Ruth’ Review: An aroma inducing read! Pass the butter please!
My father taught me the basics of bread making when I was 12 years old, which struck me as odd since I had never witnessed him baking bread before. My baking skills had been honed by the Easy Bake Oven and its pre-packaged cake and brownie mixes, the eating of which sent my family members swooning… with indigestion. I hardly qualified as any baker’s apprentice except for the femaleness of my birth (per my father). My family being the Wonder-brand type of bread eaters, I had never smelled fresh bread baking in the oven. Dad seemed ready to enjoy the chemistry of swirling four simple ingredients together and applying heat to create a soul-satisfying loaf of crusty, chewy goodness. I was recruited to be the muscle behind the generation of this product via what I considered to be an archaic, homesteading craft.
Dad was always trying to save money. Perhaps he had already pitched this bread-making idea to my mother, who rejected it outright as too time consuming for the amount of money that might be saved. Thus, I was recruited as a possible future woman of the kitchen. I resented his patriarchal ideas. Where were the boys? Why me? Perhaps a deal was in order. Membership in the Future Bread-Makers of America Club in exchange for dismissal from the laundry brigade or other such drudgery assigned to female family members. I was up for some only-girl-in-the-family bargaining. And a little intrigued by the idea of creating a masterpiece of gluten goodness.
When I opened that packet of yeast, I grimaced in distaste. It smelled very much like my brother’s gym socks after a rousing afternoon of playing outside. I had never smelled any other kind of yeast. I mixed this stinky stuff with warm water and watched for it to bubble, giving us the clue that the yeast was alive and hungry, a living organism like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Cool. Stupid boys did not know what they were missing.
Anyone who has made bread the old-fashioned way will soon learn, at the first lesson, that you work the dough until your arms fall off in order to activate the glutens into doing their job of giving structure to the loaf. Then one must let it rest only to return later to pummel it once again. I, much like my father, enjoyed the idea of making bread but was not so keen on all the kneading, watching, waiting. No wonder my mother had passed on this all-day culinary extravaganza.
Neither of us had much of a concept as to the form into which our bread should be molded. Owning only one meat-loaf pan, we dumped the dough (all of it) into this vessel and gently placed it onto the oven rack. Timer set. Time for a break….to wash up the dishes and keep an eye to the range for signs of liftoff.
The scent wafted through our suburban kitchen like aromas from the bakeries of heaven. We peered into the little window to appraise its advancing bulk. Admiration creeped into my consciousness. This was nothing like the grocery store loaves in their plastic wrappers that my mother purchased at the A & P. This was magic! I imagined what a slice, slathered in butter, would taste like. I had never eaten freshly baked bread, but my mind was eagerly romping through the dining halls of royalty so great was my anticipation of this lofty event.
At last the timer indicated we should remove the bread from the oven. It was browned and crusty and misshapen as an overgrown gourd. We de-panned it and left it to sit a few minutes to cool off. And then the tasting. The knife sliced through that tough outer exterior to reveal the soft and lofty innards. I was nearly knocked over with delight. It was the pinnacle of superior bread taste. No butter needed, just nostrils to breathe in the scent and taste buds to shape one’s bread desires forever.
My father and I never made bread together again. Finally acquiescing to my mother’s point of view that it was too time consuming, my father declared the grand experiment was done. I could be put to better use hoeing the vegetable garden. I admit that I enjoyed the time we spent conducting this experiment. It would be years before I made bread again, but I did not ever forget the comradery of creating an edible masterpiece just for the sake of the making.
Years later, my husband brought me a New York Times article about the bread-making genius of Jim Lahey, which was essentially throw your four ingredients (flour, salt, yeast and water) into a bowl and mix it up. Leave it for 18 or so hours. Form a lump, place it in a pot and stick it into your oven. Bread. Good bread.
I immediately thought of Dad. How he would have wholly endorsed this kind of thinking. This recipe would surely have satisfied his love for the chemistry of simple ingredients plus heat and my love for as little work as possible. I would never need to con my child into doing the hard work of turning out delicious loaves, though I am forever grateful that my father did.
My bread making naturally progressed into the desire to breed my own leavening agents: levain, sourdough, poulish. Forgetting my natural desire to do as little work as possible, these simple growths, generously shared by more accomplished bread-baking friends, met with a mournful fate. Every time I acquired an existing organism to tend, it inevitably met its doom in the back of my refrigerator. I had to sheepishly confess my negligence to the contributors of these entities, people who had kept the beast alive through much diligence, some through years of care. I am simply too lazy. At least my dog physically reminds me through her jumping and sniffing that I need to feed her. These yeasty fermentations, starving without complaint, are far too quiet.
I have moved my experimentations in bread to exotic flours. White all-purpose flour works best, hydrating overnight with no further attention from me than simply combining the essential ingredients in my massive proofing bowl and neglecting the resulting goop for a day…or two. Learning an encyclopedia’s worth of information about other grains is an acceptable use of my time.
Grains have been fermenting on natural yeasts with fortuitous results for, well, a long time. Beer is a good example of the shenanigans coming out of this festival of exemplary combinations. Wheat has dominated bread making, being the champion of gassy gluten creations. I have discovered the older, less desirable yet less processed grains such a spelt, amaranth, chickpea, even corn, can be added in careful combinations to the glorious wheat, that champion of gluten, to create a variety of tastes in many of my baked goods. I have not yet wandered into the gluten-free territory of bread making. It seems like more work and the need to include additional ingredients like starches and xanthan gum detract from the innate simplicity of the craft. Craft is an artsy word. My 12-year-old self used it in detestation of old-fashioned ways, but my current self appreciates ancient simplicity and modern innovations merging to make an edible work of art.
I love making bread. I now have a pizza stone, which eliminates the need to even use a pot! Each time I mix up my four ingredients and toss that dough into the oven, I feel Dad’s presence beside me, reminding me who introduced me to this idea of conjuring up deliciousness from nearly nothing and facilitated my graduation from the Easy Bake Oven.
It’s the staff of life, etc,
Guest Editor Ruth does not know about my secret file where I keep copies of her poetry. (I guess she does now!) Editing this story made her hungry. Will a poem about bread and butter be arriving in my inbox?