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Kneading Companions

September 5, 2011
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Today I made bread.

Yesterday evening I dissolved a bit of yeast and a bit of salt in three cups of water in my largest pot, stirred in about five cups of flour and a cup of sunflower seeds, and set the pot on top of my kitchen cabinet where it’s nice and warm.  When I checked before going to bed, the glop had nearly doubled and was bubbling happily.  This was faster progress than my bread usually makes, but I didn’t think to worry about it; I’ve been baking bread for three years now with only one failure.

My mother bakes all my family’s bread.  She learned in grad school, while living with poorly-funded humanities students eating on $10 a week.  I’m not sure where my mom got her bread method; I grew up calling it “Mommy Bread,” and it was the staple foodstuff of my childhood. Toast for breakfast, cheese sandwiches for lunch (I did not like adventurous lunches); when my friends came over, there would be fresh whole-wheat bread smeared with Nutella, and I still consider that one of the most heavenly snacks in existence.

Aside from the revelation gleaned from the NYT that wetter doughs require little to no kneading, I still make bread essentially the way my mom taught me before I went away to college: dissolve a very little bit of yeast and some salt in water, make a glop with flour, let rise overnight; add a bit more flour, knead (with wet dough I now skip this step), put in pan, let rise, bake about 45 minutes at about 375 degrees.  If you consult most cookbooks, this is the wrong way to make bread.  Cookbooks will tell you to use tablespoons of yeast and watch it like a hawk for a short amount of time, to rise and knead and rise and knead until your entire day has been consumed by baking.  This approach does turn out lovely bread, but for most of us, it’s not especially practical on a weekly basis.

The truth is that even mediocre homemade bread is eons better than any storebought sandwich bread.  Given a choice between eating best bread irregularly and second-best bread every week, I will choose the second-best bread every time.

The other truth is that you do not make bread.  The yeast do.  Time and chemistry and tiny little beasties turn your unappetizing, glutinous puddle of flour and water into the crusty, warm-smelling loaves that come out your oven.  You can get away with doing very little work yourself; you can forget about your bread overnight; you can add too little salt, too much molasses, the wrong kind of flour … and so long as your yeast survive, your bread will be fine.

The past two days have been almost unbearably warm and humid for humans.  The yeast loved it.  Overnight, they had a party in the pot on top of my kitchen cabinet and knocked themselves out.  I found my dough sitting dejectedly in a puddle of floury liquid that smelled strongly of alcohol – a far cry from the coherent, bubbly mass that usually results from a night of rising.

I added a good deal more flour and a bit more yeast, just in case.  For the first time in several months, I kneaded the dough properly.  I greased and floured my pans, shaped the loaves, and left them to rise.  Miracle of miracles, they rose without a hitch, despite still smelling rather like beer.  They came out of the oven tall and golden, cut neatly without shedding crumbs all over the kitchen. My housemates ate warm slices while we waited for our Chinese take-out dinner to arrive.

When there is fresh bread in the cupboard and I can sit down to supper with people I love, I know that I am home.  Everything else is incidental.  When I wake up in the morning to bagels that one housemate made, and when beer bread emerges from the oven at the moment the minestrone soup is ready, and when, flour-shirted, I turn out loaves for lunches, I remember that “companion” comes from Latin panis, which means bread.  As kneading develops the gluten that binds bread together, so breaking bread at the table binds us together: my family, my friends, and my home in every place it has been.  And every time I set bread to rising, the bubbling of the yeast as they party reminds me that I owe this sense of home and belonging to the community of microorganisms, unseen and everywhere on this green earth.

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