MARCH 19—Every few days I mix a dough of flour, water, yeast, and salt and leave it to sit overnight. In the morning, after a slow twelve-hour rise, I begin the final steps—each one carefully timed over the next three hours—of turning the shapeless mess into a loaf of tasty rustic bread. In between, I attend to other things.
I am baking bread out of necessity—the nearest loaf that does not include frightening polysyllabic ingredients is a forty-minute drive away, well into the neighboring state—and because I was born into a bread-making lineage.
Baking and bread-making: Ancient, life-sustaining skills passed from one generation to the next, long centuries before the advent of recipe books—art and science rolled into a loaf, shaped into a cookie, layered into a cake.
I learned to make bread from my mother, who learned from her mother, who learned from her mother—back and back in time, across the Atlantic to distant villages in the British Isles. Bread-making is my inheritance, a once-indispensable knowledge kept alive and bequeathed by a hardworking, if unremarkable and now mostly forgotten, peasant genealogy.
My grandmother baked her bread in a wood stove—four loaves at a time every two days. When my mother and aunts came home from school for lunch, she pinched handfuls of dough from where it sat rising behind the stove, patted it flat, fried it in Crisco and served it with oleo and syrup. My mother grew up on fry bread—a food of the working poor.
Grandma baked bread for much of her life: dark rye, whole wheat, white, and cinnamon-raisin loaves—the last especially coveted. But to her grandchildren, she was best-loved for her cookies… and brownies. There were always cookies in my grandmother’s house: chocolate chip, raisin oatmeal, and peanut butter were the staples. Over her lifetime, Grandma’s cookie count must have approached six figures. These included massive numbers of Scandinavian sweets, a nod to her Norwegian husband. She baked these at Christmas and sold a lot of them locally.
The last time I saw my grandmother—as the woman I prefer to remember, still strong and lively, though well into her 80s—I commented in passing on my fun and fond memories of her homemade brownies. When my attention turned to my grandfather she quietly left the room, soon reappearing with a platter of dark and distinctive chocolate squares. With an unmistakable twinkle in her clear blue eyes, she offered me one.
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Breads, cookies, cakes and pastries. I bake because I can once again do it—having regained my health and strength, following long years of the illness I have mentioned in earlier pieces. I bake because I enjoy it and because it makes me happy to bake for others. After my recovery, among the first things I made were brownies for my parents. Ah… the smiles.
My grandmother understood the hard work of baking and the joy of making it an offering of love. My skill and delight in the kitchen keep her alive. I still feel close to Grandma when I’m baking.
Baking is a gift—a celebration of life and love—to oneself as well as others. It is a way of remembering.
Thank you, Grandma. I remember with every loaf.