Yeast: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love to Bake
Step 1: Gather your ingredients
This is the way my story starts. Not at 1pm on a Saturday afternoon, fetal, in bed, doom scrolling through Instagram. No, when I tell this story to my grandchildren, it will start at 1:17 pm. Opening on me at the kitchen counter, spotless pink apron tied around my waist, ready to bake. When the thought popped into my mind approximately 17 minutes ago, it had been so simple: bread. Soft, squishy, crunchy, rippable, steaming hot from the oven: bread.
I’ll leave out the fact that this whole endeavor was inspired by an online stranger posting a photo of a loaf of bread, and it happened to catch my eye between the pictures of disgustingly happy couples and people traveling the world. I think I’ll make it grander than that. I was at the kitchen already when this primal urge hit me like a lightning bolt. To bake. To make bread. To create.
Apparently, it was a simple endeavor, according to a quick Google search and www.bakingforidiots.com.
A few simple ingredients away from glory. Bake a little, knead a little, take a few photos, and then bam! Everyone gushing over my bread. How brilliant I am! What an amazing baker I am! Anyone would be a fool to leave such an amazing talent like me.
Nutmeg… panko… cumin… I dug through the back of my pantry, an archeology of dinners past; finding long forgotten spices and ingredients that had been lost to the ravages of time. Salt, I knew that I had. It was sitting in the small shaker on my dining room table that I never used. The table was set up, as my mother used to call it, for the “what ifs.” What if someone decided to stop by for dinner? What if they thought your cooking was under-seasoned? What if they were so offended by the state of your house that they up and left? All of which translated a seemingly clean apartment, with a dining room table covered in dust, and a perpetually full salt shaker.
Water, I didn’t have to worry about, unless I forgot to pay utilities this month. Did I forget to pay utilities this month? I never had before, but there was a first time for everything. No, I took a shower last night. Did I take a shower last night?
Flour and yeast, I was more confident about than the shower, since this wasn’t my first foray into baking. It had been another weekend that seemed to be destined for me to stay in bed, when the Great British Bake Off started playing on Netflix. The TV was usually on for ambient noise and made the apartment seem less lonely somehow.
Sometimes I wondered if I died in here, would my neighbors come check in on me, or would they hear voices from the TV and think that I was alive? On that day though, dying alone and not being found for a few months didn’t even cross my mind. All I saw were beautiful cakes and cookies and sweet breads being pulled out of an oven in a pastel tent.
I don’t even think I finished the episode. Another ‘what if’ had been unlocked, and the thought seared into my brain. What if someone stopped by and I had no fresh baked goods to serve them? I grabbed my keys and was off.
That’s how I knew that I had flour and yeast in my cabinets somewhere. After the first batch of uneaten cookies and dinner rolls had gone stale a few weeks later, I hadn’t bothered making anything else.
That didn’t matter though. My baking career started today, with a beautiful, crusty loaf of bread.
A small yell of triumph left my lips as I grabbed the half-used bag of flour and the little packet of yeast from the back of a shelf. Opening up the bag, I took a whiff. Was flour supposed to smell musty?
Step 2: Try not to get hit by a Tesla in the Whole Foods parking lot.
When I’m recounting the story of how I cracked the recipe to bake the perfect loaf of bread, I’ll leave this part out. In that version, my trials and tribulations will be the best way to whip the dough together into a perfect sphere like a young Julia Child. Not if I had remembered to bring my reusable bag to the store or not.
My path through the parking lot was one of least resistance: eyes forward, a clear shot to the store. No distractions and no sidetracking, just straight through the exit doors. Yes, the exit doors. I was a maverick. I was on a mission. Neither Heaven nor Earth nor corporate policy was going to stop me.
The store was packed with people rushing back and forth, all seemingly oblivious of me as I weaved my way around them, peeking my head down each aisle to see where the baking section was. I made my way deeper and deeper in, until I stumbled upon a man in a dark green apron squatting down near the floor and rhythmically placing can after can onto the shelf.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
He didn’t move, and continued to turn from cardboard box to shelf.
“Excuse me?” I asked, a bit louder.
I wasn’t sure if he had fallen into some sort of stocking trance, or if he was purposefully ignoring me. Who could blame him? He probably had to deal with all sorts of rude customers who thought the world revolved around them. Little did he know that he was about to help make baking history, just by pointing me in the right direction.
Finally, he looked up.
My initial thought had been to launch right in. To explain that I was making bread, and needed a replacement for some flour that had somehow gone bad, and ask if flour could even go bad. From there we would swap baking tips, maybe share a few stories, and have a laugh before I went on my way. But his eyes were glazed over. It was a look that one could only have after working for an hour within the confines of the nonsense handed down by a far-off corporate headquarters and, worse still, having to deal with people.
“Flour?” I squeaked out.
“End of the aisle, to the right” he said disinterestedly, his attention going back to the cans.
“Sorry. hank you.” I said, trying to step around him.
Why did every interaction that I had have to be punctuated with an apology just for existing?
“Sorry,” I said again, almost knocking over a box full of cans as I hurried down the aisle.
When I found the baking aisle, it felt like stumbling upon a baking Mecca. A wall of flours and sugars and pre-packaged baking mixes (for the not-so-culinarily-inclined). Arching my neck, I scanned the flours until I saw the white bag with a blue medallion on it on the very top shelf. All-Purpose. Just what I needed. I wrapped my hands around the bag and squished it a bit. It felt good. Fresh.
Before I could get it off the shelf, something else caught my eye. 00 flour? What was that? I picked up the bag and read the label. Finely milled for a smooth texture. I wanted my bread to be finely milled with a smooth texture. 00 flour it was.
Wait, what was that next to the 00 flour? Semolina flour? According to the label, it was higher protein and with a nutty flavor. Protein was good and I didn’t want my bread to be bland. Maybe I should go with the Semolina flour? What about spelt flour? What even was spelt flour? Was the worker staring at me from down the aisle? Could he sense that I had questions but didn’t want to bother him? Did he know that I was going to have to come back to get another flour in a few hours because I picked the wrong one?
I decided to go with the All-Purpose. No. Wait. The 00 flour. No. Wait.
Step 3: Stir together all of the ingredients in a large bowl and forget the nervous breakdown you had in the store.
Yeast in water. Flour in bowl. Water in flour. A dash of salt for taste from the fancy salt shaker. This is how it should have been from the start. This I could recount over a nice glass of wine at a dinner party.
Oh, it’s really simple. Mix the ingredients you had sitting in your pantry together in a giant bowl, don’t cry in your local Whole Foods, and just make bread. Oh, it doesn’t work like for you? Sorry to hear that. Not all of us are baking extraordinaires their first time making bread. Not to fret. All you have to do is ask and I’ll bake for you anytime. Have another slice why don’t you?
Step 4: Wait impatiently
There was something going on underneath the tea towel covering the bowl. I was sure of it. I had looked it up earlier and the yeast was doing something to the flour molecules to turn something into something else. And then that did something to make bread. They say, cooking is an art, and baking is a science. Well, call me Marie Curie. Maybe not Marie Curie, but another less radioactive, kick-ass scientist.
I stood at the counter, tapping my fingers against the granite and stared at the bowl. Only an hour and forty-seven minutes left to go before this baby would rise. Staring out the sliding glass doors to my balcony, I wondered if the bread would be done by golden hour so I could make sure the lighting was right for photos. It would have definitely been worth whipping out the fancy plates to present the loaf on, if I owned fancy plates. Should I own fancy plates at this stage in my life?
Step 5: Spiral
“Yes, Mom. Bread,” I said, slipping my phone into my pocket and putting in my earbuds to free my hands. “Like from a bakery. Bread.”
Lifting the towel off, I took a second to admire the soon-to-be loaf. The goopy dough had expanded into its own being;. crawling, tendriling up the sides of the bowl on its spindly legs.
“I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be fine?” I asked, trying not to let anything slip in my voice. I rubbed some flour on my hands, something I’d seen bakers do on TV. I slid my fingers around the edges of the bowl, pushing them in until I could pick up the ball of dough. I held it in my hands for a moment, letting gravity do its best to pull it down, before plopping the ball onto the counter.
“Mhmm…Yeah, I heard. He posted it on Facebook,” I said, my fingers sinking into the sticky blob in front of me. “Yes, I’m still Facebook friends with him.”
I lifted the mess up again, and threw it back down, before using my whole hand to push the dough away from me then towards me again on the counter, working it into something somewhat cohesive.
“I have a lot going on in my life too, you know. Maybe not ‘having a baby’ a lot, but still lots of things,” I retorted. I was punctuating each sentence by pushing my fists into the dough.
“Anyway, I barely have time to do all the stuff I want to do. Do you know how long I’ve been wanting to make bread?” I asked, knowing that the answer to my question was approximately three hours. But she didn’t need to know that.
The pile of dough was now full of divots roughly the size of my fist. Was it supposed to look like that? I began to mold the dough into a ball. I could fix it. I just needed to knead it some more. I dug the heels of my hands into the dough. Folding it over itself, again and again.
Step 6: Contemplate your life @ 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes
I flipped the little switch on the oven to turn on the light and stared at the loaf inside. Had it grown since the last time I checked? It had definitely grown. I flipped off the light. What if it hadn’t grown? I flipped the light back on and stared at the loaf. No, it had definitely grown. I flipped the light off and sat on the couch.
It was going to turn out great. I could already smell something coming from the oven. Most importantly, I had followed the directions exactly. Flour. Water. Salt. Yeast. Everything that you needed for bread. I had measured and kneaded and rested and baked and now the next step was to wait and see if my decisions had been the right ones.
And if they weren’t? Well, I could kiss it all goodbye. The bakery, the people lining up just to get a taste, the dinner parties, the book deals, friends, not having to die alone and wait for someone to discover my corpse.
I scrambled for my phone to find the recipe again. Flour. Check. Water. Check. Salt. Check. Yeast. Check. What if I had missed something in the instructions? I scrolled back up to the top of the page and started reading. Most of it was what I had expected. A story about the blogger’s 2.5 children, husband, and golden retriever and how they all loved her and begged her to make this bread for them every single day. Blah, blah blah. Passed down in her family through-
“Generations,” the word rolled off my tongue as I said it out loud.
The blogger’s grandmother. Her mother. Her. And next her daughter was going to follow the exact same steps that I was following. Generations of bread. Generations of the same recipe over and over.
Relief washed over me. Time tested and true. My bread would be fine. Better than fine.
Step 7: Enjoy?
I looked down at the misshapen brick and tapped it with the back of a butter knife, only to be met by a dense thunk. Judging by the sound, it was doubtful that a knife could cut through this loaf, let alone my stomach acids digest it.
Golden hour had started and hit the so-called loaf just right, the light highlighting the burnt edges of the crust. It would have made for a great photo of bread if this monstrosity in front of me looked anything like bread.
Toss it out? Pretend it never happened and get back into bed? Steal a photo from Google and lie?
Maybe this is the way my story starts. Not at 4:23 pm on a Saturday afternoon, standing over an inedible loaf. No, when I tell this story to my grandchildren, it will start at 4:24 pm. A tale of struggle and Sisyphean determination. It’ll open with me at the kitchen counter, taking pictures of deformed bread. Ready to try again.
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