Over two-decades of cooking has taught me that a lot can go wrong with simple recipes. Most cookbooks don’t include plans B, C, and Z. Take bread for example. Investment-prone people can convert practically any phase of bread– sums of unintegrated ingredients, doughy masses, steamy loaves, culinary innovations, or spoiled goods – into a feast’s worth of nutrition. But there are limits: ingredients and elements collude against even the most practiced fingers and fervent wishes. What’s left are the burnt or discarded remains of heroic experiments, or what many refer to as “food for thought.”
Thankfully, with enough sense and a trusty guide, you can choose your own bread-venture. Below is a fool-proof recipe for going on and off-script to make it happen:
1. Start by preheating the oven to the degree to which you care about doing this right. Temper your expectations.
2. Combine the starter or yeast, flour, salt, and sugar. Add in water. Work the ingredients until you get dough; knead the dough into a flexible existence. Sneak a piece. If it doesn’t seem right, pray or think your way towards a solution. If your earnest entreaty goes unanswered, think about what you value, act accordingly, and move on.
Author’s note: Nothing is well done at this stage. If something went wrong, it won’t quite surface until later.
3. Find a suitable place to allow the dough’s sugars to mingle with the yeast and excitedly bubble with carbon dioxide. If you’re unsure where that would be, consider where you’d like to be if you were about to process significant growth.
Author’s note: Some dough won’t rise, no matter how well you’ve worked it, how lovingly you laced each bit with top-shelf ingredients or A-grade effort. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been an outstanding citizen, a dedicated partner, or whether you’ve seen a therapist. Some doughs are simply unwilling to proceed as indicated. If you can accept the dough as it is, it’s very possible that you’ll be able to make it into something, even if it’s something other than what you wanted it to be. Crackers, flatbread, or pigeon-pickings are all possible. But they only have a chance to exist if you get out there and start experimenting.
4. You’ll need to score the dough so it can let off steam. The number is not as important as what you learn from making your marks. Observe how exposing what’s within changes everything.
5. If you’ve made it this far, your dough is ready to rise to its full potential. You’ll need to find a solid foundation to set it on–something supportive that can take the heat. Lightly coat whatever that is with a with a layer of cornmeal so the dough doesn’t get stuck. Place the dough where it belongs. Introduce it into the hearth. Wait however long it takes you to lose your immature sourness; if you are not good at waiting, set a timer and do something else, but notice every time you lose your cool. If you are fortunate, you’ll welcome a nicely toned loaf. Ideally, you’ll be impressed by its form, but still easily connect with what’s within. If you’ve strayed from the recipe to this point, good for you.
Author’s note: Some dough will cook just enough to look extremely promising, but when you get inside, you’ll notice the rawness. You may try to put back what’s stuck to you, only to find more of the stuff on your hands than you can handle. You could trash the doughy mess and resent it for stubbornly remaining formless despite all honest-to-god-solid effort. You could take the matter personally. But if you stop here, I assure you that not even an ocean can wash away the residual taste of immaturity.
5. If your bread become stale, all is not lost. Yes, you will feel guilty at this point, which will make it tempting to toss it, conclude that it was never meant to be. You may take this failure personally. If you undermine your creativity, you should. Instead, try adding water and warming the bread up until you can re-establish some balance of crunch and chew. Don’t leave anything off the counter.
Author’s note: The difference between master and amateur chefs is that the former often make use of what others discard. Stale bread is a key ingredient in caramel-laced bread-pudding, savory croutons, and crunchy breadcrumbs on cheesy casseroles.
6. If your loaf grows mold on it, it’s moved on.
After many cycles of making, you’ll become more willing to walk away from the suggested path and embrace a hunch or a fancy. You’ll become better at guessing which mishaps are worth nurturing, transforming, and leaving; you’ll know better than to let that experience stop you from trying something new.
You may think that your willingness to experiment will make you a better person in the long-term. You may be right if you continue to believe this. Whatever you do, don’t take the bread personally – most of what happened was out of your hands.
Oh, and if it wasn’t already clear, more often than not, you’re the bread.
Faith Hanna has a sweet-tooth for a good story which is why she’s been cooking up her own. She’s based in San Francisco and makes money in marketing to support a growing craft-habit. Her most recent triumphs include quitting coffee, making an appearance at her 5-year college reunion, and learning how to weld.
Clara Davis was born in Redondo Beach, California and moved to San Francisco for college. She is in the process of completing her BA in studio art at CCSF and SFSU. She has been shown in multiple local galleries and currently works in a shop fabricating and installing public art.