Monday, September 24, 2012

My kitchen adventure begins: Part One: basic bread

My siblings might remember it differently, but I don't think my mother much cared for cooking. She was decent enough at it, and had several dishes she could make that were tasty, but if she could find a shortcut at the expense of flavor, then she was all over it. She was part of the first generation of women that experienced the cooking conveniences of canned soup, ready made spaghetti and taco seasonings in foil packets, frozen vegetables, margarine (it was synthetic back when that meant "better" and putatively healthier for you; this was a big selling point for my mother). There was even garlic cheese in a plastic sleeve that could be mixed with canned mushroom soup and melted over broccoli for a quick and easy vegetable side dish (I don't think she ever kidded herself that cheese in a plastic sleeve was better for you, but it was easier*). And yes, I think she found it liberating. She was bright, well-educated, and loved to work outside the home--cooking and cleaning were chores that needed doing to keep the household running and seldom much more than that; anything that made them easier were welcomed in our home. But if she cooked to live (as opposed to living to cook), then she probably had even less interest in baking. Oh, she made the occasional cake (from a boxed mix) and pie (from ready made pie crust once became available in supermarkets), but it is symbolic, perhaps, that the only family recipe that she passed down to me was called "Unbaked Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies" (emphasis mine).

I do remember her baking a few things from scratch, however. Three of them in particular stand out in my mind: fresh bread, an apple pie with a lattice crust, and biscuits.

Actually, what I remember is that the bread was made by someone else while my mother assisted. About once a year, my paternal grandmother would make the long bus trip from Alabama to New Mexico for an extended visit, and while she was there, she liked to bake fresh bread. My mother loved her mother-in-law, and I think she enjoyed the sessions in the kitchen when she was there because it allowed them to spend time together in an entertaining way. Once the visits were over, however, the bread baking usually trickled to a halt.

What we ate on a daily basis was sliced bread, usually white, that you bought at the grocery store for less than a quarter a loaf. Even the local bakery, where my mother went on occasion to get a bargain in day-old bread, was merely the place where they baked the sliced loaf bread that later went to the store. There was no such thing as an "artisanal" bread back then. (I remember when WonderBread began showing up in our somewhat geographically isolated New Mexico town and it was hailed as a breakthrough in taste and nutrition.)

I was thinking about all this the other day because I'd participated in a bread baking workshop organized by my friend Julie Hodges. The people who attended were all friends of Julie's, and the age demographic was wide-ranging. All the older people (and by that I mean the ones around my age) kept reminiscing about the homemade bread their mothers made when they were growing up. Naturally, per my explanation above, I had nothing to contribute to this conversation. But I did start remembering my grandmother's bread and how good it tasted, straight from the oven and slathered in butter (this was before my mother discovered the "health benefits" of margarine and never looked back).

The bread we baked at Julie's was probably far superior to my grandmother's. It had to be, since it took two days to make it and the instructions in the recipe were full of all sorts of complications, and I don't remember my grandmother doing anything especially fussy like that. For one thing, she was not a fussy woman--she didn't have time to be, since she'd been a single mom for years and years, with busy careers as a teacher and later as a county welfare agent. (The latter was how my mom met my dad, since my grandmother was her supervisor in the welfare office in the late 1940's, when my mother also worked there as an agent. Now all you welfare haters out there, don't get all riled up at this news and go disrespecting my mama and my nana to my face, 'cuz I'll have to hurt you.)

The bread my grandmother made went like this: flour, plus something something something; she kneaded it a few minutes; she put it in the oven; a little while later she took it out and everyone immediately began liberally administering butter. And that was it.

The workshop bread, though it was more multi-stepped than my grandmother's and had a list of ingredients as long as a Christmas Eve, was indeed good. It was moist, light, and multi-grained--I dare say it was even better than any of the so-called artisanal breads I've ever had. Gene Bals, a neighbor of Julie's, has been fine-tuning this recipe for years, and he generously shared it and his insider's knowledge about the craft with us. If you are interested in the recipe, you can find it here, on Julie's blog, Local Llano.

The workshop inspired me, but a couple of weeks later, when I decided to try my hand at baking another loaf all by my lonesome, it was my grandmother's bread I wanted to make. Gene's bread, while fabulous, rather intimidates me with its trouble. It is, in my estimation, an advanced bread, and I am not an advanced kind of gal. My grandmother's bread, on the other hand, so characteristic of her no-nonsense, can-do attitude, seemed much more approachable for a beginning baker.  It was a simple, basic white bread, and I remember her whipping it out fairly quickly and efficiently. The trouble was, I didn't have her recipe (see "Unbaked Chocolate Cookies," above, in re family recipes I own). So I did what any person might do when reaching back into the warm, cozy annals of family history for a recipe: I googled it.

