Baking bread. focaccia.
I'm not sure when it started, a year ago, perhaps, but I began baking bread like someone possessed after reading about the phenomenon of no-knead bread. You mixed together flour, water, salt, and a tiny bit of yeast, left it to rise slowly, overnight, then baked it in a preheated cast-iron pot (or any covered casserole - Pyrex worked exceptionally well). It looked more or less like one of those crusty artisanal loaves that came in brown paper bags and tasted like heaven, especially when eaten warm, spread with sweet butter, perhaps a little jam. I tried variations, adding whole-wheat flour, which gave the bread a somewhat loofah-like texture, and walnuts, which stained my irregularly rounded loaf with purple streaks. Eventually, I got bored, and returned to buying my bread at the market.
A longing for fresh bread brought me back to the table, so to speak, and with it a couple of new books on bread baking. A chance mention of a quest for the focaccia on Twitter the other day gave me a new mission. It took no time at all to measure out ingredients, dump them all in the stand mixer, then walk away. From the next room I could hear a steady thwack-thwack-thwack; when the dough began to come together smoothly the sound became a rhythmic thunk-thunk-thunk. I tried kneading it with hands slick with olive oil; the dough still stuck wherever I touched it. I washed my hands, leaving them dripping with water, and tried again; this time the dough behaved as I lifted and folded it over again. Eventually I had a large ball of smooth, almost silky, soft dough. It was springy and cool beneath my fingers, and I put it away in the fridge with some regret. Morning would come soon enough.
In the morning I divided the dough into thirds, or rather, I took off a third of the dough and spread it in a Pyrex pie plate. The recipe suggests that you could use about 8 oz of dough in an 8-inch pan or 12 oz of dough in a 9-inch pan; what I had was a 9.5-inch pie plate. Good enough. I stretched the dough out with my fingertips, and left it to rise while I went out for a movie. By the time I got back, three hours later, the dough had become puffier, filling the pan, smoothing out the dimples my fingertips had left in the soft, white dough. I added more olive oil, sprinkled on sea salts flavored with Niçoise olives and rosemary and lavender. Slid it all into the screaming-hot (500˚) oven, resisted the urge to cross myself and pray.
As so often happens (my oven runs a little hot), the bread was done before the timer buzzed. Oh well. It was a bit too salty; I had been overly generous with the seasoning salt. Oh well. Here was good, fresh, hot bread - soft and fluffy, with an airy, light crumb, just enough chew to the crust, slicked with olive oil and fragrant with the herb salts. I ate one wedge, then another, then another; before I knew it, the entire loaf was gone. (In my defense, I hadn't eaten breakfast yet, nor lunch). I sat with my empty plate next to me, and reflected that homemade bread is always better than anything you can find in the store, or at least as good as anything you can buy, by virtue of its freshness, its warmth, the knowledge that you made it yourself.