Baker Rich (aka Rich Helms) spent a career in computer research and development. Rich attacks his interests from the angle of a researcher. From coffee roasting to paper mache, to baking bread Rich dives in head first. As a former researcher, Rich creates structure in the recipes and guidelines. “It is how I think and work.”
“It’s never been done” is a call to action for Rich. He built a career breaking new ground in the computer field including five hardware and software patents. In 1986 he developed CARES (Computer Assisted Recovery Enhancement System), the first computer system in the world for aging missing children.
When I was in university, I made bread for the same reason I made root beer: it was cheaper than buying it. After my 40-year career in information technology, I find myself driven more by the experience than by the economics. When I retired from the company I once owned, I spent a month living by the ocean. Every day, my dog, Margaret, and I would walk the shore, then stop and fish. My all-consuming thought was, what now?
I’m a computer nerd who bakes bread and writes about it, and I’m not afraid to describe bread baking as a sensuous experience. I revel in the feeling of kneading dough into a boule of smooth, elastic food that is alive and growing. I breathe deeply the smell of the flour and yeast fermenting, breaking down the starches as well as the tantalizing aromas of caramelizing sugars. A crust ripped open by expanding dough escaping its confines, tearing the gluten filaments as they harden. I love the sharp crackle of a loaf delivered from the oven, its innards still baking by its own heat. I enjoy the ritual of cutting off the heel and evaluating the crust. Is it crispy or soft, light or dark from burnt sugars? Finally, the crumb: delicate or robust, fine or course, cut with great care or torn apart?
It’s a pleasant reprieve from the years I spent in corporate information technology. There is no keyboard in sight of the kitchen; it doesn’t take a task force to design the loaf; and I don’t need three levels of management approval to begin. Best of all, I get to eat the delicious results.
The practice of baking bread is also ripe with opportunities for writing, with topics ranging from the hard science analysis of bread chemistry to the creative skill of developing new and exciting recipes. My exploration of bread baking involves taking a food-writing course this summer, and I’m applying for a scholarship to fund that activity. It is the culmination of my current passion … and passion is what I live for. I invent obsessively. I crave depth in my pursuits; no shallow end of the pool for me, no paint by numbers.
Let me describe an example of how obsessive I can be. In 2010, a neighbor invited me over for a cup of coffee. To my surprise, I learned that he had roasted the beans himself. Intrigued, I bought a small home roaster, which I soon replaced with a professional sample roaster. I took a commercial roasting course in Vermont, and I bought a commercial-grade coffee grinder and restaurant coffee maker. At that point, I knew how coffee morphed from a green bean to the cup, but I did not know how it was grown. To find the answer, I traveled to Costa Rica and lived on a plantation for a week. I even helped the plantation owner with his tasks for a true experience. My fascination with coffee continues, mainly with enjoying the “fruits” of my research and learning.
I also learned about and became fascinated with degassing, which is the term for how freshly roasted coffee beans slowly release CO2 for weeks. This is the reason why you never see vacuum-packed whole beans. As the CO2 is released, the package inflates like a balloon. To understand this process more fully, I designed an experiment to measure the gas release over time and documented the details in a paper that I published on the web. I soon realized the value of having writing published on the Internet; several one-way gas valve makers now quote this work. I am proud to have contributed to the passion others have for coffee.
Passion is truly a personality trait of mine. I have tried several hobbies in my semi-retirement and found them wanting. I sculpted with paper mâché and experimented with painting. Although I appreciated certain aspects of the visual arts, I craved more technical complexity. Then I tried making a loaf of bread. After hand kneading, I decided to buy a mixer to do the hard work. I realized, however, that there was still a lot more to learn. A mixer is not an automatic bread machine. It involves much more than dumping ingredients into a receptacle and pushing a button. Baking bread from scratch (even if using a mixer to help with kneading) means keeping track of proofing times, shaping the loaves or rolls and baking it all yourself, applying any of countless possible variables. Ah, there’s that complexity I spoke of.