And I got about what you might expect--gazillions of recipes, many of them requiring steps that resembled nothing I ever remembered my grandmother doing. There were recipes for "basic" white bread that involved weighing the ingredients instead of measuring them out with cups and spoons (Weighing? With, like, a scale? The only scales I remember my family owning were the usual bathroom scales and one for weighing letters so we would know how much postage to apply. That's the way we rolled back in the 60's when we wanted to message someone.). There were others that required proofing the dough (still not sure what that means, but I'm pretty sure she didn't do it; she would have thought eating the bread was proof enough.). Finally, there were others still that just looked plain implausible for the number of ingredients they required (anything that calls for more than five ingredients isn't permitted to be called "basic" in my cooking and baking rulebook. Oh yes, that's right. I have one.).

So I sat down with a glass of iced tea and thought about it--and remembered something my grandmother is purported to have said to my mother, which she in turn used to quote to me all the time: "If you can read," my grandmother said, "You can cook."

And what cookbook might my grandmother have been reading, had she needed to look up a recipe for basic bread? Why, most likely it was The Joy of Cooking, which, as we all know, has been the go-to culinary bible since the time of the Roman emperors, and probably a little before that. So I went to the bookshelf and got down my own copy of JoC, looked up yeast bread, and there it was: My childhood memory disguised as a brief list of ingredients and some simple instructions.

I'm not going to reprint the recipe here because I'm a big believer in copyright, but if you have the JoC, then you can look it up under "Yeast breads" in the index. If you don't have a copy of JoC, what is wrong with you?

Basically, the recipe consists of dissolving some active dry yeast in warm water (not Rapid Rise, which is what I use for my pizza dough), adding bread flour, butter, salt, sugar, and water. All of that is mixed straight away, and can be kneaded in a stand mixer. (I know, I know, my grandmother kneaded it by hand, but I am my mother's daughter in that if I can find an easier way to do it without sacrificing too much flavor, then I too am all over it). It has been a long time, however, since any of us thought WonderBread was the answer to our nutritional prayers, so I decided to follow JoC's suggestions on the next page and add a little whole wheat to the dough. After that, it isn't all that different from making pizza dough (though the second rise takes longer): let it rise for an hour or two, punch it down, put it in bread pans and let it rise again for another hour or two before baking.

And you know what? It turned out just exactly the way I remembered it, except maybe a little healthier since it had some whole wheat in it. In fact, it tasted so healthy, I thought I needed to tamp it down a little bit, so I whipped up some homemade butter out of heavy cream, added a pinch of salt to it, and in the time-honored tradition, administered it as it if were a balm on a lonely heart.

The butter is easy--you don't even need to consult JoC for it: pour some heavy whipping cream into your stand mixer (about half a cup, unless you are a glutton), whip it until it starts to form peaks, just as if you were making a whipped cream for a dessert topping, and then...keep going. After a while, voila!, it becomes whipped butter. Add some salt to taste toward the end.

It isn't even necessary to use a butter churner by hand, the way my mother did when she was a little girl. Can you blame her for loving margarine that came in little plastic tubs?

This was such a successful experiment that it has me thinking about that apple pie and the biscuits, so those are going to be parts two and three in my new kitchen adventure. Stay tuned.

*My mother sent me off to college with cans of Cheese Whiz, reasoning, correctly, that it was the sort of thing a college freshman would like to eat.


  1. What a fun and humorous post! When our kids were young and I was a stay at home mom, I used to bake most of our bread. I made pretty much all whole wheat, but also kept some sour dough. I even did some grinding of my own wheat.

    I'm glad you ended up having a good experience baking bread. By the way, proofing is what you did when you let it rise.

  2. In many ways my mother is a cook like your mother. Packaged, instant, bagged, all cooked- just heat...these are the things she looks for. I said something one time about making noodles (or some other pasta) and she thought I was crazy, why make when you can buy it already done? It is as if we are not related in any way if you think that mother teaches daughter how to cook. I don't use much (I would say 'any' but there are always one or two things in the cabinet that is packaged)pre-packaged foods.
    I keep thinking about making bread as the weather is getting cooler... will have to move forward with that after seeing yours. yummmm...and whipped butter, even better.

    1. Janet, I think there a lot of women of our generation who never really learned cooking from their mothers. It's interesting. I'm going to talk about it a little more in my next post.

      You do better than I, however. I have lots of Pre-packaged things and cans in my larder!

  3. I was fortunate that my grandparents owned a bakery when I was young (well, my waistline was less fortunate). As such, I was spoiled with homemade bread in my youth. However, as an adult, I slipped into the plastic-bagged sliced loaf convenience of the grocery store, until finally embarking on my own bread baking. I've never looked back. It starts with the simple straight-dough breads, but before you know it you may find yourself nursing your own sourdough culture. It's the flavor, and the all encompassing aromas of making bread in your own kitchen, that simply can't be bought. Your loaves look lovely, and bet they were delicious too!

    (When I first got back into baking my own bread I found the forums and recipes at "The Fresh Loaf" to be a wonderful resource: There are bakers of all levels there, and always willing to help others on their bread baking adventures too).

    1. It felt a little stressful this time around, but I do think that as I do it more frequently, it will become second nature. Making my own pizza dough has certainly become that way. Thanks for the tip about the Fresh Loaf--I'll check it out!

  4. Yo! It makes me smile to hear about your kitchen adventures, knowing how happy you are there!


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