At the Patisserie, Anna made good bread.
Great bread, actually. The Italian bread she came up with was magnificent, a chewy loaf with the right kick of savory salt. It was possibly matched only by her herb bread, a bread with a light crust and a tang of herbs that made a slice of it with a simple dash of butter a fine meal on its own. The tender bear claws with a hint of cardamon. The knife marks across the loaves, some glistening from an egg wash and others dusted with a nutty flour. The sound the bread loaves made when you’d snap your finger on the bottom to see if they were done.
For a while, she created truly handmade artisan breads each day. Sourdough, French baguette, hearty multi-grain, brioche, challah, cinnamon loaves, and breads filled with herbs, cheese, garlic, olives — but sales never took off. We were told that the crust was too hard, or the loaves were too dark. So Anna finally stopped making the bread beyond special order and I wept inwardly. I grew to miss that good bread that you had to struggle to bite into, bread with palpable texture that fought back.
And then, in a bookstore, I picked up a copy of The River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens.
I chose this cookbook over the trillions that now infect the bookshelves in this celebrity foodie culture because it was a quiet, subdued book. It lacked a sexy cover.
It’s small in size, and the pages aren’t glossy or overly artful. It’s not trying to be hipster-vintage-apron cool, nor does it weight 50 pounds due to excessive food porn photographs. It doesn’t promise me “1001 Breads!” and then give me five recipes with 200 variations on each by switching out salt or flavoring. It’s not trying to be a beautiful art book that will never get splashed with cake batter because the owner only intends to look at the pictures and salivate instead of bake.
The author didn’t write pages of purple prose, wrapping each recipe in stories of grandma and milking his own cows and his mother’s favorite granola with 10 different photos of a stack of biscuits from different angles. Instead, he explained how and why and presented the recipe. It is a most delightful and approachable book filled with versatile recipes of a wide array of breads. There are plenty of color photographs, mind you, but it is clearly much more related to the old Betty Crocker cookbook of my mom’s which was 80 percent recipes and 20 percent how-to rather than 10 percent recipes, 10 percent how-to, and 80 percent stories of nostalgia and idealized kitchen lore.
This bread book is organic in the sense that it wasn’t filled with unnecessary additives.
I get frustrated with the current foodie culture, sometimes. It clouds the concept of eating to live versus living to eat. It makes it easy to cross that fine line between gourmet and gourmand. The last thing I need in my battle to control my food intake is to turn eating into some kind of emotional accessory. Let food be food; let it be viable nutrients our body needs for fuel so that I can say “no I’m not hungry” instead of “I did love grandma!” when faced with a delicious cake. I can say no to unnecessary fuel, but not to grandma.
During my three years of making desserts at the Patisserie, I used to get annoyed at cookbooks and what they cost. I didn’t want stories. I wanted recipes and instruction. I don’t mind a little preface to a recipe or a tidbit of background information, I guess, but I don’t want to put a cookbook down and feel less human because I’m not harvesting my own honey on an alternative farm in Vermont using locally sourced ingredients with a degree from Sarah Lawrence College.
I don’t want to buy a lifestyle when I pick up a cookbook. Who needs that kind of pressure? I want to buy a book of recipes, make some food, and not be hungry.
Which makes me think of Anna’s magnificent breads. I think of those gorgeous breads she kneaded out by hand every day that too few people bought, and how much I learned watching her experiment to find the right loaf. When I asked her what she was doing in an attempt to learn, she didn’t respond with a story, even if it were her grandma’s recipe (which some were). She didn’t make the simple reality of bread into anything overly artsy or lofty. She told me specifically what and why and how, then we baked it and we ate it and saw that it was good.
I just want a cookbook to give me the recipe. I’ll make my own stories around the food I create with my friends.