A Friend in Knead

Alas, bread has been less forgiving of me than even my high school girlfriend. During the last few sun-dappled months of senior year, she came to realize I was genetically predisposed to want to go to our prom with her brother rather than with her. Understandably steamed, she gave me an astonishingly icy shoulder for weeks. She softened eventually, in no short thanks to my inimitable charm and style tips, and we remained friends. But my relationship with bread? Forgive the pun, but it hasn’t been so cut-and-dried. From the very beginning of my cooking days, I’ve been inexplicably drawn to desserts and attracted to savories. On the other hand, baking creations of the yeasted kind terrified me. Then came Jim Lahey’s miraculous no-knead bread recipe and its breathless promise of perfect boules that swept the Internet and spawned two books. I was extraordinarily curious. I bought a copy, pulled out my Le Creuset, and baked. And baked some more, yet my boules look more like Middle Eastern flatbreads. It felt as if bread had a vendetta against me, as if it was punishing me for my dalliances with puff pastry, cakes, and cookies the size of coffee saucers.

A saner and far less hungry person than I might have looked upon this as a sign from On High that perhaps my belly and my ass aren’t built for simple carbohydrates. But the idea of pulling plump boules and tangy levain from the oven persisted. One particular fantasy that has played out in my imagination since 1995, when I began baking, is pain d’epi, the classic French wheat-stalk-shaped baguette. Its perky left-right tilts always remind me of a line of Busby Berkeley chorines (below) playing peekaboo with dusty miters on their heads.

I desperately wanted to be un Français and walk about New York with a homemade pain d’epi wrapped in brown paper tucked pretentiously beneath my arm. But baguette-making techniques simply left me cold, so I’d settled for making crêpes, coq au vin, and tarte tatin to satisfy my Francophilia.

Then Christine Chronis entered my life.

For years, my dear friend Christine has prattled on in near zealot-like style about Zöe François’s and Jeff Hertzberg’s book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Christine has long boasted that she’s converted dazed and confused non-bread bakers, including, among others, her accordion teacher, her vegan daughter and her vegan boyfriend, a Canadian acquaintance, several agnostics, and a younger, handsomer, and more talented man who is now in my crosshairs as a rival for Christine’s bounteous affections. Little did Christine know that for this voraciously carnivorous, tone-deaf, lapsed Catholic with competition issues, this was hardly a ringing endorsement.

Christine has a summer home on Mount Desert Island, and in 2011 she invited The One and me to visit for the first time. She was more than aware of my aforementioned misadventures with le pain and apparently felt it was her duty to disabuse me of my notions. Unbeknownst to us, she timed–to the very second–our lunch of a vegetable torte and tuna-and-tomato pasta with the carrying aloft of a warm loaf of homemade deli rye bread straight from the oven to the table. Then she watched, with barely concealed satisfaction, as I polished off nearly the entire loaf.

And that’s when La Propagande du Pain began in earnest. “David Leite, if there’s one thing you’re going to learn before you leave this island, it’s how to make bread,” she chided. I smiled politely as I licked my index finger and picked up errant rye seeds dotting the table. Our friendship was new and I was still pretending to be well-mannered. It’s a leap of faith, my being well-mannered, I realize that, but it’s true.

Throughout our stay, Christine badgered me relentlessly to join her at the kitchen counter. And each time I found something far more important to do, such as hunt down that schizy squirrel in her attic, clean out the trunk of our car, even feign sleeping. But what finally did me in was my penchant for plastic organizing containers, especially those of the Rubbermaid sort. Christine waggled a 6-quart bucket with a margarine-yellow snap-on lid at me and I was a goner. (Little did she know, all she had to do was throw in a bright-red pencil box with adjustable dividers and I would’ve been her male concubine for life.)

“This,” she said, pointing with her cigaretted hand to the bucket dangling in front of her, “is where you’ll make the best bread of your life.”

