When was the last time you breathed in that divine scent of bread baking in the oven of your very own kitchen?
Mine was last week because my mom is here, staying with my husband and me, on respite from the winter weather of Canada where she resides. My mom has been baking bread for about 70 years, maybe more, and she continues to do so wherever and whenever she can. A big mixing bowl and a few bread pans are all she needs. Last week I supplied them with pleasure.
I’m not going to tell you how old my mom is because we recently made a pact about that. This year she celebrated a very auspicious birthday, so there was a lot of talk about her age. Too much talk, she decided, because all that talk was beginning to make her feel her age … and then she’d have to act her age. And that won’t do. My mom does not act her age – and I mean that in the most complimentary manner. Spending entire day baking bread is one of those ways.
She loves the smell of warm yeast blossoming, then the rhythm of kneading the dough, the feel of it beneath her hands, the sensuous knowing of when it has been worked just enough. She taught me that feel, just as her mother taught her, and back it goes, through the generations of women who prepared homemade bread for their families.
I admit I don’t bake bread often these days. I am too busy. Bread making takes more time than I allow myself. You know me – fast and easy in the kitchen. But when my mom is here and she begins her baking ritual, I begin to question my busy-life status.
My mother, my grandmother and great-grandmother were no less busy than I in their everyday lives. They were farm women, for heaven’s sake! Up at dawn to milk the cows and on to long days filled with cooking meals, sewing clothes, cleaning houses, weeding gardens, bathing children, even working in the grain fields and then often to bed long after the rest of the family were asleep, because they had to darn socks or make rag rugs.
Taking time to make bread is a choice. That’s all. And what a healthy and delicious one it is. For this batch, my mom mixed sprouted whole wheat, spelt and oat flour to make these hearty loaves (pictured).
Below is the bread recipe I shared in my book, The Work of Her Hands, which is a collection of stories and food memories about my maternal grandmother.
From: The Work of Her Hands: A Prairie Woman’s Life in Remembrances and Recipes, Chapter ~ “You Go To Learn To Be Patient” ~ Page 125
Milk 3 packages dry yeast
2 heaping tablespoons lard 2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons sugar Flour
5 teaspoons salt Cold water
In a small cooking pot on the stove pour in one knuckle of milk and add lard, salt and 2 teaspoons of sugar. Heat until lard just melts.
In the meantime, into a small bowl put about 1 cup warm water. Add 2 tablespoons of sugar and the yeast. Stir gently and let mixture sit until it just starts to bubble.
Put 1 1/2 inches of flour around the inside of the basin of a large bread-mixing bowl. Pour a little cold water into the milk mixture to make it lukewarm. Pour this into the basin of the bread-mixing bowl. Add 1 small cooking pot of warm water into the basin; then add yeast mixture. Gently stir the liquid with your fingers.
Fold the flour into the liquid with an open hand. Gradually add 3 to 4 cups of flour to the basin until you need to use both hands for mixing. Roll the mixture from the sides of the bowl into the center of the dough and punch it down. Continue until the dough begins to crumble slightly in the rolls. Remove excess flour from the bowl.
Bake in preheated 410-degree oven for 45 minutes. Remove from pans and brush tops of loaves with a little butter.
The instructions of this recipe were handed down from my grandmother to my mother, and then from my mother to me. I watched my mother make a batch of bread, just as she watched her mother, and we wrote down what we observed. Of course a knuckle of milk, which is up to the first joint of my pointer finger, and a small pot, the smallest I have in my collection of four, are completely subjective. But so is bread making. If the three of us were together and followed the same instructions at the same time and put our bread in the same oven, still the baked loaves would have different looks, textures and tastes, formed from our own unique ways of preparing and kneading the dough. May this recipe help you find your own way, too. But bread making is an art, so you might have to be patient.
If you read the book, you’ll understand the meaning of patience. In the meantime, set aside a day and try the meditation of bread making.
Eat well. Be happy.