‘Daily (Modern Still Life Oil Painting of Loaf of Bread)’ by Matthew Hopkins, 2015, oil on panel

The Year in Bread 2019

January 01, 2020 · 1004 words · 5 minute read

I started making bread in 2018 simply as an exercise in having some control over my life: I was in my senior year of college, the structures of my life were crumbling around me like I was standing in the middle of a house during a tornado, and I fucking love bread. So, I learned to bake bread and fell in love with a fickle, delicious hobby that continues to blossom like active-dry yeast in water no warmer than 110°F. (Sorry.)

For the record, here’s what my first loaf looked like:

My first sad loaf

Look at that loaf. That sad motherfucker. I take pity on that loaf, as I take pity on the man who made that loaf.

Meanwhile, this year has been much kinder in the making of bread — to a point, but more on that later. Therefore, here’s a quick review of my loaves of yester-year. (This post is sponsored by the portrait mode on my budget Motorola phones playing pretend at being an actual good camera.)

First off, the big major change immediately was being gifted a stunningly gorgeous Le Creuset dutch oven, which enabled me to ditch the $5 loaf pan that I clearly didn’t know how to use for this beautiful red vessel, paired with this recipe for no-knead bread from Budget Byes which became the foundation of most of my bread to come. (Partly because I was scared of kneading, partly because I was just lazy enough to be enamored with the set-and-forget nature of no-knead breads.)

Thus, behold:

my first dutch oven loaf

It’s a little burnt on the top, but it was brushed down with olive oil mid-way through the baking (when you remove the lid for the dutch oven per the above recipe), so this was pillowy in the middle and crackly on the outside in a charming way.

emily soda bread

Next up I was given my girlfriend’s family’s irish soda bread recipe — a sincere mark of trust — and had surprising success on the first go. It was my first time working with buttermilk, making it more of a batter than a dough; there was also a not insignificant amount of stress regarding the ratio of raisins to carroway seeds. But this dense and flavorful bread, kept moist by melting butter into every slice, brought me back to when I traveled to Ireland before high school and had literally no ability to appreciate things of real value, such as freshly baked bread.

faux brioche

BREAD OF THE YEAR here, no joke. This was July, right after I had left my first job out of college, so I was actively trying to do the work to become Not Miserable again, and that meant experimenting with the bread I’d been making, alongside branching out to things like homemade pizza. (Great idea: make pizza, which requires turning the oven up to max, in July.) So this time around I made the same no-knead recipe as before (all hail Budget Bytes, seriously), but I brushed on an egg mixture before? midway? through baking to make a faux-brioche, and it was fantastic. The crumb came out more compressed than normal, the crust had an egg-y pizazz, and loaf stayed moist for the three hours, tops, it took to eat the whole thing.

bad viking bread

This, on the other hand, was a bad bread. We were in the thick of History channel’s criminally overlooked VIKINGS and I was like Yggdrasil-this, and longboat-that, and the opening credits theme greeted me every time I woke. So I found this recipe from a home-school mom’s website and though it looks very pretty it was brutally dry and tough, despite tripling the amount of honey in the recipe. Hopefully not authentic, because I would not want to reach Valhalla and find this waiting for me.

god damn banana bread

Bananas are a gift to us all. So useful are they that they can fill our sandwiches, become ice cream or other perfect frozen treats, and even become bread. Moist, chocolate-filled, perfectly-crusted banana bread. This recipe has given me much joy. As the weather turned in mid-November and the darkness started to reach out with its tendrils, I put in a touch of espresso powder and some Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder to really bring out the darker side of the chocolate alongside the sweetness of the bananas.

slab of focaccia

And then THIS THICC BOI ARRIVED. Made on the day of Christmas Eve, this no-knead focaccia delighted my family simply by existing next to a plate of olive oil with red pepper flakes and italian seasoning. I love that the ugliest photo possible features it straining against the borders of the image like a leavened leviathan.

This was delicious, though, and a much needed course correction after months of making bad traditional bread — my loaves were coming out squat and sad, with dense crumbs that felt practically undercooked. (Hindsight: they were undercooked.) Despair was settling in until my girlfriend bought me Bread Illustrated by America’s Test Kitchen, and I learned the basics of the chemistry behind my beloved bread. Thus I learned that yeast is not forever, and my year-old bread machine yeast, dutifully tucked in the back of the fridge, was not exactly in its prime anymore, unable to lift the strands of the gluten network, like the beams of a crumbling railway bridge, as the superhero it once was.

New yeast, new world. My breads are coming out much better now, thank you, and armed with four-hundred and thirty-two pages of bread recipes (plus another 100 pages of just sourdough) and a brand new KitchenAid stand mixer, the journey has only just begun. What a totally harmless, not at all obsessive hobby, right?

scott pligrim bread makes you fat

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