(by Kresha Richman Warnock)
I was on a Zoom meeting a few weeks ago, a new group, and for the get-to-know-you activity, we were asked to name our favorite food. I said “bread,” and I think everyone was surprised. I love to eat and really could have said so many things—the first fresh tomato of summer; homemade peach ice cream; a perfectly cooked scallop; even a dish of vermicelli noodles all mixed up with fish sauce and veggies at a Vietnamese restaurant. But no, I will stand by bread, really good bread, in most of its delicious iterations.
My parents were transplants from the east coast to a university town in Oregon, and the bread on the store shelves back in the 1950s didn’t meet their New York-bred (no pun intended, of course) standards. Nowadays, even in the small midwestern town where I lived for so many years, you can find 100 percent whole wheat, semi-decent sourdough, rye, English muffins, and bad bagels. But I think mid-century Eugene, Oregon, was limited to variations of loaves dressed in white plastic wrappers decorated with red, yellow, and navy circles, which promised to “build strong bodies 12 ways.” Mom embraced her role as a young philosophy professor’s wife to be an uber-efficient housewife, and decided to make all our bread.
Every few days, she would pull out the square yellow plastic tub that was big enough to hold the 12 cups of flour required for the dough that would eventually turn into four luscious loaves. She bragged about her utilization of this dish bin. It was big enough and flat enough that you could mix, knead, and let rise, all in one vessel. And the sides kept the flour from flying around the kitchen. None of that frou-frou greasing the ball of dough and covering with plastic wrap for Mom.
I was the oldest child, and a girl child, and at some point, I occasionally took over the bread-making responsibilities. Honestly, this homemade bread probably shared the nutritional value of Wonder, although you could, at least, pronounce all the ingredients. The flour was white; the sugar was white and generous; there were two sticks of margarine (never butter) included in the four loaves. The powdered milk that was added was sweet, so that, combined with the sugar and fat, if you snitched a bit of dough, especially before it was kneaded and the gluten formed, it tasted like cake batter.
Usually, Mom would make a batch of rolls out of one of the loaves. The rolls still are a family tradition. My sister makes them for special occasions. The grandchildren, including my now very grown kids, knew Grandma’s rolls as a special treat. It was a great heartache all around when my daughter discovered she had a gluten intolerance and could no longer go into Grandma’s freezer when she visited and pilfer a roll or two or three. Some things just cannot be replicated gluten-free.
Mom never would have thought of using her KitchenAid mixer to knead, even though it was always on our countertop. She had muscular arms and shoulders, and carried out the whole process with energy and even a little pizazz. For me, never quite as strong, the kneading was a difficult task, and I think I never did it quite long enough to get the glutenous formation needed to create the light, high-rising loaves that Mom did. Now I have discovered the recipe for No-Knead Bread in The New York Times. On the rare occasions that I bake a challah, I use the dough hook in my own KitchenAid. My counter is smaller than my mother’s was, and the mixing bowl is stainless steel, not glass like Mom’s, but that mixer is as necessary to my home as it was to my mother’s. I’m not sure why; we don’t eat nearly the quantity of home-baked cake and cookies we did as children, but it’s always there on the counter, with the toaster and coffee maker.
Did I mention that I love bread? My husband is agnostic on the subject. Or maybe I should say utilitarian. If there’s nothing else to eat, he might deign to snack on a piece of buttered toast. But his carb of preference would be French fries or rice. When the children were home, there wasn’t time to bake the bread we needed. Now we’re retired. I don’t need the calories, and he doesn’t care that much. I will occasionally bake bread for company, which, of course, has been sparse in the Covid year-plus. I didn’t buy into the pandemic sourdough fad, but when I saw the write-ups for No-Knead Focaccia in the Washington Post, I dove right in. I don’t even have to dirty the KitchenAid for this one. Toss the ingredients in a bowl, stir them up, and let them sit for a couple of hours. Hot flatbread with a bowl of soup: Great Sunday dinner.
And then I discovered the best use for this focaccia dough. It can sit in the fridge for days, then get rolled out, doused in cinnamon and sugar and butter (real, of course), rolled up, sliced, and turned into pretty darn good sweet rolls. Melt a little butter in the bottom of the pan and sprinkle it with sugar, and you even have a light caramel coating. My husband grabs one out of the freezer most days to go with his morning coffee. My mom would not have approved. Although she ate the sweetest bread for morning toast, I think sweet rolls would have seemed like an indulgence. But for me, it feels like I’m following a bit in her path, giving what I can through my baking skills to my loved one.
Kresha Richman Warnock is a writer who retired from a career as an early childhood educator, college instructor of child development, political activist, and overall nudge. She is currently working on a memoir. She and her husband, Jim, have lived all over the U.S. and now live near Tacoma, Washington, in some proximity to their grown children, the glory of tall Douglas firs, and an occasional glimpse of Mt. Rainier.
3 packages active dry yeast
1/2 lb. salted butter (although Mom used margarine)
12 c. all-purpose unbleached flour (up to 4 c. of it can be whole wheat)
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 T. salt
4 c. milk
Dissolve yeast in 1/2 c. water. (Must be in an old mug!)
Melt butter, and set aside to cool
In a square yellow plastic bin or other large bowl, combine flour, sugar, and salt.
Make a well, and add the milk, melted butter, and dissolved yeast.
Mix with a spoon until you can’t mix it any more. Then knead until the mixture forms a large, smooth ball.
Let rise until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 - 2 hours.
Punch down and divide into 4 batches.
Form into 4 loaves and place in greased loaf pans, either 8 x 4 or 9 x 5.
(Mom would usually make 3 loaves and shape the last batch of dough into
approximately 24 small knotted rolls or 12 hamburger buns.)
Let rise for 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Bake loaves for about 40 minutes, rolls for about 20 minutes.