The comforting slap of sticky dough on smooth butcherblock; the scattering of flour on board and floor and fingertip and eyebrow; the improbable scent of honey rising from a massaged mixture of nothing more than wheat and water; mysteries of chemistry, these same two ingredients altering through time, warmth and sport, changing from simple dust and liquid, first to paste and then to a complex, stringy, glutenous, aerated and breathing mass of living, feeding yeasts; I'm talking, of course, about breadmaking. And that's all before the salt has been added and anything has gone into the oven, when even more sublime transformations take place. Divine odors swirl on the breeze. Crust and crunch form in the primeval steam; trapped gases seeth and bubble beneath the suface, expanding, rising, and stretching. It's a creation metaphor, a geological microcosm. No wonder some form of bread is prepared by virtually every culture on earth.

Until this summer, however, I thought the making of the kind of bread I love a black art, requiring specialized furnaces and implements beyond the reach of home cooks. I suppose I had never seen anything like a Paris baguette, a Berlin brötchen or a rugged, hearty, crunchy, blackened round of Poîlane emerge from from a home oven. Then my main man from Atlas invited me out to his Hamptons hideway, where he was baking Jim Lahey's notorious no-knead loaves, with delicious results. This recipe from the Sullivan Street bakery conjurer was made famous by Mark Bittman a few years ago in the New York Times, and some people mistakenly refer to it as Bittman's bread. Lahey developed his incredibly simple and virtually idiot-proof recipe after recognizing that bread was considered the staff of life and the literal body of Christ long before the development of steam-injected ovens and kitchenaid mixers with dough hooks. Surely, he thought, medieval village bakers didn't spend endless hours toiling to knead gigantic mounds of dough. There must have been an easier way. The development of commercial yeast came in part as a way to accelerate the making of bread, avoiding long hours and overnight waits. Lahey cut way back on the yeast and added the long wait back in. And he made the dough much wetter than Americans, at least, were used to. Mix flour, water, salt and a tiny quarter teaspoon of yeast; cover and leave unmolested for 16 to 18 hours; bake in a tightly closed pot. Delicious.

I was captivated and, as is my way, I've since thrown myself wholeheartedly and wholewheatedly into the rewarding world of bread-baking. I'm growing my own sourdough cultures, to boost flavor and avoid using any yeast at all, and experimenting with a wide variety of flours. I've discovered the uber-geeky bread website the Fresh Loaf, where, as in all earnest subcultures, an entirely separate language is spoken, one of hydration percentages, boules, poolishes, levains, french folds, lames, miches and retarded fermentation. But it is a testament to Lahey's recipe that I still consider his the bread to beat. The simplicity to crunch ratio is seductive, and the learning curve quickly gets steeper when you try to move beyond his technique.

The highlight of the Fresh Loaf mutual admiration society website is the abundant photography of billowing, ruddy loaves sent in by members, never to be tasted or smelled by fellow fresh-loafers, but posted nonetheless for both critique and to attract ego-stroking. I call this Bread P*rn. Here are some of my efforts.

Exhibit A

Basic white bread. The loaf on the left suffers visually from tentative and clumsy slashing, but was no less delicious than the one on the right. They sprung so nicely in the oven that they came out conjoined at the hip, Siamese unidentical twins.

Exhibit B

There is no such thing, I've already come to believe, as "too rustic" when it comes to bread. These may not be pretty, or in the shape of any known traditional loaf, but they were yummy, crunchy and chewy.

Exhibit C

My best effort so far, a combined Jim Lahey-sourdough flax-seeded monster that rose and rose to the point of bursting, and had a perfect just-charred enough bottom. (Put a disk of tinfoil under your dutch oven after about twenty minutes of baking to avoid going one char too far).

Exhibit D

A comparative failure, with an overdense crumb and most of the lift happening in the top third of the loaf, this bread was nonetheless delicious, if extra-chewy. The ghostly dusted exterior is definitely the direction I'm headed, presentation-wise.

Come on over and have a slice!


I Gemelli Pinarello / The Pinarello Twins

Thanks to the recent weekend visit of heartbroken ex-Brooklynite AK718, who flew all the way from Munich to sample the hand-pulled noodles at Xian Famous Foods and cover the grand opening of my photography exhibit at Sunny's for the international media, I had the good fortune to reconnect with another member of the original German club-crawling posse, Mr. Wolfgang Wesener, portrait photographer extraordinaire, a man who sensibly fled New York twenty years ago, in 1990, just when it was getting boring around here. Now he's back, after moving for a couple of decades to the north of Italy to raise a family, produce olive oil and take pictures of vintners, and it's as if time has stood still; he's still sporting a wardrobe straight from Avenue A circa 1985.

