Monday, March 8, 2010
I love bread. There is something about a loaf of homemade bread baking in your oven and filling your home with the aroma of warm yeasty wheat. I learned to bake bread when I was a child. My grandmother was a whizz with flour and could make the best biscuits, dumplings, pie crusts, cookies and bread. She taught me to be patient and not try to hurry the bread. "Breads that had forced risings had poor crusts," she would tell me. "But then you don't want to overwork it either." There was a fine line between giving bread enough and too much attention.
In the nineteen nineties, there was the arrival of the in-home bread machine. A marvelous contraption that allowed anyone to have home baked bread without doing any work. Just dump everything into a bucket and push a button. Three or so hours later you ended up with a, well, bucket of bread. If you actually were able to extract your bread from the bucket you had a square loaf with a thick crust and a hole in the bottom. There were hundreds of cookbooks available for the bread machines.
I was a new mother at that time and just knew that this nifty little gizmo would allow me to have fresh baked bread in the house while chasing after a very active two-year old. I baked exactly six loaves of bread in the machine before I gave up on it. After being spoiled most of my life with beautiful rounded loaves of tender crusted bread, I found the bread from a bread machine to be quite lacking. It didn't fit in my toaster (or any toaster that I know of) and the first third of the loaf had a large hole in the middle, so it didn't make for very good sandwiches either. But mostly, I missed kneading and shaping the bread.
I love the feel of bread dough. It has a certain texture that tells you when it is ready for the final rising. Knowing that you put your arms in motion to bring the loaf of bread into being is gratifying when you pull the loaf, piping hot, out of the oven and resist the temptation to just tear into it before it has a chance to cool a bit. You made that bread. You used your hands to shape the top and to make it into the perfect loaf. Not some machine.
People often ask me for the recipes for my bread and I just stare at them blankly. I just don't use recipes. I go strictly on touch. I know that I begin with about a cup of liquid. Sometimes milk, sometimes water, sometimes evaporated milk, sometimes a mixture, sometimes with an egg as part of my liquid. Into that I put about 3 cups of flour, sometimes more, sometimes less. It really depends on the humidity and when the dough feels right. I use anywhere from one teaspoon to three tablespoons of sugar or honey (and sometimes none at all). I usually use a tablespoon or so of butter, but even then it might be olive oil or vegetable oil or even no oil. (I once made twenty loaves of bread without any oil at all because I forgot about it and no one noticed.) The flour can vary depending on what is at hand and what I am in the mood for. It could be just plain white flour or maybe whole wheat or a blend or some rye or oatmeal. And then there is the all-important yeast. Some days I put in a lot (two teaspoons per loaf) and others less (one half teaspoon). In the end, it is still a loaf of bread.
Whatever happened to that bread machine? I still have it. In fact I still use it, but only to mix my ingredients. If I am in a hurry I will simply toss a bunch of stuff in the machine and select the dough setting. It will mix it and let it rise once. Then I take it out and do the final kneading, shaping and rising before popping it in the oven. I still have a need to touch my bread. I still have to put part of myself into it. Bread needs that and no machine can ever give it that individual attention.