I have read several excellent books on baking bread, but I needed more guidance. The focus of modern bread production is lower cost, longer shelf life and a prettier appearance. All of this has been done at the sacrifice of taste and nutrition.
Bread has been around since 3500 BC. The artisan movement strives to understand older approaches and how these can be used to bake a better loaf. George Brown College offers an Artisan Bread Baking Certificate that involves 284 hours of classroom and kitchen time devoted to baking bread. Classes range from theory to making bread with flour designed and milled in the class. This is definitely the deep end of the pool for me, and I love the idea of combining bread making and art.
In fall 2016, I started off with the Artisan Bread Theory class, which was 12 hours spent learning the technical details. Emily Buehler’s book “Bread Science, The Science and Craft of Bread Making” provided me with 321 pages of glorious technical facts and figures, and I found myself wanting more. My class project was to bake six loaves of bread, each with different flour. I asked whether I should compensate for the different types and was told, “No, let it fail.” Failure, it turns out, is a powerful teacher.
As information flowed, I needed a way to organize it. My technical background made starting a website a natural fit. I call OnBreadAlone.com my “Centre-of-the-Universe” approach, where I am creating an authoritative website on the topic. As people comment, I learn. They ask questions, and sharing the answers helps me drive knowledge into my long-term memory while helping others who share this passion. As I started to write about bread baking and recipes, I discovered that bread writing is as complex as bread baking. There are no standards for recipe structure or volume-to-weight conversions. Bakers work in weight measured in grams. Most North American home bakers work in volume, such as cups. Any recipe I put on the site needs to accommodate both audiences.
Writing about bread uses both the left and right half of the brain. The technical aspects of conversions from volume to weight and temperature are manageable challenges; they pale in comparison to the complications involved in writing a recipe. How should it be structured? Conventions for North American differ from Europe and Australia. As my goal is to write for all English speaking markets, I need to understand the various approaches. As an example, oven temperatures are usually discussed in terms of Celsius and Fahrenheit, but in browsing the web, I learned that oven temperatures in England and France are sometimes expressed in Gas, such as Gas 7.
To start my journey, I have been reading Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Memoir, Recipes and More by Dianne Jacob. Diane has been writing and blogging about food since 1996. Will Write for Food has won several major writing awards and is in its third edition. Most of her book is on the business of writing, which is another aspect of food writing that I may explore one day.
The bread theory course I completed taught me to design bread recipes. I create and test them, but the format I write them in is baker shorthand intended for professionals. My market is home bakers, and I need training in how to write for them. I specifically need guidance on recipe writing. Recipe websites often have tips on writing recipes, but cover only the guidelines for their site and market. I want a broader picture … a way to word my descriptions to appeal to both left and right brains, and to make the recipes as interesting to read as they are to make.
The first step to baking a loaf is “mise en place,” or everything in its place. This is the preparation stage, and having all of the ingredients measured out, chopped and whatever else is required before following the instructions makes for a more efficient bake.
As I examined the components for writing about bread, I needed one more ingredient, a course on recipe writing. The baking courses I’m enrolled in are taught at George Brown College, a leading culinary school in Canada. George Brown offers a six-week course in June/July/August, four hours every Sunday afternoon, in Recipe Development (HOSF 9437). This course was developed with George Brown’s Food Innovation & Research Studio (FIRSt). FIRSt is a food research facility focusing on “concept to commercialization.” What excites me most is that these are commercial-grade courses aimed at professional bakers. Their research pushes them to the cutting edge, as they work with real companies on real world problems. The recipe class has been taught by former “Canadian Living” food director Annabelle Waugh and Food Director at “Chatelaine” magazine, Claire Tinsey. This is an opportunity I’d like to take now.
Thinking back to my walks by the ocean with Margaret … when I returned each day, our footprints were gone. Only pictures on my phone proved that we had walked the shore. The sand looked clean, and all traces of the day before were removed. What remained was a clean slate beckoning us to start the walk again.
This all makes me think about my journey with bread baking. The traces of the journey disappear; time washes them away. But what survives are the writing, the stories, the recipes and what I learn along the way. As I move forward, I am excited to knead a deeper element of writing into the mix.
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