Baking Bread with Kids
Baking is my jam, but I wasn’t born knowing how to bake. I started, like almost every baker ever, at my mother’s knee making flour messes and cracking eggs everywhere. There were countless experiments, learning opportunities, and teachers along the way that brought me to being the head baker at a world-famous bakery. Every time I baked something, whether it turned out the way I expected or not, I learned something that made me wiser for the next bake. Baking is part art, part craft, and part science. Learning to see it through all those lenses is eye-opening and rewarding. Like any discipline, all you need to do is take the first step, then the next one. Before you know it, you’re traveling the long path to being an expert baker.
There were many things in my childhood that nudged me toward baking. There’s an illustration that my dad made inside in the front cover of a copy of Molly Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook
(an important cookbook of the 1970s) before he gifted it to my mom. It’s of me, standing on a chair in the kitchen, surrounded by mixers, spoons, bowls, and broken eggs, baking up a mess. I was three years old when he drew this. The seeds had already been sown. My dad knew.
My mom is an excellent cook and baker. Some of my earliest memories are of whisking egg whites for a chocolate mousse pie with her. She used to hold the bowl upside down over my head to check and see if the whites were stiff enough. When we moved to Germany when I was six, she mastered the local recipe for küchen, a kind of pie-cake mash-up. When my dad missed Mexican food, she made tortillas from scratch.
When I was a little older and we had moved back to the U.S., my best friend’s dad owned a bakery. I remember it as the coziest, best-smelling place of all time. The truffles and pastries in the big glass case glowed like jewels in a treasure chest. I remember hanging out there one day while he made a passion-fruit wedding cake. My friend and I, in a fit of inspiration, ran to Safeway for some frozen passion-fruit juice and cake ingredients. We figured we could just add some juice to the recipe (without adding any extra flour). We made passion-fruit cake soup. But we still ate it by the spoonful. I remember it tasting pretty good.
We lived in Germany for only a few years, but one of the biggest things I missed when we moved back was the bread. Germany has some of the best bread traditions in the world. We lived in Bavaria, where sechskornbrot (six-grain bread), bauernbrot (farmer’s bread), and vollkornbrot (rye bread) were on the table at almost every meal. I couldn’t find anything like that when we moved back. My first real serious attempts at bread baking were to re-create those hearty, earthy, fresh breads from my childhood. I got the Tassajara Bread Book,
written by a monk who lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s a beautiful book, and its core recipe is as good a daily bread recipe as any you’ll ever find. But the message—of bread baking being a never-ending path of learning—is what really sticks with me to this day and has informed so much of my baking philosophy and daily practice.
It didn’t occur to me at first to bake professionally. I studied philosophy and journalism at University of California at Santa Cruz. During college I worked as a chess instructor, teaching elementary school kids. Afterward I freelanced, writing about the arts and local news for several newspapers. I moved to San Francisco, with the loose idea of becoming a writer (my lifelong dream). Meanwhile, I started working in restaurants to pay rent. I fell in love with it: the environment—the fast pace, the larger-than-life characters, the beautiful food, the friends I made—but I wasn’t completely at home working in the “front of the house,” greeting customers and taking orders.
The clearest aha moment happened at the kitchen table in my apartment at 17th and Dolores Streets. I was kneading bread dough (from the Tassajara
recipe), talking to my best friend (the same one whose dad owned the bakery), and venting. I didn’t want to stay a server forever, I wasn’t sure how to make this writing thing work, and I didn’t know what to do with my life. Go back to school? Pick a different career? What do I do? “Well, Jen,” my (best-ever) friend said, nodding at the bread I was making, “some people do that
for a living.
That kitchen table at 17th and Dolores in San Francisco happened to be barely two blocks away from Tartine Bakery at 18th and Guererro. It had been open at that location for about seven years. A whole lot of my writing happened at the café tables at Tartine, over coffee and a croissant, and I dreamed of being able to make that bread. I had no kitchen experience, but I started asking for a job anyway. I think I asked a dozen times over the space of a few years. I eventually got hired as a server at Bar Tartine, the sister restaurant to the bakery. I kept begging for a kitchen job until Cortney and Nick, the chefs, offered me a pastry assistant job. I did that for a year, all the while still begging to be a bread baker. Finally a spot opened up on that team and I made the cut. I was lucky to spend ten wonderful years baking bread daily at Tartine, working my way up to Director of Bread. Much of the philosophy and techniques in this book are informed and inspired by my experiences at Tartine and by my mentor, Chad Robertson.
My parents are into birds. It’s their jam. Growing up, we’d hop into a fully packed car on Friday after school and drive to the Eastern Sierra, Klamath Basin, or Death Valley, chasing rare migratory birds. We’d return on Sunday night, dirty, exhausted, and exhilarated. It’s both their livelihood and their passion. My brother joined in the family business, and birding is still the cornerstone of daily life for my family. They never stopped or slowed down because they had kids; they just took us with them. The thing I learned from growing up that way is that kids can do anything grown-ups can do and go anywhere grown-ups can go.
In college, when I became a chess teacher, I learned this lesson again. Kids as young as kindergarten age can grasp complex movements and strategy if they are presented to them clearly and patiently and they are given the time and space to work out their ideas.
The cornerstone of this book is that truth: kids can do anything they put their minds to. Kids have the capacity for committing attention to the task. They have the patience to do things well and in their own time. Every recipe here is designed to yield exceptional results in as clear and straightforward terms as possible, because I know that kids can make exceptional bread if given the right guidance and the chance.
Baking (and baking with kids) is not for everyone, but it’s a wonderfully rewarding thing to do, both on a personal level and for the spoils (warm bread). I put many of the resources, skills, recipes, tips, and perspective that I’ve gained in my career in this book. Bread is a lot more forgiving than people think. Even bread that doesn’t turn out exactly like the picture in the book will still be utterly delicious.
I learned a lot in my years as the head bread baker at Tartine, and not just about baking. I learned a lot about learning, and it’s both of those things I’m hoping to share with you in this book.