Baked & Saved
Baking with the St. Paul Bread Club: Recipes, Tip, & Stories
I thought I'd write about Kim Ode's new book this week as some kind of antidote to the shopping and commercial frenzy of the season, because her book concerns the most humble and noble of human crafts, bread baking, and it talks of that endeavor in the smallest-scale, least glitzy way possible, by examining the resonance baking has had in the lives of 15 everyday Minnesotans: a financial analyst, a child psychologist, a book designer, a septuagenarian homemaker, more. The other reason I thought I'd write about Ode's book this week is because Baking with the St. Paul Bread Club: Recipes, Tips, & Stories (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $24.95) can also be wrapped and given as a holiday present, and that's convenient, right? However, my grand plans failed to account for the fact that this would put me baking outside with Ode on a snow-dusted, frigid Minnesota winter day.
In order to bake outside, Ode gets started at eight o'clock in the morning, throwing a wheelbarrow's worth of logs and twigs into the maw of her VW bug-sized oven. By noon, the logs have heated the oven to some 600 degrees Fahrenheit, and she sweeps the embers out for transfer inside to a waiting fireplace. Then she swabs the inside of the oven with a stubby mop, to prevent ashes from settling on the crusts of her bread. Once the oven is both hot and clean, Ode uses a wooden peel to slide her waiting loaves of dough into it.
Sometimes she has a reporter watching her, teeth chattering, toes numbing, eyes watering, and can be pestered into revealing why a woman with lovely children, a lovely husband, a lovely house, and a lovely novel-heroine-appropriate job as a reporter at the Star Tribune would leave them all in their lovely world and choose to cart, by herself, by hand, refusing all help from her lovely family, some 3,000 pounds of cement, bricks, and whatnot into her backyard, in pursuit of a wood-fired brick oven so she could stand alone in the snow, battling ash while freezing.
"Fate plays a great role in our lives," Ode noted dryly when I asked her how she traded in cozy and easy for difficult but better. Fate in this case intervened when she found a course catalog for the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, and noticed, among the classes on anorak making, birch-ski fashioning, and such, one teaching how to build a wood-fired brick bread oven. She felt, irrationally but deeply, that she had to take this class.
"I guess you would call it a midlife crisis," she admitted. "You get to a certain point in your life and see that you have spent so much of your time at soccer practice and whatever, but you see it ebbing [as the kids head off to college], so the question arises: What am I going to do now? My job is a good job, but it's just so—poof!" With the word Ode flings her fingers upward, like a magician tossing glitter. "It's gone. You write, you send it off, it's gone."
When everything has a tendency to leave, dissipate, or otherwise keep its own council, Ode explained to me, the soul cries out for the tangible work of your hands. "Now I realize it would have been more fun to build the oven with someone else, but at the time it seemed very important to do it myself. I'd never laid bricks, never used mortar, never dug footings. It took forever, but it left me feeling very competent. It's good to feel competent."
The oven built, Ode turned her attention to perfecting the dough that went into it. She had made a "starter," her own living colony of wild yeast, using grapes as per Nancy Silverton's directions in her La Brea Bakery cookbook, but felt that perhaps there was a better way. She found that better way through Dan "Klecko" McGleno, the charismatic head baker at St. Agnes Bakery, who runs a bread-baking club out of his St. Paul commercial bakery. (See "Lord of the Sourdoughs," CP 2/5/03, citypages.com.)
Through Klecko and his St. Paul Bread Club (www.spbc.info), Ode found a community of other bakers, each of whom came to bread for her own reasons. Ode's book is their stories, as well as their recipes, and each story is as personal as religion or biography. Some bake to recover balance from a life made hectic by a fast-paced career; others to commune with departed loved ones, through the ritual of their recipes; still others for health. The recipes in the book are intriguing, and provide a portrait of our region through dough: There's one for the St. Paul hotel's legendary raisin pumpernickel, courtesy of Klecko; another for Iron Range Eastern European walnut potica; one using wild rice; one using Summit beer; one a Pillsbury Bake-Off veteran; one for Norwegian flat bread; and so forth.
