The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

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Aminax

With a chuckle I like to describe myself as a "nerd". I love new, electronic gadgets, and often find entertainment involving a computer or video game console. My favorite TV shows include "Doctor Who" and "Top Gear". I'm more likely to read or watch a fantasy or science fiction novel or movie than any other genre. While in college I studied Biology in a laboratory dedicated to research with arachnids (spiders, scorpions, etc), and now stay up-to-date with research related to that subject. If I were forced to describe my fashion style in one word it would be practical. I have maybe two dresses for the very few and far between formal occassions to which I am invited. The abilities to wrangle hair in a pretty way and apply cosmetics (beyond lipstick and mascara) did not make it onto either of my X-chromosomes. I do not wear heels because I am too clumsy and prefer my ankles intact. I prefer footwear I do not have to tie, button, or zip; clothes that I don't mind getting dirty; and, since I rarely carry a purse, pants with many, deep pockets are a must. My socks never match. If asked, my mother would tell you I've always been a "tom boy", which means I have always been drawn to jean jackets and sneakers instead of pretty dresses and ribbons. I played with toy dinosaurs instead of dolls. In short, I was fortunate to have grown up in the 1980s - '90s, and not in an earlier decade when girls were more likely to be expected to behave in a certain way.

Once, and only once, a friend used the term "modern woman" to describe me. I'm still unsure of what that means, but I do not think that's entirely accurate. Although I enjoy many, modern conveniences on a daily basis, I cannot deny that there is an "old fashion" lady inside of me who enjoys pursuits like crocheting, gardening, and writing letters (real letters, not an email; by hand and not typed). I enjoy chatting up the person who scans my groceries, try to get to know my neighbors (it's actually, honestly difficult), and prefer to dine or shop at local, Mom-and-Pop type places where I get to know the people behind the business.  Oh, and, I almost forgot, I love baking bread by hand. I don't even like to use the electric mixer to knead. I've tried it both ways now, and can honestly say I was unable to tell the difference.  Using a mixer doesn't seem like cheating to me, and I wouldn't wrinkle my nose at someone who kneads with an electric mixer. Additionally, if I ever had reason to bake more than one or two loaves at the same time, I would certainly use the mixer. So far, I prefer to knead by hand, and I can't really give a reason why. It may have something to do with truly, physically touching the dough that makes the bread more personal. Even having typed that, I'm not completely convinced that's why I prefer kneading by hand, but it's the closest. It could also be that I'm still a tiny bit afraid of my mixer! In my defense, it is a very large, heavy, noisy beast, and I store it in an upper cabinet in my kitchen which makes using it more of a chore than a convenience.

However, I feel like I must always be careful of which modern pieces of technology I should buy and which I should ignore. A lot of new gadgets, especially those intended for the kitchen, really only do one, specific task and take up space the rest of the time. If not careful, I could easily have a kitchen full of shiny, one trick ponies, and not be able to get anything done. When I crochet a bit of some thing or snip off a few blooms from my garden, instead of buying it from the store, it creates pride and happiness. My time and effort went into this little nothing's creation. Also, accomplishing such needs or wants the "old fashioned" way is a great strategy to slow down. I have time to talk to my daughter or recover from the day's stress. Such differences help separate commercialism from tradition and chores from experience. Hopefully my thoughts on this have been adequately expressed because this is getting a bit too heavy and dense for me.

Speaking of dense.

Right before Thanksgiving (that would be November for any non-Americans) 2012, I decided to bake my first loaves of bread. I had agreed to do rolls as my contribution to the holiday table. This was another Thanksgiving with my husband's family (and his mother's side to boot, who are all excellent, experienced bakers, cooks, and home-makers). I knew they would be working extra hard and putting forward maximum effort to pull the holiday together. On one hand, I could easily have gone to the store and picked up a tube or package of ready-to-bake rolls. At first, that's what I decided to do because I found a page in a cookbook that was dedicated to flavored butters. I conceded that even making the ten, different types of butter was not equal to the amount of work my in-laws were investing. However, such a contribution would be more meaningful than simply plunking down store-bought rolls. Well, as it turned out, making the flavored butters was surprisingly easy. After I made the butters and cleaned the kitchen, I looked around and immediately felt guilt. That wasn't a fair amount of effort, was it? No, I told myself, I would have to push myself even more and literally bring something more to the table.

