The French knew what they were doing when they called bread pain. Even the related panis, pan and pane of other Romance languages carry a tinge of the emotion I associate with bread: each designation has captured so well my painful experiences of making bread.
My first bread-making venture commenced at age five. Our mother was gone, so with the astute guidance of my 10- and 12-year old sisters, we each set about making our own loaf of bread. Convenient and simple must have been my motto. Could flour, water and Captain Crunch cereal mixed in an orange Tupperware cup and subsequently zapped in the microwave go wrong? Oh yes.
My next attempt would surely find success: I was 14 years old and touting my new Baking with Julia cookbook. Inspired by brioche baked in mini flower-pots that I’d recently ordered in a garden-themed restaurant, I decided to bake my own brioche in mini flower-pots. The baking began. The mixing was thorough but careful, the kneading gentle with just the right amount of flour, the first rising took place in a warm but not-too-hot oven, the second rising—“Second rising?! The rolls are already in the oven!” Well, apparently I was literacy-challenged, not reading the directions thoroughly, and my flower-pot brioches were vertically-challenged, but at least they tasted good. And we all know that “at least they tasted good” is on par with “she has a great personality.”
Third time is the charm, right? Would have been, except failing to cook the potatoes long enough for the Rustic Potato Loaves does inevitably result in texture issues. And then there was the sourdough starter. It sat on the counter for who knows how long. “Please, Mom, let me keep it just a little longer! The special mold in the air is what makes San Francisco sourdough spectacular…”
The bread escapades continued but met no success, and that beast of a Baking with Julia book taunted me, reminding me of my inability to turn out a satisfying loaf of bread. I consoled myself, saying, “I like cooking, not baking. Too much precision in baking. I like to create combinations inspired by the moment. It’s an art.”
And yet those glossy pages boasting crisp loaves of chewy Focaccia and buttery Challah refuse to leave me alone. I am Odysseus and those loaves are the Sirens luring me to the kitchen, tempting me to pull out the flour and yeast from the cupboard and bake another loaf. I suppose even art involves precision. Brahms’ rich and layered melodies were not crafted without the great precision. And Matisse did not set down those simple swaths of color before he had mastered traditional technique. So maybe there is more to being an artist in the kitchen than just throwing things together. Perhaps I should try my hand again at the old bread routine. After all, no pain no gain.