tiring. It would be nice to go all three days, and not feel obliged to race around. As we left, a guard asked to peek into Beth’s handbag.