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The Allure of the Tassajara Bread Book

A recent attempt at the Tassajara basic yeasted bread (wood-fired) … a little better than my 1977 results.

In the summer of 1977, my parents were at their summer cottage in Bamfield, off the west coast of Vancouver Island. My father was out fishing for chinook, my mother was lying in the sun reading.

Christy, my sister, and I were the only ones at the family home in West Vancouver. She tells the story how one sunny weekend she was out mowing the lawn while I was inside the house … baking bread.

“What’s wrong with this picture?” Christy likes to say when telling the story. You’d think it would be the other way around!

I had little recollection of this. Until the other day, when I pulled a book from the shelf: The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown. And Christy’s story came right back to me!

A modest bread book, a Zen bread book

My well-thumbed copy of The Tassajara Bread Book.

First published in 1970, I bought it in 1977, after its 19th printing. I had visions of lofty white pan loaves, made with the hippy ethos of organic ingredients and whole grain flour. This would be righteous bread, I thought, honest, made with careful attention to the sight, smell, and feel of the dough, the chipped bowl, the wooden spoon, the birdsong outside.

I’d made a few loaves at the house I had lived in near the University of British Columbia. My landlord, Penny, made her bread without a recipe, mixing flour, salt, yeast, and water until it just felt right. My own loaves looked nothing like Penny’s golden masterpieces. I needed a recipe.

One of Penny’s daughters told me about The Tassajara Bread Book1.

Today, in this age of lushly illustrated cookbooks, it looks like something from a different time. The title printed in calligraphic type, the circular cover drawing — a loaf of bread and sunflowers — resembled a cheaply printed literary magazine — the cover itself, made of coarse gold-coloured paper. The text was printed in brown ink.

Even the words conveyed a hippy ethos, or, more accurately, a Buddhist ethos. Edward Espe Brown, the author, was a Zen student working at a retreat centre in Tassajara, just east of the Bay Area in California.

“Vastly all are patient with me”

He was a cook in the kitchen and wanted to repay his gratitude for all his learning there. Writing a book about bread making, he thought, might earn some money for the centre.

The Tassajara Bread Book began with a $100 advance from Shambhala Publications and an initial run of 3,000 copies. There are now nearly 800,000 in print. It is considered a classic of bread baking, often cited by famous chefs and bakers as a major influence.

Brown went on to write Tassajara Cooking, a cookbook of vegetarian recipes served at the retreat centre.

What attracted me to the bread book was its departure from standard recipe formats, like those in The Joy of Cooking. Here is the dedication, the first words after the front matter:

DEDICATED
with respect and appreciation
to all my teachers
past, present and future:
gods, men and demons;
beings animate and inanimate
living and dead, alive and dying

Rock and Water
Wind and Tree
Bread Dough Rising

Vastly all
Are patient with me

The approach was mindfulness, developing a sense of gratitude and oneness with the bread, the kitchen, yourself.

Unlike anything in the Betty Crocker school of cooking

The book starts with the development of a “sponge,” a preliminary dough with the most fundamental ingredients, flour, yeast, water, and a sweetener, such as honey.

After a rest of 45 minutes to an hour, other ingredients are folded in, such as salt, oil, nuts, seeds, dried fruit.

Again, this was unlike anything from the Betty Crocker school of baking. It was more like today’s artisan methods, including the later addition of salt. The sponge resting time also resembles the “autolyse” stage of contemporary bread making, where the flour is given time to absorb the water, allow time for gluten development, and the begin fermentation.

Three pages are devoted to kneading dough and the same for shaping and “panning.”

A basic yeasted bread recipe is offered, followed by multiple variations, including rye, oatmeal, millet, barley, rice, and soy. An entire section devoted to sourdough!

“There are no mistakes”

A chapter called “A Composite of Kitchen Necessities” includes:

If you must cook,
please offer yourself
a substantial piece of emptiness.
Hold back nothing, 
until you experience offering,
“Eat me! And be nourished.”
Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom …

 … This means
there are no mistakes. You might do it
differently next time, but that’s because
you did it this way this time.

I loved these words, these instructions. There had never been a cookbook like this one!

A bit more patience

But the truth is, the recipes never worked for me at the time. My results were misshapen, dense loaves that were hard to eat, instead of soft and fluffy. The “sponge” method was too radical, too poetic for someone raised on the spare enumerations of The Joy of Cooking. I made many attempts at the essential Tassajara Loaf, nothing satisfied. It was beguiling and frustrating. I turned to the muffins and cookie recipes in the back of the book, had better results, then set it aside. For many years.

But the words are still valid today. “There are no mistakes,” and I am doing things differently now, and yet the same. Making bread with love and passion, but with a bit more patience, space. And that was always the dream of the 22-year-old me, kneading dough in the family kitchen on a summer’s day 43 years ago, while my sister pushed the lawnmower around in the back yard.


See you in the morning, Mildrith!
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#woodfiredovens #woodfiredbread #woodfired #sourdoughbread #baker #bakersofinstagram #bakersoven #woodfiredovenlove #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southpenderisland #penderisland #penderislandbc

See you in the morning, Mildrith!
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#woodfiredovens #woodfiredbread #woodfired #sourdoughbread #baker #bakersofinstagram #bakersoven #woodfiredovenlove #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southpenderisland #penderisland #penderislandbc
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Making this Olive Loaf is almost as delicious as eating it. Marinated Kalamata and Haldiki with zested lemons and spices. 
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Making this Olive Loaf is almost as delicious as eating it. Marinated Kalamata and Haldiki with zested lemons and spices.
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Bread love 🍞 ❤️ 🍞 

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Bread love 🍞 ❤️ 🍞

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Intense little Seed loaf!
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Intense little Seed loaf!
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A hint of brotgewürz, bread spice. A mix of caraway, anise, fennel and coriander lifts this seedy Mountain Rye into a different realm.
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  1. See the 2003 article, Flour Power, in the New York Times by Ann Hodgman.

1 thought on “The Allure of the Tassajara Bread Book

  1. I remember that day well!

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