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Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breadsby Bernard Jr Clayton
"This is a working cookbook."
Those words were written more than thirty years ago as the preamble to The Complete Book of Breads. The aim of the book then, as it is now, was to encourage anyone to make a loaf of delicious bread and enjoy doing it, as well as serving bread at the table.
It has succeeded far more than I could have dreamed. (I thought at the time I would be happy if the publisher would print at least enough copies so that I could give them to my family.) Little did I realize that it would become a classic among cookbooks. It would lead a revolution in bread-baking at home, and encourage a rebirth of traditional artisan bakeries.
My words of encouragement thirty years ago are unchanged.
Baking bread is a relaxed art. Unlike the precise steps in making pastries, bread baking allows a comforting margin of error. There is no step in the bread-making process that cannot, in some way, be delayed or moved ahead just a bit to make it more convenient to fit into a busy schedule. If the dough you are kneading gets stubborn, pulls back, and refuses to be shaped, as is its wont — walk away from it for a few minutes. It will relax, and so will you.
Many wondrous things happen in bread baking, and some not so wondrous.
The most wondrous is infusing life, literally, into the dough with tiny grains of yeast, and watching the dough grow and mature before your eyes. A miracle.
On the other hand, a less-wondrous thing is forgetting to add yeast, as the dough just sits there waiting for you to do something to help (which, at this point, can't be much).
I have been asked by many how the son of a country newspaper editor who had many careers in writing got into cookbooks, especially one about bread. I grew up in a family of dedicated butter-and-cream cooks, and married one. I knew my way around a kitchen and I knew what pots and pans and skillets were for.
Moving to Indiana from the West Coast changed all that. It was a particularly cold and miserable winter — especially so after living in California and Hawaii. I felt trapped in my apartment which, fortunately, had a kitchen with all of the requisite tools.
One day, I read in Time magazine about a cookbook by three women, including one named Julia Child, on mastering the art of French cooking. I bought the book. I even remember my first endeavor: a slice of ham with mustard sauce. Across the top of the recipe I wrote the date — March 16, 1967 — and what I thought of the results. I gave myself an A. Before that moment, it never occurred to me that I could do well in the kitchen beyond frying an egg or grilling a steak.
Breads intrigued me. We had just returned from a lengthy bicycle, canal boat, and gypsy-wagon trip across Ireland, England, and the Continent, and were enamored with the wonderful country breads we ate along the way.
I could bake them at home. Or so I thought.
When I started to look for recipes for these breads, as well as the necessary ingredients, I found almost nothing. The few books on breads were not well written and were difficult to follow.
I had to drive a hundred miles to a big-city flour mill for bread flour and rye and whole wheat flours, which came only in 50-pound bags. Some of my baking pans I made from black-metal stove pipe I got from Honey Jones at his country trading post south of town. (I still use them.) Honey and I traded (because Honey had no teeth, for a length of pipe I baked a whole-wheat loaf with a soft crust).
Since then, there have been literally hundred of cookbooks on baking.
Ingredients and equipment abound, in catalogues and in kitchenware shops. A variety of flours is only minutes away in the market across town. In a recent King Arthur Flour catalogue (one of the best), I could order not only every kind of American and Canadian hard, soft, and in-between wheat flours, but also flours from France, Ireland, and Italy, not to mention a flour that borders on overkill — a blend of eight grains: wheat, triticale, rye, millet, oat, buckwheat, barley, and soy.
New equipment, yeasts, and techniques have been introduced to make home breadmaking easier and faster with no loss of quality. Equipment ranges from baking stones, clay baking domes, and a huge array of special baking tins to mixers, and food processors powerful enough to take over kneading. New and larger food processors cut down kneading time impressively. The most surprising development in bread-baking was an import from Japan, the bread machine; greeted by skeptics at first (I among them), it has developed a coterie of devoted admirers around the world.
Thirty years ago, commercial white bread, much of it squeezing soft, had threequarters of the market; the balance was made up of a smattering of whole-wheat and rye breads and a few others. There were few hand-crafted, hearth-baked loaves by artisan bakers.
Imagine the puzzled look you might have been given thirty years ago in almost any bakery, if you were to ask for a loaf of hoska or anise kuchen or challah or walnut onion or focaccia or semolina sourdough or pumpernickel, not to mention beer bread. Or if you told the baker you preferred his Russian rye over his Swedish rye!
For new bakers, a final word.
Bread-baking, a relaxed discipline, is also a forgiving one. A few grains more or less of sugar or salt or yeast will make little difference in the results. I seldom scrape a knife across a measuring cup to get exactly one cup of flour. I eyeball it, which saves time and gives me the feeling that I am the one who's in control. I know it will all balance out in the end and be a great loaf of bread.
Bread making is not a gentle art, especially when you are kneading by hand. Don't baby the dough! Break the kneading rhythm by occasionally throwing the ball of dough down hard against the table top. Wham! Bam! Don't be gentle with it. Smack it down hard. Let it sound all the way to the living room. Let them know something great is going on! The dough loves it!
For the new baker (and to freshen the skills of a more knowledgeable one) I suggest first reading the "Thrill of Discovery" chapter, which gives the sense of adventure to be found in bread-making, then baking The First Loaf (page 17). Return to the Discovery recipes later after you have made the first loaf. You will do so with confidence!
Copyright © 1973, 1987, 1995, 2003 by Bernard Clayton, Jr.
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