There is a piece of needlepoint hanging in my kitchen (I made it myself) that reads, “All sorrows are less with bread.” This is a quote by Miguel de Cervantes, from his famous masterwork, Don Quixote. It’s also kind of my motto for life.
I’m not just talking about eating bread, though I’m obviously a fan of that. There’s something about baking bread–mixing it, kneading it, watching it rise–that’s about the closest I get to going to therapy. It’s a little bit scientific, but it’s a science I mostly understand, so a good loaf of bread makes me feel smart. Once an understanding of that science is achieved, bread is a blank canvas for creativity and experimentation. A good loaf of bread from my own recipe makes me feel triumphant.
There’s almost no smell as wonderful as the smell of freshly baked bread. Almost nothing so satisfying and pummeling and hand-kneading the dough.
You can fill bread. You can flavor bread. You can bake it in fantastical shapes. French bread, cinnamon rolls, English muffins, rye–they’re almost the same and yet endlessly different.
If I get to the end of the day and I’ve baked a loaf of bread, I feel productive. Most things I do don’t have a quantifiable product: cleaning the kitchen, doing the laundry, keeping the kids alive. Mostly, my job is maintaining the status quo. I do have other creative outlets (like writing and blogging), but they’re harder to fit into my daily schedule, and my family can’t always appreciate the product or understand why I’m doing it. Though the process is lengthy, most loaves of bread don’t take more than 20 minutes of active time, and when the loaf/rolls/buns/bagels/etc come out of the oven, everyone is happy.
My Grandma Vivian made the best bread: so sayeth every member of my dad’s family, and that’s a lot of people. She passed away long before I got interested in baking, but about a year ago I got interested in bread making partly because I wanted to recreate her recipe. She’d never written it down and thus never passed it on. I do have one cousin who swears she has it, no one else in the family will confirm this and so I’ve always been a bit skeptical. But in trying to create Grandma’s dinner rolls, taking established bread recipes and details from my dad (she used handfuls of flour rather than measures; she used salted butter; she coated the finished rolls in margarine and wrapped them in a towel as they cooled), I was unable to get it right. I think I made four batches of bread that week. There was one that I thought was spot-on. Dad thought batch number two was closer, while Mom thought it was more like batch number one. And I realized, after my parents had gone (while baking a fifth batch of bread that I intended to mail for judging but never actually did), that I will never make Grandma’s bread, even if I had her recipe and a box of her tools and her apron and an exact replica of her kitchen with all her exact ingredients. I will never make Grandma’s bread because I am not Grandma.
So I will make my own bread. I will thank Grandma for the inspiration, and I will make bread my way, with my flavors, my ingredients, for my family. And maybe one day, my kids or grandkids will be standing around tasting samples they’ve made, trying to replicate my bread, and each of them will remember it a little differently: a little sweeter, a little saltier, a little butterier. Each flavor a memory of a different day, a different loaf, a different moment with Mama, eating bread.