Writers Who Cook: Bake Me Away with Janelle Brown
In uncertain times, it can be comforting to honor the rituals that have nourished and grounded us over the years. And with so many people cooking at home these days, we thought we’d ask some of the writers in our communities to share favorite recipes and the stories behind them. We hope these recipes provide you with some inspiration, comfort, and company in your own home kitchen. If you’re a writer who cooks and would like to be featured in our series, please reach out to [email protected].
I baked sourdough bread from scratch last weekend. Apparently, I’m not the only one—Google searches for “how to bake bread” hit an all-time high after the coronavirus quarantine began, and King Arthur Flour has had to start limiting online orders. I live in a household of four, two of whom are children under the age of 10, and we plow through baked goods like it’s going out of style. When we stopped going to grocery stores, sliced bread was the first thing to go.
I used to love to bake bread but had fallen out of the habit after we had kids, and my leisure time grew vanishingly short. A lockdown seemed like the perfect opportunity to revive the practice. So when a friend of mine posted a picture of her sourdough starter on Instagram, I begged a bootlegged sample off her. We did the handoff in a local park, with Purell wipes and furtive looks. I brought the baggie home, put the starter in a jar, and began to feed it spoonfuls of flour and warm water.
Bread dough is a strange beast; at once sturdy and mercurial, delicate and robust, sticky and silky. Mess with your dough too much, and your loaf will end up a crumbly puck; leave it alone, and it will transmogrify into something pillowy and light. It feels like magic, though of course it’s really an exacting science. The process includes violence, too—the final step, before baking, is to slash your tenderly nurtured dough with a razorblade, and you have to make the cuts deep.
There’s an obvious metaphor for writing and editing to be found in all that, although, to be honest, my own writing process never feels quite so poetic.
For me, part of the appeal of baking bread is the challenge of it all. When I decided to bake again, I chose the most challenging recipe I felt I could tackle: Tartine’s country bread, a recipe from a renowned bakery in San Francisco (my childhood hometown, and the capital of sourdough) that requires several days of effort and multiple rises. After all, with my creative focus already shot to hell by world events and the need to homeschool two children, a high-maintenance bake wasn’t going to be detracting from my writing.
My resulting loaves—tangy and light with a crisp chewy crust—weren’t perfect by a true baker’s standards (my scores were all wrong), but no one in my house was feeling snobbish. For two days, it was all that anyone wanted to eat: warm bread, slathered with good butter, sprinkled with flaky salt, elemental and supremely satisfying. Everything else outside was going haywire, but inside the safety of the walls of our home, we’d stripped our life down to the basics: flour, salt, and water; time and attention. A simple loaf of bread. Enough.
Recipe from The New York Times: cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1016277-tartines-country-bread
Janelle Brown is The New York Times bestselling author of three novels including Watch Me Disappear and All We Ever Wanted Was Everything. Her new novel, Pretty Things, was published on April 21, 2020 by Random House.