Humbling Bread


The problem with baking bread is that, once you get into the habit, it’s very hard to eat any loaf but home-baked. There’s just nothing to compare with the smell of bread pulled out of your own oven, and warm bread sliced and immediately slathered with a slab of sweet butter has to count among the great sensual pleasures of existence. I’ve been baking bread for a couple of decades, starting with a bread machine (which saved time) and evolving into the era of 18-hour boules and their 6-hour variations (which saved even more time). I’m aware that there are grumblings about the effects of carbohydrates on long-term health, and to that end, I’ve been experimenting with more whole grains and natural yeast starters. In an informative class I took with my daughter-in-law at the LA Institute of Domestic Technology, I learned to make a very straightforward whole rye bread that has been our go-to breakfast loaf ever since. To my French-trained inner bread critic, however, the taste and texture are a bit too healthy. So I decided I was ready to tackle Peter Rheinhart’s Whole Grain Breads. This is a man who has devoted his life to revealing the secrets of baking amazing breads from the miraculous combination of flour, moisture, and wild yeast. Yet despite his knowledgeable text and earnest attempts to simplify, there are just so many steps—for making starters, mashes, bigas, and mother starters (an ominous combination of words)— with such intricate timing, that I found myself throwing up my hands in despair. I’ve managed to produce a couple of passable loafs, and I have to admit, they were chewy and tasty, but I had to come to terms with the limits of my patience. I did learn enough to combine some of his methods with some of mine, and I came up with a simpler recipe that I call “breakthrough bread.” It satisfies my taste buds while recognizing my limitations. A good compromise.