Saturday, 2 August 2014

A taste of things to come

OK friends. I'll just be blunt: I have been a Bad Blogger. Not only have I not posted any recipes in more than a year (a year!), I have been terrible about keeping up with emails and social media. Despite what that evidence might suggest, I'm still here. And still baking. Definitely baking. In the meantime there have some pretty big changes - some hard ones, but some exciting ones too. I don't often like to stray too far from recipe-related things in posts, but under these circumstances, some explanation seems pretty relevant. (And then we'll get back to bread.) 
In case you need proof: bread. Specifically, sourdough rolls.

Some things emerged a while back which forced me to reassess...well, pretty much everything. At first I thought I wouldn't really go into it here - after all, this is a baking blog, not a what-am-I-doing-with-my-life blog. Yet on the other hand, it felt like unless I could be open about those things, I just wasn't being honest. Every time I tried to put it all aside and just make a post about bread, it became glaringly obvious that the supposedly-personal stuff was just too big to avoid. Not to mention, with all that was going on, sometimes there weren't many recipes to post anyway - baking, unfortunately, became very infrequent for a while. 

In any case, I should probably stop being vague and just get to the point: Some long-time readers may remember the other time I've written about something totally off-topic here. In the weeks following that post, I was caught off-guard by the number of supportive and encouraging emails I received from so many people I've never even met. (To everyone who I didn't manage to reply to directly, I want to take this opportunity to say a public (ridiculously overdue) "thank you" - your messages really meant a lot to me.) Anyway, as I learned later that year, I do in fact have the disorder my doctor suspected. It wasn't exactly a surprise, but it still felt a bit strange and surreal seeing the results from the geneticist. The diagnosis was a relief, in a strange way - I had my answer, and although the condition is a major pain to deal with sometimes (both literally and figuratively), it is fairly manageable on the grand scale of things. And I am not at risk of the super-scary complications which come up with one particular sub-type of the disorder, which was a huge relief to find out. Yet after a while, I noticed the weight on my mind was much heavier than I'd initially thought. Accepting the situation wasn't such a problem, at least not in theory. The hard part - the thing I didn't anticipate - was adjusting to actually living with it, with the knowledge that it's not going to go away. Getting on with my life while running on half the energy one would expect to have at my age (plus the chronic pain) - that's a lot more difficult than just accepting the idea of having a disorder. As the prospect sank in more fully, I got a bit overwhelmed by it all. 

Baking, like all things, took energy - of which there was already not enough to go around. There were bigger, more long-term things that needed doing, so I had to compromise somewhere - thus, as I mentioned above, baking got repeatedly pushed aside. I hated not having time for something I was so passionate about, but it was just a hobby, right? Making bread wouldn't lead to a degree or a career. These other things were more pressing, more "important." 
And then it hit me. These plans I was trying to stick to were ones I made when I didn't know I'd need to account for the effects of a chronic condition, and my stubbornness was keeping me from seeing the bigger picture. Things weren't going to go back to that particular normal - if I felt like there wasn't room for baking now, I certainly wasn't going to suddenly find extra time for it while I was focused on a thesis or an internship. Sure, I'd be able to make things here and there so we could have decent bread and such at home, but actual in-depth methodical recipe development - the thing that got me interested in food science in the first place - would generally need to wait. Would that kind of compromise really be worth it? What's more, were the things I'd been aiming for even realistic at this point in time? Reluctantly, I admitted I had to acknowledge the possibility that maybe the direction I'd been heading was not currently sustainable. I would need to make some choices.

This all makes a bit more sense if I take a moment to mention that for a long time, I'd been occasionally musing about turning the food-science research and baking experience I'd gathered into something bigger. Wondering, for instance, if I might eventually put together a cookbook, or once in a while when studying got especially frustrating, making jokes about how I should just go start a bakery instead (and then daydreaming for a few moments about whether that could actually work). It was always just a "maybe someday" kind of idea, not any specific plan. And when I'd been working on the assumption that baking would have to wait, that vague possibility seemed even more remote. Now, though, as I really critically examined things, what had started as a whim began to grow into an idea I was seriously considering. 

So, gradually, I began to bake again. Now that I'd officially made it a priority, I could take the time to really focus on a recipe, and fine-tune it until it was right. The results got better and better. Especially the bread. The taste, the texture - it was even obvious just looking at them that these new breads were even better than any I'd made before. But they're different in some more essential ways too. 

You see, in the process of all this baking, my bread has evolved. Not just the results - the whole process has changed. It's not like my older recipes and techniques. As far as I know, it's not like anyone's recipes or techniques. It's still developing, but I can see that it has the potential to grow into a distinct style of breadmaking, involving steps and properties which are specific to bread made from these ingredients - and that's a good thing. These loaves pictured are not adaptations of other recipes, or GF "versions" of existing bread varieties; this bread has many familiar qualities, but it also has defining characteristics of its own. And it's definitely not a "substitute for the real stuff" or a "replacement" for bread. This is real bread. (I have some pretty strong feelings about this distinction after encountering some opinions that GF bread can't be "real," but that's for another post.) 

