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June 17, 2024

Learning to Bake

By Blanche Nonken

(In which an essay shows the path from feeble attempts at baking to descent into madness and love of an entire foodcraft form; including a recipe and some tips.)

"You're going to eat that without bread? You'll be hungry in an hour!"

My family believed that a meal without bread was not a meal. I grew up with an assortment of breads at the table - Challah on the sabbath, rye toast for breakfast, cinnamon raisin with peanut butter for lunch or the stale leftovers as French Toast for breakfast, dark raisin-pumpernickle with cream cheese as an after-school snack, bagels on weekends, bialys for special occasions, "corn-rye" made with nigella seeds spread with loads of butter or margarine...

Then I met my husband. Presbytarian New England Casserole and Stroehmann's (the Wonderbread of the Mid-Atlantic States) Upbringing. We had a Bread Conflict right off.

It was about then I started experimenting with baking bread. Mom always baked cookies and cakes, but her few attempts at bread were pretty bad. It wasn't much of a problem; we had some awesome bakeries all over the place where I grew up.

At first, all my mistakes were awful, not worth eating. Too much flour, too dry, too tight a knead; I baked a lot of bricks. Occasionally I'd get lucky, but for the most part my best recipe evolved out of a quickbread recipe.

"Beer Bread"

3 C self-rising flour
1/4 C melted butter
1 twelve-ounce bottle drinkeable beer

Preheat oven to 350*F

Mix all together. Scrape into standard bread pan, 9x9 pan for squares, or 12 muffin tins for rolls. Bake at 350 until browned, or 325 for rolls. Bread will sound hollow when bottom of loaf is tapped.

It was good, it still is good, and it started me on practice in playing with bread recipes. Thanks to the malt and hops in the beer, it had the start of a "rye" taste. With experimenting, I figured out that a dark, stouty beer, 2 cups self-rising flour, 1 cup rye flour, 1 tbsp baking powder and some caraway gave me a nice rye bread.

Then I found that self-rising flour was all bleached and messed with, and I wanted to try for something healthier. Using all whole-wheat and 3 tbsp baking powder wasn't terribly good; it's been a while but I seem to remember the crust being tough and peeling off the loaf when sliced. 1/3 whole wheat worked, but the bread baking bug was turning into a serious infection.

That's about when my mother-in-law got me the Hitachi HB-B101breadmaker.

(Those of you who are Star Trek - Deep Space 9 geeks may recognize that particular model as the one holding a disfunctional Odo in the episode "Children of Time.")

This Thing Made Bread. Consistent bread, with yeast, and I could have fresh-baked bread in the morning. Fresh. Hot. However I liked.

It took a year or so to figure out that bread was better baked in a bread pan in an oven. But... how to get it consistent in the oven? A baker tipped me off that I wanted to hit the hardware store and pick up a dozen or so unglazed quarry tiles. Cheap, versatile, if one breaks toss it and buy another. And the longer they go without breaking, the stronger they get.

One spring day after spending way too much effort making one more heavy, doughy and lumpy loaf of bread, I came to the conclusion that the best way to be a good baker was to Be A Baker. Very soon after that (my husband calls me a Coincidence Magnet) a sign went up at the local co-op. "Local Bakery seeks weekend breakfast baker. WILL TRAIN."

I was there. I was there so fast I didn't have a resume, or application filled out, or anything. Sandy waited a week to see if anyone else was interested (who wants to work a job where you get paid shit wages and start the day at 3am?) and called to tell me I got the job.

Yes indeedy, I got the job, and I did learn how to bake. Danish. Snails. Sticky buns. Scones. Muffins. Veranda bread. Wheaten pizza dough. Winters where I walked out into single digit nights with stars glittering like splinters of ice. Summers where I walked into the baking kitchen and it was almost 90 before I turned on the huge 4 shelf stone-slab oven. Those summer mornings that a quart of GatorAde and a gallon of water before 6am kept me from passing out. The snowstorm where I had to keep sweeping drifts away from the walk-in out in the backyard so I could get to the milk, butter, and eggs, and we never opened anyway. I loved it, all of it.

Eventually management changed, I became the full-time 4 or 5 day a week baker, and that's when things started getting weird.

My schedule was like this. Get up at 2:30am during weekends, 4am during the week. Drive the 10 minutes to work. Start baking. Finish baking, tray up. Get home just as spouse left for work. Get the kids up, dressed, off to school. Nap. Get up around noonish. Stumble around. Kids get home 3:30. Spouse gets home around 5. Make supper. Stagger to bed around 8. Start over.

I learned something. When you are truly, dangerously and chronically sleep deprived, you reach this point where you are never quite awake, and never quite asleep. I would go to bed and hallucinate for two hours or more before I would really fall asleep - and then I would wake up repeatedly, checking the clock out of fear of oversleeping. Because I was IT. I was THE breakfast baker. No backup, nobody to call me and say "Where are you?"

Then things started getting really strange.

Two days in one week, the yeast wouldn't work. At all. I swear I was doing it right.

Several times a month I would have to toss out a batch of muffin batter. I would add salt instead of sugar, or baking powder instead of baking soda, or who knows what else? I don't really remember.

Now and then I would have to toss a couple dozen muffins into the trash, because I forgot to taste the batter to make sure I remembered the sugar, or eggs, or honey.

Was the yeast was getting worse? I remember ranting to Amy (who had bought the bakery from Sandy, and was doing a more professional job of managing the bakery, meaning she wasn't putting up with my increasingly bizarre behavior) about how the supplier was sending us dead yeast.

