Thursday, April 23, 2015

Facebook Inspired FaceTime Face-Off Bake-Off

Or: I Must Be Out Of My Yeast-Addled Mind!

Sometime last year I posted a few of my challah attempts on my Facebook page. I've yet to make what I consider a good enough loaf (still working on getting the braiding right), but I'm not half-bad when it comes to presentation and taste (according to Michele). An old friend, Hannah, whom I haven't seen in thirty-four years (although we've pinged each other from time to time on Facebook over the last couple of years) commented on one of my posts and expressed a desire for me to teach her a bit about bread baking. "We should set up a FaceTime call and you can teach me how to bake bread!" or words to that effect.

Now, I'll be the first person to tell you that I am not a baking instructor. I mean, I'm still only just getting my hands wet in this arena and my skills are tenuous at best and anyone who comes to me for tips is likely to leave with a lot of bad habits and questionable information. I said as much when I told Michele about the Facebook exchange.

Her reply? "You should do it." My reply to her reply? "What?!?" Her reply to my reply to her reply? "I think it'll be good for you as a baker. And I think it'll be fun!" 

At about the same time, I got a message from another friend of ours (local) who asked me to teach her how to make chicken pot pies. And my older sister, Karla, called from San Antonio wanting me to teach her how to bake scones. Universe to Carlton: Bloody-well get off your duff and teach some baking! Carlton to Universe: Ouch! Don't hit so hard! Michele to Carlton: See? Told you. Carlton to Michele: Side-eye.

After getting over myself, I set up a FaceTime session with my big sister and over the course of a couple of hours, did a passable job of teaching her how to bake scones. Proof of Concept Achievement unlocked! 

After rescheduling several times (hey, adults are busy bees) Hannah and I settled on a date we could both make. I sent her a few recipes to choose from, and, after she went on an unsuccessful flour hunt (who knew it was so difficult to get white whole wheat flour in San Francisco?), we decided on an oatmeal toasting/sandwich bread. I thought it was simple enough to start with and would give us the best possible outcome. We'd work each step together, so she could see what I was doing and emulate it. That way, we'd have pretty much the same visual, tactile, and olfactory cues for the different stages of baking.

And then I waited. And worried that I'd bitten off more than I could chew. I mean, scones are one thing; I've been making them for almost thirty years. Bread? I've made maybe four or six decent loaves in the last few years. What was I doing thinking I could teach anyone anything about bread? I had my doubts but something I've come to realize about myself reasserted itself: whenever I've taught anyone anything, I've learned quite a bit through the act of teaching. So, regardless of whether I was actually able to impart any wisdom the next day, I'd come away from the experience with something for myself.

Coordinating across four time zones, and almost three thousand miles, wasn't easy but it gave me time to pull everything together mise en place. That in itself helped calm me down so when Hannah called at her 10 a.m., I was ready. It's very interesting reconnecting with someone with whom I shared a relatively brief sliver of life, and doing so over a mutual desire to bake. It was lovely playing a little catch up, meeting her son and her husband, and introducing her to Michele (as she breezed in and out on various errands), all through the magic of the Interwebs.

Once we settled into the actual "lesson", I began to understand exactly what my goal would be: to have Hannah end up with a loaf of bread that was something other than a hockey puck...which is what she claimed to always bake. Maybe I couldn't teach her how to make a "perfect loaf" but I could definitely help her get past the block she was currently experiencing. We talked yeast, and did a little experiment with some of what she had there. We discussed process and technique and I think I gave her a better understanding of the concept of kneading. 

The thing about bread baking is that it comes with breaks built in because of the time needed for the dough to rise. This gave us opportunities to get things done around our abodes and to do more catching up. It also gave me the change to realize that Michele was right: I was having fun. I also realized that Hannah's enthusiasm was making it very easy to find ways to guide her and to share this experience. 

So, how did it turn out? Please to observe:

Yes. I remember that smile from three decades ago.

Under the watchful eye.

How meta!
And mine:

I had to have a slice....
Hannah's loaf didn't rise as much as mine because we, unfortunately, had to use different types of yeast. She also had to add more flour to the mix because of the extra water in her yeast preparation (something I'm going to do a little research on for myself). And we both agreed that she needs to knead better next time. But it wasn't a hockey puck! She said it tasted excellent and she was so happy with how things turned out that she wanted to bake another loaf the next day.

For myself, I identified more than a few areas that I'll need to work on but I was very, very happy with how the session went. Just seeing her smile at the end of it all was worth it! So, thank you Hannah; you were a fabulous student! You taught me a lot (even if you don't think such a thing is possible).

End Note:
There's more to this story but I'm still processing it. Considering myself as someone who is not only in the middle of the beginning of his baking journey, but also someone who has one or two things worth teaching, is a lot to take in. It's actually changing how I think about baking and what I'm learning for myself. I can guide even as I explore. Heavy concept.

End Note ends.

Currently listening to: Jonatha Brooke – Charming/Andrew Duffy's Jig



  1. Thank you, Carlton, this was a great experience. I learned the fundamentals of bread backing and gained much needed confidence! You made the FACETIME-DOUGH-OFF a lot of fun!

    1. An it was so much fun to teach you, Hannah! I'm looking forward to arranging our next class! :D