One of my first memories involves watching my mother bake bread. It was a primarily economic measure on her part; she and my dad had five kids at the time and it was far cheaper than buying the necessary loaves to feed us all every day. As we all grew, though, and as two more later-life children were added to the family mix, Mom, unsurprisingly, ran out of energy for such fripperies, particularly given the plethora of cheap and nutritious day-old available at our local grocery. We kids did not appreciate or approve of this modern and practical turn of events, and we let her know it, loudly and discontentedly. Her response was pleasant, but terse.
‘Cookbook’s on the shelf. Pans and bowls are under the sink. If you want the good stuff, go make it yourselves.’
The grumbling and sulking was about as epic as you might imagine. I was eleven at the time, and while my siblings and I were proficient enough with such staples as fried eggs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and even the occasional batch of oatmeal cookies, we were not quite prepared to embrace the difficulties inherent in working with yeast. We were too young, we argued. Yeast was scary, we argued. Our little hands weren’t big enough to embrace the mysteries and practicalities of kneading. Oh yes, we were very eloquent indeed… And in the end, it did us no good. Mom just shrugged, turned the page of her book, shifted our slurping baby sister from one arm to the other, and said ‘Oh well, then.’
My siblings stomped off, grumbling. I, however, was not ready to give up so easily. I watched Mom turn another page, and listened to the baby slurp, and finally, finally, dared venture…
‘But what if I mess up?’
‘Flour’s cheap,’ Mom said peacefully. ‘And soap and water’s cheaper. And what if you don’t?’
‘Will you help me?’ I ventured again. ‘I mean… Can I come to you for help if I get stuck?’
“I’m not going anywhere,’ Mom said, and indeed, I knew it was true. She wasn’t even half done her book yet, and she’d never been one for the philosophy of ‘one more chapter.’ Six kids had not yet become seven, but even then, if Mom couldn’t finish a book in one go, she didn’t bother starting.
‘Okay then,’ I said bravely, and looking over my shoulder, went to the kitchen. The relevant cookbook wasn’t difficult to find; it was thoroughly coated in flour. I read the list of ingredients carefully – not that I needed to; I’d watched the process hundreds of times – and started hauling out ingredients and equipment. From the door, my thirteen-year-old sister Lee watched me skeptically, and not a little patronizingly.
‘You’re going to mess up,’ she predicted. ‘You’re only eleven, and It takes years to learn to make good bread besides. Everybody knows that.‘
I looked over at Mom one last time. She just turned another page. I looked back at Lee, and at the cluttered counter before me.
“We’ll see about that,’ I said, and set the salt shaker firmly on the page to hold it open.
Four hours later, my sister was eating her words, right along with my very first, ravingly successful, loaf of home-made bread.
Bread is powerful stuff. Primal stuff, and to me, to this day, it still embodies love. I am, admittedly, a carb addict, but when it comes right down to it, my obsession there goes far beyond mortal greed. I make bread for the people I love, for my children, my family members, for new friends, and when I hand over a wrapped loaf, it’s never just food I’m offering… It’s my very self. Here, I’m saying. I made this. I made this for you. Take it and eat it, and remember, when you do, that it was made with love. Love for you: sometimes with cinnamon and raisins, sometimes with oats and maple, sometimes with bran and honey, but always with love, and just for you. I hope you like it, and if you do, do ask me for more? It’ll make both of us happy, I promise.
I can’t make all of you bread. I wish I could. What I can do, though, is give you this, my favorite recipe. If you haven’t made bread before, don’t worry. It’s easy, really.
And if you need help, I’m right here. Just drop me a line.
MAPLE OAT BREAD
In a large pot, combine 2 cups of warmed (NOT HOT: think just-comfortable drinking temp. for tea) almond milk/soy milk/dairy milk with 2 cups of warmed water, and 1 cup of maple syrup. (I know that sounds like a lot, but this recipe makes four loaves. Feel free to halve everything if you want a smaller batch). Stir vigorously.
ADD – 3 heaping tsp of yeast granules (NOT pizza yeast or bread machine yeast) and 2 cups of not-instant oats. Stir vigorously again. Let mixture sit five or ten minutes till bubbly. If the mixture isn’t bubbly, your yeast has either gone to its heavenly reward, or your liquid was too cold or too hot.
ADD – 4 tbsp vegetable oil, half a tsp of salt, and… You guessed it… Stir again, vigorously.
Start adding whole wheat flour, one cup at a time. Stir between cups, with a wooden spoon. When your pot ‘o bread is too stiff to work with the spoon (as in, impossible) turn the lot onto a clean, floured surface, sprinkle on another half cup of flour, and start kneading. Kneading involves blending in the flour by pressing down the mass, folding it in half, turning it sideways and over, and pressing again. (If you need more instructions, there are tons online. I truly can’t describe it any more clearly than that). Do this for about eight to ten minutes. Don’t be shy here! Whenever the dough gets too sticky to work, add a bit more flour. Eventually, you will have a smooth, resilient, not-sticky ball o’ dough that squeaks in delight when you prod at it with a fingertip. Well, no, it probably won’t squeak, but the impression you make will stay there.
Oil the inside of a second big bowl lightly. Put the ball o’ dough in, turning once. Cover with a damp, warm tea-towel, and put to rise in a draft-free spot. Let rise till doubled. My original recipe book always said this takes an hour and a half till two hours. It never takes my bread more than an hour and a quarter, though.
Once doubled, flour up your hand and press down the dough carefully, while it’s still in the bowl. Turn it once or twice to make sure that you press all the air out. Once you’ve done that, re-dampen the tea-towel, and cover again. Repeat the rising process, and remember, it never takes quite as long the second time through.
When the second rising is almost done, oil up or spray the insides of four loaf pans. Turn the finished dough out onto the surface again, and press down so as to release the bubbles again. BE GENTLE! Add a bit more flour if it’s sticking to your fingers.
Divide into four sections. Shape into loaves, checking the underside for split seams (Just pinch those shut). Deposit carefully into loaf pans, and cover with tea towel again. Let settle for twenty minutes or so. In the meantime, preheat oven to 350.
Slide bread in. Let bake till nicely and uniformly brown (about 35-45 minutes). The bread should be a slightly darker brown on the bottom when turned out, and offer up a hollow echo when tapped.
Let cool about ten minutes before slicing, and completely before wrapping up for storage or freezing.
Enjoy – and don’t forget to say grace first!