Despite having lived and worked in the Northeast for more than thirty years, I was caught by surprise when I disembarked from the plane in Chicago by a blustery April morning: after a few years in the temperate Seattle area, I seemed to have completely forgotten what real cold felt like. When I mentioned it to Jacqueline – who had come by train to meet me at Midway Airport – she laughed: “Cold? This isn’t cold. To me this feels like spring already.” Really? She was wearing a woolen coat and hat and a thick scarf was wrapped several times around her neck. I guess all is relative, including weather. I fished my own hat, scarf and gloves out of my backpack (Jacqueline had kindly forewarned me to come prepared) and proceeded to follow her to her and Dado’s cozy home. Dado was baking pitas for lunch. It smelled delicious. I took out my camera and my notebook and we got to work, feasting as we talked. Such was the start of a glorious few days spent in this extraordinary couple’s company…
As you may already know if you have been following this blog, Dado and Jacqueline Colussi are the creators and developers of BreadStorm, the bread formulation software which delivers bakers from spending much time on calculations (for more on why I am a huge fan of the program, please refer to my original BreadStorm post). We bakers are a astonishingly diverse crowd: some of us seem to have fallen into a mixing bowl before we even took their first steps, others become professional bakers after a career in business, academia, music, healthcare, the law, education, journalism, etc., others yet become passionate bread-bakers but keep their full-time other jobs. Jacqueline and Dado don’t exactly fit into any of these categories: yes, they are passionate home bakers and yes, they have full-time jobs that, technically speaking, do not involve baking. Yet they make a living thinking about bread, more often than not twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week, and they bake as often and as much as they can.
Despite the fact that writing code doesn’t come naturally to most people, Dado and Jacqueline clearly love doing the hard stuff. They also exhibit an obvious delight in working with ingredients and observing changes in their doughs. The pitas are a case in point. Watching them pop up in the oven, Dado says he feels like a five-year old all over again. “No computer screen can match that. We create bread so that we can get off the computer and spend time in the physical world. Our goal in creating BreadStorm was to reduce to a minimum the baker’s need to use the computer so that he/she can go back to the dough as fast as possible and watch the pitas popping.”
Dado was born to a Finnish mom and an Italian dad. He grew up in Finland but spent lots of time in Italy and the food in his home was a rich blend of two cultures. Dado recounts: “The seed of my interest in bread-baking was planted back in year 2000 in Italy. At a family friend’s home, eating home-made pizza baked in an old wood-fired oven made a permanent impression on me. Then in 2004, when I was in graduate school in Germany, the sourdough made by a local baker knocked my socks off, I can still taste it today. A few years later at a friend’s forest cottage in Finland, without really knowing what we were doing, Jacqueline and I had a chance to try to bake bread in a wood-fired oven together. It was a massive oven, built in the center of the cottage, to provide warmth throughout, and it had a hearth. The pizza we made came out well, but the bread was a doorstop. A total failure.” In other words, a challenge…
Jacqueline and Dado had both been living in Stockholm for two years when they met. Cooking was a shared passion from the very beginning. Baking soon followed. But after several “doorstops,” they realized that they had no understanding of what was going on and that guessing and improvising would only take them so far. They needed to get to the point where they could make informed decisions. They turned to books: Jacqueline felt especially inspired by Emily Buehler’s Bread Science while Dado first discovered “bakers’ math” in Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. A curtain lifted: there was a system there and not only the wizardry of a prodigy baker.
Jacqueline and Dado come from different professional background but there is a palpable synergy between the two of them. Dado holds a master’s degree in computer science, with a minor in math. He’s been creating software professionally for the past seventeen years. One of his favorite past projects involved writing weather forecast broadcasting software for a television studio. He says: “I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make software easy for people to use. Many programmers work on systems which never talk to humans, but only to other programs, and that’s what I did at the beginning. Then I became much more interested in humans actually using the computer.” Around that time he met Jacqueline who had made it her profession to try and understand human/computer interaction. Talk about serendipity…
Jacqueline’s background is mathematics, visual arts and dance. “Pure math was my major in college. After college I was looking for a way to blend my interests in math and visual arts. I was actively trying to find my way, when I met a vision scientist through one of my undergrad math professors. ‘Vision scientist’ — that was a path I didn’t know existed, and it intrigued me. After volunteering in a vision lab for some months, I decided to go for a Ph.D. in vision. And in the years I spent working on my Ph.D., I began to find my own intellectual places: designing experiments to collect data about how we humans process what we see, whether leisurely gazing at the scene in front of us, or reacting in high-risk situations (such as the air traffic controller guiding airplanes to prepare for landing safely at a busy airport); developing mathematical models to describe this behavior; and then exploring how we can apply this knowledge to build more intuitive, easy-to-use computer interfaces for tasks in our daily lives.”
