I don't remember my first bite of Wonder bread, the preferred loaf shaped carbohydrate of my working class roots but, without question, it was the start of a life-long love affair with bread. White bread with butter, lots of butter, was a staple at every dinner and was especially wonderful when used to sop up the remaining pasta sauce (excuse me, gravy). Fortunately for my developing tastebuds, my family lived in an area swarming with Italian bakeries and I soon discovered that scala bread, the seed encrusted stuff that my grandfathers favored, went even better with pasta. Chewier crust. It wasn't long before Wonder bread was relegated to it's proper place: mixed with glue and used for sculptures.
My first apartment was bright, airy, cozy, and in the basement (it had 3 exposed sides, 4 sliding glass doors, giant windows, and the north side was built into a hill. I loved it.) Basement apartments have 2 advantages: you can dance as much as you want AND they often house the water heaters for the rest of the apartments. During the cooler seasons, water heater closets are the perfect temperature for keeping starters happy and thriving. I baked bread. Constantly. In an effort to maintain happy yeast colonies, old yellowware bowls purposed solely for breadmaking were never washed with soap. One of my many Sunday morning flea market expeditions netted a bread bucket- a hand cranked bread mixer- a much loved fixture in my kitchens for over 15 years. The Kitchen Aid never quite managed to edge it out. I read, referenced, and baked from Daniel Leader's Bread Alone, along with The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book, and Bernard Clayton's Complete Book of Breads so compulsively that, even now, the pages are impregnated with flour. And when we finally bought a house, I started researching the wheres and hows of building backyard brick ovens. It wasn't feasible then, but I was preparing for our next house.
I dreamed of working at a local bakery, but infants and small children require health insurance and, besides, I already wasn't sleeping enough. Showing up at work for 3am probably would have killed me so I very reasonably decided that dream'd have to wait til my 40's, when the kids'd be older and hopefully slept more than occasionally. In the meantime, I honed my bread making skills on family and friends. Baking with Julia had the tastiest (and most buttery!) white loaf known to humanity. From The Italian Baker, I learned how to make crusty Ciabatta, perfect with homemade soups and stews. Starters flourished (for the most part-there were a few fatalities) on top of the clothes dryer. On the cool but sunny spring and fall days when we weren't running the furnace, bread proofed in the car, which I'd park in a sunny spot near the door.
And life wasn't just just about bread- it was about baking in general. Potato bread smeared with Boursin, a slice of dark rye and black coffee for breakfast, warm biscuits (made with lard! oh, lardy goodness, how I adore thee!) was only half the joy. Rugelach, chewy, chunky, chocolate chip cookies (Cooks Illustrated published THE best recipe a decade or so ago), cakes, pies, the entire contents ofRosie's Bakery All-Butter, Fresh Cream, Sugar-Packed, No-Holds-Barred Baking Book. Strudels, muffins, quickbreads., coffee cakes...our kitchen constantly warm, yummy smelling, and covered in a light dusting of flour, as all proper kitchens should be.
Of course, it came to pass this summer that gluten, the glorious protein that had made the previous 40 years of joy possible, was no longer part of my kitchen. Truth be told, at first I didn't care. Being sick, getting progressively sicker, and paying lots and lots of money for pointless diagnostics over the course of the past 2 years had sucked enough that the dietary changes seemed reasonable.
Then cool weather, aka hardcore baking weather, rolled in and my exploration of prefabricated gluten free baking mixes began. In a nutshell: A few are good, most are passable, and some are positively foul. All are varying degrees of expensive. And then there are these shelf stable, gluten free loaves:
Tapioca loaf. This what you resort to when visiting a friend who really, really, would like to make you a Brie, Chocolate, and basil panini (try it but with real bread. It'll rock your world.) Faux bread with a 12 month shelf life (unopened) and a warning not to leave it unattended in the toaster. It might crumble and cause a fire. No shit. What's my motivation for eating this (besides Brie and Chocolate Panini)? None, that's what. 20 years of excellent home baking and I'm not eating this crap.
Several GF cookbooks have made their way onto my cookbooks shelves, and the recipes for baking mixes in them've been so-so. They're basically well meaning attempts with little apparent understanding about protein content, moisture, and the specific issues one encounters with GF baking. In short, they haven't been created by bakers. Bah.
Happily, there are GF bakers on the planet of the variety who clearly LOVE food and are hardcore about their baking. Gluten Free Gobsmacked (an unabashedly food loving site if ever there was one) has a recipe for GF croissants that's on the'to-do' list for this month. Hazelnut coffee and warm croissants...yum. And my new personal hero is Richard Coppedge, author of Gluten-Free Baking with the Culinary Institute of America which happens to be the only GF baking to discuss the differences between GF/nonGF baking and modifications you might need to make (moisture content, baking pans, etc). I'll freely admit to buying this book just for the GF cannoli shell recipe. And GF rugelach. And mock rye bread. And and and...
So my love affair with gluten is over. Finis. Kaput. And now that I've finally stopped rending my clothes, I'm beginning to appreciate having an excuse to spend hours in the kitchen, testing recipes. When's the last time I did that? Should be an interesting (and tasty) winter.