You Tube Skills Week: Bread Making
This fanagram is the second in a series about “YouTube Skills Week,” where I attempt to learn a new skill each day based on a YouTube video. The first focused on taxidermy.
You Tube Skills Week: Bread Making
The second item on my You Tube Skills week, following taxidermy, is baking bread, which I have never attempted. I inherited a fear of yeast from my mother who found it odd that you deliberately add a fungus to your food, when other evidence of fungus – a fuzzy rainbow smear on sour cream – is damning evidence of a careless housewife. She had the same cautious attitude toward gelatin. How could an innocuous white powder trick liquid into congealing? I had overcome my gelatin intimidation by exactly following the directions on the package of Knox unflavored gelatin. I have freed myself from the tyranny of a recipe, winging it with fruit desserts. Time to spend quality time with yeast.
I know nothing about the energetic skill of kneading so I home in “no knead” bread-making videos. My first video shows a pair of hands going through the steps with the recipe scrolling beneath. There is no voice or face. The arms and wrists in the video are hairy, feral and unappetizing, so I move on. I don’t need a face, but I do want the reassurance of a voice to walk me through the steps. I find Deondra, a woman with clean fingernails and a welcoming Southern drawl. She never shows her face. When she bends to slide the bread into the oven her stringy hair falls forward, carrying with it the disconcerting threat of a wayward strand of hair embedded in the dough.
I am clearly spending too much quality time with YouTube videos, so I tie my hair back and press ahead. The recipe is pathetically simple, involving three cups of flour, 2 cups of warm water and a scant one quarter teaspoon of yeast. Deondra, my peppy mentor, apparently wants to engage all senses and encourages me to smell the dough. The minimal odor I detect is a bit queefy, but I am probably biased – my olfactory familiarity with yeast is limited to vaginal infections. The tiny dough smidge I sample is tasteless, so different from cookie batter, worth the risk of salmonella and half the point of making cookies. How can this sticky dough sprinkled with a miniscule amount of yeast be transformed into the fragrance and delight of homemade bread? It feels like alchemy.
I set the dough aside to rise and devote the three hour wait time to a rumination on the role that bread has played in our stunning evolution. The cultivation of wheat and grain is closely tied to the transition from nomadic hunter-gathers to farmers in fixed communal societies. I pause to consider the sturdy shoulders I stand on, those of our ancient hominid relatives who somehow figured out that wheat is edible. The bristly stalk is not inviting compared to luscious, sensual low-handing fruit that begs to be eaten. Somebody, somewhere – and bread simultaneously evolved in multiple societies across the world – figured out the trick of separating the the wheat from the chaff. And then of course the fermentation. Together, a triumph of determined craft and human ingenuity. And then, with the new-found powers of speech, some distant hero passed the recipe to the next generation. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Bread, both symbolically and literally, is embedded into the history and literature of all cultures. I recall this ambitious couplet from the Bible:
Give us this day our daily bread, and … deliver us from evil.
As one of the cheapest foods, bread became the nutritious mainstay of the poor. I have a distinct memory of a passage from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. In the depths of the depression, the impoverished Joad family migrates west in a futile search for jobs. Ma announces, with quiet dread, that they are about to run out of flour and are facing starvation. When I read this as a preteen, my only knowledge of flour was as an ingredient of cookies baked as a treat. I remember thinking “what the hell does she need flour for?” Fortunately, I kept my ignorant thoughts to myself. I was dangerously close to Marie Antoinette’s famously flippant comment to the starving peasants. “Let them eat cake.”
My dough has risen. I realize that basic chemistry burbles beneath, that the yeast is digesting sugars and releasing carbon dioxide that is trapped in the dough, but I am still impressed that the tiny amount of yeast can essentially lift a mountain of dough, doubling its size. As instructed by Deondra I have preheated an empty Dutch oven pot for 35 minutes at 450 degrees. Now I put the ball of dough onto parchment paper and insert into the pot and then into the oven. In a high-pitched voice, Deondra reminds me several times that the pot is hot, which makes me question the smarts of her anticipated audience. The bread will cook for 35 minutes and then another 15 with the lid off.
More time to ruminate. The price of bread has served as a prominent signpost of economic stability, reflected in bread-related synonyms – the single word bread or dough standing in for money, breadwinner as the wage-earner, rolling in the dough an idiom for wealth. The expense of flour and bread has been credited with fomenting revolutions, including Marie Antoinette’s French Revolution and more recently the Arab Spring. (The price of gas has now replaced the price of bread as a key economic indicator, the rising price inescapably emblazoned at every gas station.)
I remove my bread, again heeding the advice to wear oven mitts. My loaf is beautiful, miraculous, historic. Deondra tells me to tap the bread with a knife to appreciate the slightly hollow sound. I listen to the comforting crunch as my serrated knife saws though the bread, liberating a suffusing aroma, unchanged for thousands of years, the aroma that greets travelers returning home, the aroma that invites friends and strangers to sit at the table to break bread.
I stand in bewildered and grateful awe, my humble loaf in cupped hands.