Thursday, October 24, 2013

On the invisibility of bakers

revel in the glamour
I made a joke not to long ago about how bakers are invisible until they try and take a day off.  This was my barely clever attempt to comment at my own shortsightedness while providing national commentary about how most people feel about bread. Like many barely clever things I didn't think about it until after I said it, and then I couldn't stop thinking about it - at least the second half.

Bakers tend to get lumped together with pastry chefs, and when compared with delicate sugar showpieces and towering wedding cakes, beautiful bread seems, well, like a whole lot of brown.  Nancy Silverton, who with her ex-husband Mark Peel,  helped pave the way for a revitalization of small bakeries in the US, was honored with a James Beard award for best Pastry Chef in 1990. Pastry chef.  I don't know how well she can quenelle sorbet, pull a perfect sugar curl, compose a plated dessert that follows the vision of the savory side.  I do know she can make amazing sourdoughs, killer pizza, and yes, pastries that sell in her bakery. She is a Baker! Huzzah! Her cookbooks have received James Beard awards for Baking, because unlike the chef categories, baking gets its own place in print. Why do we acknowledge the books in a distinct category but not the craftsmen who created them?

I think it's something like this: The stories say your Foremothers made bread at home.  Therefore it is 1. women's work and 2. best acknowledged in a home setting, like a cookbook.  The problem is the initial faulty hypothesis - all the baking happens by women at home.  That wasn't true in Egypt, or Rome, where men ran the bakeries.  In feudal France it was illegal to even have a personal oven - minimizing the risk of fire while reinforcing the power of the feudal lord. The baking guilds in history often specified male members only (although family was usually exempted in the name of all hands on deck). Hell, even now you are more likely to find men baking your bread, because of that whole crazy hours and ladies have babies thing.  Yes, there is the pioneer/farm/idyllic media image wife at home baking for the family - but there are still bakeries in town.  Were the people baking for the community somehow less valuable?  Or maybe you just didn't see them, because they were having dinner when you had breakfast, and in bed when you were up and about on your day.

Then there is the bread itself.  A basic, a staple.  It's the thing everyone is supposed to have (even though not everyone does) and because everyone is supposed to have it, no one should have to pay very much for it.  A talented chef makes national news when he explains why rice shouldn't be free at Asian restaurants. Yet, the American public still expects free bread at restaurants. Guess what? That hunk o' baguette you didn't eat actually required as much if not more labor than the free rice.  Ever have a good sandwich on bad bread? Was it still a good sandwich, or did you think "This would have been a good sandwich if..."?  Ever have a soup that was made just that much better because of the crackers, croutons, or hunk of bread on the side? We see these elements as garnishes, an afterthought, not a foundation you don't pay attention to until it cracks.

The truth is, we don't do much scratch baking at home. It takes time most people don't have. I find more and more that my building blocks like bread flour are available in only small quantities at the store, replaced by instant mixes and ever more freezer space for microwaveable ready to eat items.  So why don't we begin to celebrate the people who take the time to make beautiful breads where we can't?  I know this will seem like blasphemy here in the US, but how about being willing to pay more for bread that is actually worth buying?

How about simply learning the names of a few bakers? Not the shops, the people. That shouldn't be too difficult, right?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Gee, that was beautiful! What did I do?

Pistachio ice cream, made into a biscuit, used for strawberry shortcake.

Yes, in my family we use biscuits not cake for shortcakes.  And now I will forever use ice cream biscuits.

In case you were wondering.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

One more time, from the beginning

Sometimes, you have to start with a dumb idea.

There's a whole Zen thing - and I am not even remotely well versed on the subject so don't yell at me if I am slightly off in my interpretation - about having a beginner's mind, Shoshin.  You come to an activity with a willingness to try everything, no preconceived notion of what can and cannot be done - no idea that something is a dumb idea.  From there, you allow yourself to explore possibilities that wouldn't occur to the expert, rigid in thought and process.

The idea that mixing ice cream and flour could make bread, for example.

I find weird ideas like this exciting. Of course I had to try it.  To me, the batter immediately suggested biscuits, rather than bread, so that's what I made - butter pecan biscuits, topped with raw sugar.  The only bad parts were my hands got really cold mixing the dough, and now I have to keep a supply of self rising flour around the house.  Because I don't already have enough flours around the house.

The good parts?  I have been inspired to play more with my baking. Not just with this recipe (although I really want to try using a good pistachio ice cream next. Or maybe beer and chocolate ice cream), but with bread in general.  What makes bread? Most bread doughs are variations on the theme of 5 parts flour, 3 parts liquid, plus leavening and flavoring.  But what does that mean?  If the liquid is water, I can develop a passable baguette, but what if I use the liquid I strain off yogurt? What if I just use yogurt?  How do different fats affect things? Different flours? So many possibilities.

There's a trick here, though.  It wasn't hard to get excited about an idea that involved two ingredients, little time and intuitively seemed like it would work.  Also, there was cheating involved on my part - someone else had already tried the idea and presented it to the world as something that works.  But when there isn't someone else showing you the silly, weird, odd ideas that shouldn't work but maybe they could work, where do they come from?  Being open to all possibilities means being open to bad ideas, as well; how can you recognize those ideas, and do you try them anyway?  Crazy Brain Me says yes, you should try them anyway, because you still get answers from failure.  You just need to not let those failures and successes stop you from trying more ideas.

Good thing I have biscuits to sustain me through the process.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Deliberately avoiding authenticity

It's five days before Fat Tuesday and the Paczki police are after me already.

Really, after more than a few months in the bagel business I should be used to this.  The internet has made this sort of commentary inevitable.  I should be jaded, steadfast, above this sort of thing.  I should just accept that I am wrong.  Acceptance is the first step in the healing process, right?

I am wrong.  There, I admit it.  My bagels, while New York style, are not the exact ones that Mr Expert #4 had on May 15th, 1982 at H&H. Nor are they the ones that Ms Professional Opinion #26 lyrically remembers from her childhood ramblings in which she accidentally while chasing a ball happened upon a 3rd generation bagel making family's one tiny storefront.  They aren't even the ones that you could get from any other bagel place right now.  They are too small, too large, too malty, not malty enough, not topped enough, topped too much, too different and sometimes not different enough. I did not grow up Jewish in New York City. Also, the water is different.  Despite all this, they are good bagels.

Paczki are a Polish pre-Lent celebration, a way to use up all your naughty ingredients, a damn tasty variation of the doughnut.  Thanks to immigration patterns, I discovered them in Chicago.  They are rich, with a supple dough, filled with custard or fruit, and I have missed them.  They just aren't found much in the neighborhoods of Portland, and each year I have seen other transplants seek them out, and end up disappointed. Really, what's the point of having a bakery if you can't fill a pastry void? So I asked. I made samples. And then a few more samples. They were well received. Now, for one single day we will celebrate one more puzzle piece of where we came from.

We post pictures, tell a story, and get the word out.  Then, it begins.  Those are too round, not round enough, not big enough, too big, probably don't have lard, aren't glazed, shouldn't be glazed, should be fruit filled, should never have chocolate.  Not the Real Thing. Also, they have never been eaten by any of these people.  It's even possible that they never will be eaten by some of them.

It's ok.  You are all correct.  I am not making something you may consider authentic. What I am making is a recipe passed on to me through who knows how many hands and minds.  I have adapted it to my own purposes.  And yes, I am daring to call these Paczki in full knowledge of this fact.  But my Paczki is made with a sincerity of purpose. It is true and genuine to what I know Paczki can be.  It also tastes really, really good.

What does authentic mean again?