I am determined to go all out with this homemade bread thing, and fast. I’ve committed to handling the Christmas brioche, and have therefore been collecting like mad recipes and painstaking how-to’s (what is better, anyway, a fluted pan in ceramic or nonstick? To tent or not to tent?). This will be my very first brioche, and let me tell you, I’m preemptively shaking in my boots.
But I’m putting on a brave face, persistent bits of dough stuck to my palms as I type, experimenting with my first-ever focaccia. Just the fact that I have options – focaccia or ciabatta? Baguette or pain rustique? (as if) – is inspiration enough to get me cracking. We recently visited a living colonial museum in Massachusetts, and I watched the women make their one type of dense loaf, the same they make daily. They let the dough rise in an enormously wide, shallow wood bowl, shape it into four loaves, then bake it in a clay oven outside – in the snow.
I’m sure it was my mom who taught a less-than-attentive me how to knead, although I can’t recall the specific instruction to gather and push, gather and push. But the muscle memory remains anyhow, and because the cookbook instructs me to knead, I knead away, even if it’s a timid knead, a knead slight of skill. The action is at once familiar and not. I know the basic motions, but I wonder if I’m doing them right. Is my gentle handling rough enough, or am I exerting too much pressure?
I’m not a baker of bread. For one thing, it was on my list of “Things I Will Never, Ever, Ever Do When I Grow Up,” because, really, what was the point (I mean besides the blissful, memory-conjuring aroma)? Bread making was an old Southern church lady thing to do. Bread making meant staying home all day, and that was another thing on my list of “Things I Will Never, Ever…”, well, you know.
These days I’m not a baker of bread because there is too much at stake, what with all the requirements to knead and let rise, to punch and roll, all the attention required to the process, while at the same time being careful not to over handle the dough. Bread baking, I’ve always thought, is for the artisans, for the patient, for the experts out there. Who am I to dare to match, let alone improve upon, the crusts with just the right thickness and crackle, the moist interiors, the crumb that can only result from the love of the process?
I am to knead for ten minutes. Ten whole minutes? I am a restless grumbler at the tedious, an antsy avoider of repetition. For some reason, I can stand for long periods tending to the risotto – maybe because I love risotto enough that it’s worth it, and because I’ve become quite convincing at coaxing broth into grains of arborio. Bread is a trickier proposition, one I typically leave to my bread maker, now eight years old (at least) and prone to fits. As I stand and knead (and the clock still reads 4:14; I’m not even a minute into my ten) I recall the pounding, rhythmic clatter of the bread maker as it kneads away, loudly proclaiming its hard work on my behalf.
I wonder about the “lightly floured surface” requirement. The dough I’m kneading picks up the light dusting of flour and gets sticky, so that I must lightly sprinkle my surface, again and again. Hence, another worry: Am I over flouring? That seems like it could be a bad, bad thing.
Still, I’m impressed at what the dough is becoming, at what I’m making of it. It started a little dry, almost threatening to fall apart. I’ve rendered it smooth and flexible, a cohesive, malleable ball of, well, dough. It’s at this moment, when I’m so proud of my little ball of dough, that I decide I really want to learn to make bread. I want to know the ins and outs of the perfect loaf, in all its renditions.
I follow the recipe’s directions to let the dough rise, to punch it down and roll it out, and I feel almost giddy, knowing the yeast did what the recipe said it would do. I pat it into a ½-inch round and press fingerprint-sized indentations into the top. Then I give it an unusually generous brushing of olive oil, lightly press rosemary sprigs into the surface, and top with sea salt.
Oh, my Italian aunties (if I had them) would be proud.