Sunday, February 12, 2012

On Bread And Flowers

The first crocus of the season.
 Just a few minutes ago, while walking the dogs in the sunny yet cold yard, I was thinking about what I was going to write about today. There is bread rising, so I knew I wanted to talk about that. And winter has finally really arrived. So I wanted to talk about that. How over the past week, we've had several inches of snow and nearly half an inch of sleet on Friday. How the wind has been taking our breath away as we walked around the front of the house and got hit by the west wind, full-force. How it's been snot-freezing cold at night, under the clearest starry sky imaginable. Stars stretched crisply from horizon to horizon, the cold immensity of space at our fingertips. House-shaking winds the past few days and sitting in cozy rooms under blankets, with dogs, reading and drinking coffee. The deep quiet of a snowy evening. Really, all the beauty of winter. 

But then, as I was trying to figure out what Kerouac was so interested in near the barn door, I noticed something surprising: the first crocus flowers blooming in front of the barn. Three of them, actually. Tiny, precious, yellow flowers. Growing right there, among leaves and the debris of the sunflowers. Their little yellow faces poking up into the sunshine, huddled against their sharp, green leaves. I knew I'd seen crocus leaves poking up in front of the house, but they all seemed a little paused by the sudden arrival of winter's winds. Hopefully they'll resume their growth when warmth returns. But here near the barn it must be a little warmer, at least underneath the leaves, etc. Despite the cold and the snow lying nearby, these flowers are steadfastly growing, whispering "spring..."

Stepping inside, excited to show the pictures to Rich, I was hit by one of the best scents I know: bread rising. Our bread supply is getting low, and every time I've purchased bread at the grocery store I've felt a like a failure. I just think I should be making bread rather than buying it. I know that Rich does enjoy a soft white loaf, made without high fructose corn syrup. And I admit I enjoy it as well. But really, homemade bread can't be beat. The crispness of the crust. The variety of flavors achieved by changing up the few ingredients that go into bread. The simple pleasure of making something so nutritious, so delicious, so wholesome out of nearly nothing. This morning I was excited to try a new bread recipe. It called for whey, which is something one doesn't normally have around. But I made homemade ricotta (again, something I'll never buy again having made it once) on Friday, and saved the whey, which is the by-product of bringing milk and buttermilk nearly to a boil, letting it curdle, and draining it through cheesecloth. The solids get caught by the cheesecloth, allowed to drain for twenty minutes, salted and voila! ricotta. They liquid that passed through the cheesecloth is whey, and contains much of the lactose, minerals and vitamins, as well as much of the calcium. This sweet watery liquid can be used in baking as a fuller substitute for water. The recipe I used this morning called for 3 1/2 cups of whey, mixed with yeast, whole wheat and unbleached flour, and salt. Simply stirred together and scooped into greased bread pans to rise for a few hours underneath damp towels, then baked. Right now the breads are rising on the kitchen table. The book calls for two hours of rising, but I may give it bit longer as our kitchen is rather cool, at 55 degrees. Both of these recipes are from "Make the Bread, Buy The Butter", a book that has quickly become indispensable in my kitchen. The premise of Jennifer Reese's book is that she wanted to determine whether it is better to buy or make certain things around the kitchen. Her comparisons are based on quality, ease, and price. Definitely check out this book.
Bread Loaves & the book from which their recipes came.

Five years ago, when I first started to make bread regularly, I was terrified of messing up bread. I thought it magical how four basic ingredients could turn into such delicious bread. When I lived in Europe, bakeries were wonderful places that I visited nearly every day. In Greece, it wasn't nearly impossible to buy what most Americans think of as bread: pre-packaged, enriched, and long-lasting. In fact, bread, by law, had to be sold the day it was baked, or the day after (at half price), and not after that. So most Greeks, as most humans do throughout the world, eat only fresh bread. And it's so delicious. Returning to the United States, I returned to a land without real bread. It was possible to buy it, and I did, on occasion. Baguettes or a French loaf, spending $1.50 for a baguette, or up to six bucks for a fancier loaf. Making bread is not only cheaper, it's so much more satisfying. I find it relaxing. Stirring the yeast into the warm water, watching it come alive, as it starts to foam. Stirring flour into the yeast mixture, adding salt, then kneading until smooth. I'm always surprised by the warmth of bread as I knead it. It's transformation from separate ingredients into a smooth, warm whole. Watching it rise, as its aroma begins to fill the room. And then the incomparable scent of baking bread. And the taste, oh the taste! I am already thinking about cutting off a heal of this warm bread this afternoon and tasting its warm & nutty goodness. 

Dark now, and nearly time for a cocktail to welcome the end of another great day in the country. Rich & I did some work around the house. I did so laundry, spent time outside with the dogs, enjoying the silence of the afternoon. And every time we stepped back into the house, we were awash in the scent of that baking bread. And it is delicious. The larger loaf had to go back into the oven for a few more minutes, because the center of the loaf was a little too doughy. But the bread is delicious, with a crisp but not-too-firm crust, and a soft and perfectly-dense interior. This was a bread that required no kneading, so it was really simple to make. I knew I'd have trouble with the rise because the house is so cool, but I let the loaves rise in the oven. I would turn it up to 200 degrees for about ten minutes, and then turn the oven off and put the loaves inside to rise. It took two extra hours, and still the one loaf could have used more... but they'll be equally delicious. I like the look of these loaves, with their little mountainous peaks. I'm looking forward to eating them this week. I imagine a spicy tuna salad or chicken salad... 

Alright, good night. Thank you for reading! 


  1. First time I ever got horny reading a description of baking bread! You DO have a way with words, Joe Eichman!

    1. Sherry, you know that comment makes me happy! Thank you!