On the first day of bread camp, I and six other baking students tied on white aprons with our names stitched on the bibs. We gathered around a long steel table in a room dominated by a wooden grain mill. Pots hung high on exposed brick walls. I wobbled on my ergonomic stool as instructor Tom Edwards passed around spring water and whole-wheat flour.
I am functionally literate when it comes to bread and have made hundreds of crusty, open-crumbed loaves since a sourdough obsession took hold a year ago. But I wanted to be proficient. My bread suffered from inconsistency, and I felt beholden to my sourdough starter. I wanted to better understand the signs of a well-proofed loaf and a nicely slashed score. A month before the coronavirus outbreak had us all avoiding travel and social contact, that desire led me to Artisan Bread Camp in Louisville, a five-day course run out of the brick building housing Edwards’s restaurant, MozzaPi, and his milling operation, Louismill.
Only one student was local; I had traveled from Washington, D.C., and others came from Florida, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina. Taylor Havlisch, who has been baking for 10 years and served Beiler’s Doughnuts rather than cake at her recent wedding, had driven from Philadelphia.
That water and flour Edwards passed around were the makings of our first step, the basis of all our baking to come: sourdough starters. Jozef Zebediah, who cooks at the restaurant he co-owns in Charlevoix, Mich., named his starter Eagle. La Grange, Ky., software engineer Nathan Anderson went with Edna Mode, and Edwards wrote “Mom” on his. Was I betraying my starter, idling back at home? Edwards said no. We shouldn’t sentimentalize starters, he explained. No matter how long they have been kept alive, they adapt to their current environments. Despite their sometimes-long tails, starters are creatures of the now.
“Craftsmanship comes from doing something repeatedly with a level of awareness. Nuance occurs, and managing that nuance is where excellence is,” Edwards said to on Tuesday. “Keep your awareness.”
We made several rounds of focaccia, folding and dimpling the olive-oil-rich dough in deep trays before studding it with rosemary sprigs. I think my awareness had faltered a bit, and my sprigs seemed to have weathered a separate windstorm. But overall, the focaccia was supple and airy, fragrant with herbs and sparkling with salt.
The glass-doored mill/classroom allowed us to absorb the rhythms of a lively restaurant’s morning. Lines for scones and coffee formed, dishes clattered, the Lumineers warbled away. We stayed for lunch, eating bread we had made — the wood-fired bagels, one day, with a platter of smoked salmon, capers and vegetables, and the focaccia with pizza toppings. We also ate unbuttered slices of just-cooled loaves along the way. A copper-colored Montana wheat made with flour milled on-site was light in texture, and the “due pane” we baked with it was a real sourdough, not wincingly tart, but deep in flavor.
When dough stuck to the sides of our wide, metal bowls, we learned how to neaten up, sliding around with the round end of the scraper until a discrete ball, sound and plump, remained to rise. We were all using the same ingredients, so I couldn’t help but notice that my mixture stuck to its bowl more than everyone else’s. When Edwards mentioned that a similar thing had happened to a student with “hot hands,” I quailed. I have hot hands, which one look at my smeary pie crust would tell you, but I didn’t know that it was so obvious, or that bread cared, too.
When patting out pizza dough — “Gently!” Edwards instructed — we were told to leave an edge (“cornicione” in pizza-speak) and then admire the leoparding, the appetizing black spots that form in the oven. Stray commercial yeast that lands in your starter can, in his alarming phrase, “kill your mother,” or, at least, compromise the mixture into losing performance. A humid environment encourages gloss and blistering. If you’re using only white flour, a little malt can help brown the crust and deepen flavor. Use spring water instead of tap. The consistent exhortation was to take risks, and make our own bread.
Except for during whiteboard talks, Edwards did not hold still. I have never been less surprised to find out someone was a rock climber. Also, how much fun you have at camp often depends upon your bunkmates, and I had lucked out with a game group who liked to talk bread. We made a lot of happily obvious comments. “They’re on the tray,” we said of the bagels.
“Tell it you love it,” Edwards said, taking yet another round of focaccia dough, nestled in bins, to the proofer.
