Monday, April 16, 2018

Bread-Making, Old-School, Artisan, and Beginner's Luck . . .

I asked my maternal grandmother once what her childhood Christmasses were like, whether, on the farm in a deep Manitoba cold just into the 20th century, she had received many, or any, gifts. Sometimes an orange, she said, a few walnuts, and one Christmas a child's baking set, the first time she remembered anything like a toy. She was twelve though, she scoffed, and she'd been taking her turn baking the family's bread for a few years by then.
 My mother used to bake bread as well, often mashing a boiled potato or two into the dough. She didn't try to supply all our bread, however,"store-bought" being more accessible than it had been for Grandma (although both mother and daughter raised large families who gobbled loaves at a tough-to-keep-up-with pace). And day-old almost affordable.
 My mother-in-law rarely bought a loaf. In fact, one of the conditions my father-in-law set on her resuming her teaching career (once their youngest was in school) was that he wouldn't have to eat "store-bought bread." Besides making sure that dinner was on the table when he got home from work each day, he also insisted that the family's bread all be made by his wife. I can almost understand why -- her bread was excellent. My husband misses it still. . .
So when I was home with small kids, I directed some domestic energy toward bread-baking (better that than vacuuming!). I followed a few recipes (in the 70s and 80s Laurel's Kitchen was big, and I also used a Mennonite cookbook More with Less; Anna Thomas's The Vegetarian Epicure books; Joy of Cooking), all similar enough in method to my mother's, my mother-in-law's, and my grandmother's. I remember the advice in Laurel's Kitchen to beat the water, yeast, and initial dump of flour mixture "until it sheets," so that the gluten was developed by mechanical action. And then the kneading. Not so bad if I was only making two loaves, but if I was working enough dough for four, I didn't need much more exercise for the day!!
Besides which, it was important to be attentive to how quickly the dough was rising, to allow it to gain enough volume before punching it down, but not at the risk of it over-proofing, of the yeast getting too exhausted to raise the dough for its final proof.
Although there was also the wryly sage advice I took from Laurel's Kitchen: if the bread didn't rise, I could always "slice it very thin and call it pumpernickel." I'm not going to claim we never ate a slice of faux pumpernickel back in the day. . . .

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. . . 

45 comments:

  1. A fascinating post Frances with all your family history anecdotes. Especially liked the story of your mother in law and having still to bake once she returned to teaching!
    Over the years I have been a sporadic baker. I love the therapeutic sensation of kneeding by hand and the slow process of waiting for the dough to rise. I did have a bread machine and loved the daily smell of bread baking. Sadly my machine wore out and I never replaced it. Reading your post makes me feel like a bread moment. B x

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    1. I used to love the kneading as well, at least for the first few minutes. . . I still can't quite believe that the gluten gets developed by the fermentation just as well as it used to by the physical working. . .
      Have you ever tried the Peasant Bread in a Bowl recipe I've linked to? If you ever want a batch of bread in three hours with not much more work than measuring and stirring, it's your answer. . .

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    2. I’ll give it a go, if only because it has a wonderful name. Thanks x

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  2. My grandmother made bread regularly 4 loaves at a time, we were permitted to have some sliced hot from the oven and slather it with salty butter and her homemade jam. Bliss!
    My husbands' Nana made bread too...I have her ecipe and it is amazing but very "doughy white" bread as it uses only white flour...I tired substituting whole wheat but it did not work out...alas I make bread very infrequently now as there are just the two of us and we don't eat a lot of bread.
    Your new breads do look appetising and it must be rewarding making them from scratch...and your condo must smell divine when they are baking in the oven!

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    1. mmmm, warm bread and butter and jam! yes!
      I've generally found more success with a part-whole-wheat bread than with trying for a 100% whole-wheat loaf. My son-in-law is currently experimenting with a variety of flours (rye, kamut), and I'll wait until he gets his ratios and methods down before following his lead.
      There are just the two of us as well, but my husband is one of those annoying creatures who can eat and eat without weight gain, and he loves bread. . .

