The heady alchemy of baking bread

It’s a cold winter afternoon, the kind when winter blisters past the windows, turning everything blue.  Inside, I am kneading bread.  Not in a bread machine but with my own palms and wrists.  The dough is whole wheat, heavy and thick, and it takes muscle to punch it down, to knead and fold and press, then turn it, fold it, press it again.  Over and over.  For such a glutinous dough, it will take ten minutes to break it down, then a couple of hours to rise and lighten, another round of kneading before I nestle it into glass bread pans to rise one more time.

I love everything about baking bread, beginning with the geeky pleasure of yeast, a science experiment in every foil envelope. As a beginner, I read somewhere that you should sprinkle the yeast over a small dish of warm water into which a teaspoon of sugar had been dissolved, and it’s a trick that has never failed me—yeast that is too old or somehow flawed will not grow on this petri dish of food.

If the water is too hot, you will kill the yeast; if it is too cold, it won’t get moving.  This matter of water temperature caused me no end of consternation for the longest time—what, exactly did lukewarm feel like? How would you know?  In my early bread baking days, I might have spent every last dime on my little pile of ingredients and I had two very small boys to cart around, so going back to the store for yeast that I accidentally killed was not usually an option.  I knew too hot was much more dangerous than not hot enough, so I’d err on the side of caution and wait anxiously for the bubbling evidence that the power behind the bread was actually going to work, that those sandy, heady granules were actually growing.

I fell so in love with yeast that my specialty became sourdough, which I grew in a pungent crock, loosely covered with cheesecloth, for days before baking.  All the bubbling, boiling, living movement made me feel like a mad scientist, or maybe a medieval healer, tending to the village with my potions.

After the boiling came the mixing, flour and salt, butter or oil, water or sometimes milk.  Then additions—oatmeal or raisins or spices; sugar or wheat germ or nuts—stirred into the sticky mix, making it heavy and cold.

  And then comes the hard labor of  kneading, which I am convinced could save the sorry soul of the worst degenerate; that simple, soothing thump and turn, fold and press, transforming glop into a smooth warm ball, as pliable and sleek as young flesh.  Ten minutes of alchemy to work through a thorny problem or complain to the heavens or hum under your breath.A boy might sit at the table with you, kneading his own bread into edible shapes. 

That baby bottom ball of dough then goes into an oiled bowl, covered with one of those very thin dishtowels that used to be so common and now are a little harder to find.  Set the bowl in a warm place to rise. This is delicate in high altitudes—the rising can sometimes go very fast, but not if it is a very dry or cold day. Then you need to warm the oven a tiny bit, turn it off, and set the bowl inside for an hour or two, whenever the dough puffs up to twice its size and pushes at the towel you’ve put over it. 

The last little bit of total fun comes in punching down that big pile of puffy stuff.  Sometimes it lets go of a happy sigh as the air leaves it.  To me it sounds like the bread knows its journey is nearly done.  Now you knead it a little more and shape it into loaves that are tucked into pans to rise, or perhaps you want rolls today and just shape them into balls in your hand, or you’re going to be fancy and braid it. It rises again and then you bake it and it fills the house—the yard, the neighborhood—with that heady, promising, homey aroma.(I have often wondered if that perfume couldn’t sure a good many ills in the world—I mean, how can you yell at someone when your head is filled with that?)  I imagine that it halted the fighting of two lovers, make a man rethink his departure from his family, smoothes the aching heart of a young girl.

At last, the bread is done, and of course, you must eat it the moment comes out of the oven, hot and dripping with butter or maybe a little jam. You can give it away, because there will always be more, more, more. 

Have you ever fallen in love with a process?

May 21, 2009

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