Tuesday, July 28, 2020


I started baking bread as a lark back in 1990. I had no idea that it would feel so right, so whole and centered, in line with and an expression of my spirit.

I experimented, of course. I'm not very good at following recipes, preferring to deconstruct and distill until I understand the core of what's happening as opposed to following steps in rite blindness, like a cantrip. Also, I wear many hats and have a kaleidoscope of demands on my time and imagination. When the recipe says "Let rise for two hours," what does that mean? Does it really need 120 minutes? Is an hour sufficient? Will I have spoiled the whole batch if I get stuck in traffic or caught up in writing and don't get to it again for an hour longer? Soon I had a couple recipes of my own design.

I love the smell of the bread as it rises, the feel of the dough in my hands; the texture as it changes through the process still seems miraculous to me, three decades later. The scent of loaves fresh from the oven as they cool is how I know I'm Home.

I knew nothing of baking or cooking when I left home in 1987, and it's been an exploration, one hallmarked by a sense of freedom. I often hear women proudly proclaim that they have never turned on their ranges, and I understand their point, but it misses me completely.

Thirty years later, my favorite bread is Sourdough -- I like that the yeast is from the air, and the texture of the dough is transformed through the slow fermentation in a way that doesn't happen with yeast breads. As fate would have it, I put my grain mill and wheat berries (50 pounds each: hard red spring and soft winter white, organic, grown up in Pennsylvania on a solar-powered family farm) into storage just as the world shut down and there was a national flour shortage. I called the farm and had them ship a twenty-five pound bag of Type 80 organic flour to my place in North Carolina, thinking I would certainly have retrieved the mill before it ran out. I'm into my second bag, now, and considering ordering a third.

My recipe for Sourdough is both more particular and less intricate than most: I don't spritz with water before baking, or use a steam bath; I don't own proofing baskets or flour the bowl for rising. The process takes anywhere from 8-36 hours, and longer is better, but there are only a few steps, and each is brief. I use the cold oven as my fermentation cabinet.

As for other baking, I like simple desserts: poundcake, cookies, shortbread; I've made bagels and adore them fresh, though there's little point to making a batch for a single person, and it's a process that is very fiddly, though fortunately forgiving. Vivian's favorite things to bake are coffee cake, shortcakes, and English muffins. I've made cream cheese to go with the bagels, and the store bought variety will never be the same to me.

I started down the path of baking cakes in 2016, but it was derailed along with most everything else in my life that year. I had just figured out a cardamom spice cake with chai buttercream frosting that was so good it haunts me. I'll pick it back up again eventually.

I used to make a baked seasonal something every night, usually a crustless apple crisp or a pear cobbler. I knew my way through the calendar by what fruit was in the house. Summer is announced by plums and cherries in June; July is blueberries, and August is red raspberries and grapes, peaches and nectarines noting the golden end of long days, when the sun has been with me too long, its persistence now too loud and clanging. Pumpkin pie is the epitome of autumn. Homemade french vanilla ice cream or whipped cream became an everyday decadence.

I am still looking forward to learning to make butter. Right now I buy it from the farm where I get my raw milk. I still cannot figure out what I'm doing wrong with yogurt (trial, meet error!) and have resigned myself to buying it, probably forever.