She and I have followed each other for a while now, and exchanged questions and answers about our respective bakes. Like me, she is a very keen amateur, who squeezes in her “extreme hobby”, as she calls it, around her professional life. We have become friends, #instafriends if you will. We just took our relationship to the next level: we started sending private messages to each other ! 😉
But she is not the only online friend that I have made in the last few years. These are friends that I only know in the virtual world, though I have been fortunate enough to meet some of them in the real world. Despite coming from a vast array of different backgrounds and global locations we share common interests: cooking, baking, bread making, food and wine, photography, beauty. And that was all we needed to become friends.
One such friend, Lisa, a fiery and passionate red-headed Yorkshire lass, who lives in Aberdeenshire, and has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of food, ingredients and flavours, bakes the most delicious creations and offers me advice and support like a dear sister. When we first met in real life, when I took a trip to Stonehaven just so I could taste her tarts at the farm shop that she then worked in, my mum feared for my safety. “But you don’t know the woman! You could be murdered!” she said. I felt that dinner in the Stonehaven Hotel was a safe enough rendezvouz. I brought her shortbread that I had made and she brought me nougat. We have been friends ever since, enjoying a foodie day out when she came down to Glasgow in Autumn of last year. We hope to do the same again this Spring.
Another inspirational woman that I have become friends with is Liz. She and her husband own a small farm in the Trossachs, and after spending years selling their bread at farmers market, rain or shine, they opened up their own farm shop a couple of years ago. Naturally I wanted to show support and finally meet this woman who had emailed me her basic bread recipes and advice (and her own story) when I was floundering around with bread a few years ago. I travelled to Callander to Achray Farm Shop, met Liz, picked up a few goodies, and headed home again to Glasgow. I have since been back with my friend and kids to her newer, larger premises. She had the balls to bake bread for her community on market stalls and in her own shop. I am in awe of her.
As for Carla, the woman I affectionately call “my Italian mummy” (not because she is elderly but because she offers endless and invaluable advice about Italian produce and cuisine, so freely and so generously, with a gentle authority, that I feel as though I am being guided by a more experienced relative), I would know nothing about pasta without her. She lives in Rome; grows an abundance of fruit, vegetables, and herbs; cooks, bakes, teaches, sells; and shares everything she knows without a second thought. She has guided me through my pasta experiments and writes the most encouraging and positive comments on my Instagram images. I feel very fortunate to know her and always swell with pride when she admires something that I have produced.
Michelle, whose knowledge and passion to understand bread is second to none, inspires me daily. I am so pleased that she has also taken premises on so that her community may eat the bread that she bakes with such care and attention in the Margot Bakery in East Finchley in London.
There is a list as long as my arm of people that I have come to know through social media. Some became friends first on Facebook, like Jodie, the slightly eccentric Scouse doctor who bakes and cooks endlessly for her “hungry hubby”, family and colleagues. Or Doreen, who owns a catering company, but never fails to amaze me with her new recipes and ideas, which she always shares online. Sam, whose photography skills have spurred me on no end, also has a great blog with some lovely recipes. I have made friends through the Edinburgh and Glasgow Bakers groups, first online, then in real life, like the unquestionably lovely and handsome Barry, who my kids affectionally call Big Fish Barry because of the fish tank in the restaurant that he used to manage where we went for pizza occasionally.
I know that not all interaction between people online is positive, but my experience with people in the field of food and drink has been resoundingly positive. There are a few “head up their arse” types out there, but most people are just so passionate about what they do, that they want to share that with others and continue to gain new skills and knowledge. Celebrity types can sometimes get caught up in being famous and their reputation, but many, like Nigel Slater, Dan Lepard and Richard Bertinet, are usually willing to reply to technical questions with an encouraging air.
