Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Bread of Life

I was raised in the Episcopal Church in the "mission diocese" of Eastern Oregon. Oddly, contrary to that region of the state's right-leaning politics, the diocese was quite liberal theologically, which meant it didn't have the "smells and bells" of incense and ringing of chimes to signal the progress of the service. Instead, in 1979 it was among the first dioceses in the nation to get (paperback) copies of the brand new Revised Book of Common Prayer, which translated the ancient cadences (and at times indecipherable language) of King James into American English.

That new version of the old book changed everything, from the iconic Lord's Prayer to the words said during Holy Communion when, instead of receiving wafers of pressed cardboard…I mean, um…flour and water, we got actual pieces of bread torn from loaves made by the women of the church.

Though I've left those religious beliefs behind, I still embrace the idea that whole foods, whether made at home or store-bought, nourish both body and soul. Which is why I was so thrilled when Dave started making bread here at home.

At first it was hit-or-miss as he tried one recipe after another, nothing really measuring up to the rustic, hard-crusted, flavorful loaves he wanted to produce. He tried the no-knead style, which was pretty good, and the technique of misting the oven during baking, which improved the crust but still wasn't hitting the mark. He even made his own sourdough starter from the yeast left at the bottom of a bottle of Hair of the Dog's Doggie Claws.

He went through a dozen kinds of flour, from bulk unbleached to whole wheat to packaged brands, and shapes from boules to baguettes. He cruised blogs and artisan bread web sites like The Fresh Loaf, searching for hints from other folks who were on the same quest. After more than a year of less-than-stellar results, he was getting a little frustrated.

Cast iron pans did the trick.

Then, one Christmas, our friends Kathryn and Jeff got him a book, Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson of San Francisco's legendary Tartine Bakery. Like the revised prayer book from my youth, it became a game-changer. Following Robertson's suggestion, Dave invested in a cast iron "combo cooker," the bottom a deep pan and the top a shallow frying pan. By inverting it, he could plop the risen dough into the shallow section, score the loaf and cover it with the deeper pan, containing the moisture released by the bread during baking. Halfway through baking the top pan was removed and the loaf returned to the oven to finish baking.

His biggest fan.

The results that first time were so startling that Dave ordered another cast iron pan and hasn't looked back since. He continues to tinker with the dough, and every two weeks he spends a day making several loaves that are stored in the freezer until we need them. It's called "Uncle Dave's bread" by our 3-year-old nephew, who asks for it every time he comes over and who invariably goes home with a loaf. Talk about nourishing body and soul…for us that's what it's all about.

No comments: