I believe in baking bread. The scent of live yeast, the warm softness of dough, and the fragrance of baking keep me in touch with my rural heritage and the shared history of hunger and nourishment. There’s no other food in the Western world that symbolizes sustenance like our daily bread, the staff of life.
The bread we eat today developed from unleavened flat barley cakes of antiquity enhanced when wild yeast lightened the dough. During the Middle
Ages brewer’s foam lifted whole grain loaves, and nowadays a massive industrial complex moves tons of wheat into millions of packaged loaves that are not touched by human hands until you reach for a slice to toast.
I want my bread to be touched by my hands. Yeast is alive, and, like ourselves, responds when it is fed and kept warm. Each week I scoop my jar of 15-year-old natural yeast starter into an old crockery bowl. I add water and flour, and the next morning I stir down a heady sponge of bubbly batter. I return some of this leaven to the jar for the next baking, then mix more water and flour into the sponge. I add fistfuls of wheat germ for wholesomeness, coarse rye flour to extend freshness, and sea salt for savor. I want to keep out all chemical preservatives, high fructose corn syrup and undesirable fats. I knead, shape, and allow the dough to rise slowly before baking. I wait for the first crusty slice. Each morning I cut into hand-mixed whole-grain loaves, and I mark the seasons with cinnamon rolls, stollen and hot cross buns.
Baking bread has always given me a place in the community. When I lived in remote southern Tanzania in East Africa in the mid-sixties, baking bread kept me focused on the present. I found freshly milled flour at a nearby German Benedictine mission. In the village shops I bought dry yeast from Holland, powdered milk from Denmark and canned butter from Kenya. With a small bottled-gas-fired oven, I turned these basic ingredients into creamy sandwich loaves for our schoolboys’ end of term tea parties, pineapple coffee cakes for our Sunday breakfasts and glazed doughnuts fried in an Indian cast- iron wok for homesick fellow Americans.
I believe in giving homemade bread to my children, and I’m eager to teach others to share the tradition. As I hold on to the ritual of baking bread, I feel connected to our past and strengthened to face a future.
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