It always comes back to bread for me. It is truly such a humbling, yet illuminating, process. I always find myself groping for words to describe it, realizing there are none. To be honest, I’m always groping for words. Verbal expression is frustrating and disappointing for me, unless I’m describing a picture or a sequence I’m seeing in my head. Bread only magnifies the whole situation.
Really, this isn’t about bread or pretzels at all. It’s all about the door they’ve opened, that they’ve become a reason to begin exploring parts of the universe I never really found interesting. If I had to, at this moment, I’d say that this is the only real reason I love to try to cook. It’s a wicked prism to see the world through. I love that it diverts my train of thought into places I know nothing about and suddenly want to know. Of course tomorrow, I’ll change my mind again, and say it’s all about something else – the laughter and happiness on the faces of people eating, dining, conversing…
The way I bake makes me conscious of one thing. I’m completely insane, totally fixated with an ongoing, almost 10 year long experiment. Insane, in the sense that I make many different breads from one dough. Bakers and real people will balk, yet I do it anyway. I’m not totally sure why, though maybe it can best be explained as such; I like to see what might transpire if one reduces the variables down to one; that of cooking it. I have no secret. I use a wild yeast starter. I make a sponge, or poolish, and let it ferment overnight. I add salt and more flour and mix it to a loose form and let it set for about a half hour. Then I knead it. Sometimes I use it straight away, other times, I put it into the fridge and let it set for later in the week. What I make with it depends totally on the way I shape it, and cook it. I’ve made this into Baguettes, Batards, Boules, Pretzels, Bagels, Pizza, Calzones, Focaccia, Ciabatta and by laminating it with butter and turning it out a few times; croissants. I like this because it’s a constant exercise in learning that something innocent and simple can wind up becoming so many different things, depending on how one treats it. It is a sort of mother sauce to me. A simple path with many forks in front of it. I think that all of cooking should be just like that – an open ended means of going somewhere you haven’t been before.
There is one thing unique about pretzels which most people don’t grasp. It’s part of the cooking method, the treating of the exterior of the the dough, which gives it the color and flavor. It’s the Maillard reaction taken to the extreme amplified by being dipped or boiled for a moment in a basic solution, with salt added to enhance the flavor even further.
The Maillard reaction is one of the most intriguing, yet still not fully understood, aspects of cooking. It is, essentially, the browning of things. But it’s really not that simple. It’s also the oxidation of things. Rusting of metal is a Maillard reaction – a slow motion fire of sorts of iron being consumed by exposure to oxygen. In cooking it’s usually recognized as the breakdown and bonding of protein (or amines, from amino acids which are the building blocks of proteins) with sugars. Fascinating. For some reason, basic things speed this up, while acidic things slow them down. Ever squeeze a lime over fresh cut avocado to keep it from browning? You’re retarding the natural Maillard reaction which turns it into an unappealing brown color. Dipping a twisted ribbon of dough in a solution of baking soda and water is the opposite. It speeds up the process and makes it happen more completely.
This alone intrigues me. I want to know why – and suddenly learning little bits of chemistry seems palpable if not mandatory. Perhaps one of the best kept secrets, or worst taught truths, is the periodic table. For most, it’s an arbitrary layout of atoms and elements that makes little sense. The reality is, it’s a beautiful and simple tool of organizing things – probably one of the greatest contributions to science and understanding that one could ever have.
On one side of the table are acids. The other side has basic elements. The middle is neutral, at least as I’ve come to understand it. As one goes down the table, the elements begin to pick up a few more electrons or protons in a logical and predictable fashion. It’s the reason why chemists ‘know’ that certain elements should exist, even when we haven’t found them or created them.
The difference between an acid and a base is this; Acids are always looking to scavenge electrons or donate protons – i.e. they prevent oxidation by pulling electrons away from other things or they donate protons (protonation) to positively charge them. Bases are always looking to give electrons away and/or take protons… In the world of chemistry, this means that some things are negatively charged (base things like lye or baking soda) and some are positively charged (like stomach acid, vinegar and orange juice). Since opposites attract, it means that certain thing like to bond together in certain ways to balance and create molecules – things like Hydrogen and Oxygen (water), or Sodium and Chloride (salt), or Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen (carbohydrates, sugars, starch). There are types of bonds, categories of how strongly they attract, based on the elements and how they interact.
In an ionic bond, salt for example, sodium steals an electron from the chloride. As a result, the chloride hangs around, waiting and hoping (in poetic terms) that the sodium will give it back. In the meantime, it’s essentially ‘glued’ to it. This is the strongest molecular bond. Another, is a covalent bond, where atoms share electrons and they just sort of cling together as a result… It isn’t as strong.
Suddenly I’m fascinated with something I really cannot understand, and likely don’t, because I can’t really picture it, though I’m trying. I have a new appreciation for skills that others possess that I do not, will not, can not ever have. I see limits on my ability to understand or transpose something into terms that make it plausible in my own head. Humbling. It makes me wonder about the people who figured this all out, made an exact science out of something, literally, invisible. It makes me wonder about how anyone managed to measure the speed of light, or know how fast it really goes…
I like that almost everything in the kitchen, and life (if you let it), will almost always spiral off on some strange tangent, that it always offers up a bit of appreciation and perspective never before known… I think this is the true joy of living, getting older, and what it means to be gaining wisdom. I like this even more than pretzels, which is exactly why making them is important…