Baking Bread Memories

When the kids were little, I used to bake bread. A lot of bread. I made bread for 2 and 3 families at a time sometimes. I loved baking bread.

Learning to Bake Bread

I didn’t grow up knowing how to bake bread. There was no Internet either, of course, so I would borrow books from the library or, when I had money, I would buy some books on how to bake it.

The very best bread book I ever got was Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book.

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I used Laurel’s book so much, it became Scratch-n-Sniff from all the food I spilled on the pages. (My La Leche League Whole Foods for the Whole Family was like that, as well.)

I read and read before ever trying that first loaf. I’m sure I almost memorized the Basic Recipe by the time I poured the first packet of yeast into the bowl of warm water. After a few months, I never had to look at the recipe again; I could feel the different amounts and measurements.

Dough

It’s been 30 years since I’ve baked a loaf of bread, yet I can still smell the scent of yeast as it was mixed with the warm water. I tried lots of different sweeteners to “feed” the yeast… sugar, honey… but settled on dark molasses.

When I learned yeast was a living being, it changed how I saw raw dough. I began treating the dough with more purpose and attention. I respected the yeast more, hence also the dough.

proofing

I didn’t know anything about Mindfulness back in the 80’s, but if there ever was a mindful meditative state, it is when kneading huge blobs of dough.

I learned that adding flour (I always used whole wheat flour, spring wheat if possible), even to the counter so the dough didn’t stick, wasn’t the best idea, that dough stops being sticky after kneading until you feel like your hands are going to fall off. Then you knead that long once again.

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My dough was darker because of wheat flour and molasses.

Before learning to respect the dough, I plopped it into any ol’ bowl, even plastic ones. Forgive me! I didn’t know any better! Once I learned more and shifted my attention, I bought 2 enormous glass bowls, specifically for rising dough. Learning to cover the dough with plastic wrap was an epiphany, but I also got myself 2 white cotton dish towels to protect the dough as it rose. I didn’t realize it, but I’d developed a Bread Baking Ritual.

The Periphery

I always had to set some dough aside for the kidlets, so they could knead at the dining room table. I’d sprinkle flour over much of the table and the kids would be busy for an hour, creating their dough shapes, letting them rise and then waiting to eat them after they came out of the oven. Oh, how I wish I had pictures of those times. I can see it clear as day in my mind, though. It’ll have to reside there forever.

When it was time to “punch” the dough down after it rose the first time, I did just that… punch… finding it amusing to watch the dough curl around my fist. After my this-stuff-is-alive realization, I began being gentle pushing the dough down again. I would use my hand like a spatula and slide against the side of the bowl, watching the (gluten) threads stretch then snap back to the mother-dough.

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I nudged the dough down before folding it neatly, then covering it with plastic wrap again and placing the white cotton dish towels on top, allowing it to rise (in half the time as the first rise!) once again.

Into the Oven

After the second rise, I hand-spatula’d the dough down once again before separating it with a plastic scraper into the proper sizes for the bread pans. Over the years, I tried a variety of ways to keep the baked bread from sticking to the pan: oil (yuck), Crisco (not bad), but finally settled on Pam spray. I curled the raw dough into the bread pans, covered them with plastic wrap and the dish towels yet again, allowing them their last rise.

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I wanted slashes in the top of my bread. It took at least 100 times before I didn’t deflate my dough trying to get a lovely slash in the top. I tried sharp knives, serrated knives, forks… even razor blades… and always struggled with that part of baking. Eventually, I learned to zip the knife through fast, not slow and deep. Just pull the knife quickly. Poking around for pics, I see there are now dozens of tools to make beautiful scores in your bread. But back in the olden days….

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My Nose Knows

It was when I began baking bread that I realized I had an interesting cook’s gift; I can tell when baked goods are finished cooking with my nose. I need no timers, there is a distinct scent that wafts around the house and I’m able to get the bread or brownies or pie out of the oven before any burning occurs and without any under-baking.

Out of the Oven

There is no smell so heavenly as fresh baked bread right out of the oven.

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It was a red-letter day the first time I tumped a loaf out of its cooking pan without it falling apart. Once the loaves were out, I put them on cookie racks to cool.

