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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The world is full of excellent cooks and bakers who make their living doing something else. Well, today, a story about one of them - Michael Zusman. He's the co-author of a new cookbook, called "The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home, Recipes for Homemade Bagels and Pastrami, Better Than You Can Buy." Zusman makes great bread but as NPR's Daniel Zwerdling learned, the baker's powers go far beyond the kitchen.

MICHAEL ZUSMAN: So you've got some lovely Red Star yeast.

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: There are two important things about Michael Zusman that you learn when you bake with him. First, his real job has nothing to do with bread. He's a judge.

ZUSMAN: Full time - wear a black robe every day.

ZWERDLING: Does somebody yell, oyez, oyez, as you walk in?

ZUSMAN: Not quite. I do get the "all rise."

ZWERDLING: Zusman presides in Portland, Ore. He handles drug cases, small claims, fights between landlords and tenants. But he had a few days off, and he stopped by Washington, D.C. And this judge made some of the best bialys I've ever had, right in my own kitchen.

ZUSMAN: You've got Domino sugar...

ZWERDLING: And here's the second thing I learned about Zusman. He stumbled into baking, and it helped save him. Zusman spent more than 20 years working as a lawyer. He sued companies. And he says his work literally made him sick. He had trouble sleeping. His stomach was always churning. He was always in battle. Then one day, he discovered dough.

ZUSMAN: Quite honestly, I had just quit drinking. I was a pretty heavy drinker and had quit, and had lots of time to fill. My ex-wife and a friend signed me up for a bread-baking class. Talk about a piece of dumb luck. I ended up really finding something that I love.

ZWERDLING: Now, it seems like the best way to get Zusman to open up is to bake with him. And before we talk any more, he wants to start the bialy dough.

ZUSMAN: We have a mixer somewhere close at hand? OK?

ZWERDLING: In case you've never had a bialy, it looks kind of like a miniature pizza, topped with roasted onions and poppy seeds. Zusman weighs all the ingredients - flour, water, yeast.

ZUSMAN: Fifteen grams of salt. Now, some sugar - 30 grams.

ZWERDLING: He says whenever you bake, it's better to weigh the ingredients than measure them. A scale is much more accurate. On the other hand, he says baking is more forgiving than you might think. Don't feel boxed in by the rules.

ZUSMAN: It's not a science experiment. It doesn't need to be quite that precise. Oh, I'd say this dough is just the way it should be.

ZWERDLING: And he covers the dough. You have to wait patiently a couple hours, to let it rise. So learning how to bake was the first event that changed Zusman's life for the better. He'd spend weekends experimenting with different kinds of breads. And he wouldn't just make a couple loaves. He'd make a dozen, and give them away to friends. Then came the second change. About seven years ago, state officials in Oregon made him a trial court judge. And Zusman says he loves it.

ZUSMAN: It fits with who I want to be, and who I think I am.

ZWERDLING: He loves not being the guy who leaps into battle anymore. He's the guy who brings resolution.

ZUSMAN: It's an opportunity to exercise compassion, patience, things that in my regular life I may not be fabulous at, but I get to practice every single day.

ZWERDLING: And Zusman says one of the most common ways he gets to practice is when people protest their parking tickets. Now, listen to this. He says if you protest politely, he'll often slash the fine.

ZUSMAN: When people feel they've been unjustly given a parking ticket, the emotions run higher than just about any court I've ever presided over. When I see a couple of minutes over, yes, it's a technical violation. But it seems really unforgiving for the officers to follow the letter of the law.

Next step, we're going to roast a couple of onions.

ZWERDLING: By the way, Zusman is going to roast them in the oven; no oil splattering on your stove. While I'm watching him cut up the onion, I'm thinking about his life and I tell him, look, I don't want to be too touchy-feely over bialys but the more you talk about being a judge, the more you sound like you're talking about baking. Be patient. Follow the rules except it's good, sometimes, to bend them. Be compassionate. Give most of your bread away. Zusman looks at me like I'm nuts.

ZUSMAN: I'm struggling here because I'm just - I just haven't thought deeply about this.

ZWERDLING: You don't like my comparisons?

ZUSMAN: I mean, I'm not conscious of them. If those analogies exist, they're purely subconscious. But that actually makes sense; I'll go with that.

ZWERDLING: All right.

Finally, the dough was all puffed up and looking proud and yeasty. Zusman punches it down and forms little balls. His fingers coax and pull each one into a disk. Then he tops them with the roasted onions and poppy seeds and, of course, salt.

ZUSMAN: And the almost final step - well, it is the final step. These are going in the oven.

ZWERDLING: And 20 minutes later, the bialys are done - brown and crusty, showered with onions and poppy seeds like confetti.

ZUSMAN: I wish everybody could see this. These are beautiful - (Laughter) - if I do say so myself.

ZWERDLING: Judge Michael Zusman, he's also co-author - along with Nick Zukin - of "The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home."

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: And you can get Michael Zusman's recipe for bialys on NPR's food blog, The Salt.

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