Bob the Baker

When we had our first kid two-and-a-half years ago it was a good time to start making bread. I have always been more of a baker than a chef and when you have a new baby it’s a nice little distraction. Now fast forward to this lockdown and flour is sold-out all over the place because everyone including me is baking. I guess a lot of people realized that it’s a great thing to do when you have time and are going to be home. Like when you have a baby or when there’s a pandemic on.

I mentioned in 18 Thoughts that I was having difficulty sourcing flour and a lot of people answered with suggestions — thank you. I bought a bunch of stuff and am back in the game with some really excellent ingredients. Here are some of those little mills who have many wonderful options for good flour.

Also, there was a comment in my post about Bob from the Bill Buford Bread Baking in Lyon story. The above YouTube video is old footage from the BBC of Bob and Bill at work in the boulangerie making bread. It’s excellent stuff.

My favorite bit from the article and video is when Bob talks about the Golden Rule of bread baking. “Room temperature + flour temperature + water temperature should equal 54°C or 129° F.” I think the water temperature in bread baking can easily be overlooked. Personally, I just went with 95° no matter what I was making or the season. But now I am going to use Bob’s Golden Rule and see how things change.

The two bread books that I would recommend are the Tartine book and Artisan Sourdough. (Artisan Sourdough actually had a list of resources with small flour mills in the back of it — which I only realized today. Some are included above.) I mostly make french bread and baguettes using this Emile Henry Bread Cloche which I think is an excellent tool. The one thing that’s really interesting when making bread in the Cloche is that you can start the bake in a cold oven and leave it in for the preheat. I’ve wanted to buy a Staub Cast Iron Dutch Oven for some time but have never been able to pull the trigger and spend the money. The bread cloche just does the job too well to justify that purchase.

There are a few other things that I use in the kitchen that are worth sharing. These lint-free towels that Tim Ferriss recommended are the best. They are great for everyday use in the kitchen and also perfect for drying wine glasses. Speaking of wine glasses. I’m very much in love with Zalto glasses. They are super expensive and very easy to break. I have probably gone through 6 of them. Every time it happens it’s as painful as damage to a new car. A good alternative are these Riedel Veritas glasses which are still expensive but about half as much as Zalto. The problem with good wine glasses is once you start using them you have a really hard time going back to clunky regular wine glasses.

I’ve been buying wine from Kermit Lynch in Berkeley by the case. In NYC I also shop at (or order from) Chambers Street Wines, Le Du’s on Washington Street and Verve. These Laguiole wine openers are so perfect and will last forever. They are spendy but the feeling in the hand is worth it if you ask me. Flask & Field is the best spot for wine and booze in LA.

On the stove a good cast iron skillet is amazingly versatile. I use it for everything you can imagine — from making pizza in the oven to breakfast and steak. I also love this stone frying pan which doesn’t have the non-stick chemicals that a lot of non-stick stuff has. I like this cookbook for everyday general stuff and simple recipes. I use the Paprika App (after one of my IG followers recommended it) to save recipes online. Nothing is worse than trying to navigate one of those shitty cooking sites with 10,000 pop-up ads to while you are trying to cook.

Speaking of pizza, most of the time I make it in the Big Green Egg, which generally produces excellent results at 700 degrees and beyond. Sometimes if I’m lazy don’t clean out the ash pre-cook I can’t get it super hot, but overall it still does well with the pizza. A friend stayed at our house over the holidays one December and left behind this electric starter for the BGE and I highly recommend it. Just gets the fire going quick and easy.

I’m intrigued by the RoccBox pizza oven, but can’t justify $500 for something so specific. There are other alternatives like the Ooni, which is similar and a bit less expensive. I make the dough using a modified recipe from Roberta’s which is 50% 00 flour and 50% all-purpose. Sometimes if am lazy and I buy dough from Bay Cities in Santa Monica. Honestly, it’s pretty hard to fuck up pizza. That’s what makes it fun to experiment with. Making bread or pizza and if it’s not perfect people will still be happy — trust me. Especially if you are doing it while drinking wine. Now is the perfect time for all of that.

Comments on “Bob the Baker

    Champ on May 21, 2020 1:51 PM:

    Just hear to say I’m enjoying your return to blogging. Also wanted you to know I still keep my pens in one of the zipper bags you made way back in 2010, and it’s still going strong.

    Michael Williams on May 21, 2020 1:56 PM:

    @CHAMP — thanks so much. It’s been fun. I was thinking about making some of those pouches again. People ask me about them a lot.

    Ross on May 21, 2020 9:17 PM:

    Great stuff. I stole some of my brother’s 7 yo sourdough starter a few weeks ago and have enjoyed baking bagels and pizza with it. So much depth of flavor versus commercial yeast. It’s a stiff starter which is interesting to work with. Welcome back!

    Ted on May 22, 2020 11:07 PM:

    You also need to check out Grist & Toll in Pasadena (or online) for flour. The owner has established relationships with farmers who grew heirloom wheat varieties, and the owner uses a stone mill to make flour. The stone mill is critical for preserving the nutritional value of the whole wheat berry.

    Also check out Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans for flour for the same reasons as Grist & Toll.

    Chris Brooks on May 23, 2020 9:54 AM:

    I bake bread frequently and the temperature guidance makes no sense. If my room and flour temperature are 65 deg F, then the water should be… below freezing?

    I’d stick to 95 deg F (which is what I do).

    Michael Williams on May 23, 2020 1:30 PM:

    @Chris I was doing the math on this yesterday and I agree with you. It doesn’t make sense. Sorry for the confusion. Maybe it has to do with baking in a cold kitchen?

    Nick on May 27, 2020 3:21 PM:
    Jacob Hurwitz on May 27, 2020 3:31 PM:

    Please make those pouches again. I still use them. Mine is in orange waxed cotton with a nice military style zipper pull.

    J.R. on June 3, 2020 10:54 PM:

    Bill Buford forgot his algebra; you cannot just convert each parameter of the equation (w+a+f=54) to Fahrenheit and have it work, because the conversion factor is not distributive across w+a+f. You have to convert each of them, and solve. In Farenheit, w+a+f = 196 (with rounding). So if your room and temperature is 65, your water should be about the same (66).

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