A few years ago, my sister-in-law told me about a cookbook that she really likes-Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. I bought the big red tome. Honestly, it weighs about fifty pounds, and I can read this thing all the time. I will pull it out on a summer day, sit in the yard, and start sticky-noting recipes. My husband will comment, “Hey, you’re reading your cookbook again!” Bittman is the lead food columnist for the New York Times. I had never read his column before, but I sure love his cookbook. It makes me feel like I can cook anything. It gives me confidence in my rather limited cooking ability. He is so positive, and he also offers all sorts of cultural riffs on his recipes. I like to follow recipes relatively accurately, so I love that he’ll give you Mediterranean, Thai, Indian, or French spins on basic recipes. More often than not, I’ll be able to pull off one of those possibilities with the ingredients that I have on hand.
The Thai coconut soup is a favorite, and, better, yet, my whole family will eat it if I don’t go too crazy with the temperature of the spices. The Manchurian cauliflower is to die for. It’s basically deep-fried cauliflower with a cayenne garlic ketchup sauce, and my daughter and I devour it as soon as it has cooled enough to eat. I crave the homemade vinaigrette; I can’t eat salad dressing from the bottle much any more since I now know that I can ‘emulsify’ my own dressing with just a few ingredients. His peanut sauce recipe is great, and someday I’d love to try his samosas, too. He even got me to believe that I could bake bread from scratch. I’d think to myself, “Hmmm. Mark Bittman thinks that everyone can bake bread! Maybe I can, too!” I do get racked with self-doubt on occasion, and his gentle pep talks, his attitude that cooking isn’t THAT hard, started to infiltrate my stubborn brain.
One chilly fall day, I tried Mark Bittman’s bread recipe, which is based on Jim Lahey’s No-Work Bread. I even put the rocks in the oven and sprayed the bread with water. Honestly, it didn’t turn out. My bread was okay, but it was too crisp and too dense, so I hung up the bread idea for a while.
Then, this winter, it hit me again. A voice from within or above..You need to bake bread. Similar to my thoughts on running, I love the idea of baking bread, but I have baked some horrendously ugly things. I was intimidated.
However, I fondly remember when my mom used to bake white bread when we were kids, and my brother and I would sneak bites of the pillowy white dough. When it came out of the oven, we’d slice thick pieces and slather it with butter. This memory kept me going; I wanted my kids to smell bread baking when they walked in the door from school and to learn how to make it.
I must have been feeling extra domestic, so I decided to try Betty Crocker. Her (also red) cookbook is a go-to for me feeding five of us. Though I love Mark Bittman and his samosa plans, Betty Crocker’s white bread recipe was the ticket for me, especially when I discovered that I could use my Kitchen Aid to knead it. I can set the kitchen timer, stick the ball of bread in my mixer, and let it go for ten minutes, and that was the turning point for me.
Now I bake bread at least once a month, and my daughter Sophie wanders into the kitchen to grab little tastes of the dough. When the bread comes out of the oven, we crowd around and eat warm slices doused in honey or butter. Bread from the grocery store just isn’t the same any more. My go-to bread recipe may not have come from Mark Bittman, but he certainly was the impetus and the inspiration. Hey, if I can bake bread, anyone can bake bread!