I know! I'll bake bread! From scratch! I had decided. I was going to bake bread.

The same, little cookbook that had the page dedicated to flavored butters also had many bread recipes and an entire page dedicated to the process of baking bread. Since I had multiple flavors of butter and this would be my first time, I decided to keep the bread as simple as possible and bake two, white loaves. I gathered the ingredients listed in the recipe, waited until I was alone in the house for maximum concentraction, and mixed my first batch of dough. At first, I had added only the minimum amount of flour suggested by the recipe. I left it in a warm corner of my kitchen to rise, promptly forgot about it, and panicked when I finally did remember. When I turned the dough onto my table to knead, I poked it hesitantly, exactly once, with a spatula, and immediately decided it needed more flour. After the second dose of flour (and carefully calculating how much I had used of my allotted amount), I slapped the lump of dough a little with one hand. Then, I took a deep breath, got both hands into it, and began wrestling with the dough. I am not using hyperbole when I say I was actually wrestling the dough. That is a completely accurate description of the attitude I had at this time. I was under the impression that the dough was something to be tamed and pulverized into submission. While beating, punching, and strangling the mixture, I continued to add flour until I had reached the maximum amount suggested. The rest of the baking process passed without incident; no dough rebellions or misbehavior of any sort. The smell was intoxicating while it was baking, too. However, when it came time to taste, I knew instantly and precisely why I felt like I had just finished a full course meal after just one slice. It was far too dense. Of course, I had already given the second loaf to my mother-in-law before tasting (another lesson learned). Oh, she was very polite and graceful about the brick I had passed along to her. Needless to say, I watched a video (found here) on proper kneading, adjusted my attitude and quantity of flour, and tried again just in time for the Thanksgiving meal. The second attempt came out much improved, and complimented the many butters.

Aminax's picture
Aminax

My love for bread, cooking in general, and gardening centers around one, important person in my life. I am fully willing to admit that, at least when it comes to Mamo (my maternal grandmother), my memory may be a tad biased. With that said, if I were to describe Mamo (pronounced "ma'am-moe"), I would certainly include the words intelligent, beautiful, capable, and even superhero. She sewed, gardened, baked, cooked, and cleaned in her spare time. She worked as a secretary for an incredibly successful real estate broker in my hometown of Arlington, TX. I realize that the title 'secretary' has negative connotations for some, but Mamo was very good at and proud of the work she did. Her boss suffered from Parkinson's Disease, and I got the impression that she took on more and more of the responsibilities of keeping his business running as he succumbed to the inevitable symptoms of the ailment. She even earned and held her own real estate license. Although now, as an adult, I wish I had paid more attention to her, and spent more time with her and learning from her;  she died suddenly while I was in my snotty, too-cool-for-family, adolescent stage.

Her kitchen was simply a haven. The wallpaper had a pattern that included pussywillows, and the counters were a sunny yellow. I tasted many "firsts" at the small, glass-top table at the kitchen's center; including two of my favorite foods of all time: crab legs & pickled okra. Many casual dinners, board games, holiday meals, conversations, and other memories took place at that table. Hunger overcame me anytime I stepped foot onto that vinyl floor.

Whether it was a gift related to Christmas or her birthday, or "just because" I don't recall, but I clearly remember her getting a bread machine, and the excitement and enthusiasm she expressed while learning to use it. It caused some frustrations in the beginning, if I remember correctly, but she never gave up. The baked goods that came out of that machine were delicious, and I probably had more than my fair share of "tastings".

To date and not counting quick breads, I can count the number of loaves I have baked on one hand. The very first attempt resulted in a very dense white bread. I cannot overstate how dense those first, two loaves were. As I type this I am on the verge of laughing because I was under the impression that if I had to cram all the flour the recipe suggested into the dough. I also didn't have the slightest clue about kneading or getting air into the dough, etc. A more detailed account of my first attempt may be good enough material to warrant its own blog entry. For now, I will simply say it was clumsy and messy.

Some hobbies remain just that: activities done in our free time for pleasure. Now and then, we try a new activity on which we are instantly hooked. Each session with this "hobby" is an attempt to improve our skills or broaden what we know. We find ourselves wishing we had more time to devote to this activity; perhaps we even daydream of ways to do so. We're never quite sure when exactly the hobby became a passion (or maybe even an obsession). This is what bread has become for me.

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