As with the slashes, I had to learn how to cut the bread. This was a shorter learning curve, quickly passing on the dinner knife and non-serrated knife. A sharp serrated knife is definitely the way to save your loaf from looking like crumbs. If you have the capability to let the bread cool even just a few minutes, it won’t fall apart as easily as right out of the oven bread.

And then the butter. Ahhhhh, butter. Not margarine… ever! The fresher the butter the better. Slathering it on, watching it melt into puddles on the bumpy surface, air bubbles holding the creamy sweetness aloft, just waiting for your first luscious bite.

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Types of Bread

Besides the Basic Whole Wheat Bread I made every day for years, I experimented with other types, rarely finding success.

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Sourdough Starter

I could not ever ever ever get Sourdough Bread right. I tried a dozen “full-proof” recipes, believed the promises that grandma’s 100-year old starter would be The One to give me a lovely loaf of sourdough bread. Nope. It never happened. It was worse trying to make starter myself! It reminded me of how I could never keep a plant alive… cultivating living things just was not one of my fortes.

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Desem Bread

In Laurel’s Bread Book, she waxes poetic about Desem (Day-zum) Bread. It is a massively complicated process that includes burying your small starter loaf in a 50-pound bag of whole wheat flour for a few weeks, taking it out for air every few days, taking away some of the dough, replacing it with new flour… on and on. And on. (I have not looked at the recipe in 30 years so I could be telling you something totally false, but this is how it was for me trying to make the Desem Bread.) How I thought I could make Desem when I couldn’t even keep sourdough starter alive was beyond me. But I tried. More than once. Failed every single time.

Where I did find success was in Laurel’s Banana Bread recipe. I started with hers, but quickly altered it to my tastes. For real, you need 6-8 ripe (not over-ripe!) bananas (“the bread will only taste as good as the ingredients”… great life lesson right there.) to make this 85-pound loaf of bread. 6-8. In each loaf. Not kidding.

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I usually made 2 loaves; one with raisins and one with nuts. I like raisins, Zack liked the nuts. You can put cranberries in there… cran-raisins, chunks of chocolate, cherries… anything your banana heart desires.

The scent of banana bread in the oven is exquisite. (I could smell when it was done as well. No timers for me!) Eating hot banana bread with gobs of butter… I’m nearly weeping remembering the taste.

Passing It On

All of my kids have made bread. I like to believe I had something to do with offering fearlessness when trying those first few times.

Technology has given us bread makers, but I know I would not use one because of the hypnotic deliciousness of kneading the dough, watching it rise, punching it down, watching the second rise, then into the pans for their third rise… all before baking.

Looking from this vantage point, there is something special about the length of time it takes from yeast proofing to butter on hot bread. Lessons in patience, small attentions and watching the making of a staple of life humbles me.

Hmmm… didn’t know I would say so much! Hope the kids enjoy this.

Whole Wheat Bread

A Moment with a Little Girl

I was at the Hematologist’s office the other day getting my weekly iron infusion (yeah, have not written about that yet, sorry) and afterward, I ended up waiting 2 hours for the medical transport to come pick me up.

Taking Notice

Sitting across from me were 2 kids, a boy about 10 with an iPad and earbuds in, sitting away from, who I found out later, was his grandmother. Next to grandma was a girl who told me she was 6. She looked bored to tears.

After a few minutes, I invited her over to watch videos with me on my phone. Sheepishly, she crossed the space between us, sitting in the chair next to me. I asked her what we should watch. She shrugged. I suggested baby goat videos; they are always great for a laugh.

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We spent the next 20 minutes laughing at the baby goat antics, my asking her questions every once in awhile.

“How old are you?”

“6.”

“When is your birthday?”

It had just passed, so I asked her if she received any gifts and she excitedly told me…

… something I asked her to repeat several times. Confused, I pleadingly looked at Grandma for help.

Shopkins

Shopkins,” she said.

I was still clueless, so told the little girl I had to Google it to see what that was. She looked at me, incredulous I could possibly have gone one day without this knowledge.

They are teeny-tiny toys… that revolve around… grocery shopping? Marketing groceries to a 6-year old? Good lord.

