Why am I making this bread? I wonder, my head slumped over, waiting for the timer’s ping to cue me for the next dough-stretching bout. It’s not like I need to bake a panettone, after all. The nearest shop selling this tall and fragrant speciality bread, air-flown from Italy, is but a short drive away. Even in its hometown of Milan, most people buy panettone, entrusting its making to professional bakeries with decades, if not centuries, of experience.
It’s not my first attempt. I’ve assayed this bread several times, in several ways, with varying levels of success. Some loaves ended up squat and glum. Some had the correct texture but were woefully bland. A couple were 95 per cent perfect, with the properly browned crust, the right nuances of candied citrus, the desired airy crumb easily pulled apart into buttery shreds…almost. It’s that final 5 per cent that keeps me slogging at it.
You see, baking is a hobby that becomes a habit that becomes an addiction that becomes therapy for the rest of life’s chaos. I got hooked on it early in life, when I found its rubric of precision and orderliness to be a good anchor amid the turbulence of “teenage-hood”. The uncertainties of its limited domain were easier to grasp and manage than the churning world outside: follow the instructions properly, shut the oven door, relinquish control, and wait for either all hell to break loose or a heavenly result to rise.
As a novice baker, I never knew which to expect. Many years hence, I now know that while experience reduces the ratio of strikeouts to home runs, it never rules out every single possible curveball, which keeps me on my toes.
Cookies and cakes are tricky enough, and don’t get me started on pastry, but bread baking is particularly dynamic and challenging, being a collaborative process at heart. An art form conjoining the aptitudes (and whims) of the farmer, the miller, the baker, the yeast and the weather, it’s more than farm-to-table – the slow nurturing and coaxing of yeast and lactobacilli to transform flour and water into flavour makes it farm-on-table.
Far from just training the eye, nose and hand, all of which it does exquisitely, working with bread dough also schools one in patience, thrift and, above all, perseverance. The joy – and it is a deep, profound joy, believe me – roused by smelling and tearing into the burnished, blistered body of a successful home-made rustic loaf is tempered only by the surety that the next one will be different. Perhaps as good, perhaps worse, perhaps much better, but never exactly the same. This keeps the baker alert and humble, and open to revelations.
After nearly three decades of baking and nearly a decade of writing cookbooks, I have realised that the two activities have a lot in common. Put garbage in, and you get garbage out, for one thing. If you focus on superficial qualities, core flavour will suffer, for another.
Also, with books as with baked goods, it’s sometimes hard to predict the scale of a rise. I remember one ambitious panettone that expanded beyond its pan and baked itself onto my oven ceiling, and a book project which got so over-worked and over-heated that it eventually fell flatter than a pancake. Both took ages to clean up.
The most important maxims I’ve been able to glean, applicable to recipes, cookbooks and life in general alike, are these: Rushing any part of the process almost always has bad results and, conversely, giving things space and time to breathe and grow is inevitably beneficial.
The recipes which have stayed with me the longest, evolving and percolating through my mind and experiences, have accrued the most meaning and quality.
Take for instance hot dinner rolls, the baking bug’s original vectors which bit me when I was 14. Although far simpler than panettone, their secrets stubbornly eluded me, despite many weeks of repeated trials and tweaks. I was unable to articulate through my hands what I wanted of them, and what they meant to me. Decisive and sweet victory over the recipe arrived only over 25 years later, after my understanding of both the rolls and my ideals had matured.
Another example of how deeply baking has seeped into my bones: I recently bought some cologne, as one does while idling at an airport. Only much later, once out of the reality-warping duty free-toiletries shop haze, did I notice that the cologne bottle was shaped exactly like a pandoro – another Italian Christmas bread – and that its fragrance was punctuated with cinnamon, raisin and vanilla. I had to laugh.
Ping! goes the timer, rousing me from my trance, and I wrap my hands around the sticky, recalcitrant mass, wrestling it and my thoughts into submission. Why am I making this bread? I ask myself again, and the answer comes: because this bread is making me.
Christopher Tan is the author of Nerdbaker, a memoir-cookbook about his baking life. Available at www.epigrambooks.sg