Bereft of excuses and on the receiving end of The Death Ray Look from The One, I reluctantly shuffled over to Christine’s KitchenAid and watched as she scooped in some flour, sprinkled in the yeast and salt, and splashed in water. Several minutes of mixing later, she scraped a ragged dough into the plastic bucket and covered it. That was it. It was all so fast, so intense, so thrilling, I nearly craved a cigarette myself. She planted a wrist on her hip–her hands were webbed with sticky wet dough–and a you-can’t-get-out-of-this-one smirk spread across her face. “Now, you try to tell me you can’t do that!”

I suddenly thought of my Instagram feed, which had all manner of elaborate tarts, pies, grills, and roasts I’ve made. “I’m sure you’re so fast because you’ve been doing it for years,” I said, attempting a compliment. She threw her duck hands up in the air in exasperation. I looked at the ceiling for globs of sticky dough. “It’s called Artisan Bread in FIVE MINUTES A DAY for a reason..!” she huffed, as if I was two sandwiches short of a picnic.

That’s when I knew I’d lost. Thanks to a lifetime of run-ins with Mama Leite, I long ago realized that when an immovable object (namely, me) meets that astoundingly rare and illusive creature who is an immovable object more immovable than I (note, this is almost always a female), it’s best for my manly bits and bobs to just give in. So there in the middle of Christine’s kitchen, with its view of Bass Harbor, I accepted that there was nothing left to do but be led down that carbohydrate path to hell called the big-and-tall-men’s department at Sears by this fiercely passionate, intelligent, formidable woman.

Throughout the week, we made all sorts of loaves together, and they were, indeed, as advertised: fast and artisanal. And with every bite into each warm loaf, I felt myself buckle, it was that good. On our last day, Christine handed me my very own Rubbermaid bucket. Inside was a new copy of the book plus several sheets of notes, tips, and errata for making all her favorite breads. For most people, this would have been the perfect dénouement to the tale—a friend’s persistence and love turning recalcitrant me into a bread-making machine.

Remember, though, I’m the grand and illustrious immovable object. In that bucket is pretty much where the bread baking book sat for two years. (Yes, I’m aware that I’m glacially slow to do something someone asks me to do. And, yes, I’m even more aware that there is a psych ward’s worth of control issues raging here. But at the age of 53 I believe I’ve earned the right to say, “I really don’t give a rat’s ass.”)

What did get me started baking bread was our trip to MDI to see Christine this past August, in which she simply refused to hound me. (Yes, now you know my secret: If you ever want me to do anything for you, ask and never bring it up again. Let me think it’s my idea, and I’m a slobbering puppy.) And into a bread-making machine I have turned.

Since August, I’ve made deli rye (check out that beauteous photo at the top of this page) and (above, starting from the left, white boule, seeded white, my longed-for pain d’epi, pretzel rolls, whole wheat, more whole wheat, sandwich loaf, and sourdough rye.

My latest and greatest is my Bacon, Cheese, and Black Pepper Couronne (above). And these are just the loaves I’ve photographed. Add to them the warm bread I’ve sent home with my assistant, Annie; given to my mail carrier; off-loaded onto unsuspecting guests; turned into bread pudding and croutons; and, when I’ve simply had enough, whizzed in the food processor into bird food.

Yes, I am now one of Christine’s rank and file. An acolyte. I guess you could say I’ve had an ovenside conversion, with all the attendant folderol befitting a convert of the first order. I’ve finally cast aside my childish fears about bread and have come to see that bread is the one true way to enlightenment. I may have even had visions of a luminescent Christine clutching an armful of baguettes while standing in a cloud of softly risen dough. But then again, that may have been a carb-fueled insulin stupor brought on by too many slices of homemade sourdough toast.

