Friday, April 24, 2009

A Preacher a Teacher and a Seeker: Peter Reinhart, Flo Braker and Molly Wizenberg

I’ve been pointing my car in the direction of Omnivore Books on Food in San Francisco quite a lot these days. Owner Celia Sack has been hosting quite an amazing group of culinary Rock Stars.

Peter Reinhart

The day I witnessed the ministry of Peter Reinhart I had missed church. But I didn’t need to worry about not listening to a sermon that day.

A group of about 50 of the faithful crowded into the small bookstore to hear Reinhart evangelize about all things related to bread. And we weren’t disappointed. We were regaled with a charming talk on his passion for bread that covered Dante, the Bible, and Mel Brooks.

Along the way we got to hear such fire and brimstone talk such as

“It’s not about the yeast at all – enzymes do all the work – the yeast has to sacrifice itself to the cause!” or
“Bread is better living through chemistry!”

Peter Reinhart is a baking instructor at
Johnson & Wales University in North Carolina. He was the co-founder of the legendary Brother Juniper's Bakery in Sonoma, California, and is the author of five books on bread baking, including Brother Juniper's Bread Book and my personal favorite, The Bread Baker's Apprentice.

But this bread evangelist is so much more: he is also a food consultant, a
pizzeria owner and an inspiration and certainly a testament to the fact that if you pick a profession that gives your life purpose and meaning, you will never lack for energy and never be bored.

I was first introduced to Reinhart's books when the Daring Bakers were challenged to make lavash from his Bread Baker’s Apprentice book. I was immediately taken with his writing style – I felt like he was standing right next to me in the kitchen telling me what and how to do it in an exacting but noncritical way. The Daring Bakers later made pizza from the same book. I had no idea I could toss pizza dough in the air but with Reinhart cheering me on, I now can!

Technically he was at Omnivore to talk about the release of his latest book,
Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor. Reinhart said that with this book, he wanted to show that you could bake whole grain bread that people will actually eat. “My bread recipes in this book really wring all the flavor out of the grain,” said Reinhart.

But the crowd was also treated to about a dozen types of bread that had been prepared for a photo shoot for Reinhart’s new book that will be out in Fall 2009, Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Fast. The smell of chocolate and yeast in the room was intoxicating. The focus of this book is how to produce artisan breads that require minimal effort and time. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “minimal effort and time” applied to bread making!

Reinhart’s enthusiasm and passion for his craft certainly energized the crowd. You could almost hear the crowd hold its breath when he said that after his latest book is released in the fall, he didn’t think he would have anything more to say on the subject of bread.

We collectively released our breath when he then said he hoped to write a book about his adventures in bread making – all his travels and people he had met along the way and how they influenced him to become the person he is today. I know I wasn’t the only one who wished they could pre-order that book.

Flo Braker

My next trip to Omnivore was to hear the amazing Flo Braker speak about her latest masterpiece,
Baking for All Occasions.

As soon as I heard Flo Braker say that she “sugared the bowl of strawberries,” I just knew she must be from my home state of Indiana.

And she was! I know that putting sugar on strawberries sounds like gilding the lily but you really must try it.

As she spoke to yet another filled to capacity room, I felt like I had known Braker for years. She makes you feel like she is speaking just to you and she has the greatest faith in you that you can be a successful baker.

I kept trying to think of one word or even just two that would sum her up but I can’t so here are a few:
Nurturer, Genuine, Artistic, Exacting, Organized, Sharer, Precise, Creative, Unassuming, Curious, Inspirational…….

And I had just met Flo Braker!

Like Peter Reinhart, Braker was one of the early baking pioneers in the SF Bay Area. She began her baking adventures in the 1960s as a self-taught home baker. That led to a career as a baking teacher and as a caterer. In addition to Baking for all Occasions, she is also the author of the indispensible, The Simple Art of Perfect Baking and the adorable and practical Sweet Miniatures, The art of making bite-size Desserts. She also writes a column on baking for the food section of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Braker is also one of the founders of the
Baker’s Dozen – more on that group in an upcoming post.

