So last night I watched this Chinese movie, Cook Up A Storm, and while I am not exactly recommending it as amazing, it did make me think. It is a classic story of a street chef cooking classic Chinese soul food squaring off against a Michelin-starred chef reinventing Chinese dishes through molecular gastronomy. After all the plot twists, the street chef wins, in the same way that Remi in Ratatouie wins, by cooking simple food that appeals to our heart and our memories, that evokes our past. More to the point, in winning, the street chef saves his family's restaurant in a historic neighborhood that is threatened by gentrification. The restaurant is a landmark in the neighborhood, providing excellent, affordable food. It is a hub of the community.
Okay, so this silly, cliche movie (in all fairness, I love silly, cliche movies) made me realize that I want to be like this neighborhood restaurant with my spoons. I guess I already am with my Christmas tree farm (sixty years, family traditions, low prices), but I want to be that way with my spoons, and it is more complicated because the spoons are an online phenomenon. What does it mean to serve your community in that context? What does providing excellent, affordable craftsmanship look like? What does this look like after five years? Ten? Thirty?
One thing is clear to me. I don't want to keep raising my prices to drive down demand. I want to find a way to meet demand, and for awhile at least, I should be able to do that by using a waiting list and increasing the hours I devote to this and becoming more efficient. But sooner or later there will come a time when I max out the practicality of these measures, and the temptation will be to turn into the molecular gastronomy. And I don't want to become that. I am the bowl of noodles. I am the fried rice.
So it may be that in the future I hire someone. Maybe I take on an apprentice. Maybe I diversify into teaching or writing more. Probably all of these things and more will be true. I see this business, more and more, as a service, bringing beauty and utility and functionality into people's lives. People need to cook. I help with that. That is and always will be the bottom line.
Okay, so I've been asked to share my bread recipe. This recipe is very basic and can be altered all kinds of ways, using different ratios of flour, or with nuts and raisins and seeds and oats added, and the timing is also pretty loose.
In a large bowl, mix 4 cups flour (I personally prefer 1 cup whole wheat and 3 all purpose, but you can mix in rye, spelt, whatever floats your boat) together with 3 tsp salt (I just use large pinches), and a pinch of dry yeast.
(side not here to stem the horror of anyone who thought I was doing sourdough. I have made starters off and on over the past five years, which is a pretty simple process, but ultimately it is just another thing to keep track of. To get sourdough to be great, you need to cook bread when the starter is prime or control the starter's conditions perfectly to line up with your preferred schedule. Using dry yeast allows me to mix up dough on a whim or short notice, and the results are almost as good.)
Mix dry ingredients together with raisins or seeds or whatever, and then add 2 cups warm water. Mix only until all the dry ingredients are hydrated, no more.
Cover bowl with lid (can be loose fitting, that's fine) and let stand 8-16 hours. There is a great deal of leeway here, so bake when it works for you. I often mix up dough in the evening and bake the next morning, or vice versa. If the house is cold, run the oven at 200 for a few minutes, turn it off and stick the bowl in.
Thirty minutes before you intend to bake, heat up a cast iron pot with a lid (crucial point) to 500 in the oven. If the pot has a plastic knob on the lid, replace that with some bolts or wingnuts. If you have a pizza stone, stick that in as well.
Flour a tea towel and flour a counter. Turn out the dough (which will be soft) and gently fold all four edges into the middle. Wrap in the floured towel. Let rise for 30 minutes to two hours (see above about when to heat the pot and oven). When the oven is hot, take out the pot, place the whole tea towel in the bottom, and then REMOVE the tea towel by gently lifting up one edge and letting the dough roll out the bottom.
Bake 30 minutes with the lid ON, 15 minutes with the lid off. Remove bread from pot to cool.
The reason this recipe works so well is that the lidded pot creates a steam chamber, where moisture driven out of the wet dough (which earlier made it easy to mix up) helps to create a thick, chewy crust like bread from the best bakeries. Total hands on time for this is literally about 5 minutes, and the parameters are flexible enough to fit it in around daily life.
For extra credit, you could make a sourdough starter. Just mix equal parts flour and water and leave it out on your counter, stirring it vigorously once a day to fluff it up. You can chuck some apple or grape skins in if the fruit has that whitish bloom on it that you would polish off on your shirt (that's the wild yeast, but you don't need the fruit). Every day when you stir, discard half the mixture and add fresh water and flour.
After about 4-5 days, you should have some bubbling. Keep going! Sticking it in the fridge will make it hibernate, or leave it on the counter and use the part you would discard to leaven pancakes, biscuits, etc. When you mix up bread dough, use at least a half cup starter that seems at its most frothy part of its cycle instead of yeast.
As with anything, there is TONS of nuance that you can get into, but I hope this will convince you to try baking bread. The trick is the wet dough, long rise (no kneading!) and lidded pot in a super hot oven. Have fun!
I will admit it: I love IKEA. I love the way you can walk through the showrooms and there is stuff in every drawer. I love how you can bring furniture home in your car because it is packaged so well to take up less room. I love how you can wander through the store or page through the catalog and find a thousand small ways to fill the everyday acts of life with a little more grace. I even love how you assemble most furniture they make yourself, embueing the object with some of your own spirit, even if you are just following directions.
I know it isn't cool, especially in this crowd of craftspeople, furniture makers and restorers of old things. I know I probably shouldn't bring it up. I've seen Fight Club, where the main character laments the soullessness of his apartment furnished entirely from IKEA. I should really keep my mouth shut.
But here's the thing I really love about IKEA: they DESIGN things, not to conform to an old way of doing things, and not to be different for the sake of being different. They design things to work WELL. That seems to be the criterion. They must work well. Sure, some of the stuff can be chintzy. But some is really solid, and has earned my devotion over the years.
We went to IKEA this time (we tend to end up there every other year or so) to buy a set of stacking containers to hold our recycling and to buy a particular short, small wingback chair to go in our kitchen so I can keep my wife company in the evening when she does her homework at the kitchen table, without myself forgoing a cushioned seat. But as we wandered through the store we found other small items: a magnetic strip to hold our paring knives, a new organizer for shampoo bottles in the shower to replace the rusted one, a little wedge of plastic to hold my notebook at an angle when I'm editing that is easier on my wrist when I sit the way I like to. Small things that will make life better.
At checkout, there were plenty of yuppy white moms in yoga pants and those flowy cardigans that seem to be the rage right now, hair up in a messy bun, holding a fake plant or a dining room chair with an impossibly white slipcover. But there were also plenty of people, like ourselves, for whom affordability was a clearly an important factor. That is the other thing I love about IKEA: the fact that they are affordable. Not affordable in a "this is junk" kind of way. But affordable in that the design process stressed manufacturing techniques and transportation parameters and just general economies of scale that make it possible for me to buy a wingback chair.
As we left, we stopped before getting on the highway and had amazing burritos from a taco truck. And I know many of you are gonna hate me saying this, but it felt kind of like the same thing: something amazing and delicious that was really well done, inexpensive, fast and totally what we wanted.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.