Life-Changing Cookbooks: Nancy Silverton’s Breads from La Brea Bakery

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We all agreed the arrangement was temporary. My parents took their disappointment in stride as their rudderless 20-year-old daughter moved back into her childhood bedroom. And while I appreciated their patience with me, I was not angling to get settled in. My hometown was too small and familiar to contain the grand but vague aspirations I had for drinking life to the lees. The idea was to cobble together a coherent plan for this lee-drinking instead of bumbling haphazardly into another imploded venture.

The primary imploded venture had been college, where I had excelled in an independent curriculum of locating the best used cassette tapes and CDs at the many record stores up and down High Street. Mastering this skill necessitated missing many of my classes at Ohio State University, none of which had held my attention, anyway—academia was long on theory and short on action.

Freshly returned and defeated, I quickly got a job shrink-wrapping gift baskets of gourmet pasta, but it left many other hours in the week to fill. Marietta was never teeming with cosmopolitan amusements; in high school, my friends and I went hedge-diving and plundered the dumpster in the parking lot of the Goodwill for fun, but I was ready for pursuits of greater consequence, and the majority of those old friends were off at elite universities, chipping away at their degrees with maturity and focus.

And so to fill those hours, I cooked. Always an enthusiastic eater, I’d also enjoyed messing around in the kitchen as a kid, and it was a luxury to be able to cook meals after so much bland dorm food. My mother brought home unsold copies of Saveur that the proprietress of the wine shop in town had given her—they all had an inch or two stripped from the tops of their front covers—and to occupy myself, I read every word of them from start to finish and then back again, starting with Issue #10. The magazine introduced the idea that food could be a gateway to other worlds, rather than something you put in yourself to plug up a gaping hole.

That had been a problem before, the hole. Sometimes I’d overfilled the hole and would have to do a manual override to get the food out. It was always the same culprits: ice cream, packaged cookies, salty restaurant-style tortilla chips. Stuff that happened to be around, ready to eat immediately after opening the package so there was no delay to getting that fleeting sense of gratification. It was an impulse I’d managed to tamp in down in recent months, but it tended to flare up when I felt disconnected and inconsequential, and I could sense it lurking in some dark corner of the house, gathering its strengths to reassert itself.

But the Saveur issues told of long-simmered rustic Mexican stews and savory Tuscan tarts filled with foraged greens. It was food that required work, time. I had time in spades.

I raided the shelves of the library, hauling home the cookbooks that looked the most interesting (before the Internet, a burgeoning gourmet needed to be a self-starter). One of them was Cooking with Master Chefs, a companion to the PBS series hosted by Julia Child, and it contained a section titled “Rustic Breads with Nancy Silverton”. To bake those rustic breads, it was first necessary to make a sourdough starter.

I’d baked bread before, though nothing too ground-breaking: knobby hot cross buns, wan pizza dough. In town, Brownie Bakery sold a pretty decent pumpernickel and excellent pepperoni rolls of squishy white bread encasing pencil-thin lengths of pepperoni, but that was the extent of my specialty breads vocabulary. I saw the photos of Nancy Silverton’s charred and blistered breads, their rounded shapes unfamiliar, a white dusting of floury residue baked onto their surfaces. I knew I need to not only add them to my vocabulary, but become fluent in the language.

I went to the bookstore downtown and ordered Nancy Silverton’s Breads from La Brea Bakery. It was to be my primer, giving me a singular focus that the Saveur issues could not. Silverton made her starter by submerging a cheesecloth bundle of crushed red grapes in a slurry of flour and water. The yeast occurring naturally on the skin of the grapes helped spring the starter into action, and after a two-week feeding schedule that wavered somewhere between a goldfish and a newborn baby in terms of its demands, I had a bubbly and robust starter, smelling delightful and unusual, in a gigantic jar that had once held fruit cocktail.

Finally, I could make Silverton’s “rustic bread.” The slack and blobby dough, so unlike the stiff stuff for the hot cross buns I’d once dumped two packages of Fleishmann’s in, flummoxed me, and the shapeless loaves I stumbled through making emerged from the oven with a thick brown crust and interior crumb rivalling Karst topography, all cavernous air pockets and scattered gluten strands stretching like spindly columns. I delivered loaves to neighbors, who received them with puzzled thanks. “It’s wonderful, but it’s a little flat,” they all said. Silverton’s rustic bread was “what Italians call ciabatta, or ‘slipper bread’,” she wrote. In 1996, ciabatta had over a decade to go before stale, cottony miniature versions of it became popular ersatz stand-ins for hamburger buns at brewpubs across the country.

