Being wary of things that are cheap and easy
A midnight message
Last night my phone buzzed as I rolled over to get comfortable in bed.
I should know better but I reached out and patted the covers til I found my phone and glanced at the notification.
It was a credit card notification for a grain mill I’ve been waiting on.
“But Daniel,” you say, “I thought you already have a grain mill.”
I do and I feel bad about buying another one. The old one still works great after a dozen years and will likely work another dozen or more but it’s big and my kitchen is small.
I don’t have enough counter space to keep my appliances out.
If I want to use the KitchenAid I go into the back room and get it and bring it into the kitchen and put it on the counter. I use it, clean it, and put it back.
Same with the InstantPot.
Same with the flour mill. And the flour mill is heavy. (If you want my old flour mill, let me know.)
So I decided to get a smaller mill that will fit behind my knife block on the counter and stay there.
And last night my phone buzzed to say that the charge has gone through. I ordered it weeks ago but it was back ordered and they said they would charge me before shipping it once it was available.
I rolled back over and fell asleep thinking of some of the final recipes in my bread book that I’d like to retest with some freshly ground flour.
This weekend my mom was telling my sister and me about when she bought a sewing machine during a year that our family was in Palo Alto for my dad’s first sabbatical.
A sewing machine was expensive, but in those days clothes were really expensive too.
Now we can find everyday clothes at reasonable enough prices that fewer people seem to make their own clothes anymore.
Patterns used to be really cheap or given away as part of a promotion.
Now, my sister said, some of the patterns she’s seen are more expensive than finished pieces of clothing.
It’s true about a lot of my hobbies. The wheat that I buy is more expensive than the flour I can buy at the store. There’s less consistency of the bread I bake from flour I mill because the big mills make sure that the protein levels and ash content are roughly the same from bag to bag by blending, bolting, and testing.
I’ve loved writing this book as it’s forced me to focus on bread baking in ways that I hadn’t before.
Bread baking is, at the same time, pretty simple and amazingly complex.
It’s simple in that we can combine flour, water, salt, and yeast and get something pretty good.
It’s complex in the number of variations from our choice of flours, to the amount of water we use, to whether we use a yeast or a sourdough or a preferment, and especially to the amount of time we introduce to the process.
Just add water
I start my book with a pancake recipe.
If you’ve never baked before and don’t really cook, we can get the first step of baking down - the mixing of ingredients - by making pancakes.
The last doughs I cover in the book are really hard to handle. They’re the high hydration doughs that you use to make ciabatta bread and other rustic loaves. They’re just a little thicker than pancake mix.
But there are a lot of doughs in between.
Years ago when I wanted to make pancakes for my daughters I turned to Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” book and knew that I immediately liked this man.
Before he gave a recipe for pancakes he railed against the shelves and shelves in grocery stores that are filled with instant pancake mix.
I don’t remember his recipe but it was probably flour, milk, eggs, salt, sugar, and baking powder. Maybe there was butter or oil in it as well.
But I do remember his indignation.
Then again, Maggie makes pancakes from a mix and I love that she does. As simple as it is to make them from scratch, there’s little chance that she’ll have milk, eggs, and baking powder. A mix that she can just add water to and cook makes complete sense.
So as much as I nodded my head along with Bittman, I do understand the people for whom mixes make a lot of sense.
Another friend tells me that it’s perfect for him for his kids. They wake up and want pancakes, he has the instant version that comes in a container already measured out. You just add water, close the lid and shake, and you have pancake mix.
Makes perfect sense.
I looked online and found one that makes five servings of three pancakes each for $3. Even if you call that two servings, it’s $1.50 a piece and you don’t need anything that’s not in the package other than water.
A mix too far
I’m thinking of all of this because I got an advertisement from a farm that I buy vegetables from.
They have a new product that is a focaccia mix.
I have a focaccia recipe in my book. You mix flour, water, salt, yeast, and olive oil. You let it sit for a few hours or overnight. You pour it into an oiled baking dish and pour oil on top and dimple the dough. Sprinkle salt on it. Let it sit some more. Bake it.
Here’s a link to an earlier version of my focaccia recipe.
That’s it. Total cost of ingredients is under $3.
This mix costs $25.
“Well, Daniel,” you say, “the package says you can make two focaccias from the mix.”
OK. We can do that for about $5.
“But a mix… it has to be easier.”
In addition to the mix you need to provide yeast, olive oil, and either honey or malt syrup.
If you look back at the standard focaccia recipe, the only thing you’d have to buy yourself would be salt and flour. The price of flour is going up but it isn’t $25.
What we lose
I don’t want to have to sew my own clothes so I suppose I’m buying mixes or table-ready equivalents in other settings.
I never use pancake mix but they are inexpensive and only require water.
This focaccia mix feels more like a stone soup. It is very expensive and doesn’t provide much.
The focaccia you get is, no doubt, very good. It may even be $14 good. But you can bake a $14 good focaccia for $3.
I’m sure there are or will be cheaper focaccia mixes. Some may even be just-add-water easy.
Things get cheap and easy and we stop doing things for ourselves.
And then we forget it is even possible to do things for ourselves.
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 103. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe