Our Eating Lives features stories about how food, cooking, and eating have shaped who we are and how we live.
Teaching in a boarding school as I do, I enjoy a long Thanksgiving break, which is good, because a school teacher is pretty beat up by Thanksgiving. But it also allowed me to try something new: bake bread, or some form of it, every single day during that stretch.
If you are going to bake bread every day, and that isn’t what you do for a living, you have to have a strategy that allows regular bread baking to be a joy rather than a burden.
My strategy came fairly easily, since my original goal was to work on my French bread skills. So I knew that I wanted to start with a “poolish,” that very wet mixture of flour and water, spurred on by a little yeast and allowed to ferment and rise in a spongy way over many hours as the basis for eventual loaves of bread.
So the first day of vacation began with mixing a poolish very early in the morning and having bread out of the oven by evening. And not just any bread, a baguette with a crisp exterior and an airy center full of irregular air holes and soft strands of dough. But I didn’t bake all of the dough. That day, and each day I baked afterwards, I set aside about 1/4 of the dough and left that to develop in the refrigerator, where it, then, would become the basis of next day’s loaves. Pulled into small pieces and mixed with water, it would hydrate and become the starter. And so that became the pattern for a daily routine of bread–get “old” dough, mix with water, let it sit, mix additional flour, yeast, and salt, knead to form new dough, let rise, set aside portion of dough, and bake the main portion.
What I didn’t think about was what I was going to do with all of that bread, and that’s where my epiphany, my “ministry,” if you will, came from.
The first night my wife and I ate the bread, and gratefully, because, having followed the website’s directions exactly, those first loaves were superb (if a bit overdone, due to a mistimed trip to the store), the kind that make you want to camp out with a long, narrow loaf, a knife and some butter, and keep going. The second night, I took the bread to some friends who had an overload of guests coming to their house; I thought they could use it, and, once we got to their house, we found out that they were bored and we ended up going to a brewpub together for the rest of the night.
On the third day, I took the bread to a friend whose parents were coming in and who I like a lot, but when I arrived, I found out his parents weren’t coming until the next day, so we hung out, had drinks and a wonderful visit. The fourth day, I drove 500 miles round trip to pick up my mother-in-law while the starter developed, and that night, half of the loaves went to her first meal with people in weeks, while the rest went across the street with some beef stew to some retired friends who have just taken in a wheelchair-bound, Alzheimer’s-inflicted relative and are a bit overwhelmed.
The night before Thanksgiving, I held the bread at home for my returning college student children and a straggler friend, and served the bread with a crawfish étouffée to prodigal children anxious for a home-cooked meal. On Thanksgiving, I used the old dough as a starter for wheat rolls my elderly father would enjoy with his meal.
The day after, I rested and just made plain old biscuits.
And so on. About halfway through the break, I realized that the bread had become a ministry, that it took me to places I wasn’t already going and that it gave something to the people who were there. The bread had become a gift, a blessing, a communion of sorts. The ancient tradition of sharing bread, of breaking bread together, carries on in our disconnected world. The epiphany? Well, I wasn’t ministering at all. The bread was ministering to me–its primitive demands and expected routines and short, fresh life that needed to be shared–gave me all of the healing I needed.
(NOTE: if you want to jump confidently into the world of making French bread, especially baguettes, I recommend the very clear and manageable direction you will get from Chris at primesolid.com. His recipe and technique is the closest I’ve gotten to making reputable baguettes at home.)
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