My husband made bread for years. And then he didn’t. The-didn’t period lasted a lot longer than the-did period and then, just recently, he began baking bread again … a lot … and seriously … and beautifully. And soon after he started baking again, he started accumulating breadmaking gear. Some beautiful, like the linen-lined rising baskets, and some not so beautiful, but extraordinarily useful, like his DIY proofing box. But let me back up a few decades.
When we first got married, neither of us cooked and neither of us baked. But, since we had to eat, and since I was really interested in cooking, I learned and soon we had an amenable division of labor: I made dinner and he did the dishes. It’s still the way we do things, except that a few years after we got married he took up something that I never did – breadmaking.
In the beginning, he made loaves in pans. And then, when we bought Bernard Clayton’s groundbreaking The Breads of France, he dared free-form loaves. Then there was the focaccia era and the sourdough phase. And then there was nothing. And now there are baguettes and boules, miches made with a mix of grains and varying levains and poolishes. It’s exciting and it’s very delicious.
Michael makes his poolish – a kind of baby starter made of whole-wheat flour, a smidgen of yeast and water – in the evening, lets it bubble to the brim of the quart container, stirs it down and refrigerates it. The ‘real’ stuff starts the next morning, when he makes a dough with the poolish.
In times past, the dough rose in various places depending on the temperature in the house. If it needed a warm spot, it got wrapped in terry towels and put near the warmest wall. If it had to be cool, it went into the cellar. And sometimes it just got moved from place to place to keep it happy.
But as of a couple of months ago, the bread has its own home: a proofing box made out of a 70-quart Igloo cooler, which, because it’s insulated, can keep things warm as well as it keeps things cold. Yes, 70 quarts is big, but when Michael makes bread, he makes lots of it.
As clever as Michael is, he didn’t come up with this brilliant idea on his own – and he wanted me to tell you this. He found most of it on the web and he apologizes that he didn’t know I was going to write about it, and so he didn’t save links to the many sites he consulted.
Before I describe the ingenious box, just a little bit on breadmaking. Michael’s bread, like many artisan breads, needs a slow rise, or proofing period. For a long time, he preferred a slow cool rise, but the breads he’s making these days benefit from a warmer rise, making the proof box ideal for them.
So here’s how the box goes. The heating element is a microwaveable neck warmer that my friend Sally made for me for Christmas. Smart, right? It’s amazing how warm it gets and how well it keeps the heat in the cooler.
Michael drilled a hole in the cap on top of the cooler, the cap that you’d use to drain liquid, and inserted an instant read thermometer. He removed the handle on the opposite end, so the cooler wouldn’t wobble.
When he first started, he just put a cooling rack on top of two plastic take-out containers and that was his shelving. Then, when he needed more shelves, he used wood from wine boxes to make ‘siding’ that would hold cooling racks/shelves. But now, the proofer is permanently tricked out. There are side and back standards to hold shelves and the shelves – racks from a triple cooling-rack gadget – have been snipped to size. The neck warmer remains.
It’s all pretty cool (or warm) and it gets a workout. Michael’s still experimenting with shapes and sizes and starters, but these days when he bakes, he’s likely to make a dozen baguettes at a time, a 5-pound miche or a quartet of boules.
We give a bunch of loaves away every week, but, and I bet this goes without saying, we’re eating more bread chez us … more butter and cheese, too.