The Bread of Monks

Tassajara  (5 of 12)Did you know that a small Zen community in northern California was largely responsible for the bread baking revolution in the United States? Like much home food preparation, bread baking had gone by the wayside post-WWII. Cheap supermarket food and the shifting demographics of the workforce (i.e., women working outside of the home) made rare a once ubiquitous practice. There was also some pretty killer marketing and social dynamics at work in the popularity of, yes, WonderBread.

Photo of Tassajara Bread Book coverBut in 1970, this newbie Zen monk published a slim, approachable, humble little brown book that started with a poem about yeast and whose recipes were thoughtful and charmingly illustrated. They also worked. The counterculture was already championing a return to “real” food, and the book took off. The copy I use was my mother’s. I think she still has another one. Its spine is long since broken, pages are coming loose, mysterious oils have denuded the type in places, and the feel of it in my hand makes me smile.

I am not going to reprint the recipe here, because if you are even mildly interested I do suggest you go buy the Tassajara Bread Book. You don’t have to be a Zen monk to appreciate it, but having a Zen monk talk to you about bread baking is awfully reassuring.

As with any standard yeasted bread (not sourdough, for which I have a deep and abiding love and on whose production method I will no doubt wax poetical at some point on this blog), there are a few basic steps. They mostly involve doing some pretty mechanical, straightforward stuff to a mixture of flour and water and then leaving it alone for a while. You have to be around for bread but it requires comparatively little active time. (Also, a bench scraper and using only cold water makes cleanup go way faster than you might think.)

For this batch, I used about half plain flour (King Arthur’s unbleached all-purpose, my go-to). The other half of the flour was a combination of random odds and ends I wanted to get rid of. That’s the beauty of this way of making bread. I threw in some chick pea flour, some wheat germ, some oatmeal, some flax. Olive oil and some toasted sesame oil went in. Some buckwheat honey. Sea salt.

Was it perfect? Nope. The chick pea flour was maybe a little past its best-by date and lent some bitterness, I got slightly lumpy loaf shapes because I got lazy (I always get lazy), and the dense dough could have used some more vital wheat gluten and a longer first rise to give it lift. (I think. I’m not exactly an expert.) But one of the reasons I love baking bread is that nothing short of a catastrophe keeps you from an end product that will make you feel warm and satisfied and reaching for a crock of the richest butter you can find.

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