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King Arthur Baker’s Book Is an Ode to Bread

  • Martin Philip scores baguettes before they go in the oven at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vt., on Nov. 2, 2017. Philip has written "Breaking Bread." (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Martin Philip removes baguettes from the oven at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, on Nov. 2, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Martin Philip, head baker at King Arthur Flour stacks baguettes just removed from the oven at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vt., on Nov. 2, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 07, 2017

In his life, Martin Philip has been an opera singer, an investment banker, an ultra-marathon runner, a father, an art student, a banjoist and an internationally competing bread baker.

But a writer?

“That’s crazy talk,” said Philip, now the head bread baker at King Arthur Flour, at an interview outside the Norwich-based company’s cafe in Dartmouth College’s Baker-Berry Library, in his subtle Southern drawl. “I don’t know if I can call myself that.” Up until a couple of years ago, he said, he’d barely written anything longer than an email since completing his college writing requirement.

And yet, to his great amazement, Philip just released his first book — from HarperCollins, no less. Part cookbook, part memoir, part lilting meditation on the art and history of working with one’s hands, Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes traces a long and winding road that began and ended with Philip in the kitchen, elbow-deep in dough. The book’s recipes — for dozens of kinds of bread, but also for biscuits, bagels, pies and jams — are held together by chronological memories that, for Philip, are among the most essential of ingredients.

“I was raised in the tradition,” he said, “of using my hands to speak through bread.”

Philip will share his expertise on Nov. 16 at the Norwich Public Library, where he will lead a discussion on the nuts and bolts of bread-baking, and he will read from and sign copies of his book at the Howe Library in Hanover on Dec. 1.

He’s only been baking professionally for the past 15 years or so. But he was also born to parents, and a grandmother he called Oma, who practiced baking bread as a holy weekend ritual, complete with pilgrimages to the local water-powered mill. Living in the working-class Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, they didn’t have much, but they were rich in the warmth of oven-fresh loaves made simply and cheaply with golden honey or blackstrap molasses, flecked with bran, sometimes containing any leftover oatmeal that hadn’t been fed to the dog. 

“At Oma’s house,” he writes in his book, “a sandwich prepared with store-bought bread would be served only with a side of apology.”

These family recipes stayed with him, and settled into an abiding sense of wonder toward the simplicity and familiarity of bread: “What does bread baking smell like in heaven? It smells like bread baking,” he writes in his book. “How could the afterlife possibly improve on the aroma of 540 identified volatile chemical compounds that defy scientific imitation creating the most universally accepted and loved smell in the world?” Alongside more sophisticated recipes that call for multiple days of prep work, he includes the homey, often Southern-inflected recipes he holds dear, such as “Mama’s Bread,” “Butter Biscuits” and “Corn Grit Hoecakes.”

At 18 he left home for Ohio, where he attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and met a soprano, Julie Ness, who would become his wife. This is the memory that goes with his recipe for “Black-Eyed Peas,” another dish from his childhood and the first meal he cooked for her.

After graduating, they moved to California together, then to New York City, where Philip bounced around as a temp, ultimately landing a job on the operations side of the investment bank Credit Suisse.

“Can we not talk about that part?” he joked in the Baker-Berry library, massaging his temples as if to rub out those years of suits and number-crunching. “I tried to sell my soul. It was no fun. Let’s leave it at that.”

When 9/11 happened, he was one of those whose shock and grief took the form of a radical lifestyle change, in his case brought on by a hard look at what his well-paying job was costing him. He realized how far he’d strayed from the physical, familiar habits that had defined not only his youth, but also the livelihoods that flourished just a few generations ago.

“There once was a time,” he writes, “when lives were linked to tangible trades and physical connections — the crush of a hammer between arm and stone, palms on spinning bobbins of cotton warp, fingers dragging across fresh-sawn staves in a cooperage, a baker’s arms bent at the dough trough, pulling and kneading — once, we lived at the intersection of our hands and our materials.”

And so he started baking in earnest. Clumsily at first — the heat from his oven melted his kitchen cabinets — but with the same principled diligence as his Oma down in Arkansas, and a newfound reverence for how the connection between making and living could become such a powerful “daily catechism.”

He started looking into professional baking jobs and came across an opening at King Arthur Flour, where he was rejected twice before someone decided to take a risk on an applicant who’d had no formal culinary training, and hadn’t worked in the food industry since his college job at a pizza place. That’s the memory accompanying Philip’s recipes for “Pizza Napoletana” and “Red Sauce.”

Upon getting the job offer, he and Ness dropped their lives in New York and moved to Vermont, settling in White River Junction, to start over — or, as Philip thought of it, to pick back up where he’d left off.

This full-circle story arc is the defining structure of Philip’s book, which he hammered out in about a year — with a little help from some friends, writers Sarah Stewart Taylor, of Hartland, and Jodi Picoult, of Hanover.

Several years prior, Philip had taught Picoult about bread-baking. While Picoult’s kids were taking voice lessons with Philip’s wife, she’d learned about his baking prowess, and asked him a favor: She was writing a novel whose protagonist was a baker, and would he mind helping her out with some research?

“He was terrific. He basically gave me a private tutorial,” Picoult recalled in a phone interview last week. “Oh, gosh. We made bialies, we made baguettes, we made boules. He was a terrifically patient, incredibly knowledgeable teacher.” He even helped her develop recipes that she would embed into her 2013 novel, The Storyteller.

