Kitchen competence: a process

For several years now I’ve regarded myself as basically competent in the kitchen. Not at a professional level, to be sure, but a respectably decent home cook. I’m not going to ever make Beef Wellington (to my husband’s chronic disappointment) but nor am I fazed by making a four-layer coconut cake; I have a spice rack sufficiently well stocked that I can, if I want to, lend people some star anise or a half cup of chili powder at the drop of a hat. Had you asked me, at age 25, “Will you ever be that kind of person?” I would have laughed uncontrollably, but look, here we are.

Last night I had a moment of realization along these lines: I can, if I want to, probably make pretty much anything that I buy in a store. Case in point: a loaf of cranberry-pecan bread.

I made chicken soup for dinner last night. This is a story for another time, and one that maybe my mother shouldn’t read, because it will upset her too much, but anyhow: I made chicken soup for dinner, and because soup and nothing else for dinner is a sad and wretched state of affairs, and because I was too lazy to make cornbread or biscuits to go with the soup, I went to Romeo’s (the Italian grocery store nearby) and bought a loaf of cranberry-pecan bread. This bread is made by a local company called Chabaso. I used to work for the owner of Chabaso, who also owns a bookstore/cafe in town called Atticus. When you work at Atticus, you get a free meal for each shift you work (or you used to, anyhow; I assume it’s still true), and as a result you get to be very familiar with the Chabaso bread offerings. You become so familiar with them, in fact, that you never want to eat them again. But the bread was pretty good. I was fond of the plain ciabatta loaves (which have gone downhill since the days when I worked in the bookstore, I’m sorry to say — they seem to’ve changed their recipe or something) and of the cranberry-pecan bread.

I always regarded the cranberry-pecan loaf as a really impressive loaf of bread. It was always delicious, and it had things in it that I wouldn’t normally like (such as cranberries; I’m domestically famous for my dislike of cranberries) but somehow it was a perfect bread for so many different kinds of sandwiches. I made turkey and cream cheese sandwiches; avocado sandwiches; tomato and roast beef sandwiches. But it would never have occurred to me that I could bake a loaf of it myself.

Last night, however, as we polished off the loaf of bread, I decided to have a gander at the brown paper wrapper the bread came in and see what the bread was really made of. I read the list of ingredients, which you can find here

and I realized that I had, in fact, sitting there in my kitchen almost everything I’d need to bake a loaf of this bread myself. And since a loaf of this bread costs close to five dollars, it seemed to me that it’d be worth investigating. So this morning I took out my jar of yeast and I read the list of ingredients again and I went online and read a few recipes for cranberry-pecan breads, thinking, “I can approximate this.” The fact that I have no pecans in the house is not a problem; I will toss in a few sunflower seeds to add the nutty quality.

I’ve combined yeast, salt, honey, water, and three different grains (barley flour, unbleached white flour, and fine-ground cornmeal) and made a sticky dough with them. Because I’ve used barley flour and cornmeal, I’ve put in considerably more water than the recipes I found called for — cornmeal, in particular, is thirsty stuff. I’m going to let this rise for a very long time. When it’s risen to my satisfaction, I’m going to knock it down and knead in the dried cranberries and sunflower seeds, and I’ll shape it. Then I’ll let it rise again and bake it. I have a feeling that the resulting loaf will not be as stupendous as the Chabaso bread, but I bet it’s going to be very good indeed — worth making again.

Of course, I may be speaking too soon. This may be a total disaster. It may be that I’m making nothing more than a really fine batch of squirrel chow*, here. But I don’t think so.

*Squirrel chow: when I’ve baked something that’s such a disaster that it can only be used to feed the squirrels in the park


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