Kneading. Proving. Waiting. Proving: Of raising loaves and children

My first loaf of bread

I’m the kind of person who will seldom say no to any kind of new experience. I have, in the past, tried several things which may have seemed scary on the surface, but turned out to be fun nevertheless. However I consciously stayed away from baking bread. I’d done my share of cakes, cookies, loaves, cupcakes, muffins, biscuits, pies and crumbles, but always stopped short of bread.

Bread intimidated me. It was too precise, too scientific, too complicated a way of consuming something really simple. There was too much measuring and waiting, kneading and waiting, proving and waiting, thumping and waiting, more proving and waiting. It was too confusing, too much to remember, too long a way to the end of the tunnel. The worst thing was, it was unfixable for the most part if things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to.

I mean, I could get a cake together from start to finish in half hour. And it was cake at the end of the day! I always got points for it. But bread? It was at best a carrier for something else. Forget it, I thought.

But each time I saw pictures of freshly baked bread on Instagram, it took me to a warm and fuzzy place that cake and cookies couldn’t. It took me home.

But end of last year, I told myself I was too chicken not to try bread and that I had to overcome my bread virginity. I had recipes from friends, but they took too much for granted, I thought. This was a big deal for me. I just buried my head in websites and blogs all day. I typed “bread making for people who are scared of bread” in my search field. I was careful to find really precise instructions. Like sprinkling the yeast on the water as opposed to adding the water to the yeast. I found Aunt B on a budget, a blog that doesn’t make beginners feel left out.

I learnt that yeast is a big deal, and it’s moody, quite unlike baking powder that always does its job. Yeast requires a little thought, a little finesse. After all, it is a living organism; it demands some sensitivity. It has a lot of power, though, causing things to rise and multiply and making all those yummy holes that breathe and look so heavenly in pictures of bread.

But yeast is also powerless without sugar. It can take a while for yeast to wake up and get going, and it’s the sugar that helps the yeast proliferate. If you feed the yeast sugar directly, it can become more active, more quickly.

And just when I thought I learnt a deep truth, I found out that the French have been baking bread without sugar.

I also felt quite clumsy while kneading. There was too much volume, too little hands, I was flustered, sweaty, there was flour on my hair and face, and I wasn’t even in a movie and there was no hunk ringing my doorbell! Finally, after a few hair-splitting minutes which seemed like hours, the dough came together nicely. It sprang back when I made a dent, just as she said it would. I left it to prove. It rose to twice its size, just as she said it would. I punched it and it collapsed. Just as she said it would. Then I made a few slits, sprinkled some water, proved it again, and then shoved it into the oven.

It came out looking like the most divine thing on earth.

I shouted from the rooftop. I took a picture. I shared it. Hell, I can do bread I thought. It was a moment. I mentally ticked off a block that I had in my head and felt lighter, headier.

Now I wanted to raise the bar. I didn’t want to be the harried woman who had flour in her hair. I wanted to look elegant, like my friend Maria always does while baking. I wanted clean hands, an unruffled face. I wanted poise and Zen. I wanted it all.

Make a hole in the flour. Pour the yeast mixture and a tablespoonful of oil and mix it all with a fork, she said. No hands. She looked so effortless doing it. And her hair was all in place.

Next, I wanted to try cinnamon rolls.

Everything that had to go wrong went wrong. As I kneaded, the dough kept multiplying like some demon on drugs and flying in all directions. I began to wonder if it would ever come together. At some point, I wanted to fling the dough into the garbage. I thought of all the yummy, buttery, cinnamon sugary goodness that went into it, and the best King Arthur’s bread flour and Fleishman’s yeast I had carted all the way from the U.S on my last trip. Finally, in disgust, I just rolled the dough into four balls and dunked it in the oven. I gave it some brutal slits. Half an hour later, it smelt divine. An hour later, I opened the oven with much trepidation. It looked good to me. It was edible. I just had to call it something else.

Re rejected it. “How can it be a bun when it tastes like biscuit?” he said.

Okay, call it a bread biscuit, I said.

The next day, I had some students over. I put my Cinnamon Rocks in front of them. They polished it, no questions asked.

