Because Kris and I work in different locations, we talk on the phone a lot. I love our conversations, and I’ve been struck by how often talking about teaching and learning reminds us of other things going on in our lives. We definitely discuss parenting (and the links there are particularly strong), but we also find ourselves talking a lot about cooking. Like reading and writing, cooking is a skill, and it requires effortful practice to get better. So, for the month of April, Kris and I will be sharing what we’re cooking and what we’re learning.
Week One: The Perfect Sandwich Loaf
In my house, we make two loaves of sandwich bread every week (plenty for lunches during the week and a night of sandwiches for dinner). We’ve been obsessed with America’s Test Kitchen’s Bread Cookbook since January of last year (when we received it), and this has been the recipe we’ve made the most since then. It’s come to the point that I can recite the amount of each ingredient we need and don’t have to look at the cookbook for the steps. Granted, it’s not the most complicated recipe (you mix and knead the dough before its first rise, followed by shaping it, a second rise, and baking), but I’ve gone through these steps so many times that I know what I’m doing. Jack and I have our idiosyncrasies in preparing the dough: I prefer to add the whole milk to the butter while it melts instead of letting the milk slowly come to room temperature (Jack’s preference); he lets the dough’s first rise go a little longer than I do. We’ve found different rhythms out of the same recipe, but the bread is always delicious (particularly when first out of the oven).
I have become a much more skillful baker in the past year, and I owe a lot of that to this bread. Here are the top three things I’ve learned as a direct result:
3) Fancy gadgets are only worth using when you understand how they enhance what you’re doing. I am a shopper, and those who know me well know that I always want to go into the kitchen store. I’m a soft touch for cooking implements (Jack thinks we have everything we could possibly ever need), but I’ve grown to appreciate that I shouldn’t be using a specialized tool the first time I try to make something. First of all, if the product isn’t something I like or find worthy, that investment isn’t worth it. Secondly, I need to understand the entire process fully and understand why the tools I already have won’t cut it in order to know what I really need. A professional chef or author of a cookbook might feel like one particular tool is exactly right, but they’re not me, cooking in my kitchen for my family. When I am deeply familiar with a process and product, that’s when I can make smart choices about equipment.
2) Many repetitions in a short span of time allow you to develop deep knowledge. Because I’ve made this bread week after week for months, I can more fully appreciate how any two loaves are different and what that means about my process. This dough is very wet, and there were many initial weeks where I was worried that I’d gotten the proportions wrong. There was one week where I did, but because I knew what I was looking for (and what I was looking at), I could diagnose my problem and make it right. If I hadn’t made this loaf recently, I could have easily gone another step or two before recognizing that it was acting uncharacteristically.
1) Talking about your learning allows you to reflect and get better more quickly. Jack wasn’t an expert any more than I was but asking him questions and understanding his process helped me figure out why I was doing things in a particular way. I’m sure that speaking with a professional baker would have been invaluable to me, but I didn’t need an expert so much as I needed to process what I was doing and why. I never particularly wanted to fail, but I did want to improve, so I had to let some of my attempts be ones that I would learn from rather than ones I would try to repeat.
So, I’ll continue to slightly warm the milk (I actually think it’s directly related to a slightly shorter first rise), thoroughly flour my hands before using them to knead, and have my bread lame handy so that I can cut the top of the dough in a way that allows for even baking. And I’ll keep learning.
Be sure to check back next week as I share lessons learned from making a dish I have never (yet) attempted—vegetable samosas!
Images by Sara Bailey