It was a bad hair day, unbearably hot outside and just a rotten, no-good Tuesday. My precious loaves came out of the oven squat and shriveled—like large, nut-brown prunes. Not that they didn’t taste good—chewy, yeasty and grainy, just the way I like them—but the loaves weren’t fluffy, and they certainly weren’t pretty, which was a serious downer. I’ve made bread plenty of times, but I still can’t match the buxom, bodacious loaves that my mother can whip up with an ease that most people associate with making their morning coffee.
Homemade bread has always been a staple at my house. It’s been a source of tremendous family pride (and maybe a little snobbery) since I was a child. My mother is such an enthusiastic bread-maker that she bought a grinder that attaches to our KitchenAid mixer, so that she could grind her own wheat berries. Yes, bread-making puts you on a slightly different level from most mortals; when I was younger, I was close to believing that God allowed the bread-makers into the pearly gates of heaven before the Mrs. Baird’s white-bread eaters.
I began making bread when I was 11. While I’ve had some notable failures, I’ve also managed to impress myself on some occasions. So I’d say that being my mother’s bread apprentice has been mostly successful. Over the years, my bread has been criticized for flavor and presentation, yet even my sorriest-looking loaves were eaten. However, in the past few years, as my life has become increasingly hectic, I stopped making bread.
As with anything, bread-making only gets better with practice, and I was out of practice—hence my aforementioned sad, depleted loaves. But bread-making also offers several life lessons, the most noteworthy being that practice makes better, not perfect; and that you don’t learn without making mistakes (i.e., don’t forget to add salt, which I did on one of my attempts). While these life lessons are there for the learning, the ultimate reward for making bread at home is in the eating—warm, wholesome pieces of bread torn from piping-hot loaves, slathered with butter and jam and eaten with a tall, cold glass of milk. And then there’s the smell. It makes me nostalgic and reminds me of my family, home, butter, apples and cheese, warmth, love, dinner parties, friends, walnuts and fall. Bread is my soul food.
I’m going to college this fall and, while I’m excited, the prospect of life as I know it changing so suddenly is daunting. Regardless, I expect bread will comfort me through the next phase of my life. It will be a way to differentiate myself from the crowd. Maybe I will bake bread in my dorm kitchen, and the luxurious smell will waft through the halls. People will wander in, I’ll give them a slice slathered with butter and jam and they’ll wonder, who is this girl who makes this exquisite bread? I’ll stand there—in my floury, aproned glory, a smug smile on my face—shrug and say, “Want some more?”
MARY BRYCE'S FAVORITE BREAD
Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
5 T. honey, divided
½ c. lukewarm water
2½ t. active dry yeast
1 c. milk
1 c. warm water
¼ c. vegetable oil
3 t. salt
5–7 c. of a combination of white and whole wheat flour, plus extra
1-2 cups additional white or whole wheat flour (for spreading on
Oil for bread pans
In a small bowl, stir 2 tablespoons of the honey into the lukewarm water to dissolve. Stir in the yeast. Set aside until the yeast begins to look foamy—about 10 minutes (this is called proofing the yeast).
In a larger bowl, combine the remaining honey with the milk, warm water, oil and salt. Stir in the yeast mixture. Using a fork or a wooden spoon, begin to slowly stir in the flour, 1 cup at a time. I like to alternate cups of whole wheat and white flours. When the dough begins to thicken and become shaggy and heavy, turn it out onto a counter or bread board dusted with about 1 cup of the flour.
Start pushing, prodding and rolling the dough over the flour until the flour is absorbed into the dough. Continue to add flour, and begin to knead. Knead until the dough is smooth and springy, about 5 minutes. Return the dough to a large, clean bowl, cover with a clean towel and set in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, 1 to 2 hours.
Deflate the dough by pressing down on it. Divide it into 4 equal pieces, shape the pieces into balls, then cover them with a clean towel and let rest for about 10 minutes while you oil and flour 4 8”x4” bread pans. Shape the balls of dough into loaves, and place them in the prepared pans. Allow the loaves to rise in a warm place for 45 to 90 minutes, or until the dough has risen to just above the edges of the pans.
Preheat the oven to 375°. Bake the bread for 25 minutes and remove from the oven. The bread should be golden or nut brown. Remove the bread from the pans and place on a cooling rack. Eat.