But Braker didn’t start out to be a professional baker and cookbook author. She didn’t even learn to bake as a child but instead learned what she could by observing the family’s much loved and admired housekeeper and cook, Dorothy Temme, work her magic on pies and cakes and much more.

As a child she was given a chemistry set and as she tells it, spent many hours first perfecting the experiments that came with the set then making up her own. Just like baking – first master the basic recipe then make it your own.

Braker has her undergraduate degree in political science and was thinking of pursuing her law degree. And the baking world is much relieved that she did not!

What comes through when Braker speaks about baking is the simple joy she still has for baking. And her books inspire the same. Braker doesn’t want to keep to herself any of the tricks or techniques she has learned often the hard way, by many many trial and errors in her own kitchen, she wants to share her secrets with the reader.

She not only gives you the techniques you need to be a successful baker, but she also inspires you to put your own mark on it after you have mastered it. After all, as she says in the
Simple Art of Perfect Baking, in our profession you can almost always eat your failures!

Braker spoke with great conviction when she observed that baking is viewed as a precise and exact science. She agrees but also believes that baking has other variables that aren’t so precise and that’s where a baker can bring their own creativity and artistry to the kitchen.

Over and over in her books I would read “bake with love and serve with pride” and that to me is a fitting tagline for anything Flo Braker decides to do.

Molly Wizenberg

Most of you know Molly Wizenberg as
orangette, as her delightful blog on cooking and baking is called.

Molly had been invited to speak at Omnivore about her new book,
A Homemade Life – Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table.

Most of the people in the room, including me, were dying to know how, in just a few years after launching her blog did she:

•become an award winning food blogger

•find herself on a book tour promoting her first book

•be asked to write a monthly column for Bon Appetit without first paying her writing “dues”
•come to be on the verge of opening her first restaurant in Seattle with her dream man who she met, oh yes, when he became a fan of her blog and sent her an email

Now, who wouldn’t want to know the story behind all of that!

Even Molly said, “This all still feels like a big surprise to me and if I repeat my story enough maybe it will start to feel real to me!”

And Molly obliged the crowd by telling us the amazing story of her journey to find out what she should be doing with her life.

Unlike many people who say they want a career that is the right one for them, Molly kept seeking and didn’t settle. It would have been easy for her to go to culinary school. But first she tried an internship at a restaurant. Nope, that didn’t feel right. An editor at one of her school’s journals? Nope.

Molly’s ah ha moment came when she realized that to her, food is about relationships, about interacting with people around a table.

If that was her ah ha moment then her guiding beacon was one that she learned from her father: wake up each morning wanting that day.

In the her book, we get more details and get to follow her from college to Paris to Seattle with a few stops in her home state of Oklahoma. Best of all we get to see her interactions with her beloved father who everyone affectionately called Burg.

And even though it seems like a fairy tale with the proverbial happy ending, this journey had more than its share of detours and of plain old-fashioned hard work.

And not to be overlooked, she is a talented writer.

In her capable hands, a discussion of macaroons becomes: “they were dense, toothachingly sweet, and rich enough to cause hot flashes.” In describing her favorite scone recipe: “when something clicks with me, I want to keep it around. That goes not only for recipes but also for facial cleansers, chocolate, and men.”

As Molly finishes the tale of her journey (so far) I find myself marveling at how such a poised and accomplished individual could ever be uncertain about anything let alone about the big decisions in life.

Truly her hard work and yes, a bit of serendipity led her to where she is today – leading a homemade life.

1 comment:

  1. Patricia- looks like we have been a lot of the same places lately! I too came out to Omnivore for Molly and Flo...and am a BD member! I am sorry I missed Peter Reinhart...though sometimes I agree with one of Molly's sentiments at the reading, and leave bread baking to the experts. :)