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  3. I suspect the time crunch of baking enough bread daily for 4 slices each for the school lunches we each made prior to catching an early morning bus, and at least 2 each (10 people) for breakfast toast before the bus drove my mother to a freezer full of day old bread. That, and the fact that, with a budget so tight it usually depended on my brothers' paper routes to get us through the last week of the month, meant bread making (which I do remember and have done) impractical in our house. And that kneading is definitely an upper arm workout!

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    1. That's a lot of loaves a day! Thank goodness for freezers, back in the day. . .

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  4. I'd say who cares if spring is holding out on your corner of the world, a slice from one of those perfect artisanal breads can put spring in the back burner anytime. The stripes and well placed slashes remind me of Navajo baskets. Compliments to the Artisans!
    My background is from a non bread baking tradition. I grew up in a tropical island in the Pacific. In my family, bread was eaten only for breakfast. Breads were made by the only bakery in town and delivered to the stores in the afternoon. There were two choices, white or wholewheat. Those were from my childhood and no longer true in these modern days. My mother and grandmother did bake breads but not very often. The breads were baked in an old woodstove oven. The smell of baking bread from that oven was heavenly. We usually had those homemade breads with New Zealand butter and my mother's special papaya jam. I was a greedy bread eater...:) By the time my siblings were ready for their second slices, I'm on my way to a third slice and my mother's look of disbelief. I thought that would teach her to bake more often. It didn't work.

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    1. My apology. I forgot to sign off on the above comment. XX ~Amelia

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    2. I was curious about this, after I posted -- how many readers come from non-bread-baking backgrounds? I would think, for example there's not much reason to bake bread at home in Europe where good bakeries abound. Interesting to hear that a tropical island doesn't call for bread beyond breakfast -- but that makes sense to me, especially with all that fresh fruit I imagine.

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  5. I grew up on white "boughten" bread, as we called store bought products. Mum worked full time, and as a single mum of four had no time for baking bread. Then when she married my step-father and we moved to the farm, she began to make all her own bread. She made all our bread, turning out six or eight loaves in a day, sometimes followed by several dozen cookies in the afternoon. I miss her bread.
    But more than her bread we all mourn the passing of her doughnut making habit. My mum made the best doughnuts I have ever tasted, made with cream and a little nutmeg, I've never tasted anything so good. They were old fashioned sugared cake doughnuts, none of these new-fangled doughnuts filled with all kinds of whatever and sprinkled with more of whatever else. Sigh. Mum's doughnuts were famous in the family. My niece's son, who was about five when Mum stopped baking doughnuts and now is thirteen still occasionally sighs and says, "Grammy, do you think you will you ever make doughnuts again?"

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    1. I don't even like doughnuts but that description is lovely!!

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    2. I agree with K. -- about the description, that is. I do like doughnuts well enough, but scarcely eat them and we have a very good shop right across the street. Don't trust myself to start. . .
      I think I like the idea of your mom's doughnuts becoming legendary more than I might have liked one or two of you having learned from her how to make them and carrying on the tradition. Some foods can only be perfectly preserved or replicated in our memories. . .

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  6. When my husband and I first got together, I was baking bread regularly and proud of my skill...until I realized that the bread was not getting used. When I asked why, my husband and a roommate at the time shared that they did not have time to slice the bread and wait for the butter to melt! They were in too much of a rush in the morning. That is when I decided that if they did not have time to slice their own bread then I did not want to waste my time kneading and baking their bread! Several years after that, a friend shared her starter with me and I kept it going for a number of years until life with the kids got more and more hectic - soccer, horseback riding, swim team, piano, cello and viola, etc. Perhaps, it is time to start up again.

    slf

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    1. Wow! I can't imagine being in such a hurry I couldn't wait to enjoy freshly baked bread -- there must be a bumper sticker in there somewhere ;-)

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  7. My mother baked bread when she was going through her hippie phase in the 70s - I've never forgotten the humiliation of taking my homemade bread sandwiches to school when everyone else was eating store bought white bread ... But I got over it, and learned to make bread when I left home very young (16) and live in the north of England. A few years ago I started making sourdough again, which I love - and so did my family - but as I now live alone, there isn't much point making a whole loaf that will end up uneaten. I do miss making it, and I do still have one of my home-grown starters hanging around.

