Sunday, April 27, 2014

Making dough with a borrowed tradition

So much of my childhood memories are associated with food.

Specifically, the food my perpetually flour-covered mother made: spaghetti and meatballs with homemade sauce that had just a touch of sweetness, cinnamony apple pies with crisp, flakey crust I'd nibble on when she wasn't looking and loaf after loaf of fresh bread right out of the oven begging to be slathered with butter and eaten while steaming.

The smells I identify most with the houses I grew up in are moth balls from my mom's closet, sawdust from my dad's workshop, the overpowering scent of jasmine from a giant plant my dad kept in the kitchen and that soul-warming fresh bread. 

I attempt to replicate some of these memories in my own kitchen -- to varying degrees of success. My pie crusts crumble and I've had epic battles with the waffle iron. But bread and pizza dough -- especially when made with the same careworn KitchenAid mixer my mom used for the endless loaves of my youth -- well, those are just magic.

Jovie learns early to double-check the recipe and that flour
is really more fun when it covers everything.
My mom's KitchenAid in the background. It's pretty old. 
Seriously. The process of putting together the ingredients for bread dough -- dissolving the yeast in warm water, or scalding the milk, or adding the flour until the dough is on this side of not sticky is a matter of timing and observation. The rest is magic. 

It has to be. How do such simple ingredients -- water, yeast, sugar, salt, butter and flour -- transform into something so universally comforting? Puffing up again and again, despite being beaten down. Bread dough is a role model for persisting in the face of adversity.

And it offers a little therapy for the baker on the side -- kneading bread dough is kind of a meditative act. 

I'm a bit of a romantic (maybe more than a bit … OK … a lot more than a bit) so whenever I make bread (which isn't often, mind you) I always feel like I'm paying a little homage to a long line of bread-making ancestors. Women who, like my mom, always had a pot on the stove filled with milk and melting butter and who had hands that were always dried and little cracked from flour's moisture-sucking qualities and hair that was always dusted in white. 

I was borne of bread makers, therefore, whether I have any confidence about the practice or not, I should make bread -- even if it's only on special occasions.

So I was asking my mom recently about whether she'd learned to make bread growing up and I was shocked to find out that no, she hadn't. While my grandmother had taught my mom that lard is the trick to making perfect pie crust, but she hadn't been the one to teach my mom about how humidity helps dough rise.

As it turned out, she and my dad experimented with making bread together early on in their marriage, hoping to replicate the loaves my dad ate as a kid on the farm he grew up in Maine.

See, here's an interesting part of my family's history: When my dad was 3, my grandmother sent him and his brother and sister to live with the Wilder family in Maine. I don't really know the circumstances surrounding why she did this -- maybe as a recently divorced mom she was concerned about providing for her kids -- but I'm only now as an adult beginning to understand the impact of this decision on our family today.

Growing up, my siblings would all roll our eyes when dad brought up Maine -- mostly because Maine was usually invoked when we were whining about something. If the house was too cold ("Well in Maine in the winter we'd sometimes wake up with frost inside the window.") If we didn't feel like cleaning ("Well in Maine everyone did chores or you didn't eat.") If you stayed home from school because you weren't feeling well ("Well in Maine when you were sick you had to stay in bed all day … there was no TV).

You can understand, then why we weren't always thrilled about Maine and its apparently unbreakable hold on my dad.

And here it comes up again. I'd assumed bread making was part of my family's pedigree -- but really, it seems, just a borrowed skill from someone else's. I was sad for a minute about this. The visions of my ancestral carb fanatics slowly dissolved in my mind's eye.

But then I thought about my young parent's in their kitchen in Florida, trying to solve the problems of too-hard bread or dough that wouldn't rise until they came up with the formulas that I use now. Kneading the most beloved parts of the real and adopted families into new memories and traditions. Creating their own flock of bread makers.

As a kid, we visited that farm in Maine a few times. The family would pile into our car and make the more than 600-mile trek, stopping for a hike or pictures of scenic vistas along the way. Once in Maine, we'd eat butter-socked lobster and stop at the enormous L.L. Bean in Portland. One time we dipped our toes into the frigid Atlantic, insistent on swimming at the beach despite our parents suggestion that it might be too cold. 

And then we'd turn inward through endless forests and come to the farm. I remember long grass, a rickety wooden garden swing (my dad replicated this for an anniversary present for my mom), an old car or two rusting in various outbuildings, a rainbow of chickens, sticky-nosed cows and goats. My sister Sarah and I loved the goats. We'd scramble out of the car to go play in the barn and pet them -- which I later learned disgusted my grandmother who was stuck in the car with us (mostly because there was always a billy goat -- and billy goats urinate on their heads to make themselves extra appealing to the ladies -- not unlike a 15-year-old boy with a can of Axe body spray -- and so after an afternoon among the goats, my sister and I smelled like goat pee. I can see why this bothered her). We looked forward to going to Maine and a day on the farm.

I still like goats. 

And garden swings. 

And dusty old barns filled with sweet-smelling hay.

Even though Maine still elicits an eye roll from time to time, I feel lucky to have these memories. 

And if it weren't for Maine, I might not have homemade bread. And I wouldn't get to show the girls how to punch down the dough and watch their little fingers sink into it with glee.

Sometimes it seems like parts of our family are running on a borrowed heritage. I suppose that's how it is for all families. Why shouldn't we incorporate the best traditions we come across in life into our own homes? 

God willing, my girls won't ever have to wake up with frost inside their windows, but if I have anything to do with it, they'll know how to bake bread.

***

Here's my mom's recipe for French bread -- it's really easy -- and it makes for delicious garlic toast, French toast or just regular old toast toast. 

Mom's French Bread
1 cup warm water
1 package active dry yeast
2 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons softened butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt

Put water in a bowl and sprinkle yeast over it and wait to dissolve (you can stir to check if it's completely dissolved). Add sugar, salt, vanilla and butter. Start adding flour a little bit at a time until it is no longer sticky to the touch*. Let rise until double. Punch it down then let it rise a second time until double. Punch it down and shape it into a loaf. Cut slashes along the length and let it rise again. Bake at 375 degrees F for 20 minutes or until golden brown.

Here's my dad's recipe for waffles -- which is actually Aunt Marjorie's (she cared for my dad when he lived in … wait for it … Maine!) Given my unhappy history with the waffle iron, I tend to use this batter for pancakes. 

Dad's Waffles
2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar
salt to taste
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2+ cups of milk (or buttermilk)
1/2 cup corn or canola oil (I use vegetable)

Sift the dry ingredients together. Mix in oil and eggs. Add milk to batter until it's not too thick. Cook!**

* Family recipes like this are fun -- because I feel they're kind of assuming you've seen what they're talking about a time or two. I found with the bread that you should add no more than 1/2 a cup at a time to make sure you don't make the dough too hard, which makes it difficult to roll out evenly. You'll probably end up using around 2 1/2 cups. 

** Here's another vague instruction. This batter is a bit on the runnier side. I usually don't use more than two cups of milk, but feel free to experiment!

P.S. In less than an hour, it will be almost two years to the minute since I first met my sweet, little Jovie -- proof that your heart always has room for one more (and anyway, how could you not fall in love with those cheeks?!)

She had no clue at this moment ...
… how tasty life would be.

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