When my grandmother made pastry, she used the palm of her hand for a measuring cup. After years of practice, she knew the soft weight of a cup of flour or exactly how much sweet cream butter to cut into the dough. Pie crust, biscuits, homemade cookies, cakes, yeast rolls, cornbread, crusty loaves, or tea breads were on her table every day.
I learned from her the science and magic of pastry and bread dough: ice water in pie crust keeps the layers so flaky the crust will shatter under your fork; kneading bread dough releases the gluten from the wheat molecules and makes your bread chewy; use dried beans for pie weights, don’t handle biscuits too much or they get tough; heat the cast iron skillet to smoking hot before you put your cornbread batter in…so many secrets, and I wish every day she was still here to pass more on. As much as I loved these lessons, I find that when I start making dinner at 5:00 or 6:00, somehow pie crust, soft yeasty rolls, and crusty loaves of bread are not part of the plan.
The other day, I asked Barrie to come over and make bread in our kitchen. Her hands, with their sure, practiced movements, evoked sweet memories of those early days of watching my grandmother’s hands work. Barrie spent five years in New York learning her craft—she worked at Gramercy Tavern and Balthazar before returning to Texas to work at Vespaio and Enoteca. She has a gentle, quiet presence, and it was so soothing to watch her work, deftly rolling and shaping the dough, filling the kitchen with a warm, buttery, yeasty aroma that I wanted to crawl inside of. As I watched her pulling a tray of perfect brioche out of the oven, I was reminded why bread is so important, so integral to our lives in the kitchen. I find that pastry and bread play a part in just about every meal I cook, but I wouldn’t say that we eat too much of it. An accent in the same way that meat is in my kitchen, bread and pastry nevertheless make life incredibly easy. Toast often is an edible plate for favorite things and seasonal vegetables, flaky pastry surrounds heaps of seasonal fruit or chicken and vegetables, a tiny bite of a buttery shortbread cookie satisfies my cravings, crusty ciabatta sops up the last drops of a rustic soup, and toasted sourdough or a soft brioche roll turns last night’s dinner into a delicious lunch.
The life of a good loaf of bread unfolds over several days: on the first day, it is perfectly fresh, the inside deliciously elastic and the crust crisp. A day or two later, the crumb begins to dry, the crust to soften, and it’s good for toast. Toast brushed with peppery olive oil, then topped with tender baby salad leaves and soft fresh cheese; toast with creamy scrambled egg and herbs; toast topped with sautéed spring vegetables and butter. Next day, put a slice of the now drying bread into a bowl and ladle over warm vegetable stock and greens and grate in a little aged cheese. You might use the bread to make bread pudding or French toast. By the end of the week, anything left from the loaf can be made into breadcrumbs. Eat them spiked with citrus zest on seafood; mix them with garlic, herbs, and olive oil for stuffing vegetables; or store them in the freezer for the next time you make meatballs.
I’ve read about traditional communal bread ovens in small villages in Europe and dreamed of riding to the boulangerie on my bicycle, returning home with a baguette tucked under my arm. For many years, I struggled to make true artisan bread and real pastry myself, but the truth is it takes an expert to do it right. Now, I am happy to eat the bread and pastry from Barrie’s hands, light fingers that seem to move with confidence all on their own and know all the floury secrets passed down over generations.