Yup, pretty sure this counts as real bread.

Something it does share with many existing styles of bread, though, is that a recipe is not just a recipe - it is a craft, requiring not only attention and ingredients, but also skills and methods which in some cases take a good bit of practice and experience. Several books put out by experienced traditional bakers in the past few years - and the blogs and online communities which go through them recipe by recipe - have proved that plenty of people do want to put that kind of time and effort into a really great loaf of bread, and maybe even find it fun. But many people, even people who generally enjoy baking, don't exactly enjoy monitoring long multi-stage fermentations and maintaining sourdough starters and getting the hang of tricky shaping processes. My breads aren't any more difficult than those traditional artisan-style loaves, but there are a lot of steps compared to what you'd normally expect from a GF recipe, and some of the processes are pretty unusual. Especially since gluten-free baking can be already intimidating enough for some people, I always hesitate to post recipes that are particularly complicated. I started this blog partly with the hope that I could make genuinely good gluten-free food seem at least a little bit more accessible to everyone. I know a number of people who end up on this site are new to baking, and I definitely don't want to scare people away with recipes that look overwhelmingly involved.

Of course that, by itself, is no reason to keep a good recipe to myself. I know there are plenty of people who would find it easily worth the effort, even if a few might consider the recipe somewhat formidable. Bread this good needs to be shared. 

Here's the thing, though: as I said, some of what I've been doing is different - really different. Some of the baking techniques I've been developing...well, let's just say that if anyone else is doing these same things, I haven't come across anything about it. In other words, these breads aren't simply good - they are really something special, and possibly even truly original. 

When we get overly focused on trying to make something turn out "just like the normal kind," we miss out on so many wonderful results that use unique properties of our flours. It took me far too long to realize that if, rather than combining ingredients with the aim to make something nearly indistinguishable from the food I remembered, and instead started using ingredients in ways that actually placed emphasis on their unique qualities, I could create something just as delicious yet also distinctly different. Not only that - I could create something people enjoy specifically because of its differences. As much as people like familiarity, so many of the foods we love are the result of taking an ordinary concept and giving it a fresh regional, personal, or cultural twist. You end up with something that's familiar enough to be undoubtedly delicious, yet different enough to earn a separate place of its own.

Approaching baking with this new philosophy has helped solidify my decision to turn this from just a hobby into something greater. That's partly what I've been working on all this time - trying to decide what exactly that means and how to go about it. The bread recipes are only one element of it, but their originality is crucial to being able to make these plans a reality. I hope you'll understand, then, why I hesitate to post any of the recipes at this point in time. As much as I'd love to share these breads with everyone, I think the wisest choice is to keep certain things as "secret recipes," at least for now. The wait will be worth it.

So what does this mean for the blog?

Well, for one thing, there will still be other recipes that I can happily share. I plan to update the blog much more frequently now that I've reached some decisions about which recipes I can post and which ones are essential to keep under wraps. Unfortunately that means there may not be new yeast bread recipes for a while, until I can figure out the best thing to do about that. (Hopefully sooner than later!) There will also be a lot more chances to talk in depth about techniques and information that are useful for gluten-free baking. There are some questions about techniques, substitutions, and recipe conversion that I see a lot, both in emails and around the internet in general, so I will also be devoting some posts to these questions specifically - there will be an FAQs section so those posts can be found all in one place. 

I'm really excited about the bigger projects I have planned. I can't go into detail about the specifics just yet, but I will definitely be able to post updates as things develop further! And, of course, I can post plenty of pictures - I know it's not as good as a recipe, but while I'm working on the rest of it, I still want to share these breads in some way at least. 
Sourdough loaf shown above, sliced.


  1. Meg, it was nice to see a post on your blog again! I've checking back hoping you were feel well enough to bake and create again. I'm glad to hear you now have a firm diagnosis and are moving forward with re-defining your life. Your mysterious plans sound exciting. They wouldn't involve a bakery in the South Sound area of Washington State by any chance?! Gosh, that would be so nice; real artisanal bread again! That's definitely something I miss. A person can dream, huh! Best wishes.

  2. Hi!! I my this bread looks like what I've been dreaming about for YEARS!! I love baking artisanal breads before my gluten allergy forced me to go GF and with 3 kids under 6 at home, I really haven't had much time to experiment with making my own sponges or sourdough starters! I'd LOVE to hear more about your methods and see some of these fabulous looking bread recipes! :)

  3. I haven't been reading blogs for ages, so just came across this today. I'm glad you have a diagnosis and just want to remind you that you are a gf genius! Whatever direction you're taking, I hope your amazing palate and curiosity take you places you want to go. Don't wear yourself out on the way though! X x x