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We all have different reasons for wanting to learn. One student plans to buy and operate a sandwich cart on the 16th Street Mall. She won't be making the loaves and rolls herself, but she wants to know how it's done. Preston Troutman, a realtor from Cañon City, is a passionate cook, but "I make the town's worst bread," he admits. "Brick bread. It's a joke." Another student wants to emulate the kind of crust she remembers from European breads. And public-health advisor Lorenzo Olivas, who discovered Cook Street when he walked past 1937 Market Street on a lunchtime walk, is fascinated by the process and the living organisms it involves.
I have reasons for wanting to learn, too. There was a time when you couldn't get decent bread in the United States (except, perhaps, in the occasional bakery in a hidden-away corner of a big city). I remember my sense of bereavement when, having come here from London as a teenager, I first sampled a squishy supermarket loaf. In England, I hadn't thought about bread. It was just there. Cheese sandwiches came with nutty slices of Hovis. Every few days my mother would go to the bakery, and my sister and I would follow her home, surreptitiously pulling the crust from a crackling French baguette and eating it. Breakfast was toast and jam; tea was toast and butter; a visit to the Continent yielded Kaiser rolls with apricot jam. Eventually, stranded in America, I tried making my own bread. These were hippie loaves, whole-wheat-heavy and sweetened with honey, but they still beat anything you could buy.
Things have changed. As we cluster around Marilyn, we know there's great bread available all over the metro area. But I haven't forgotten the pleasures of home baking: the feel of dough under your palms, the scent of yeast, the way we used to place a bowl of dough on a sunlit rock and watch it rise and press against the covering cloth like a pregnant belly. And besides, I'm still suffering bread neurosis from my years of deprivation. Suppose for some reason the local artisans pack up and leave -- Breadworks and Denver Bread Company close their doors, Whole Foods drops its commitment to first-rate loaves. Like Scarlet O'Hara, I've sworn never to go hungry again.
This is the first of a three-session class. We'll be learning bread basics, then how to work with whole grains, and, finally, the secrets of sourdough. Marilyn, who worked at Breadworks for four years, is a highly organized and no-nonsense teacher, and she knows her stuff. Although I already have some idea about how a loaf comes together, several of her instructions surprise me. In the past, when my dough felt sticky, I'd always worked in more flour. Marilyn wants us to keep the flour to a minimum and just keep kneading till the texture's right. As the dough clings to our fingers in sticky strings, this takes some self-control. She initiates us into the mysteries of gluten and explains that bread made at high altitude needs more moisture. She shows us how to salt the dough later in the process instead of at the beginning, how to use fresh yeast, which is fawn-colored and smells heavenly, and how to pull a segment of dough into a "window" to test elasticity. She demonstrates the wonders of the school's wood-burning ovens and tells us how to duplicate their effect and achieve crispy crusts -- as best we can -- using our ovens at home.
Everything we require -- tools, ingredients -- has already been set out for us. We mix, knead and shape. It's fun working in the kitchen with other people; we share tips and laugh at our own ignorance. Marilyn laughs, too. In fact, she thanks us for amusing her.
Later, she tells me about a student in her professional class who wasn't paying attention when he mixed his bread and ended up with a lumpy, wet mess. He wanted to throw it away, but she told him to bake it. It was edible. "It's hard to make a really good loaf of bread," she observes, "but also to make a really bad loaf. Bread is tolerant. It'll take a lot of abuse."
Bread is such a staple in much of the world that the word "bread" itself is often used as a synonym for food. Loaves appear in ritual, myth and folktale. Whenever a friend moved to a new house or apartment, my Central European mother visited with a gift of bread and salt to ensure there would never be hunger in that home. Making bread is a beautifully simple process -- you don't need a chef in the kitchen fiddling with esoteric spices and bits of garnish. But the variations in taste and texture created by such things as ambient temperature, flour quality, kneading and resting methods, the way you shape a loaf, oven heat, dryness and moisture, added ingredients, the warmth or coolness of your hands while you're working the dough -- all utterly straightforward elements -- are endless. We will only begin to understand them here.
Marilyn loves making bread "because the ingredients are so simple you really have to put yourself into what you're making," she says. "It's as much an expression of the baker as an interpretation of a recipe."
Snacks and coffee sustain us as we work. Toward the end of the class, we're served a light, delicious meal of soup, salad, cheese and bread. After class, we walk out into the evening carrying bags of fresh loaves, which Marilyn has instructed us not to even think of cutting until morning.
Many months later, we're all still baking. I've managed to duplicate the onion taste and chewy texture of a genuine New York bialy -- something I haven't been able to find anywhere around here. I know my bialys are authentic, because a visiting friend brought me a dozen from Kossar's in New York for comparison purposes.
Calls to other students confirm that the conversion is widespread. Preston has been bringing loaves -- made with his own starters -- to sales meetings. He says the tips he picked up from Marilyn were more than worth the three long drives back and forth from Cañon City. "Now people want my bread," he says. The student who yearned for a European crust hasn't managed to achieve it, but she's still making bread. Michael Jones bought himself a peel and tiles for the oven. While his results don't compare with those of Whole Foods and the Denver Bread Company, "I like my bread," he says. "I make a lot of loaf bread."
Lorenzo says he's fascinated by the different leavening methods Marilyn showed us: sponge, poolish, sourdough starter and regular yeast. After the class, he made his own starter with organic grapes, creating a "bowl of dough that got bigger and bigger and bigger." He's used this for bread and sourdough pancakes. "It's a nice smell -- a little sour, a little alcohol-y," he says.
"I have to run home this afternoon," he adds. "I've got a country bread proofing in the refrigerator."