So, why the pretzels at the start? Why the dentist? Why the post? Because bread @venture_nj, AKA Jackie, made them recently and I had commented that I wanted to try them. She made them again and we exchanged further discussion about different recipes. I decided yesterday that it was time to give them a go.I turned to my Jeffrey Hamelman book. He is the ‘go to’ bread chap for many, and I like the background he gives to each bake. He also lists his recipes in baker’s percentages as well as domestic measurements, which, if you are wanting to go all technical, is quite handy. I realised straight away that I had a technical knowledge deficit when I read that the recipe required Diastastic Malt Powder. I had liquid malt extract in my fridge from making bagels a few weeks ago and wondered if I could substitute. As usual, I turned to my far more knowledgeable online friends for advice. Brett, Head Pastry chef and head of Development at The Bertinet Bakery in Bath, is *my* ‘go to’ bread guy. He is probably one of the busiest professionals that I am friends with on Instagram, yet he is always happy to answer questions and offer advice. He has been incredibly supportive of my efforts, for which I am very grateful. He said I could substitute with the liquid malt and that was good enough for me (I dissolved half a teaspoon in the measured out water).
Despite initially forgetting to put in the butter, I eventually produced a rather stiff, and what I thought was unpromising, dough.Though still stiff after a two hour bulk (with one fold half way through) it seemed a little more supple.
I then divided the dough, as per the recipe, and tightly rolled each piece, before allowing to rest on the worktop under a cloth for about 20 minutes.
Then, the real fun began…shaping. I have shaped baguettes enough times to make a decent fist of rolling out dough, but I just couldn’t get any purchase on the pretzel dough. I removed all trace of flour on the work top and persevered.
But rolling out the dough to an 18″ sausages (thicker in the middle with knobbly bits on either end – my wording, not Hamelman’s) was the easy bit. Hamelman’s book provides illustrations to help with shaping, so I got twisting and flicking until I managed a semblance of pretzel shape.
And, I’ll be honest with you, I was very pleased with it. The more I made, the better I got. Imagine! 😉Eventually, I had shaped them all. In accordance with instructions, they proved for 30 minutes, then went in to the fridge to form a protective skin. Protection from what? You may well ask? This is the scary bit.
You see, pretzels are supposed to be bathed in Lye before firing them into the oven to bake. I believe this gives them their chewy and shiny crust. But Lye is a very caustic solution of Sodium Hydroxide. In order to dunk your pretzels in it, you must don rubber gloves (to the elbow) and some people even recommend using safety goggles. I don’t know about you, but the prospect of dealing with, never mind baking with, a solution that could dissolve flesh didn’t really appeal to me. If you know me at all, you will know that I like to be as authentic as possible in everything I cook and bake, but, frankly, this was a step too far, even for me. Thankfully, Jackie (my new New Jersey buddy) had offered an alternative of a solution of Bicarbonate of Soda (I used 5 cups of water and one third of a cup of bicarb or Baking Soda in the US) which I was much more comfortable with using.
Anyhow, I duly poached the proved pretzels, in pairs, for 30 seconds in the simmering solution, drained them briefly, slashed them at their thickest part sprinkled with sea salt, then baked them in a hot oven for just under 15 minutes. And, boy, was I delighted with how they came out. They totally looked the part, or what I thought looked the part (experts please step in and tell me if I have totally got the wrong idea).
Once they had cooled enough to pick them up, the kids and I got stuck into them. They were chewy and salty on the outside, with a pillowy and pale interior. They had that characteristic pretzel flavour and we deemed them to be delicious and worth making again.
But all of this wouldn’t have been possible, or half as much fun, if it hadn’t been for some of my #instafriends. When looking for advice, there is always someone there; when sharing the process in photographic evidence, another baker will always be on hand to comment, to encourage when it is going well and make suggestions when it is not; and when you are having that proud as punch ‘look what I made’ moment, there are many others who feel your pride and congratulate you on what you have achieved. In my experience, it’s not competitive or unpleasant. It’s the opposite: it’s warm, welcoming, generous and kind. People inspire each other. People learn from each other. My baking and food community shares and supports and that is why I value it so much.
My online friends mean a great deal to me and our friendships offer me companionship, laughter, encouragement and consolation every day of the year, because every day I make and bake in my kitchen or share what I have enjoyed when I am out and about. As much as I love to create, I love to share new ingredients, products or businesses that I have found and enjoyed. I also get pleasure from seeing what other people have made, eaten, or discovered. It’s not about showing off: it’s about connecting with people and making the world that little bit smaller.
I wouldn’t be the baker that I am today without this community. But I also know that I will continue to develop because of it. This makes me happy.
#instafriends that I have mentioned, but there are so many more in my profile if you care to look @francesbakes: