Forgiving, or Not

by Laura on October 11, 2009

in Blog

by Greg Everage

Nothing is more gratifying then combining the ingredients to make bread, kneading it with smooth aggressive strokes, putting much love and compassion in each push with the heal of the hand.  Then to let the dough rest and rise, peeking under the dishtowel to reveal the growth from the elements reacting to each other and a sign that you have completed the task successfully.  Punching it down and kneading for a short time to then let it rest and rise again in a bread pan. As you place the expanding dough into the oven you see it’s beauty, it’s plumpness, bulging up and over the edges of the bread pan.  Glistening with the egg wash you just so delicately applied with your finest pastry brush.  Just kissing the top with this final application. The smell of the kitchen and the inevitable brown beauty that immerges from the oven, hard shell protecting the soft airy life sustaining goodness that lies within, these are the rewards.  That first cut to taste your creation, your creation from scratch, with your own hands that will be enjoyed by all.  A tradition that has been passed down through the generations, taking part in this tradition that has sustained mankind through all time.

Then there are the days when the elements are not just right, to cold, to humid, missing an ingredient, not being patient enough to let the dough rise to it’s optimum capacity, handling the dough too much, or purchasing yeast that is not giving what is asked of it, etc. etc. etc.  Baking compared to cooking is much more of a science.  A science that can be forgiving, or Not.

In the last three months or so, Laura and I have made the commitment to make all of our own bread.  And believe me it is a commitment.  One that needs to be planned and performed on a regular bases or, you have no bread.  With the six of us in the house, we cut through bread like a hot knife through butter.  In just one lunch, if all of us have a sandwich, we are consuming, in one setting, 12 pieces of bread.  Toast or French toast in the morning and any bread consumption with the evening meal cuts through a number of loaves in a day or two.  So making the bread instead of purchasing it from the store is challenging to say the least. The reasons we decided to begin to make our families bread are as follow; number 1, the cost of bread and how much bread our family consumes.  Second, is that we know exactly what goes into the bread.  And third, is taste.  Home made bread can be tweaked, add a bit more molasses or honey, a touch more sugar or salt and you have dialed in your bread to taste just the way you want it too and that of your families palate.  Guaranteeing that the consumption experience of your home made bread will be a good one.  Plus, you cannot beat the true taste of homemade bread.

As mentioned earlier, the science of bread can be forgiving, or Not.  Yesterday, Laura and I had a “or Not” day with baking.  We attempted to make three loaves of wheat bread.  Laura lead by pulling all of the ingredients together in the afternoon to let it rise while the babies were down for their nap.  An hour in, the dough had not budged.  It still lay there, in the exact same original form.  No plumpness, no soft airiness, no expansion. We usually, on the advice of Laura’s mother Joyce, let the dough rise much longer than the recipe calls to guarantee that the dough will gain it’s lovely plumpness before moving forward.

So Laura waited and waited.  But nothing.  Just a dead ball of dough.  We discussed, along with Joyce, Laura’s mother, all the different things that might have caused the dough to just sit there and not perform its fertile growth.  The yeast was mentioned, not warm enough, possibly missing a step or ingredient.  On and on.  All of us working to make Laura feel better for her unrising dough.  As Laura and Joyce discussed further, I then jumped in to make tow more loaves.  This time I attempted a new wheat bread recipe.  One that called for higher volume of wet ingredients and a stage where you add the flour bit by bit and not all at the same time.  This recipes final dough ball was large enough for two loaves.  The recipe required the large dough ball to be cut in two and then flattened by hand, rolled into a tri-angel with a rolling pin and then rolled from the short side up into a loaf.  Then place into bread pans; let it rise the second time and then bake.  I performed the new method to the letter, producing a wonderful first rise.  So plumb and full, filling the metal bowl almost to the brim.  I smiled slightly with confidence and a bit of pride when Laura asked how it was rising.  She peered over my shoulder as I lifted the veil of the dishtowel to reveal the living ingredients in the bowl.  She smiled, still scratching her head as to why her dough had not risen.  I proceeded to then flatten the dough with my hands, cut it in two and then roll the pieces out into triangles.  Before I touched the two pieces with the rolling pin, Laura’s mother Joyce, mentioned in passing and somewhat as a joke, “those seem to be the right size, you could roll those up right now.” We chuckled.  Experience and with a familiar eye and feel of cooking and baking is amazing once witnessed.  Joyce was making an observation based on years of making, handling, looking at, baking and experimenting with every type of dough, flower and yeast combination.  In her passing comment she was not criticizing, suggesting, directing or giving her opinion.  It was a pure raw comment based on instinct.

