Baking Bread and Breaking Rules


 

The first loaves of bread I've baked in almost a decade.

Something about being a parent brought out a fine appreciation for The Rules in me.  Even the most carefree eccentric artistic types will turn into whip-cracking fascist tyrants when they find another towel on the bedroom floor, only minutes after telling a child to hang up the towel when he’s done.  Seriously, if I catch my kids eating on the couch one more time or if I find one more cookie buried in the cushions, I’m going to lose it.  I’m going to turn in my card for the Rule Benders Club of America and become the poster girl for a New Fascist Regime. Mubarak will move to Alaska because it will feel more like home.

Long ago, someone told me I would never be a good cook, specifically a baker, because I don’t follow directions well.  The latter half of that statement is true.  Directions bore me.  Recipes seem to say “Listen, you don’t really know how to do this yourself, so just pay attention and do it the way I say to do it,” and like any adolescent I say (stomping my foot and crossing my arms in defiance) “I don’t want to do it that way!”  A dish isn’t mine until I’ve put my stamp on it, shaped it according to my own vision, refined it according to my own tastes.  I suppose I get this from my mother.  She used to make spaghetti with, get this, raisins in it.  That’s right. Raisins.  She would make straight up, plain old spaghetti and then throw a handful of raisins in the pot.  It never struck me as odd until my best friend in the 4th grade told me that this was totally weird.  Suddenly, I realized that my mother was breaking a rule that mothers are not supposed to break: Thou shalt not put before your child any food that their friends will find weird lest you bring total embarrassment down upon your child’s head. My mom insisted that it was an old family tradition from her German side.  Even a fourth grader knows that spaghetti is not German and so her myth was therefore busted.

Clearly, this apple didn’t fall far from her mother’s rebellious tree.  I don’t put raisins in my spaghetti (that would be following her rules) but I do think of recipes as “guidelines” rather than blueprints.  As a young woman, specifically as a young wife trying to please her traditional Midwestern husband, using guidelines to prepare a meal rather than recipes often ended in disaster.  I baked cookies that oozed off the cookie sheet, I made fettuccine with enough garlic to cure cancer (also enough garlic that my little sister refused to eat garlic for years), and loaves of bread that tasted as though I’d substituted sand for all purpose flour.  Baking was the most disastrous of undertakings because when cookies or cakes or breads failed, they failed spectacularly.  There is no fixing a deflated souffle or a dry cake.  These failures eventually took a toll.  I began to see myself as an incompetent cook and even worse, as an incompetent wife and mother.  I began to try to follow the recipes and it sucked all the fun out of cooking.  Dinner became a chore.  At the end of my marriage, a poorly executed meal had become symbolic of the things I’d failed at, which at that point seemed like just about everything I’d ever tried to do.

In the aftermath of my divorce, living in an apartment above a tire store that belongs to my family, I had to learn how to cook again for just myself.  I only had my kids every other week, so I was cooking for one for the first time in years.  There was no one to care whether my soup had too much salt but me.  No one cared whether my chicken was dry. There was no one to scold me for not following directions.  No one was keeping tally of my successes versus failures so I stopped worrying about the Successful Meal and remembered how much fun cooking can be.  I began to throw the proverbial raisins into the spaghetti again. I remembered how to be creative. I remembered how to have fun.  Interestingly enough, my failures grew even more spectacular. I set off smoke alarms and threw away whole meals because they were simply inedible.

But I also invented a red pepper sauce that made friends’ eyes roll in pleasure, I cooked paella for the first time and friends begged for more.  My daughter told me I was “better than a restaurant.” My son threw his arms around me one night and said he likes my food because I “cook it with love”.  Seriously? Where did he get that from? Was I finally doing something right? I was following my own sense of fun and taste and adventure and that was OK? I realized that true creativity requires a high tolerance for failure.  And more than that, a life well lived is one with spectacular failures along the way. Hopefully these failures are interspersed with shining moments of real success: the dinner with friends with a killer marinated pork and too many margaritas and a game of Mexican Train in the midnight sun; the Thanksgiving dinner in Pennsylvania when everyone has the flu or strep throat and still one of you manages to put on her good shoes and an apron and prepares a feast that reminds your of childhood; and that Southern Feast to end all Feasts that reveals to 20 grad students from around the country why Southern food is what the South is all about. Those meals are worth every failure, every mistake.

This brings me around to bread.  Of all the foods that humanity invests with meaning, there is none more symbolic than bread.  I could (and probably will) write a piece about the symbolic import of bread, but for today I only want to explain why these two loaves are important to me.  In all the years I was married I never managed to bake a decent loaf of bread.  Eventually I stopped trying.  Things like banana bread or box cakes were OK, but anything that involved rising and kneading were, in my eyes, doomed.  But two days ago I realized that maybe I was feeling brave enough to give it another go.  I did my homework, gathered a few recipes and used my judgment (which I now trust) to bake these two beautiful loaves.  They aren’t perfect, sort of dense and the flavor could be more complex, but my daughter said it was the best bread she’d ever had.

Here is my version of a recipe based off of an old Better Homes and Gardens recipe.  My flour volumes are different as well as the cooking times.  This may have something to do with the climate here, but I’m not enough of a baking scientist yet to understand why. Had I followed the recipe this bread would have been dry and nearly burned.  Add flour slowly and increase or decrease the amounts according to how the dough feels.

 

Mostly Successful French Bread

  • 4-4.5 cups bread flour
  • 2 packages active dry yeast
  • 1.5 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cups warm water
  • cornmeal
  • 1 beaten egg white
  • 1 tablespoon water

 

  1. In a large mixing bowl, stir together 2 cups of flour and the other dry ingredients, then add the warm water and stir with a wooden spoon until your arm is sore and you smell the yeast beginning to do their work (3-5 minutes).
  2. Stir in the remaining flour.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough for 8-10 minutes (I YouTubed “kneading dough” to see how other people do this)
  4. Cover and let rise until double (about 1-2 hours)
  5. Punch the dough down, and turn it out onto a floured surface again, halve it and shape it into 2 loaves. Coat the loaves with a light eggwash and let them rise for another 30-45 minutes.
  6. Grease a baking sheet and dust it with cornmeal. Preheat the oven to 375.
  7. Use a knife to cut diagonal slits in the tops and put the loaves on the middle shelf of the oven. *This is important: put another pan on the bottom shelf full of water.  The steam will help make the outside of this bread crusty.
  8. Bake for 15 minutes and coat with another light egg wash. Bake for another 15-20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Eat with cold butter while it’s still warm.

 

I’m not supposed to eat bread, but I did try a small bite of this once it cooled a bit.  It was really, really good.  I made the kids egg salad sandwiches and they really liked it.  I tried some of it yesterday as well just to see how it was holding up.  It was OK, but fresh is always better when it comes to bread.

 


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