Chris Schwarz's Blog

Bread and Circuses

Tonight I attempted to make my first serious loaf of bread, and I learned something about woodworking benches.

Now, I don’t like to talk much about my life outside the magazine. It’s fairly dull, I can assure you, and it would be (even more) boring to read about than what’s on the blog now. But here’s an important detail: I’m just as passionate about cooking as I am about woodworking. Both are in my blood , my mother has run or cheffed for several restaurants and catering businesses; plus my father, uncle and grandfather were all woodworkers, carpenters or boatbuilders in their spare time.

This year I’ve been trying to improve my baking skills. And bread , traditional yeast, water, salt and flour , is at the top of my list. So for the last couple days I’ve been working hard in the kitchen , between bouts of editing and writing , and for dinner tonight, I served my first scratch loaf.

It looked beautiful. Smelled perfect. Was crispy on the outside and moist and tender on the inside. But it was not good bread. My poor family choked down one piece each (butter is an excellent lubricant). I stuck it out through three pieces.

I still don’t know what the heck went wrong. I’ve been studying for weeks. I practiced with several quick breaks (foccacia and Irish soda bread , both victories). But the simplest yeast bread is just not in my grasp yet.

So what does this have to do with workbenches? Glad you asked. This perfect loaf reminded me a lot of the workbenches I see in shops all over the country. They are beautiful. They look exactly like what we expect a bench to look like , classic Platonic realism.

But when we try to use them, one of two things happens. We immediately realize the bench’s shortcomings and either try to fix them or we turn our backs on them (and get a refund.) This is exactly like what my daughter Maddy did this evening. She took one bite of my bread, one huge gulp of milk and went back to the flounder.

Or we assume that this is the way all workbenches are. That our frustrations with it are caused by our own lack of skills or knowledge. That perhaps we need to just keep plugging away at it and then we’ll finally get it.

This is me in a nutshell. I ate three pieces of that mass of weird-tasting flour. And I’ve also worked for years with workbenches that have held me back.  

I’m not saying I have all of the answers here , not for bread and not for benches. But I do know that to really make progress on bread, I’m going to have to do what I did to build a better workbench. I’m going to have to look outside of my own experience. I’m going to have to admit that I cannot fix this myself and consult someone who can.

For workbenches, I started reading and listening to people who seemed on the fringes of modern woodworking. For bread, I’m going to head downtown to a tiny flour-covered bakery in the early morning and start asking questions.

– Christopher Schwarz

12 thoughts on “Bread and Circuses

  1. Christopher Schwarz

    James,

    Also good to know: The new issue of "The Art of Eating" has a very nice article about the science and history of baguette. It’s heavy on the science, culture and history. Thanks for the recommendation on the book. I’ll look for it.

    And I didn’t know you were at North Bennett. Very cool, and I am very jealous. Good luck with the new shop. If I can be of assistance in some way, let me know.

    On benches: It’s still early, but I think the ROubo is going to remain my favorite. We’ll see. Every day brings something new to the equation.

  2. James Watriss

    I dunno, I think the best bread resource I’ve ever found is Breads From the LaBrea Bakery, by (I think) Nancy Silverton. Picture someone so bread obsessed that they read scientific papers on yeast. I’ve talked to some chemical engineering friends and was told that it basically sounds like normal culturing procedures in a bio lab. And somehow she manages to get the ingredients and quantities down to the point where the dough seems to pop up out of nowhere. A very impressive source, with many good recipes.

    Nice Bench, BTW. I’m getting ready to finish up at North Bennet, so I’m on the lookout for good bench ideas. I set up shop on my own in just under 3 weeks…

  3. scott

    a few food blogs I’ve come across all tried the no-knead bread and seemed to need a few attempts before getting it right (and then loving it). I was going to try it myself, (or at least Clotilde’s spin over at C&Z) but planning out the weekend (let alone a day for baking) just isn’t in the cards right now.

  4. Ken Meltsner

    It’s been long time since I baked my first loaf of bread, but I’d recommend the following:

    * Secrets of a Jewish Baker: Authentic Jewish Rye and Other Breads by George Greenstein

    Hands down the best book on New York-style baking, not just Jewish. Lots of explanatory material.

    * Cuban Bread (recipe from James Beard) in the 1st edition of The New York Times cookbook

    One of the first bread recipes I ever chose and made on my own.

    The NY Times recipe is quite odd, and is a deliberately contrarian approach. It came out a bit odd for me, and I’ve made a lot of bread over the years.

  5. Swanz

    Looking forward to seeing that English workbench. My 1st impression is that
    it looks kinda wimpy. But we’ll see.

  6. Brian K. Ogilvie

    Hi Chris,

    I make pretty mean rolls and baguettes in the French style and have a few tips:

    Weigh your flour. If your recipe calls for 3 or 3 1/4 or 3 1/2 cups of flour, they are really trying to get you to 1 pound of flour.

    Consider using bottled water if your tap water doesn’t taste good.

    Knead until your dough passes the "window-pane" test. You should be able to stretch the dough out thin enough to see shadows through. Under kneading is a big problem for both taste and texture of the final bread.

    Make the first rise longer and the second rise shorter.

    Use a pastry brush to spread ice water on the dough before the second rise and again before you go in the oven. Find a way to make some steam in the oven that you like (I drip about a teaspoon of ice water on the oven floor as the bread goes in).

    Happy baking!

  7. Louis Bois

    Chris,

    Let me know when you get the bread thing figured out…I’ll whip up a batch of Boeuf Bourguignonne to give you something to dip it in…

    …and a chunk of gnarly walnut to plane on that fancy EEngleesh bench!! Roubo I say!

  8. David

    Chris

    A good loaf of bread is as rewarding as perfectly fitting dovetails.. I’ll send you some of my sourdough starter when you’re ready for it!

  9. Jim

    I consider Cooks Illistrated to be the cooking equivelant of Woodworking Magazine – same layout, format, quality of information. One would think they came from the same design team.
    Keep up the great work!
    P.S. I’ll be building a bench next summer, so I am watching with considerable interest.

    Thanks,
    Jim…

  10. Christopher Schwarz

    Pat,

    Indeed it is Shadeau. Hands down, the best bread in Cincinnati. And best schnecken, croisaants etc. The little shotgun storefront is an absolute wonder.

    We frequently take the kids to Shadeau on Saturday morning and then hit Findley Market to get the produce, meat and seafood for Sunday dinner.

    I’m going to need to get up early to watch….

    Chris

  11. Andy

    Hi Chris,
    My wife and I just started using that same bread recipe from the NYTimes — it’s really amazing how simple it is, isn’t it? We used to live in Austria and miss the bread — this puts us on the path of making it at home. We’re going to start experimenting with different grains in the same recipe.
    Thanks for this note from personal life, I really agree that skills in the kitchen and in the workshop have some underlying connection in the search for quality, if not ideals.
    Cheers,
    Andy

  12. scott

    Ah, yes… cooking and woodworking… I feel your passion, or is that pain? Both perhaps?
    Sounds like your on the right track. Following you own advice across disciplines that is. Might want to check out Cooks Illustrated as well (online, or the magazine rack), since they’ve done all the heavy lifting already – explaining why they did what they did, and then offer up the recipes.
    A friend of mine (food writer for the AP) makes their multigrain bread everyweek. Me, I’m partial to the triple chocolate espresso brownies!

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