(If you must know, I'm pretty sure by now I was using salt instead of sugar in the sponge. This was after two years of baking so we can't blame inexperience. I cheerfully blame my growing sleep-deprivation psychosis)

One night my holiday baking assistant (who I had trusted to arrive an hour ahead of me with the back door key) overslept after a frat party. I did 80 down the Schuylkill, picked him up from West Philly, and scared the bejesus out of the poor boy ranting about I don't even remember what as we sped back to the bakery. He was too drunk, apologetic and frightened to ask me to drive less dangerously.

We somehow managed to do four or five hours worth of baking in two, two and a half hours. I think he's still frightened of me.

That December, after the Christmas baking rush, Amy and I both decided on the same day that I was better off not working at the bakery for a while. A long while. A very long while. It was all gracious, and in good spirits, and we are still friendly towards each other. I credit her for teaching me all I know about quick, clean, efficient food preparation, not just baking. I credit her for putting up with me as I slipped deeper and deeper into some altered state of freakiness. And I am thankful she knew when I was completely around the bend.

Out of respect for my teachers and former comrades at The Night Kitchen, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia PA, I won't include the recipes I learned there. But I will share what I learned about baking.


Do not knead bread dough until it is dry, smooth and totally cohesive. Leave it a little slack, a little sticky. Use oil, butter or a sprinkling of flour to keep the dough from sticking to your hands, the kneading surface, or anything it touches. You want the gluten (the rubbery strands of protein that give wheat bread its "crumb") to have room to stretch, to rise. It dries a bit as it rises, so just a little on the sticky side evens things out.

This is my personal preference: avoid bleached flour whenever possible. If you need a flour like a cake or pastry flour, unless you can get the reasonably good whole wheat (unbleached) pastry flours, use an unbleached all purpose flour; for each cup of cake or pastry flour called for, use 3/4 cup all purpose flour mixed with 3 tbsp corn starch or potato starch. It really works.


Those awful hard things you get at chain coffee places are NOT scones. Scones use butter, or lard. Lots and lots of butter, or lard. LOTS. They should be delicate, melt in your mouth, and not require ounces of coffee or juice to wash down. Find a recipe that uses at least 1/2 cup solid fat of some kind to 3 cups of flour. And do not overknead. They should barely hold together, and you should still see chickpea-sized lumps of fat in the very slack, soft and sticky dough. If it sticks to everything, dust generously with whole wheat flour. That adds a more wheaty flavor without being toughened by too *much* whole wheat flour. We're not talking health food here.

(I suppose you could do a vegan version with good, chilled coconut oil, mixing soy milk and natural cider vinegar to mimic the buttermilk, if you really need to. Almond milk might work too, but I'd stay away from rice milk. Every kind I've tasted was watery and thin, and needed lots of rice syrup to give it anything like flavor. The final result might even taste pretty good, if you are already competent with the technique. I'd stick with the organic whole wheat pastry flour in any case, the fiber is more finely ground and less damaging to the gluten. Would I use non-wheat flours? I've experimeted with gar-fava, rice, and assorted other flours and flour combinations. If I use enough of the standard gluten-free gums to make it hold together, then I feel the gum on my tongue as I eat it. I'm still trying, intermittently, for decent results. )


Muffins don't need to be the size of your head. A generous top, slightly undermixed lumpy batter (too little mixing is better than too much) and either a non-stick spray or paper muffin cups go a long way to making a good muffin excellent without it being large enough to kill small children. When you have smaller muffins, you can stop at one, or eat two, comforting yourself that two home-baked muffins taste better and don't have much more in the way of calories (kilocalories to you furriners) than one of those Giant Coffee Chain Corporate Muffins. Add enough fresh fruit pieces to the batter, and odds are they'll have less.

Frozen berries are perfect for baking into muffins. But... do NOT overmix muffin batter that includes frozen blueberries. It will turn a vile, hideous green. Blame the baking soda reacting with the pigment leaking out of the frozen berries.

(Incidentally, muffins are one of the places where non-wheat flours really shine. Don't bother with xanthan or other gums. Good results can be had with mixing buckwheat, brown rice and gar-fava flours, proportions dependent on the flavorings and additional ingredients. Use a longer, lower-heat baking, about 25 degrees F. or so below the standard muffin recipe, and add 15 minutes or more to the baking time. Too hot and fast means the muffins rise and brown, but the flours taste raw.)


If you like sticky buns, find a nice eggy, delicate dessert bread recipe. Make your goo from scratch, from butter and brown sugar (generally equal weights for each is a start). Put the butter in a pan, heat to boiling, add the brown sugar, whisk until it all melds together into a thick goo. Pour this into the bottom of your baking dish about a quarter inch deep, add raisins, nuts, fresh fruit, put the dough atop however you like to form it - rolled with cinnamon and sugar in the center, dropped as round lumps, formed into a loaf and presliced before rising and baking for a pull-apart loaf... all of those work. Be sure to put the baking pan on top of a larger baking sheet, on top of your preheated baking tiles or pizza stone. The sugary goo will almost certainly leak out, and while it will eventually burn off the tiles, you don't need the hassle.

And remember, get at least six hours of sleep every night. That hallucinating psycho all over the road might be me, because the baking bug is crawling on my skin again, making me watch for "Help Wanted" signs at small privately owned bakeries, and you want to be really, really alert so I don't run you off the road. Sorry, I swear I thought the giant spider was about to eat your windshield, and who wouldn't try and push you out of the way of harm?

Article © Blanche Nonken. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-01-30
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