Dude! You know what’s totally cool? Baking bread. No, for real, man, it’s awesome, and you can’t, like, mess it up. Sure, you’ll need to be around the house for a couple of days to tend it, and you should probably make a sourdough starter first, and yes, you’ll probably need to go to Rainbow for rice and spelt and kamut flours, and maybe to Williams-Sonoma for a banneton. And if you get really into it, start grinding that flour yourself so it’s super fresh, and yeah, you should try to get local grains too because supporting your local farmers is rad.
Josey Baker, who currently bakes at The Mill in San Francisco and is the man responsible for their famous/infamous $4 toast–is a passionate self-taught baker, who learned first from books and YouTube videos, then by showing up and baking elbow to elbow with other dedicated solo operators like Dave Miller of Miller’s Bakehouse in Chico. In his book, he assumes his readers are novice bakers, too, excited but clueless, and so his recipes are laid out like lessons, starting with a (mostly) simple, yeast-based pan loaf and building, stage by stage, to hand-shaped sourdough hearth loaves. Once the reader has mastered the basic sourdough loaf, Baker uses similar techniques and ratios to teach flavored breads, pizzas, and whole-grain, rye, kamut, and spelt loaves. He also shares the recipes for his popular fiber-crammed and gluten-free “Adventure Loaf” (recipe below), cornbread, chocolate-chip cookies, fruit crumble, and a roommate’s long-soaked “overnight oats” porridge. Time (lots of it) and soaking (for seeds, nuts, dried fruits and grains) are the backbones of Baker’s baking.
Much like the sourdough starter he espouses, a little of Baker’s dude-ish enthusiasm can go a long way, depending on your age, attitude and how much time you’re spending getting ready for Burning Man this summer. Spend a few minutes scrolling though Baker’s blog, though, and it’s clear that the voice and tone of the book is sincerely his. Baker is a surfin’, bakin’, lovin’ dude through and through, down to the naked jumping-in-a-river back view that he’s proudly posted on his blog’s home page.
Sometimes it’s funny.”Who doesn’t like cinnamon raisin toast?” he writes in the headnote for Cinnamon Raisin Bread. “Jerks, that’s who.” Sometimes it’s just a little much, as when he coos, half-ironically, “But I really love me a hearth loaf. (That just sounds so sexy, doesn’t it? Say it out loud: hearth loaf. So liberated, so rustic, so pure).” And repeating the same Food Network-style catchphrases in every recipe–“Let the magic happen” for rising, “That’s a very good question!” underlined in red for every trouble-shooting query–gets old fast. There’s also some needless padding, like a layout that starts every recipe with “Gather your foodstuffs and tools,” and the long, unmeasured list of required “foodstuffs” that’s listed up front and adds an extra page to every recipe. (The ingredients, in their precise measurements, are repeated in easy-to-read tables within the recipes themselves.)
But how are the breads? Anyone with a bag of flour and a packet of yeast can turn out a comforting, toastable loaf of sandwich bread. (Enter the bread machine.) But making really good bread takes both technique and time. Turning out bread with both a crunchy, crackly crust and a moist, air-hole-riddled interior–the sort of bread we’re lucky enough to take for granted here in the Bay Area, home of so many fabulous artisan bakeries–takes a lot more attention and a more refined skill set. There’s no getting around those facts, no matter how much Baker insists that his bread recipes are easily adjustable.
Each stage takes only a very small amount of hands-on time, it’s true, but you do have to have the leisure, luxury, or flexibility to be around for these multiple stages, even if you’re only spending a few minutes each time. Let’s break it down: First there’s the sourdough making, a 2-week building process. Then the pre-ferment (12 hours), the mixing and dough hydration (1 hour), the kneading and resting (4 times, spread out over 2 hours in 30-min intervals), the 2 or 3 hour bulk rise (2 to 3 hours), the pre-shape and resting (15 minutes), the final shaping and rising (3 to 4 hours), the baking (45 minutes) and the cooling (2 to 3 hours). This is bread baking for those with 24 hours to dedicate to making bread.
By no means is this a criticism of Baker’s technique; dough is a living thing and making bread requires natural chemical processes that don’t benefit from being rushed. Bread risen fast can taste harshly of the commercial yeast it’s made from, while slow-risen, naturally leavened breads share the mellow flavor of their grains. But it can take some close reading to realize just how slow a process making these breads can be. Baker, in his enthusiasm, doesn’t really lay out the timing beforehand, although he does scale each recipe’s ingredients for 1, 2 and 4 loaves in a handy chart.
For those who think of Baker as simply the “hipster toast guy,” this book should be a cautionary tale for anyone hoping to start a small perishable food business, especially those used to the regular comfort of tech-sized paychecks. At least in writing, Baker takes a wide-eyed, aw-shucks attitude towards his current success, acting stunned each time his loaves find a new level of popularity, from neighbors offering to pay for the “free bread” he’d been passing around, to strangers signing up for his “Community Supported Bread” program after Daily Candy wrote a story about it, to the local businesses, including Mission Pie and Pizzaiolo, who helped him grow his itinerant bakery by providing commercial baking space.
It also took building a helping-hands community of friends and colleagues willing to share their time, space, expertise, and, in the case of Pizzaiolo owner Charlie Hallowell, even a couch, where Baker would crash during the wee hours while his dough rose in the restaurant nearby. Baker never complains–in fact, he’s thrilled that doing what he loves has actually become a business–but he also doesn’t play down the immense amounts of sheer physical work it took for him as a one-man operation to learn and make quality bread for sale, day in and day out, including huge amounts of driving, hauling, and up-and-down-the-stairs moving of bag after bag of flours, seeds, starters, equipment and more.