Like Dado, Jacqueline was exposed early to adventurous cross-cultural taste experiences : “I grew up in New Jersey baking bread for the family with my maternal grandma whose parents were from Croatia. But what with grad school and a postdoc job, all of which involved a lot of traveling for research purposes, I remained without regular access to a full kitchen for ten years. Looking back, I am not sure how I put up with that. I always hoped to get back to bread-baking…”
To offer a tool to bread-bakers is a joint effort propelled by Dado’s and Jacqueline’s urge to give back. “When I was in ninth grade,” says Dado, “a neighbor of ours started a programming club. I joined it. It was very casual. We met every weekend. In retrospect that neighbor transformed my life. He helped him discover a passion for mastering the computer.” As Jacqueline puts it, “were it not for other bakers in other parts of the world using BreadStorm and becoming part of the story, our job wouldn’t be nearly as compelling. We work in the context of a community.”
BreadStorm’s main idea is to let the human do what he or she does well, which is taking sensory input (temperature, consistency, texture, aromas, feel, look, response) and basing action on that, and to delegate to the computer what no human does with ease, which is computation. “Our brains have developed to respond to sensory stimuli in a way that no computer can (yet). So let’s use our brains for what they are good at and our computers for what they are good at.”
The Colussis have been baking their own bread since the summer of 2008. “Dado and I have developed our own respective styles of amateur bread baking, which are complementary to one another, perhaps even symbiotic.” Dado has come to love the rhythm of sourdough baking over the years: he makes two loaves of Chicago sourdough every week.
In addition he regularly experiments with other breads, for fun and to expand his repertoire: pitas, panettone, laminated doughs, rieska (a Finnish potato flatbread), etc. During my stay, he experimented making his signature Chicago Sourdough with two different flours (all-purpose and bread) and baked lovely and tasty Karelian pies (with a mostly rye crust and either a rice or a mashed potato filling).
Jacqueline’s bread-baking is for the most part driven by her interest in formula development: “I come at a bread in an analytical way, question myself about the role of each ingredient and its percentage, and then develop-bake-develop-bake-develop-etc, sometimes a dozen times or more, until a formula becomes stable (some would say “well balanced”) in my hands. I like to bake breads that challenge me to hone my formula-development skills. In this vein, I like to work with soakers and enriched doughs.” She bakes bagels once a week.
For my benefit, she went all out and also made beautiful egg breads…
…farro fruit and nut pull-apart rolls…
…and a walnut bread.
To say I was extraordinarily lucky to be spending time with Dado and Jacqueline is to put it mildly. Not only they are terrific hosts but they are lots of fun. We took long walks, went to the Art Institute…
…attended a meeting of the Chicago Amateur Bread Bakers, a group they founded in January 2011, rode the elevated train…
…had breakfast at La Fournette…
…roamed the streets…
But mostly we talked, I watched them cook and bake and we ate. They gave me tasks to perform with BreadStorm, both on my laptop and on the iPad, and documented my thought processes and actions. The experience was an eye-opener both for them and for me: I could see they were intrigued (maybe dismayed but if so, they hid it well!) by the way my brain worked and I was awed both by their methodical and rigorous approach and by the way their minds seemed to complement one another. ““Hey, Dado, I’d like to borrow your brain for a second!” Jacqueline makes a point, Dado listens attentively, thinks for a while and off they go, debating the best way to resolve an issue or answer a question. In a way, Dado is the chief engineer and she is the CEO. “There are levels of abstraction: down deep it is highly geeky. At the top there is a human being with his or her desires, aspirations, limitations, etc. Dado is firmly on the low level. I am more on top. We meet in the middle.”
Dado and Jacqueline generously allowed me to publish the formulas for all the breads they made during my stay with them. For ease of reference each of them is posted in a separate post:
Dado’s Chicago Sourdough (all-purpose and bread flour versions)
Dado’s Dough for Karelian Pies
Jacqueline’s Egg Bread
Jacqueline’s NYC Deli-Style Farro, Fruit and Nut Pull-Apart Rolls
Jacqueline’s Walnut Flax Seed Boule
What with the move and other obstacles life has thrown my way, I haven’t had much time to bake lately but when I do, I’ll be sure to go down the list and recreate these breads for our own enjoyment. I had such a good time eating them the first time around. Thank you, Dado and Jacqueline! And if the breads don’t come out of my oven as lovely and tasty as yours, I will definitely keep your observation in mind: “A failure is an opportunity to learn. A wonderful aspect of bread-baking is that there is always more to learn and that is true for all of us. There are so many unanswered questions and so many questions yet to be asked.”