This past week I made 9 loaves of bread. Seven of them have been eaten. The other two just came out of the oven today. As I mixed the dough this morning I thought how strange it was that the goopy glob of dough I was kneading would become the base of many of our meals over the next week. And when I pulled it out of the oven this afternoon, perfectly golden brown, perfectly domed, I was amazed at what that goopy glob had become. There are plenty of metaphors and analogies in there to be developed another time, but for now I wanted to write some of my thoughts and memories of bread-making, as ingredients for an essay that will likely need a lot more time and heat than I have available right now.
Flour, water, yeast, salt. A little bit of patience, a little bit of heat. So simple and so satisfying.
I have no memory of my first attempt to make bread. I have never felt a fear of yeast or of killing it – though I’ve done that at least once. I have always felt a pleasure in kneading the dough, in watching it take shape and form. I am always amazed by what comes out of the oven.
My last day teaching the co-op preschool class Manchild was part of went well. Much better than some of the previous classes had gone. But I was relieved and energized to close the door behind the little people for the last time, knowing I had survived. I was full of nervous energy. I had no lesson to plan for and a void had opened up in my time. My brain ran scattered through that open space, unsure of what to do, where to go, how to use my hands. Until I pulled out a bowl, measured some flour, methodically, intentionally, carefully, brought some order to the chaos of ingredients: flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, peanut butter, chocolate, milk tossed into a bowl, mixed with a fork, paddled into a pan, slid into the oven, and transformed into something calming, comforting – evidence of my competence, proof that I can do something right, confirmation that I am a creator.
Whole wheat bread for sandwiches. Artisan bread to go with soups and salads at dinner time. Enriched breads slathered in cinnamon sugar or tasty cheddar. Flat breads for something different, something ethnic. Quick breads for when something needs to be used: bananas, zucchini, ricotta – or maybe just when I recipe catches my eye and won’t leave my mind until my curiosity has been satisfied. I never met a loaf I didn’t like.
A line from an essay I read in grad school has stayed with me since I read it more than 3 years ago. The essay was an accounting of a single mom’s paycheck – where every penny went, from gas to clothes to food. A careful spender, the woman made her own bread. But not merely made: she “shepherded the ingredients” together to make two densely nutritious loaves for her and her daughter. Such care and watchfulness put into something as basic as a loaf of bread. I was inspired.
Bread can be fickle. A recipe that has been working for me for months will suddenly turn out too dry, too salty. Is it me? Is it the ingredients? Have I become careless with my measurements? Bored with the texture? Lazy with the kneading? I feel lucky that my current whole wheat loaf has been keeping us all happy for more than a year. I know it so well I can have the ingredients together in less than 10 minutes. I love it smeared with butter when it is fresh from the oven, slathered with peanut butter and banana after a run, or stuffed with ham and cheese and lettuce and tomatoes and olives and avocado for a sandwich reminiscent of my favorite creation when I worked in a sandwich shop as a teenager. But I can’t help but wonder if it will suddenly turn on me. It could, at any time, lose its charm, start tasting like onions, dry up before we can eat it. But if that happens, I will move on. There is more bread to be discovered, tested, mastered.