When I visited Ode, she had put together a variety of doughs for us to bake—and by us, I mean for her to bake, and for me to peer at, ineffectually, while sniffling. She made pain ancienne, the oldest, simplest bread dough, in which nothing but flour, yeast, water, and salt are left to make a wet, gloppy dough for baguettes; two sorts of sourdough, one based on her own starter, the other based on Klecko's potato-based version; and even, be still my New York-lonesome heart, dough and filling for bialys, those onion-topped flatbreads that are the unboiled cousins of bagels.
The first breads came out of the big brick oven as brown as bears. Ode carried them inside on a big plastic screen, a screen that, moments earlier, had been a garage for Matchbox cars until Ode's three-year-old nephew Asher was bribed into moving the vehicles with the promise of hot buttered bread. We cut into the breads: They were indescribably delicious. The pain ancienne was so crisp the crust shattered like spun sugar when you bent a stick of it, but the interior was as light and springy as flower petals. The sourdough made from the grape starter was light and frothy, with a tender crumb and a crunchable crust; the sourdough from Klecko's potato starter was as sour as a wet winter wind, and sturdy as a stable. In the space of a few minutes, I devoured a loaf's worth of bread.
I asked Ode how she found the inspiration to go through the inevitable first failure-laced days of baking, given that one of the best artisan bakers in the country, Turtle Bread, is a two-minute drive from her house. To me, the idea of making bread always seems faintly absurd, because others do it so much better than I ever could. It seems like cats—I like cats, I admire cats, but I don't want to make cats, I want cats to make cats. It's easier for them, and they do it better.
"I didn't see this coming," shrugged Ode, surveying her loaves. "Did you know that gold miners would sleep with their starter, to keep it from freezing?" She made the gesture of a man cradling something right against his chest. She explained to me that she found the presence of Turtle Bread inspiring, not defeating—if they could do it, so could she!
I asked her if she's considered that everyone will be in her yard in the event of nuclear apocalypse, in order to use the oven. She squinted at me, marveling at the goofy things kids say. I asked her if her oven and her baking solved her midlife crisis, because, with her clear eyes and confident manner, she seemed the very portrait of the solver of the world's problems, not the haver of them.
"Yes, I'm much happier than I was five years ago," she said, laughing musically and touching her heart, in the manner of someone recovering from a small but startling surprise, a child darting out from beneath a table, say. "I never said that before, not even to myself. I have a new facet to my life now. I sure shook up the routine, and I found a community I didn't know existed before. I have a persona I never had before: I'm a baker. Not just a reporter, not just a mom. I like having that extra identity. I love having baking days, the whole ramping up to what I'm going to bake. Baking is a funny combination of being very methodical and very creative. Bread also doesn't clutter up the house when you make it: It gets eaten, and disappears."
I didn't tell Ode that it was that exact disappearing, that same transience in life, that she didn't like before she started baking—and the reason I didn't tell her is because she left to pull the bialys out of the oven. (At this point, I cowered inside in the warmth with the three-year-old, feeling absurdly daunted by the cold so early in the year.) By the time she returned with the bialys, I lost any thoughts I had—the smell of hot onions and fresh bread was bewitching, overpowering, fantastic.
When I was a kid, I loved bialys—the cute sturdy discs of them, the savory little nubbins, the rugged little dears. According to my dear, departed Grandma Millie, they stopped making good bialys in New York long before I was born, but I've loved the ones I've had, and Ode's were better than all of them. They were rugged, smoke-kissed, bready little angels wearing olive-oil-poached onion smiles; the crust was just resistant enough, the interior just yielding enough. Eureka! Suddenly, I could see the logic in carrying 3,000 pounds of concrete and brick into a Minnesota backyard to permit baking while the snow flies.
On the way home I said a little prayer to the god of future crises: When a midlife crisis comes for me, please may it too be resolved in such a productive, enlightening, fulfilling, and tasty way.
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