Larry has time to nibble on a piece of sticky bun and swig some water before turning to the baguettes. The sticky buns are new favorites; salt baguettes are classic.
"Oh, yeah, they say the dough waits for no one. Or that you always have to wait around for your dough. I don't know—if you do it right and time it right, you and the dough work together. It rises up to the edge of the bowl, ready to bake." He lays the baguettes into their bread pans, long, pale yellow triplets, and smoothes the dough gently, peering carefully to make sure the wrinkles and fissures have been erased. He pinches and pats their ends like a fond lover and tosses them into the hot oven.
"Fifteen years ago, I was doing some cooking for the family. To go with dinner, I bought a salted peasant loaf made by Judie's European Baked Goods [a Connecticut bakery]. I loved it and thought, Maybe I can do this. And I tried and tried and tried. And I came close, and then I let it rise in a bowl full of olive oil and used kosher salt. And that was it, that's all anybody wanted. They loved it."
He tosses handfuls of sharp Parmesan and rosemary into the baguette dough. Does he import Dean & DeLuca's finest? No, both the cheese and the dried rosemary are from Jones'; Larry believes in cooking where you're planted.
He baked when he was a police captain in Connecticut; he baked for friends and family as he contemplated early retirement; and he turned to baking as a vocation when he found himself in South Dakota, having accompanied his wife, Betty, to her new job as a political science professor (she is as admired at the university as he is in town). He has baked all the way through illness—he was diagnosed with Parkinson's ten years ago—and the ensuing, enduring tremors and stiffness, about which he sometimes jokes and never complains. He bakes to live and to love—and it works.
Having struggled with illness and loss, Larry Smith wakes up every day and chooses kindness and celebration—mixed with determined grace—and all of that is in these loaves. "We all have to make dinner, so you might as well make a nice one, sure. But you never—in our culture—have to make bread. So to choose that, it's an act of giving. An act of love, I think. Every loaf. And when you're living someplace isolated—whether it's a small town or a big city—it's an act of community, too."
After a full day's baking, Larry comes home to make pizza. He rolls out the dough quickly and firmly, figuring out his measurements for me, watching the onions melt in the pan and putting together a party's worth of pizza in minutes.
It is not your usual pizza. The crust is light and airy, a baker's dream, and the topping—mascarpone, caramelized onions, and roasted broccoli—enhances rather than crushes the dough. In heaven, this is the pizza they serve. Betty and I eat more than we would have thought possible and sigh, like all of Larry Smith's friends and family, students and customers—fed and loved and slightly improved.
Get the recipe for Larry Smith's Sticky Buns
Amy Bloom is the National Book Award-nominated and National book Critics Award-nominated author of Come to Me: Stories, Love Invents Us, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You: Stories and Normal.
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