Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I learned how to bake bread because of Physics

One of the requirements I had to go through while in graduate school was an oral comprehensive exam. In this exam, you present a half-hour talk on a subject within the area of physics that you are going to specialize and do research in. Then your exam committee will have another 15 to 30 minutes in which they can ask you about ANYTHING they wish in physics, whether it is related to what you had just presented or not.

As you can guess, preparing for this exam can be quite a nerve-wrecking experience. I remember that for the week leading up to the exam, I was having trouble sleeping, waking up in the middle of the night anticipating another question that might be asked. I've scoped as much as I can the background of all the committee members and their areas of expertise so that I could anticipate what kinds of questions I might be asked. Still, I was a nervous wreck that whole week.

I was maybe 3 or 4 days before the exams when I almost reach the breaking point. I had way too much nervous energy that I simply had to do something, or I would go nuts. I wanted so badly just to go out and walk around the neighborhood towards the lake, but it was in the middle in winter! I ended up pacing around the house trying to figure out what to do. The TV was on, and there was this cooking show (I watch cooking shows religiously) featuring an Italian woman kneading dough for a bread. As she was pounding the dough into submission, she kept saying that she didn't need to go to a psychiatrist, because she got rid of all her aggression and troubles by making and baking bread all the time.

Well I certainly didn't need to be smacked on the head with a rolling pin to realize that, wait a minute, I can also try and make bread by hand! I mean, I'm a good cook (it's a hobby), but I've never done a lot of baking, and certainly have never baked bread from scratch, other than putting everything into an automatic bread machine that I got for christmas.

So I looked up a few of the cookbooks that I had, and found a rather simple recipe for a version of the french baguette. I had some yeast, flour, and everything I would need. So I dove right in! I had to make space on my kitchen counter to knead the dough, but other than that, there were no other obstacles. The only problem was, one had be patient when making bread. This one required at least 2 risings, each lasting an hour or more. The dough can't be hurried if you want the full flavor and texture.

In any case, I finally got to the point where it was ready to be baked. This is where I ran into some problems. I didn't have a baking stone for my oven to bake the dough on. And I certain did not also have a steam oven, which is what most bread bakers use. So after making do with putting the dough on a cookie sheet, I armed myself with a water squirt bottle and sprayed the inside of the oven with a mist of water (I could have sworn I remember seeing Julia Child doing something like this in one of her cooking shows). I did this several times during the baking.

Finally, it was time for the bread to come out. I must tell you that while it was baking, the smell coming out of the kitchen was HEAVENLY! My first bread was..... er.... well, how shall I put it.... rather odd. It certainly wasn't the typical, long baguette (would not fit the oven). It was a bit tough, and the crust didn't develop as well as I would like, but man, it was one of the best things I've ever done! There is no doubt that even mediocre home-made bread tastes better than the ones in the supermarket, AND, has no preservatives!

Since then, I've improved my skills at making bread. I'm the type of person who, if I want to do something, I tend to go all out and try doing it as best as I can (why waste time doing something half-heartedly?). I bought myself a set of baking tiles, bread cookbooks, and other accesories. I no longer buy bread anymore. I make a bunch of dinner rolls and freeze them, so that I always have some on hand whenever I want them. I often make what I would call rustic italian country breads. These are hearty breads with thick, delicious crust and a distinct, yeasty flavor. This is a favorite whenever I have dinner parties. I also make pizza and pizza dough. The result is a flavorful pizza crust that does not taste like a cardboard.

The unfortunate (or fortunate?) side effect here is that I have since become a bread snob! I can no longer tolerate breads from supermarkets, only breads from real bakeries will do. I pay utmost attention to bread ingredients (no bleached flour, only stone-ground, only organic, etc.). After discovering how good it can taste, I find that I have no reason to tolerate mediocre bread, and certainly not bread that is full of chemicals just simply to make it lasts longer on the shelf. Once you have opened your eyes to how good it can be, I guess you can no longer settle for anything less.

And oh, my oral exam? I passed! I've gone on to do other, better things. But I still make my breads by hand.


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