In the Grain: Reminiscences of a baker

As I lovingly shape another NY rye bread, perhaps the 14,017th one since I started our artisan bakery 10 years ago, I contemplate my youthful folly of 1984.

By
June 26, 2019 15:25
Bread

Bread. (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)

 
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It must be the lazy, hazy days of summer that give flight to reminiscences and cause one to marvel over the endless surprises and wonder that is life. As I labor over a batch of rye breads, I cannot help but think how I ended up, at age 54, with my two arms elbow deep in a tub of dough.

When you ask a 10-year-old boy what he wants to be when he is grown, you will inevitably receive responses that lean toward emulating hero figures: fireman, policeman, pilot. When I was 10, I already knew what I wanted to be and it had nothing to do with any fantasized notions gleaned from comic books. I wanted to be an optometrist! I had ever since I was six, when I was first tested and became the only bespectacled kid in my first grade class. I was enthralled by the serenity of the examination room, the smell and sounds of lenses grinding in the laboratory and the larger-than-life figure of Essar Segal, my optometrist, regally attired in a long white lab coat.

This did not go down well with my parents, who wanted their firstborn to be a doctor, or at the very least, a dentist. They insisted I take the entrance examinations for both, but being a strong-willed child, I prevailed over them and commenced my studies in optometry immediately after finishing 12th grade. Everything was going according to plan. I was happy with my career choice and my course was set. At least until the third year, that is.

BAM! Suddenly something from out of the blue and totally unexpected changes your life completely and irrevocably. For me, it was one cold day in June 1984 when my parents bought my brothers and me a brand new, top-of-the-line IBM PC, bedecked with an astounding 64K RAM and a 5¼-inch floppy diskette drive. It was intended as a “toy,” to play computer games, like Pong, Asteroids and such. I was less interested in these distractions than in the accompanying user manual on BASIC programming. I swiftly came to the realization that it was not using other people’s software that drew me to this clunky box, but rather the possibility for me to write my own programs and make it do what I wanted it to do. I discovered things like algorithms, logic, loops, subroutines… and my brain did a flip flop.

AS I devoted more and more time exploring the depths of BASIC programming, the attraction of a career in optometry suddenly lost its luster and the thought that I would wind up doing the same thing day in and day out for the rest of my life, as opposed to constantly innovating and creating new things, became daunting. I began to fall behind in my studies and very soon the academic year became irretrievable when I failed my optometry exams.

My parents were shattered when I told them I wanted to stop studying optometry and make aliyah to Israel and study computers. Strong-willed or not, my parents insisted I finish the Physics BSc part of the course, but nine months later, I was winging my way over the African continent to the Holy Land where I would embark on a career in hi-tech that would last the next 25 years of my life.
So how did it come to be that at age 45, following a major mid-life crisis, I found myself once again steering a different path, becoming totally disenchanted with the hi-tech computer world? That is another story for another time. Suffice it to say that I became a baker, reconnecting with my family roots in the food business (my mother was a caterer back in South Africa).

As I lovingly shape another NY rye bread, perhaps the 14,017th one since I started our artisan bakery 10 years ago, I contemplate my youthful folly of 1984. I have learned that there is value in repetition, doing the same thing every day – if you enjoy it and if it has meaning.

There is something indescribably “real” about making a loaf of bread out of flour, water, sourdough, salt and caraway seeds. It is nothing like a bunch of encoded bits and bytes zooming their way through the clouds, like stardust. This bread will nourish someone, it will ever so slightly improve their health with the little bit of whole grain fiber in it. It will evoke happy childhood memories of bread eaten in foreign lands long, long ago. It is something real that touches the very essence of the soul.

If you had told me at 10 years old that at age 54 I would be one of the world-leading experts in baking bialys or a scholar of the biblical showbread, I would have said you were off your rocker! But it could not have been otherwise.

Perhaps it is divine providence that guides us so that we eventually end up doing what we are meant for in this life, but it is not only the result that is important, it is also the path. Without the scientific grounding of my youth, without the discipline and logical thinking of my years as a programmer, I could never have become who I am.

That is the wonder of life and a profound lesson for anyone faced with a career choice. There are no mistakes – there are only rungs on the ladder to bigger and better things.

The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Karnei Shomron with his wife Sheryl and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (www.saidels.com), which specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health, nutrition and authentic Jewish bread.

Rye Bread with Caraway Seeds

⅔ cup rye flour
1¾ cups wheat flour
1⅓ cups water
2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. instant dry yeast
2 Tbsp. caraway seeds

Mix ingredients and knead dough for 10 minutes. Leave to rise (covered) for 30 minutes. Punch down dough and shape into an oval loaf on a baking tray. Leave to rise for 45 minutes. Bake at 250º centigrade for 30 minutes.


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