Baking Bread

17th January 2011 | Posted in Daftness

Wild-geese-fly-above-a-sn-002When I was young, my parents ran a corner shop. This had lots of good things about it but one of the downsides was that my Mum and Dad worked shop hours. They had little time spare for some of the more everyday bits of parenting, like cooking. My Mum was a happily homely cook but she only really got to the kitchen for Sunday roast and the rest of the week was much more ‘eat to live’ than ‘live to eat’. Some of the less vicious parts of Nigel Slater’s ‘Toast’ are rich in memories for me. I think I even enjoyed Fray Bentos tinned steak and kidney pudding.

It was only when I left home that I became a competent self-taught cook. The cover is tattered and torn and the pages wear the stains of my enthusiasm but I still have the first cookery book I bought myself. Delia Smith’s ‘Complete Cookery Course’ was put to use again this Sunday to check the roasting times for duck and it’s followed me around through house moves, marriage and children like a smelly old Labrador. My method was simple. I’d buy a book and, in a rather boyish way, do some chopping and stirring to get close to what the professionals were aiming at. Over the years my cheerful amateurism has worked pretty well and I guess I’ve benefitted from the Jamie Oliver school of wanging things together. Flavour has been King, method secondary and by avoiding recipes with too many tricky bits I’ve consistently produced tasty food that has kept dinner parties and family pretty happy. I also learned to enjoy cooking for itself. I like the manual skills and the immediate end product which are so different from most of my work. I like the drama of timing everything so it comes to the plate together. I like the taste of good food and I’m greedy enough to be a fat bugger if vanity didn’t prevent it. I like the conviviality of eating with family and friends.

What my self-education swerved around ‘though, was baking. The alchemy involved in mixing some dry things with some wet things to produce a solid sheet of pastry, tin of cake or loaf of bread always fell into the category of ‘too tricky’. The precision required was intimidating. For a man used to a Rick Stein ‘handful’, a recipe advocating electronic scales and requiring eight grammes of something seemed like pedantry until a sticky mess followed my failure to comply. I hid behind my wife’s familiarity with cakes and pastry when our children were small. It may have stayed like that but a Xmas present pasta machine a few years ago, my daughters enthusiasm for pizza and the general grimness of shop offerings had me experimenting with flour and water. A few books and a lot of persistence have got me to the position where I’ve baked all the bread in our house for the last few years and it had become as routine as walking the dog until last week.

For my Xmas Eve birthday this year, my family bought me a bread making course with a proper professional baker – Maurice Chaplais. Last Friday, ignoring several shouting work demands, I took a day to listen to a quiet craftsman and watch him nurture, nurdle and nudge great bread out of simple ingredients. I learned enough to produce two decent loaves on the day and, better, produce two different loaves on Sunday using recipes and techniques that I’d never have attempted without his inspiration.

In the tradition of blogging what should happen here would be a neat tying together of this experience. I ought to write that this is like the workplace because ‘…..’ I ought to write that this has taught me ‘……’ about myself or about management. But you can insert your own metaphor. I just had a bloody good time. I’m really proud of the bread I made and I’m looking forward to next weekend so I can do it again.