Speaking of philosophical musings, tonight is going to be another one.
Since I’ve been writing on here, I’ve described baking as a science, an art, a passion, and a craft par excellence. I do NOT think I have described it yet (and if I’m wrong, send me the quote and I’ll thank you for reading!) as alchemy.
Alchemy was an extension of natural philosophy, and is the root of the fields of medicine, chemistry, and pharmacology. The most well-known goals of alchemy were turning lead into gold, discovering the key to eternal youth/ immortality, and creating a semblance of life outside of the natural order. Alchemists were famous (and in many cases, infamous) for their secretive nature. Formulas and concepts were recorded not just in notebooks, but in beautifully embellished pages, with elaborate symbols and diagrams representing materials or abstracts that would only be understood by other alchemists- or more likely, the alchemist that created them alone.
This was chemistry in its infancy- the complex interplay between different substances was understood at only the most basic empirical level, and frequently was described using mystical notions derived from the cultures or religions they were created within.
In summary, alchemy was a combination of art, science, and magic.
What, I may ask, is a better way to describe baking?
Consider for a moment, the following:
– The pounded seed of a tall, golden grass.
– Water from the nearest well or brook.
– Crushed, translucent white rock from a certain hole you found.
Combine them all into a curious, stiff paste.
Let it sit until it has swollen.
Place next to your fire to see what happens.
The result is bread- a source of carbohydrates and has kept humans alive for over 10,000 years.
This was done before humans understood yeast, the Maillard reaction, the development of gluten, or the result of different temperatures being used on the dough.
For all intents and purposes, this is what you did to magically generate food from whatever it was you found around you. Cooking was similar, but easier to understand at the time. It was easy to see meat change and blacken as it roasted, or vegetables warming and softening as they cooked. Much of the action that makes baking possible, however, happens at the microscopic level- beyond human vision, and therefore, possibly beyond comprehension at the time.
Bakers today have quite a few advances and advantages over our Stone Age ancestors, but while the ingredients, tools, and understanding may have changed and advanced, the basic rule has not:
Take fresh ingredients.
Prepare and combine them well.
Keep track of how so you can do it again.
Feed yourself and others.
and of course,