Before I even got near the knife drawer or thought about learning to cook a real meal myself, I had a blueberry muffin recipe memorized. It was a simple, buttery, single-bowl recipe that I found in my Samantha: An American Girl Doll Cookbook. The muffins themselves always emerged from the oven the same shade of golden brown, with a crackly top and streaks of purple from the usually-frozen blueberries stirred in at the end. It only took a few repetitions of the recipe to cement it in my head.
From that point on, it was only a matter of minutes from muffin craving to muffin eating. I’m sure I exhausted my parents’ desire for anything along the lines of sweet breakfast pastry after months of this obsession, but I still think back fondly to those Samantha muffins and sometimes wish I still had a taste for sweets in the morning. (Perhaps the blueberry muffins were a harbinger of cranberry-nut and bigger things to come.)
The blueberry muffins were only the first sign that my true cooking pleasures lay in the baked flour-fat-leavener category. I moved from muffins to chocolate cake to apple pies over the course of a few years, but it took me much longer to dare tackle bread. As far as I was concerned, my dad was the expert bread maker in the family, and most anything I could make would pale in comparison.
Every couple of months when I was growing up, my father would bust out his tattered and penciled up copy of the Tassajara Bread Book and make a loaf of sandwich bread. He had, of course, made tweaks to their formula over the years: scaling the recipe back to make a five person family-sized loaf of bread, changing the ratio of whole wheat to all-purpose flour, and making it less granola-crunchy and more, well, sandwich bread-y. I observed and helped out a few times, but as far as I was concerned, my number one job was to eat the end off of the still warm loaf, letting the crisp crust shatter all over the counter and the sweet wheat dissolve on my tongue. These taste memories stuck with me when I left for school with my own tattered copy of the book.
Eventually, the craving for that same sandwich bread struck, and I was on my own to re-create based on the original recipe and my memory of all of those tweaks. It took many tries, and many (many) dense gummy loves, but I eventually began turning out bread that I liked just as well, if not better, than what I remembered. I started experimenting with different styles of bread, and started taking notes from less crunchy bakers like Julia Child, Peter Reinhardt, and Rose Beranbaum. Baguettes, ciabatta, rustic boules, and even croissants were no longer out of the question. I gained confidence to make many of my own tweaks, and to even carry out experiments on recipes before even trying them as written. I bought a kitchen scale.
My baking has waxed and waned depending on school work, projects, and (later) work schedules, but I still make my own bread as much as I can. I love the tactile nature of bread baking, the feeling of tried flour beneath my fingernails, and the overwhelming smell of flour and yeast that emerges from the kitchen after a long day of proofing, kneading, and shaping. Even if my fridge has been picked down to its bare bones, there will always be flour, water, and yeast.