The first time my mother baked bread, the story goes, the loaves were more like bricks than bread. Mom tried to re-write history by trashing the evidence. But she didn’t get away with the crime: on trash pick-up day, much to her horror and chagrin, my mother discovered a mocking trash-truck crew playing catch with her heavy loaves.
Mom didn’t give up, though, and became an accomplished baker of smooth, tight, flavorful white bread. She liked to bake loaf after fragrant loaf at Christmas time, and distribute them in the neighborhood. And when she sent my brothers and me out to deliver the fruits of her labor, we were welcomed with enthusiasm and genuine gratitude. It was clear to me that homemade bread was a winning gift.
Although Mom didn’t pass her recipe on to me, she did pass on her love of baking. I fully embraced the custom of the Christmas gift of bread, and have continued that tradition happily with equally good results.
Baking bread is a mindful ritual, abounding in sensuous pleasures. There’s the feel of the warm water on my wrist, as I test it for temperature before adding it to the yeast; the pungent smell of the yeast when it blends with the water; the tactile gratification as the medium morphs from a paste of flour and water to a gooey, sticky, blob- and finally, after kneading, to a smooth loaf, ready to be shaped and baked. The aroma of baking bread can be almost enough of a reward for the labor, but nothing beats cutting into a warm loaf of freshly baked bread, slathering it with butter, and savoring every chewy mouthful.
Lately, I’ve returned to baking bread, mostly because the bread here in the mountains of Costa Rica is generally terrible. I’ve found myself longing for a savory olive-rosemary, or a crunchy loaf of rye or pumpernickel. And so I’ve tried to go beyond the lovely white bread that my Mother made, into the realms of heartier, more flavorful, crunchier bread.
Yesterday, I tried, for the first time, to make a rustic Italian bread from a recipe I found on the web. We were having company for dinner, and I wanted the bread to be special. But I’m not used to using my Kitchen Aid, and I began to worry early on in the 16-step process- the dough wasn’t behaving as described in the recipe. But I soldiered on.
When I took the loaf from the oven, I thought about Mom, and her brick bread – my rustic Italian loaf could have been used to do someone in, it was that heavy. Like my Mother before me, I wanted to trash it. But I didn’t throw it away- I sliced it, and put it on the table, and everyone agreed it was a winner.