Before you judge me for talking about a cookbook this week, I should tell you that I once considered cookbooks to be below my notice too. I’m not much of a chef, although over the last few years, I have challenged myself to explore new recipes and perfect certain techniques (barbecuing vegetables, for example, or making dairy heavy meals lactose-intolerant friendly). I’ve learned to make my own granola, fish tacos, vegetarian chili – all recipes taught to me by dear friends that are in beloved rotation in our house now. Basically, I reached the point in my life where eating out every night had lost its appeal, and the idea of eating pasta, oatmeal or quesadillas in a steady stream for eternity was no longer tempting either (although I will say, I made a dessert quesadilla with peanut butter, slices of banana and a sprinkling of chocolate chips that I ate happily every night for two weeks, so it’s clearly not impossible for me to bow to routine).
Even though I’ve been pushing myself to cook at least four or five nights a week for awhile now, I still find it difficult to utilize cookbooks, which is a shame because I have received a stunning collection over the years (Moosewood, Smitten Kitchen, Rose’s Cakes…). Perhaps it’s because I didn’t grow up in a house where cooking was a favorite job. My mother did it because she loved us, not because she loved the activity itself, and I’m grateful to her for all those years of putting healthy meals on the table for us. Her mother had been even less interested in the kitchen than she was, and it’s my understanding that they mostly survived quite contentedly on soup and sandwiches, a fact that no doubt stunned my paternal grandmother, an Italian whiz in the kitchen.
My own Italian heritage did not come with a burning desire to prove myself over a hot stove, although I did inherit from my mother a love of all things sweet, and ever since I was small, I’ve happily baked cookies and cakes for neighbors and friends. These foods, while delicious and soul-filling, are not exactly a part of the food pyramid. On the other hand, my desert island food (that is, the one type of food I would be content to eat on a desert island should I be stranded there indefinitely) is bread, a staple that exists in some form in just about every culture. In the US, it’s also quite expensive, and often times filled with garbage ingredients to preserve flavor and freshness indefinitely. While I do occasionally buy a loaf, I’m rarely satisfied with it and have long dreamed of learning to make my own.
The problem is, bread is hard. Well, it’s not hard so much as it is time consuming. All that waiting and kneading and rising, and even when I followed every step, it never turned out quite right. My friends could bake beautiful braided challahs and hot crusty rolls, and my own contribution was dense and flavorless. After a while, I decided to start researching to figure out where I was going wrong, and I came across an article by Lahey, and I was immediately taken with him and his ideas about bread. About a year later, I asked for his book for Christmas, and my in-laws obliged. I dove straight in after the holidays. I worked my way though the basic bread recipe, and when it was a complete and utter failure, I was, well, devastated. His recipes are no fail! How could I fail a no fail recipe? It made no sense. I gave up, deciding I just wasn’t cut out to bake bread.
A few months ago, I pulled out the book again, and this time, I actually sat down and read it, cover to cover. I didn’t get out the flour or the yeast. I simply sat with the book and absorbed the tales he wove about salt and the singing of a perfect loaf. It was poetry. It made me salivate, and more importantly, it gave me the courage to try again. Again, and again. I made loaves that required my patience because I trusted in the story Lahey told about his beloved bread. I left dough alone when it needed space, and I was gentle when it needed care, and every time, I turned out a perfect golden loaf. It felt like a miracle, but really, it was nothing more than buying into what Lahey spun for me. I allowed myself to be swept up in his unconventional story, and it was every bit as wonderful as the bread itself.