Instinct that has been developed over the years.  As we continued to chuckle I picked up the rolling pin and began to flatten the healthy dough into triangles.  With Joyce pointing out the best place to push and manipulate the piece of dough to form a good triangle.  I then, as the recipe mentions, took the short side and rolled it up into a loaf.  Placed in the bread pan and let it rest to rise on top of a warm oven.  It was late in the evening and I felt I would have the two loaves baked and cooling in time to crawl into bed before midnight.  The bread Gods were playing with us that day.

I set the timer for the outside number for the suggested “45 minutes to 1 hour”.  Laura and Joyce both went to bed and I began to work on my computer, good time to catch up on some work.  Timer went off, I walked into the kitchen with the confidence and smile anticipating the plumpness of successes.  I slowly lifted up the dishtowel.  Well, it had risen, some, not a lot, but some.  So, “let it rise longer than the recipe calls for” – and that is what I did.  I thought, let’s just double the time and this will surly give me the satisfaction all bakers are motivated by.  Set the timer, went back to work.  The timer went off again.  Tip toeing through the dark as to not wake Joyce, I approached the dish toweled covered bread pans.  Lifted slowly and…  Again, it had risen but still about two inches below the rim of the bread pan, not rolling over the edges in full roundness.  They were somewhat anemic.  I glanced at the time, it was now 12 midnight and I had another 30 minutes to go for the baking.  So I decided, to go for it.  In my mind, which was both in denial and tired, I thought, “putting it in the oven will make it rise a bit more and it will be just beautiful when I take it from the oven.”  I prepared the egg wash to apply to the crown of the bread. Took my pastry brush and gently applied the water and egg yolk mixture.  In doing so any airy plumpness on the top of the bread retreated as the brush moved over the crown.

Disappointed and still hopeful, I rushed the two bread pans into the oven.  Set the timer and after tip toeing back through the living room, sat down to do more work.  Focusing on the work, to try and get any thought of failure out of my mind.  Buzzzzzzz goes the timer.

As I opened the oven, it was clear, loaves two and three were less than a success.  Flat, hard and dens were these loaves. Now, the house smelled wonderful but that was just a mere tease to the final out come.  A tease that heightened my anticipation as I opened the oven door to disappointment.

I quickly pulled the loaves from the pans, placed them on the rack, covered and turned out the lights.

As I climbed in bed and lay there looking at the ceiling, Laura softly breathing next to me, I went back over the steps of the recipe that had taken about 4 hours total to complete (here is where the commitment of time and energy come in) and the only thing that I could come up with, especially after the first rise was so successful and encouraging, was the rolling of the dough with the rolling pin.  Either I did not need to roll it, as so innocently and purely suggested by Joyce, or I needed to roll it much more gently, not compressing the life forming gasses out of the dough.  Just gently push the dough, manipulate it into a triangle.  As my eyes begin to slowly close I thought, “I should have just cut the dough in two and flattened with my hand and then rolled in to a loaf, zzzzzzzzzzz.”

As I was pouring my first cup of coffee the next morning, Laura came in from the office – she rises at 4 AM each morning to get some uninterrupted writing in before the day begins – the look on her face let me know that she had already peeked under the dishtowel that hid the failure of my late night baking.  “What happened?” she utters with wide eyes and understanding.  “The rolling pin”, I mutter over the top of my coffee mug.  Staring off in the distance at the morning light that is creating shafts the reach through the kitchen and land on the floor.  There was silence as we both soaked in the fact that we spent a good portion of the prior day, precious time we could be spending with the kids, knocking of points in the never ending list of things to do around the house as well as sitting at our computers completing the many tasks of writing and work that sustains our family, but instead ended up with two 8 ½ X 4 hockey pucks and a dead lump of cold dough.  We could not even make toast for that morning or a sandwich for lunch.

But, this is what it is all about, Family Eats.  It is about diving into and dissecting our relationship with food.  It is complex, some times hard, disappointing and other times it is exhilarating and hugely successful.  Successful in that our discoveries and the things we learn truly gives our family healthier lives.  The things we discover, we discover together as a family and are passed to our kids through their involvement with Laura and I in the relationship with our food.  There are many examples of us failing at a dish or a loaf of bread.  Each time we open ourselves up to try something new, a commitment, we open ourselves up to possible failure.  But the failures are truly our learning process.  Each time we perform something new or even something we have cooked or baked a number of times, we are learning.  Learning about ourselves, our food, our family and developing health and awareness of our world.

But eventually, after not giving up, committing, it becomes habit.  The process become easy, it becomes a part of our lives, ingrained.  And that is because we have committed and also, something we teach our children, we never give up.

P.S.  Laura just successfully pulled a beauty of a loaf out of the oven.  This was born from that dead lump of cold dough she ended up with yesterday.  She followed the Weekly Tipon the Family Eats sit and it worked beautifully.  Now we can make some toast in the morning.

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