Oh, and there’s a whole Shopkins series of cartoons, too. My new friend wanted to watch one. I vetoed that.

shopkins

Muddy Fairy

My head was swimming after the Shopkins talk, so I decided to show her pictures of my grandkids. She liked that, pointing out various things.

I got to my grandson at a fairy birthday party, wearing wings and a crown. I told her who it was and she said, “But, he’s a BOY! Boys can’t be fairies!” I said there he is, so clearly he could be a fairy. She didn’t believe me.

I scrolled further and found the one with my grandson covered in mud and said, “See? He can be a fairy and covered in mud. Everyone gets to do that if they want to.”

(That turned out to be the kernel I’d hoped I could impart on her young mind.)

Soon after, grandma was called back and the little girl had to go with her (my ride should have been there at any moment anyway) and she ran to go through the door.

But not before she turned around and waved one last time.

It was a good day.

When It Was Brand New

For some odd reason, I decided to put on Whitney Houston’s Greatest Hits this morning and suddenly found myself back with Zack and the little kids in Frankfurt, Germany, circa 1987-1988.

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Frankfurt am Main Kristkindlmarkt, a place Zack and I traipsed around several times, babies carried on our backs, we being out, something we could not do frequently because of the oppression of the military back then. Holding hands in public was quite the act of defiance.

Good lord, we were in love. Crazy, all-consuming, mesmerizing love. Emotional, yes, but also physical. We could not keep our hands off each other, having sex several times a day. Zack, being in the Army and nursing two young babies, barely slept. In the morning, home to nurse for lunch, when he came home and then all night long. How he ever functioned is beyond me.

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The 4 babies under 4. My chair where I nursed all day long. The yellow cup a tender memory for Zack because I made him drink tons of water when he was pregnant.

Zack made me feel beautiful for the first time ever. Until him, I had never had sex without a shirt on, covering my ugly body, but especially my belly that bore the effects of three huge babies. I remember the first time in bed with him, me in a shirt. He looked at me flabbergasted and said, “Fuck that shit!” and took my shirt off himself. Then he made love to all of me in a way that had never happened before despite having had several lovers and lots of casual sex.

The way he touched me, sliding his hands over my body, nearly worshiping every soft and gooshy part of me, kissing me (and my entire body) with complete abandon, learning quickly how to pleasure me… and doing so over and over again.

(Words seem so inadequate, so trite, so overused in trying to describe these experiences. Forgive their mundane-ness.)

The babies were in our bed so we had pillows, blankets and sheets kept under the TV in the living room and as soon as all four kids were asleep (and I do mean as soon as!), we were laying on our make-shift bed on the floor, touching, kissing, licking, fucking… and orgasming over and over and over again. I never came so much in my life as I did when first with Zack. Insatiable doesn’t begin to describe that ravenous time together.

Sometimes we tried to have sex in the bed, the babies settled on either side of us. We had a fiber-optic flowery thingie up in the top of the closet and when we were going to have sex in the bed, we opened the tiny upper door, giving us faint light that shifted and rolled as much as we did with each other.

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(Writing, Whitney continues singing, not stopping to allow me to catch my breath from crying so hard, memories nearly drowning me. How can she be so unaware of my need to stop for a moment? That I need to feel, relive, remember these sensations lest they vanish into the ether once again. I keep having to stop writing to wipe tears and blow my nose.)

The babies were really young… right at about a year, year and a half… so were nursing often. It was not unusual to have to stop our lovemaking session to walk to the bedroom, climb onto the waterbed and nurse one or both of the babies back to sleep. I used to be s0 frustrated with that process; Zack was matter-of-fact about it. (A much better attitude, for sure.)

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Resting here, “seeing” that time flowing inside my mind. I could write for years and never cover the expanse that was our love back then. I write, yes, but he and I share secrets with each other we will never tell another soul… the Take-It-to-the-Grave sort of hidden thoughts and experiences.

See me sitting in the middle of the living room, waiting for Zack to come back after nursing the babies?  Me, listening to Whitney Houston singing songs I would listen to in 30 years, my quilt of memories covering me from the cold of old age and loneliness.

Oh how I love that man. I’ll call and tell him so today.