Still, I turned out a few hundred decent loaves over the years. Then life got busier and busier, and bread-making became a part of my history, yeast only used rarely to make up a batch of pizza dough, occasionally the brunch treat of cinnamon rolls warm and gooey from the oven. A Christmas gift of a bread-making machine brought that comforting scent of fresh bread back to our home a decade after the hand-kneading was merely a distant memory, and we enjoyed that novelty for a few years. But then even that practice lapsed.
Then I started noticing signs of a bread-making revival, even as the words "Gluten-Free" began to be heard. A few younger friends were tending new gardens and learning to knit . . . and making something called "artisan bread." Books were being published. Loaves proudly produced alongside soups. Techniques and temperatures and baking products being debated. And my husband, newly retired, decided to experiment.
He was impatient, at first, gradually learning that baking demanded slightly more precision than cooking. At first, I'd step in with suggestions, but I was quickly apprised of how irrelevant was the experience carried through the women of our families. This artisan bread-baking relied on a long, slow rise to develop the gluten -- there were no agonizing ten-to-twelve minutes of kneading, but rather a few, simple folds: bottom to top, side to side. . . A few loaves in, and his were getting better and better-looking; more importantly, they tasted great and their texture was splendid!
And I was at least a little bit miffed.
But too busy to do much about it, certainly not ready to go back to my old bread-making ways simply to assert something about tradition and gender and domestic roles -- when, after all, I should be pleased my guy was happy to work and play in the kitchen.
By the time I retired and had more time for the kitchen myself, his artisan bread was reliably good although he wasn't especially reliable about making it with any predictably. Sometimes wishing for freshly baked bread to make a more solid meal out of a batch of soup, I came across a recipe for "Peasant Bread in a Bowl" which yields bread from the oven a mere 2 1/2 hours from start to finish. I've written about this bread before at least once -- it makes a guest-worthy, if simple, meal out of seafood chowder, and I know some of you have enjoyed making it in your own kitchens.
Meanwhile, as you know, besides bread-baking since my retirement, we've also moved and traveled and babysat, and somehow during all that time, Pater's abandoned his role as artisan baker. My son-in-law, however, has not only taken up the mantle (the apron, rather, I suppose), but has gone one better and cultivated his own sourdough starter, turning out beautifully formed loaves of fermented bread. At first, enviously and lazily, I tried to nudge Pater in that direction, but he doesn't love the idea of baby-sitting that jar of bubbling sludge. So I hemmed and hummed and hawed for a few months and then began hinting to Adam that I might want to try starting my own wild yeast, and several weeks ago, he brought me two jars of the stuff, each a different specimen.
On his recommendation, I've been using this recipe so far, and I've just before writing this post pulled my fourth batch out of the oven. I've added a second brotform to the one our daughter gave Pater several years ago, that he never got round to using -- I love the rings of flour these decorate the loaves with, and the gently modified organic form they lend. (Those are my loaves in the photos above -- Pater did the pre-bake slashing that forms that petal-like design on the top, where the crust splits apart as the loaf expands, as steam escapes).
For this latest batch, still warm on the counter behind me, I folded in chopped walnuts, and I'm looking forward to experimenting more with different flours (so far I'm using 2 parts whole wheat to 8 parts unbleached white) and additions. For the moment, I'm content with enjoying the tang of the sourdough -- and knowing that the tang signals easier digestion which results from the prolonged fermentation effected by the wild yeast.
Interesting to think back over a hundred years and think what a boon commercial yeast would have been to my grandmother's family. I wonder if they'd tried to maintain a starter yeast of their own before that, whether it was her mother or her grandmother who'd first heard of the new product and learned the new method of bread-baking that required kneading but assured a lighter bread, more quickly made. . .
I also wonder what the family's bakers of past generations, when baking bread was done out of necessity (by men and women -- my grandfather "batched" for years in his homestead; my mother-in-law's father, widowed early, baked and knit for his children, gender roles be damned) would have thought about the notion of bread-baking as a hobby. Artisan bread baking at that.
I'd love to know about your bread-baking history, or your family's. Have you baked bread yourself or did your parents or grandparents? If you have, what method and where or how did you learn it? Is it part of your regular domestic routine now or an occasional treat? Does your partner bake? Any thoughts on the gender roles that have kept men front and centre in commercial baking, women in the home kitchens? And that's probably enough questions to get this conversation going, don't you think? I'll look forward to your comments, comme d'hab. . .