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    1. Oh, that's too funny! I was asking my 9-year-old granddaughter the other day if kids still do that "Ooooh, what's that you're eating?" thing at anything "different" in the lunchbox. Apparently, it still happens occasionally, but there's so much ethnic diversity in the classroom that difference is normalized.
      I've wondered whether we can keep up with my developing much of a bread-making habit again -- I recently read somewhere of a baker who dropped her loaves off regularly at a soup kitchen and thought I might investigate that possibility. . . there are probably all kinds of health-and-safety rules that might complicate. . .

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  8. Love this post! I made bread when I was in my early 20s - and I seriously enjoyed it. (Also, I'll brag - I made really good loaves!) The act of bread-making is practically religious - but I don't do it now because I cannot eat it (without feeling really crappy). Nonetheless, I love to look at loaves made by others :-)

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    1. It's so satisfying to turn out a good loaf of bread, right?
      I'm intrigued at how much more digestible these sourdough breads apparently are (because of the wild yeast rather than the commercial yeast; because there's no sugar added; and because the long, slow fermentation -- 36 hours for the recipe I use -- drastically reduces the amount of phytic acid).

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  9. My husband is the bread maker in the family. Sourdough bread is his favourite. Mine in a multigrain concoction with seeds which have been ground in an old coffee grinder. He makes bread weekly and has been doing this for about seven years. He started baking when our favourite bakery upped their price. When we are invited out to dinner, there is usually a request for a loaf....
    Ali

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    1. I like the sound of that multigrain loaf!

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  10. There is no baking tradition in my family. In great part, I think, because Germany has always been Bread Country. (There were always long cues outside the German Bakery in Lima.) Even in my youth it was possible to buy very good bread of various types (sourdough, wholewheat, rye etc. etc.)at the shops. Of course there were differences in quality according to the bakery. During the summer holidays in our lakeside cottage we would buy a local type of sourdough rye bread. Eating the first fresh slices with butter or liver sausage was a delight I still remember.
    When my Swiss-Italian SIL joined the family, she introduced the habit of baking a "yeast braid" for Sunday breakfast. Every now and again I make one, and every time I think that the smell alone justifies the effort.

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    1. This is what I wondered about (see my response to Amelia/Anonymous above) -- I can't imagine bothering to make bread at home if I lived near a good bakery in Europe--so many of you have one within easy walking distance.
      I agree with you, absolutely, about the smell being worth the effort -- when we sold our first house, our real estate agent noticed that I made my own bread and suggested having a loaf in the oven when we had an open house. . .

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  11. Reading everyone’s bread stories just shows how important bread has been in our lives . My mum made small white buns , baps as we called them & we kids queued up to eat them hot & dripping with butter . She’d get cross & say “ I’m not making anymore bread you only eat it “. Meaning there was never any left for later . I don’t make bread as I still find hot bread irresistible . Yours looks delicious & very professional .
    Wendy in York

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    1. It's true, Wendy -- fun to share the stories about these simple touchstones, as with the tea-making a few weeks ago.
      Such a happy memory you share here -- I can imagine you gathered 'round to grab your bap, and your mom's threat makes me chuckle. I suspect that even as she was (or pretended to be) cross at their instant consumption, she'd have been tickled you found them so good.

