Since it is finally cool enough to bake again, I’m trying bread. I used to call up Grandma for bread-baking advice, because she knew how to do everything and would have gotten an A in home ec if she’d ever had to take home ec. In her day, taking care of a half-dozen younger brothers and sisters was what they called home ec. By my generation, school or the Girl Scouts had to show you how to sew and cook potatoes so you wouldn’t grow up naked and starving.
(Incidentally, the only thing she didn’t make from scratch? Angel food cake. I tried to make one from scratch, and it turned out an inch high and smelling like burnt marshmallows. I called her up to cry about it expecting some sympathy and/or instructions, and shelaughed at me. “I always bought a mix.” She wasn’t wrong. Angel food cake is a pain in the ass.)
(But so yummy.)
So, bread. Yes, you can buy it in the store. Yes, you can get the frozen dough and do it that way. But I wanted to take a bunch of stuff lying around in the cupboard and be able to create bread from it all, like an alchemist or an inventor. I wanted to make something all by myself. I wanted to see if I could do it. So about a year ago I started trying to bake bread.
“It isn’t rising,” I’d say to Grandma on the phone.
“How long has it been?”
“Um, about 20 minutes?”
“Be patient. You have to be patient with bread.”
An hour later I’d call back. “Still nothing.”
A moment of silence. “How hot was the water you used for the yeast?”
“Hot. It said warm on the package but it was pretty warm.”
“You killed the yeast,” she said, clucking her tongue at me. I was like the Dexter of yeast, always boiling it or drowning it or suffocating it under a two-tight cover while the dough rose.
Once I got it to rise, after about six tries, I put it in the oven, and it STILL came out looking like the sole of a shoe. “What did I do THIS time?” I asked.
“You didn’t let it rise enough.”
“It was pretty high,” I protested.
She sighed. “Put it in the car and bring it up here and I’ll look at it and tell you.”
I very nearly did. She used to offer that we could steal the nursing home’s oven and she could physically show me how I was messing this up and how to correct my mistakes.
(This is the woman who, when I asked her to teach me to make pie crust, told me she was far too old and shaky to show me so she’d just sit still and instruct while I did the work. I hadn’t even gotten the cover off the flour canister before she was shoving me out of the way because I was already doing it wrong. When I finally did make a decent pie crust at home, I took her a piece of the apple pie I baked and waited for her verdict.
“The crust is good,” she said, “but the apples need more sugar.”)
I inherited a whole box of old recipes from her, in unreadable handwriting, all of which are variations on some horrifying 1950s tuna-casserole dish or things like meatballs fried in lard. My mother and I joke about doing a cooking project, likeJulie and Julia, except that instead of being delicious and teaching us valuable lessons about love, the food will all suck. There’s no recipe for bread in there, but I paged through Fannie Farmer and found one. We had whole wheat flour to get rid of anyway, since I never use it for anything.
I kneaded until my hands hurt, and asked the Internet via the Crack Den comments for advice on rising time. I let it rise patiently, baked it for precisely the prescribed amount of time, and the whole house filled with a nutty sweet smell. I only have one loaf pan so I threw the rest of the dough onto a baking sheet in a “rustic” shape (rustic being what Grandma would call sloppy) and prayed.
It rose. It puffed. It was delicious and perfect. I put butter and salt on it. Heaven.
I just wish I could take her a piece.