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

Paste's column on the cookbooks that shape who we are

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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.

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