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  12. What a wonderful post,with the scent of fresh bread! And it looks perfect to me
    My grand-grand mothers used to bake bread,we even had a special wood ovens for bread (I remember the ovens,from my early childhood). They had their own starters ( the "bought "yeast was only for cakes) and made the bread from rye and corn flour. White bread was a treat,bought from time to time. The generation of my grandmothers started to buy white bread for everyday use.
    Thirty years ago,my mother and me started to make wholemeat bread with our own starter,but it didn't last long.
    I've even bought a bread machine for vacations,but my son didn't like home made bread.
    I've tried your "fast bread-making recipe" a couple of times for guests-it was excellent and they liked it very much
    Dottoressa

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    1. This is very interesting to me, as I wasn't sure how much of a tradition for home bread-baking there would have been in Europe, when the shift to commercial bakeries happened. I know there were villages that had big communal bread-baking ovens -- did your great-grandmothers use these or have their own special bread oven in their homes?
      I'm curious about why your mother and you started making your own bread with your own starter. . . about the same time (30 years ago), this became a bit of a trend here (an extension of the hippie thing, I think) . . .

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    2. Both of my families had their own oven,it was like the little house outside,near the kitchen,similar to bigger pizza oven in pizzerias with wood oven,and it had it's own roof
      I'm not sure but believe that there were no communal oven (but maybe neighbours could use our oven)
      Thirty years ago I started with macrobiotic (Mitchio and Eveline Kushi had lectures and workshops in Zagreb) for medical reasons,and among other things,we made our bread (and starter). I've completely changed my diet and way of cooking-I've only add a steak or something for my ex husband,my meal was a side dish for him
      D.

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    3. On the subject of ovens: When my mother was a small girl, it was quite common in the country for families to prepare their bread or cakes at home (especially before feast days or celebrations) and then take them to the local baker to be finished in his big oven. I imaigine that this must have been the case in many parts of the world.

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    4. Thanks for coming back to answer my question, D. Those ovens must have been amazing. A neighbour of mine on our little island had one built (by an old Hungarian immigrant) years ago and used it regularly. . .
      Eleonore, this is what I have heard. So interesting that it was still common within your mother's lifetime. You'd really want to stay on good terms with the baker. . .

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  13. First off, that's a mighty fine looking loaf of bread in your photos. It has me wishing for a crusty slice slathered with butter.

    Bread-baking is part of my family tradition. My maternal grandmother wasn't fond of the kitchen and I don't remember any homemade bread there, but my paternal grandmother made bread regularly. My mother worked and didn't make loaves very often; we relied on store-bought for sandwiches and toast, but every Saturday she made a big batch of buns. Light, delicately speckled with brown, soft inside with a bit of chewy crust - I've never been able to replicate them, although I have her recipe. Saturday night dinners were soup (usually borscht) and buns, and I can't think of anything finer. Bags of buns went into the freezer for the week. About once a month, a batch of sweet dough replaced the buns and we enjoyed cinnamon buns or a fancy coffee bread with our light Sunday evening meal.
    I use Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day book and regularly make bread. I try not to eat very much bread at all, but my husband, like yours, enjoys it and doesn't gain weight. A couple of loaves of whole wheat bread, sliced before freezing, last a month or more. I'm still working on perfecting a baguette. I don't think I'll ever achieve what I'm hoping for, which is only to be found in Paris, but the attempts are certainly edible.

    My Vancouver daughter has developed a sourdough starter and has promised to bring some over for me in a few weeks.

    Loved this post that sparked memories, along with the comments from other readers.

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    1. In answer to another question, no, my husband does not cook. His office colleagues were concerned about his survival when I was away in Mexico for almost two weeks. However, he managed just fine for himself and ate quite well, even roasting a tray of vegetables one or two evenings. I prepared some meals ahead and probably half of them are still in the freezer.

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    2. I suspected you had a bread-baking tradition. . . I've heard that book is very good -- I should see if the library has a copy.
      I haven't tried to make a baguette -- especially now I have to get the value out of my two brotforms! ;-)
      Chuckling about your husband's survival while you were away. Mine generally found it a good way to unwind after a (generally stress-filled) work day, but cooking's not everyone favourite leisure activity! ;-)

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  14. Both of my grandmothers (emigrants from Italy) baked bread for their large families in New Jersey. My paternal grandmother's neighbor had an outdoor wood fired oven that was heated up once per week (it's quite a long process) and anyone in the neighborhood could bring their dough to bake. They would give a loaf to the neighbor as a thank you. My mother is a wonderful cook, but never baked bread. I've baked bread with a modicum of success, but would love to try again with these "easier" recipes.

