I can do without a lot of things. For the last 22 years, I have not eaten a piece of red meat or pork. I’ve never in all my years tasted whatever they’re telling people they’re serving at Taco Bell. I was a strict vegetarian for 15 years. And I’ve tasted coffee maybe three times in all of ever. And I don’t feel an ounce of FOMO about any of it. However, if you tried to take away my bread or my pastries? Brace yourself, fool, ’cause we fightin’.
Last summer a friend was trying to sell me on his new “I’ve got the energy of teenager!” diet. I was nodding along until he got to the no-bread part. Nope. Keep your Paleo, son. I’m good right hear with my perfectly toasted and buttered English muffin. Besides “it will literally kill me,” I can’t think of a good enough reason not to have at least one slice of bread everyday.
This respect and adoration of the flour-y truth has made me get deep into my baking over the last few years. Cookies, pies, cakes, tarts, muffins—just cover me in gluten and a sprinkle of confectioners sugar, already. And though I’ve tried some ambitious recipes where timing and precision were basically whispering rude things in my ears, betting that I’ll fail, I’ve never tried making my own bread. Lord knows I’ve thought about it. Even had this recurring dream (judge me later) about owning a bakery back home in Montreal where I made magical brioche and croissants that added years to the lives of those who bought and ate them. Oh, and when they ate this wonder bread, I was able to read their thoughts (OK, now -- judge.)
The point is, there’s something so loving and sweet about baking someone bread from scratch, and I want to be able to do that for my little family. But honestly, after my recent kitchen disaster for my husband’s birthday dinner that resulted in a jacked-up Boston cream pie and unintentional flapjack-style biscuits (damn those traitorous egg whites!), I was a little leery of going back to the well of New Untested Recipes. I didn’t trust the YouTube video experience either -- plus, I’m not down with dough in my keyboard – so I decided to go to the pros at Sur La Table’s Cooking Classes to learn how to get my lovin’ from the oven rising up right.
I took Thanksgiving Baking with Chef Brian Malota, who had me on his team the minute he told the group that Pop Tarts were made of pie crust. (Wait, is this an A-ha moment, Oprah?). On the menu for the two-hour lesson: spiced pumpkin bread and apple pie—both things I’ve made often. And then I saw the last item: Parker. House. Rolls. I think I may have evil-genius-rubbed my hands together at that point.
Understand: the first time I tried an exquisite Parker House roll was at this snooty restaurant in New York. I couldn’t tell you anything about the rest of the meal I had that evening, but if I close my eyes…yes, hello, Parker House homey. Sure, it’s just a dinner roll, but if you taste a really good one, you’ll know that it’s more than that. This ball of dough dates back to the 1870s, when it was invented at the Parker House hotel in Boston. So, it’s not just a dinner roll, it’s a Gahtdamn Pahkuh House roll! (Here’s the recipe we learned in class.)
Before Chef Brian walked us through the recipe, he told us to relax and have fun. It was baking, after all, not heart surgery. But, he did add this: “If you have a tough day and the love doesn’t go into the dough, it’ll show.”
Our group’s finished product looked the part: buttery and golden. The taste was fine. Not magical, but fine enough. The best part for me was watching an expert at the game play ball.
I left with some new gadgets (It’s all about the pastry blender, baby!) and a booklet of step-by-step recipes. But the most important take-away for me was the confidence to actually try this at home, like for a legit important meal. Truth told, after things fell apart while making my husband’s special birthday meal back in September, my Betty Crocker swagger took a slight hit.
I was apprehensive about putting my hand into anything too far outside my comfort zone. There was something about Chef Brian’s “keep it light and loving” reassurances that blew the flour dust out of my eyes, and reminded me that I actually enjoy this stuff. There is no room in the mixing bowl for worry. So, step off, turkey! This year the Thanksgiving spotlight is going to the buttery balls of bread instead. Plus, if I mess up there are always perfectly formed Parker House rolls loaded with love at Whole Foods.