Good evening, friends and neighbors! I apologize for the silence as of late- I promise to get better at updating here. What might help remind me, while we're at it, is a little feedback- what would you like to see in this space each week? Recipes? Demos? Stories, and my philosophical musings? The comments and email work- let me know what you'd like!
Speaking of philosophical musings, tonight is going to be another one.
Since I've been writing on here, I've described baking as a science, an art, a passion, and a craft par excellence. I do NOT think I have described it yet (and if I'm wrong, send me the quote and I'll thank you for reading!) as alchemy.
Alchemy was an extension of natural philosophy, and is the root of the fields of medicine, chemistry, and pharmacology. The most well-known goals of alchemy were turning lead into gold, discovering the key to eternal youth/ immortality, and creating a semblance of life outside of the natural order. Alchemists were famous (and in many cases, infamous) for their secretive nature. Formulas and concepts were recorded not just in notebooks, but in beautifully embellished pages, with elaborate symbols and diagrams representing materials or abstracts that would only be understood by other alchemists- or more likely, the alchemist that created them alone.
This was chemistry in its infancy- the complex interplay between different substances was understood at only the most basic empirical level, and frequently was described using mystical notions derived from the cultures or religions they were created within.
In summary, alchemy was a combination of art, science, and magic.
What, I may ask, is a better way to describe baking?
Consider for a moment, the following:
- The pounded seed of a tall, golden grass.
- Water from the nearest well or brook.
- Crushed, translucent white rock from a certain hole you found.
Combine them all into a curious, stiff paste.
Let it sit until it has swollen.
Place next to your fire to see what happens.
The result is bread- a source of carbohydrates and has kept humans alive for over 10,000 years.
This was done before humans understood yeast, the Maillard reaction, the development of gluten, or the result of different temperatures being used on the dough.
For all intents and purposes, this is what you did to magically generate food from whatever it was you found around you. Cooking was similar, but easier to understand at the time. It was easy to see meat change and blacken as it roasted, or vegetables warming and softening as they cooked. Much of the action that makes baking possible, however, happens at the microscopic level- beyond human vision, and therefore, possibly beyond comprehension at the time.
Bakers today have quite a few advances and advantages over our Stone Age ancestors, but while the ingredients, tools, and understanding may have changed and advanced, the basic rule has not:
Take fresh ingredients.
Prepare and combine them well.
Keep track of how so you can do it again.
Feed yourself and others.
and of course,
Good evening, friends and neighbors! Happy belated Mother's Day to all my maternal readers, or any who serve that function in their lives.
About a year ago this month, I lost my grandmother, Mitzi, after a long illness. This came at a time when I was nearing the end of culinary school, and had just gotten my first professional baking job at one of the casinos in Atlantic City, so her passing was especially poignant.
For me, Bubba Mitzi was the notion of hospitality made manifest. When visiting her house, the first words from her mouth were asking if I had eaten, if I was hungry, and specifically wanted some chicken soup. (Like all Jewish grandmothers, my Bubba made the best matzah ball soup to be found on this Earth, and I'd argue to the grave anyone who said otherwise.)
Memories of my Bubba tend to center around her giant dining room table- the sight of all the best family dinners of my childhood. Showing up at Bubba's house meant delicious things to come, and anything bad in this world could wait until after dessert was cleared away. The table would almost groan with cucumber and onion slaw, marinated tomatoes, chicken, brisket, long golden loaves of challah, heavy green potato kugel, glorious noodle kugel, rainbow-colored jello molds studded with fruit complementing each flavor, and cakes that you would pray some survived to have again tomorrow.
Alongside all of these things, though- all these beautiful culinary memories- I remember the stories the most. Family dinners meant stories- people laughing, joking, remembering things from the past, and recounting them all into my eager ears as I filled my belly.
