A Meditation on Bread Making
If there was one smell my son could bottle and then marinate in for the rest of his life, it would most likely be the yeasty smell of rising bread. There is a look he gets on his face when he walks into the house as rolls or loaves are rising that is akin to nirvana. Or, at least, that’s what I assume that look is as it’s the same one I get when I see, or even think about tacos. Or cheesecake.
Every other Saturday or so, growing up, my mom would make a dozen loaves of bread. This was done, not for some artisanal goal, but out of necessity. Homemade ruled in our home and with a large family, bread was needed. She would pour the flour into her bread bowl, the cream-colored stone one with the pink and blue stripes near the top and make a well for the other ingredients. Made so often, she never really measured, but mixed and kneaded by look and feel. There, on the dining room table, the dough would rise and wait for the next phase of kneading into loaves and placed in the well-used bread pans to sit before each tin had a turn in the oven. The result of this labor was even, golden brown loaves that overflowed the sides of the pans, one of which was usually consumed immediately with butter and honey or, if we were in the right season, homemade peach jam or apple butter.
While getting ready for college, I decided to try my hand with the dough and make the weekly bread. My mom was by my side, helping me as best she could without the strict guidelines of a recipe, trying to teach her internal intuition to her unsure and very direction preferred daughter. I would love to say that it either was a complete disaster or an utter success, but I honestly don’t remember either way. What I do remember is that I started college with ten cent yard sale bread pans that I never really used, until I did and still do, and a reverence of the beauty of bread.
Over the years, I never mastered my mother’s bread. I did, however, find a recipe that suited my skill and my tastes and after a time, found my own rhythm. For many years I found baking bread completely cathartic; kneading by hand, slowly turning over the flour covered dough methodically and working out my mind with each punch and turn. There is something romantic and sacred about making a loaf of bread; something primal that connects you to generations past and future as you combine your flour, salt, yeast and water together, putting your heart and history into your loaf and feeding those you love.
Gone are the days of harvesting or foraging wild yeast or sourdough starters that are passed from generation to generation, always the most valuable gift to receive as you set up your own home. However, a few things about bread remain solid. Valuable.
First, overthinking really will lead to overworking and overworking leads to tough dough and dense bread. It’s important to find your own rhythm and light touch. Practice really is the only way to get the feel for the dough. Next, ingredients matter less than you believe. I’ve made bread with every type of ingredient. The best bread is the one that gets made. Don’t let the fact that you are lacking in what you believe will make the bread over the top good stop you. Pull out what you have and go from there. Start simple.
And? Stories matter. Bread matters, in a variety of ways. For me, I feel a deep pull of my ancestry every time my bread bowl settles on my counter. The bowl is old and romanticized and I can feel its history as I mix and work. I have stories filed of my grandmothers and great aunts and food going back for generations. I can see my dad’s mom in her kitchen, mixing, baking, making, always serving. I can taste food from my mom’s mom even though it’s been decades. Baking bread is storied, heavily storied, in ways both plentiful and absent. But the thing every story has in common is that in each kitchen those stories had to start somewhere. If that somewhere is you? Pull out your bowl and your ingredients and start kneading your very first story and watch the faces of everyone who smells that yeast laden dough rising.