My late husband and I always enjoyed baking together. Come holiday time, he would stir up fruitcakes, and I'd make yeast rolls. When Oscar died suddenly in September 1991, he had already made the fruitcakes for Christmas. None have been made since. No bread either, until now.
My daughter-in-law, a native of Poland, recently announced that she and her mother, who was enjoying her first trip to the U.S., were hosting a family gathering, replete with authentic Polish food. That kick-started me into thinking about baking bread again and gave me an opportunity to try a new recipe I'd recently tasted at a friend's house.
Gay Neale has been both a dear friend and a helpful editor for years. Whenever I get stuck, I head toward Brunswick County to what I've dubbed The Healing House, where I'll be guided by Gay's writing expertise and also be well fed. The latter is especially important.
Needing editorial guidance recently, I headed south on I-85. When I arrived, the scent of freshly baked bread wafted from the kitchen. I groused about how hard it was to write while Gay extolled the virtues of her bread, breaking off a hot piece, slathering it with butter and handing it to me to nail down her point. Seems her daughter discovered an easy recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day and has been spreading the word ever since. Stir up yeast, salt, flour and water. Let the dough rise, then refrigerate overnight. Pull off a chunk of the sticky dough, shape into a loaf, score with a knife, let rise and bake. No need to knead. All very simple.
Watching Gay mix up a new batch reminded me of my mother's bread, the best I've ever eaten. Using a big red-and-white enamel pan, Mama stirred up lard and flour, mixed with salt, soda, baking powder and buttermilk, and spread the "pone" out flat like pizza dough in a bacon-greased biscuit pan. Sometimes, if my hands were clean, she let me poke my fingers into the dough in several places so steam could escape while it baked in a wood-fired oven.
Although Gay opted for electricity, her crusty bread was divine. I left two days later, feeling satisfied inside and out, clutching my completed work in one hand and the bread recipe, which Gay had recited from memory, in the other.
My efforts at making bread for the aforementioned family dinner, which I shaped into boules, resulted in loaves that looked like huge dog biscuits. I took it anyway, as my brother will eat anything. It provided laughter and made the Polish food seem all the better. Determined to succeed, I spent $27 for the bread book and discovered that I had used 1.5 teaspoons of salt, rather than 1.5 tablespoons.
I tried whole wheat for the second attempt, cooked on a $20 bread stone (for that authentic hard crust, the book stated). The bread minimally improved.
The third attempt resulted in some of the desired results — a crunchy crust outside — but a doughy texture inside. I shared that boule with Carla Davis, my former editor at Richmond magazine and current editor of Best Friends magazine, who told me, "Throw the stone away and bake it in a pan." She informed me the next day that her resident chipmunk had devoured the remainder and begged for more.
For the next batch, I took her advice. While making the boule — which came out perfectly, by the way — I was again reminded of how much I used to enjoy baking with Oscar and Mama. I remembered my mother showing me how to put butter on my hands and squeeze little bulbs of dough through a circle in my fist before dropping two pieces side by side into a muffin tin to make rolls.
I've since decided that it's time to teach my grandchildren, Maggie and Jeremiah, how to make bread. After all, someone needs to carry on the family tradition.
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2010. All rights reserved.