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*baking intensifies*

07 March 202106:15PMrants

Like most humans throughout history, I started baking out of necessity.

I can pinpoint the exact date it happened, actually. It was late at night on June 30th, 2018. Way too late for a shops run, I realised I had no bread for my sandwich the next day.

a knobbly but functional loaf of bread

I didn't really have any idea where to start, because the concept of baking bread had always seemed quite involved and vaguely intimidating. I'd tried my hand with some muffins and biscuits before this, but bread was mysterious. It was alive, and you had to knead it, and... god knows what else.

Just a skim of the Google results gave me kind of a fright, because it's a deep, deep topic, and so I reached for a cookbook which I knew worked every time, and reasoned that pizza dough was basically bread, and cooked some of that. And, shockingly enough - to me, at least - it actually worked.

Approximately a week later I'd graduated to full-sized loaves, and a week after that I was tackling wholemeal.

Because here's the dirty secret about baking - and honestly, I suspect, about most things: it's nowhere near as difficult as you think. Which, once you think about it, actually makes sense - humans have been doing this stuff for thousands of years, and none of them had millilitre-accurate measuring cups or electric ovens or pre-granulated freeze-dried yeast, and yet they still managed to figure it out.

(It may have helped a little that my flatmate and partner were both out of town that week and I had perhaps a little too much free time. Yeah, I realise that given the events of the past eighteen months that I'm late to the party on writing about this particular phenomenon, but I was ahead of the curve in discovering it, and I have, as the kids say, the reciepts.)

chat transcript: lochie: how much have you baked? rocky: hmm yes, I have a proposition for you in that area. lochie: go on. rocky: How would you feel about transitioning from a full time store-bought bread scenario to more of a home baked artisinal loaf type situation

So why the mystique around it? Why are people - not to toot my own horn - still impressed when you pop out a freshly-baked loaf?

I think part of it is the investment of time, because yeah, it does still take a good two hours minimum. But there's only about fifteen minutes of actual work involved, really. The rest is waiting for things to rise, and prove, and bake, and cool. If you're going to spend an afternoon (or, one might too-easily imagine, several months of consecutive afternoons) at home, popping out a loaf or two fits pretty easily amongst whatever other plans you might have.

And part of it, at least for some people, is that it is genuinely very good bread. I don't think I put myself in that category yet; the appeal of mine is that it's a) competent, and b) fresh, and the fact that it's fresh covers all manner of fairly major flaws in my technique.

But I think maybe another part of it is that it is sort of magic. You're taking water and flour, which when mixed incorrectly make nothing really other than glue. You ritually manipulate it just so, to unfurl and weave together threads that are too tiny to see. And then you imbue it with the spirit of invisible living things which are too small to see but whose effects are nevertheless immediately apparent. And then you sit and do nothing while the tiny, invisible things inflate a matrix of even tinier molecules into what amounts to a surprisingly robust cloud.

And that's coming from someone who read entirely too much about gluten strands and yeast metabolism - it still seems like magic. I can't imagine what people thought was happening before there were microscopes. It'd've just worked or not by sheer chance and trial and error. And, barring the addition of slightly fancier kitchens, that's the same boat you find yourself in when you set out on the journey, because all of the theoretical understanding in the world can't prepare you for the thousands of tiny ways things can go wrong. Or just differently. And because of that I, at least, get a weird sense of connection with what for want of a better word I'm going to call my heritage as a human being. People have been doing pretty much exactly this for a very, very long time. This is a craft where you could sit down with a stone-age human and productively compare notes, and that's pretty fucking cool.

It's an intoxicating blend of magic and science and tradition. Alchemy would not be an incorrect term.

Speaking of intoxicating - brewing is essentially the same. More so, really - the heritage is even older, the process is even more opaque, and the product goes from being merely nourishing to having noticeable psychoactive effects. Ditto, I think, for preserving. I've been tinkering with some relish and chutney recipes - there the magic is less of an altered state and more the fact that you can store them unrefrigerated for months at a time. It's still astonishing to me that that's possible - trivial, even - even though that's the same magic I get from the supermarket every week. And figuring out bread was kind of the gateway drug for all that.

I'm trying not to turn this into a diatribe about how we've lost touch with how our food is actually made and how the convenience of modern supply chains renders us kind of clueless.I don't think that observation is out of place, but let's try to flip it a bit. Instead of bemoaning how out of touch we've become, how about... How cool is it to discover that those processes, which in a lot of ways are the common heritage of humanity, are actually really easy? How fucking neat is it that making bread, brewing alcohol, preserving food - things we've been conditioned to think of as arcane, time consuming, not worth the effort, or jobs for trained experts - are actually trivially easy to get started with?

How wild is it that you can make a biologically-inflated solidified gluten matrix in your own home and then eat it?

How nuts is it that that whole process has been discovered and rediscovered over and over again by humans with absolutely no clue what they were doing?

How great is bread?

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