Although he shared many memories from his time away, during which thousands of portraits were snapped, one of the highlights, at least in my estimation, was described in Wesener's modest admission that, why yes, he had indeed photographed Giovanni Pinarello, the patriarch of the Pinarello clan, one of the foremost names in bicycle manufacture. The Don, so it might be said, of Classic Italian Steel. "And I've just come from New Jersey," exclaimed Wesener, "where I purchased, from a man I found on Craigslist, my very own Pinarello, from the 1980s! I can hardly wait to tell Giovanni!"

"Nao e posivel!" I said, or something along those lines. I waved my hands in the air with Tuscan excitement. "Guarda!" "Anch'io!" and so forth, I went on, meaning: No way! I have one too. The exact same size!

Wesener's portraits are made in black and white, so while you cannot appreciate in this picture that his Pinarello is a fetching and rare eggplant purple, while mine is fire-engine red, it is obvious that our immediate resolution to go riding together actually resulted in our going riding together, this very morning.

Photo: Wolfgang Wesener


Walking to Guantánamo in Red Hook

Short notice, I know, for all but the most rabid blog-followers, but an exhibition of the photographs I took while walking across Cuba in the year 2000 opens tonight, Friday, September 17th at Sunny's in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It promises to be a fabulous evening. From 8PM on at Sunny's, 253 Conover Street in Brooklyn 11231. I hope to see you there!

For those who can't make it, the show will be up until approximately November 1st during Sunny's irregular opening hours (Weds., Fri., and Sattidee evenings from about 6PM onwards).


Mind if I borrow your pruning shears?

Apparently this guy's gardening proclivities are really pissing off his neighbors. Maybe it's my libertarian streak, but I the way I see it, it's his front yard and he can grow what he pleases. The Guardian has the story, and I stole their photo.


Laborious Day

About 11:30 last night, having already been blissfully fast asleep for a full hour, I was woken up by my smoke detector, fulfilling its sole function in fine style. I made my bleary way downstairs, following its extraordinarily loud bleating, and the certain scent of smoke. The culprit proved to be a neglected and very scorched pot of tomato sauce on the stovetop of my downstairs neighbor. She was already on the case. No harm done. Crisis averted.

Still, with volumes of acrid marinara smoke now being exhausted into the front yard with a box fan, I decided to sit for a while on my stoop, just in case any passersby had called the fire department. Sometimes New York's bravest are compelled to hose first and ask questions later.

But there wasn't so much smoke, and I probably could have gone back to bed. Instead, as I emerged onto the front porch in my underpants, I heard sounds of the New York of old, or at least sounds I remembered from the lower-east side of the 1980s. A full-on yelling and punching match, just down the block. What the five-oh call a ten-sixteen, "a domestic." A woman screaming; a man, pushing another man backwards down his two slate steps, repeatedly; the man being pushed drunk enough to get up off the sidewalk and keep coming back for more. The woman on a cellphone, beseeching a 911 operator to send help. Me, the neighbor, peering out through the cracked-open screen door. The man doing the pushing following up his thumps with the excellent advise "to just go home." Telling the guy: "if I didn't like you, you'd already be laid out." The thumpee, laid out, but resolutely not going home, then making various attempts to get back in the building. The romantic affiliations of all parties as opaque as the mud of the Gowanus. A squad car, finally, driving up the one-way street the wrong way with the flashers on. Separation. Shouts. Drama. Handcuffs. The police lean the handcuffed man up against my truck. In a loud and drunken voice he describes the cuffs as "irritating." For a moment I wonder whether the driver's side door mirror is okay.

It is now coming just on midnight, and at this point the night is still. The blue flashing lights of the cop cars are flickering on the fronts of the buildings, just like in the movies. No other neighbors have emerged onto the street; Red Hook has become the sort of place where many spend their labor day weekend out of town. But then I hear a sound, a bit like a wheelbarrow, coming down the block from the direction of the water. And a voice: "Hey, look, police...." This delivered not with the urgency that accompanies criminal activity, but in a more questioning tone, as if to wonder: should we be doing what we are doing?

Three men are pushing a large and pristine motor launch along the sidewalk, on a kind of wooden boat trailer. Not a canoe, or a kayak, but a large, Boston Whaler sized outboard, a good eighteen or twenty feet of lapstrake boat. In the middle of the night. When I was about nine years old, the nation's campuses were overtaken with a craze for "streaking." Once, my parents woke my sister and me, just in time to see the bizarre and fabulous sight of a dozen or so stark naked students, pushing a grand piano and a naked pianist on a wheeled piano bench down the street in front of our house. The boat in front of my house was as unexpected and exotic as that piano, but the police didn't bat an eye.

"Where'd you get the boat?" I called out.

"We made it," said one of the men, telling me so much less than I wanted to know. "Really!" They reached Van Brunt, and pushed around the corner.

I went upstairs to bed.