I recently reread an article that appeared in this newspaper some time ago in which Sharon Randall recalled baking biscuits with her grandmother and the grace-filled time that it was. This all came to her as she baked biscuits with her own grandson. It was warm and quite touching, and set me to reminiscing.
My earliest memory of bread baking was as a young boy during the not so Great Depression. Each week, my mother baked seven loaves of bread on a wood-burning old monster of a stove. The loaves formed a large part of our diet, along with a vegetable and sometimes, on special occasions, even meat during those difficult days.
It was there that I first was introduced to the miracle of yeast. I was regularly sent to the corner grocery store (no, there were no supermarkets) to purchase 10 cents worth of yeast. The grocer took a great length of string and proceeded to cut off the required yeast from a large block that he kept in a refrigerator. My mother took that nugget of yeast, placed it in some water with a little sugar to bring it to life and, sure enough, in a short time you could see activity signifying that it was ready to do its job. She combined it with some flour, more water and a little olive oil and created the staff of life we depended upon.
I remember so well that if bread-baking day fell on the day that the pasta sauce was on the stove as I returned from school, it was a trip to ecstasy to be allowed to dip a slice of the fresh bread into that sauce. It was heavenly!
And years later, calling on memory and with the help of many books, I began to take bread-baking seriously. After a time of trial and error, I managed to produce a respectable loaf of bread. Contemplate, if you will, the miracle of yeast. These microscopic plants, when combined with flour, water and some sugar, will produce carbon dioxide gas and alcohol and, as a consequence, they are responsible for two great industries. Nowadays, yeast is also available to us in tiny foil packages or large containers in a dehydrated state so that it does not spoil as readily.
But, as a matter of fact, yeast is everywhere around us. Just ask those people who bake sourdough bread where they capture their yeast from.
While modern technology has brought us the bread-making machine in which one need do little to produce respectable loaves of bread, it is not my choice. I relish the physical experience of handling, kneading and forming bread into loaves. It is a feeling like no other; it borders on a spiritual experience. You can feel life throbbing beneath your fingers.
Finally, to watch the dough rise in the pans and then at the right time to commit the pans to the fiery oven is to watch a miracle in progress. In due time, the loaves come out full and brown, singing their own little song.
And let us not forget the joy of partaking of a food that is universal in the world regardless of the culture. It is made in slightly different ways, but it sustains life on this planet.
I have always maintained that making bread is not a difficult thing to do. If you have the desire, that’s a good place to start. If you are tired of supermarket bread, give it a try. There are but a few simple rules which, when observed, enable you to produce a wonderful loaf of bread with the attendant sense of accomplishment.