“Love you,” I said to my focaccia, which was not regulation rectangular, but more resembled the state of Minnesota. I felt a little ridiculous, but fair is fair. Encouragement was needed.
The restaurant-as-campsite allowed us to use industrial equipment. We fired pizza crust in a giant wood-burning oven, thrillingly Hephaestean. We slid bagels in with giant paddles. We sliced pizzas with boomerang-sized mezzalunas and used a volume mixer, watching gluten strands narrow and lengthen. We griddled English muffins. We learned some restaurant vernacular, shouting “corner” and “hot!” as we made our way through the workplace.
Each afternoon, Edwards loaded us up with loaves to donate. I gave some wheat bread to a Louisville friend and some to a restaurant owner. Plenty of warm focaccia went to the people staffing the desk at the Residence Inn. Other students donated some to a neighbor, and Havlisch handed loaves to a home for families with hospitalized children.
After Wednesday’s bagel lunch, I talked with Edwards. He has offered the camp since 2015, and tuition is $1,350. Did he find it worthwhile to have civilians crashing around his busy restaurant for a week every month? “Just because something’s a disruption doesn’t mean you don’t do it,” he said. He has learned a lot from other bakers, so he enjoys sharing his own experience with those who want to learn from him. (Later, he told me that classes are being “rescheduled and pushed out as the quarantine permits.”)
“Who are these bread people?” I wondered, but Edwards denied the existence of a stereotype. “It’s not defined enough to say, ‘Oh, there’s a bread nerd,’ ” he said. “But they’re predominantly optimistic.”
By Thursday, the stakes had risen. What we made would go to a bread share, meaning that 27 locals would be eating bread that we students helped make. We got down to business, measuring 900-gram globs of dough and shaping them into rounds. The idea was that the loaves would gain tension during this process, but ours ratcheted up instead. By then, I knew to dip my hot hands in cool water before I worked with dough, but this batch clung, staunch in its attraction to the metal table. We used scrapers to pry it away, but even so, shaping the dough into their final forms proved demanding.
Edwards and MozzaPi baker Robyn McLaurin quarterbacked, parking dough outside to firm up in the February air, doling out bannetons, rescuing overly slack loaves and flinging bread lingo. “That was sitting loose,” Edwards said of one of my attempts. It wasn’t “a lake or anything,” but he still “stitched it,” or pinched bits of dough together to add tautness before it could be baked. An improved effort was “sitting proud,” which could have described us when all of the loaves headed to the refrigerator for an overnight rise.
When a gum line — a stratum of wet dough — afflicted one focaccia, we gathered to examine it. (Possibly undercooked.) One of my loaves, a walnut bread, came from the oven squat and glowering. The nuts I thought I had folded in neatly looked like they were trying to flee in separate directions. It turned out that I had probably allowed too much of the walnut-soaking water into my bread.
In examining failures like that walnut bread, Edwards emphasized that most “disasters” can be addressed by lightening up: Add some yeast if your leaven — the flour, water and starter mixture that helps activate the bread’s rise — isn’t quite ready and you’re running out of time. Score a pretty design if your loaf is overproofed. And, if all else fails, slice your bread, toast it and lay it out next to enough coppa and cheese to satisfy any takers. Bread is endlessly forgiving, and so, we had learned, is the craft of it. We worked hard, and sought perfection, but we didn’t worry.
That was us: predominantly optimistic.
On Friday, the last day, Edwards joshed that we should gather our sleeping bags and toothbrushes before our parents arrived to pick us up. And given the crafting, fellowship, name tags and blazing fires I had just experienced, I did undergo the slightly woozy reentry that I remembered from sleep-away camp.
“The most important for me is you leave more passionate than when you came here, and more confident that you’ll achieve results that you want,” Edwards said in his valedictory address.
Are there better ingredients than confidence and passion? Bread camp offered me a new joy: that of plunging deeply into a craft. I have been baking a lot since I’ve been back in Washington, especially since social distancing has kept me home, and my bread is improved, with the more-predictable structure and rounder flavor I had been chasing.
I have also have found that, for me, bread’s profoundest pleasure still lies in giving it away.
McGraw is a Washington writer. She is the author of “Here Comes Exterminator!,” about the 1918 Kentucky Derby winner.
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