Saturday, November 13, 2010

Baking Bread

A topical painting! Woman Baking Bread by Jean François Millet. I like how muscular her arms are, she could totally beat up Martha Stewart.

I'm baking bread tonight, using my grandmother's KitchenAid mixer for the kneading. I have always done my own kneading, but when I moved to Seattle Gram'ma offered me her big stand mixer because she couldn't lift it anymore. I didn't know where I would put it, but when someone offers me a heavy duty stand mixer, I feel there is only one possible response -- YES! PLEASE! -- even if it is going to have to be stored in the middle of the kitchen table.* (Really, one of these days I will write about tools.)

Despite my enthusiasm for good tools, it was hard to take my grandmother's mixer. I don't want my grandmother to be subject to the whims of aging flesh. This summer I buried my other grandmother, I am not ready to face losing the woman who writes me wonderful emails about books and cooking.

Anyway, I am down to my last slice of bread, and I have promised to bring a meal to new parents of my acquaintance. I had vaguely been thinking of bringing them bread as part of their meal. Currently the largest mixing bowl I have is the bowl for the big mixer. So tonight, I pulled the mixer out of its cupboard, and decided to experiment with using it in bread making.

I flipped through my trusty Joy of Cooking, and found a likely recipe, read it, and in an act as characteristic as anything I have done in my life, decided that it was clearly and irreducibly wrong about how to structure the rises. One of my friends contends that I have never entirely followed a recipe in my life. (I keep trying to prove her wrong, and I usually end up admitting that I'd tripled the vanilla, or added a splash of brandy, or browned the butter first because the recipe on the page is clearly not right, and everyone always skimps on vanilla.) I got out my even more trusty Tassajara Bread Book and looked up my normal bread recipe, which I was not using because I wanted to do something different and a little bit richer. I chose Edward Espe Brown's rise times, because that's what felt right. Incidentally, if you want to teach yourself to bake bread, and you are congenitally incapable of following recipes (which I apparently am), you could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of the TBB by the aforementioned Edward Espe Brown. He doesn't give recipes, so much as parameters with enough information that you get a fairly good idea of the consequences of your experimentation.

I discovered** bread baking after college, during the painful summer after graduation when I was trying to figure out why the hell I was back in Alaska, and what was I going to do with myself now that I was there. Part of the answer was learn to bake bread. Or rather learn to make sourdough cinnamon rolls. I cannot now really explain why I was suddenly seized with a need for sourdough cinnamon rolls. (Possibly it is obvious. I still think it's obvious, but I don't want to maintain the starter.) But making a batch of sourdough starter lead me to the mundane pleasure of baking bread, after the intense craving for cinnamon rolls wore off.

This is the first bread I have baked in my new home. I have had this nagging sense that I am not really at home in a place until I have baked bread in it. Baking bread satisfies me on a level that seems entirely disproportionate to either the effort or the outcome. When the outcome is something as altogether splendid as fresh bread that says something about the level of satisfaction involved.

I like the work of kneading***, the way that my hands and shoulders feel the effort of pressing into the dough again and again. One loaf's worth of dough is fairly trivial, but when you make a larger batch of bread, it becomes work. That ten minutes of lifting, turning, and leaning into the dough becomes an eternity. The dough itself transforms under the constant movement and pressure. It metamorphoses from an unconsolidated glop which sticks to everything into a coherent springy ball. It is a sensuous process, not judgeable from a strictly intellectual standpoint -- the classic description of well kneaded bread is that be the texture of an earlobe, which is true enough to be moderately useful.

Kneading provides space for prayer or meditation if one inclines that way. Since a normal batch of bread for me is two loaves, one to keep and one to give, I often ponder my relationship with the recipient, working it out as I work the dough. I don't think I have ever baked bread for someone and remained angry with them. I have been known to bake bread for people, whom I am angry with, for this reason. Not that I am angry with the eventual beneficiaries of my efforts tonight (there will be a second batch tomorrow). Homemade bread is love made edible. A tangible blessing for a time when we have very few rituals of blessing left in our cultural vocabulary. An appropriate way to welcome my friends' child.

The bread is in the oven now, and the smell is intoxicating. When I was in high school, I couldn't sleep through the smell of baking bread.

I contemplated giving the recipe here, but I've tentatively decided that there is so much to talk about on the subject of bread baking, that simply giving a recipe is not enough. So rather than give the recipe, I reiterate my suggestion of the Tassajara Bread Book. Eventually I will feel confidant enough of my subject to do it justice.

*My mixer does not live on the kitchen table but I was afraid it might have to. Instead, it lives in the cupboard under the sink, which may or may not be better.
** Or rather rediscovered, when I was little Mom often baked our week's bread. The smells and the process were deeply familiar to me when I began to bake, even though I had not been paying attention -- I'd been more interested in skating around the kitchen with my feet in the loaf pans.
***I probably will go back to the pleasure of doing the whole thing by hand.

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