In describing how he came up with the small single-size loaves he calls “pocketbreads” (not pitas, but small, round sourdough loaves baked in muffin pans), he explains how he was losing sales to people who “weren’t looking for the commitment of an entire loaf.” At that point, baking in a spare corner of the kitchen at Mission Pie, the bread was so labor-intensive that he needed to sell every bit he made. As he writes, “So I started taking 10 or 15 pounds of my bread dough, tossing stuff in, shaping it into tiny loaves, and seeing how people liked them. Pocketbreads were a big deal for my budding bread business. Some days I sold 75 of those little suckers, at $2 a pop. That was big for me at the time, scraping by as I was. It meant another couple hundred bucks a week, and it meant I could keep diving deeper into bread.”
Erin Kunkel’s photographs are beautifully appetite-whetting, and work hard to make bread sexy (mmmm, drip that honey…). Gorgeous as they are, though, they often leave holes when it comes to illustrating the recipes step by step. Certain key steps, like the stretch-and-fold techniques used for kneading and shaping, are described but not photographed, which could be a drawback for those who haven’t seen these less familiar techniques demonstrated in person.
Sometimes, Baker’s chattiness and his need to anxiously reassure his readers that, really, anybody can do this and bread-baking isn’t as hard as you think can get in the way of necessary detail. The Sesame Bread recipe starts with a whole-wheat pre-ferment of whole wheat flour, water, and a small amount of yeast. This rough, batter-like dough rises for 12 hours, and then the reader is instructed to simply mix in the next ingredients–bread flour, sesame seeds, water, salt. But what I got was a white dough ribboned like marble cake with brown whole-wheat pre-ferment, a unhomogenized mixture that needs serious beating to blend. Based on experience with other bread books, I realized it would have made much more sense to break the pre-ferment down in water like a batter, then expand it bit by bit with white flour to make a smooth dough. The explanations for stretching and turning the dough–a gentler version of kneading that works better for the slack, slow-risen doughs used here–could also use more clarification.
Still, Baker does his best to get novice bakers excited about the prospect of turning out serious bread. There are useful tips, like the need for pre-soaking seeds before adding (otherwise, they’ll suck up excess moisture in the dough, resulting in a dry loaf), and the ways that rye, spelt and kamut flours act differently from wheat. (I also plan to adopt his DIY baker’s blade–a sharpened popsicle stick slid through the holes of a double-edged razor blade–as soon as possible, since a regular knife blade invariably sticks and tears with every attempt to slash through the top of a jiggly risen pillow of dough.) If you can handle the tone, Baker offers a lot of useful information here, without getting either as precise or technical as Robertson. While Robertson seems dubious that anyone but a fellow obsessive can master his meticulous and beautiful breads, Baker can’t wait to share the joy he finds in all things bread-related. He’s convinced that anyone–that means you, baker!–can make a sexy loaf, given a handful of techniques and a bread-dedicated 24 hours or so. Go ye forth, dude, and bake.
Penrose Restaurant will be featuring a special menu and booksigning for Josey Baker Bread on June 6, 5:30-10:30pm.
Adapted from Josey Baker Bread by Josey Baker (Chronicle Books, 2014).
Sometimes you need a bread that is so dense, so hearty, so jam-packed full of seeds and grains (and devoid of air) that it will sustain you on your mightiest of adventures. That’s what this bread is for. But that’s not all it is for . . . it’s also gluten-free! That will either entice you or turn you off, but either way I really hope that you give it a shot because it is incredible, and it is suuuper healthy. It’s unlike any other bread in this book, in that there isn’t even any flour in it, and it isn’t fermented—it’s basically just a bunch of seeds held together with a little bit of psyllium seed husk and chia seeds. I started making it in the bakery because we kept having folks come in and ask us for gluten-free bread, and I got tired of saying no. Up until we made this bread, I had mostly been turned off by gluten-free breads, because it seemed like they were all just trying to imitate wheat breads, and failing miserably. But this bread stands on its own—it is gluten-free and proud of it. Special thanks goes out to Sarah Britton, blogger at My New Roots; her recipe inspired this bread.
- 2 1/4 cups (235 gms) rolled oats
- 1 cup (160 gms) sunflower seeds
- 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
- 3/4 cup almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
- 3/4 cup flax seeds
- 1/3 cup (25 gm) psyllium seed husk
- 3 tbsp chia seeds
- 2 tsp (12 gm) finely ground sea salt
- 2 tbsp maple syrup
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 1/2 (600 gm) cups water
- Toast the seeds. Preheat your oven to 350°F/180°C. Spread the sunflower and pumpkin seeds on a baking sheet and toast until they start to brown, about 15 minutes, stirring halfway between baking.
- Measure ingredients. Dump dry stuff into a big bowl. Then pour in all the wet stuff.
- Mix it all up, scoop into pan. Oil a loaf pan (about 8″ x 4″, or 20cm x 10cm), and then mush up your “dough” real good with your strong hands or a big spoon. Take pride in your mush-job, this is all of the handling you’re going to do with this “dough.” Once it’s mixed real good, scoop it into your oiled pan and smooth out the top so it looks nice. Then stick that guy in the fridge and leave it alone for at least a few hours, up to a whole day.
- Bake it. Put a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400°F/200°C. Bake for about an hour or so, then take it out and gently remove the loaf from the pan. Let it cool on a cooling rack for at least 2 hours (YES, two whole hours). Don’t rush it here folks, this bread is D*E*N*S*E, and if you don’t wait for it to cool, it really won’t be as yummy.
- Toast and eat. This bread is definitely best sliced nice and thin (around 1/2 inch/12 mm) and then toasted up and spread with whatever your heart desires. And don’t worry, if you’re adventuring somewhere without toaster access (like a gorgeous river in the middle of nowhere), it will still be scrumptious, I promise.