Back to Work

This morning I was rolling in bed, wondering what to do about this blog, when I finally decided to resubscribe to my various services and resurrect it. I haven’t had it active for the last few years as you probably noticed, but the files corresponding to each of the lovingly crafted posts were still live on the server, even if there wasn’t a website to access them with.

So I “invested in myself,” and here I am again!

my face
My face

A lot has changed, yup! I’m living in a different state, working at a different job, and I have different friends. I’ve started a whole ‘nother music collection, this one on vinyl records, and in the past couple months I’ve begun to livestream myself playing music from my collection to the people who I’ve gotten to know from enjoying their livestreams. I’ve been posting my baking pics on instagram and thereby building my “social media presence.” But I’ve missed having a spot that is all mine; I pay for this blog so I can provide it to you for free, without any of the residual weirdness and marketing that you get on social media.

My original idea with the bicycle-advocacy posts was to write down what I thought were good arguments for what I believed, in the certainty that anthropologists from the future would see them in conjunction with the crummy arguments I’m trying to dissect. It’s a long game. After spending two years posting #ovenspring and #yeastpets on IG, however, it’s become obvious that IG is a terrible tool for collecting important insights and keeping them available as the contemporary becomes the past. IG doesn’t care about the past. I however am crucially interested in the past; this blog now comprises at least 15 years of thoughts, some of which I was really excited about at the time. And because of the blog’s simple date index and tag features, I can actually go back and reconnect with them.

I’ll stop this ranting now so you can flip through the posts and find the good ones; I can’t even remember myself which ones are the good ones.

Thank you!

‘Baking, by contrast, was solving the same problem over and over again’ —R. Sloan, ‘Sourdough’

It was a decidedly different kind of work.

At General Dexterity, I was contributing to an effort to make repetitive labor obsolete. After a trainer in the Task Acquisition Center taught an arm how to do something, all the arms did it perfectly, forever.

In other words, you solved a problem once, and then you moved on to more interesting things.

Baking, by contrast, was solving the same problem over and over again, because every time, the solution was consumed, I mean really: chewed and digested.

Thus, the problem was ongoing.

Thus, the problem was perhaps the point.

—Robin Sloan, Sourdough, page 69

This slim novel by Robin Sloan is all about how a young person working in coding finds meaning in baking, until the sourdough starter that she uses eats the East Bay. I’ve picked out this quote because it does encapsulate something that I’ve noticed about baking. According to the logic of fiction, however, Sloan swerves away from a novel of toil and personal industry toward a novel that, like a blackjack player, doubles down on other, more attractive themes.

Really, the weird thing about the book is how the narrator’s decision to become a professional baker comes without much consideration. Perhaps Robin Sloan did not want to write a book about how a young person who works in coding becomes a young woman working in food. I confess as someone who dabbles in baking, I have concluded that the hobby’s great benefit is how it helps me build stronger relationships, not how it can advance the plot in the novelization of my life. Certainly I would prefer to write a novel about a mysterious yeast that attempts to consume California than to write a novel about daily life in the Secret City, or a novel about how my friend Dan G comes over nearly every evening and when the fresh loaf comes out of the oven, slices off a piece and microwaves it for added warmth before eating it.

In this way, the novel Sourdough becomes another exhibit in my collection of Books That Have Nothing to Do With Real Life as I Live It.

The quote above does however contain some insight about how the routine of baking becomes its own reward. I keep pretty detailed notes on every loaf of bread and pizza crust I bake, and the shelf of bread diaries does document how my baking methods have changed over time. The conditions of the kitchen don’t change all that much, and the finished loaves pretty much satisfy my criteria for how bread should look, feel, taste and smell, so the thrill of the hobby is seeing how the small changes I make (fold bread three times after kneading instead of two, refrigerating to proof instead of proofing at room temperature) are reflected in the results I get.

It has also revealed to me just how much the experimental conditions actually change with the days, and how silly it is to assume that they stay the same and that the usual techniques I employ have a constant effect. I always have to adjust for the humidity and the ambient temperature, as well as for the amount of time that the loaf will spend fermenting; these variables change slightly but noticeably over time. The constancy of the practice thereby provides the reward in how the daily problem is solved with the tools and techniques to hand. What other hobby does that?

Bread baking books

Fromartz, S. (2014). In search of the perfect loaf: A home baker’s odyssey. Discursive chapters on bread, French bread, sourdough, artisanal flour, landraces, rye baking, et al. Includes recipes, including his pain de campagne recipe, which I have been trying for a week or two now.

Scherber, A., Dupree, T. K., & Amy’s Bread (Bakery). (2010). Amy’s bread: Artisan-style breads, sandwiches, pizzas, and more from New York City’s favorite bakery. Hoboken, N.J: Wiley. Recipes for bread that use standard U.S. ingredients, Amy also offers videos of her kneading technique. Capsule bios of bakery workers.

Risgaard, H. (2012). Home baked: Nordic recipes and techniques for organic bread and pastry. Nice pictures, hard to find some ingredients. Some of the recipes seem a little sketched out, particularly her basic sourdough recipe.

Forkish, K. (2012). Flour water salt yeast: The fundamentals of artisan bread and pizza. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. Ken Forkish repeats himself a lot in this book, but I like his techniques. Baking inside the dutch oven (inside the regular oven) is a good tip for retaining steam; he also explains how to do baker’s percentages correctly.

Hamelman, J. (2012). Bread: A baker’s book of techniques and formulas. Hoboken, N.J: Wiley. Jeffrey Hamelman worked for King Arthur Flour. This is an encyclopedic book that offers step-by-step instructions to making many different types of baked goods. All recipes are in metric, English, bulk and volume, so it’s easy to adapt them to the size of loaves you want to bake.