The Cheat is GROUNDED! We had that lightswitch installed for you so you could turn the lights on and off, not so you could throw lightswitch raves!
I figure I should write a quick reminder here that somehow you had signed up for this newsletter at some point in time, and surprise! Perhaps months later you receive this (maybe pleasant?) surprise in your inbox. Nice to see you here. I’m Andrea.
It’s been a long pandemic. I’ve been lucky, healthy, and safe this whole time, but just living a very muted, dull existence. I picked up a couple of new habits along the way, and since we stopped eating out, I started to cook and try new things a lot more.
Settling deeper into domestic life, I decided to jump on the bread baking bandwagon mid 2020. I got a book all about baking bread, and put together a short list of the things I’d need from the author Ken Forkish’s suggestions.
I didn’t end up actually baking loaves until a year later, mostly because I panicked when I realized a couple months ago that I had forgotten I bought a 10kg bag of flour from Costco that’s about to reach its best before date. Welp, that’s a good motivation to get things going quickly before it all spoils.
I’m about 5 or 6 loaves in so far, and it will be a long journey to finishing the bag, but I’ve learned a few things. Here are some heady and minorly cliché life lessons I’ve gotten from wrangling gluten.
My first loaf - it felt amazing to smell fresh bread coming out of the oven!
The simplest things are usually the hardest
These loaves are just flour, water, salt and yeast. As an ingredient list for a recipe, it can’t be any simpler - just the four items! But the complexity lies in all the other variables and environment.
It takes experience to get to know your oven and how consistent it is. You need to get a sense of your environment in terms of ambient temperature and humidity. You have to be aware of how accurate your tools are and whether you understand the nature of them - for example, dusting a proofing basket with rice flour instead of wheat flour to ensure a smooth release prior to baking. It takes time to gauge margin of error. Is my dough rising as expected? Should I give it more time, more heat, more water?
There is just so much science involved. Every loaf feels like a delicious experiment.
It's so satisfying seeing a beautifully smooth and round dough
Go by the book, then observe and adjust
Jazz, as a form of musical improvisation, depends on the musicians knowing the rules and then actively flouting them in many cases.
It’s the same way with bread, in understanding how to manipulate the variables where it matters to get the right results.
The recipes I follow provide a specific temperature for the water in the dough. I’ve followed this exactly initially, but over time I’ve started to learn that it’s a bit chilly in the house. You’ll kill the yeast over a certain temperature, but finding the optimal temperature within an acceptable range is key.
Like most things in life, be aware of this especially when taking advice from others. Most likely, their circumstances and experiences differ from yours. Take the input. Observe. Adjust accordingly.
Enjoy the imperfection of innovation
One aspect of baking bread I most enjoy is using my hands and fine tuning the balance between art and science. There’s some level of precision involved, such as employing the use of a food scale and thermometer to check weights and temperature. However, some of the process is left up to fate - how the yeast behaves, oven performance, baker’s technique, etc.
Every loaf I’ve made so far I’ve enjoyed the process of starting with disciplined measurements, combining the art of the mix and rise, and finally crossing my fingers the moment I take the bread out of the oven.
It begins with some amount of confidence and precision, but it almost always ends with me praying to the doughy deities that a crispy, buoyant loaf emerges crackling. Each time I make the initial cut into a new loaf, I hold my breath as I anticipate seeing the crumb structure.
Planning is most of the work
Making these loaves isn’t really a laborious task in and of itself. There’s no kneading of these high hydration doughs - you dump all the ingredients into a tub, occasionally mix and shape with your hands, but there isn’t a need to put in much elbow grease.
Most of the effort involved is in getting the few instructions correct and ensure your timing is well scheduled. I’ve gone through a few different recipes now, but one favorite so far is the overnight whole wheat.
The learning curve in the beginning involved mostly logistics. Scooping and measuring flour, getting the water temperature right, and hand mixing techniques were all processes that I eventually figured out a routine for. Once you get the hang of the basics, the bulk of the work depends on your ability to schedule ahead of time. Start working on a dough in the late afternoon, and by morning you could bake it.
All these analogies and bits of wisdom apply quite neatly to what I’ve learned so far about being a product manager. I’ll have to spend some time to gather my thoughts before I write about product, but just replace all the bread specific talk above with product, and it’ll be pretty close.
If you’re interested in trying your hand at baking a loaf like these, here’s a recipe for an overnight 40% whole wheat.
Obligatory joke reference explainer in case you don’t understand the title and quote:
Strong Bad Email #45 - Techno