I can’t think of any stronger a lure, a more inviting hand reaching out and bringing close than the ultimate comfort food realized: homemade bread baking in the oven on a cold winter’s day. The aroma wafting throughout the house alone could bring the most diehard “no carbs” dieter to a complete surrender.
My mom made bread from scratch when I was a child in the 1960s, a memory etched in my mind for an eternity. It was usually whole wheat bread because she believed in its superior nutritive value, but it also brought forth the nuttier, earthier baking aroma and taste to which white flour just didn’t compare.
My brothers and I, perhaps ages 12, 9, and 6 with me the youngest, would gather around the kitchen table and watch our mom go into a bread-making frenzy. She had already made the dough and to this day I don’t know if she merely followed a recipe from Irma Rombauer’s “The Joy of Cooking” or her Betty Crocker cookbook, but she had some secret doctoring passed on from her mother and her mother’s mother. I never uncovered what it was, but it was known to my German female lineage who settled in rural Minnesota in the 1870s.
Now, this blob of dough was an entity of its own, a seemingly living, breathing mixing-bowl-size unborn child of flour and salt and yeast. It was the entertainment of a typical drizzly and chilly Oregon day to watch Mom pummel the dough with her fists, beating out the air bubbles, rolling it over, rolling it through the flour, kneading that side with her hands, turning it over again and pushing with the heels of her hands, turning again and pressing and folding. Repeat.
I was a spectator at an athletic event. She was covered in white from her fingertips to above her wrists, and as she punched the dough more flour flew all over and onto her crisp apron. I was mesmerized. I watched my mother’s strong, capable hands, veins protruding and nails cut short, utilitarian and Teutonic and no-nonsense. Hands were for work. “Erste arbeit,” she often said. First the work. I knew even as a little girl that this was something profound to observe and to learn. It was practically in my DNA.
“When do we get to eat it, Mom?” we’d groan with hunger.
“The dough has to rise a few times,” she’d answer. “It has to go through a few cycles of rising in the warm oven, kneading the dough, rising in the warm oven again, beating out the air bubbles again, maybe three times. Then, we bake it.”
The wait seemed interminable.
The time finally came to bake the dough in a real metal bread loaf-shaped pan. As the baking began, the smell of the yeast and maybe a touch of molasses was intoxicating and the anticipation was a torturous rapture. Every Norman Rockwell painting, every Martha Stewart Thanksgiving TV special, every Garrison Keillor Midwestern all-American story could not top this: the scent filled the house, it filled my nostrils, it filled the universe with some quintessential molecule, the olfactory heroine; it satiated the primal need for home. The imprints of a warm and loving childhood came together in these time spans of waiting for the bread to be done.
Before my parents renovated the kitchen and got an oven with a see-through window, we couldn’t see the bread baking. Mom would say “We can’t open the oven to check its progress until about 20 minutes through its time or it will collapse.” The yeast must take hold first, and it was a fine line as to when that would happen, or opening the oven would expose that dough to cold air too soon, too suddenly, and the delicately rising dough would just cave in, never to rise correctly again. It was as if she were telling us that a fetus born too soon would die. I pictured the doughy blob in that pan slowly expanding, gently rising, taking shape, not yet brown. Don’t disturb this critical time. It would deflate in a second and result in a flat, shapeless carcass of baked flour and a course texture. Wait. These were some of the hardest waiting hours of my young life. Not only was I not allowed to I eat it yet; I wasn’t even allowed to see it.
My eyes were peeled on the wind-up timer that was a mainstay in our kitchen for 40 years. Tick tick tick tick tick —-it rattled on and on for the duration of its assignment. Riiiiiiing.
“Mom! The bread is done!”
Mom put on her oven mitts and ceremoniously lifted the bread pan out of the oven, and I saw Mom’s smile as she admired her handiwork; the yeast worked its magic and the bread did not collapse. It was a work of art, a masterpiece of leavening agents, timing, and patience.
After more agonizing time to wait for it to cool and set, the moment arrived when Mom skillfully removed the perfect loaf-shaped treasure from the pan and placed it on the cutting board. She took a sharp serrated knife and cut a thick slice, warm and soft. She smoothed a light layer of butter onto that slab, which disappeared instantly into the moist and heated crannies. But the best part was when she drizzled onto this slice of bread a bit of honey. Now, at long last, it was ready to eat. It was sweet like cake, melting in my mouth. The steam curled past my eyes.
My brothers and our mom and I sat around the table and feasted on this magnificent creation, in palate ecstasy, our shining eyes sharing the knowledge that utter contentment was ours at this moment.