In a recent conversation, one of my daughters and I discussed the renaissance of home baking that is going on in this country. We had both read online articles about this, and were surprised to learn that while home baking included muffins, cup cakes, layer and loaf cakes, cookies, brownies, and biscuits, it also included bread.
Basic bread, not banana bread or any others like it, but loaf bread. I wondered why making bread was so popular, and then thought about the difference of process in making bread and all the others cited above.
Bread dough has to be kneaded in order to develop the glutens in the flour, which gives the dough structure and texture. Unlike making other baked good, when batter is stirred with a mixer or by hand, making bread is a hands-on process. The baker’s hands handle the dough, kneading it smoothly so that the glutens will be distributed throughout the dough.
Thinking about that, I realized that kneading not only helped the dough, but the baker. In times like these, anxiety and fear are emotions millions suffer. Kneading dough can release tension, at least for a while, and the aroma of baking bread creates a space of normalcy, which we all need.
My first experience with baking occurred when I was five. For Christmas I received a toy stove that really worked. I wanted to make biscuits for my father, and though my mother offered to help, I was determined to make them myself. I put the pan in the oven of my stove, and when they were done they looked every bit as good as the ones my mother made.
I put the biscuits in a basket lined with a napkin, and presented them to my father. He took a bite, then another, following each bite with a sip of coffee. His face had a strange look, not at all the appreciation I expected, so I picked up a biscuit and took a bite.
I had never bitten into anything as hard as that biscuit was. ‘How could that happen?’ I mentally reviewed the recipe, and my mind stopped at the word “shortening”. It was the last ingredient, followed by the instructions, and somehow, I had overlooked it. My mother saw my face and asked what was wrong. “I left out the shortening,” I said, and burst into tears. My father dipped a biscuit into his coffee, and ate it with relish.
“These are the best biscuits I’ve ever had,” he said. “The only ones I can dip in coffee and they won’t fall apart.” Despite his praise, I never made biscuits without shortening again.
Nor did I have any more problems baking until the day I made a cake for my husband because I was angry with him over some trivial occurrence, and decided to make a peace offering with his favorite cake. A good friend was in the kitchen with me, visiting while I made the cake, three layers of chocolate that would be iced with divinity icing. As I put the last stroke of icing on the cake, it began to split into four quarters.
I heard my friend gasp, but she said nothing, and watched me get a large bowl and put cake and icing in it. Then I attacked the contents with a steel spoon, reducing it to a mixture of cake and icing. “There’s his cake. And I dare him to say anything about it.”
My friend called my husband and told him to be prepared for this baking disaster. He came home and instead of teasing me, put some of the mixture on a plate and ate every bit. Before he could say anything, I picked up the bowl and scraped the contents into the garbage. The word “cake” was not spoken.
Later, my friend called and said my husband had called her and said he had never had such a good cake, but he knew what would happen if he said so.
I made a cake for the family every week-end, but I never had another disaster, and to this day, I don’t know how that one happened.