The Staff of Life

First, a confession: I’m a lousy baker.

The aspects of my personality that make me a good improvisational cook (the premise of this blog up to this point) are also the aspects of my personality that make me pretty terrible at following precise instructions — which is what baking requires. I always want to fiddle, tweak, exchange, approximate… and that doesn’t create consistent results.

But life often creates moments to learn that sometimes a challenge is the very thing we need to learn some balance.

I’m spending a few weeks visiting family for the long holiday season, and this happened to coincide with my mother discovering flavored balsamic vinegars and infused olive oils. She picked up a sample set of each, and wanted some plain bread for dipping — all the bakery bread in the house wasn’t plain. So, knowing she was very busy, I grabbed a simple French bread recipe from the Food Network website and did my best to stick to the book to produce a couple loves of plain white bread.

The results were shockingly good.

She intended to host a holiday dinner this past Saturday evening, and so with some minor tweaks I turned out some very nice herb infused loaves for the occasion.

Meanwhile, I’d been reading Peter Reinhart’s “Whole Grain Breads”. Why? The truth of the matter is, I don’t eat very much bread. I don’t keep any in the house day to day. Yes, I have sandwiches or burgers if I’m out and about, yes I like pita when I’m at my favorite Lebanese cafe, but I’m certainly not a dinner roll kind of guy nor a morning toast guy. I tend to think of bread as “empty starch” calories and while I do exercise a fair bit, I don’t enjoy exercising enough to tip the cost/benefit scale of enjoying the eating of bread every day. But, if I could start making a whole grain loaf at home, especially if I could make it vegan so that I could even eat it during Lent, then perhaps I could be getting some additional fiber and vitamins into my diet while also filling some of my time with an ancient human activity.

And I have to say, the idea of having bread to give to people has been rattling around in my head for some years now. So, motivation for this project has been unexpected, swift, and definitive.

In the interest of time, my mom acquired some wild yeast starter from a friend, and yesterday we picked up bags of whole wheat and rye flours. Last night a soak of flour and water was established and this morning a portion of the mother was enlarged into a ferment which should spend the day slowly growing (hopefully). Later tonight, they will come together and be baked into a whole grain rye loaf. If all goes well.

When I get back to Houston, I’ll be growing a mother from scratch (assuming I can’t figure out how to get this one home intact) and continuing on my bread baking journey. I’ll be posting here with photos and updates — but not recipes as for now they’re coming from Peter’s book, which I paid for, and I don’t think he wants me giving them away for free.

Stay tuned.

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