CAMDEN — Retired teacher Bill Babb never planned on leading workshops on the art of sourdough bead making; it became a hobby borne out of a desire to make a friend with cancer happy.
“A friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer,” he said. "One time, she told me she hadn’t had a decent baguette since she left France years before and that set me on a course of trying to learn how to make the perfect baguette for her. At first I thought all you had to do is shape the loaf into a little snake, pop it into the oven and when it came out of the oven, I realized there was a lot more to it than that.”
Babb attended a “Beauty and the Baguette” workshop at King Arthur Baking in Vermont to make the perfect baguette.
“Every month, I’d try a new iteration and by the end, I was making a pretty good baguette,” he said, much to the approval of his friend, who thought he’d come pretty close to what she’d enjoyed in France.
Along with yearly conferences at Skowhegan Kneading Conferences, including more workshops at King Arthur to learn how to make sourdough in a wood-fired oven as well as how to make loaves from local grains, Babb proceeded to build to on his baking knowledge.
On the day of his most recent workshop through Five Town CSD Adult and Community Education, Babb had just finished forming 12 balls of sourdough bread in anticipation of the night’s class. Typically, it takes him more than 10 hours to make a loaf of bread, from mixing the starter to forming the dough to baking it off in the oven.
“It’s just the way I do it,” Babb said, “It’s by no means the only way to bake bread. I often just split up the time by making the dough at night, letting it rise overnight and bake it off in the morning. Or, I’ll start the dough in the morning, come back at night and bake it then, so it’s minimal time working the dough.”
His favorite methods for baking bread come down to three techniques.
“One, I’ll take a piece of discarded kitchen counter granite and put it in the stove with steam and that gives it a wonderful crust and crumb; that’s my preferred method for multiple loaves,” he said. “If I’m just baking one loaf, another way is to put the dough inside a clay cloche and use the moisture of the bread dough to steam as it rises in the oven. And then third way, just to show people what bread looks and tastes like without steaming, is to put dough in the oven without steam and let people compare with a taste test to see what they like best.”
Babb has taught about 15 workshops in the last few years through various organizations including FARMS in Damariscotta and Senior Spectrums.
“Because I was a schoolteacher, I like showing people what I’ve learned and talking to people,” he said.
In each of his classes, aspiring bread bakers learn how to shape, score and bake a loaf of bread. Babb may end up doing one more workshop for FARMS Community Kitchen in Damariscotta this spring, but space will be very limited. For those interested in learning how to bake bread, he highly recommends a video made by his friend Stu Silverstein on making Tartine Bread (see video link).
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org