A few weeks ago I decided to try my hand at making ciabatta. I like to cook, and I’ve made bread before, but I’d never tried making this light, airy Italian bread. Normally, I just buy it from a favorite local bakery (which, I’m happy to say, recently reopened after a fire two years ago at the original location). For some reason, though, I decided I’d try baking something new. So I pulled out my copy of Paul Hollywood’s 100 Great Breads and looked up ciabatta.
I thought I had all the ingredients I needed, but I discovered that my little packets of yeast contained far less than the recipe called for. Okay, I thought, I’ll make a half batch. Then I found a note in the “Tools, Techniques, and Tips” section of the book that told me to use 25 percent less yeast if I was using instant. I was. So now I had not only to halve the rest of my ingredients but then to increase them by 25 percent. My math brain was getting a little confused.
Add to this that Hollywood’s recipe said to use “a generous 1 1/2 cups of water,” which was to be divided in half. Generous? How much over 1 1/2 cups is generous? Another tablespoon? Another 1/8 cup? Well, whatever. I’d make it work.
The recipe said to start by whisking 2 cups of flour and the yeast with “a generous 3/4 cup of water.” I made the necessary mathematical adjustments for my half batch and put the ingredients in the bowl, using just a bit of extra water. As instructed, I began to whisk. The ingredients immediately clumped into a wad of dough in the middle of my wire whisk. Clearly, I had not been generous enough with my water. I extracted the dough from the middle of the whisk and added enough water to reach a reasonable whisking consistency.
After letting the mixture ferment for the required time, I added the remaining ingredients. This time I was more generous in my interpretation of “generous 3/4 cup.” I let the dough rest as instructed, then tipped it onto the counter to divide into two pieces and, as the recipe said, “stretch” it into loaves. Wait. What do you mean “stretch”? My mixture was oozing over the countertop. If I didn’t catch it, it was going to drip off the edge. Whatever I’d managed to create was not something I could stretch.
Okay, how to salvage? Well, add more dry ingredients, of course. Now, ciabatta is not supposed to be kneaded, but I didn’t know how else to mix additional flour with my oozing dough. So I kneaded. By this point, I was laughing. I had no idea how this bread was going to turn out, but I was determined not to give up on it.
It might help you to know that I was raised by a mother, an excellent cook, who taught me that recipes are just a suggestion. I frequently adjust or substitute ingredients to suit my taste or to use whatever I happen to have on hand. I do understand that baking sometimes requires a bit more precision than other types of cooking, but I was already in the thick of this. I figured I might well see it through.
The bread turned out okay, though it wasn’t exactly ciabatta. Thanks to my kneading, it was much denser, with tiny air bubbles instead of the pockets you find in the real thing. But it still smelled pleasantly yeasty, it still tasted good, and making it was an adventure.
One of my friends once told me that I am perhaps the most fearless cook he knows, because I will add, subtract, or substitute ingredients, or even make up my own recipes. He added that when I succeed, the results are delicious, and when I fail, I fail spectacularly. It’s true. The failures can be inedible. But I’m okay with that. I’m still willing to bend the recipe rules the next time I find myself in a situation where I don’t have the exact ingredients or the exact quantities.
I wish I had that same fearlessness when it comes to my writing life. Instead, I worry that I’m making the wrong choices. I don’t give myself the same freedom to succeed beyond expectations or to concoct a glorious failure. (See this post on my personal blog for more reflections on fear, failure, and freedom.) Perhaps that’s because, while I love to cook, I don’t define myself as a cook. And I do define myself as a writer. In reality, each is only one part of me, and I’m more than the sum of those two, or all, my parts. (This reminds me of Erin Farwell’s excellent post on writing and self-definition.) Maybe the answer is to release that identification of self, or self-worth, with the action, and to see writing, like cooking, as something I do, not something I am, to focus on “write” as a verb and not “writer” as a noun. That might make it easier to write about whatever I want or need to write about and let the writing succeed or fail on its own merits. Then I can embrace the joy and adventure of writing, learning both from my successes and my spectacular failures.
In what areas of your life are you fearless?
100 Great Breads book cover from Amazon
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Stephanie Stamm is the author of the New Adult/Young Adult urban fantasy A Gift of Wings.
Half-Seraph and skilled fighter, Aidan Townsend could no longer live with the consequences of being a celebrated member of the Forces of the Fallen. So he walked away from it all and created a human life—as singer/songwriter for a successful Chicago band. He keeps his angelic abilities hidden—even from himself. Lucky Monroe is about to turn eighteen, looking for a job, contemplating college, and coming to terms with her beloved grandmother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. When her cousin takes her to hear a popular local band, and she sees fiery wings extending from the back of the lead singer, Lucky is drawn into a world of Fallen angels, demons, and ancient gods. While eluding a supernatural stalker and surviving an attack by sword-bearing rogue angels, Lucky must figure out who and what she is willing to be, to save someone she loves.
She has also contributed stories (one fictional and one true) to the following volumes: