Sometimes Samuel Fromartz gets emails: “I tried your recipe,” people write. “It didn’t work.”
Inevitably this is someone who followed Fromartz’s steps to the letter, but ended up baking an inferior – or even inedible – loaf of bread. Yet there’s one essential thing they didn’t do, Fromartz says, one step they left out.
They didn’t try again.
“It still happens to me; I still make crappy bread on occasion,” the author says. “You try again and the next time you’ll make something better. That’s why, like a craft, it’s a process.”
Fromartz, who describes himself as a “writer who bakes rather than a baker who writes,” has been making bread since the mid-1990s. As a freelance writer, he found it gave him something to do that got him off the computer, away from emails and phone calls, and into a calmer head space. Until 2008, it was pure relaxation for him – yet the recession that year cost him half his regular work and, in desperation, he pitched a magazine piece on his passion. Soon he was in France, learning to make baguettes in Parisian boulangeries. He didn’t know it at the time, but it was the first step toward writing a book.
“In Search of the Perfect Loaf” is a narrative, experiential account of several years Fromartz spent learning baking techniques from bread makers nationally and internationally, then applying them at his Washington, D.C., home.
Fromartz is speaking at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham. His book won the literary food writing award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
There are a handful of recipes throughout, but this book really is a story of his relationship with bread. Mistakes are inevitable and the results improve with time. That doesn’t sound too intimidating – does it?
“If you can get over that initial ‘I don’t know how to do this’ moment, you’ll move on,” Fromartz says. “I was in that moment too, in 1996.” What he discovered after that hurdle, he says, and after getting comfortable with dough, was that his hands were guiding him and telling his brain what to do. He followed the feel of the dough, which he began to understand after regularly baking several times a week. It’s alive, after all, which is important to remember.
“The dough – it’s a living thing, it’s fermenting,” Fromartz says. “Time is the ingredient. If you’re rushing that process, you’re not going to get the fermentation and the flavor is not going to be as rich or complex as it can be.”
This is where misunderstandings about breadmaking come into play – notably, that some think the kneading step is an intensive, exhausting 15 minutes of pounding away at the dough. Not so, Fromartz says. Time and fermentation are the most important things, and the process he describes involves mixing the dough, letting it rest and folding it – no upper-body workout required.
As well as Fromartz knows bread, he has no desire to open a bakery. He already has a writing career and is also the editor-in-chief of Food and Environment Reporting Network, an investigative nonprofit. Besides, he likes his sleep. “I don’t really want to wake up at 2 in the morning or whatever it takes to do it,” he says.
Fromartz prefers the journeyman approach. He visits bakeries and takes new techniques home with him, which is particularly fulfilling in regions with rich baking scenes. During a recent family vacation to Asheville, for instance, he marveled at the sheer number and variety of local bakers; All Souls Pizza, he said excitedly, grinds its own flour.
“This isn’t everywhere. You go to places where you won’t find any bakers,” he says. “Being in a place like (North Carolina), it’s special to have that. I hope that’s appreciated.”
Meet the Author
Samuel Fromartz, author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey,” (Penguin Books, 2014), is speaking at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Regulator Bookshop, 720 9th St. in Durham. The event is free.
Info: 919-286-2700, regulatorbookshop.com
Samuel Fromartz on...
Bakeries: “The best baking lessons you could probably learn would be working with a more experienced baker. That was the premise of my book.” You can also ask a local baker for a knob of sourdough starter, Fromartz says – though it helps to compliment their bread first.
Bread machines: “I’ve never used one and I know people who have used them who are happy with it.” If you do use a bread machine, Fromartz recommends taking the dough out after it is mixed and leaving it in the refrigerator for several hours – if your machine can be paused, that is.
Time: “The thing that really improves the flavor of the dough is letting it develop over a long period of time.” Fromartz’s recipes are often broken up into several days, with the dough resting and rising for six or seven hours at a time.
Beginners: “I would recommend that people start with a no-knead bread recipe – that is an amazing place to start.” The recipes in “In Search of the Perfect Loaf” are listed by difficulty.