HOW I BECAME AN ARTISAN BREAD BAKER
I don’t come from a family of bakers. My love of baking arose from my love of cooking, a passion that germinated when I was still a young girl. Growing up in Manhattan, I spent my elementary school years shuttling between my mother’s small brownstone apartment on the Upper West Side and my father’s 6-story walk-up on 12th Street in the East Village, and each household came with its own set of culinary skills. Whereas my grandmother Ruth learned to make delicious traditional Jewish dishes from watching her mother in front of a hot stove in Poland, my mother did not share her mother’s interest in cooking; hence, when it came time for my mother to start her own family, she found herself quite inexperienced in the kitchen.
One of her “specialties” was Chicken à la King, a dish consisting of Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup poured over toasted Wonder Bread. We’d eat TV dinners on special occasions—in front of the TV. As I watched her cook, I started to take the initiative in food preparation. One of my earliest recollections (I was six or seven years old) was when I offered to make French toast for breakfast one morning for my mother, who wasn’t feeling very well. When the meal was finally ready, I carried the plate of French toast to her bedside. Imagine my disappointment when she couldn’t bring herself to try even one bite. A few hours later, she was rushed to the hospital with acute appendicitis!
At my father’s place, I began creating formal dinner menus that I’d write out in neat calligraphy and display at the dinner table. Although we ate a lot of processed food (remember Noodles Romanoff?), my dad would make up for it by inventing interesting recipes, such as chicken livers sautéed in red wine and ketchup.
By the time I reached high school, I began cooking meals in earnest and would spend more hours pouring over recipes in The New York Times Cookbook than I would spend studying for my homework assignments. And when I was a senior in college and living off campus in Binghamton, I discovered that cooking was an easy way for me to unwind and reduce stress.
However, it wasn’t until I met my husband Brian, who had earned a City & Guilds in both Bread Baking and Confectionary from Manchester University in England, that I began to get seriously interested in baking. He broke the news to me that bread-baking is a science, not an art. However, I’ve learned that making good bread is not simply about converting formulas and baker’s percents (these things I leave to Brian to calculate); it’s about feeling the warm dough in your hands and molding it into beautiful shapes, baking it, and then, finally, tasting a delicious finished product. That, to me, is art and how I became an artisan bread baker.