A Friend in Knead

A piece of bread on a wooden cutting board for the writing '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 that I was genetically predisposed to want to go to the prom with her brother rather than with her. Understandably steamed, she gave me an astonishingly icy shoulder for weeks. She eventually softened, in no short thanks to my inimitable charm and fashion 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, which swept the Internet and spawned two books. I was extraordinarily curious. I bought a copy of Lahey’s My Bread, pulled out my Le Creuset, and baked. And baked some more—yet my boules looked 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 weren’t built for simple carbohydrates, but the idea of pulling plump boules and tangy pain au levain from the oven persisted. One particular fantasy that has played out in my imagination since 1995, when I began baking, is pulling off a 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 playing peekaboo with dusty mitres 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 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 had 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 oven to 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 relentlessly badgered me 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 six-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 a little 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 that 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 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 an astoundingly rare and elusive 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-lined 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—but not me.

Remember, 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 turned.

Artisan Bread Collection

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.

Bacon, Cheese and Pepper Couronne

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 oven-side conversion, with all the attendant folderol befitting a convert of the first order. I’ve finally cast aside my childish fears and have come to see that bread is the one true way to enlightenment. I may even have 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. Originally published February 27, 2014.

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. 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.

    1. 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….

      1. I’d do bodily harm to people with bad taste in shoes for a proofing setting in my oven.

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

    1. 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.)

  3. 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!

    1. 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.

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