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    1. Wonderful to know that that European tradition of sharing a big outdoor oven was continued in America -- the community that would have fostered. If you're looking for an easy recipe, you can't beat that bread-in-a-bowl. The sourdough is a bit fussier, but once you get the rhythm of it, it really turns out lovely loaves. . . I'd love to hear back if you bake up a batch of either.

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  15. I used to bake a lot of bread - white bread, wheat bread, sometimes rye; also dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls, caramel nut rolls and occasionally other sweet roll varieties. It was something I did frequently before I had kids and while my kids were growing up. I do it much less now and I can't really say why as I love homemade bread. (One issue, though, is my husband prefers sandwiches made with store bought white bread and he isn't a big bread eater period where I could live on bread!) Never dipped much into the artisan bread world, though. Bread baking is something I keep intending to get back to and, if not before, I will certainly do much more of it once I retire.

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    1. I was like that as well, intending to get back to it, but not quite managing until now, in retirement. While I was still working, though, I did pull off the bread-in-a-bowl occasionally. An easy way to get started again, hint, hint ;-)

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  16. Such beautiful bread! I used to love baking -- bread, biscuits, rolls, coffee cake, etc., although I never made cakes and pies as my mother-in-law did. It was good exercise, the house smelled heavenly and fresh bread improves any meal. I'm not allowed to eat any grains now and freshly baked bread it what I miss the most. When we lived in Mexico the bakery down the road made gingerbread every afternoon -- so hard to resist. I'm glad to see that bread making is still a skill that is valued.

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    1. As much as the dietary restriction, which would be tough enough, I can imagine how you miss the baking itself. It's such a satisfying and rewarding process, and it holds so many tactile and sensory memories. You have my sincere sympathy.

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    2. In truth I am lucky to have found a doctor who does research on my condition and has been kind and supportive about the difficult dietary issues. I've found as we get older we all have to deal with some type of health issues. Now I just need to find a substitute that smells and tastes as good as bread!

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    3. This is a good attitude to have (the other option being to get really cranky which doesn't make us any happier, obviously). I'm trying to cultivate a similar attitude around some health/ageing issues myself . . . Thanks for the example.

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  17. True artistry! What a wonderful loaf. No bread making tradition in my family that I know of. Every small village had its bakery. The tradition was rather of wonderful Scottish home baking of scones and cakes. Now that my husband and I are living and working in separate parts of the country for a while, he has started making scones and bread. The bread is 'just' the bread maker version but he loves it and is very proud of it. If I'm being very honest I would rather have no bread than the bread maker version, as I find it not near enough the real thing. However, I do accept a slice or two graciously! His scones on the other hand are much better than mine. I haven't really pondered on the commercial gender roles - I wonder if there is still an effect of the unsocial hours? But that supposes that the majority of would be female commercial bakers have family or intend to, and I wouldn't know how the stats bear that out.

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    1. I think this is a big reason that domestic bread-making wouldn't have happened in large swathes of Europe, the population densities that meant a village had a bakery.
      I found the breadmaker version quite a decent substitute, myself, especially when warm out of the oven. . . you're wise to be gracious! I like to encourage any and all culinary efforts in my kitchen (although I drew the line at Him thinking about pie-making. Pastry's MY thing ;-)

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  18. Take a look at Richard Bertinet's site - he owns a bakery and cookery school in Bath. I took a course there a couple of years ago - unusual kneading technique. The bread is delicious and the fish pie served at lunch was the best I have EVER tasted, the almond croissants from the bakery are sublime. His books have won awards (start off with the two books called Crust and Dough - one or maybe both have a DVD included) and I'm sure there are YouTube videos available to show the kneading technique - I've never seen dough come together so quickly. If you're ever in Bath it's worth booking a trip around one of his classes - they are great fun.

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    1. sounds interesting, thanks.
      Hard to tell if he uses a sourdough to raise the bread or a commercial yeast.
      Are you still baking that bread back home?

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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