Dear Friends and Fellow Bakers,
Welcome to the November 2022 issue of Betterbaking.com and happy post Halloween!
All is well here and I hope this note finds you similarly calm, healthy and enjoying the last mellow days of fall. Of course if you're in a different hemisphere I hope spring and summer are beginning to unfold in a beautiful way on your end as well. All weather considered, our common season is baking so let's get to it!
The Scent of Change in the November Breeze.....
If there’s one thing I know, it’s scent. I can smell untended onions browning in a pan, just as they pass through caramelized to scorched. I know the scent of on-the-verge-of-too-ripe melons and the velvety bittersweet scent of chocolate as it melts with butter. From rooms far away from the kitchen, I know the truth of plums, simmering in a jam pot, as they morph from watery fruit into scarlet preserves. In a half-breath, I can tell you the pungent smoky secrets of a fire, be it maple or mesquite. I know to the bean as it brews if the coffee is Mocha Java or Columbian Supremo. Even in my sleep, insinuated into my dreams I can smell a rank sourdough starter and wake up, knowing to feed or discard it.
I am a master baker, so it’s within my vocation to know scent. My days in the kitchen as a chef and, just as much, tending my own home fires have only added to what I know. Through countless bags of pristine flour, my sense of smell has fused itself to my intuition. I am part bloodhound, alchemist and shaman. It’s then no surprise I can also smell change-on-the-way and November really heralds in that sense. With each season, even if the weather, an external element is the only change you think is going on, something inside is also always shifting. In our fluctuating selves, there’s probably far more than the four seasons. We change a little all the time but mood-wise, there’s something about the teasing sunny/colder air of late fall that fells me at the knees. Just listening to When October Goes, an all-but-lost song by Johnny Mercer, makes me cave.
Who likes change?
If you’re anything like me, you squirm when you first smell that scent of change. It doesn’t even matter if the change is good. For one thing, it has to be (ultimately) good because the opposite of change is stagnation. But that wonky space of what we know and where we’re going isn’t always thrilling. I dislike change on principal; it upsets my apple cart. But once I stop fearing and denying change something better takes over: curiosity. As sentient beings, I think curiosity is the greatest gift we have. To be curious about something is to inquire and then take steps forward into something new, better or utterly unique. To be curious is even better than being intelligent because intelligence without curiosity turns in on itself and goes nowhere. If you can honor curiosity you can inherit the kingdom. And that’s what got me to better breads.
The sourdough trail
A few months ago I temporarily walked away from my personal sourdough school and put the starter back in the fridge. It bothered me that so far my breads were very good but not the ‘great’ that I wanted. I wanted big holes in the interior and a crackly crust that pierces the silence of the kitchen when you cut into the loaf. I just had a vision of what sort of breads I wanted and I just wasn’t producing then at that point in time. A few weeks ago I got curious all over again and went back to Sourdough, Square One. Instead of winging measurements or eye balling the flour and water, I actually weighed (versus measured) things. I tried tap water that sat over night as well as bottled spring water. I played with organic white flour and simply unbleached bread flour. I learned that neither shower caps nor kitchen tea towels would good covers for a starter that was trying to develop. Instead I found that linen or muslin cheesecloth was optimal. Eventually (a month and 120 pounds of flour later) I found ways to make a starter that was another lively and frankly astonishing presence in my kitchen as real as a new kitten in the house. I also created a special Spotify sourdough starter music playlist which made both it and my plants thrive. I didn’t mind the music either. All living things respond to lovely sound; why should sourdough starter be any different?
You should be aware that most sourdoughs are created from similar if not almost identical recipes insofar as the ratios of flour, starter and water are quite similar. It’s really about technique more than anything but the more you make them, the better you get and the more curious. The more curious, the more you learn and your breads improve exponentially. I think I’ve mastered how to create and maintain a healthy, vibrant starter and make a lofty bread with holes and that crust. Also baking a sourdough or two once every six months is like running here and there and expecting to be marathon-ready afterwards. You need some consistent diligence albeit in a casual, fun way. Next I’ll focus on scoring gorgeous scored design on my breads. I’ll be sharing more about this in my own Bread cookbook.
No doubt you're aware there are tons of books on sourdough and I’ll be reviewing some really special ones in the months ahead. There are also a plethora of sourdough videos on YouTube and Instagram but it all starts with your own curiosity and a can-do attitude.
I’m proud to say my sourdough breads are getting pretty blue-ribbon appealing, things rise and bloom majestically and I’m pretty chuffed. Be curious – it’s one of the last adventures left on this Yelp-reviewed planet where no one does anything unless it's been sanctioned by someone else or qualified by a host of followers or clicks and hits.
In other news, things are well here and that makes November an especially good harvest in all the ways that matter. Tango is a true masked-ball these days since I don’t know a soul and no one’s face is revealed. Sometimes out on the street after class, when people do remove their masks it’s a shock to see who you’ve been dancing with. I find it interesting to quickly match someone’s eyes with the lower half of their face and the voice that goes with all of it. You are literally being held in the arms of a stranger and instead of it being weird (i.e. why do we have to wear masks?) it’s added a whole new level of dance connection. I almost prefer it. Speaking of tango, my tango memoir, Tango Confidential is almost finished the first draft and publication should be in the first quarter of 2023!
In addition to my sourdough school of one, I’m learning water color painting due to the many inspiring Instagram reels showing how easy it is to create beauty with a paint brush. It was either that or adopt a feral kitten and buy too many wire-less bras - also thanks to Instagram reels.
Lately, swimming is amazing; I built up enough strength to hoist out of the pool on the side versus the stairs and I’m now working on the swimmer’s turn-around which is going less well. I also created a home yoga practice and that is my salvation. Every night I choose from a curated Spotify Yoga playlist and imagine I am teaching a class. I like being both teacher and student. Like sourdough school, class ranks are thin but my private practise has become even more enjoyable than live classes, online or in the park.
And last, talking about ‘thin’ – this feature in the New York Times about overweight anorexics is landmark and might change your notions about how much you eat. It’s changed my life and you might find it explains things in a way you suspected but now there's science about it. Bottom line: aim for healthy, eat enough and watch the magic that happens.
Happy American Thanksgiving to my south-of-my-border friends and happy November to everyone. Make everyday a holiday - celebrate with flour.(And don't forget everything you need for Thanksgiving, from gravy, to stuffing to mains and desserts in in the BB Recipe Archives)
Warm wishes from my messy, dough-encrusted kitchen to your (hopefully cleaner/neater) one,
Master Baker, Author,Publisher
25th Anniversary Year
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