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Betsy Block

Stories without recipes

Nice Loaf (But Not The One)

Nice Loaf But Not The One
"Bread is so difficult," BD says with a frown and a wrinkled brow.

"I don't want it to be disappointing," he adds so sincerely it practically brings tears to my eyes. This is obviously agony for him. "I'm sure it'll still taste good," he goes on half-heartedly.

Six years ago this week, BD turned 40. Next thing I knew, he had started baking bread. Not just any old average yeast bread, though. No, he needed to make his very own sourdough starter. Research the protein content in flour. Buy a scale.

My then-forty-year-old husband had gone in search of the perfect loaf, one filled with big holes and covered by a crisp brown crust. It had to have a slightly sweet, slightly sour, almost nutty flavor; he could taste it in his mind. Since then, he has probably baked a couple hundred loaves: There have been baguettes and honey whole wheats, pumpernickels and olive rolls. And they have almost all been extraordinary.

But BD, like many of us, is his own worst critic. Sure, there have been a couple of times in the past half-decade when he tasted one of his breads and I could actually see pride in his face. But those have been the exceptions. Usually he'll cut off a slice, stare at it with narrowed eyes, take a bite and grimace. Meanwhile, the rest of us have learned that the fruits of one man's angst can be enough to feed an entire family. As far as midlife crises go, the kids and I have hit the jackpot.

A couple years ago, he was ready to take his obsession to the next level by building an honest-to-God brick oven in our driveway. He spent months working on the thing - reading how-to books, ordering the perfect stones, slathering on clay (along with an ultra-helpful E). Finally, the day came for him to fire it up. Our closest neighbor lives only 20 feet away from us, so when the thick, black, choking smoke started billowing through the neighborhood, filling the air around our neighbors' house, BD and I had a little talk. By mutual consent, that first firing also turned out to be the last. By winter's end, the oven had crumbled, and so, too, had BD's dreams of hearth-fired breads.

But BD is a resilient man. Once again he shrugged good-naturedly and moved on (much more quickly than I would have). The stones from his former oven became a gorgeous wall in our garden, and his breads continued to develop both body and soul. Despite all the difficulties and frustrations inherent in the journey, his commitment never seemed to falter.

In large part thanks to his extraordinary patience and persistence, I have no doubt that someday BD will meet his own exacting standards. He will master The Perfect Tuscan Loaf. That will definitely be a day to celebrate. But life goes on, and I wonder what will happen the next day, and the day after that. Will he keep baking, basking in the satisfaction of having wrestled the alligator to the ground? Or will he be off and running, moving onto the next big thing? (BD my love, if the latter is indeed the case, might I suggest you think about the challenges inherent in - cake?)

Selfishly, I wouldn't mind if my husband's pursuit for perfection in a loaf goes on for many more years. But I suspect that someday, we won't be eating as much good bread in our house, because for better or worse, a quest fulfilled often loses its allure. What I know for sure about BD, though, is that he will always have a quest. And that no matter what else comes our way - lifeless loaves, stinky smoke - I'll be right by his side, waiting to see what he dreams up next.

Happy Birthday, BD. I love you.

Most people (including, ahem, yours truly) would never dream of attempting a recipe for BD's kind of bread, because it can take days and even weeks of preparation. Instead, I'll point you in the direction of BD's bread Bible, which is called Bread Alone by Daniel Leader and Judith Blahnik (William Morrow and Co., 1993). It's nothing less than a masterpiece. Or if you're in the area, you can visit the Bread Alone bakery. Tell 'em hi for me.