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 firstname.lastname@example.org)