It’s not that big a deal, I tell people.
Flour, water, yeast, couple of other things. Wrestle with the dough. Let it rise. Shape, shove in the oven, bada-bing, there it is. Bread.
I started years ago when a friend, Liz, showed me a few tricks. Once you start, boy, you’re pretty much hooked.
Bread baking is sort of carpentry for people who can’t saw straight. You have to go out of your way to mess up. This is not precision work, friends, or, believe me, I’d be elsewhere. If you need someone to install crown molding or build a deck, quickly check the classifieds. You want a braided onion ring with poppy seeds on top, look me up.
Ages ago, when the four kids were in school, I baked bread for sandwiches.
This was not necessarily greeted by the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
“Oh, swell, Dad, your bread again,” the children might have said, but, of course, didn’t. “We can hardly wait for cafeteria.” Eating healthy was the uncool equivalent of wearing a pocket protector and horn-rimmed glasses. Undaunted, I continued.
For a year, we lived in Vermont — almost surely the bread-baking capital of the universe. King Arthur flour is there, in Norwich, as much a destination for bakers as Hershey, Pennsylvania, is for connoisseurs of Cookie Layer Crunch.
We showed up in the mid-’70s, happily hippy-dippy. Back then, bake-your-own was divinely ordained. Anything from the supermarket would have been viewed as counter revolutionary. As right-on as the next guy, I baked and baked in our little middle-of-nowhere rental house just outside Groton. Propane Power to the people.
Next stop was Roosevelt Island in Manhattan. Again, we sent the kids to class with sandwiches on homemade whole wheat. A classmate noticed and reported the remarkable change of events to his parents, who in turn sent us a note. It said, more or less, oh, thank God we found you. We are torturing our children in the same way. Perhaps we should be friends? That’s how we met Belle and Demetri.
Baking became my ticket to fame, small-time. I brought focaccia to picnics. I made pizza. Onion loaf was a sure thing on Thanksgiving. One wintry weekend, I hauled my baking stuff to our friends Janet and Gordon in New Hampshire and made cinnamon buns, which may have been going a little overboard — as Janet strongly suggested during cleanup.
As time went along, though, I took a break from baking. I don’t know, the kids were gone, work often demanded extra hours, my wife, Wink, and I were not packing lunch. My big brown bread bowl stood on a kitchen shelf like a moody, minimalist sculpture. Sometimes I felt it was calling forth: Hey, bro, what gives? We used to be a team.
After retirement, things eased up a bit — OK, quite a bit. One day, I found myself wandering around the kitchen. At this point in life, wandering anywhere is generally to be discouraged — habit-forming and hazardous to health. I dusted off the big, brown bowl. Soon, it all came back.
And what do you know?
The kids, now older than I was in those early sandwich-making days, have come around.
“De-lish,” said one.
“Great, Dad,” another.
Once a week, I am at the marble countertop kneading dough, folding over, rotating the gooey blob one-quarter turn, folding, kneading, turning again. I am waiting for the dough to rise until double its size. Then I punch it down — a yeasty puff of air goes pfft! — and knead again.
Divided, shaped and settled into bread pans, the dough is oven-ready. Soon, the astounding, earthy smell fills the kitchen — as if virtue had an aroma — and a half-hour later, presto, magic, the loaves arrive, humpbacked, brown and shiny. Impatient, always, I cut a slice even before the bread has set.
Recently, our neighbor, Shahla, came to the door with a box of green tea. The label said, “Ahmad Tea London.” It is aromatic, savory — good.
The next day, I brought Shahla a loaf of bread to repay her kindness.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Out of the oven this morning.”
Shahla looked at the loaf with renewed interest.
“Yup,” I said. “No big deal.”
“Wow,” said Shahla.
Just wait, I told her. Come winter, cinnamon buns.