As part of my new “choices challenge”, today I chose to make bread with Jacob. Bread-making holds a special place in my heart for memories of my dad.
My great-grandfather was a baker and he taught my grandfather to bake too. I never met either one of them, both of them having died long before I was even a glimmer in my dad’s eye, but my father learned to bake from them.
All through his later adult years, my father was an early riser. Even though he started work at eight, he would be awake as early as 4:00 a.m. some days, and although some days he might have grabbed a cat nap before going off to work, on weekends he would suddenly decide to bake up a storm.
At the time, it seemed totally spontaneous to me. I’d wake up on a Saturday morning to the smell of fresh baking. Yet now that I’m older and doing my own baking, I know how ridiculous that sounds. He must have had plans before that morning since he needed ingredients that we didn’t always have on hand, and not in the quantities he would have needed them. So it must have been planned. With a certainty akin to invading Normandy.
Before I was born, i.e., when he was younger, he would make pies regularly. However, by the time I was about ten, the list of products was pretty standard.
First and foremost were buns. Dinner rolls if you want to buy them in stores. Soft, moist, warm first thing in the morning. I’d end up eating 4-5 with my breakfast and I would have eaten more if I was allowed. They were awesome. Even now, a warm bun with some butter or margarine can take me back there. Even better if they’re still steaming when you cut them in half. Assuming you can wait to use a knife instead of just tearing into them. But we’re not talking a small batch. He would do at least 48, and more likely 72 rolls. Lots of kids, lots of buns got eaten.
Cinnamon buns were a specialty, and while I enjoyed them, it was always less so than the regular buns for me. Perhaps because they were big and heavy. At least two dozen of those.
And then it was time for the tarts. Pecan or butter, certainly, as those were his own favourites. Different kinds of berries, occasionally. Lemon for my mother. I never had the heart to admit I didn’t like most of them, except maybe the lemon ones. Oh, and apple. Whatever the combo, there would be at least 2 dozen of each type.
You would probably think this was a joint operation with the kids or my mother, but the baking was usually a Dad thing on those mornings. Clean-up, on the other hand, likely fell mostly to my mother.
As he got older, into his 50s and 60s, those baking mornings were few and far between, but I still remember them. And for a very long time, I have wanted to learn to bake. Although I’m not even sure that’s the right phrasing. It’s more like I want the capacity to bake, and to be able to do it without following a recipe. To feel comfortable baking. I’m blessed in that generally, when I follow a recipe closely, what turns out at the end is generally edible. I am not, however, fast at any of the steps.
So I have been a bit fearful as I considered my baking journey, that perhaps I would get overwhelmed and that I might not have early success, leading to a sense of failure. Almost like I’m somehow failing my father. Disappointing him, I suppose, or simply letting down his legacy.
A few years ago, Andrea planned a baking lesson for me with a guy from work who is known for his baking skills, he’s been interviewed on CBC, he does an annual big apple pie and bread outing for the United Way with many hands all going to his house to bake dozens of loaves in his multiple ovens as well as dozens of pies. Unfortunately, he seemed to stop running the lessons, and it kind of faded away.
And, for some strange reason, I am strongly attracted to making bread. I don’t know why. Maybe because my father never did. So if I screw it up, there’s no built-in comparison for me? Not entirely sure. But LONG AGO in a KITCHEN FAR FAR ACROSS THE CITY, Andrea had a bread machine and I always wanted to learn to use it, have some early success. So when Covid hit, and everyone fell into the “home baking” fetish, I thought, “Okay, why not get going again? You have some time.”
Until Andrea opened up the bread machine and we realized perhaps it hadn’t fully dried at some point when it got put away and under the bread pan, it was starting to corrode. Bye-bye dead bread machine. I thought, “No problem, I’ll find one online and we’ll order a new one.” (See https://polywogg.ca/my-experience-looking-for-a-bread-machine/)
I knew that lots of places early on had problems keeping yeast stocked, but that was usually fresh yeast, and I would be looking for bread machine yeast, and I knew people who knew people if I got stuck. What I *hadn’t* heard from ANYONE online was that bread machines were impossible to come by. Multiple vendors, multiple models — all out of stock.
However, based on all the reviews, it was clear that the grand-daddy was made by Zojirushi and called the Home Bakery Virtuoso Plus Breadmaker. Virtually EVERY review ranked it first by a country mile on everything except cost. And even then? They said it was worth it. But, as I said, nobody had it in stock.
I stalked everyone in Canada who normally sold them. And started to see suggestions that perhaps, maybe, just maybe, there would be some in stock at the start of July. So July 1st, I pulled up my browser, went to Amazon, and BAM! It was back in stock. I ordered immediately. And guess what? 5 days later it is out of stock again.
But it arrived Friday, Andrea did a quick clean of the interior items yesterday, I went to the Bulk Barn for ingredients this morning, and this afternoon? Andrea supervised Jacob and me while Jacob made the first loaf in the bread machine. He measured the ingredients, I assisted as his sous-chef (sous-baker?), and about 2:00, we turned it on. It was looking like dough should look about 60-90 minutes later, and after 3h15m of baking in total, the first loaf was done.
Jacob was playing chess online with his grandfather, and Andrea was chatting with her parents at the same time through Zoom, so I got to remove the pan, and shake the bread out onto the cutting board. We did a simple basic white loaf for the first loaf, and my first reaction was simply “wow”.
We set it for light crust this time, and it looked damn near perfect. None of the bread we have ever done previously in the old bread machine ever even came close to looking that perfect for size, shape and colour. I even showed it to the parental units through Zoom! It even came out super easy.
But the question, of course, is how did it taste? Andrea, Jacob and I sat down around 5:30 to have a slice, still warm, with butter. And while it may not be “buns”, it had the same taste (it IS simple white bread after all). Soft, moist, melt in your mouth. Watching Jacob have his first bite was worth any price, to be honest. It is the same look I remember on my family’s face when I was younger, and I assume on my own face both then and now.
Can I buy bread? Sure. Can I buy special baked bread, hand-made, perfect flour? Yep. Do I? Not usually, we generally just go with loaves in bags for sandwiches and toast. And usually whole wheat. I grew up on white bread, so there’s nostalgia there too, so I’m curious to see how I react to the whole wheat loaf we’ll do next.
But regardless of whether it is cheaper and simpler to buy it from a bakery, I’m not making bread, I’m giving myself basic baking competency to build momentum. I do want to make buns, and I will likely use the machine to get the dough started. Pizza. Buns. Bread. Maybe tarts. Lots of things. And while it may be cheating a little, I have some tools to do it by hand when I get a better feel for what it should look like at different stages. I do really like the idea of doing stuff by hand, with the machine getting us started with the right dough consistency.
And Jacob is interested in learning too. So we can do it together. Which is something I never did with my father (although, to be fair, he was always doing it early in the morning while I was still sleeping, and I *did* make pies and cookies with my mom a lot as a kid).
In the end, that’s the choice. I can buy it or I can make it; I can do it by myself or I can make it with others.
Today, and from this day forward, I choose to make bread with my son.
What choices are you making?