I learned how to make bread in a valley nestled between the Red Cloud and Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. Two summers spent as an assistant cook at a youth wilderness camp provided ample opportunity to practice combining water, yeast, flour, oil, honey, molasses and a bit of salt. I learned to knead the dough smooth. I learned to form the dough into uniform loaves and how to tell when to take them out of the ovens. For good measure, I learned how to carry 50 pound sacks of whole wheat flour down a narrow staircase and how to keep mice from getting into the storage room. We used a bread recipe that made seven loaves at a time, and I eventually became pretty capable of turning out something edible for the camp guests. There’s not much better than homemade bread to come home to after spending all day on a mountain trail. I remember thinking that the bread we made gave everyone just that much more energy and provided just that much more comfort than something commercial would have been able to. And the kitchen staff had really strong forearms from all that kneading.
After those summers of baking bread everyday for three months straight, you’d think I would have continued the practice. But I didn’t. Instead I went back to college after each summer and baking fell promptly off the radar in the wake of studying, the local pubs and life in a dorm room.
It wasn’t until well after college that I decided to throw some water, yeast, salt, honey, oil, and salt into a bowl together again. I was living mostly alone outside of a small town while attending graduate school and probably craving the sense of calm and comfort that my memories about baking were conjuring. So I mixed up some dough from memory and figured it would be successful since I had done it so much those summers years ago. I mixed and kneaded and formed loaves. I put them in my little lakeside cottage’s oven and waited in anticipation for them to be done. They smelled great-the smell alone was almost enough to call it a success. And then I cut into one after the timer went off. Rather, I tried to cut into one. They were rock hard. Bricks. Suitable for holding the door open in the summer. Heavenly-smelling paperweights.
So I tried again, a few weeks later. I dug out a recipe this time, and made sure the yeast was active. I only made one loaf, put it in the oven and left my expectations with the previous attempt.
The timer went off. Better. Not rock hard. Edible this time, albeit barely. I made it through a few slices before chucking it out to the squirrels.
So went the pattern. I kept mixing up flour, water, yeast, honey, oil and a bit of salt until I didn’t need to follow the recipe point by point anymore. Until I could feel the dough coming into the smooth consistency that means it will stay together but not be too dense. Until the loaves were as good as I can remember them being in the wilds of Idaho. Until I felt like I could share them with someone and that they would appreciate it and not try to feed it to the dog that I didn’t have.
Fast forward to the present, and these days I bake one or two loaves a week. Sometimes I use the old camp recipe, and let the rhythm of kneading work out the kinks of the day. Sometimes I use the “no knead” recipe made so popular by the New York Times a few years back, and it’s a family favorite. Sometimes I try something new, though not often. But whatever bread finds its way into being is well worth the effort that it took to make it so. The alchemy of simple, cheap ingredients coming together into something that is so nourishing for the soul and the body continues to amaze me, no matter how many loaves, successful or not, come out of the oven.
To bake is to be. Bread is part of the cycle of life.