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Comments
Comments
  1. Karen Depp says:

    Oh David! If I were not laughing so hard I would be crying. You have found my inner demon – I canNOT bake! But you have so inspired me that I am going to make another attempt today (and for Cindi Kruth, I promise NOT to show pictures until I get it right!) and make a Couronne. Just think – you have turned the corner with the famous King Cakes and led us into the savory Kingdom – HA! yes, pun intended. And I, for one, am really happy. It will be so much more fun to nibble on your version with our Prosecco than the usual and customary Sugar Overdose Color Challenged Super Stuffed things that are walking around as King Cakes these days! Bake On!

    PS What shall I hide in this version instead of that cute Pepto Pink Plastic baby?

    • David Leite says:

      Karen, the couronne will set you free. And if you’re headed into the Savory Kingdom of Bread Heaven, I suggest some sort of bauble from Harry Winston.

  2. “Heavens to Betty St. George!” my Granma Ruth would say. Mr. Leite, you are a wonder. Fabulous.

  3. Beth says:

    This post makes me happier than well-proofed yeast!

    Another gem, David!

  4. lynn says:

    Your breads are lovely! I have been a homemade bread convert ever since my (late, great) grandma, Nana, sent me a bread machine about 15 years ago. I’m now on machine # 2, and while some of the more crunchy crowd might claim that bread machine bread doesn’t count, I get the same soaring joy you do of that wonderful yeasty smell and the best bites of bread I’ve ever tasted, slathered with butter and . . . oh now I just must go make some. I’ve not made bread in a ring shape for years (last time was an Easter loaf, complete with colored eggs nestled in the loaf here and there) and now I’m off to Wikipedia to see what, exactly, is couronne. Thanks for sharing your yummy breads. Inspiring.

    • David Leite says:

      Thank you, lynn. And LC is a no-judgment zone, so if any of the crunchy crowd comes along and rains on your loaf, I’ll just exercise my right to hit the “delete” button. (Hey, I never said my blog was a democracy, right?!)

  5. David, I’ve been making bread since I was a young girl, so I’ve never understood the fear and trepidation it so often causes. Glad you conquered! Your breads look beautiful. And once you see just how very therapeutic kneading can be, you’ll want to add hand-kneaded breads to your schedule regularly! :D

    • David Leite says:

      Yeah, some people just have the bread gene from birth. I may be late to the party, but I sure as hell am staying late.

  6. Helen Doberstein says:

    Wow, your conversion is so much funnier and more dramatic than mine was. I was just too lazy to drag out the bread maker again. What a great story. But ain’t it great, fresh bread almost at your fingertips? I have to restrain myself to baking bread only once every month or two or I would not fit through the door. Now you say bacon and cheese in the bread? I hear a Rubbermaid container calling me,

    • David Leite says:

      That’s me…funny and dramatic. I simply just can’t help it. And, Helen, you said: there’s nothing like having fresh-baked bread at your fingertips whenever you want. My only problem? I have homemade butter at those same fingertips. The lips say yes, but the hips say no. (Guess who wins?)

  7. Susan says:

    David, you are so lucky to have had an undaunted friend to drag your defiant butt into the kitchen to make you learn. Not much of a bread-side manner, but she is who she is because you are who you are! I my case, I felt ashamed that everyone on the internet was baking bread, in love with Peter Rhinehardt and Jim Lahey, and were passing me by talking bread lingo that I just didn’t understand. I waded through bread books that I swear were written in Greek (much like I thought the Joy of Cooking was written in Greek when I first tried my hand at cooking) and finally came to the conclusion that it need not be so fussy. People have been doing it for generations so why not me? You only have to be smarter than yeast, right? I can be that! I finally relaxed and got it figured out. Thank God for food bloggers and the internet. I have really learned to cook and bake from all you folks. Thank you!

    • David Leite says:

      Susan, well, my butt has been called many things, but I don’t think it has ever been called “defiant.” And, oh, how I cracked up at “bread-side manner.” Touché. Even Christine laughed at that.

      And what a lovely thing to say about learning from bloggers, thank you very much. I’ve learned many thing from my readers, too. TRUST me.

