I came in really early again this morning because the Four Seasons Hotel asked that we make for a special event several large country loaves, our pain de campagne. I wanted to do these myself because I want them to be perfect—and, in truth, because there is something wonderful for me about making dough early in the morning. Besides, this bread is my favorite; it’s a pet.
I have worked on this campagne for 11 years. Bread is never perfected; it can always be made better. This time I am using one flour I particularly like, a stone-ground organic flour milled in California, and another I haven’t tried before, a King Arthur “artisan” flour milled in North Carolina. Because I don’t know one of the flours I have to pay particularly close attention to the mixer—and from time to time reach into the mixer to squeeze the dough to see if I want to add a little more water.
As I watch the dough, I think about the tremendous advantage professional bakers have over home bakers. We have better flour, more accurate scales (bakers weigh everything), filtered water, a starter (levain) that is perfect all the time, more efficient mixers, and better temperature controls. Most important, we make bread every day and learn a little each time.
I opened my first bakery 12 years ago; I was 52 years old. It was an audacious thing to do—not because of my age or the risks of starting a business, not even because I was doing something new to Washington, but because I didn’t know how to make bread, and I didn’t even know that. I thought that because I had been a home baker since boyhood, I could make bread professionally. I didn’t know that one has nothing to do with the other. And even when the bakery opened—even, a few months later, when we became a retail fad in Washington—I still didn’t know how to make bread.
From time to time I went to France to see bread made there and to work a little in bakeries. I worked for a few days at Acme in Berkeley, Calif., one of the “daddies” of the new traditional American bakeries. (Bakeries began making traditional European bread in the early ‘80s.) I visited other bakeries, learning a little each time. And then in 1995, I was invited to start a bread instruction program at Greystone, the California branch of the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. I am always embarrassed to acknowledge that only then, five years after I had opened my first bakery, I really began to learn how to make bread.
Many bakers are solitary, and because they live in their heads, they are poor teachers. But at a cooking school it’s simply not possible to answer a student who asks, “How do you know the dough is ready to take out of the mixer?” by saying, “I just know.” So, although I am not a solitary person, still I had to work through the answers to such questions. And that process began to make me a better baker.
All this talk is making me very anxious about the Christmas food we are going to make for customers. The stollen and panettone are made and wrapped and are available. No one ordered the oyster stew. (What a mistake!) The potato gratin is easy to make. How can one go wrong with potatoes, onions, cream, and Gruyere? The Israeli couscous and butternut squash is pretty straightforward. So is the savory bread pudding with mushrooms and spinach. But I am worried about the Christmas steamed pudding.
I don’t want to use beef suet, which is in the traditional recipes for this pudding. We made the brandied fruits. Jean Joho, the great Alsatian chef-owner of the Everest Room, called yesterday to gossip, and I asked him for advice. He suggested I use our brioche with a custard. I will try that today, but I doubt that I am going to get the slow-cooked, dark, heavy pudding I have in my head. So, then what shall I do?
This is important. When I begin to think about a recipe, I think about how I want a dish to taste, look, and feel—the flavor, appearance, and texture. If it’s something simple like mashed potatoes, do I want them to be buttery or creamy, peppery or bland, flavored with anything like garlic or herbs? Do I want them to be white or yellow? Do I want them to be smooth or lumpy? Should I put in a little surprise like caramelized onions?
If it’s the couscous with butternut squash, how large do I want the pieces of squash to be? What proportion of each? Sweet or not? Since both major ingredients are bland, do I want to flavor the dish or keep it innocuous as a Christmas dinner side dish?
But however much I may think about it, intellectual activity does have its limits. The proof is in the pudding, so I’d better go to work now.