I used to teach in residential treatment and also in the public school system. I could tell if I was getting through to my wee charges by the looks on their faces, by their Level of Bounce and by their engagement. I was constantly scanning the whole class like The Terminator (but nicer. And human) to assess engagement. And if I saw it slipping, I’d alter my course to draw them back in. Some days, all it took was a bit more animation in my voice. Other times, I’d come up with games on the spot or spontaneous hands-on demonstrations or puppet shows or role playing. Or pretty much whatever it was that would suck them into The Learning Process. In Teacher Talk, I had a lot of tools in my tool box.
Teachers have to be flexible. They have to be able to alter course at the drop of a hat. Not to change the subject, but to present a subject in a different, more interesting way. They have to be able to recognize when things are starting to go Off the Rails and make the proper course corrections. Or, if they realize there is no stopping the derailing, to at least be able to control the crash so none of the kids realizes that they bombed out.
Of course, there’s no Mystical Teacher Flow Chart out there that tells you that if A doesn’t work, try this particular B. And then, the logical next step would be a Bessemer maneuver. (OK, that’s not a real thing. I just made it up for Illustrative Purposes). Anyway, the point is, you learn how to Deal with Mishaps by just teaching. Get in there and do your thing. Sure, you’ve got pedagogy to back you up, but when the Sensible Shoe meets the Vinyl Floor, you have to translate the Book Learnin’ into real, meaningful, nimble teaching. (Whether that is even possible in the public schools these days is a whole other story, but that’s kind of beside the point of this post).
Optimally, the longer you teach, the more tools you try out. The ones that work you stick in your Teacher Tool Kit. The ones that don’t you Discard. And you become more and more confident that you can get your Point across. Because when you were a green teacher, you’d end up crying in the supply closet because your felt board activity crashed and burned before it even got off the ground. But you soldiered on to the end because, Dammit, it was In Your Lesson Plan.
If you need a sports metaphor–not my strong suit–call it a Deep Bench. And, for a cooking metaphor, say you have a lot of knives in your kit, a lot of spices in your drawer, etc.
But, it all means the same thing: in order to become confident cooks and to know that, even if things go a little (or a lot) south, you have to have a lot of tools in your toolbox. You have to be flexible, take cues from the food you’re cooking and Adjust Course as necessary. Problem is (or one of them, anyway) is that while teachers have the “luxury” of working on their craft on a daily basis–you know, because it’s their job–home cooks don’t get to do things over and over and over again until they perfect them. The family has to eat, so if a recipe doesn’t work, it’s best to Leave It and move on to another recipe.
So, whose responsibility is it to teach folks how to cook? Or does the modern home cook only have the time to follow a recipe to the letter without generalizing the techniques involved to other similar dishes? I don’t really know. I’ll continue to preach techniques and methods over recipes, and hopefully the folks who keep coming back will internalize that message.
Anyway, the whole point of this is how I was able to (read: needed to) use all my tools to rescue a Serious Culinary Misstep. I’m sharing this in the hope that the next time you have a recipe that Goes Awry, you’ll be able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. At the very least, hopefully you’ll feel better about yourself after reading about That Effing Bread.
Commandment One in the Gospel of Yeast is “Trust that your yeast is alive, but verify.” That Verifying is called Proofing. You’re proving it’s alive by providing it with a bit of warmth, liquid and food in the form of warm water and a pinch of sugar. Then, you stand back and wait for the bubbles. I break this commandment on a regular basis. My yeast is generally fresh-ish, and given enough time, it generally comes to life and does its thing. Except not this particular time.
I mixed up the sponge and let it sit. Forever. It stared at me. Sullenly. I poked it. It didn’t even care. So, after about 8 or so hours of this, I went ahead and finished the dough. At the same time, I added some more yeast. And it still just stared at me. It maybe took a wee sip of air, but that was about it. So then, I decided that I would add some more water to give what yeasties there were some Room to Work. I had poured the dead yeast down the drain in a Fit of Pique, and all I had was some dried brewers’ yeast. But any yeast in a storm, says I, so in it went along with a couple of ounces of water.
That actually did the trick. The yeasties started yeasting and the bread started rising. I probably should have let it work several more hours, but I went ahead and shaped the loaves. It took them about 5 hours to double. Then, after a total of about 30 hours lost to the dough, I went ahead and baked it. It did give me a bit of oven spring, and I was Tentatively Joyful, but Alack, I rejoiced too soon. I took the bread’s temperature, and it was only at about 150F (in bread, I look for between 200F-210F), so I tossed both loaves back in and continued baking. I covered them, but the outsides got really dark and for some reason, even after a Very Long Time in the oven, the internal temperature never rose above about 175F. I have no idea why. Too dense? Maybe.
We ate one of the loaves, and the flavor was really good. As you can imagine, the insides were slightly underdone, and the top crust just wanted to fall away from the rest of the loaf. Overall, the bread was pretty much a fail in the texture and looks department.
I have no one to blame but myself, of course. I mean, if you’re gonna break the commandments, every once in awhile, you’re gonna have a little taste of hell, right? I did, however, learn some Items that I think might be helpful to you.
- Follow the commandments (maybe not every single time if you bake bread frequently, but at least once a month if you don’t bake a lot of bread). Prove to yourself that your yeast is still kicking.
- Keep your yeast in the fridge or freezer. I do, and it definitely improves the shelf life.
- Most times (not this time), given enough time, your yeast will do its thing.
- If your first Yeasting doesn’t take, you can probably do another without having to trash your whole recipe. Just proof your yeast first.
- A long, slow rise is almost always preferable to a short but impressive rise. You’ll have a chewier bread and a much fuller flavor.
- Even under-baked bread isn’t a total loss. There’s always bread pudding.
Oh yeah, about that bread pudding? I’ll tell you how I made mine–and provide a template so you can make whatever kind you like–probably on Thursday. Until then, be not discouraged by failures, culinary or otherwise. I almost always learn more from my mistakes than I do from my First-Time-Out-Successes. Lessons are more constructive than pats on the back.
And if you’re a home cook who feels like there just isn’t enough time to delve deeply into the techniques and methods, start to pay a bit more attention to the instruction section of your recipes. I’m willing to bet that you’ll start seeing a lot of similarities among instruction lists.
What else do you think a recipe can provide that could help you learn to be a better cook, not just be successful with that particular recipe?
And with that, I bid you all a Fond Farewell. I hope you have a wonderful Independence Day (or Wednesday, if you’re not in the US), and I will see you later. Thanks for reading, and have a lovely day.