A couple weeks ago I wrote about how much I dislike making the same recipe again in a short period of time. So you’ll know I’ve gone off the deep end when I tell you that I’m working on the same bread recipe I made less than three days ago. It’s not because it’s the best bread I’ve ever made (though I admit begrudgingly that it’s pretty great) but rather because I didn’t get it right the first time and I am now a woman obsessed.
This is unlike me. I am not a perfectionist and I don’t strive for immediate mastery of anything. I am an experimentalist, and a note-taker, and when a recipe doesn’t go well I write down what I think went wrong, and then months down the road when the recipe pops into my head, I go back and try again. If I can’t get it right a second time, I usually file it away mentally in the ‘At Least Now I Know’ drawer, and close the door.
In fact, when I first started leafing through Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread, the book divulging all the baking secrets of his successful San Francisco artisan bakery, I thought I’d never attempt such a recipe. His “Basic Country Bread” recipe is 37 pages long. No joke. 37 pages of minute detail and moment-by-moment photographs that are supposed to guide you in creating a naturally-leavened artisan loaf the likes of which would make the angels sing.
This is Robertson’s premise: if you follow his excruciatingly-detailed recipe to the letter, you will bake bread at home—yes you! in your own home!—as good as any ever baked by a professional artisan. He writes as though he wishes to empower home bakers, but his method is technically challenging and requires specialized equipment; certainly not a book for the beginning baker.
I was put off at first. I disliked his implication that this method would be easy or intuitive for people who had never worked with either natural leavens or artisan-style doughs before, probably setting beginners up to feel like failures if they couldn’t manage it.
But he got under my skin. His doughs are unusual in that he utilizes a high water-to-flour ratio, or what is called hydration percentage. I found myself wondering what a 75% hydration dough would feel like under my hands, how it would rise, what the crumb would look like when I cut into it, steaming and hot from the oven. I had also never before fussed about proofing temperatures; I just let the dough rise until it was ready, longer in the winter, shorter in the summer. But what if I actually maintained a constant temperature? What flavors were I missing out on with my unstructured approach?
So I made a mixing schedule. I took dough temperatures and timed every step as Robertson suggests. I committed 24 hours of my life to coaxing this shapeless mass of flour and water into something to put my name to, something I would be proud to score my initials into before it went into the oven. And it kind of, sort of, failed. I mean, it tastes great. But it’s not right.
I’m lucky enough to have a good friend who’s spent most of his adult life as a professional baker. We had a long conversation via text in which I utilized a lot of capital letters and emphatic punctuation. He told me I might try with a different flour, change the dough folding schedule, work the dough a little more attentively. I told him I never wanted to make this bread again. “More to learn, grasshopper,” he said. And then, about 10 minutes later, I told him I was going to try again in two days.
As I told A the other day as I was comparing the two cookbooks I’m currently reading, I wouldn’t want to hang out with Chad Robertson. I don’t think I’d enjoy his company. But I feel like if I pay attention, I’m going to learn something important. And that’s a feeling I rarely get from a cookbook.
In case you were waiting for a brilliant summary of a 37-page treatise, I’m not going to share the Tartine bread recipe here, even if I master it to my own satisfaction. It’s technical and difficult, and that’s not the kind of food writer I want to be. But I wanted to share the story with you, to help us all keep in mind that, no matter how uncomfortable, or frustrating, or just plain maddening, sometimes it’s important to be a grasshopper.