    • Susan – Thank you for putting the blame for some of my less attractive behavior where it belongs–on David.

  8. Michelle says:

    What a beautiful setting to make bread in. My mom has a place in Southwest Harbor, I love it there!

    • David Leite says:

      Michelle, indeed it is. And Christine’s place has a view smack dab up the middle of Bass Harbor. (I actually prefer to be in her house rather than our rental when we go to Maine.)

  9. KitchenBeard says:

    My dear Mr. Leite,

    I too have a horrible track record with bread. From culinary school to the present day, the chances of me actually making a serviceable loaf are quite low.

    I bake bread when I have time with the hope that this time it will work. Drafty San Francisco apartments aren’t really great for warm proofing dough. One day it occurred to me me that a barely preheated oven would serve as a perfect proofing box. If I turned on the oven to its lowest setting while made my dough, I could just turn off the heat and let the dough rise in the residual heat. I dumped the afore mentioned dough in a cambro tub and popped it into the oven feeling quite pleased with my ingeniousness. 20 minutes later it dawned on me that I had neglected to do one thing… to turn off the oven. I bounded into the kitchen and yanked open the oven just in time to witness the green cambro lid collapse into the dough which caused a chain reaction and the whole thing collapsed into itself in an oozing green and plastic mess that piled up on the oven floor.

    These days I let my dough rise on top of the toaster oven where it can’t hurt anyone.

    • David Leite says:

      My Dearest Mr. KitchenBeard, I know from whence you speak. The only difference between you and me is that you have the good sense to remember you’ve left flammable items in your oven. I’ve slid in plastic containers, wooden cutting boards, and sundry other items that never should see the inside of an oven.

      On top of that, being the impatient person that I am, I usually set the oven to 400 degrees for a few minutes before placing said dough to proof. Invariably it’s those times when I forget to turn off the oven and crack open the door.

      Luckily my new KitchenAid wall ovens have a bread proofing setting. But I find I still need to turn it all off after five minutes, because it still gets a little too hot.

      What we do for love….

  10. Damian Park says:

    Christine (my grandmother) also converted me. I rarely buy bread anymore and mostly rely on the rye recipe which I made at Mount Desert Island a couple years ago. And I have a half a convert under me as well. We could call this a pyramid scheme except no money changes hands, and everyone is better off.

    • David Leite says:

      Hello Damian! I love the rye recipe. And your grandmother makes a killer loaf. Yes, I think of Christine as the Amway Grain Goddess of the Great American Carbohydrate Pyramid.

      (What do you think we have to do to get the Grain Goddess to comment here?)

  11. Liz Stein says:

    Christine made me get a copy, too, and coincidentally I just made a loaf yesterday. My husband and son gobbled it down. It’s the flavor, as well as the ease; I’ve made sourdough, I’ve made yeast bread, I’ve made Lahey’s recipe, but nothing tastes as good as this bread. And you can’t beat it for ease.

    PS: Christine and my sister spent three days perfecting popovers. She does have a way with her, doesn’t she?

    • David Leite says:

      Liz!! Yes, I think Christine should ask Zöe and Jeffery for commission. She has turned so many of us onto the book. And popovers. And popovers! She made them once for me. Delicious.

  12. David, we are forever grateful for Christine’s kitchen, where she dragged the likes of you into the world of bread baking. She is clearly a gifted teacher; your loaves are the most stunning I’ve ever seen. I need to get my hands on one of those popovers too!

  13. CANONIZED! Without having to die first. Or perform any miracles, though David’s conversion may count as one. What could be better. And what a pleasure to see some of my disciples chime in here.

    [These are picture of Christine's vegetable torte and her popovers.--ed.]

    Popovers Vegetable Torte

  14. Toni Wynn says:

    I suppose it would be copyright infringement to sub Christine’s photo for Ruby Keeler’s in the Busby Berkeley clip…

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