When I first started baking bread at a young age 50 years or so ago, I found a recipe in my mother’s well-used cookbook. I didn’t know much about bread except from tasting it from the local bakery in my small hometown in Belgium. The loaves my family purchased there were crusty and chewy, full of flavor and texture. Those breads were all I knew.
When I made my first loaf, it didn’t have those same properties. It was softer and less flavorful. It was once I came to Goshen that I really started doing research about those breads I had left behind.
For one of my teen birthdays, my sister-in-law gave me a folder with photocopies of recipes from "The Complete Book of Breads." That was enough to get me started on a deep research path that continues to this day.
I started perusing the shelves of the public library and checking out all the cookbooks that pertained to bread and baking in any way. Using the intuition I received from my mother, I could look at a recipe and tell if it would turn out well or not. That’s how I found a delicious recipe for a cinnamon swirl sweet bread and an oatmeal sesame round boule.
I ended up buying Clayton’s book and another one he wrote, "The Breads of France." The more I delved into bread and bread baking, the more I knew what I didn’t know. I was now trying to find the recipe to make the perfect loaf.
One day, Carol Field’s book, "The Italian Baker," popped out at me from the library shelves. This introduced me to starters, also called "biga" in Italian or "poolish" in French. In that cookbook, I found a recipe for a lovely round Italian bread. Light, floury, chewy and full of flavor, it took me back to the bread of my childhood.
I made it a few times and it soon became part of my repertoire, baked weekly for years and years. I loved the routine of making the sponge the night before, finishing the bread off the next morning, and then baking it in a very hot oven where it would spring. I could hardly wait for it to come out of the high heat and start cooling. That’s when the magic would always happen. As it cooled, I could hear the crust crackling and popping, and watch the fine lines created as the bread settled into itself. I’d often tell those working around me, “Stop. Listen. It’s happening.”
Now that I’m back home, I finally got the urge to bake that bread again. Unfortunately, I no longer have the recipe. I searched the Internet and found a recipe that looked familiar and I let my muscle memory and experience carry me through the rest of it.
Once again, I made the sponge and let it sleep overnight. When I lifted the plastic wrap off of the bowl in the morning, it smelled exactly right. I finished off the dough and let it rise, smooth and soft as a baby’s bottom. I shaped it, placed it in baskets and let it rise again. Then the fun part: I turned the unbaked loaves onto pans sprinkled with cornmeal and poked each one with my fingers. Into the hot oven they go. And the last piece of the puzzle, that amazing crackling sound when the bread cools.
I also discovered that our library still carries the book, so I checked it out and found the familiar recipe, its pages stuck together a little with dough.
In my early days as a baker, a woman came into my shop and wondered about the fingerprints on the bread. I told her I poked each loaf with my fingers as part of the process. “I want a loaf that hasn’t been touched by fingers,” she said. I explained that all of my loaves were touched by my hands since I made them. She thanked me, left the shop and never came back.
In my years of research, I’ve discovered that hands on bread is the best bread. As a baker, I know by feeling it with my hands if it will be good. I use all my senses to decide what breads are keepers. As I continue my research at home, I hope I will always have my hands in the dough.
La Bonne Vie’s Rachel Shenk has been an artisan baker for 30 years. Born and raised in Belgium, she has lived in Goshen since 1973. She has been writing about food, traveling and the good life for about 10 years. You can connect with her on her Facebook page, La Bonne Vie, or at her cheese shop in Goshen, The Wedge.