Friday, February 17, 2012

Baking Bread

I am the bread baker in our home. 
Any bread freshly baked at our house is because of my efforts.

Now, it isn't as if Patricia and I sat down one day and divided household duties, and after I lost two out of three thumb wrestling matches, baking was added to my side of the ledger. Actually, for the first 30 plus years of our marriage, very little bread was baked, and she was the baker if any was made at all. But mostly we subsisted on store-bought loaves, augmented once in a while with something fresh from a bakery.

Home-baked bread has a long history in my family. Even now, the aroma of freshly baked bread cooling on the rack transports me to my grandmother's kitchen, where homemade breads, pies and coffeecake were staples. Coffeecake was kind of a sweet flatbread glazed with brown sugar, eaten in big slices with lots of butter. It was one of Grandma's specialties, possibly handed down from her German family. I don't bake coffeecake, though my mother may have the recipe and my sister might make it. For me it's just a delicious memory, like Grandma's bread.

My dad's mother didn't bake bread, at least not that I recall. When I asked about it, she told me that baking bread had never turned out well for her, so she had given up trying. And once my grandfather went into the grocery business, her time was spent working at the store rather than in the kitchen. 

My own home didn't have much fresh-baked bread, either. I haven't mentioned it before, but I grew up in a hotel. My parents owned and operated a turn of the century vintage hotel in Fairbury, Nebraska, a town of 5000 a bit north of the Kansas border in the southeast corner of the state. By the time we took over in the 1960s, the hotel's glory days were past. Pretty much everything was original - all the furnishings, the plumbing and electrical, the plaster and lath walls, the carpeting. Things were sort of seedy and run down when we got there, and Dad spent a lot of time, money and effort on improvements. There was always something that needed fixing, and he kept busy.

Mom worked pretty steadily in the business as well. Even if she had been inclined to bake bread, who had the time? I'll talk lots more about growing up in the hotel in future posts, but let's try to stay on topic here. Given that my experience with homemade bread was pretty much limited to visits to my maternal grandparents' home, why did I take up baking after a half-century of life?

Like a lot of things in my life, it was kind of a process. Our tastes in bread have changed dramatically since we first married. Started out kind of plain white bread. But then interesting varieties of bread came out - honey wheat berry, oatmeal whole wheat, all kinds of stuff that we tried and liked. For a while in the 80s we were heavily involved in a whole foods co-op in Nebraska, and we learned healthier eating. (Another story for a different day.) We began eating fresh-baked whole wheat breads there and developed a taste for them.

After moving to Illinois in 1988, we had to adopt a whole new routine. Whole foods were harder to come by and way more expensive. So we adapted, buying groceries from nearby supermarkets. But we always liked the interesting varietal breads. As time went by, these breads kept increasing in price and I began wondering if there was a better way.

My mother had started buying bakery bread, so when we visited it was kind of like going back in time to her mother's house, slicing the fresh bread ourselves. I got a hankering for homemade bread again, and decided to invest part of my tax refund in a bread machine (last of the big time spenders.)

We had a bread machine 25 or 30 years ago, and were unimpressed. The loaves were a weird cylindrical shape and recipes were limited and not very interesting. You could buy bread machine mixes, but the results were underwhelming. We gave up after a short while. 

I was hoping bread machine state of the art had improved over the past 3 decades. After considerable Internet research, I made my choice. I checked around at local merchants and discovered that no one really carried bread machines - not enough interest, I guess. So I ordered my machine online, and also ordered a bread machine cookbook. I figured a few extra recipes would be helpful. That was the best decision I made in the whole bread baking adventure!

When my machine and cookbook arrived, I eagerly unpacked and set it up. The cookbook was amazing - it was the size of the New York City phone book!* It was huge, with hundreds of recipes. Everything was clearly laid out, and by following directions carefully, my very first loaf of bread was a success. More than a hundred loaves later, I've only had one or two disappointments, and those were still edible, just not as pretty as I'd like.

Baking bread appeals to me for several reasons. It caters to my frugality** - each loaf of bread cost around 50 cents or less instead of 3 bucks or so. The bread is fresher, and has no preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers or other weird chemicals. I completely control everything that goes into my bread, and I love that. 

We get to try all kinds of interesting varieties, too. Patricia's favorite is Sunflower Oatmeal Bread. Katie loves the French bread. Other staples include 7-grain bread, Zuni Indian bread, Dakota bread, Honey Wheat Berry. All the breads I bake include at least some whole wheat flour, plus lots of other healthy ingredients. The bread I baked today was Cornell bread, developed in the 1930s as a low-cost high-protein bread to improve Depression families' diets. It includes bread flour, whole wheat and soy flour, honey, an egg, salt, gluten and yeast.

Plus there's the advantage of getting to tinker with a gadget. I love fooling around with these kinds of toys. I think bread machines were designed with guys in mind. I'm always experimenting with different recipes, trying new things. I even made pizza dough once. Turned out pretty good, but I'll change some things next time (naturally.) And I simply add all the ingredients, push a couple of buttons and walk away. The machine does all the fiddly stuff that I would probably screw up - it mixes and kneads and lets the dough rise, be punched down and rise again, then bakes. 3 or 4 hours later, bread!

Finding quality, affordable ingredients has been a worthwhile pursuit. I found out there's a whole foods co-op in Carbondale, 15 miles from home. And I can buy most of the ingredients I use in bread there in bulk, which comes out very affordable. Bags in my bread supply bucket contain things like: wheat germ, dry milk, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, millet, wheat gluten, wheat berries, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, soy flour, rye flour, barley and more. I rarely spend more than five dollars on a trip to the co-op, which generally nets me 5 or 6 bags of goodies.

And there is a spiritual component to bread baking. Jesus called Himself the bread of life, and said when we ate of Him, we'd be totally satisfied and never hunger again. (John 6:51) This freaked out his followers, who took Him literally, thinking He was advocating cannibalism or something. The Bible says a lot of people quit the church over this controversial teaching. (John 6:66) But Jesus was speaking spiritually, not literally. Only when we come to Him can the empty space inside of us be filled.

Oh, we try to fill that void with all kinds of things: material possessions, physical pleasure, wealth, power, influence, food, sex, money, drugs, fame. Everything comes up empty until we yield to the only Source of life. Jesus used the metaphor of eating bread to say God will fill us with Himself when we ask Him in, eradicating that emptiness. All that's required is to willingly accept the free gift of grace He offers. Sadly, just like people in Jesus' day, a lot of us misunderstand and walk away. We think we can never be good enough, never measure up to God's standard.

The good news is, we don't have to! It was precisely because we can't be good enough that Jesus came to earth. He came specifically to pay the penalty for our sins, thereby offering us the free gift of eternal life with Him. (Romans 6:23) It's not about going to church, being on our best behavior or stopping our sinful actions - in other words, it isn't about our performance. It's about allowing God Himself to live inside us, changing us from the inside out, making us a new creature. This change is a lifelong process. That's why Jesus said He was the bread of life - we need to feed on Him daily as we're changed into His image. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

So I bake bread happily, providing nutritious food for my family, spending much less for a superior product, getting to tinker with gadgets, and occasionally remembering that man doesn't really live by bread alone, but by relationship with the true and living God. (Matthew 4:4)

*If you're interested, here is the cookbook I got. Nobody's paying me for my endorsement, but I love this book and highly recommend it as a great way to really use your bread machine.

**Some people would call it being cheap. I prefer to think of it as good stewardship. <smile>

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