Bread. Just Bread.

March 13, 2012

This is the fourth installment of Sunday Dinners, a biweekly column from our own Tom Hirschfeld featuring his gorgeous photography, stunning Indiana farm, and mouthwatering family meals.

Today: Tom gives us our daily bread -- it's braided, whole wheat, and topped with poppyseeds.

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- Tom

Bodies are crammed into the elevator. I am in the corner smushed against the control panel and asking other riders repeatedly, "What floor?" I hear lots of twos, fives, and sixes, plus a few threes, before I finally get to push four for myself.

The elevator is still half full by the time it reaches my floor. The door opens with its standard ding. Not a soul stands waiting to board the car, but what does rush in instead is the amazing yeasty smell of baking bread. The smell fills the elevator car to capacity and the occupants let out a "man, that smells good"-style moan, wondering if the elevator cables will hold under the stress of all that goodness.

I mutter "excuse me" a couple of times and shuffle out the door.

I am giddy, nervous, and excited. This is my first day of culinary school and I couldn't have hoped for a better welcoming committee then then the smell of fresh bread.

The community college is housed in an enormous old insurance building, but what with all of its equipment, the school kitchen is packed tight. There is nothing organic about how industrial the kitchen feels, which I find strange.

But "industrial" is the reality, after all. This is about production cooking, not niche gourmet food -- and in any case, I come to love this kitchen. It really feels like a second home on many nights, finishing up a five-hour cooking lab at ten thirty in the evening.

Every day when I walk into the kitchen, I am greeted by the revolving deck oven. It is a beast with hot breath and spits out as many loaves of bread as you can put into it, and the telltale squeak of it slowly spinning round and round becomes a kitchen timer of sorts. It will be two more semesters before I get to take the yeast breads class, but when I finally get to use the deck oven it makes me feel like I'm a somebody.

Bread is different. Most of my culinary career has been spent trying to use up dead things before they spoil -- bread, on the other hand, is a living organic thing that I'm bringing to life. Making bread makes me feel like I can feed a community. I often think to myself, "If all else fails, there is bread."

So began my bread baking. Since then, on every Sunday and Wednesday for the last fifteen years I've found myself at home dusting the black granite countertop with flour. Now it's often with the girls standing on a stool next to me. As I removing the warm dough from its bowl to knead, I let them get their little hands in too. I feel the elasticity of the gluten against the palms of my hands as it fights back and forms, all the trapped air bubbles of yeast eventually making the bread rise and giving it crumb.

I have built up a repertoire. I make challah, flatbreads, Pullman loaves, Pain de Campagne, and a good rye. Over time I've come to make my breads with sixty percent or more whole wheat; to me, white flour is tasteless in comparison. The refrigerator feels empty if there isn't a pâte fermentée aging away for the next loaf of French bread, and there are always leftover cooked whole grains like brown rice and farro waiting to be incorporated into a nubby country loaf.

There are those days I feel it is a burden to make bread and I often wonder why I don't just buy it. I suppose if there was a good bakery nearby I would -- I might not even make bread at all.

I slide a braided country loaf into the oven.

On other days, I find it odd that it took going to culinary school to learn to make bread. Being male and not being in the kitchen with mom, I guess. Though my mother didn't really bake bread either -- oh, she made great beer bread. She even had a bread machine at one point. Bread baking just wasn't her thing. But then it doesn't seem to be most people's thing. Somehow I feel we are always told that we can't bake or cook, so we don't.

Sunday dinner is on the table. Tonight we eat in the dinning room. It is important to make a big deal out of dinner sometimes, and move it into a formal atmosphere. Give it some importance, some heft outside of the holidays.

We're having pot roast, nothing fancy. I tear into the loaf of warm bread, the smell permeating the room just like on the elevator all those years ago on that first day of culinary school. I hand some to Amy and the girls, then serve myself a piece. A bit of butter easily softens on the warm interior.

Farmhouse Whole Wheat Bread

Makes two 4"x8" loaves

2 1/2 cups warm buttermilk
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon dry active yeast
5 1/2 cups finely ground whole wheat flour
1 to 1 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 egg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
poppy seeds
1 egg white mixed with a tablespoon of water

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Shalini
  • JodiesLittleStore
  • Windischgirl
  • Just a Smidgen
    Just a Smidgen
  • BavarianCook
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


Shalini March 18, 2012
Tom. this is inspiring. I like when you ask why we don't learn to make bread normally, at home. I have to try this out. It's heartwarming to know you're making all these wonderful breads at home, what a wonderful gift to your wife and daughters and you, too.
JodiesLittleStore March 18, 2012
Wonderful writing. You should be proud of the way you weave the telling. From the description of the corporate elevator to the heavenly smell of baking bread to the down home Sunday dinner ritual. It was enchanting.
Windischgirl March 18, 2012
Thanks for a wonderful story regarding bread; I can so relate! Baking bread is my absolute passion, a total engagement of my senses. Today's fun was two loaves each of Peter Reinhart's Potato-Rosemary Bread and Jeff Hamelman's Beer Bread...the house smells fab.

I'd be delighted to try your recipe; any chance you could offer the ingredients by weight? I am such a bread geek I weigh everything...

Just A. March 18, 2012
What a lovely story this hushed Sunday morning.. What a wonderful recipe to try for our dinner tonight! Thank you:)
BavarianCook March 14, 2012
Thank you for the beautiful write-up. Bread, the smell of bread, its ingredients, and what clings to you after you have had the privilege of making is a little slice of paradise to me. I love making bread like you do, and when in the middle of it, it just feels like one of the best things ever. I truly think that if there was just one type of food to pick and eat, ever, it would be bread for me. Thanks for sharing the great pictures as well!
pierino March 14, 2012
Brother T, another great piece of writing and baking. And who said, "man cannot live on bread alone"? I love the smell of napalm, excuse me, yeast in the morning.
Blissful B. March 14, 2012
Gorgeous bread photos. As usual, I covet your natural light, but now I covet your bread baskets, too!
As a celiac I need to make almost all the bread In my home. Especially, if I want an artisinal loaf. I agree with Cathy B, some days it's the most beautiful thing I do that day others...grunt work.
CathyB March 14, 2012
I feel the same way you do about bread. Some days it's a burden to make it, other days it's a privilege. I make most of our household bread. Partly because I'm too cheap, and partly because it would feel lazy. I also agree that all white flour seems tasteless anymore. I always add wheat and/or rye flour to recipes.
deanna1001 March 13, 2012
Ahhh. Bread. Staff of life. Making it is pure delight and therapy. I give away a loaf every time I bake to share the joy. Thank you for sharing this story. There is a wonderful TED talk by Peter Reinhart about bread worth watching -
arielleclementine March 13, 2012
can't wait to make this! beautiful post, as usual :)
drbabs March 13, 2012
I wish I'd gotten home early enough to make this tonight. Sunday it's mine. Thanks. Great writing. I felt like I was in that elevator with you.
boulangere March 13, 2012
My favorite place in the building, too. Peter Reinhart was my Breads chef & I did recipe testing for The Bread Maker's Apprentice. Still my favorite substance to get my hands in. Beautifully said,Tom.
hardlikearmour March 13, 2012
A lovely piece of prose, and an even lovelier loaf! Thanks for sharing yourself with us again.