Isaac Newton has long been one of my science heroes—my earliest life journey was as a science and math geek. Now he is my newest baking hero.
Most everyone knows that Newton developed his theory of gravity after seeing an apple fall from a tree. Every high school physics student learns of his three laws of motion. He built the first practical reflecting telescope, confirmed the accuracy of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, and developed differential and integral calculus.
In consideration of his early work, Newton was appointed a fellow of Cambridge and then to the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematicks. His first lectures as Lucasian Chair were on optics. In them, he demonstrated his “celebrated phenomenon of colors,” proving that prisms don’t color light but separate colors already within light, and providing us a classic example of the craft of the scientific method.
Newton’s work on optics continued the work of others, particularly that of Descartes and Hooke. Though he rejected their theories, he built on their craft as scientists, as he explained in a letter to Hooke: "What Des-Cartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, & especially in taking ye colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants." [spelling original]
This is why Newton is my newest baking hero. Baking, as much as science, depends on the craft of the baker. And though I am no Newton of the baking world, I now see further than before because I too stand on the " shoulders of Giants."
The first breads I baked were from a Dell Purse Book called, Breads, that I found on the checkout line of a grocery store. I baked from that pamphlet for years, creating loaves which were better than store-bought, and brought friends running for a taste. Never, though, did they rise to be exceptional.
I met my first giant when I bought Peter Reinhart’s, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread. Through that book, I learned much about coaxing the full flavor stored deep within wheat’s kernel into the bread. Preferments, slow fermentation, and overnight retardation are techniques that are now part of my craft. I met my second giant when I attended a workshop at the King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center. There I learned from Jeffrey Hamelman how to make baguettes six ways. Now my craft includes the knowledge that there is always more than one way to create exceptional bread and the passion for experimentation. I met my third giant, Richard Miscovich, at two workshops, one on shaping and scoring and another on operating a wood-fired micro-bakery. Now my craft includes mixing and kneading larger batches by hand, more careful shaping and scoring techniques, wood-firing a brick oven, and loading, steaming and baking in that oven.
Beyond all of this, though, these three giants taught me that to be an artisan is to passionately seek to become better with each batch pulled from the oven. So this is my quest. And from them I know, too, that if I am true to this quest, my bread will be better for it. How much better, as Isaac Newton has taught me, depends on how many giants’ shoulders I climb onto.
Now, where is the next pair of shoulders?