I like to say that my mother and sisters were the first ones who taught me to bake as a child, but it was my Bubba Mitzi who taught me WHY I should bake- to create those moments over again. To fill a table with food that people can laugh around and swap stories over, to create a magic circle in which all there is to be worried about is what's going on your plate next.
This was the hospitality my Bubba taught me- that it's not the food you make so much as the people you share it with, and that the secret ingredient in all the best recipes is love- for the work, and for those who will enjoy it.
Happy Mother's Day, Bubba- I miss you deeply, and if I can give people half the happy memories you've given men, that would be more than enough.
Stay humble, my friends.
Stay healthy and warm,
and of course-
Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!
A while back, I mentioned a conversation I'd had with a relative of mine. He expressed frustration and concern that I did not share the same vision of professional success as he did-
Relative: "Just think about it, Matt- you make the right moves, and wouldn't ever have to bake again! Buy gigantic ovens and extruders for the product, hire and train people to use them, and then all you'd have to do is show up once a week, make sure no one's hurt themselves, and collect your paycheck!"
Me: "Except that doesn't sound good to me- I want to keep my bakery small. I LIKE the idea of coming into work and baking everyday. I want to work alongside the people I hire so they can be trained right."
Relative: *waving hand dismissively*. "Yeah yeah yeah, I get that, that'll just be for now. Eventually you're going to grow it bigger though."
In the end, we walked away shaking our heads, agreeing to disagree- him muttering that I was naive, and me grumbling that he "just didn't get it."
I had mentioned before that, in a way, we were both right. I'll explain this with a story I heard a long while back.
In a small desert town, there was an old man sitting at his stall in the marketplace. Hanging in front of him were 20 strings of onions. A man from the city came up to the old man and poked at the old man's wares.
"Hey pops, how much for a string of onions?"
The city dweller poked at a few more strings. "How much for 5 strings?"
"50 cents," the old man replied simply.
"50 cents? No bulk discount?" The young man asked, eyebrow raised. He looked at a few of the other strings. "Those onions aren't as big as the others... I'll give you 5 cents for them."
"No," grunted the old man, nonplussed by the city dwellers rudeness. "10 cents a string."
The city dweller eyed the old man suspiciously and sneered. "Hmmf! You need to learn some business sense, pops!" he hissed, inkily. The young man then stepped back and looked at all the onions yet again. "How much for all your onions?" He asked with a smug smile, nonchalantly pulling out an expensive leather wallet.
"I would not sell you all my onions," muttered the old man, barely bothering to look up.
"You wouldn't sell me them? Why not?" asked the surprised city dweller, interrupted in pulling cash from his wallet. "Isn't that why you're here? To sell your onions?"
Here the old man finally looked up and leaned forward, staring right into the city dwellers eyes.
"No, boy- I'm here to live my life. I've been visiting this marketplace since I was a child. I love coming here. I love seeing the colors of the beautiful rugs the women pull out to sell. I love the smell of the food they cook. I love eating lunch then taking a nap right here in the middle of the day. I love when my friend Tom comes by, and we sit and smoke and talk about our wives and families. Y'see boy- if I sold you all my onions, then I wouldn't get to meet or talk to anyone else coming to buy them. My day would be over- I'd have to pack up and go home. I would have given up the life I love- and I wouldn't do that for anything."
Money is lovely for the things it buys and security it offers. Success is lovely for the doors in opens.
There are more and finer things in life than money though- and success has different definitions for different people.
Baking is not just a money-making venture. It's my passion- it makes me happy. It calms me down. It relaxes me when everything else is going wrong. I love talking to people about their favorite flavors. I love figuring out the delicate science of how to make a new recipe work. I love working with like-minded people, teaching them and learning from them.
When you buy from someone who owns a small business, you're not just getting whatever they are selling- you're buying some of their time. You're buying pieces of their heart and soul, and a bit of their passion. You're not buying from a faceless giant corporation- you're buying from a friend.
Success has different definitions- and for me, that's getting up every morning, working hard at what I love, and making a living off of it.
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
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