I have now taken two bread making classes thanks to whatever entrepreneurial genius is running things at the best deli and bakery in the area (and possibly the world).
Do I know anything about baking bread? Absolutely not.
Do I feel confident enough to attempt to bake bread on my own? Certainly not, which is not good because my sister is expecting an assortment of challah rolls that spell out her name for her birthday.
What did I learn instead? That baking bread is actually super fun, provided someone else measures out all the ingredients ahead of time, preheats the commercial oven for you, and cleans up afterwards. Trust me, whatever it costs to take these classes is worth it for that alone.
My first class was called “Hooray for Challah!”
The bakery provides everything, from an apron to a multi-page handout with all the recipes you’re about to learn, even a pen for taking notes. I had a name tag written in the official font of the entire business, and I may have shrieked a little bit.
We went around the room to introduce ourselves, and the very first lady in the class was a professional chef. She already knew how to bake bread, because that was part of her actual paying job, but she just liked good challah and wanted to learn a surefire recipe.
That was kind of intimidating. I can’t boil water without panicking.
But there was also a family with two young teenagers, and I knew for sure that I could bake a better loaf than those kids.
I didn’t understand algebra in ninth grade. I wore overalls in ninth grade. I could certainly make a loaf of bread better than any ninth grader.
The dad in this family very loudly proclaimed that he was missing a football game to be at this class, and ordered everyone not to spoil the score for him.
I rolled my eyes at the chick next to me in a silent “Oh masculinity, why so fragile?” exchange, but she didn’t notice, because she was transcribing her recipe handout into Mandarin.
Did you have to be that smart to learn how to bake bread? If so, I was in trouble (but the teenagers were in more trouble, so at least I had that).
We spent a good 45 minutes learning how to braid a challah loaf with these handy rope tools that the real actual bakers use. Since I have wasted many valuable minutes of my life wondering how challah braids work, it really freed up some good brain cells to learn that it’s a six braid strand, you need a diagram to figure it out, but the braiding won’t work unless you intone to yourself, “1 becomes 6 and 5 becomes 3 and 3 becomes 1” and so on until you have a loaf of bread. Or a loaf of rope.
We made two challah loaves: the braid, and the turban. Everyone got a tub of rum-soaked raisins to put in their challah turbans. The teenagers got chocolate chips. They were smug and awkward about it in the way that only ninth graders could be.
In ninth grade, I wore overalls because that’s what Julia Roberts wore in the movie Runaway Bride, and she was really into hardware projects and ambivalent about heteronormative marriage ideals, and I thought that was great . . . for reasons that would not become clear until many years later.
I should have asked for chocolate chips in my turban, but I wanted to seem cool in front of the professional chef.
The secret to a good challah is the egg wash. That’s what gives it that color. Most bakers are strapped for time and do one layer of egg wash, but if you want to do it right, you have to do two.
My two challah loaves were so well-received, even by my raisin-hating sister, that they were gone within a day. They were pretty delicious, but they were also baked in a professional oven and monitored for the correct internal temperature.
I have the correct internal temperature written in my notes. I think.
My second class was “Rockin’ Rye!”
This class was a higher degree of difficulty, and when everyone introduced themselves, I was the only one who wasn’t an experienced bread baker. One guy had come all the way from California to take this class, because there’s no good rye bread in California and he’d been having the rye from this very bakery shipped across the country to his home for years, so why not learn their recipe?
Other people had come from various parts of the state, driving two or three hours just to make rye bread. I felt kind of guilty because I only woke up an hour before the class started and I was still early.
During our four-hour class, we made three different loaves of rye bread: pumpernickel, onion rye, and vorterkaker. No, my keyboard did not just sneeze.
Vorterkaker (it’s so fun to say!) is a Scandinavian flatbread. You’re probably thinking, “I love flatbread! Naan, pita bread, tortillas, I’ve never met a flatbread I didn’t like!”
I ate a little piece of the demo vorterkaker (as in made by the professionals! They all have degrees in baking!) and it had the essence of a really good cardboard.
In fact, go bite off a corner of the nearest Amazon box, and you can say you’ve tasted vorterkaker.
Baking rye bread requires two things that my brain does not like—”old,” which is a term for crouton-sized chunks of stale rye bread soaked in water, and rye starter, which is mold. Or it’s essentially mold, it’s more like yeast, I guess? Either way, it looks like this, and does any part of my brain like things that look like this?
This particular starter came from a culture that was 27 years old—older than our instructor. He seemed very excited about that. I was much less excited.
If a lifetime of watching evening news bumpers has taught me one thing, it’s that mold wants to kill us all.
I put my gloppy rye starter and gooey stale bread in the bowl and tried not to flashback to all the times in kindergarten that I came home crying from papier-mâché day. And I went to hippie school, we had a lot of papier-mâché days.
I took a deep breath and pressed on. The flour made quick work of drying things out, thank goodness, and I was ready to knead.
Kneading bread is super fun, but it requires a lot of muscles that I don’t use very often. There’s a very precise technique to it—you want stretch the top of the bread so it naturally forms a smooth skin that’s just tight enough to hold its shape, but not so tight that it’ll crack in the oven.
Between the three loaves of bread, I kneaded for two hours straight. I felt ready to open my own bakery. My muscles would catch up after a few days of non-stop kneading, right? The vorterkaker (it sounds like a swear word but it isn’t!) was pretty easy—more rye sour, some fennel and anise seeds, flour and water. The Scandinavians aren’t exactly working with an ecological bounty up there. The teacher explained that vorterkaker is a very old bread, always made in a disc shape with a hole in the middle, so that farmers could hang them up and eat them throughout the winter, and the Vikings would tie them to their boats and just rip off chunks with their teeth during a voyage.
The Vikings did not care about dental health.
After all that work of kneading and shaping and deciding whether or not to sprinkle poppy seeds on top of the onion rye, we got to relax . . . by making our own rye starter. Yes, this bakery is so hip and on top of it that they will even teach you how to make mold.
It’s just flour and water and onions and magic. Nature is horrifying.
We were given detailed instructions for how to care for our starters. People take this really seriously. A told me that in Denmark, there are bread starter boarding places that will take care of your starter while you’re on vacation.
You have to water your starter and feed it once a week with fresh flour, and then it grows exponentially. You know, like a monster.
The guy from California looked really sad to have to give his rye starter back to the instructor. “It’ll never get past the TSA,” he said.
These loaves came out huge. For scale, the vorterkaker is 16 inches in diameter.
I sent this picture to my parents, and my dad texted back, “I just bit into my iPhone.”
The next day, I took the two loaves and rolled the vorterkaker to my parents’ house for everyone to try (hoping to unload most of it). The vorterkaker got the most attention. My sister’s boyfriend, who will eat anything, loved it.
“Is there fennel in this? I can taste fennel,” he said.
“Me too!” said my mom, and they high-fived.
“Are you sure you like it?” I said. Maybe they were just being nice.
“It’s like hardtack! Like what the pioneers ate on long journeys,” said my mom. “Here, you eat some!”
I have played enough Oregon Trail that I sometimes hunt animated buffalo in my sleep to this day, and even that wasn’t enough to get me to eat this thing.
“How did you do the little dots?” asked my sister. I explained that we each got a special rolling tool covered with metal studs, like a massage roller, or a Play-Doh toy for adults. No wonder it was so satisfying.
So, even though it’s a ton of work and sometimes requires interacting with mold, I’m getting the itch to bake again. There’s a Danish pastry class coming up right after the holidays. Between that and my Scandinavian doorstop bread, we should survive the winter just fine.