That’s the thing about parenting. You know a little each time, but you never know enough. And sometimes, things don’t rise, or come together. And just when you think you’ve cracked it, you have to go back to the drawing board.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 26th January, 2015. If you see more connections between bread and raising kids, email me on mommygolightly@gmail.com)

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Parenting lessons from burnt cookies

It has been one of those weeks when three generations were coexisting under one roof in my house – my mother, Re and I have been bonding and sharing space and food. Talk is a necessary byproduct of both.Yes, we have been talking a lot.

Grandparents are amazing things. When they walk in, parenting looks easier. My mother can access the parts of Re that I can’t. My father can be the crockey (a game he invented combining cricket and hockey) buddy I can’t.

And it’s often not because of what they do; it is their mere presence that seems to dilute the tedium of parenting. You perhaps realize that you were shaped by them, so it can’t get much worse. They also silently seem to applaud you for everything that you do, even the small things, so it seems worth the while (admit it, you are all looking for points!)

In the true spirit of our family, cooking (and eating) is what mostly brings us together. Every once in a while, my mother gets to watch me play mom and she is intrigued. While she was visiting last week, Re and I got down and dirty with a few baking expeditions (it somehow seemed like better weather for baking) and we made cookies and baked a cake. Unlike my mother who let me in at age eight, Re has been at it since age four.

The thing about baking is that even the most seasoned baker often waits with bated breath to see if the cake has risen. Even if you have a manual, you are never sure you will get it right, much like parenting. I have a few baking buddies. Some give me recipes, others give ideas. The ideas are far more valuable, much like they are in parenting. I have never taken to recipes.

Re stands in front of the oven asking me every microsecond, ‘Is it ready yet?” I have found a way around it. “When you smell the right smell, it’s ready!”

The other day, when it was cookie time, I handed Re the dough and asked him to roll his own cookies. What shape should it be, he asked.

It can be any shape you want, it’s your cookie, I replied.

We made assorted shapes together and no two cookies looked alike.

When we were done, he licked the cookie dough and declared, “Mmmmm, delicious!”

I know how to take a compliment and I egg him on. He has always been generous with compliments and never been hard to please in the culinary space. That somehow makes me want to try harder, however convoluted it might sound. We hungrily devour the entire tray of cookies, and don’t bother with any kind of decorum. (Not even taking the mandatory photo, hence can’t show you our excitingly imperfect cookies)

My mother watches this. She sighs. “You are so free with your child, I wish I had been like you. I was always so caught up with getting it right.”

I am glad she said it and I didn’t.

I remember when my mother let me in on her baking expeditions. There were too many boundaries.  All the cookies had to be the same size and shape, rolled not into a disc, but more of a tetrahedron, and my mother’s watchful eye often made me nervous. When we embellished it, the cherry had to be right at the centre. The baking tin had to be grease-proofed up to every micro square cm. Everything had to be mixed in geometric proportion.

Everyone loves the perfect cookie. But I have learnt that there is no such thing as a bad cookie. That even the hard ones can be redeemed with icecream or some such palliative. And even the really mushy ones have the power to put a smile on your face.  I learnt how not to judge a cookie by its cover. Burnt cookies are my best friends. I learnt that if the cake doesn’t rise, we can always have a crumble.

I see this whole attraction for wholeness and perfection among my students at too. At the school meals, every child wants the perfectly shaped pooris, omelettes, dosas. The rest are rejected. I look at the pile of broken bits and something shifts inside me. Give me the broken bits, I tell the person on duty.

I wanted my parents to understand my broken bits. They just pretended it didn’t exist. They were too focused on my perfections. I spent most of my youth nurturing my broken bits. I am still working on them, as I believe it is never too late. They will always have a special place in my heart. Re gets this, and I’m grateful.

Sometimes I feel like asking my mother for my childhood back. At other times, I am grateful to her for letting me grow up soon. I have significantly lowered the bar for Re, but in doing so, I have lowered the bar for myself too. I am allowed to have bad days and burnt cookies. I am allowed to bake cakes that don’t rise. Or make custard that doesn’t set.

I inherited my mother’s oven and a few of her baking tins. It was an equaliser between her and me. And when I baked my first date and walnut cake in 40 minutes including prep time, my mother asked in amazement, ‘How did you manage that?”

I knew we had made a fresh start.

 

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 15th December, 2014)