by Les Saidel - March, 2011
Many people have asked me how I got into baking and where I learnt the art. That is the subject of this short article.
My earliest memories are olfactory related, which is not surprising as I grew up in the home of a master baker and caterer (my mother Savta Phyllis Saidel, who is our resident cookie guru in Saidels Bakery). We all remember the nostalgic smells of our youth, but to me these were so commonplace and taken for granted, that I never imagined that a house could smell anything else besides wonderful. Growing up with a caterer for a mom, you learn some tricks along the way and from a very early age you could find me decoratively folding napkins, constructing a strawberry/meringue/cream pyramid and making dazzling displays with cutlery. However, despite my exposure to everything baking and cooking from age zero, I never actually went solo and discovered the joys of baking myself, until age 13.
Rabbi Shlomo Warshawsky was more to me than just our Talmud teacher. He was an accomplished accordionist, an athlete and an avid health nut. At the impressionable age of bar mitzvah he rapidly became my role model. I owe my love of running and bread baking to him. One day instead of pulling out his tractate Brachot, he brought all his baking paraphernalia to class and proceeded to teach us how to bake whole wheat bread. I was hooked. Funnily enough, with all the many types of baking my mom did, she never really delved much into bread baking and this was a wonderful novelty for me. I whined, bribed and cajoled my parents into buying me a hand operated wheat grinder and set about duplicating Rabbi Warshawsky's feats at home. (As a matter of interest, the core of that original wheat grinder still operates in Saidels Bakery, albeit with certain modern mechanical and electronic addendums). Around the same time I also started running. The combination of the running, exhaustive manual wheat grinding and eating healthy whole wheat bread, turned a hencetoforth pudgy bespectacled youth into a lithe, sport and nutrition loving adolescent.
The next most influential teacher along my baking yellow brick road was my Uncle Manny. We were on summer vacation in the coastal South African city of Port Elizabeth, staying with my aunt and uncle. Obviously I could not go on vacation without taking my staple gear - the trusty wheat grinder, my baking pans and other associated gadgets. I proudly decided to impress my relatives with my baking prowess and set about baking a loaf of 100% whole wheat and honey bread. Anyone who knows anything about baking knows that a 100% whole wheat anything is a very heavy, dense creation. I proudly presented my work at the table when accidentally the loaf slipped from my hands and caused a resounding thud on the wooden floor boards. My Uncle Manny, always the comedian, retorted "What just happened? Was there an earthquake?" A harmless jest to be sure, but privately it irked me and I resolved to better myself and learn more about the art of bread making so that not only I would would enjoy my bread baking but others as well.
From this stage on, baking and nutrition became something of an obsession with me and I turned what was until then an innocent hobby into a doctoral thesis research. I began reading, experimenting and baking, baking, baking.
This hobby/passion remained with me after I married and I continued to bake, bake and bake more at home and learn more about the art of baking from a new resource - the internet.
When we decided to open our own family bakery - Saidels Bakery, I realized that despite my not insignificant baking skills, I still lacked the professional polish and industrial know-how to turn this into a business. I then studied with the San Francisco Baking Institute headed by master pastry chef Michel Suas. I already knew most of what there was to know about the art of baking, but here I learnt about the science of baking and stuff like Cereal Chemistry and Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) for maintaining a hygienic bakery environment. This study filled in a lot of the why's behind the how's.
It's one thing baking your own 4 challahs for shabbat, but quite another baking 300 challahs in one day. I had to learn to develop speed and consistency in my work which, until then, was not a requirement. Obviously this has steadily been improving over time and will continue to as times goes on. The entire baking process is one of never ending learning. You discover things you never even dreamed of, things closely related to the baking process and things as esoteric as the different kinds of bugs that infest flour, wheat kernels, sesame seeds, sugar etc.
The perfect bake is an elusive holy grail, one that will be accompanied by unceasing learning and discovery, and I have so much yet to learn