When Philip told her about the premise of the book he was working on, she thought it had that “special spark” that would speak to readers: “Honestly, I think people look at cookbooks as how-tos, and assume that the people who wrote them have always been at the top of their game,” Picoult said. “To me, it’s really interesting to see a cookbook that tracks a journey from humble beginnings right up to the top.” Later that day, she sent an email introducing Philip to her agent. “The rest,” Philip said, “was history, thanks to her.”

He turned to Taylor, a writing teacher and author of both a mystery series and a series of young adult books, to serve as his “coach” during his year of writing. After reading his first few chapters she, too, was excited to help him find and carry out his vision for the book.

“I was blown away. I’d never thought of bread that way before. He has this sort of holistic way of looking at baking, where it’s not just about the ingredients, it’s also about the experiences and the history and the cultures out of which those recipes come,” she said in a recent phone interview. She added that she was inspired, “and frankly embarrassed,” by Philip’s work ethic, and by his emphasis on “getting to a place where your work is feeding your soul.”

She called it one of the most rewarding editing jobs she’d ever done. He may not think of himself as a writer, she said, “but he’s a writer,” not only because of his grasp on language but also because of how he uses language to elevate the potentially mundane task of food preparation into a meaningful one.

Though the book is full of passages that relate the history of handmade bread to the history of modern civilization, this one, in which Philip is deeply moved by a baking class he took at King Arthur prior to getting hired there, sums it up as best as any:

I saw stories with lines deeper than the bread’s color and form. There is much in that combination of flour, water, salt, sourdough culture, and hot oven. A form rises to tell a tale that began in Mesopotamia when nomads collected grains from cereal grasses. Those grains, which were saved and resown — the ancestors of modern wheat — enabled humans to settle and form societies. Over time, the breads evolved from flat shapes to larger loaves; grain grinding evolved from hand-turned rotary cairns to water- and wind-powered gristmills; and masons learned to make domed bake ovens, which modern builders continue to copy. Civilization in an edible package, delicious in color and form, moved by hands from field to shape to baker’s peel; I couldn’t look away, I had to make those loaves.

And make those loaves he did. He felt out of his depth at first — “I was so bad that even the intern began throwing tips and bailing water as I waited for the call: Mayday! All hands on deck to help the career-changer suck less!” — but with time and practice, and a healthy pinch of obsession, he improved. He rose through the ranks at King Arthur, and got to be so familiar with ingredients and their interactions that he was thinking up and tweaking recipes in his head.

A few years into his King Arthur career, a friend of his asked if he’d like to join his team in entering a bread-baking competition in Italy. Though that particular competition was, as Philip put it, “a comedy of errors,” with a late arrival and a broken bread sculpture squashing the team’s chance at a title, Philip found that the pressure of performance was an excellent reason to dive deeper into his craft than he would under ordinary circumstances, and as a result he felt closer to his work than ever before.

It was with this spirit, and tendency toward obsession, that he applied to represent Team USA in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, a Paris-based competition that’s held every three to four years and is regarded in culinary spheres as the Olympics of bread-baking. He made it to the final round.

“The recovery process continues,” he writes. “I could see and feel how much I had grown. I had found a connection to my own self, a way to weave what I am, past and present, into what I make.”

Even after rising through the bread-baking world like so much fermenting dough, the holiest thing for Philip is giving others — and himself — his daily bread.

Mama’s Bread

Yields two 9-by-5-inch loaves.

Philip writes: “We are in the midst of a baking renaissance; more and more of us are using food as an opportunity to connect ourselves to our environment through eating, to handcraft through mindful ingredient choices and traditional methods. If you are new to bread making I encourage you to begin here, with this basic loaf. You can find, or return to, your own connection with this timeless staple, as I did.”

Ingredients

4½ cups all-purpose flour

4¼ cups whole-wheat flour

3 cups water

1 tablespoon plus ¾ teaspoon salt

1 heaping tablespoon dry instant yeast

¼ cup unsalted butter

1 tablespoon plus ¾ teaspoon honey

unsalted butter, for brushing the crust (optional)

Steps

Melt the ¼ cup butter. Calculate temperatures. Desired dough temperature: 76 degrees F.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flours, salt and yeast. Add the water, melted butter and honey. Mix with your hand or the handle end of a wooden spoon until the dough forms a shaggy mass. With some doughs you may have to knead for a few strokes in the bowl to incorporate everything. If you find it easier, after some stirring, scrape the dough out of the bowl with a plastic scraper onto your work surface and knead briefly with your hands just until the dough comes together. Resist the urge to add more flour. Scrape the dough off the work surface and return to the bowl.

Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl and allow the dough to rise, covered, for 2 hours at room temperature, folding as directed below.

Fold after 30 and 60 minutes, then leave untouched for the second hour.

Divide the dough into 2 pieces weighing about 900 grams each. Preshape as tubes. Cover and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes.

Spray or lightly grease two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans. Shape the dough as pan loaves. Place the dough in the prepared loaf pans, seam side down, pressing with your knuckles to evenly fill the pan.

Cover and proof until the dough is 1 to 1½ inches above the top of the pan, 1 to 1 ½ hours.

Toward the end of the proof, preheat the oven to 400. Bake on the middle rack for 40 to 45 minutes, rotating after 30 minutes, until the top and sides are firm and the loaves are a deep golden brown. Remove the bread from the pans and place on a cooling rack. For a softer crust, rub butter directly on the crust after baking, while the bread is still warm.

On Nov. 16, Martin Philip will share tips and techniques fromBreaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey in 75 Recipes at the Norwich Public Library, starting at 6:30 p.m. Ample time will be allotted for questions. Philip will discuss, read from and sign copies of his book at the Howe Library on Dec. 1, from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. For more information about Philip, visit his website, www.breadwright.com.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.