A Gift of Bread

Since the pandemic began I’ve been baking a lot of sourdough.

In fact, on my way home over a year ago from my last day in the office and even as we transitioned into working-from-home mode, I stopped at the grocery store and restocked my flour supply. Then as I checked into my kitchen and fed my starter, I kicked off the first of what now accounts for almost two hundred loaves of bread.

All of it was practical. All of it was a kind of food security during a time of uncertainty. All of it was for ourselves.

And then about a month ago as we were passing through on our way to the mountains and stopping for a brief puppy-pee-break at the in-laws house, I had bagged a loaf of fresh-from-the-oven sourdough and handed it off to my mother-in-law.

A gift of bread.

The practicality of that gesture was simply that a loaf of bread was best eaten fresh by someone who would enjoy it, rather than left on our counter while we spent the weekend on mini-holiday.

The emotional aspect was that my mother-in-law had been halfway teasing that I should stop bragging about all my bread and posting photos of it on the socials if I wasn’t going to start offering to deliver to their house (an hour and a half drive away!)

So I delivered.

And this resulted in a text message the next day thanking us for the short visit and the gift, and suggesting it was probably the best bread she’d had in about a year. Great!

Food of any kind, but particularly food one has personally made, is linked to a long history of human gift giving. It is probably one of the most foundationally human things we do: make something worth eating, then give it our family, friends, or… everyone.

I had been baking bread casually in the years leading into the pandemic, and often the loaves I created were shortcuts to contributing to communal meals: something to bring to a gathering or a picnic or a thanksgiving dinner. And apart from a few gluten-adverse acquaintances, sourdough is simple enough to satisfy almost anyone, like the friend who cannot eat eggs, or my vegan pals, or even the picky folks who don’t like spicy food. Sourdough is just so basic… and yet robust enough to hold its own in that long human tradition of sharing your food with others.

There is both a universality to bread and an implied effort with sourdough. Almost everyone’s eyes light with an “Oh! You brought fresh bread!?” as you pull it from a bag and start slicing it up.

That same mother-in-law (though I only have one) put in a request earlier this week. One of our extended family just got some sad medical news (details redacted) and she was hoping we could make a delivery this weekend.

A gift of bread.

Of course we can.

Grilled Grilled Cheese Spring Sandwich

Late last year I bought a slab of cast iron from the local home improvement mega store. The idea was not to buy a quality cooking griddle, but instead supplement my outdoor grill with a reasonably inexpensive multi-purpose cooking surface.

Delicate grill items, like veggies or fish are fine on aluminum foil, but I figured an outdoor flattop would be so much better.

If I recall correctly, I spent less than thirty dollars on a reversible barbecue griddle. The one I found that fit my dimensions was meant to match into a specific model of barbecue, but on its own sits just fine atop the grill I own.

I seasoned it up with a triple round of oil and heat. Smiled contentedly at my own ingenuity. Stored the griddle in inside the grill and then … winter hit.

Yesterday at lunchtime I was working from home, as usual. As I rummaged through the kitchen I discovered a loaf of freshly baked sourdough, some leftover Easter ham, a big block of cheddar cheese, and an abundance of painfully beautiful spring weather.

Inspiration struck.

I fired up the grill. Brushed the grill plates down a little (still crusty from the over-the-winter storage). And put some fresh oil on the slab of home improvement store cast iron.

I was rewarded for my efforts with a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, fresh off the backyard grill. Hot. Fresh. And in the fresh air.

Ain’t spring grand?

Our Well-Loved Cookbooks: Flour Water Salt Yeast

So . . . I ordered yet another cookbook yesterday.

I’ve recently been watching a cooking channel on YouTube (perhaps one you have heard of, unlikely one you figured I’d watch) and the host released a cookbook last year, so I splurged. Until a make a few recipes from the book itself, I don’t feel that I’m in a solid or fair position to offer a review or opinion. Hopefully in about a month or so (after I spin up a few of the recipes and get a sense of the style) you’ll see such a post here. Until then…

My lacking of an opinion is not the case with Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast.

I remember when my newly kindled interest in sourdough bread-making started to really heat up. I’d begun culturing a starter and then I went scouring the internet for advice. A lot of people recommended this particular tome. I added it to my collection and spent a few solid days reading the details, pondering the techniques and anticipating my next loaf… mostly because that first starter was still pretty new and not ready to use.

I could write a lot about this cookbook.

I could tell you that the tone has always struck me in the same way as I felt when I worked my way through university and had this one lab-rat job for a boss who had a PhD in molecular biology and couldn’t believe he had to explain this stuff to me and fine, but pay attention and do you mind if I crank up the radio and we’re all going out for beers after work, you in? Pleasantly mentoring? Friendly condescending? Lovable know-it-all-ish?

Or, I could tell you that within the words contained on these pages there is as much elaborate history and detail about bread theory as there is actual recipes, and if this was online everyone would complain that they need to scroll for five minutes to get to the ingredients list but since this is a book it’s as much a beautiful read about bread (and pizza crusts) as it is anything else. Be prepared to read as much as you cook.

I could even tell you that if you read this book, no if you seriously read it and understand it, you’ll change the way you cook and you’ll go out tomorrow and buy a digital kitchen scale and understand that the math and French you learned in high school could serve more than an abstract purpose in your life as you start to refer to bread as having desired hydration levels and calculate flour percentages in your dreams. Shush! My sixty-percent levain is resting!

Basically I could just tell you that if you want to make good bread, I haven’t found a better volume. This is a great cookbook and one that will endure in my personal collection for a long time.

Note: this is a piece of gear that I have purchased privately and that I’ve owned for long enough to offer an opinion about. This post is not an endorsement (at least, it’s not a paid one.)

Ten Bread Creations Worth Warming Up Your Cast Iron

An idea that often blows my mind is that a handful of ingredients like flour, water, salt and sugars can be blended together to form some of the tastiest food staples.

Bread is one of those few universal foods, and cast iron turns out to be a great way to cook it …in a whole variety of ways. Here are 10 Friday ideas for adding some gluten to your day.

1. Sourdough. Baked big and bold in a Dutch oven and crackling as it cools waiting for a dab of butter, slice of fresh cheese, or dipped in oils and vinegars.

2. Cornbread. Served on the side or to swipe up the leftover sauce from your plate, a hearty bread hot from the oven.

3. Biscuits. Buttery and buttermilk, light and fluffy and served with a hot stew or a big bowl of fresh homemade soup.

4. Banana Loaf. Browned bananas blended into a batter and baked in a cast iron loaf pan into a warm, sliceable serving, then toasted and topped with butter.

5. Rolls. Simple bread sides to make a handy sandwich or accompany a big meal.

6. Corn Tortillas. Squeezed thin and round in a cast iron press.

7. Doughnuts. Deep fried in a Dutch oven full of hot oil and sprinkled with sugar or drizzled with sweet glazes.

8. Naan. A little spicy and charred, washed with a bit of ghee and dipped in a delicious curry.

9. Yorkshire Pudding. Added to a rich roast meal, puffed and golden brown.

10. Discard Fry. A hot pan and a bit of sourdough discard destined for the bin, instead sprinkled with spices, or sugar & cinnamon and fried into a tasty treat.

People like lists. I like people. So I’m giving the people what they like. I ran a blog for 16 years and one of the most popular posts ever on that blog was a list of “100 things” that I’d compiled and posted. I’m trying to recreate something similar over the next couple months for the cast iron guy blog. This post will eventually form part of that mega list.