Thursday, 31 May 2018 10:40

Bread and Butter

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I was probably young enough at the time that I could've gotten lost for a week if I fell into the hundred pound bin of flour my grandmother kept in the pantry.

Still, I can't remember just how old I was. Only that, in my earliest memory of getting my hands messy in the kitchen, I'm double swaddled in a too-big apron that has to be clothes-pinned at the back of my neck. And on the table, in a red-rimmed enamelled bowl the size of a wash basin, is a tea towel covered mound of yeasty smelling dough, growing like a thing possessed.
The particulars, like whether we used fresh or dry yeast, or even whether we incorporated a snippet of starter from a previous batch, elude me now.
All I know for certain is that this was the day that kindled a lifelong obsession with bread. I was dusted with flour, my hands were sticky with goo from mixing and kneading, and I could barely stand still for the anticipation of it all. Because, for the first time, I was helping my Grandma Friesen with her baking. And since nothing in the world could be better than a fresh loaf, warm from the oven, sliced and spread with farm butter and homemade jam, there was nothing I'd rather have been doing.
While we waited, Grandma dropped a pinch of flour into my hands, and helped me to rub beads of dough from my fingers, into the sink. Then, while I chattered on in English and she pretended to understand in Low German, we washed and dried dishes and put on a pot of star anise-scented Chicken Noodle Soup (a Mennonite standard), with homemade noodles and a hen recently seen strutting around my uncle's coop across the country road.
Then, when the chicken was on a simmer, and the breadstuff mounded over its bowl, Grandma lifted back the overlapping tea towels and let me punch down the dough, my fingers sinking into its warm belly. And, as she lanced off loaf- and bun-sized portions with a paring knife, she taught me how to shape them for baking.
For bread, elongated rolls. And for buns, we each cupped our fingers over snips of dough, drawing little circles on the table until it all came together, hers into perfect balls, mine into shapes not found in geometry.
Soon, though, there were tins of loaves and dozens upon dozens of misshapen buns arranged on baking sheets, covering every surface of the kitchen. And, after a second rising, Grandma sat me on a milking stool opposite the oven, butter and jam at the ready, to let her know the exact moment our buns were ready.

Everyday White Loaves
3 tsp active dry yeast
12 fl. oz warm water
4 fl. oz whole milk or half & half at room temperature
1 tbs unsalted butter, melted
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp sea salt
3 3/4 to 4 cups unbleached bread flour
Proof yeast in water until frothy, about 10 minutes. In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, salt and bread flour. Add yeast mixture, milk and melted butter. Bring together with a fork. Turn out onto a lightly-floured surface. Knead 10 minutes, incorporating a little extra flour only if necessary, to form a soft, elastic dough.
Place in a lightly-oiled bowl. Cover with a lint-free tea towel and set in a warm place to rise for 1 hour, or until nearly doubled. Turn out onto work surface, divide and form into two loaves and place into two lightly buttered 1 lb bread pans. Cover and allow to rise until nearly doubled. Place in a 425F oven. Mist inside of oven with water just before closing. Bakes loaves for 20-25 minutes, until crust is golden. Remove loaves from pans and let cool.

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