I didn’t learn how to bake bread until college. My college was a small, very crunchy school in Bar Harbor, ME and instead of a caffeteria, which would have been entirely out of place considering the culture of the place, we had a room in the main building, overlooking Frenchman’s Bay, called Take A Break. (As an aside, TAB worked on the honor system: food was put out with little signs with the prices, but no one manned the table collecting money. It was expected that everyone could be trusted to put the correct amount of money in the till and not to take any out except the change you were owed. This system actually worked very well, and I don’t recall there ever being a time when I was there that the TAB till came up short. In fact, it often came out over.) Being the hippie, crunchy, granola school that it was, the food served at TAB was all natural, never processed, and freshly prepared. The bread for the sandwiches was whole grain and baked daily in the fabulous TAB kitchen by a student as part of the student employment program. For a couple of years while I was there, the student in charge of the bread-baking was my boyfriend, Paul.
Bread for sandwiches had to be done the night before, so Paul would usually go into the kitchen around midnight to start working on whatever bread he’d chosen for that batch. I often accompanied him to keep him company and nibble on little bits of bread dough when I could snag them.* During rising periods, we both usually worked on something for class or we’d write or we would just sit and chat in the warm kitchen. I have really fond memories of those nights we spent together and even though Paul went on to break my heart multiple times, I can still think about him with kindness when I think about nights spent baking bread and a few other things.**
That was when I learned how to knead bread dough. Paul would usually make one more loaf than TAB needed, and we would share it, hot out of the oven. It was on those small, extra loaves that he taught me how to knead. It wasn’t all melodramtic and ridiculous like that scene with the clay in Ghost. Kneading bread dough is hard work – as is throwing pottery, which makes that scene even more stupid – and while it’s earthy and spiritual and homey and lovely, it’s definitely not sexy. But I loved it and I started making my own bread and after I was out of college, I kept it up for a few years.
And then somewhere along the way, after not baking any bread for a few months or a year or however long it was, I got the idea that it was just too much work. Somehow, I got the idea that the only way I would ever have fresh-baked bread in the house was if I had a bread machine. So I bought one and I loved it for a long, long time.
It wasn’t until earlier this year that something switched inside me and I got the yen to bake bread by hand again. From the first batch, I was hooked. My hands took up the motions of kneading so easily, remembered motion, like riding a bicycle. It was calming, and contemplative, something my hands did without the need for my brain to engage, freeing it to wander and think and ponder. A moving meditation. How was it that I ever stopped doing this and declared it too much work?
I am so glad to have rediscovered this, and if I ever again say it’s too much work, someone should just kick me.
The two photos in this post are of my variation on Susan’s Farmhouse White. My changes from her recipe are to use milk instead of water, butter instead of canola oil, and white whole wheat instead of the all purpose flour. The batch picture here also has KAF’s Harvest Grains Blend, which turns a good loaf of bread into an epic*** loaf of bread. The batch here used about 3T of the grains per cup of flour.
* I still love raw bread dough and will occasionally pop a small piece into my mouth while kneading these days. I’m also crazy for raw biscuit dough.
** Like the night he stayed up all night drawing pencil sketches of me while I slept.
*** Epic. Ha.