This afternoon, I am baking my grandmother’s bread.
For people like me who are viciously impatient, baking bread is a very important contemplative process. Yeast is probably the most finicky of the living organisms we humans harness for nutrition, and the plethora of leavened foods that yeast forms a vital part of leave little room for error. Bread will not be hurried. For the uneducated experimenter, bread is not tolerant. Bread requires patience and conviction to be made well. Bread also requires time. You must have several hours of time to set aside to create good bread, even more if you plan on making and using a starter. Making bread forces you to stop, slow your day, and focus.
My grandmother’s bread may well be her own grandmother’s bread. I do know that she baked it weekly in a massive single batch for a huge Catholic family, and that this bread was what all the members of the family ate as toast in the morning, as sandwich makings, as pizza base. When I was young, I hated her bread. Thick, rich, brown and nutty, moist, needing only a light slathering of butter, I found it utterly distasteful. I used to pray, when we went to her house, that she wouldn’t make me eat any bread. I likewise disdained pumpernickel muffins, home made jam, and other assorted foods which I adore now. What’s curious is that I didn’t want the commercial, storebought, overprocessed counterparts of these foods–I wasn’t craving Wonderbread and Smuckers. I just didn’t like her versions of these foods.
In my late teens, I discovered the joy of fresh whole wheat bread, and I took up her recipe. It’s a simple recipe. Proof the yeast, add flour, honey (or brown sugar), salt, olive oil, and liquid, and you have bread. Flex these ingredients, and you change that nature of your bread. Melted butter can be substituted for olive oil, for example. The liquid could be water, milk, or fruit juice. It’s a core recipe, from which the baker may expand as he or she wishes. It’s in the proportions that it becomes great, because this is a recipe without measurements. The baker is required to intuit the needs of the bread, to know how weather will affect the interplay of ingredients, and adjust the dough accordingly. It is in the kneading that the baker enters an almost meditative state. The dough must be kneaded for at least twenty minutes, and the patient baker will know when it is well kneaded. The texture of the dough changes, fundamentally, reminding you that it is a living thing. From the moment you turn the bread out onto a counter to knead, you are interacting with it, feeding it, loving it, forcing it to find greatness. And when you knead the last fold, a rich pile of smooth springy dough, soft as a newborn kitten, is left.
And then you wait, for the rising. Which is what I am doing right now, as my house slowly fills with the scent of whole wheat flour. It is in the waiting that bread finds a soul.