Monday, March 22, 2010

The need to knead: The primal pleasure of baking bread

I was on the library’s waiting list for six weeks before I finally had my hands on the newest, best, state-of-the-art, bestselling book on bread-baking.

It sat in my kitchen for three weeks and then it was due back at the library. Renewing it was not an option; this book was so popular someone else was waiting with bated breath.

Whoever he or she is, I hope that patron made better use of the bread book than I did.

But I didn’t learn my lesson then. A week later, a different, brand-new, state-of-the-art bread baking book – this one actually had the irresistibly alluring word “artisan” in the title – on display at the library caught my eye. And since this one was in regular circulation and not on the reserve list, after I’d had it for three weeks, I was able to renew it for another three.

But still, it sat untouched in my kitchen, like its predecessor. Only for twice as long.

Of course I want to bake artisan bread…in theory. No Atkins dieter I, I love fresh-baked bread. Grains, sprouted wheats, seeds, crusty heels, tender center pieces. Bread delights me, and the idea of baking it myself is eternally enticing.
And yet I hardly ever do it.

It’s not that I don’t know how. I grew up watching my mom bake bread, and my sister has one of the most well-organized bread routines I’ve ever seen: her kitchen is never without a loaf of her special whole-grain boule, which she makes through a complicated multi-day process that involves every member of her family being called into service at some point during the process to spray water into the hot oven to make steam.

But I know it doesn’t have to be that complicated. I’ve made bread plenty of times throughout my life. It’s just that those times are far between, because most of the time I like the idea of making bread so much more than the reality.

It’s true that almost nothing is easier to make in the kitchen than bread, as my mother has always pointed out. It usually has no more than a half-dozen ingredients at most and involves nothing more than stirring and kneading.

But the waiting is what gets me. The first rise; the second rise, the baking. I feel chained to the house when I’m making bread. As one of my favorite food writers, the late Laurie Colwin, once wrote, I don’t think it’s practical to make bread and try to raise children at the same time.

And yet the allure of baking one’s own bread is timeless. The proofing of the yeast; the mixing of the flour: it makes me feel deliberate and attentive, and the meditative aspect of kneading dough is undeniable.

The problem is just that it takes so long from beginning to end. This afternoon, after intending for about three months to make some bread, I finally caved. I started the task at 3:00 and didn’t have bread out of the oven until 8 PM. For a baker who is accustomed to mixing up a batch of cookie dough in under ten minutes and having hot baked cookies emerging from the oven just another ten after that, five hours is quite a lot of time to devote to a baking project, even if it wasn’t five hours of nonstop effort.

But the bigger detriment is the nagging suspicion, behind the earthy satisfaction of taking part in one of humankind’s oldest culinary rituals, that it just doesn’t matter that much whether I bake my own bread. It really might not be worth the effort. Unlike some edibles, I find the bread I can buy at Whole Foods or from a number of local cottage industries just as good as the bread I make myself.

There are quite a lot of food items I’d much rather make myself than buy. Cookies, coffee, tomato sauce and scones all fall into this category. But bread is one thing I firmly believe other people can produce a lot more admirably than I can. Pad Thai also fits into that category, but at least I have a little bit more of an excuse for that, not being Thai.

It’s true that the kids love my homemade bread, and that’s often a good incentive to me. Hot bread from the oven with butter melting on it is one of their favorite snacks. But hot fresh bread is like puppies: it grows up. The same bread they couldn’t get enough of the day I made it often ends up molding in the breadbox after a few days, or fading into anonymity in the back of the freezer.

Still, yesterday I took the time, and I’m glad. As always, it was a pleasing process. Making bread is a primal activity: you feel connected with thousands of years of women providing sustenance to their families. The kids will both have bread-and-butter in their backpacks for school snacktime tomorrow, and I’ll know they’re eating better than they sometimes do.

But unless this turns out to be the best loaf of bread I’ve ever tasted, I’ll probably go back to Nashoba Brook bakery brand for the next loaf. Baking bread is fun, but I have a family to raise and a variety of hobbies. Maybe in retirement I’ll find it to be the perfect match for me, but for now I know it will likely be a new season before I once again submit to the need to knead.

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