The loaves of rustic bread and the gurgling vat of starter transcended the psychological confines of my parents’ kitchen. Newly empowered, I had gallons of starter to burn through and dozens of recipes in the book to try.

Silverton’s specificity appealed to me. “The best way to learn to bake is to watch a baker,” she wrote, but I didn’t have that luxury, and so I imagined she, in her baking wisdom, was leading me through the shadow of the valley of death. Silverton, a pastry chef by trade, got into bread through Campanile, the restaurant she started in Los Angeles with her then-husband. “I wanted to serve great bread,” she wrote, “and the only way I knew how to was to bake it myself.” La Brea Bakery opened in 1989, shortly before Campanile.

I admired that sort of pluck. I wasn’t creating a restaurant, but I was trying to building something—a life of meaning for myself, I suppose—and I had to go through an apprenticeship that was beyond shrink-wrapping gift baskets, writing awful short stories on a rickety Royal typewriter, and drinking coffee with my boyfriend at Big Boy, the only restaurant in town that was open after 10 p.m.

“If you’re not careful, the bread can take over your life,” wrote Silverton. She was not kidding. Mom started buying flour in bulk sacks from Sam’s Club, and I popped in and out of the health food store in search of unusual ingredients like spelt and rye flakes. I got a baking stone, and my boyfriend made me a wooden bread peel, because that wasn’t the sort of thing you could just walk into a store and buy. My lexicon thickened with terms like durum and dock and couche. The oven birthed overproofed and underproofed loaves, burned loaves and doughy loaves. I’d get distracted for a week or two and not bake at all, and then have to feed the starter extra for a few days to make up for it. It was the first time I had to be responsible for another living thing.

And there was so much starter. Pounds of flour and liters of water went into feeding the thing every week, and it was impossible to keep up with its swelling volume. Gracefully, my mother accepted its aromatic presence in her dining room, perhaps realizing that this unwieldy tub of fermenting paste was her ticket to getting her adult daughter out of her house. I attempted every recipe in the “Sourdough Specialties” chapter, cranking out sourdough dog biscuits, sourdough waffles, sourdough pancakes. We swam in a sea of gluten, yes, but it somehow kept that insatiable, binge-mad demon of mine at bay.

I liked how Nancy Silverton broke things apart and rebuilt them, her way. “There are no pumpkins in this pumpkin bread,” she explained in the headnote to her pumpkin bread recipe, going on to describe her preference for using cooked sweet potato instead (a sprinkling of pumpkin seeds on the crust is the only pumpkin-y thing about the bread). “I thought the taste was worth the deception.”

Taking her rebellious cue, I eventually strayed from a lot of Nancy’s recipes, making substitutions and dutifully recording the results in the book’s pages. I loved the contrast between the poetic structure of a recipe and the messy, dynamic reality of the thing coming together in a kitchen. Eventually I realized I wanted to do more than just bake at the home I’d grown out of. I wanted to be the person who helped people like Nancy Silverton write cookbooks. I wanted to tie together the rambling pages that spilled out of the Royal typewriter and the flour-dusted loaves I scooted from the oven onto the baking peel. I wanted learn about more than bread.

That winter, I began a string of prep cook jobs at shitty restaurants in town and applied to cooking schools. Two and a half years later, I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and moved to California, where I promptly ditched my catering gig and became music critic—my collegiate alternative study having finally paid off, though my talk of pre-ferments and docking methods tended to bore my exciting new rocker friends to tears. The starter was long gone, dumped down the sink before I’d decamped for the CIA.

Nancy Silverton piloted La Brea Bakery into a successful line of par-baked loaves to be sold at grocery stores around the country. And thus it is now possible to purchase a loaf of La Brea Rustic Bread at the dingy Kroger in Marietta, though I’d never do such a thing myself. Those millions of La Brea commercial loaves of today don’t hold a candle to what I recall of mine from back then; they seem to lack an inner spark, the symbiotic exchange of energy that comes from the interaction between baker and dough. I know I can go deeper, do better.

But these days I don’t even keep a starter. If I were to, I’d probably initiate it using a chef, a floury little seed of a dough ball that you leave out on the counter, hoping that wild yeasts in the air will take up residence. After that, you just build it up bit by bit, like most things in life that are worthwhile. I think Nancy would approve.

Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor. She lives in Marietta, Ohio, where there is still not a decent bakery.

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